My Company IS a Family

Reid Hoffman et al. recently wrote an article explaining that a company can never be like a family. I respectfully disagree.

My company, ZenPayroll, is a family, and here’s why I think it’s fine to say this.

Firstly, it’s important to remember that when I use the word “family,” I don’t mean the literal sense of the word. “Family” is a metaphor that best describes the sort of relationship we strive to have with each other in the company.

Allow me to draw an example from my personal life. I have hundreds of friends, but I only consider a couple of them close enough to call my brothers. They call me the same. That doesn’t mean we have the same mother and came from the same womb. It’s simply a way to say that my relationship with them is more akin to the one I have with my two actual sisters than it is to most of my friendships. My “brothers” know all about me and I them, just like my real sisters do.

In the same metaphorical way, I use the word “family” to describe the people in my company, ZenPayroll. It doesn’t mean that we’re an actual family. As the original article accurately points out, a company can fire their employees, unlike a real family, who shouldn't fire their kids. It does, however, mean that the relationship we currently have with each other is more than just a team, which is just a group of people bound together only by a common goal. We're probably more like a large group of cousins. 

Here are a few small ways I feel we’re more like a family than a team:

  • We eat meals in the office around the dining table. Seldom do people take food back to their desks. Why? We actually enjoy each other’s company. The conversations one might overhear are eclectic and not typically about work. They can involve a lot of laughter, debate, and are sometimes over a bottle of wine. Our meals are more similar to a family gathering around a dinner table than it is a corporate mess hall.
  • Most everyone has nicknames for each other. Puzzles, Muscles, Numbers, Hustles, Waffles, Bubbles, Banana Slicer, to name a few. Nicknames are not in themselves so special, but they do point to a closer relationship we have with each other than a “colleague” or “co-worker.”
  • We take our shoes off in the office – our office is uniquely us and we try to treat our office with the same level of care as we would our home. 
  • Not everything we do together is all about work. Weekend bike rides, midday runs through the city, and Friday evening wine tasting at Bluxome Street Winery are just some of the things we do together outside of work. This is not "team-building" either. It’s not mandatory fun or company sponsored. Not everyone participates, but many do. It’s natural and fun. We actually enjoy our relationships with each other and want it to be more than professional.

Unlike a team, which must always optimize decisions that will result in the shortest path to their goal, we’ll often optimize decisions to do the right thing for our family. As it turns out, making decisions to protect our family is often the best way for us to achieve our goals as a team.

Perhaps a more accurate thing to say is my company is family-like, but that just doesn’t have quite the same ring as family

Why great software shouldn’t be too “magical”

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”

  --Arthur C. Clark's Third Law

There’s much talk about software that is “magical” and “just works”. But in a world of privacy violations, security breaches, and blatant misuse of user data, software that is too magical can sometimes leave users with a sense of suspicion about how the magic happened. If software claims that it “just works” and tells its users that they need not sweat the details of how it works, they’ll start asking the question: “What cost did I pay for this seamlessness?”

Consider Google Now, a feature on Android smartphones. If I have a flight back to San Francisco today, it displays a notification of my flight status without me having to even ask for it. 

That’s pretty magical. 

But had I not explicitly given Google Now permission to scrape my email inbox for the sole purpose of letting me know my flight statuses, it would also be very scary to me as a user. Suddenly, this would be black magic to me.

If this is true for consumer mobile apps, then it is especially true for software that is providing some sort of business-critical service. Yes, it’s important for software to be seamless, but it’s just as important in today's world to tell the user exactly what’s going on behind the scenes. 

In my opinion, the ideal “magical” software experience goes something like this:

1) Tell the user what you will do and how you will do it.

2) Do it.

3) Tell the user what you did and confirm how you did it.

Does it take away from the magical user experience? Maybe a little. But it also reassures users that you’re taking their information seriously and being good stewards of their data.

This is especially true if they are using your software for the first time and beginning to build trust. Remember that trust is earned over time, through repeatedly delivering on promises, and not given by default.

At ZenPayroll, we do lots of “auto-magical” things on behalf of the companies we run payroll for, including paying their payroll taxes to the IRS and filing quarterly and yearly forms such as the form 941form DE-9 and new hire reports like form DE-34.

We could simply tell the business owner: "Don't worry, we'll take care of everything for you" and leave it at that. With their business and employees' livelihood depending on what we do, the stakes are too high to rely on magic. They start thinking: "What does everything mean exactly?" or "How do I know you haven't forgotten anything?", especially if they've just switched to ZenPayroll and are used to doing everything themselves.

Our strategy is to keep them appraised every step of the way. We'll say things like: "We'll be filing the 941 and DE-9 for you this quarter. Take a look at the form we will file and let us know if you see anything wrong with it. If it looks good, you don't have to do a thing. We'll automatically take care of it all for you by sending it to the IRS." After we actually file the form for our users, we'll let them know through an email and remind them again of what we've done. 

Repetitive? Yes. Reassuring? Hell yes.

Technology enables us software developers to do magical things for our users. Just make sure that you, the magician, reveal your sleight of hand to your users.

My last Android app sales figures, and why it's still great to start a mobile app business.

tl;dr

I made quite a sum of money developing and selling apps on the Android market, peaking at $57,000/month (see chart below). Eventually, the business declined, but the rise to the top was an exhilarating feeling -- only it was too short. After the decline of the app business, I jumped back into a new startup, ZenPayroll to look for an equally exhilarating but longer ride. If you want to know what it's like to start a startup, but don't want to spend years of time and your life savings to see what it's like, an app business is a great, low-cost way to get a taste of what it could, or could not be.

--

In 2008, I started Picwing. With just $15,000 from YCombinator, we made some hardware, then pivoted to software and ran the business for more than 2 years. It was an enduring time for my co-founder and I. More than a year of sweat, blood and tears was initially met with little success. But eventually, we were rewarded with slow but steady growth. After a small acquisition, I eventually left to try my hand at developing and publishing Android apps. My hope was that, compared to Picwing, which took years to build, I could develop and sell an Android app in mere months.

My hypothesis proved correct. Compared to the startup, my experience developing Android applications was much more fast-paced and eventful. It really started with a simple app I wrote called Car Locator in August 2009. After 2 months of publishing it, I was stoked to share in November 2009 through a blog post that I was making enough money to pay for my lunch. Things really started to take off in March 2010. You see, at that time Android was still a very small platform and many questioned its competitiveness with the iPhone app store, so many were surprised and delighted when I shared my success story of making $13,000/month in app sales. The news sent ripples through the tech community, and Car Locator came to be featured in magazines, radio shows, blogs, and even Verizon TV commercials. All this in just 6 months. As Android continued to grow, so I continued to ride the wave by developing and releasing more apps. The business reached a peak when I was doing $57,000/month in Android app sales.

I was stoked during my entire Android app journey. Watching these numbers grow week by week, and scheming on what I can do each week to affect it became my daily obsession and joy. In many ways, the ups and downs of my Android app "startup" was similar to that of Picwing, except things were measured in weeks and not months or years.

But things that rise quickly fall just as fast. My Android business was no different. The interesting part of the app business ended after less than 12 months and I was left thinking how I wished the ride was just a little bit longer. 

Richard Foster's book, Creative Destruction, shows that the average lifespan of a company in the Fortune 500 is about 15 years. How I wished my Android apps could have lasted 15 years! Unfortunately, due to the laws the govern app store rankings, which are set in place to incentivize developers to push "new and noteworthy" apps, the lifespan of a successful app business is significantly shorter -- on the order of 12 months.

And that's when it hit me.

Starting an app business is just like starting a "normal" startup like Picwing, only the timeline from start to finish is significantly compressed. The amount of financial investment you'll have to make is significantly lower as well. Of course, so will the potential financial reward, but I believe many of the lessons and experiences that took me years to acquire at Picwing, I could have acquired in mere months by starting my Android app business first. Most first-time founders will fail at their first startup -- the important thing is that if you fail, you fail fast and learn quickly from your experiences. Mobile app development is a great way for founders to take their first swing at building a company without risking a ton of time and money.

If you're thinking of jumping into starting a startup someday, and you're curious to experience what it's like before really diving in, I strongly suggest starting an app business first. You'll get most of the experiences -- good and bad -- in a much shorter period of time. If you like it you'll probably love doing a real startup.

ZenPayroll is culmination of my past 2 startup experiences and what I know will be my life's best work. I look forward every day to the new features we'll build and the customers we'll delight. But at the same time, I'll always look back at my 2 startup experiences with fondness and appreciation for what I've learned.


Save your your "Draw Something" drawings by taking screenshots on Android

One of my favorite mobile games right now is "Draw Something", a modern spin on the classic Pictionary. 

Recently, many people have started asking me how to save their favorite drawings in this game. The best way is to take screenshots on your phone. Here's how to do it: 

1) Download the app, "No Root Screenshot It" from Google Play. If your phone is rooted, get "Screenshot It" instead. If you don't know what rooted means, get the first app.

2) Once you install and setup the app, start the "No Root Screenshot It" app and then hit the "Overlay screenshot button". This will put a little Android icon on the screen of your phone

 

3) Start playing "Draw Something". When you see a drawing that you want to save, hit the Android button on your screen. A screenshot will be saved!

 

4) You can save your drawing to your gallery or share it via Email, Facebook, Twitter, and more!

Pro tip: If your phone happens to have a search button on it, you can hold down the search button to take a screenshot anywhere.

It's really that simple to save your favorite memories in Draw Something. 

Here's a video of it in action: 

Brilliant Trick Stack Overflow Uses to Make You Register Using Your Facebook Credentials

Many services push users to log in/register using their Facebook credentials so they can get additional demographic information about them. Only if you absolutly don't want to sign in using 3rd party credentials will these sites begrudgingly allow you to register using the traditional pick-a-user-name-and-password form.

StackOverflow has a particularly cunning way to get you to register using your Facebook credentials. 

StackOverflow's signup page starts out like many others -- they strongly encourage you to sign in using Facebook, but also put a link to their traditional sign up page

Generall a private person, I usually decline to sign in using my Facebook account, so I navigate myself to their traditional signup page. It looks like a standard signup form at first, but then I quickly realized their password requirements are just plain ridiculous. Your password on StackOverflow needs to: 

  • Have at least 1 uppercase letter
  • Have at least 1 number
  • Have at least 8 unique characters

Really?! Have at least 8 unique characters?! Even my bank doesn't require this much complexity in a password. And we're talking about StackOverflow here -- a site that doesn't really store any valuable personal information like credit cards. 

Discouraged by having to invent a completely new password just for this site, I decided to
hit the "back" button on my browser and just sign in using my Facebook credentials. 

This seems like a brilliant tactic to get more users to sign in using 3rd party credentials. I wonder what percentage of SO users sign in using Facebook, and how this compares with others. 

EDIT: I was informed by someone at Stack Overflow that this in fact was not their intention at all. Futhermore, they don't use any of their user's Facebook profile data. I now realize it was a bit of a stretch to say that Stack Overflow engineered their UX in this manner.

Regardless, the strong password requirement DID convince me to sign in using my Facebook credentials, and I'm sure it will convince others as well. In conclusion, I think a very strong password could actually funnel users into signing in with 3rd party credentials.

I should also say that I'm not complaining about SO's strong password requirement. 

EDIT 2: I also didn't realize until now that Stack Exchange is an identty provider, in which case the strong password requirement completely makes sense. You shoud probabaly just disregard anything I said in this post, as I clearly didn't know what I'm talking about :)

Camera Translator

Pretty soon, I'll be taking a vacation in South America. Unfortunately, neither my friends nor I know a lick of Spanish or Portuguese. 

Camera Translator is a new Android application I wrote that lets you translate text into any language, simply by taking a picture of it. It's really the easiest and most accurate way to translate text using your camera

Here's a video of it in action: 

Translate text using your camera by getting the app on the Android Maket

Copy Text Anywhere on Android -- Root Not Necessary

I love Android, but copying text is one feature I've always found lacking. With the removal of the track ball on most newer Android devices, selecting text to be copied has gotten even more frustrating. 

"Copy Text" is a new Android application that lets you copy text of ANYTHING on your phone. I can try to explain in words, but I think a video will do it more justice: 

As you can see from the video, you can literally copy anything into your clipboard. If the text is visible on your screen, its able to be copied into your clipboard. You can even copy images of text into your clipboard and "Copy Text" is smart enough to extract the text from the image. 

The best part about this? It does not require you to root your phone. There is a one-time setup process you need to go through that involves connecting your phone to your computer, but there are easy-to-follow instructions that come with the app to walk you through the process. Essentially, "Copy Text" is a non-root version of a similar app I released called "Copy Paste It". If you have a rooted phone, you should still get the "Copy Paste It" app, as it does not require you to go through the setup process that "Copy Text" does. 

Get the app on the Android Market

Car Locator integrates with Evernote

Great news for Evernote users! Car Locator is now fully integrated with Evernote!

Here are just some of things you can do in Car Locator now: 

  • Automatically send and sync your locations to Evernote.
  • Send/sync your location notes and photos to Evernote.
  • Import your geo-tagged Evernote locations into Car Locator so you can navigate to them using Car Locator.
  • Tag your locations with your Evernote tags.
  • See your locations anywhere you have access to Evernote, whether it be on the web, your phone, or tablet.

Get the app today on the Android Market

Announcing HandsetCloud.com

The phenomenal growth of Android has been a boon for most Android developers -- Android devices are everywhere, from phones to tablets to TVs, from many different manufacturers and carriers, and with many options for customization. But it’s also had the side-effect of making it more difficult to find out if your apps work on most, if not all these devices. There are more than 400 Android devices out there, each unique in their own way, and trying to get your hands on the actual device to test on is sometimes inconvenient. Many times, a user will report that the app doesn’t work on his/her phone, but the developer is helpless to fix it if he/she doesn’t have that phone readily available. I’ll be the first to admit walking into a Verizon store, telling the sales rep I just want to have a look around, when I’m really trying to debug my app on a display phone.

Today, I’m happy to announce something that will help make testing and debugging better for Android developers: HandsetCloud.com.

HandsetCloud.com lets you rent from an array of Android devices and access them right from your browser. The device’s screen is transmitted to your browser and any touch or keyboard events are transmitted to the device from your keyboard and mouse. You’ll get instant access to any available device without the hassle of buying and maintaining it. No software or plugins to download. No expensive monthly fees. Just use your browser and only pay for what you use. 

Now go fix all those device-specific bugs!

A screenshot app for Android that doesn't require root

"No Root Screenshot It" is a new application just released on the Android market that allows you to take screenshots on your unrooted phone. You heard correctly, a no-root screenshot app for Android.

Before getting into the details, let's cover a little background on screenshots for Android. Taking screenshots on your Android phone has always been allowed on unrooted phones -- it's just been a bit of a pain to do. Once you install all the necessary software, including device driversadb, and eclipse, you used a tool called ddms to actually take the screenshots. Furthermore, your phone needs to be physically connected to your computer to take the screenshot.

"No Root Screenshot It" is an application that essentially does the same thing, but in a much simpler way. You simply install device drivers (for Mac users, this automatically happens when you plug your phone into your computer), and then install and run a desktop application called "Screenshot It Enabler". Once you do this, you can take screenshots on your phone whenever/wherever you want. There is one catch though -- each time you restart your phone, you need to re-run the desktop application, because your phone "forgets" its ability to take screenshots. 

The Pros: 

  • Take screenshots on your phone without root!
  • Take screenshots anywhere, even without being connected to a PC
  • No system files are altered on your phone, so you won't run the risk of voiding your warranty by rooting

The Cons:

  • Desktop application is required to enable screenshots on your phone. The good news is that this is only a one-time process, until you restart your phone
  • Each time you restart your phone, it "forgets" its ability to take screenshots, so you have to run the desktop application again.

If your phone happens to be rooted, the normal "Screenshot It" application is still a much simpler way to go, as it doesn't require the desktop application. If however, your phone is not rooted and you absolutely need to take screenshots, this app is for you! Obviously, if you're one of those people who restart their phones frequently, this app might prove to be too inconvenient for you.

 

App can be found here

Here are the complete steps on how to take screenshots on your un-rooted phone using this app: 

  1. Make sure you have the necessary device drivers installed on your computer. You can find device drivers for your phone here. If you have a Mac, you can skip this step.
  2. Turn on "USB debugging on your phone" by going to "Settings > Applications > Development > USB debugging" 
  3. Plug your phone into your computer using a USB cable. If a message pops up on your phone asking to turn on "USB storage", do NOT do so.
  4. Download and install "Screenshot It Enabler" onto your computer. You can find the installer files here.
  5. Once installed, run the "Screenshot It Enabler" application and press the "Enable Screenshot" button
  6. Disconnect your phone from your computer and start the "No Root Screenshot It" app on your phone. You can now take screenshots!

 

Don't like to read? Here's a video summary.