Data Addict

Startups, Self Quantification, and Internet Culture

Flower

Archive for December, 2009

Christmas 2009

Just as expected, the holidays have been a rabidly busy time. I published that last blog post about Hard Boiled the day before Becca and I left for my homeland for Christmas. However, before returning home, we managed to have quite an exciting day in and around Cleveland.

We woke up rather late, and resolved to visit a candy warehouse forty minutes to the Northeast. It’s this phenomenal place I discovered during my summer working for the dreaded Cleveland Film Commission. If you can think of a kind of candy, they have it, and every other candy that company makes, all at bulk prices. As Becca mentioned upon entering the place, you can almost get diabetes just breathing the air. Wow. Here’s a picture of us enjoying the absurdities of the high fructose corn syrup laden creations. Hooray farm subsidies!

If you look closely, you can see me behind the middle bins.

Rebecca found these and required a photo op. They were more than $20/each.

After returning from the candy store, we watched a good movie that I’ll talk about in another post and then get gussied up for a visit to the Governor’s Mansion in Columbus. As a recipient of Ohio Third Frontier funds, the company was invited to attend a party hosted by the governor and as head businesser, that meant I was suiting up to schmooze and represent. So Becca and I drove on 71 S for 120 units of boring down to his mansion and cavorted with the rich and privileged for the evening. In light of the recent economic woes, I couldn’t help but compare the evening to any number of scenes from the Great Gatsby.

We spent the night in Columbus (the party ended late and we didn’t want to make the drive south until we had slept) and we began our Christmas festivities. Great times were had. We took Becca caroling, we climbed the giant oak in the old cemetery, we took a hike at Conkle’s Hollow, we watched The Prestige and we loafed in a highly decorative fashion. Here are some visual aids:

Us on Christmas Eve

The Saines + Becca.

My Mom and Dad doing the gift thing with us chittlins.

On the 27th Rebecca and I returned again to Cleveland and hopped on a flight to join her parents in Tampa FL for the new years, which is where I am currently. I return to Cleveland on the 3rd of the new year to continue my labor of love on Skritter. So far the holidays have been great.

I intend to write a movie roundup covering all the new flicks I’ve seen. Several are really great, some not so much, but I prefer to keep the personal updates and movies separated.

The Stats Behind an Epic Action Movie

So a little while ago I saw “Hard Boiled,” which, if you didn’t know, has the 8th highest body count of any action movie thus rated. 307 sickening body-slumps later, it leaves a trail of violence so absurd as to make even a 14 year old boy feel jaded. It mean heck, the only movies with higher body counts are epics, like Lord of the Rings (836), and 300 (600). I’ve always wanted to compile some stats about movies like this. When watching, it’s always really easy to notice that the good guy can take on some large multiple of baddies, the more of them there are, the more he can take out in one go (as dictated by the inverse ninja law). But what are the actual stats? How many bullets are fired, what are the hit rates, what chances do bad guy minions stand of living through a scene, etc, etc. These were all questions I wanted answered and couldn’t find online.

Chow Yun Fat Being Awesome

This picture pretty much sums up the movie.

So, I took a representative sample from the middle of the movie, a 5 minute shoot-em-up section of the film where the bad guys are killing the other bad guys, except one of the bad guys isn’t the bad guy but is facing off against the AWOL good guy. It’s a long story. The point is, there’s a lot of shooting and it was a reasonably small enough section of the film for me to break off and analyze. How I analyzed:

Shots Fired: when I couldn’t just count the shells ejecting from the guns, I counted shots fired based on muzzle blasts and relative rate of fire for the weapon in question. For the MP5 sub machine gun, 800 rounds a minute, or about .5 round per frame of film. For the uzi, about 600 rounds a minute or .3 round per frame of film, and obviously the pistols and shot guns were simply a one to one ration of muzzle burst to rounds fired. However, as I mention below, these standard rates of fire was later called into question. I had wanted to cross-reference the visual cues with sounds, but that proved essentially impossible so I stuck to the visuals.

Example of Muzzle Burst

It's Young Fool you Fat, I mean, Young Fat you Fool!

Hits: when characters (normally in a spray of ricochet sparks) went flying or crumpled, I counted that as a hit.

Example of what I counted as a hit.

Ouch! It stings!

So now to answer some basic questions about the reality of an action film.

1) How likely are you to die if you’re a bad guy minion? Cleary this is an important question, especially if you’re looking into getting such a position (what should you pay for life insurance for example). In the 5 minute scene I watched, there were ~37 total goons, out which 23 were slaughtered, which gives you a 62% chance of dying at the hands of a badass good guy. Now, I imagine that your chances are better if you aren’t standing in a big open space with 36 of your clueless (and based on marksmanship data, also blind) comrades, so that rate might be a little high. However, according to this article about the most dangerous jobs in America, you’re getting the shaft. The top 10 most dangerous jobs in the country have fatality rates between .1% and .01%. Using that metric, being a henchman in this action movie is about 112,727% more dangerous. That said, if real world wages accurately compensated for risk and the relationship between the real world and the movie world was linear, if you assumed the same risk as those bad guy minions, you could expect to make about $84,525,000/year.

Some minions scramble.

I don't know about you, but if I was making $84M/year, I wouldn't wear that suit.

2) What kind of hit ratio can you expect if you’re a good guy? Damn good is the answer. By my estimates, Chow Yun Fat fired 105 rounds in the 5 minutes (not counting three grenades), and had a hit ratio of 20% with the MP5 (he was swinging down from the ceiling at the time, so you should cut him some slack), 44% with the pump-action shotgun, and 17% with the revolver. Overall, if you’re a good guy and you’re firing a weapon, I wouldn’t be happy with an overall hit ratio of less than 20%, but that’s just me. Also, it would seem here that the larger caliber the weapon, the more likely you are of hitting the target. For the .327 pistol you get a 2.17% hit ratio/caliber, the MP5, you get a lousy 2.2% hit ratio/caliber, but with the shotgun, you get a 2.37% hit rat/ caliber. At that rate, you could assure 100% hit rates with a 781 caliber weapon, which is about twice the caliber of the famed German Paris Gun. Try firing that at close range.

Yeah, das Keiser had a complex.

With THIS gun, you could get around a 50% hit rate.

3) What about if you’re a bad guy? Tough luck there champ. The bad guys fired a phenomenal 284 bullets at the hero, and hit him 0% of the time, which means that the hero is literally infinitely better at hitting his targets that his black-dressed foes.  Even in sprays of uzi fire at less than 20 feet, with bad guys on 3 sides, they aren’t able to hit a human form. This could be because (as I mentioned above), all the bad guys are in fact blind, but that theory would suggest a lot more friendly-fire casualties, which isn’t seen in the movie. I think the only conclusion to be made here is that unless you just like the sound of gunfire, it’s a lot less trouble to simply not fire and wait for the hero to kill you.

4) How often do guns need to be reloaded? Well, that’s a little tricky, since I was able to deduce from the frame-by-frame analysis that the guns weren’t firing at the rates listed above. My best guess is that uzi was firing 2-3 times faster, and the MP5 was firing at about a similar speed multiple. With that in mind, and assuming the characters had realistically sized clips, the hero should have reloaded 3 times, the head honcho bad guy should have reloaded 8 times, and the alter-ego bad guy should have reloaded 2 times. Number of total reloads per scene? 1. That means that if a standard 30 round magazine for an uzi is 2 ft long and the head honcho bad guy reloaded once, each one of his clips should have been ~9 ft tall, or the size of the high dive at your local pool. His height, judging by his surroundings was about 5’8″. Chow Yun Fat made out a lot better with clips only 3 vertical feet long, which would actually have been feasible to carry.

Steven Seagal's Clip Knows no End

Not the same movie, but pretty applicable.

Overall, I’m actually pretty surprised that the numbers are this realistic, upon re-watching it seems insane that the numbers came out this close to reality. For instance, the revolver, which is shown to have 6 bullets, is fired only 6 times. Having 9 shells in a shotgun (the number that is shown being loaded) isn’t unheard of and the number of bodies per minute of film for the scene was a measly 4.6. Only 2 motorcyles and 2 crate piles exploded, 1 scaffolding was ruined, 3 cars were destroyed, and 3 grenades were used. It was my distinct impression on first viewing it that the numbers would be more insane. Still, being a hero must be pretty sweet.

What We’ve Learned

Approximately 20 months ago, Nick, Scott and I started a company called Skritter. The idea was to make an online product that would help students of Chinese better learn and remember their characters. We secured a $30,000 grant from Oberlin College’s Creativity and Leadership Grant as our first funding source, and we got an additional $25,000 in December 2008 from Lorain County Community College to further support the company. Since that time, we’ve been working on Skritter full time. We launched the paid version of the site in May 2009, 4 months later than expected. We were ramen profitable about 60 days after launch, since which time we have been working hard to improve the site, offer great customer feedback, and boost our income.

Inspiration

Getting inspiration for our first "ink" themed homepage.

We are currently in the midst of raising another round of capital to support an expansion we think will benefit our product’s saleability greatly. We’re applying to LCCC’s Series B fund for a $100,000 matching-funds grant, financed through Ohio’s 3rd Frontier program. We have an angel investor who is interested in putting up most of the match, so if everything goes according to plan, in March of 2010 we will have an extra $150-200K to help us hire employees and scale our marketing efforts. The vision at the moment is try and grow the company, the user base, and the revenue stream over the next year from a home base in Oberlin. We are working on hammering out a more aggressive and realistic marketing plan, we’re taking on a minority partner based in China who is going to help us market in the mainland, and we’re investing some time and energy seeking out office space in the near vicinity.

Working in the Office

Nick works on a new feature.

In general, the past 18 months has been a mixture of intense challenges and excitement. Remarkably, living together in a small apartment has been very satisfying and enjoyable. When we first started the company we were told not to start businesses with our friends, but I really couldn’t recommend doing so more. Ever day for the past 18 months I’ve been able to work with my best friends day in and day out. We work hard during the days, play Smash Brothers Brawl at night, and make all of our business decisions unanimously. The work matters, we are our own bosses, we keep our own schedule, and we get to call most of the shots. In today’s economic climate, it feels bizarre to be experiencing such privilege.

So what has been hard? What has challenged us? The biggest factor that has challenged us is the time frame of a company. Coming into this, we explicitly planned to be working at it for 1 or 2 years, have a liquidity event, and be on our merry (and hopefully relatively wealthy) way. It was really disappointing to find out that this fairy tale only comes true for a tiny minority of tech startups. Survivor bias and journalists eager for such fairy tales make them too ubiquitous. From an operations point of view, there were two lies that really got us on the wrong track.

The first lie was the one you’ve probably heard in the news. A reporter gushes over the genius of a startup that “didn’t do any marketing and sold 100,000 units their first month!” While there definitely are such startups, for the majority of us, there is positioning, target audiences, advertising, marketing plans, return on marketing investment, search engine optimization, and long months of trial and error to determine what people actually want and how they want it presented.

Okay, I'm jealous.

Goodreads made it with no marketing, why can't we do the same?

The fact that we ever thought that marketing was “dirty” or that it was only what the “losers” did is representative of dot-com thinking, yet we’re 10 years past the silicon valley glory years. It’s hard to figure out why that thinking has continued to pervade young entrepreneurial visions. In retrospect of course, we had tons of people tell us that marketing just as important as the product. But in the moment, it’s so easy to tell such “old” people they just don’t “get it” and stave off a belief that you and your startup really are going to “sell 100,000 units your first month without marketing!”

The second lie was a lot more quiet and difficult to handle. It was the nagging voice at the back of each of our head that made some days intolerable and others ecstatic. In a recent article, Paul Graham says that the advice he gives to startups is often not extreme enough. Before starting the company, we had all read extensively about what startup life was like, and one theme that recurred often was that moods come and go as quickly as clouds on a windy day. As Paul Graham says, there’s no way to really emphasize that enough. One hour it is possible to believe everything is great, the product is selling superbly, milestones are being met, and customer reactions are good. It only takes a bad piece of news to remind a person that they are still borrowing small cash for living expenses from their parents, that sales haven’t exploded, the next funding round isn’t closed, and all it takes is one bad month and you can’t make rent. We were not warned sufficiently about the shift from moods of glowing adulation to supreme pessimism.

The solution to the marketing dilemma was to work harder and take the problem more seriously. In the case of mood swings, we have all learned to wait out the bad spells and savor the mountaintop experiences. It’s the lows that kill startups, so it’s essential not to place too much weight on bad days, or even bad weeks. Morale is the only thing most early stage startups run on, so it is more important than anything to moderate reactions to news.

Overall, the last year has been incredible. We have all had the chance to improve our skill sets immensely in fieldswe love, we have built something people want, and like any task worth doing, we are now faced with ever more challenges as we try to make Skritter the commercial success we know it can be. Just like it was when we first started the venture, nothing assures that we won’t fall flat on our faces, but it promises to be a fun ride.

I keep thinking this guy is Darwin, dunno why.

This is kind of what it feels like going forward.

In the Bedroom with a Serious Man

For almost 8 years I’ve been meaning to watch a film called “In the Bedroom.” I keep a list of all the movies I want to see, and it has been at the top of that list since I can remember. I didn’t even know what it was about anymore, it was simply a relic of a previous movie search. So on Friday night I finally got around to watching it. It was pretty spectacular in a troubling, disconcerting way. It tells the story of a middle-aged couple whose son is murdered in scuffled with the son’s lover’s husband.  The most poignant aspect of the movie is the way in which the director chose to represent the anguish and healing of the parents. There were a number of really striking vignettes without dialogue that showed how they were suffering through daily life and slowly healing. I won’t ruin the end of the film for you, but I’ll just say that it was unsettling. The film was so accurate about the trial, police investigation and community response that it took me right back to my memories of Dennis’ incarceration in Marrietta Ohio. It was really a stunning film. I’d recommend it, except that it’s pretty depressing, and most folks don’t like my “depressing indie drama” recommendations.

Then yesterday Nick, Scott, and I drove through Cleveland’s demilitarized zone (“Don’t stop in east Cleveland, or you’ll die!”) and saw the newest Cohen Brother’s film, “A Serious Man.” From the trailer, I was expecting a comedy, but it turned out to be a pretty bizarre tragedy. Two moviegoers behind me mentioned that it was based on the story of Job from the old testament, and taking that into consideration, it made a lot more sense. As a literary adaptation, I can’t help comparing it to O Brother Where Art Thou, which I think was a much stronger film. That said, A Serious Man was pretty good. I feel bad about dragging Nick and Scott to movies at the Cedar Lee though, the only two we’ve seen there have been very different than what I expected and built them up to be.  It just goes to show that you should make movie-watching decisions based on IMDB ratings, not trailers.

Thanksgiving

So, Thanksgiving came and went. Whoa did it come and go. Here’s the break down.

On the 19th, Nick and I flew from Cleveland to Denver, from Denver to San Diego. There, we attended the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages conference. It was boffo. Nick and I wore polka dotted neckerchiefs, open blouses, and called one another “darling.” As you can imagine, we sold tons of site licenses. The day the conference ended, a Sunday, we decided to do something that was the antithesis of what we had been doing, so we found a dusty mountain and climbed it like the rugged manly men we are. Although not boffo, it was at least fab. My shoes became totally caked with desert dust, and we got a spectacular view of the San Diego area. Totally sweet.

On Monday, we woke up before the buttcrack of dawn had risen from the waistline of the horizon and moved our sorry bags of bones to the aeropuerto for some series man on jet action. I flew from San Diego to Houston, to Tampa, and met my girlie friend at the gate. She showed me her life in Tampa, and let me tell you it was spectacular. The weather in Florida is heavenly. I’ve never really spent any time there, but this visit was incredible. It was of course augmented by my host. The Riemers were super-great hosts. They let me swim in their pool, lounge in the hot tub, I played with their cat army (they foster kittens, of which there were three), but I would not drive the totally sweet Jaguar XF that they had recently leased. Seeing as it was worth close to 4 times my (negative) net worth and I didn’t know the roads around Tampa, I thought it prudent to abstain. I still got to ride in it, and that was plenty enough for me.

Becca and I got in some good cuddling time, but alas it was time for me to return to Cleveland-town before too long, so I was a’leavin’ on a jet plane before I knew it. I arrived back in Cleveland on the most gray afternoon that had yet grayed the mighty Cleve since I could remember. It was cold, and my vacation in Tampa made me realize how downright depressing the weather in Ohio is. I vow that I belong in the southernmost extremities of the nation. Perhaps someday I will move down there, braving the hurricanes and elderly snowbirds for great justice.

Work has picked up again. There are big decisions afoot here at the Skritter HQ. I’ll blog about them later though.