Colombo Hackathon – The startup scene in Sri Lanka!

It’s probably a bit too late to write about this because its been more than three weeks since it happend. However something like this cannot skip my blog specially because I was one of the organizers of the event. Since we (I and Chandika) came back from Startup Weekend we have been wanting to do something similar here in Sri Lanka and the first choice was naturally a Startup Weekend. However due to many constraints we weren’t able to pull it off. One of the key reasons being the financial requirement the event had on the participants. We were not sure yet if the local tech/startup community would fancy a expensive ticket to a event of this nature. When Sanath came up with the idea to do a similar event, we all gathered up for a discussion, myself, ChandikaJeevan and Sanath and followed the birth of Colombo Hackathon.

We didn’t have much time till the event and there was much to be done. However thanks for the resourceful team that came together, we were able to get everything organized in time without having to put in much effort. Special thanks to Jeevan for providing the venue and other required arrangements. When we put out the registration form we were taken by surprise to see the number of signups that occurred during the first two days. We had hit the quota of 50 by the second day. We kept the form open and by the second week there were close to 190 registrations. We had to limit the invites to 125 due to resource limitations. On the event we had close to 80 show up and around 75 participate. During the initial pitching session there were 29 ideas that came up. 14 ideas were selected to work on during the two days. 13 ideas continued to work and produce working demos. 4 pitches won and turned home as startups! It was magic to see the kind of energy and enthusiasm that went around in the room. During the initial pitches, even-though they had never planned for it, some walked up to the front to talk about their ideas – driven by the energy in the room. This is exactly what we wanted to see and this is exactly why we did Colombo Hackathon. All in all it was a massive success and we sure plan to do it again soon!

Coming back to that, why did we do this? It’s simply because we are those geeky startup guys. We love to see ideas form and come to life. We’d love to see a startup community form in Sri Lanka and we want to see a (tiny as it may be) silicon valley in this lovely island. For the past few years myself and Chandika and many others have had this discussion. Why are there not many startups in Sri Lanka? Us being a startup that created a world renowned product, we badly needed that here. We wanted to create that here and I am glad we did this! Thanks to the inspiration from Startup Weekend India and also Venture Engine which has greatly supported this. Here is an interesting article about why startups are important.

Amidst all the excitement and energy it was sad to see quite some negativity going around. It was all mostly about the worry of one’s idea being stolen and why would one talk about it in public. There was even a blog post referencing the Winklevoss twins as an example incident of a stolen idea. Taking startup advice from one who’s only startup experience was the movie “Social Network” is like taking parental advice from Britney Spears. I get it, Facebook is what everyone knows and thats what they talk about.  Ok so lets talk about Facebook then? how authentic and unique is the idea? It’s been done a 100 times before, some quite exactly the same as Facebook. But how did Facebook become so big? A startup is not about just an idea. Ideas form every other minute. Startups are about the people! If anyone other than Mark Zuckerburg had done Facebook, it would have never gotten to where it is now and thats the fact. For a startup to be successful it takes a lot… the confidence and motivation to stand up every time you fall, relentless hard work and decisive execution, sticking around with the right people and connections and letting the wrong ones go… and lots more. If you did come to the Colombo Hackathon, you’ll know. I am very happy and excited that we were able to inspire at least eight different teams to continue executing their ideas into real businesses. Until the next Colombo Hackathon… Adios!

Startups Rock!

Colombo Hackathon Facebook Page – http://www.facebook.com/cmbHack
Colombo Hackathon Twitter – https://twitter.com/#!/cmbhack

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Startup Weekend – Bangalore

Its about time that I forced myself to throw in another post specially right after the Startup Weekend in Bangalore, India. Yeah, I was there. flew to Bangalore just for the event over the weekend with Chandika. I have to admit, it was worth every bit.

What is this Startup Weekend you ask? it is an intense 54 hour event which focuses on building a web or mobile application which could form the basis of a credible business over the course of a weekend. The weekend brings together people with different skill sets – primarily software developers, graphics designers and business people – to build applications and develop a commercial case around them. The Bangalore event was at the Microsoft office.

Despite the reputation Startup Weekend had, initially when myself and chandika set out to the event I was quite skeptical about if there was going to be enough participants or if the caliber of the crowd was going to make it challenging enough. I was worried if it was going to be a waste of a weekend than an eventful one. For us it was a weekend to break away from the post startup life we are in with Creately (still awesome!) and to re-experience the exuberant rush and energy produced in the early days of a startup.

So on thursday we went in and as the event started it was a promising crowed with the organizers making way to get started on a very busy weekend. I was stunned by the informality and counter-culture nature of the event. Even-though initially it all seemed unstructured and rebellious, it set the right spirit in the environment and among the participants. As the pitching session began I realized that almost everyone in the room had something they wanted to pitch. I was impressed by the quality of ideas that were being pitched. Even-though not many of them were very internet/cloud focused, I found quite a few interesting idea’s that I wanted to be involved in. I had initially gone in prepared to pitch an idea of mine, but by this time given the number of ideas that were being pitched I was convinced that I wanted slide into a much more executing/hacking role than my usual planning/managing role during this event.

Within few hours teams had formed and ideas had come together and people were already in intense conversations about their respective startups. The day had extended and I was too in a battle for balance in getting our startup towards victory. I was working with a energetic bunch lead by Jagat Iyer a smart, articulate and very passionate entrepreneur. Enjoyed every moment of being with the team working towards perfecting the idea of Shasthra (thats the product we were working on). This continued along with more planning and executing towards the five minute pitch that had to be done on Sunday evening. It was pressure blended with excitement and motivation amongst very little eating and sleeping. The next two days were spent meeting new peers and mentors talking and validating all aspects of the business at the meantime preparing for the final pitch. Having built a globally successful product, I was very familiar with the situations and problems we were coming across and was able to enjoy and work with the team on solving and overcoming all of it.

I was very impressed with the committed organizing team namely Pankaj, Chidambar, Gaurav and many others who were sticking along at all times making sure everything was taken care of in a timely fashion. There were talks about possibly having a Startup Weekend in Colombo this year as well. However there is nothing firm so far on this and we are looking forward to make it happen if Startup Weekend is willing to. All in all it was a splendid weekend full of energy and I can’t think of anything that was not right about it.

Startups forever!!

Do your Time Machine backups really work?

The real time machine!As a Apple fanboy I have been one to explore and make use of most of the features apple products have to provide. Specifically this time I am talking about Time Machine on my MacBook Pro. A little experience I had over the weekend trying to get Lion (Apparently the most advanced desktop OS in the world… Will talk about this sometime later) on to my MBP.

First to my rant on installing Lion. So I download the whole 3.66GB over couple of days through Mac app store and then happily clicked open the install to realize that I was one of the dishonorable one’s who had to re-partition the disk to be able to get the glorious Lion on! I had Master Boot Record partitions on my disk and for OSX to install it requires a GUID partition table. So guess what.. now I have to get the whole 500GB HDD emptied out, then just change the partiton scheme, then get all the data back on and then install lion! Didn’t sound the least bit fun, but I had to pledge my loyalty to Apple (not really… Just being a geeky hipster). But I had Time Machine with me, why did I have to worry?? you’re soon gonna find out.

I have been using Time Machine to backup couple of my drives since the beginning. So I didn’t have to worry about the “important” stuff which is already backed up. So I went ahead and backed up the other data on to another HDD I had and I was all set. Ran another Time Machine backup for one last time and then went ahead with the repartitioning. So I had to boot from Snow Leopard on the disk so I can erase all my partitions to create the same set of partitions on GUID scheme. Once done, went right into “Restore from Time Machine backup” to get my “important” stuff back into the drive. The restore started as I sat there experiencing the time travelling magic. After sometime I realized that I was stuck in time (so to speak). The restore had frozen and did not progress any further. Waited for ages with no progress and tried many times with absolutely no luck. Clearly I was in a panik state and felt like I had lost my identity. While I was behaving like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, I dugg deeper to find out that my Time Machine HDD had errors on the directory structure making some parts of the data unreadable. Disk Utility could not repair the errors. So I went to the Mac disk guru Disk Warrior which managed to recover most of my data from the Time Machine backup. Went through few more hoops before I could get back to Snow Leopard to the state where I exactly was. Then installed Lion which actually took only 30 mins. So the whole disaster had cost me a whole weekend, loss of many hours of sleep, a panic attack, loss of data which I feel every now and then and a blog post.

Now the funny part is I had been backing up on Time Machine for 2 years without realizing that my disk was actually broken. And this came to my attention at the worst possible time! You would think that an advanced tool like Time Machine would make sure your backup disk is intact when making a backup, but clearly it doesn’t. This I feel is a important feature that Apple needs to include in Time Machine. To my dismay I found quite a few users who had disk problems on their Time Machine backup disk during my research in getting out of this mess. I would urge all Time  Machine users to make sure to run a Verification with Disk Utility every time you run a backup. I know I will :-/

All in all even having gone through all this I still feel that Time Machine is a wonderful service to have on your Mac. Even having gone through all the trouble I was still able to get my MBP right back to where it was only because of Time Machine.

Image from : http://murphymac.com/time-machine-some-details/

The very basics of a Startup Idea

This topic is something I have been wanting to put down since of late. The idea of this post is to discuss the nature of two basic factors of any startup idea. The two factors being the problem and the solution (… yes im serious). I know what you are thinking.. its just way too basic that any business idea cannot exist without these two factors. True enough, but are they always basis of new product ideas? Something that you see quite often is startups that come up with products for a given space just because the space is “hot” OR because you can easily build a product to compete in the space OR even for fact that there is plenty of money to be made in a given space. And these products most of the time compliment the space than dominating them for they were not built for the right reasons.

So what am I really trying to say? I guess what I am trying to say is that, you will be in the best position to start something if you fit the below explained criteria. This at the same time doesn’t in any way mean that you have to fit this criteria to come up with a good startup idea.

The Problem : Feel the pain

For an idea to form the pain needs to be felt. The problem needs to be something that is experienced by you. At least it needs to be something you understand well and know how it feels to face this problem on a regular basis. This inherently gives you a detailed understanding of the pain and why the problem exists. When you understand a problem well, you generally would be connected to a community who understand this problem as well. This intern gives you the ability to explore different perspective of the same problem. Since you do understand the problem you would already know the available solutions to this problem if they do exist. And you would also know why these solutions might be less than ideal.

The Solution : Turn the pain into joy!

The solution for the problem should eliminate everything that is a pain and turn the whole process into pure joy. Now to do this you have to come up with the perfect solution that eliminates all the little difficulties and pains in the process. To desing such solution you must be that smart guy with the problem solving skills engraved deep into your genes. You are able to come up with a better solution than your competitors because one of the key reasons for you to start this idea itself is your competing product’s incompetence. As you develop your idea and concept you will again be in a better position since you are connected to people who are looking for the solution on a regular basis who will be able to give you constructive feedback and even commit a purchase!

All in all you will always have the upper hand in putting together a good startup idea, if you are dealing with something that you well understand and are well connected to. Following are some of the products/companies that I found to have built good products that solve the problem well and have good adoption in their respective markets.

String (My Gengo)

Solving a very specific problem that has almost no competition. The problem does exist but the problem is niche enough that a good solution has not been come up until this one. String from My Gengo is a tool that enables you manage your language bundles against it’s translations. When you have an application that is in multiple languages, its quite a hassle to manages text changes across all translations. The translation company My Gengo being the ideal people who understand the problem came up with the ideal solution.

Balsamiq

A problem that has been solved many times but not so quite well. A former engineer at Adobe saw the problem and understood what was needed for him to get a simple wireframe drawn. Quickly put together a wire-framing tool that is making history because if it’s simplicity and completeness of solving the problem. The guy was facing the problem regularly and he sure was smart enough to get the job done right!

Facebook

I tried not to bring in facebook! but you know what.. it fits the case so well. Zuckerburg saw the problem and felt it. Thats what made Facebook different than any other social networks. Being part of the problem helped Zuckerburg put in the right touches to get it to where it is today.

Would love to hear any thoughts about this topic in general? Please comment.

Mac App Store is just not going to work!

So I’m going to have to take back my fan boy tweet I made about Mac App store weeks back when it was announced. The whole idea of a Mac App Store sounded great having seen the iOS store and all other marketplaces that allow you to find apps that fit your requirement, much easily. However there comes a point when your requirement of an apps marketplace turns complex and not one provider is keeping up (at least for me). This is typically the case when it comes to anything new. Initially you are new to the idea and your requirements around the idea are not too complex. Over time when more implementation of the idea are experienced, your requirements start to grow. For any product to keep up they need to cater to these requirements.

However let me get to my disappointment of the moment. So today when I was beating myself up to get more work done over the weekend I realized that I needed a short break before I could go on. So I was wondering if I could play a game. Short after that thought I realized again that I didn’t have any games on my mac. So I went to the place where I could find something fast and get it over with – The Mac App Store. As soon as I went it to the games category, my eyes spotted the “Space Roads” game. Quick description on Space Roads – This was a 3D MS-DOS game that I had gone nuts over back when I was a kid where computers still had green screens and you’d be lucky to spot a full color screen. So I got excited and went right in to check it out. The screen shots pretty much looked the same and it was only $0.99. So next thing I know it was downloading to my mac. Few minutes after I opened it up to enjoy some serious old-school gaming and I was literally shocked by the quality and user experience. I couldn’t believe that not only someone couldn’t build a game to exceed the quality and experience of  a game built decades before, but they couldn’t even get anywhere closer to matching it. I was super pissed.. not at the guy who made the game but at Mac App store for listing it with a price tag on it. So I go on to the store again to find a way to cancel this purchase and guess what… you cant do it. Tried the apple site, still no option. Its not so much about the $0.99 but the feeling of getting screwed 🙂

Now to the topic of my post. Why won’t the Mac App Store work?

  1. No way to trial a App before buying. How can one pay for something that they have no idea of how it feels to be used. If trial is so hard to have, how difficult is it to have a video/screen-cast to demonstrate it.
  2. People have options when it comes to Mac applications. The whole problem with Apple is that they got carried away with the success of the iOS App Store. It was so much of a success not because of anything else but the first reason being users of iOS devices had no other choice. App Store was the only store iOS device users could get apps from. Then there is jail-breaking which is not something everyone can do or wants to do. So Apple applied the same model on Mac App Store and for their dismay the whole world didn’t come running wanting to sell their apps on the Mac App store. So it is not the ultimate place for mac apps (at least yet!)
  3. I can’t cancel a purchase! Yes its great that the process of buying a app is one click away but you would also want to undo it with not more than one. At minimal a policy for the provider to have a money back period would make things much better. But still I haven’t found a way to do this without contacting Apple.
  4. Mac apps are not so cheap as iOS Apps, at least when it comes to proper apps that get something useful done. So put together the previous 3 points and your decision of buying a app becomes relatively critical.

Image from: Lifehacker.com

Banking with HSBC (Sri Lanka)

Writing about my banking matters on a publicly read blog may not sound like the greatest idea but still I felt I had to share this. Not to sound a HSBC fanboy, but they are by far the best banking experience I have had. This may be something specific to me and HSBC due to my requirements and interests when it comes to banking.

I used to bank with a series of local banks since the time I had any actual banking requirements. About several years back I started out with some services at HSBC due to a offer as I remember. Eventually I dropped off all dealings with other banks and stuck to HSBC on all my personal banking. Until the day I would have walked into a bank facility to get something done not more than ten times. Everything else just gets done between credit cards/ATM/Phone and Online banking. This clearly says something.

HSBC as I know it, had the focus (at least in Sri Lanka) of minimizing the cost on resources and automating as many services as possible. I think they have been very successful at not only achieving this focus but also growing their trust and quality in their services. This works perfectly well for a person like me. I like to get things done from where I am than having to go around all day long (on second thought thats something anyone would like). So online banking is my holy grail of all financial matters. From managing accounts, credit cards, loans, transfers to paying utility bills and anything else you can think of, all controlled from one screen. Anything beyond that mostly gets done through a phone call.

One of the important factors in any business is customer care. This is handled well at HSBC may it be in facility or over the phone. I never feel that I have to wast my time to get something done, mostly because of the way I am treated. I dont want to get started on all the offers and facilities that are provided with banking and credit cards. Its something definitely worth looking at if you are in Sri Lanka. There is also something new coming up every now and then that you can benefit out of.

If you were looking for the part where I share the details of my bank accounts and pin numbers, you are out of luck. All in all for me things just get done with HSBC and isn’t that what we all need. HSBC – Thanks for everything so far and dont screw up in future as well! 🙂

Image from: The Sunday Morning Herald

iPhone 4 in Malaysia

I’m glad I got the time to write a post after such a long time. It’s been very hectic since I got back from holiday. There was so many little things I wanted to blog about but never got the chance. However this is something I definitely want to share.

So we were at the Aviary at KL enjoying the wonderful collection of birds (not something you wanna miss if you go to KL) and one of my friends who had gone shopping in KL rings me up and gives me a shocking news. He is standing at a electronic store holding on to a iPhone 4 which is priced at RM 1100.00 (approx. USD350). Now I know this doesn’t sound right but at the meantime part of me wants to believe it is real. So I go on about inquiring further about the device to confirm the validity. As he speaks the form-factor, the behavior, applications and everything else seem to fit the criteria of a iPhone 4. So I had to see this. We decided to head there right after the Aviary.

So once we got out of the aviary we headed straight to the mall Kota Raya. On they way we were discussing of how many phones we should be buying and how we should be distributing them once we are back home. So we get to the mall which is a fairly cheap looking one filled with tiny kiosks selling only phones. So our friend takes us to the specific kiosk where there are plenty of phone on display and there it was the iPhone 4. Looked perfect, the exact form-factor, had the “Designed in California” print on it, had all the default iPhone apps, all working fine. Behavior looks normal and I was getting excited by the minute. I went on checking, except for the font being different I honestly couldn’t see any difference. The guy at the store confirmed that it was a original iPhone 4 more than once. So I was ready to buy 5 pieces for me and my friends and we wanted to pay by credit card.

While the guy was trying to figure out how to charge us since he didn’t have the credit card facility, and the meantime I wanted to check the firmware version of the iPhone. So I went into the “Settings” and then “General” and was looking for the “About” section and it didn’t seem to be there. I looked again wondering I was looking in the wrong place and no it wasn’t there. Then I went into the “App Store” app to see if that works and it didn’t, it loaded something else. All my excitement turned off like a spill of water in the fireplace. The store guy was trying to convince me saying that was because I didn’t have wifi on. But he was done fooling me by now cos I started to see the rest of the discrepancies. The icons inside the settings section were different and the screen was clearly not a Retina Display. The sim holder was very visible to the eye unlike in a real iPhone 4. So when I told the store guy that I was not going to buy it cos it particularly didn’t look legitimate, the guy almost started a fight with me making it a scene 😀

However all these added up to just one thing. We were on a wild goose chase! It should have been pretty obvious when it was too good to be true. A iPhone 4 cannot be probably even made for USD400. I kept wondering how many of the tourists may be getting played by this everyday. Later when I got back to the room I googled “iPhone 4 copy” and found tons of explanations and links of fake and copy products for much cheaper prices. There was even one saying “Why pay more when you can by for $85”.

Conclusion: When you are buying something for a unbelievably low price (not just iPhones) think twice.