Navy Seal Lessons Part 2

This is part two in a series of business posts about things I learned as I was taking a series of defensive shooting classes with a Navy Seal. So if this isn’t your cup of tea, feel free to skip these posts. If you missed part one, you can find it here.

When I started taking classes with Jeff Gonzales (the retired Navy Seal Team 4 BUDS instructor, CEO of Trident Concepts and head of training at the Range in Austin) I was very open minded to learning whatever he had to teach me. Unlike many people who I suspect come in just wanting to be cool, or get slightly better, I had a real purpose in mind. I mentally knew how bad I was and knew I needed real professional help. There was no ego at all here – I just wanted to get better.

“In your last encounter, did you win, or did the adversary lose?”

One of the things Jeff said that really hit home for me was posed as a question to the class, “In your last encounter, did you win or did the adversary lose?” In my case, I had to think through what had happened when the man jumped my fence in the middle of the night and tried to get in (which we covered last time – if you haven’t read it, please make sure you do). It wasn’t pretty.

I was so ashamedly under-prepared that there was no doubt in my mind which was which. I had basically lucked out. I was sleepy, without contacts, with only a piece of frosted glass protecting me from the man yelling at me from outside. My firearms were woefully incorrectly set up, my skills were just shy of non-existent and my understanding of what I should do in that kind of situation was bad-at best. What if he had had a firearm? Or even a hammer? Or what if it were more than one adversary? Honestly, I just lucked out. The situation turned out to be virtually nothing in the end, but it really woke me up about how under-prepared I was.

No, I wasn’t good, I was just slightly better than a CPA who was drunk/high and in the wrong yard. That is not much of a bar, to be honest. Clearly, I had a lot of work to do.

In a business context I feel like so often we just float through our day. We aren’t thinking about what the adversary is up to. We aren’t judging the landscape for indicators of shifting tides. We aren’t listening to details in everything our competitors say that might give us clues about the next step they’re about to make. We just react. When you’re only in reactionary mode, and you haven’t built a skill-set necessary to deal with the possibilities of incoming/existential danger, you are unlikely to succeed.

That said, occasionally you will succeed, even still. Said another way, sometimes you’ll luck out, like I did. My dad used to say, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” which is funny and often true. No matter how good you are if you don’t have some amount of luck, you’re still going to lose, however, you’re bound to be a lot more lucky if you are good.

I remember when I was in high school there was a friend of mine who got into a fight with another guy at school. We were all a bunch of nerds (I know, you’re completely shocked that I was a nerd, but it’s true) but somehow my friend ended up getting pissed at another one of the nerds on campus for reasons long lost to the sands of time. Both boys were definitely anything but what you might describe as athletic, or trained. The fight that they ended up having hurt me more than it hurt them, because I was laughing so hard.

The school yard fight began with a negotiation with the two of them both deciding to fight “fair” and take off their shoes first, and no punching to the face or groin. Also, no kicking… for some reason, since they had taken off their shoes. And only on the grass, not the asphalt nearby. I was dying… absolutely dying laughing. The fight consisted of a few dozen weak punches to each other’s chests before the other guy got exhausted and gave up. No blood lost, just one ego shattered and of course I split my sides laughing… seriously, I think I gave myself a cramp. Somehow my extremely un-athetic, and comically under-prepared friend had won. I had no illusions about his ability to handle himself in a fight, but I still treated him as a hero nonetheless.

Sometimes it’s a messy comedy of a fight and you’ll still end up winning. Does that mean you’re suddenly capable in a fight? No, it means you just fought someone even worse than you are. My friend had the luxury of picking his battle but you don’t always get that luxury. What happens when the next fight is harder and chosen for you?

Just because you won one deal, doesn’t mean your competitors are good and you’re better, it means that you were just better than they were in that moment in time. Maybe they had a bad showing. Maybe their marketing materials aren’t up to par yet. Maybe their sales guy got stuck in traffic and annoyed the buyer by being late. What if they weren’t really bad at all, but just had an off-day? Or what if they really were bad compared to you, but then they get better and you stay the same? If you stay stagnant, will that competitor continue to let you win deals, or do you need to up your game?

What about at the office?  Are you fighting for a new job, without learning any new skills? Are you the same while your co-worker is quietly taking classes at night?  Are you finding new ways to increase your capabilities? Are you meeting people at night and on the weekend who might be able to help you and your career?  Are you finding ways to excel, while others sit at home?

One of the pieces of advice I give to people just starting their career is to never assume anyone will give you anything, and if you want it you need to ask for it. Often times bosses simply assume everyone else has what they need. In that case the squeaky wheel definitely gets the oil. Even if they aren’t just lazy bosses, sometimes they have a misguided sense of protectionism and want to stop everyone else from advancing. More often than not advancement requires more than asking for it – sometimes it’s fighting for it. Sometimes you have to prove your metal. Sometimes it’s covering your ass and documenting every success meticulously. Sometimes you have to do what the other person vying for that job won’t do to win.

You need to learn more skills, you need to give more of yourself and you need to push against any perceived barriers you have for yourself. You do need to find those doors and push through them – asking for what you want and having the skills to back up the fight when you have to defend the reason why you should get what you want. You need to be better than the adversary, not just be lucky that they’re bad.

That concludes part two of Navy Seal lessons. I hope you enjoyed it. There are more posts like this coming. Stay tuned.

Navy Seal Lessons Part 1

This is part one in a series of business posts about things I learned as I was taking a series of defensive shooting classes with a Navy Seal. This is business oriented, and less about life using only a mobile phone for work. So if this isn’t your cup of tea, feel free to skip these posts.

It was around 4 in the morning, February 18th, 2018 and my ex-wife started pushing me, waking me up, saying, “Someone is trying to get in.” Being someone who’d worked in Infosec for well over 20 years at that point and put a number of baddies in jail, I had received my fair share of death threats (some credible, most not). Purely as a defensive measure, I’d had firearms in the house for the better part of my career. So being jostled awake my instinct was to go for the 12ga shotgun under the bed and go meet the unknown with deadly force.

Buck naked, I stood up and went to the back door, I began a shouting match with the would-be adversary who was aggressively trying to get into my house.  He was yelling at me, and belligerent. It was in that moment that I realized that I was squeezing the shotgun so hard under stress that I couldn’t depress the slide-release to rack a round into the chamber. I had, for all intents and purposes, a giant club in my hands. I had probably put 1,000 rounds through that shotgun but had never trained under stress and never thought about how strong/dexterous my thumb would have to be to push that little button that I had pushed so many times before without an issue. No matter how much I tried and knowing full well what the problem was, I couldn’t relax my arms enough to allow my right thumb to press in the tiny button by the trigger to allow me rack a round.

So I told my ex-wife to grab my pistol, which I used when I was traveling (when a shotgun just isn’t stealthy/compact enough). Still buck naked and without my contacts on, I was finally at least armed with something that I could operate under stress. At this point the strange man in my back yard backed off and was no longer immediately at the door, so I opened the door a crack and make it incredibly clear that I was armed.  He backed off further, still yelling profanities at me. Without my contacts on, I couldn’t make out anything more than a shape, build, height and stance. I gave him to the count of ten to get out of my yard – which was really a delaying tactic to allow myself some time to get some clothes and my contacts on.

I closed and locked the door, went into the closet while my ex-wife called the 911. I quickly threw on some clothes and my contacts, and headed outside again (a terrible move by the way – I shouldn’t have gone outside, but I wasn’t thinking clearly).  I headed outside, and after a few seconds of searching I found the would-be home invader stuck in a 12’x12’x6′ shrub in the back of my yard. He was attempting to climb out of the yard but he was so drunk/high that he couldn’t.

So using my outside-voice and every curse word I could come up with, I made it very clear that he wasn’t going to be allowed to jump the fence into my neighbor’s yard (who happened to have two very young little girls living there – can you imagine?).  I ended up “coaxing” the man out of the bush using my rather aggressive form of speaking. Try to picture my 4AM coax-a-would-be-home-invader out of a bush at gunpoint voice. He complied begrudgingly and I got a decent look at him for the very first time. He was wearing a nice white button down shirt, black slacks, nice shoes and he looked clean cut.  This wasn’t some run-of-the-mill home-invader, this is just someone who’s drunk/high and belligerent.

Even still, he was so out of it, I couldn’t tell if he was actually a threat, because he was acting so erratic. So I got him to kneel on all fours, but he didn’t want lie all the way on the ground – presumably because he didn’t want his nice white shirt to be smeared all over my dirty back yard, I’m guessing.  So I proceeded to hold him, at gun-point for what felt like an eternity.  He began to reach for his back pocket at one point… My mind went crazy… did he have a pistol? A knife? He wouldn’t get all the way on the ground, so was this a pending attack? There really was no way of knowing, so I used some more very loud verbal commands to let him know he was risking his life by reaching for whatever it was he was reaching for.  He claimed it was his cell phone and that his buddies were calling.

That was a relief, and plausible, but he was still cussing me out, even with a pistol pointed at him – idiot. He was doing everything wrong and made it extremely difficult for me to assess his level of threat. It was at this point that I realized I wasn’t sure if I had the safety enabled on my pistol, or not. To make matters worse, I also wasn’t 100% sure if I had racked a round into the chamber or not. Surely I had… I must have. I had practiced doing that countless times and it was so ingrained in me I definitely must have.  But did I?  I simply wasn’t 100% sure, and the last thing I wanted to do was mess with the pistol, trying to debug what state it was in. Talk about destroying your credibility with the adversary, who at this point believed that he was in danger.

I also realized that my point of aim was way way off. I was so cold (it was about a 40 degree difference between my bed and the back-yard) and I was so tense that my muscles had contracted and the muzzle of my pistol was pointed way to the left. There is no way I would have hit him on the first pull of the trigger.  I might have deafened him and put a hole in my fence but that was about it.  I corrected my aim and made mental note of how stupid this whole situation was, how incredibly poorly trained I was and how bad my home defense setup was.

12 agonizing minutes later, the police arrived. Just imagine what was doing through my head for 12 minutes – and I lived downtown, no more than 8 blocks from a police station at the time. When the police did arrive my ex-wife had the smarts to tell them that I was the guy with the pistol and made sure they could verbally replay to her which one of the two people in the back yard was the good guy – the guy with the pistol – before she would let them into the back yard.  The officers came out, one towards me, and one towards the guy on the ground.  The one that came towards me asked me to lower and drop the pistol and step back – which I did slowly and with my hands in the air.  The other officer took one look at the guy who refused to get all the way on the ground even after receiving verbal commands to do so and proceeded to smear that guy’s nice white shirt through my back yard. So much for that nice white shirt.

In the end, a few days after it was over, I figured out exactly who the guy was (go figure, I’m good at finding everything about people online) it turned out that the guy was a CPA for a prestigious accounting firm and it was just before tax season so he and his buddies flew in to blow off some steam in Austin’s bar district and get super drunk/high. He had had a prior drug conviction and changed his name so that he could more easily get a job, so he was tricky to find, but alas… I’ve got a special set of skills. After the bars closed he had walked back to and jumped the back fence of what he thought was his AirBnB and tried to get into the back door. Imagine his anger and surprise when one of his buddies was holding a pistol to his head… except I wasn’t one of his buddies. The perils of alochol/drugs.

We had an outside chain link fence and an inside privacy fence, so it was easy to get in but very hard to get out. So basically we created a CPA-trap and low and behold, I caught one. CPAs are apparently rampant just before tax season. Really, both of us were lucky that I didn’t shoot – he was doing everything wrong – being non-compliant, rude, aggressive and loud – and I wasn’t well trained enough to know how to deal with the situation at all. The officers told me I was well within my rights to shoot him too (it is Texas after all), but were thankful I didn’t.

That night I wrote down everything that went wrong. How many mistakes had I made, the problems with my setup, my training, and my actions. I needed motion detecting lights in the back yard, I needed a light on my pistol, I needed a striker fire single-action pistol, I needed one with no safety to mess with, I needed sites on my pistol that were visible in low-light, I needed to carry with one in the chamber etc… etc…  There were a lot of issues. Too many to enumerate here.

So problem number one was the equipment. Clearly, this setup wasn’t working. So my buddy, hearing the story, took me out to the Range At Austin which is kinda like the Beverly Hills Gun Club if you’ve ever seen Beverly Hills Cop 2. It’s a beautiful range just a few miles south of downtown Austin. That’s where I met Jeff Gonzales who is the CEO of Trident Concepts and the head of training at the range. He’s a retired Navy Seal (Team 4 – which is South America), and BUDS instructor – his job was to fail Navy Seals for a living, and he’s no joke.

I really just wasn’t sure what to purchase, so I wanted his advice. I proceeded to verbally pour my situation out to Jeff – I think he could tell I was distraught/shaken by the events of the previous night. I got to the point about me being buck naked, and trying to defend my home, and he stopped me and said something that I’ll never forget.

“Firefights are clothing optional.”

I laughed both outwardly and… and I just kept laughing internally. Because how silly is it to worry about what you’re wearing when you’re defending your life (or believe yourself to be in any case). It was such a huge relief to hear that… such sound and simple advice… with such a measure of practicality that I had to stop and really think through it.

I decided to start going to the range to practice regularly – clearly I needed a lot more practice based on my weak performance. I wanted to learn how to draw my pistol from a holster at the range, but for safety reasons the range requires that you need to take and pass Pistol 2… which is an extremely difficult class, don’t let the name fool you. In fact, I took it twice in in both classes I was the only person I saw who passed it. I’m not what you’d describe as a “gun-nut” but I did feel like if I was going to own and carry a firearm I should get proficient at it.

“In an emergency human instinct is to fight, flight or freeze.”

During his Pistol 2 class, Jeff went over the different types of people. He said that, “In an emergency human instinct is to fight, flight or freeze.” I have always been the fight type. I am the guy who runs into the fire – probably one of the reasons I’ve had operational security roles for a big chunk of my life. I’m not afraid of a hard fight, and find situations where others are in danger to be the time when I excel the most – and the times that I am the most dangerous to the enemy.

Others have different approaches. Some people want to distance themselves from conflict. Others hide in closets and wait for the police to arrive.  There’s nothing inherently wrong or better about any of these, and in fact, in some cases simply avoiding conflict is definitely the smarter choice, so really, it is case dependent. Like it or not, I’m the fighter type, and I head directly towards danger.  But as I learned fighters are also the defenders – the people who keep others safe. They’re the people who are looking for how to help when all hell breaks loose. So if you find yourself in a fighting situation, you had better be extremely good at it.  If you’re a fighter, train like your life, and the lives of the others who you care about depend on it.

Yesterday I stunned myself as I passed Pistol 3 (as advertised it is for “skilled shooters and professionals”). It’s so much unbelievably harder than Pistol 2, which was already incredibly hard, that mentally I gave it a zero percent chance I’d pass going into it. It wasn’t a positive mindset, but I just didn’t want to stress myself out worrying about the outcome. I just decided to have an open mind and learn what I could and maybe I’d just get enough knowledge to pass it the second time around.  But shockingly, I passed on the first attempt (myself and another guy who happened to also be a firearms instructor out of a class of 7 amazing shooters). I sat there listening to Jeff talk and I could barely hear a thing. How on earth did I pass this crazy-hard course on the first try? It must be wrong, I thought, but Jeff doesn’t make those kinds of mistakes. Every point is written down meticulously and he doesn’t let people pass because he likes them (and I’m not even sure he does like me – nor would that necessarily help him teach). I’m still shaking my head, even now as I write this. It’s unbelievable and definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever accomplished to this day.

On the drive home, having completed a total of around 60 grueling hours of firearms training by a Navy Seal, I realized much of what Jeff was teaching me wasn’t just about shooting. It was a way of being, a way of thinking. It got me thinking that I should write a bit about it. So this post represents the first in a series of blog posts about how to re-frame some of his Navy Seal/shooting concepts and some of the things I learned along the way into a business context, starting with number 1: “Firefights are clothing optional.”

When I think about business, I think of warring parties. You’re not just fighting against your competitors, you’re also fighting against regulation, adversaries/hackers, bad press, the economy, lazy vendors, difficult partners, choosy customers, internal politics, etc, etc…. It’s brutal!  Some people will flee from organizations/work at any hint of conflict, and some people will freeze in their tracks, paralyzed by choice and fear – hoping someone else will chose for them. It’s often left up to the fighters in a company to win or at minimum to lead others to victory.

When you find yourself in a fight for your very life – when it’s your company or livelihood – you need to pull out all the stops. You need to fight as if it matters, and stop worrying so much about doing it clean/perfect. Sometimes you have to fight with whatever you have in whatever way you’re dressed at a moment’s notice, and if you’re going to victoriously defend your company and/or your livelihood you have to do it with purpose and determination.

The sale may seem impossible for every other company but it may just a matter of doing what the competitors won’t. Your boss may overlook you for promotion until you reach for the absolutely crazy goal and achieve it. It’s not always going to be pretty, and some people may make fun of how you achieved your success, but in the end, if you and your team come out victorious and avoid disaster/hurting the innocent/breaking the law in the process, does it really matter?

This is concludes part one, and I hope you enjoyed reading it. Part two can be found here.

iClever Keyboard and Yonisun Stand

It’s been a while since I updated this site with clever phone-as-desktop updates, but not for lack of thinking about it a lot. I ran into several fairly large issues with my setup that caused me to re-think how to compute in a lightweight format.  That lead me down a weird path of experimenting with a variety of setups.

It started with the iPhone 8 and it’s wireless charging – which is to say, the backplate must be easily accessible. So much for ring stints! I could opt to do everything with a cord but I kinda wanted to stay away from that except for travel. I’m a bit paranoid about wear and tear on internals with plugging in and taking out cords over and over again. I’ve seen a great many phones break due to this wear and tear. So wireless charging speaks to me.  But no ringstint is a big deal.

iClever Bluetooth keyboard

The second big problem is that I often don’t want to carry a backpack around with me – especially to bars but I had to due to the huge Apple keyboard. It’s just so easy to forget, or get messed up, and like my age old complaint – I really don’t like the idea of carrying a backpack to the bathroom. It’s much nicer to have everything on my person. So I started researching different types of stands and different types of keyboards.

I landed on the iClever wireless keyboard after doing a lot of research. It’s a tad large but technically it does fit into a larger back pocket. It folds open and has a number of interesting features. For instance, it has the ability to be used with both a phone and a tethered computer with just a single keyboard command (the modern day KVM setup).

The iClever also has backlit keys (though I wouldn’t recommend them if you want to use it for a prolongued period of time – it does burn batteries). It has various brightnesses and color schemes which is very cool.

The iClever keyboard has dedicated select, cut and paste keys, which were a bit annoying at first, but I quickly learned that they’re pretty useful and I kinda wished all keyboards had them. It lacks an escape key (or at minimum it doesn’t send the escape ASCII key – instead it’s the home button). Which gives you a severe disadvantage if you’re a VIM user, but you can use the ctrl-[ keyboard combo to send that character. I find this pretty darned annoying, but it’s managable once you get used to it.

The iClever keyboard has little kickstands to keep it stable, which is nice, but it doesn’t have a feature to keep it open, so for positioning on unstable surfaces like your lap, it’s a bit of a chore compared to other keyboards. I do wish it had some sort of locking feature to keep it open.

Other positives are a dedicated search key, which makes context switching way easier. Just hit f1, then type in “safari” and hit enter to jump into Safari. It’s still nowhere near as nice as an alt-tab feature, but I blame Apple for that, not the keyboard.  I do wish there was software to configure the keyboard, but other than that, it’s a really nice keyboard, and I spent an entire day using it at a coffee shop with virtually no discomfort at all.

As for the stand, I decided to try out the Yonisun Smart Phone and Tablet Stand – Foldable Vertical and Horizontal Mount which is a really lightweight and foldable stand, that easily fits in a pocket. In early tests it seems compact, lightweight, works well in both landscape and portrait mode.  Thought it does make it slightly hard to see something if the text is butted up against the bottom of the screen, and there’s a bit of an unnecessary amount of material that could have been removed to save weight – though to be fair it’s already very light.

My only other complaint with the Yonisun stand is you can really only use a charging cable if it’s in landscape mode. Not a huge deal, but will certainly be difficult for some people who need to use apps that only support portrait mode.

Overall I’m happy with this setup for the time being, and will keep trying it out to see what other issues pop up.  For now though, this setup all fits in my pockets and that is really what mobile life is all about.

OutsideIntel Acquired by Bit Discovery

I’m happy to announce that OutsideIntel, my business intelligence platform, has been acquired by Bit Discovery (bitdiscovery.com). I will continue my work on the platform as the CTO of Bit Discovery; staying involved was always part of my plan for OutsideIntel even if it was acquired, so, for me this is perfect. OutsideIntel will be the back-end tech behind Bit Discovery, which is a much more sophisticated front-end on top of the high-performance data lake that I’ve been amassing for years. This acquisition was made possible through a venture financing round which allowed Bit Discovery to acquire my tech as well as the staff necessary to build out and improve upon the technology.

In case there are any entrepreneurs out there who want to learn a bit about what it took to get here, I would like to share some of the lessons learned along the way:

  • It took about 20 years of wanting to build this idea. It wasn’t an idea I could easily explain though, nor could I afford it. So it sat in the back of my head eating at me for two decades. People thought I was nuts when I first explained what I wanted to do. Even my wife-at-the-time, who was normally extremely supportive said confidently and with amusement, “You can’t do that.” Sure, collecting years of meta data on the entire Internet in your basement sounds nuts…. Building a data lake by yourself is crazy. Doing corporate intelligence in your basement is crazy. I probably am crazy, but it worked. It wasn’t that the nay-sayers were wrong necessarily. Had they been talking to anyone else they would have been right, but in my case, they underestimated my willpower, my stubbornness and my vision. Lesson learned: Your dreams may not be as crazy as they sound.
  • When I first started showing early prototypes of the tech I got a lot of comments like, “this UI needs a lot of work” and “no one should ever see this” and even “it is ugly.” Ouch. My expertise is not in UI, sadly. I had a number of long conversations with friends here in the US and overseas and one idea began to take hold after talking to my friends Simon and Pascal: I needed to completely stop talking about the UI. So, I shifted away from the front-end entirely and treated the front-end as merely a demonstration of what the back-end was capable of doing. By shifting that conversation away from the UI and to the APIs, it wildly changed how people perceived my work. Suddenly they could see dozens of use cases and it spawned partnerships and eventually helped OutsideIntel to get acquired. Lesson learned: Focus on what you’re good at and use that as your selling point rather than just the vision. Confidently flaunt the merits of your accomplishment.
  • When I first started building the back-end for OutsideIntel (it was called Siftint back then, as in “sift through intelligence” – a short-lived name that still resides deep within the code and in my memory) I thought it would become a business intelligence platform for stock prediction. Gradually I realized there simply wasn’t a market for that, despite what everyone will tell you. It turns out people are afraid of this tech, and want more ordinary data sets that they can more readily comprehend. So, I had to make a very fundamental shift in how I talked about the data. Sure, it was good at finding correlation between market movements and IT infrastructure, but it was also good for security, and M&A, and sales enablement, and compliance, etc. Decisions, decisions. I had to find each and every use case and explore them individually. I eventually decided sales enablement was probably the best fit, and then, of course after making that decision Bit Discovery comes along and loves it for asset management. Cue me, flipping a table. So, you never know how other people are going to see your product/service. Lesson learned: You have to be flexible. Adapt to the market need.
  • It took money – lots of money. You can’t properly estimate how much a startup will cost you until you do it.  It’s always expensive. In my case, excluding opportunity costs, it cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some of that was in legal expenses, some of it was in hardware, some of it was in hosting, some of it was in software, some of it was in data, some of it was random equipment to perform tests. It adds up. My wife-at-the-time said that if we didn’t have my company we could afford a ski condo somewhere, and she was right. There’s no way I could have done this without a big nest-egg or a family income to support me. Even still, I literally ran the company out of my basement for a year to save money.  I had to have the power company come out and install 2×20 amp circuits to power my basement because it was becoming a fire hazard. As the infrastructure grew the noise got to be too much for me. I measured the decibels near the end and it was as loud as a gasoline engine running. All to save money. Lesson learned: Success often speaks to privilege. If you’re privileged enough you can try something that on the surface seems virtually impossible. But be frugal and careful with how you spend.
My janky “sound-proofing” system in my basement before the equipment went to the datacenter. This “feature” of my basement did cut down about 5db-10db of noise so it was worth doing. Not seen here is the baffling and ducting that was added later. It bugged me more than my ex-wife, surprisingly. It was especially bad when the bulk processes would start and the small fans would kick on. Try relaxing when it sounds like someone’s got an engine running in your basement.
85 decibels in my basement at about 6 meters while no bulk processes were running . This is after my “sound-proofing” was built. It was closer to 90-95db at the rack while processing. Notice the needle is in the red: the “safe” amount of time to be in my basement was 8 hours, after which hearing damage may have occurred. I wore earplugs every time I went down there.
  • One of the reasons this deal went through is because I know all of the players involved. I know the people who produce the data, I know the people collecting the data sets for sale, I know the customers, I know the devs working on the projects I needed, I knew the people who needed the data, and ultimately I knew the acquirers who happened to be long-time friends. I became friends with all of these people by being a trusted expert in the space, sure, but I kept them as friends because I never looked at them as a client or someone who could do me a favor. I treated everyone the same – as people with hopes and dreams and a desire to be happy in their home-lives and businesses alike. I try to help people when I can in whatever way I can. Sometimes that means I help them get jobs, sometimes I mentor them, sometimes I just let them talk about issues. Lesson learned: Never stop meeting people, and find ways to help them if you can. It ultimately works itself out.
  • I built and re-built the software back-end of OutsideIntel four times. I spent hours talking to my wife-at-the-time who had to listen to my rants about the right and wrong way to build my infrastructure, or how pagination was broken even on sites like Google and Bing, and how was I supposed to get it right if they cannot? Or how modern hardware runs into IO blocking issues. Or how relational databases were too slow so I’d have to build my own data lake from scratch. Or how Perl wasn’t going to work at all and how I’d have to switch to Python after already having written tens of thousands of lines in Perl. Or the perils of Python’s strict typing and poor support on FreeBSD. It wasn’t just the software either. I had to re-build the hardware infrastructure three separate times to support the four different software builds. It took me years and countless bugs/revisions and hours of pacing around trying to design something that was fast, cheap, and would fit on the hardware I could afford before I settled on a design that appeared to finally work. I have no doubt it will take another re-build at some point. But that never stopped me. I wasn’t afraid of the hard work, and in fact, each new puzzle felt like a challenge, not a burden. Lesson learned: Don’t be afraid to fail fast. Just make sure you keep going.
Here I am hauling the first server as part of version 2 back to the house. It turns out a 2U chassis does not fit in the trunk of a Z4 so it had to ride shotgun. Thankfully it was a convertible, or I wouldn’t have been able to get it in the car at all. I sold the Z4 shortly afterwards to cut insurance costs and also… what trunk?
Setting things up for version 2. This ultimately became a costly failed version that lasted only a few months. My dining room was the de-facto staging area. My wife-at-the-time was very understanding.
First computer being constructed as part of version 3. This was a complete re-think of the hardware. Once again, my wife-at-the-time let me “borrow” the dining room for a few days. Each drive bay costs around a grand once populated with an SSD and there are two drive bays hidden on the back as well – you can do the math. After fully constructed, this single computer and the subsequent drives cost more than what I sold my Z4 for. Seems like a fair trade.
  • A few years ago I really started eating my own dog food. Whenever I’d have a meeting with someone I’d use OutsideIntel to understand their company ahead of time, not just from a demo perspective, but to talk eloquently about what they were up to. I used it against corporations and even individual people with whom I was about to meet. That meant it had to be fast, and it had to be accessible from my phone, which lead me to do a backend redesign to support even faster lookups, pagination so that the browser wouldn’t crash and a frontend redesign to support mobile devices. That was messy, time consuming to do, and didn’t improve the look and feel very much, but it came in very handy, when, at a meeting I could look down at my phone and say, “Oh, I see you have an exposed QA server over here named XYZ.” People would say things in shock like, “Oh, I thought you were just texting someone. I didn’t realize you were hacking us.” I’d explain that it wasn’t hacking anyone and it led to a great conversation every time. That made a huge difference, to be able to show them the platform in real-time and use it as it was intended. It had to work on my cell phone too, because during travel I never carried a laptop (after all, I am the Smartphone exec). Lesson learned: Eat your own dog food and make sure it works anywhere and anytime you need to do a demo.
Mobile design for one of the search types, with pagination, responsive design with sub-second lookup times. It may be a little ugly, but it works great.
  • It took doing something no one had done before… sort of. At a very minimum the people who have tried this before were different people with different experiences and different ways of thinking about things. Not to diminish their work or their expertise, but my way of building OutsideIntel was different, interesting and it made the company valuable. That means that someone’s experiences and perspectives are worth something even in the case where others have “claimed” the domain of expertise. I didn’t let the presence of others dictate that I couldn’t touch their areas of interest – I just pushed through and built what I thought should be built in the way I thought it should work. Lesson learned: Any expert or leader in any category can be dethroned. You don’t have to be first mover necessarily, you just have to be the best and/or sufficiently different.
  • A thousand things could have gone wrong. I had everything fighting against me on this project. It just seemed to be something that no one believed could be built until it was built and even when it was built they questioned how it could have possibly been built. Even when I was showing people demos they assumed it must be pre-canned because it couldn’t possibly be that fast if it weren’t. Virtually no one had faith in me. Subsequently, I was inundated with hair-brained sales ideas, or poorly thought out plans for monetization. Even my partners for the most part seemed to get excited for a few weeks or months ultimately only to lose interest and discontinue help. I couldn’t blame them, actually – nothing about OutsideIntel is easy. In the end I think this was largely luck. I was lucky to build something that was hard enough and useful enough that very few others would attempt it – especially on their own with zero outside funding. I was lucky that I found my acquirer when I did. I was lucky that despite the fact my wife-at-the-time didn’t believe it could be done, she supported me anyway, even as our bank account dwindled. I was lucky to have enough income to make it work. I was lucky to have the know-how and support of my friend James who helped me keep the hardware purring. I was lucky to catch issues and be able to afford them when multiple times bills unexpectedly spiked to 200% above the datacenter’s estimated costs. I was lucky to have an awesome partner/customer who became the acquirer. I was lucky that I stuck it out long enough when I had every reason to fold the company as the stress mounted –  thankfully my cat does advocate for a low stress work environment, which helps. I was lucky – any one of those things could have been missing and it could have cost me a lot more… or even sunk the company entirely. Lesson learned: It’s not just expertise and willpower. It also takes luck. Without luck you have nothing.
Rasmus and I doing pair programming. Seen here reviewing my code. By his expression, he’s unimpressed by my UI.
  • Even though I mostly built the company from nothing, I did have help along the way, from friends and family who helped me write content, think through how to position myself and even try to help with sales. Even though much of that effort was ultimately unsuccessful, it meant a lot to my mental well-being as a founder of a company with an uncertain future. Don’t underestimate how lonely life can be when you’re the only cheerleader for your company. Lesson learned: Make sure you have a close network of friendly people to talk to. You’ll need a support system.
Sitting on the ground at the datacenter in the middle of the night debugging a process that is crashing access to the data lake. This night triggered a huge software re-build. It’s a lonely business when you’re the only one. You need non-cat friends. For the eagle eyed: this was one of the last days I used a laptop outside of the house – switching entirely to smartphones for work while away from the house shortly thereafter.

Bit Discovery is the new home of OutsideIntel’s tech, and I’m proud to be working with one of my oldest friends, Jeremiah Grossman, who saw the vision and decided to make the leap. I can’t be more thankful for how things turned out and I’m ecstatic to be able to work on my favorite project for the foreseeable future. I’m happy to have found a team who understands how to turn my vision into something actionable and relateable – translating my brain and tech into enterprise discovery and asset management. Check out the website and if you want a demo of the Bit Discovery platform, please let me know!

Internet Outages in the Age of a Smartphone Executive

I’ve had two recent power and Internet outages. Call it the punishment for living in Austin which is in the heart of Texas. Austin is an adult version of Disneyland by all other measures, but it does have infrastructure issues and the rains and electrical storms we have are sometimes very impressive. So at some point we need to deal with that, and that’s where the modern mobile phone is a life saver.

In the first outage, I had to inform the power company that the power was out. Good luck trying to use computers, unless you have everything hooked up to UPS blocks, and even then you have a very limited amount of available power in most cases. Meanwhile a smartphone can be available for a day or more depending on usage. So informing them was not an issue and it was solved quickly.

The second outage was related to the Internet. We often forget how much of our lives are connected to the Internet until it’s gone. The house phone was off, the TV was off, so much for watching Netflix or listening to Spotify through Sonos, etc… etc… It was pretty bad. However, I was able to use my smart phone and a little Bluetooth speaker to keep me busy with a Kindle book and listening to Spotify. It was a tad annoying, but the hilarity came when I needed to debug the network connection on my side for AT&T.

They attempted to call me on my home phone, which worked, but then as they had me reboot the U-Verse router, they disconnected. Well, color me shocked, but of course, I still had a cell phone, so we were back on the phone very shortly thereafter. Having a back-up link to the world was a life-saver during that prolonged outage. In fact, tethering the entire house through my phone was an option I was seriously contemplating after 12 hours or so.

All of this points to what life might be like in an age where our primary devices are the very ones in our pockets that we take for granted today.

Secure Messaging

One of the most common questions I get is what secure messaging system to use on Mobile devices. That’s a rather complicated question so it’s worth digging into.

First, you have to ask, who is your adversary? If it’s the government, you’ll have to take wildly different preventative measures than, say, a random eavesdropper. But that said, some of the tactics are simple enough.

For instance, the first thing I always tell people to look for is end to end encryption. If you are only encrypted to a server and that server then can read everything you write, it’s not a good solution. For instance, email is does not have end to end encryption built in, which is why Gmail is a poor choice for secure messaging.

Next, you want to look for something that automatically deletes your messages after a certain amount of time. Lots of systems allow you to have end to end encryption but then keep the data around forever. You can’t guarantee that the messages will be safe from an adversary forever. So make sure the data is deleted after a certain amount of time.

Next, make sure that the systems are resilient against forgot password/account changes, or account takeover. Just because you are talking to a person one day doesn’t mean you are talking to the same person the second day. So lots of platforms are automatically out since they don’t warn you when that occurs.

Generally speaking my favorites are Signal (with ephemeral messaging enabled), Wickr, and Facebook messaging (when you’re in secure mode with ephemeral messaging enabled). Wickr is the only one of the three that turns it on automatically, but it’s also the least used. Facebook is great, but it is Facebook and doesn’t default to secure mode opportunistically because it doesn’t work with mobile to desktop chat. Signal is great because it is a stand alone app but it also doesn’t enable ephemeral messaging by default. Wickr doesn’t tie to a phone number in the same way that Signal does so that is a nice added feature if you want to keep that detail private. Neither Signal, nor Wickr require you to have an identity, like Facebook does, but Facebook is by far the biggest platform.

Some people will bring up Whatsapp, but they are very similar to Facebook since they are owned by Facebook. And it’s worth mentioning iMessage in passing because they do have end to end encryption, but as soon as you sync with iCloud, your information is imperiled once more.

So there are some tradeoffs and you need to research what is right for you. I think ephemeral messages are a very important feature that most people don’t think about. It’s certainly something you should be aware of before you pick one. Or use all three. But whatever you do, don’t use default built-in chat clients.

Rise of the Mobile Influencer

Since you’re reading this site, you are aware of (or are at least curious about) running an entire business off of a smartphone. You have probably set some rules for yourself on how to make your own experiment work. Considering it is currently possible to code on a phone if you’re a self-identified creator, chances are this is all old hat to you as you take photographs of your lunch with a barfing rainbow filter. Today’s guest post comes from Joe Sinkwitz, CEO of Intellifluence, on how the worlds of influence and smartphone usage as primary devices have already collided, with the result being the mobile influencer reigning supreme.

The Intersect

Perhaps the easiest way to describe how the mobile influencer came to be the most powerful advertising force is to look at the intersection of growth among the demographics of smartphone users and specific social network uses.

Leading social networks
Leading social networks

Keep in mind that Snapchat, WhatsApp, Vine, and Instagram are effectively “mobile only”, not mobile first, which is what Facebook, Facebook Messenger, and Twitter have become. Not only is mobile set as a default to being more important, in some networks it is the only way to play, a chiefly important distinction considering that largest and fastest growing networks have moved in that direction.

Evolution of Influence

Discussed in significantly more detail here, the concept of influence is a very old one; effectively all advertising is influence. It is designed to play on different psychological triggers with the purpose of getting you take a certain action (purchasing a product being the primary use). Starting out as word of mouth, and moving through all forms of mediums, from print to radio to television to online forms of adverting to where we are now, which is an interesting crossroads since word of mouth has essentially begat digital word of typing fingers and snapped videos/photos.

Why Influence

The question becomes: why is influencer marketing now such a hot topic? There are a multitude reasons, but the simplified explanation is as follows:

      Ad blocking wars continue to heat up, of which influencers are currently immune to, providing a destination for ad dollars.
      The quality of customers acquired from influencer marketing is skewing better than traditional acquisition channels.

Quality of influencer graph
Quality of influencer graph

Smart brands recognize not only that authentic advertising can exist, but it can convert better, which helps to explain this trend:

Social media spending graph
Social media spending graph

Social media spend is poised to double over the next few years, which helps to explain why brands are flocking to it, and thus giving more power to influencers.

How much power? Check out this 60 minutes segment on influencer marketing – a lot of power.

So…Mobile Influencers, huh?

Yes. Mobile influencers. From the 60 Minutes piece and the trends referenced above, we can see that the majority of ad spend over social is skewing towards those that are created primarily using their phones. Ad hoc videos for Vine and YouTube at $200,000 a piece; Kim Kardashian’s Instagram of her life worth millions… The money is beginning to flow more towards these platforms than sponsored review blog posts, as the latter were more dominate 5 short years ago (though sponsored reviews are certainly not dying, and can also be created entirely using a smartphone). Should the trends continue we will likely see a future by 2019 where 80%+ of all influencer ad activity is created via smartphones, which will become and easier decision as phone choices continue to improve.

Learn Python On A Smartphone

You can learn to code Python on an iPhone or Android relatively easily. There are lots of classes and tutorials on where to start, but all you really need is a Smartphone and a good search engine to get started. I like to tell people that there is no singular more important/useful thing that you can learn other than to speak and read/write. You’ll never look back on your life and say, “Boy, I wish I hadn’t learned this incredibly useful skill.” It may seem crazy that you can learn Python on an iPhone, but it’s actually really simple, and anyone can do it.

  • Start with the right peripherals. Specifically invest in an Apple TV or Chromecast and a Bluetooth keyboard. You’re going to thank me later when your thumbs aren’t falling off.
  • Next, download something like Python 2.7 for iOS ($1.99). It’s not quite as full featured as the full blown thing, but it’s a great place to get your feet wet as you’re learning, and doesn’t require Internet access, which is great when you’re on an airplane our out in nature and still want to be learning/practicing.
  • If you want an eBook that you can read on the road without lugging a heavy book along with you you can try Introduction to Python Programming ($9.99 on Kindle). There is a free Kindle app for the iPhone too, which is even better.
  • Once you feel a little more comfortable programming you can shift to getting yourself a FREE Amazon EC2 instance. Yes, Amazon has a free tier to get you started. They want you to like and use their products and what better way to entice you than to give it to you for free, right? You’ll want an Ubuntu install for this, because it works really well with Python.
  • Next you’ll download and install the Coda App ($24.99) or an equivalent SSH client. This will allow you to connect to your EC2 computer in the cloud. Just copy the private key and use that with the username provided, which will be “ubuntu” and you should be off to the races. I recommend you also run the command “screen” upon login so that if you get disconnected you can just type “screen -r” and recover the session without losing anything. This is a key bullet because it will allow you to build a website too if you want.
  • Then you can use your favorite terminal editor. I prefer vi, which has a steep learning curve but is very lightweight and powerful. Here’s a great tutorial on vi. If that’s too complicated pico is a nice option.

If you’ve ever wanted to pick up a new skill, this is a very inexpensive way to do it. I always recommend starting with something simple that you need to be done repetitively. A simple program that alerts you when something happens, or something that allows you to write something down in a format that’s easy to retrieve are both good examples of things you might need to be done on a regular basis. Start simple and start with something you need and it’ll be a lot more practical.

This is one of the many ways in which smartphones are helping to democratize business. Even someone with just a smartphone can start a business, learn to program, or generally produce great content. I hope this has been helpful! Good luck!

Writing Code on a Phone

Learning to program on a phone is actually easier than you might think. You just need the correct peripherals and the right software to help you accomplish the goal. One such software apps is the Coda by Panic, Inc.. It has all of the benefits of a normal SSH client but also helps create SSH keys, and gives you easy access to multiple sites. Combined with screen on the remote host and you can easily pump out code on a phone.

You can learn Python, or Java or Ruby or whatever you fancy. Coda also has a nice feature where you can preview your code before you bother uploading it. Combined with the Transmit application you can easily sync between your phone and the remote server. You can use the remote machine as a file store, or a backup, or as a test server, etc. All you need is a couple of apps and the determination to learn how to develop on a command line and you’ve got everything you need!

I’m always amazed when people don’t take advantage of things like free EC2 accounts (as an example). But if you are just learning how to program, and want to get started, you don’t need anything more than a free EC2 account and an app like Coda to get started. A quick note on EC2 though – EC2 is free to use as long as you don’t use it a lot (lots of CPU usage, or disc usage, or bandwidth, etc), so if you’re going to start doing something significant, you’ll want to think about your options a bit more.

Like always, I think that trying to program or do any meaningful tasks without a full keyboard is slow and tedious, so make sure you have a Bluetooth keyboard. But just today, I wrote several small programs, compiled Java, set up some aliases, copied code around and many other administrative tasks all from my phone. It’s always going to be easier to do it on your desktop, but we’re getting closer and closer to a world where you won’t miss your laptop one bit!