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The Problem with Palestinian Startups

RamallahFromHotel1 The Problem with Palestinian Startups

Last week I was in Austin, Texas for South By Southwest, which I’ve described as “a magical fairy land where nothing makes sense and everything is awesome.” I was back in Seattle for 65 hours, and now I’m 33,079 feet in the air, heading into four more weeks of traveling. I’ll be in Ramallah, Palestine for a week, followed by a week in Israel, followed by two weeks in Xi’an and Beijing, China.

I’m being flown out to Ramallah by Leaders.ps, a startup accelerator in Palestine, to mentor several Palestinian startups. I met the director of this accelerator through my friends at Mercy Corps in Gaza, and jumped at the chance to come out and help.

Based on our conversations so far, it seems like entrepreneurs in Palestine have great technical skill, but due to the political environment haven’t had many opportunities for physical connections to the rest of the entrepreneurial world. This causes a pretty big problem.

Startup culture, just like a startup company, moves very fast. Things are tried, iterated on, and best practices are developed. If a process or methodology isn’t working, it dies off (either by being thrown away or because all the companies using that process fail).

Concepts like Lean Startup, Customer Development, and Agile were poorly known, or non-existent, during the 90s. Over the last 15 years, these methodologies have been adopted, explored, modified, and spread to others – who would adopt them, explore them, modify them, and then spread them again.

While there is an ocean of high quality content about entrepreneurialism scattered around the internet, there is ironically no centralized place to go and learn all the current best practices.

So how does everyone in Silicon Valley know what they’re doing? How does that knowledge spread? The most practical and effective dissemination of these methodologies happens through physical connections – working together, listening to speakers, learning from events, going to meetups, etc.

It’s a little bit of a tough pill to swallow, but it’s the same underlying reason there’s a growing suspicion that online education sites like Kahn Academy Udacity are inferior replacements for face to face learning. The Internet, which pretty much contains the sum of all human knowledge, is an inferior method of learning than good, old fashioned in person experiences. (Note- I’m talking about learning new concepts here, not information lookup or recall.)

Entrepreneurs in Palestine are at a huge knowledge disadvantage. There is not a long history of successful companies in the region. There has not been a large community of technology entrepreneurs who learning from each other for the last 20 years. There aren’t these people walking around at events, working out of coffee shops, or simply available for serendipitous encounters.

And because traveling to and from Palestine is so difficult (with Gaza being close to impossible), there aren’t very many people who have had those advantages going there to share what they’ve learned.

And that’s why I’m going.

Not only have I been living in that world, but I’ve been using and teaching these best practices to others through our consulting clients at LIFFFT and facilitating Startup Weekend events.

It’s difficult for Palestinians to learn from the startup community’s past mistakes. But there’s enough difficulty in that region of the world – hopefully I can help.



This picture is Ramallah, Palestine, as seen from my hotel window. During an hour long walk tonight with Peter, my host here, I learned about the history of the city, the three different regions of Palestine, and a lot of the local problems. I have my first day mentoring at the accelerator tomorrow!


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Managing money for an event or meetup group

If you’re running a regular event or meetup group that charges for events or sells sponsorships, you’re going to need a plan for what to do with the money.

In the beginning, it won’t be much and you can keep it in your personal bank account (or in a lockbox under your bed…). But after a little while, you’re going to get uncomfortable with mixing personal and meetup finances. Many people start exploring starting a legal entity of some sort.

A friend of mine is in this position now with one of his meetups. He emailed me for advice, and I thought I would post my response for the benefit of others.

Yourself: This is what I did for a while when things were smaller and I didn’t have much carry over from month to month. Once I started booking multi-month sponsorships and some larger deals though, I got nervous about having it so tied in with my personal finances. It got to the point where it became simpler to keep it separated. If you don’t have much left over, or this doesn’t happen super often, you can probably get away with this. If you’re thinking about it though, maybe you’re past that point.

LLC: This is what I’ve done with my meetups (I actually just set up one LLC and ran multiple through that). It was pretty fast and easy to set up a sole proprietorship LLC. If you have more than one person who manages the meetup group, you could also set up a joint partnership LLC… but it might be worth it to just make someone “the money person” and have them set up the sole proprietorship LLC.  Usually your state’s website will have a walkthrough or a guide for all the paperwork you need to fill out. This will also let you get a business bank account, so you can keep the money physically separated. You can also get a separate debit card/checkbook just for that account, etc.
501(c)3: Having been a part of several non-profits… this is way more work than it’s worth. Don’t bother. You get a few tax benefits, but in exchange for a huge amount of oversight and reporting you’ll have to do to maintain that status. Just pay the taxes and get on with what you actually want to do.

A fourth option is to find another organization, partner with them and treat them like an umbrella. Use their infrastructure to manage the money for you. I’m part of a few organizations that do this. Access to money can be a bit slower, but you don’t have to deal with any of the business/tax side of things. It’s important here that you find the right organization to do this – you have to trust them a lot if you’re giving them all your money.

Setting up a simple LLC is probably your best bet. It lets you open a business banking account and get the money out of your personal account.



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The 8 Steps to Successfully Slide Wrangling an Ignite (or any other speaker series)

Ignite 300x223 The 8 Steps to Successfully Slide Wrangling an Ignite (or any other speaker series)

Ignite Seattle

The most important part of any speaker series is the speakers. The second most important part is taking care of everything else for the speakers. The worst thing in the world is when a speaker is doing a great job… and the computer running their slides crashes. Or you put their slides in the wrong order. Often they can recover… but as an organizer of the event you’ll feel awful.

Ignite started in Seattle 7 years ago in December 2006. We’re a week away from our 22nd event. I joined the team three years ago, and have one of the most stressful jobs on the team: The Slide Wrangler.

The Slide Wrangler is in charge of getting the slides from the speakers, ensuring everything looks good, putting the final presentation together, and making sure nothing goes wrong during the event. Basically, if it has to do with slides, it has to do with me. If something screws up during the event, it’s probably my fault and I have to fix it. Live. In front of 800 people.

After seeing a lot of questions about best practices on slides over the years on the Ignite Organizers mailing list, I thought I’d put together a list of best practices for Slide Wrangling.

Note – this is written specifically for Ignite events, but it shouldn’t be hard to rewrite your own for any other speaker series.


The 8 Steps to Successfully Slide Wrangling

1. Set the slide submission deadline for 72 hours before your event. Make it clear that this is “slidelock.” You will NOT be accepting changes after this deadline unless you specifically request them. You can ACTUALLY be a little flexible on this, but don’t tell the presenters that or else they won’t take the deadline seriously. :)

2. Review slides to make sure they are all there/follow the rules/there are no issues. If there are issues, email the presenter and request a fix.

3. Set a hard deadline of 24 hours before the event to submit any final edits requested

4. Start to build two slide decks, Part 1 and Part 2 (if you have an intermission for your event).

5. Part 1: Import the slides of each speaker from the first set into a single presentation. Once all the slides are imported, do a quick scroll through to make sure everything was imported properly. Then do some math (how many slides did you end up with, divide by number of speakers, you should end up with 20, which means all 20 slides from each speaker got imported).

6. Once you’ve confirmed all the slides were imported properly, add your “Ignite <CITY>” slide, “What is Ignite” slides, and any other sponsor/announcement/etc slides to the beginning of the presentation. Add an “Ignite <CITY>” transition slide between each presentation.

7. Build your “Part 2″ slide deck (See: Step 5).

8. Once your slide decks are built, it’s time to make sure the slide timing is right. Depending on your presentation software this will be slightly different, but you should be able to select all slides and set the transition to “automatic” and the timing to “15 seconds.” Go back and set the “Ignite <CITY>” transition slides to “manual transmission.” This gives you some flexibility for your MC to introduce the next speaker, for speakers who take a bit too long, or to correct for any other problems.

Now you have two presentations that are ready to go! Hook your laptop up to the projector and go! You can switch presentation files during the intermission.


Other notes:

1. I like to time each presentation on a separate timer (my phone) just in case the timing gets messed up. If I notice the slide isn’t transitioning, I’ll take over manually. This is optional and you SHOULDN’T need it, but it’s just a sanity check.

2. Dropbox is a great way for speakers to submit their slides. It saves you from managing multiple versions of presentations coming in over email from 16 different speakers. They can resave their presentation to Dropbox as many times as they want until the deadline. Once the deadline is passed, move the presentations out of Dropbox to somewhere local on your computer so the speakers can’t try to sneak in last minute changes. Sign up for Dropbox here to get a bonus 500MB of space (full disclosure: I get 500mb free too).

3. Once you have determined the speaker order, rename each of the presentations 1-1-PresenterName, 1-2-PresenterName, 1-3-PresenterName (or for Part 2, rename to 2-1-PresenterName, 2-2-PresenterName, etc). This will make the presentations auto-sort into the correct order, which makes importing them in the right order much easier.

4. Be very careful about slide transitions, animations, etc. I personally recommend stripping out all slide transitions in Step 5. They will often mess with the 15 second automatic timer.

5. I close down every other program on my laptop before I plug it into the projector. Not just instant messengers, but Twitter, Chrome, Firefox, IRC, MS Word, Excel, text editors.. everything. The fewer things running, the fewer things can cause a pop up notification, or accidentally crash, or just generally go wrong.


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24 Things I Did At 24

zactionneversleeps 24 Things I Did At 24

Action Never Sleeps

I turned 25 years old 88 minutes ago. I’ve been reflecting on the past year a lot the past few days, and I thought I would list 24 things that I did while I was 24. This might turn into a nice tradition, as well forcing me to get more and more interesting the older I get. :)

So, in no particular order, 24 Things I Did At 24:

  1. Joined LIFFFT as a Partner.
  2. Became “not incompetent” at one type of partner dancing (Blues dancing, specifically).
  3. Launched the Seattle Customer Development Meetup.
  4. Gave up the Hacker News Seattle Meetup and handed it off to someone else.
  5. Did a TEDx talk.
  6. Was invited to emcee and speak at a conference in the Philippines.
  7. Went Scuba diving for the first (through fifth…) time.
  8. Brent Spiner (Data, from The Next Generation) played with my Google Glass.
  9. Publicly launched the War on Pizza.
  10. Was interviewed in studio for a live radio program.
  11. Facilitated 7 Startup Weekend events.
  12. Hosted two friends on my couch for a total of 5 months.
  13. Went skydiving for the first time.
  14. Went hot air ballooning (not at the same time as #13).
  15. Played on a recreational soccer league (for at least part of the season…).
  16. First time to the Southern Hemisphere (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil).
  17. Got laid off from my job at Startup Weekend.
  18. Moved out of my home of 3 years and couchsurfed for a while.
  19. Raised $15,000 (committed) to fund a project to crowdfund NASA.
  20. Involved in the Planetary Resources Kickstarter campaign to raise $1.5M to crowdfund a satellite.
  21. Learned a lot about Enterprise Sales. Learned I have a lot more to learn about Enterprise Sales.
  22. Guest Trustee for The Awesome Foundation
  23. Flew 74,000 miles and achieved Gold Frequent Flyer status on Delta (and am only 1000 miles short of Platinum!)
  24. Hired someone for the first time.

Look out next year for the thrilling sequel, 25 Things I Did While 25.


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GiveGetWin Deal

Today is the last day to buy into my GiveGetWin Deal! This is a charity started by my friend Sebastian Marshall. He wanted to help connect people with interesting and awesome people with something to teach.

I’m going to be teaching a small group about what we teach corporations at LIFFFT – a lot of Lean Startup and Customer Development principles. We don’t usually work with startups or individual founders, so this is a rare chance to learn some of our LIFFFT-fu. :)

So sign up fast! It’s only $40, and you’ll get two online group sessions and an online 1-on-1 (or in person, if you’re in Seattle!). All the proceeds go to charity, so what’s to lose?


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Notes on Alexis Ohanian's Townhall Interview

“You should call it 360scope. And get rid of the little bug guy” was PG’s advice to reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian. “But reddit turned out to be a great name, and ‘the little bug guy’ has turned into one of the most important parts of the reddit community.”

“Sometimes your investors know best. Sometimes they don’t. Even Paul Graham is wrong sometimes.”

reddit picture 300x225 Notes on Alexis Ohanians Townhall Interview

Todd Bishop and Alexis Ohanian

Alexis is on a 175 stop tour for his new book, Without Their Permission. On Monday night he stopped by Seattle’s Town Hall to be interviewed by Geekwire’s Todd Bishop. Topics ranged from the silly – alternative names for reddit (Ooglyaboo) and his favorite Star Trek captain (Picard, no hesitation) – to the more serious topics of his book – entrepreneurship and politics.

The thesis of Without Their Permission is that the Internet enables people to be fully in control of their destiny. You don’t need permission from a movie producer to decide if your film gets created or not. You don’t need a publisher to release a book. You don’t even need a travel agent to book your flight anymore.

You just need a laptop, an internet connection, and the will to act.

And it’s not just for young, white, educated men from San Francisco or NYC either. A laptop and that internet connection puts an African American high school dropout from Detroit on equal footing with everyone else. You could be a farmer’s wife in Armenia. Or a retiree in Argentina.

Alexis believes, and is dedicating his life, to making sure the gift of the Internet allows anyone, anywhere, to take control of their life… without anyone’s permission.

Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter are a great example. In 2012, Kickstarter gave more money to the arts than the National Endowment for the Arts. “That’s kind of sad… but also kind of awesome.” The internet allows artists to create the art they want to create and get it directly to the people who want it.

There was a lot of great advice for entrepreneurs from his time running reddit, Hipmunk, and Breadpig, his interactions with Paul Graham and YCombinator, and his time as an investor and advisor to over 60 companies. Below are some select quotes and insights from the interview:

Some key insights:

“You’re going to know your users better than an investor or an advisor. They don’t spend all day every day thinking about their customers – but you do.”


“When we found out Digg had launched 6 months before us, already had investment, and was in Silicon Valley… we freaked out a little bit. But Paul said ‘Your competition won’t defeat you. You will defeat you.’ After that, we stopped freaking out about Digg and just did our thing. And look how well that worked out…”


He explained that the best way to raise money from investors was to scare them. Not in a physically violent or abusive way, but make them terrified that you are the next Google and they might miss out on it.

The things that are “scaring” him right now are new forms of access to capital (example: Kickstarter) and Bitcoin (Todd Bishop pointed out that Seattle is home to Cheeze Wizards – a gourmet Grilled Cheese truck – which is the first food truck that accepts Bitcoin).


When asked if he regretted selling reddit so quickly (16 months, I think he said) and not holding out to sell for much, much more, Alexis responded with a quick and definitive “No.” After a thoughtful pause, he added with a smile “Though that may just be a coping mechanism.”


People on the Internet Freedom Bus Tour were constantly asking Alexis when he’s going to run for political office. I fed the question to Todd, who asked Alexis. Alexis looked down, took a moment, composed himself, then said “Okay. You know what, fine. I’d like to take this moment to hereby formally announce (pause) that I am NOT running for office anytime soon.”

“But,” Alexis continued. If he did, “it would totally be as a troll. I’d show them how a campaign COULD be run. Show them what’s possible. Announce that I’m only running for one term, support mandatory term limits as a primary part of my platform, raise campaign funds on Kickstarter. I’d use a publicly accessible Google doc to track all campaign finance transactions and be 100% transparent. I’d want to show the world how a political campaign COULD look, if you actually wanted to be of the people and for the people.”

“Although,” he chuckled. “Being in Congress must be a pretty sweet job. You can shut the Government down for a few weeks and still get paid!”


In 2012, Kickstarter gave more money to the arts than the National Endowment for the Arts. “That’s kind of sad… but also kind of awesome.”


The very first subreddit was made for Joel Spolsky, then from Joel On Software, and was located at joel.reddit.com.


Alexis concluded by pointing out how ridiculous of a world we live in, all thanks to the internet:

“We may not have flying cars and jetpacks, but we’re living in the future. Last week I was riding in a car in Portland, ordering a giant velvet hamburger hat from my mobile phone, and it’s showing up in Brooklyn the next day. That’s the internet for you.”

Without Their Permission is available now, and check out Alexis’s tour dates to see if he’s coming to a city or University near you. It was a fantastic event, he is a great speaker, and it’s worth going out of your way to attend.


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How To Sell Sponsorships For An Event

I run a lot of events – everything from the Hacker News Seattle Meetup to Ignite: Seattle to Startup Weekends to the Seattle Customer Development Meetup. For most of these events, I end up selling sponsorships to cover the costs. My friend is planning a conference and recently asked me for advice on how to sell sponsorships. This is my email back to her:

The biggest thing you need to answer is “What does the sponsoring company get out of this?” For the tech meetup events I run, it’s usually either A) They’re recruiting and want to recruit people at my event, B) They’re trying to promote their product or service and get more people to use it, or C) They recognize the importance of supporting the community, and they’re successful enough that they can spare the resources (this one is extremely rare. People will often say this, but the real reason is usually more like #1 or #2).

Once you figure out what they company wants, you can tailor the message a bit to them.

Now that you know what they want, it’s time to go talk to them. You need to figure out who the right person to talk to at the company is. A good hack to do this is find other events they’ve sponsored, talk to the organizer for that event (organizers tend to be very friendly people! Just shoot them an email if you don’t know them) and ask who their primary contact was.

If the organizer doesn’t know you, they may not be comfortable introducing you. Instead, try asking for the contact information and offer to cold email the contact and not mention the organizer at all.

If the company haven’t sponsored any events before, you can try Linkedin stalking people at the company to try to find someone with the right job title. Typically a product marketing person or a marketing manager will be a good place to start.

Warning: Don’t try to sell them the farm in the first email. Sell them on the dream first. “Hi Bob. I’m putting together an event for Cosplayers – people who enjoy making costumes of their favorite video game or anime characters. We’re expecting about 500 people for our first event, and I thought your company might be interested in getting involved. Are you the right person to talk to about this? If so, I’d love to schedule a quick 15 minute call to tell you more about it.”

You’re revealing what the event is and who the event is for, and you tease them a little with an estimated attendance. But don’t drop a price tag yet – you haven’t even technically said the word “sponsorship” yet. You just asked if they’re interested in getting involved – that’s a very low commitment ask, and it helps you get them on the phone.

Once they’re on the phone, you can find out if they’re the right person to talk to (do they have check signing authority? If not, don’t waste too much time talking to them – talk to them just enough to get introduced to the person who does), you can start telling them a few more details about the event, etc. Once they ask how they can get involved/what you need help with, you can make your ask. Is it money? Donated supplies? Promotion?

No matter what it is, have your ask planned out (or better yet, a few asks) ahead of time. Also be prepared to tell the sponsor what they’re getting out of it. You get $5000, they get signage, or a public “thank you” prior to the keynote, or a chance to come up on stage and talk to the audience for 2 minutes, etc. For Meetups, it’s usually okay to just have one sponsorship level. For a bigger event, have a few levels available. If they want to talk to the audience, if they want their brand prominently displayed somewhere, make them pay more for that.

General rule of thumb – fewer bigger sponsors are better than more smaller sponsors. It tends to be a similar amount of work, but having fewer companies to deal with greatly reduces the complexity (you can also tell the companies (after your ask) that you prefer a few larger sponsorships to prevent sponsor dilution. If there’s 10 companies sponsoring, no one pays much attention to any of them. If there’s 2 companies sponsoring, everyone remembers who they are).

Once you have everything planned out, make a list of your ideal sponsors. Don’t call them first. Call a few less than ideal sponsors. This is a great way to get some practice before you go after the big dogs. If you screw up a few times, it’s okay. You haven’t burned any of the companies you REALLY want to work with.

Questions on selling sponsorships? Email me, I’d love to help: zachary@liffft.com


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My thoughts on diets

I met someone for lunch last week, and the topic of diet came up. I’m a big fan of paleo, and this is an email I wrote to him explaining why I prefer paleo over other diets:

Our knowledge and understanding of nutrition and how our bodies process food is rudimentary at best. With enough digging, you’ll find a lot of “facts” are based off a single, often questionable, study that was done in the 60s or 70s.

…combine that with the fact that there is new research coming out every year that refutes research that came out a few years ago…

…combine that with the fact that the food lobby is surprisingly powerful (see: inclusion of wheat and sugar on the Food Pyramid, and even with the 2005 overhaul of the Food Pyramid, grains is still ~25%.)…

…combine that with genetic differences in how people process food (for example, due to natural selection people of Asian descent are able to get far more nutrients out of rice than Caucasians. If you had the same diet as the person next to you, but could get more nutrients out of it, you’d end up stronger and healthier. Multiply that over 4000 or 5000 years of eating rice as a staple…)

What all that boils down to is that it’s impossible to say X diet or Y style of eating is the best.

What I personally like about paleo is that it’s actually NOT trying to use science to argue it’s the best. The argument is that “we DON’T know the optimal way to eat, but we’re pretty sure a return to the sorts of foods our species has been eating for millions of years – unprocessed meats, vegetables, some fruits, nuts and seeds – is at least safe.”

I don’t worry about portions or ratios or counting carbs or measuring grams. I control the types of foods I eat, and then listen to my body about what I need more or less of.

It may not be optimal, but no one ever got fat from eating too much broccoli. :)


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I spoke at TEDxSeattle

I recently was invited to speak at TEDxSeattle. Parkour has had such a big impact on my life, so I knew parkour had to be involved in my talk somehow. And yet, I wanted to do something bigger than just another talk on parkour.

Since moving to Seattle, the focus of my life has really shifted from parkour to startups. After a lot of thinking, I realized how much parkour has impacted my thinking – even in the startup world. So, I wrote this talk…


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The Greatest Fiscal Cliff Analogy Yet

Moments ago, the United States House of Representatives passed the Fiscal Cliff bill. After months of argument, proposals, counter proposals, pulled proposals, and heel-digging, the House finally demanded the Senate write a bill. So they did. And it passed the Senate 89-8 on New Years Eve.  It then went to the House on New Years Day, who then passed it 257-167.

After playing hardball for months and JUST BARELY taking us over the edge, Obama will (likely) sign it into law tonight or tomorrow.

So if you haven’t been following the whole fiscal cliff situation, let me explain it to you the best way I know how.

With an analogy to an early scene from JJ Abram’s Star Trek.

So it starts off, and Obama (young James Tiberius Kirk) is just doing his thing. Oh, it’s time to set the budget for next year and try to get this country back on track fiscally.

Then all the sudden, this Robocop (House Republicans) pulls up along side him and tell him “STOP! Pull over! We’re not going to let you do that!”

Obama ponders for a moment, decides he can outrun these jerks and achieve his goal, and then guns it. The House Republicans keep trying to get in his way, but Obama is playing hardball. He refuses to give in! And then he comes up with a plan.

He breaks off the paved road (his typical style of politics) and does something crazy – he heads straight toward the cliff. When the House Republicans pull up next to him and shout one last time “Pull over!”, he floors it.

He’s playing a game of chicken with the Republicans, but what they don’t realize is that Obama isn’t going to lose.

And lose he does not. Just AFTER the last possible second, he yanks the e-brake, cuts hard, sends the car (America) flying over the edge of the Fiscal Cliff. He dives out (in slow motion), skids across the desert sand, and goes off the cliff too…

The Republicans stop chasing him, balk, and pass the Senate bill.

…but Obama catches hold of the edge with one hand, pulls himself up, and stands defiantly in front of the Robocop Republicans.

“Citizen! What is your name?” they ask in wonderment, having never seen this side of this man before.

“My name is Barack Hussein Obama II.” He shouts, positive they will never forget his name.

So Obama ends up destroying the car, but it’s the Robocop Republican’s fault. Also, The Beastie Boys is blasting in the background the whole time.