Gnonstop V2

We’ve been furiously hacking away on a bunch of ideas at the lab, but that doesn’t mean that our friends the gnomes have gone unloved. Quite the contrary. When we put out the first release of Gnonstop we expected that the challenge of getting your gnome passed along from person to person would be the focus. We expected the usage to look a lot like gameplay and that the evolution would tilt in that direction.

That’s not what we saw from people using the app though, and not what they asked for when we got feedback. People loved creating the characters and they loved taking pictures with their gnome. But they were really hesitant to send their gnome off into the world. That really puts the brakes on trying to build a game around getting your gnome passed from person to person.

So we had a decision to make – we could either figure out how to restructure things so that people would want to pass their gnome along, or we could pick up on the thread of customizing a character and sharing. James and Andrew took the lead on figuring out which path to take, doing the redesign, and implementing the updates. They spent a bunch of time talking to folks, sitting down with them and watching them use the app, and trying out different versions with a group of beta testers.

What came out of the process is a completely new version of Gnonstop, which not surprisingly is called Gnonstop 2. They did a fantastic job reworking the app and focusing it on sharing. And it addresses one of the major issues I kept hearing over and over, that female users wanted to create girl gnomes 🙂 We’ve been using it around the office for a while, having a great time with creating quests for gnomes and seeing what comes back in response. Now it’s open to the public, please give it a try and let us know what you think.

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Gnonstop Gnomes is a Go!

Today Churn Labs is excited to announce the release of Gnonstop Gnomes,  a mobile application available on iPhone and Android which allows users to share and follow the adventures of the gnomes they create on their mobile devices.  “We’re really happy to finally bring this to market” said Mike Rowehl, a partner at Churn Labs.  “Early on we decided to focus on mobile, local, social, photo sharing, and gnomes, and this project really allowed us put it all together.  We haven’t yet figured out how to work group buying into it, but we have some ideas.”

The app has achieved early success, and even before release was already the #1 location based gnome photo sharing application in the world.  “This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” said Omar Hamoui, another Churn partner. “I got sidetracked with the whole mobile advertising thing for a bit, but it’s good to finally see this becoming a reality.”

Gnonstop Gnomes is available for download today in both the iPhone app store and Android app market.  After creating a gnome, you can transfer it to a friend, and then follow its adventures across a map as it moves from phone to phone.  People who receive your gnome can make travel entries, including photos, which you will also be able to browse through as your gnome makes its journey.  The application is free on both iPhone and Android.

iOS app: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/gnonstopgnomes/id441186043

Android app: http://market.android.com/details?id=com.churnlabs.gnonstop

website: http://gnonstop.com/

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My first days at Churn Labs

I haven’t had a chance to talk much about my new job at Churn Labs yet, mainly because I’m having too much fun building things in the lab. The past 2 months have been really awesome here at the lab. I’ve really found my home with the people I’m working with and the projects I’m working on.


For the longest time I’ve wanted to just free myself from monetary obligations to focus on building cool things. Yeah I would spends my nights on side projects, but the places I’ve worked in the past few years have been super demanding. Sometimes I just had to travel too much; other times the deadlines were unrealistic. I think that Churn Labs answers a few needs that the entrepreneurial engineer deeply desires:


First, we want that opportunity to learn new things. We want to jump on every cool subject out there and just play. “Don’t have a data problem where I work? Who cares, i want to use MapReduce and Hadoop anyways” or “I know I don’t really need computer vision to do this, but I want to anyways!” or “Gee, I’m sure this would perform way better using a graph database”. The lab is constructed to be a lab; to explore things differently, and that often means allowing us to experiment with different things we’ve never worked on before.


Second, we want to work with smart people. I’ve always judged a good engineer by his humility and desire to work with smarter folks. We all know that we thrive in those environments that allow us to interact with smarter people than ourselves. In that regard, I’ve been super jazzed with the guys I’ve been working with here at the lab.


Third, we want to work on a successful product. In addition to our passions for engineering, we are still humans (although some of our non-geek friends may disagree), and we want our work to pay off in the end. I’ve seen some great teams that have great engineering power, but they lack a compelling product. Or they lack the right leadership to steer them in the right direction. With the lab, we are building many products, and our stellar leadership is connected everywhere to get the right feedback and make the right connections to help elevate the value and success of the products we work on. This point is actually very important. This point is what makes a team truly successful. Churn Labs, its founders and leaders speak for themselves. This week I met some pretty significant pillars of the tech industry. I could not have imagined that I would be sitting across the table and talking with people who have left a permanent impression on the technical landscape of the world in so many ways.


It is said that successful startups have three components: great teams, great products, and great entrepreneurs. I consider myself lucky to be at a place where I believe all have converged.

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On Equity…

One of the interesting discussions that came from our announcement a few weeks ago was whether or not the equity split we proposed for companies that spin out was, in fact, equitable.  We mentioned that although nothing was set in stone and each case would be unique, it could be expected that on average the lab would retain roughly 40% of the equity in these startups.  There were a number of comments on blog posts following the announcement in this general vein:

“seems like a bad deal. losing 40% before series-A is crazy. really you are giving 40% for seed funding.”

And it’s true.  Giving away 40% of your company for seed funding would be crazy. The thing is we are not looking for companies that need seed funding. There are plenty of incubators or seed funds for seed stage companies to find funding and help.

Churn is not an incubator or a seed fund.

Rather, we are a startup lab looking for entrepreneurial people who want to work at the lab and spend time iterating on ideas and businesses we come up with, build, and market together.  So at least in the beginning, the lab will own 100% of the equity in the the companies that are built here.  They are conceived, built, launched, and iterated upon all within the lab.  However, in order to achieve their full potential, they must eventually spin out, and the founding team that goes with them will have to take them the rest of the way.  We realize that even after a successful launch and a promising start, there is an immense amount of work to be done before a company realizes its potential, and we want to provide equity commensurate with that responsibility.  The best way to think about it is that the lab (collectively) is like a cofounder who contributed greatly to the formation and early stages of a company, but steps into a supporting role as the company matures.

So people generally need to flip this notion on its head.  We’re not looking to find companies and take 40% to help them through the early stages.  We’re looking for great people and planning for them to get roughly 60% to take the companies we build together the rest of way.

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First Week at Churn Labs

This is a post from Seni Sangrujee, currently our newest addition at Churn. Seni is someone I’ve known for years from the local mobile scene, but this is our first time working directly together. He was a bit hesitant before he joined because we tend to talk a really big game, and folks are naturally somewhat skeptical about our ability to deliver. After his first week on the job I asked him to write up something that we could share:

——–

Well I just wrapped up my first week working at Churn Labs, and I wanted to write about it while it’s still fresh in my mind since it was pretty remarkable.

Diving in was pretty seamless, it’s an environment I’m accustomed to…a handful of folks embarking on creating something very cool. It’s a scene repeated all across Silicon Valley right now with countless startups getting off the ground.

What _was_ different from previous early-stage endeavors that I’ve been involved with was how all the job worries and overhead were taken care of on Day 1. Previously when I’ve been trying to start something with folks, there was always a part of my mind focused on mortgage/bill worries, but it was refreshing to be able to take those wasted brain cycles and focus them on the bigger task at hand.

Also there’s a grander vision/mission here than I’ve been involved with in recent years publishing simple Android and iPhone apps, which is probably due to the world-class team involved.

Finding Magic
An interesting thing happened on Tuesday which made me realize that I definitely made the right decision in joining Churn. We were working on something relatively routine and stumbled upon something interesting and unexpected. I thought I was pretty jaded about technology these days, but it was fun to encounter something innovative and magical.

I can’t go into details, but there was a definite feeling that we might be onto something very interesting, and years from now I might be looking back at that night with a fond smile.

24 Hours in Silicon Valley
Later that night, things got even more surreal as Mike Arrington popped into our office for a surprise visit. I’ve been reading TechCrunch for years and go to a boatload of startup events, but had never met him before.

The next day we headed over to Sand Hill Road and a meeting at Sequoia Capital. A month ago, if you had suggested to me that I’d be in a room with those guys talking about startup ideas I would have thought you were crazy, but it happened. And then, to complete the story, my demo crashed on both my primary phone and backup phone (although it worked later).

And that wrapped up a quintessential 24 hours in Silicon Valley and an epic first week on the job.

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Personal Commentary from Miker

* This is actually cross-posted from my personal blog. But the folks at Churn said they shared the sentiment, so I’m posting here as well:

The news about Churn Labs went out yesterday, so I can start talking publicly about what we’ve been cooking up. I figured I would start with a bit about what we’re trying to do. Frequently when I tell folks about the lab they say “Oh, you guys are an incubator.” That’s not quite true. I haven’t been trying to correct people about it however, cause with all the incubators out there it was an easy way for us to stay hidden in the noise. Time to stop that though.

The overall explanation is on the Churn Labs about page. The typical incubator takes folks who are already working on something, and provides them with resources in exchange for equity. Churn Labs is structured as an actual lab however, where we hire folks to work on ideas we already have bouncing around internally – with the hope that some of those ideas have legs and can be spun off into independent companies. That means our projects take a completely different form, and the folks who we’re able to pull into the lab can come from vastly different areas.

There are lots of folks out there who aren’t able to hop in full time to work on their ideas. They have kids, or a mortgage, or need their health benefits to be constant. Some of those folks are always hacking away nights and weekends on interesting projects, but they just can’t unblock enough time to make a real run at some of their ideas. When Omar and I started talking about the lab we figured that would be the real sweet spot for a new project.

I’ve been calling them “entrepreneurial engineers”, but I hardly coined the phrase. I first started hearing it from Adam and Joyce around the 106 Miles Meetups. It’s hard for an engineer to make the leap to entrepreneur. I know I certainly found it really frustrating and difficult, but also very much worth the effort. There are lots of programs aimed at folks who are willing to toss it all and start off on something new and untested. But there are few systems aimed at those passionate folks who aren’t able to just chuck it all and strike our fresh. As engineers we’re accustomed to trying to be methodical and principled about what we do, and that just doesn’t jive with quitting your job and striking out into the completely unknown.

The most common argument that people throw back at me is “You can’t make people entrepreneurs! If they didn’t have the passion to just strike out on their own they won’t have the will necessary to make it on their own.” I completely disagree. Fortunately I’m no stranger to hearing constant criticism of an idea. I heard just about hourly about how AdMob was doomed to failure for the first 6 months I was there. So, criticism noted, but I don’t agree.

I disagree because I know lots of these people are extremely passionate and driven. I know because they IM me at 3 in the morning with questions about how to setup software based load balancers or how to install a Cyanogen rom on an Android phone. They don’t lack the drive to work on their own things, they just lack the tools necessary to figure out how to make their passion their livelihood. There’s certainly risk still even if they do have the tools, but there’s risk in any model. And I think this one is worth exploring. At worst, I got to hack on a bunch of interesting stuff with a group of awesome people. Total win/win situation.

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Looking forward to Churn and some lessons from the past

Here we go!

We’re very excited to be starting on this new adventure with Churn Labs.   As we take these first steps, it seems like an opportune moment to pause and reflect on some of things I’ve learned from the past 10 years and 5 startups.  Some these have been published elsewhere, and some are probably just common sense, but I’ve never posted them anywhere all together.  So, here we go 🙂

– omar hamoui

….

ideas and launches

– solve your own problem
The best solutions will come when you are working to solve a problem that is deeply impacting you.  Avoid solutions in search of a problem.

– the first idea is probably the most important
Many great businesses were built on the back of one fundamental insight.  Much of the rest is just execution.

– you shouldn’t have to push
You want an idea that gains traction and accelerates on its own after you give it the first push.  If you have to continuously infuse energy to help it grow, you should probably go back to the drawing board.

– pay no attention to common knowledge
Too many people claim to know too much.  The largest opportunities are found in ideas that go against the grain.

– try often, fail fast
What you are doing is wrong most of the time.  Don’t spend too long examining every rock.  If it’s really a diamond you’ll know.

– businesses make money
Think about the business model from the start.

– break the speed breakers
Whatever is slowing you down isn’t helping.  If you KNOW the launch will do damage, then investigate.  If you don’t know what it will do, then go faster so you can find out.  If something ALWAYS slows you down, get rid of it.

deals

– understand what you really have to lose (which is usually not much)
If you are a person with a laptop and an idea, don’t worry about messing up the 100m dollar business you think you will someday be.

– leave something on the table
If your partner feels as good as you walking away from the table, you are much more likely to have a successful relationship.

– easy is better
Sometimes it just feels like the negotiation is painful.  If that’s the case, the relationship is not likely to be much better.  Try and keep things simple and easy.

– wait until the rubber hits the road to evaluate a deal
Don’t get too excited until the results actualize.  Most deals are not as good as they look on paper

sales and marketing

– focus on the second sale
If you aren’t going to get a second order from a potential customer, don’t bother getting the first.  In order to grow the business you need to be able to build on a solid base of relationships rather than burning one and moving on to the next

– customers LOVE to hear you admit what you don’t do (it’s usually very refreshing)
Pretend you work for the customer and tell them exactly what they should expect from working with you.  If you meet their expectations and don’t over promise, you’ll build significant trust and loyalty.

– don’t underestimate the power of being nice
Too many companies think some technology solution or design principle is going to be the only thing needed to catapult them to success.  At the end of the day business is a transaction between people, and simply being a decent human being goes a long way.

– don’t announce vapor
You’ll start to get known for it and the one time you actually have something to say nobody will listen.

– large amounts of small media > small amounts of large media
With the fragmentation of media you are much better off getting mentioned all over the place than in a few central locations.  Keep an eye on what the blogosphere is saying about you and try to figure out what they should be saying.

– information is not that important
Too many people think that all the details of their business are state secrets.  The fact of the matter is that having an idea is FAR easier than executing on it.  So relax.  Besides, if the only thing standing between you and failure is an errant conversation you’re probably not in a good place anyways.

competition

– ignore the competition
If you need to constantly look at what your competition is doing in order to guide your next step, you are not an entrepreneur, you’re an opportunist.  You need to set your own agenda and execute against it.  If you define yourself by how you differ from the competition, you’re probably in trouble.

– <insert big company here> probably won’t kill you
Big companies are almost always far to slow to actually kill a small competitor.  If you do end up failing it will probably be because you simply weren’t needed, not because a bigger competitor actually out-executed you.

people

– find a mentor (or know when one finds you)
You can’t do it alone and you don’t know everything.  If you can find someone who is not afraid to tell you you’re an idiot, and who really brightens your day when they give you some positive feedback, you should make sure to keep them nearby.

– where you are matters
Your environment will have a huge influence on how your career ends up going.  Put yourself in the BEST place to do what you do.

– nothing matters more than the team
The most important factor in your journey and your experience while you are going through it is the team you are with.  If you find that you do not like/respect the vast majority of the people around you, you should figure out how to get on to what’s next.

– hire people you feel like you’ve known your whole life
Pretty self explanatory.

– avoid arrogance at all costs
Never, never, never, hire people with an attitude.  You will regret it.

– no one matters as much as you think they do
As soon as you have more than a few people then chances are your business will be fine without any particular individual.  No one should be indispensable and they should earn their spot on the island every day.

– you work for them as much as they work for you
When you bring someone onto your team they are implicitly putting a lot of trust in you. You have expectations and so do they.  Your job is to deliver whatever success and satisfaction they are expecting.

– don’t waste peoples time (from a career perspective)
Make sure that whenever the ride is over everyone has benefited from the time they spent with you.  Try your best to make sure that no one comes off as the same person that got on.

– think about measuring your success by how many people will be better off for having worked with you
Again, self explanatory.

– don’t carry any passengers
Working on an exciting new venture is an honor and a privilege. Don’t waste it on anyone who is just along for the ride.

communication

– don’t hide anything
It’s not worth the trouble and it will come to light eventually.

– re-ask the question if necessary (get a real answer don’t just go through the motions)
Some people have conversations as if the only thing needed is for both people to move their mouths and make noise.  Pay attention to what the other person is saying, and make sure they give you a real answer rather.

– be right (unless you have a right to be wrong)
It’s ok to say you don’t know, but it’s not ok to be dead wrong about things you SHOULD know.  Choose your words carefully; people build their opinions about each other through lots of small interactions.

– say no or say when
If someone asks you for something provide them with a clear “No” or a delivery date.  Constantly providing open ended “I’ll look into it” answers generally builds frustration after a time.

most important

– don’t be afraid
Don’t be afraid to fail, don’t be afraid to get fired.  Don’t be afraid to make a mistake or change your mind.  If you find that you are doing or not doing something simply due to a fear of what might happen, chances are you need to rethink the problem.  Fear is an awful guide and people tend to be awful judges of the true “downside”.  One of the most amusing things in the world is watching MBA students at the best business schools in the world fret over their career opportunities as if they will be living out of a cardboard box if they don’t get the right internship.  The best advice I have is that whatever you do, it should be done as you are reaching for a new opportunity, rather than shrinking from a phantom anxiety.

most most important

– optimize for the journey, not the destination
It’s hard to understand this without going through it, but it’s extremely important not to optimize for or aggrandize an exit, or any particular goal represented by a single point in time.  The thing is, whatever that goal is, it will be a temporary and fleeting moment, and it simply starts another journey.

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