How I went to an event at the White House and didn’t file anything

As you might have seen on Twitter, I was at the White House Tuesday for the Obama administration’s first Demo Day. (Yes, I should have added #humblebrag to some of those tweets.) This event was both a diversity-boosting exercise for the president and a chance for the 32 startups in the spotlight, many not founded by the usual crop of twenty-something white dudes, to get some wider exposure.

White House Demo Day Obama entranceMy Yahoo colleague Alyssa Bereznak was already set to write about the diversity angle–it’s a real problem for the industry, as you can see in the testimony from some of these female and minority founders in her story. I had RSVPed after her but figured I could file something profiling some of the more interesting startups.

But then after 35 minutes spent standing the East Room of the White House and watching live video of President Obama talk to various startups in an adjacent room, then hearing Obama’s speech (key line: “the next Steve Jobs might be named Stephanie or Esteban”) and singing “Happy Birthday” to the president (it being his 54th birthday), we were all ushered out past the startups and back to the press room. Oops.

I did manage to get back in, courtesy of Alyssa and I running into a press contact we knew, but by then some of these companies had packed up their exhibits. I wound up only talking to five of them, just three of which were on my own list of exhibitors to check out, before I was again ushered out. That was less reporting time than I expected–nothing compared to last summer’s Maker Faire at the White House— and did not yield enough material for a story.

Am I bothered by that? Not really. Some of the people I did meet will be worth talking to later on, I was only out $4 and change in Metro fare, and confusing friends by wearing a suit for work was its own reward.

Weekly output: community broadband, worst Windows, talking to startups, Google apps on Gogo WiFi

Another weekend in which I did not get as much down time as I’d hoped, courtesy of some additional work coming my way. So goes freelance life sometimes… although I remember the same thing happening, without any extra income, when I was a full-time employee.

1/20/2015: Obama’s Community-Broadband Plan: 4 Ways to Understand His State of the Union Pitch, Yahoo Tech

When we posted this story, we all thought municipal broadband would get at least as much of a mention in the State of the Union address as space exploration. Then that didn’t happen. Oops.

1/21/2015: The Worst Version of Windows Is…, Yahoo Tech

Sometimes, I struggle with columns. Not this time: I wrote the whole thing in basically one take, and I had fun doing it.

1/23/2015-1/24/2015: Media Match, Collaborate

I spent about 45 minutes Friday and Saturday hearing a parade of startup founders take three minutes to explain their idea, answer my questions and ask some of their own. As in prior years when I’ve participated in this part of the D.C.-area “entrepreneurship community” Fosterly’s conferences, I came away reminded of how impressive it can be to watch somebody excel at in-person sales, and how often that doesn’t happen.

USAT column on free Google apps on Gogo1/25/2015: Use Google apps over Gogo Wi-Fi for free, USA Today

I got the idea for this on a flight last October, but I held off on writing it up until I’d had enough conversations with enough people at Gogo to be reasonably confident that publicizing this loophole wouldn’t ruin it for everybody. The tip at the end of this avgeek-oriented column about using an Android phone’s GPS on a plane should be familiar to those of you who followed my microblogging experiment at Sulia. But since that startup’s shutdown last October wiped those posts off the Web, I’ve felt no guilt about recycling the ideas behind them.

Weekly output: startups and privacy, iPhoto passwords

I’m thankful for readers who look for my work, and for clients who pay well and on time. You?

11/25/2014: Is the Uber Problem Changing How Startups Treat Privacy? Not Much., Yahoo Tech

Halfway through the Demo conference two weeks ago, I worried that I wouldn’t have anything to write about. Then I remembered that the founders of most new startups actually say what they think, unlike their more seasoned, better-media-trained counterparts at older tech companies.

USAT iPhoto-passwords post11/30/2014: Warning: iPhoto won’t know if you change a password in OS X, USA Today

I feel a tiny bit dumb for writing this more than two years after getting religion about two-step verification. In my defense, I almost never use iPhoto’s shortcut to e-mail photos from that app, so it fell to my wife to run into and ask me about a password-management glitch in that soon-to-be-retired app that Apple probably won’t fix.

Weekly output: Nokia Lumia 520, Pierre Omidyar and news, Demo (x2), MyTechHelp, @MicrosoftHelps and user groups

In an alternate universe, the two posts I filed from the Demo conference in Santa Clara would have been replaced by one or more from the Online News Association’s annual conference in Atlanta. If only the two events had not been scheduled right on top of each other

Nokia Lumia 520 review10/16/2013: Nokia Lumia 520 (AT&T), PCMag.com

I first checked out this phone at Mobile World Congress in February and thought the world could use more budget-priced smartphones. The $99.99 price does entail some compromises–like no front camera, and no flash on the back camera–but as a starter smartphone it seems fine.

10/17/2013: So Nice To See People With Money Regard Journalism As Not Doomed, Disruptive Competition Project

I wrote a quick reaction to the news that eBay founder Pierre Omidyar plans to invest $250 million in a full-spectrum news startup, which I see as something materially different from the splashy funding rounds that a few more specialized news sites have  racked up lately.

10/18/2013: Heads-Up Helmet, Rolling Camera Are an Eyeful, Discovery News

My first report from the Demo conference focused on the more interesting, sci-fi-esque gadgets and apps introduced there. The post has received about 1,400 Facebook likes so far–and I don’t know why, since it didn’t pick up any at my Facebook page and didn’t get a mention at Discovery’s.

10/18/2013: DEMO Debuts Plumb Privacy Frontiers, Disruptive Competition Project

Here, I looked at the privacy propositions of several apps and services launched at Demo, most of which will probably get labeled by some, fairly or not, as “creepy.” Look for an update to this post correcting a mistake I made: contrary to what People+’s demo suggested, this Google Glass app does not do facial recognition.

10/20/2013: Tip: Be cautious when calling ‘tech support’, USA Today

I got an e-mail from a longtime Post reader reporting a horrible tech-support experience at a company that had led him to believe he’d been talking to Apple. That sounded odd, but the story quickly checked out.

On Sulia, I posted several reports from Demo (for instance, Bounce Imaging’s Imperial interrogation droid camera- and sensor-stuffed ball, EmoVu’s emotion-detecting webcam system, HueTunes’ synesthetic software, and Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman’s onstage interview), reviewed my initial, glitchy experience with United’s inflight WiFi; correctly predicted that coverage of Facebook’s new privacy policy for teens would focus on its option of public posting instead of its increase in teens’ default privacy; and reported on my introduction to Windows 8.1 on my ThinkPad.

Weekly output: text-message backup, travel tech, startups and patents, Bluetooth mice, rechargeable batteries

This week ended better than it began, journalistically speaking.

5/28/2013: How do I back up text messages?, USA Today

Notice the long, parenthetical paragraph starting with “Update”? That’s what you have to write when you leave significant, relevant info out of a story. Here, it was my failure to note that iOS and Windows Phone include text-message backup options that, while they don’t let you view old SMSes away from your phone, do at least ensure you won’t lose them forever if your phone dies. I did not think to mention them because I’d elected to focus the piece on ways to get text messages off of a phone–but, alas, I never thought to revise the question to specify that use case.

Kojo Nnamdi Show travel tech5/28/2013: Travel Technology, The Kojo Nnamdi Show

I talked about the intersections of travel and technology–from inflight WiFi to apps that can help guide your journeys–with guest host Christina Bellantoni and iStrategy Labs chief marketing officer DJ Saul. This was excellent timing, as I’d spent most of the two prior weeks out of town. I do, however, regret missing a chance to rant yet again about the woeful state of the C/D concourse at Dulles.

5/31/2013: Ask A Startup About Patents. You Might Get An Interesting Answer., Disruptive Competition Project

I attended a pitch event for startups, Fortify Ventures’ Demo Day, and asked each of the five companies that presented there if they’d applied for any patents and what sort of exposure they thought they had to a patent-infringement lawsuit.

5/31/2013: Finicky Bluetooth mouse? Check your rechargeables, USA Today

Once again, a problem with my own computer yielded the material for a Q&A item, which in this case doubled as an opportunity to question my own and others’ enthusiasm for cable-free computing. The column throws in a tip about how it’s easier to recycle rechargeable batteries than you might think.

In addition to prototyping this weekend’s USAT column on Sulia, I criticized a dumb implementation of a smart calendaring feature in Gmail, voiced my exasperation at CVS’s addition to paper coupons, wondered about the weirdly limited free WiFi in the Smithsonian’s Kogod Courtyard, and (ahem) compared a couple of exercise-tracking apps in a way that missed a key detail about one of them.

Weekly output: “free WiFi” (x2), 1776, Facebook Graph Search, Facebook and Twitter apps

My former employer collided with my current work this week, courtesy of the Post’s front-page story Monday heralding the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to open some broadband-friendly frequencies to unlicensed use. My former cubicle-mate Cecilia Kang’s piece phrased things much more expansively than that, especially before the jump, and then things got out of control as people spun the story as “free WiFi for everyone!”

(If you want to hate tech journalism, there’s your reason: Competing sites couldn’t spend 10 minutes reading the FCC filings to understand the story for themselves and instead rushed to post their own breathless interpretations of Kang’s piece. Worse yet, most of them haven’t bothered to correct the errant results of this game of telephone.)

2/4/2013: FCC Plan to Provide Free Wireless a Long “Complicated” Process, Voice of Russia American Edition

This AM station in D.C. (a friend works as a producer there) had me on Monday to talk about the Post’s story; I did what I could to explain that there is no actual FCC plan for free WiFi, just a framework that could, maybe, make it easier for some companies to offer no-charge wireless access in certain locations.

DisCo FCC no-free WiFi post2/5/2013: Free As In Unlicensed: Why The FCC Isn’t Giving Away Wireless Service To Anybody, Disruptive Competition Project

After spending much of Monday on the phone and in e-mail with various tech-policy types to make sure I hadn’t missed some fundamental shift in the FCC’s positions, I explained what the FCC actually is proposing and how it ties into a larger problem in telecom: the lack of competition in residential broadband.

2/8/2013: Older City ISO Hot Young Tech Startups, Disruptive Competition Project

On Wednesday, I attended an open-house event for a startup incubator, 1776, that’s scheduled to open its doors next month with backing from the District government. Under that clickbait headline (my fault!), I put this in the context of how other cities and regions have tried to make themselves into startup hubs but have neglected to follow California’s practice of making almost all noncompete clauses unenforceable. Ending an employer’s veto power over an employee’s next job makes it vastly easier for talent to chase interesting problems, and I’d like to see other states follow that example.

2/10/2013: Tip: Control Facebook exposure by friending folks you know, USA Today

I held off writing much about Facebook’s Graph Search until I sat down with Facebook’s product manager in the social network’s D.C. office to learn what this tool does and does not index–and how people’s selective disclosure can further skew its results. (Appropriately enough, this discussion about unsent signals happened on the one day I forgot to put on my wedding ring before leaving the house.) The column wraps up with a reminder to clean out old and unused Facebook and Twitter apps.

On Sulia, my week included a recap of my experience attending a screening at the Motion Picture Association of America’s offices, two gripes about dumb car-stereo design trends seen at the Washington Auto Show, a report about Facebook asking if I knew new friends offline, and a reader’s assessment of the Mohu and WallTenna TV antennas at a less reception-friendly location.

Questions I ask (or should ask) of startups

I spent two hours and change on Saturday taking the testimony of D.C.-area tech startups in three-minute increments. The experience–part of an all-day networking event put on by the D.C.-area tech-community site Foster.ly–was a lot more interesting than that sentence makes it sound.

(The Washington City Paper’s Lydia DePillis, another Foster.ly media attendee, wrote about eight of the more promising startups she talked to.)

Then on Tuesday, I saw another batch of local startups offer their pitches at a Northern Virginia Technology Council event. I’ve done the same thing at multiple gatherings around D.C. and in the Bay Area. As a small businessman myself, I find the whole routine getting more interesting–despite my general allergy to business-plan PowerPoints.

One customary formula for coverage of a startup starts with who invested in it and for how much. I find that boring. There’s so much money sloshing around–sometimes dumped on particular startups in absurd allocations–that I don’t think this provides enough insight on the virtues of a new tech company. Instead, here are the questions I’d rather ask:

What’s the problem you’re trying to solve? What’s the inefficiency, informational asymmetry  or overall inelegance you want to smooth out?

Most people have this answer memorized, but you have to start with it anyway. (In case anybody’s curious, the problem I’m trying to solve with my own work is the surplus of hasty tech journalism reported without benefit of historical insight or simple skepticism and then written with an excessive attention to specifications, momentum or buzz.)

Who else has that goal? Who else–in particular, which large, incumbent firms–might decide they need to join in the fun?

You have to be able to find the competitor and the possible competitor.

How do you make money?

So rude to ask, I know. Bonus points if a company has multiple revenue possibilities in mind. But if you have enough investors lined up to pave your runway a few years into the future, I will cut some slack on this. (A figure-it-out-later strategy seems to have worked fine for Instagram.)

What things beyond your control need to happen before you can make money? Who has a finger on a kill switch for your company?

If your idea depends on massive network effects, you’ve got a steep hill to ascend. I hope your business proposition also works with a small amount of customers… and that it isn’t dependent on a blessing by the App Store, Hollywood, giant telecom firms or corporate IT departments.

Then there’s the question I often forget about, even after being reminded of its importance at a SXSW panel discussion this spring:

If you go bust, what happens to your users’ data?

What questions would you ask?