Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Get ready for 24-hour living

by Graham Lawton

SO MUCH to do, so little time. Between a hectic work schedule and a thriving social life, Yves (not his real name), a 31- year-old software developer from Seattle, often doesn't have time for a full night's sleep. So he swallows something to make sure he doesn't need one. "If I take a dose just before I go to bed, I can wake up after 4 or 5 hours and feel refreshed," he says. "The alarm goes off and I'm like, let's go!"

Yves is talking about modafinil, a stimulant that since its launch seven years ago has acquired a near-mythical reputation for wiring you awake without the jitters, euphoria and eventual crash that come after caffeine or amphetamines. Yves has been popping modafinil on and off for the past three years and says it is "tremendously useful". "I find I can be very productive at work," he says. "I'm more organised and more motivated. And it means I can go out partying on a Friday night and still go skiing early on Saturday morning."

Modafinil is just the first of a wave of new lifestyle drugs that promise to do for sleep what the contraceptive pill did for sex - unshackle it from nature. Since time immemorial, humans have structured their lives around sleep. In the near future, we will, for the first time, be able to significantly structure the way we sleep to suit our lifestyles.

"The more we understand about the body's 24-hour clock the more we will be able to override it," says Russell Foster, a circadian biologist at Imperial College London. "In 10 to 20 years we'll be able to pharmacologically turn sleep off. Mimicking sleep will take longer, but I can see it happening." Foster envisages a world where it's possible, or even routine, for people to be active for 22 hours a day and sleep for two. It is not a world that everyone likes the sound of. "I think that would be the most hideous thing to happen to society," says Neil Stanley, head of sleep research at the Human Psychopharmacology Research Unit in the University of Surrey, UK. But most sleep researchers agree that it is inevitable.

If that sounds unlikely, think about what is already here. Modafinil has made it possible to have 48 hours of continuous wakefulness with few, if any, ill effects. New classes of sleeping pills are on the horizon that promise to deliver sleep that is deeper and more refreshing than the real thing. Further down the line are even more radical interventions - wakefulness promoters that can safely abolish sleep for several days at a stretch, and sleeping pills that deliver what feels like 8 hours of sleep in half the time. Nor is it all about drugs: one research team even talks about developing a wearable electrical device that can wake your brain up at the flick of a switch.

To some degree, we are already adept at controlling sleep. Most people in full-time work deprive themselves of sleep during the week, deliberately or otherwise, and catch up at the weekend. We often augment our sleep-suppressing powers with caffeine, nicotine or illegal stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines. We are also highly dependent on substances that help us sleep. According to some estimates, 75 per cent of adults suffer at least one symptom of a sleep problem a few nights a week or more. In 1998, a team from the Henry Ford Health Sciences Research Institute in Detroit, Michigan, published a study revealing that 13 per cent of adult Americans had used alcohol to help them get to sleep in the previous year, and 18 per cent had used sleeping pills (Sleep, vol 21, p 178).

Despite the enormous resources that we pour into getting good sleep and wakefulness when we want them, most of the drugs at our disposal are crude instruments at best. The vast majority of sleeping pills - known in the business as hypnotics - are simply "knockout drops" that put you in a state almost like sleep but without its full restorative properties. "Hypnotic-induced sleep is better than no sleep, but it isn't natural sleep," says Stanley. With their addictive nature, the drugs we use to keep us awake, such as coffee and amphetamines, are even worse. In combination with our clock-watching lifestyles, these sleep and wake aids are driving ever more people into what Foster calls the "stimulant-sedative loop" where they need nightly help getting to sleep and daily help staying awake.

Modafinil has changed the rules of the game. The drug is what's known as a eugeroic, meaning "good arousal" in Greek. It delivers natural-feeling alertness and wakefulness without the powerful physical and mental jolt that earlier stimulants delivered. "There are no amphetamine-like feelings," says Yves. And as Yves' way of taking it shows, being on modafinil doesn't stop you from falling asleep if you want to.

In fact, its effects are so subtle that many users say they don't notice anything at all - until they need to. "I wouldn't say it makes me feel more alert or less sleepy. It's just that thoughts of tiredness don't occur to me," says Yves. "If there's a job at hand that I should be doing, I'm focused, but if I'm watching a movie or something, there is no effect."

People who take modafinil for medical reasons usually take just enough of the drug in the morning to see them through the day, but it also seems to be able to deliver sustained wakefulness - for a couple of days at least. "The military has tested sequential dosing," says Jeffrey Vaught, president of R&D at Cephalon, modafinil's Pennsylvania-based manufacturer. "It works for 48 hours or so, but eventually you need to sleep."

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about modafinil is that users don't seem to have to pay back any "sleep debt". Normally, if you stayed awake for 48 hours straight you would have to sleep for about 16 hours to catch up. Modafinil somehow allows you to catch up with only 8 hours or so. Well before Cephalon took an interest in the drug, French researchers discovered this effect in cats back in the early 1990s (Brain Research, vol 591, p 319), and it has since been found to apply to humans too.

I wouldn't say it makes me feel more alert or less sleepy. It's just that thoughts of tiredness don't occur to me

So how does modafinil work? "No one really knows," admits Vaught. He says that Cephalon thinks it understands the drug, but is keeping the details under wraps. What is clear is that, like other stimulant drugs, modafinil prevents nerve cells from reabsorbing the excitatory neurotransmitter dopamine once they release it into the brain. The difference is that it somehow does so without producing the addictive highs and painful crashes associated with most stimulants. A number of independent studies suggest that this might be because it also interferes with the reuptake of another neurotransmitter, noradrenalin.

However it works, modafinil is proving hugely successful. Since it hit the market in 1998, sales have been climbing steadily - from $25 million in 1999 to around $575 million in 2005. Cephalon insists that the drug is for treating "medical" sleepiness caused by diseases such as narcolepsy and sleep apnoea.

Even so, it's clear that modafinil is becoming a lifestyle drug for people like Yves who want off-the-peg wakefulness. "At first I got it from a friend, and then I got diagnosed as a narcoleptic online," says Yves.

All the indications are that modafinil is extremely safe. The drug can have side effects, most commonly headaches, but up to now there have been no severe reactions, says Vaught. In fact, it is hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about modafinil, except that there may be unseen problems down the line as the drug becomes more widely used. "I think it's unlikely that there can be an arousal drug with no consequences," says Foster. In the long run, it is possible that casual users might have to keep upping their dose to get the same effect. Stanley has similar worries. "Is it a potential drug of abuse?" he asks. "Will it get street value? We'll see."

Cephalon does not seem to be worried. Modafinil's success has spurred it to develop a successor, armodafinil. The company is also developing other eugeroics - one experimental drug called CEP-16795 switches off the H3 histamine receptor, which appears to be one of the molecular switches that controls the sleep-wake cycle. However, Vaught claims that the original will be a tough act to follow. "Modafinil is very effective and very safe," he says. "How do you beat it?"

There are ideas as to how. Last year, Sam Deadwyler of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, reported the results of an experiment with a drug called CX717. The findings suggest that modafinil won't have the field to itself forever.

Deadwyler kept 11 rhesus monkeys awake for 36 hours, throughout which they performed short-term memory and general alertness tests (Public Library of Sciences Biology, vol 3, p 299). At that level of sleep deprivation, a monkey's performance would normally drop to the point where it could barely function at all, but Deadwyler found that CX717 had remarkable restorative powers. Monkeys on the drug were doing better after 36 hours of continual wakefulness than undrugged monkeys after normal sleep. When Deadwyler imaged their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging, (fMRI), he found that the drug maintained normal activity even in severely sleep-deprived individuals. The results build on those of an earlier, small-scale trial on 16 men that found CX717 could largely reverse the cognitive decline that comes with 24 hours of sleep deprivation (New Scientist, 14 May 2005, p 6).

Soldiers get high

CX717 belongs to a class of drugs called ampakines, which subtly ramp up brain activity by enhancing the action of its main excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate. Cortex Pharmaceuticals of Irvine, California, which developed CX717, originally saw the drug as a cognitive booster for people with Alzheimer's, but it is its potential to counter the effects of sleep deprivation that is attracting the most attention.

Later this year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), based in Arlington, Virginia, will put CX717 through its paces as a wakefulness promoter for combat. In an experiment designed to mimic the harsh demands of special ops, investigators will push 48 volunteers to the limit - four consecutive nights of hard work with only 4 hours of recovery sleep in between. "They'll go from being tired to exhausted to crashing," says Roger Stoll, Cortex's chief executive. For some of them, however, the ordeal will be softened by regular doses of CX717. DARPA hopes the drug will counteract the sleep deprivation.

The trial should help answer some outstanding questions about CX717's potential. "We don't know yet if it eliminates feelings of sleepiness," says Stoll. "The early signs are that people function better, their brain is a little more hyped. But we haven't tested sleepiness directly." As with modafinil, the evidence suggests that people struggle to tell if they're on the drug or not, and that hasn't turned out to be much of a problem for modafinil.

Whatever the outcome of the DARPA trial, CX717 won't be the last word on eugeroics. Stoll says Cortex has similar but more powerful molecules up its sleeve. Thought they are being developed mainly as memory enhancers, some may turn out to be powerful wakefulness promoters too. Industry giants GlaxoSmithKline and Eli Lilly have ampakine programmes of their own, and at least one other company, Arena Pharmaceuticals of San Diego, California, has declared an interest in wakefulness promoters, though it hasn't released any details of its research.

When and if those drugs come through, the US military is sure to be interested. DARPA is one of the most active players in the drive to conquer sleep, setting up and funding much of the basic research on wakefulness. The army and air force have research programmes too.

It's easy to see why DARPA is interested. "We make the assumption that soldiers are going to be sleep-deprived," says DARPA neuroscientist Amy Kruse, who runs the agency's sleep-deprivation research programme. "We want to know what we can do to bring them back up to the level they would be at if they had a good night's sleep."

When DARPA talks about sleep deprivation, it really means it. Soldiers on special ops sometimes have to be awake, alert and active for 72 hours at a stretch with only minimal rest. That's like starting work on Monday morning and not stopping until Thursday. "Three days, that's when they really start hurting," says Kruse.

The military has a long history of using caffeine and amphetamines to get its people through. It has now added modafinil to the list, and is clearly interested in CX717. And Kruse says she is confident that there is lots of room for further improvement.

Last year, a DARPA-funded team led by Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin Madison discovered a strain of fruit flies that gets by on just a third the normal amount of sleep. The "minisleep" mutant carries a change to a single gene, encoding a protein involved in potassium transport across cell membranes. Intriguingly, defects in potassium channels are associated with reduced sleep in humans, particularly in the autoimmune disease Morvan's syndrome, one symptom of which is chronic sleeplessness. What that suggests, says Kruse, is that new drugs designed to latch onto potassium channels in the brain could radically alter the need for sleep. There are also likely to be other molecular targets in the brain just waiting to be exploited, she says.

I'm the guy who puts sleep-deprived pilots in a plane, gives them drugs and says, did it work?

DARPA is meanwhile pursuing other strategies to conquer sleep deprivation. At Yaakov Stern's lab at Columbia University in New York, DARPA-funded neuroscientists have used fMRI to image the brains of sleep-deprived people, to find out which regions are affected when you are very tired. Then they used a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) machine - routinely used to switch localised brain regions on and off - to switch off those areas and see if that reversed the effects.

"This is all proof of concept," says Stern. "It's hard to imagine a sleep deprived pilot using TMS," not least because the machines are too bulky to fit in a cockpit. "The next step is to apply TMS before or during sleep deprivation to see if it blunts the effect. That has more of a shot at a lasting effect." Stern says his team is also looking into a new technique called DC brain polarisation, which has similar brain-boosting effects to TMS but uses DC current instead of magnetism. The beauty of this "poor man's TMS" is that the equipment is significantly smaller and cheaper - it could even be incorporated into headgear that gives you a jolt of wakefulness at the flick of a switch. And then there's always neurofeedback - training people to activate the brain regions that get hit by sleep deprivation, effectively willing themselves awake.

The military isn't just interested in wakefulness. It also has a keen interest in the other side of the coin. John Caldwell works at the US Air Force Research Laboratory in San Antonio, Texas. He has spent most of his career testing the effects of stimulants, including modafinil, on pilots. "I'm the guy who puts sleep-deprived pilots in a plane, gives them drugs and says, did it work?" he says. He has also done a handful of studies on sleep aids - testing the best way to help night pilots sleep well during the day, for example. In recent months Caldwell has become aware that there is a quiet revolution going on in sleep medicine. "There's a new idea out there," he says. "Drugs that change sleep architecture."

Sleep researchers have known for over 50 years that sleep isn't merely a lengthy period of unconsciousness, but consists of several different brain states (see Diagram). How those states are put together to build a full night's sleep is called sleep architecture.

Catching the slow waves

In the past, says Caldwell, sleeping pills were designed not to mess with sleep architecture, although they generally do, suppressing the deepest and most restorative "slow-wave" sleep in favour of shallower stage 2 sleep. Now, though, modifying sleep architecture is seen as the way forward. There are two new drugs in the offing that significantly increase the amount of slow-wave sleep. One of them, gaboxadol, made by Merck, is in phase III clinical trials and could be on the market next year. To Caldwell these drugs hold out the promise of a power nap par excellence. "Maybe you can make a short period of sleep more restorative by filling it with up with slow-wave sleep," he says.

Much like modafinil, gaboxadol and the other slow-wave sleep promoter - Arena Pharmaceuticals' APD125, currently in phase II - are the start of something bigger. For more than 35 years, sleeping pills have been a one-trick pony. If you wanted to send someone to the land of nod, there was only one way of doing so - targeting the neurotransmitter GABA, which is the brain's all-purpose dimmer switch. Old-fashioned hypnotics such as barbiturates and benzodiazepines work by making neurons more sensitive to the soporific effects of GABA. It's also why alcohol makes you sleepy. Even the newer, cleaner sleeping pills, such as the market leader Ambien, work through the GABA system.

Manipulating the GABA system is a sure-fire way of putting people to sleep, but it has its problems. One is that the brain adapts to the drugs, which means that most cannot be taken for more than a few days without losing their potency. The effects often linger well into the morning, making people feel groggy and hung over. Many are also addictive.

What's more, sleep quality has rarely been considered. "In the past we would take a hypnotic and say, does it put you to sleep?," says Stanley. "That's a pretty inexact way of dealing with it. In that respect, alcohol is a good hypnotic." Now, however, there is a recognition that there is much more to sleep than the GABA system. Last year the first non-GABA sleeping pill came onto the market - the first new class of hypnotic for 35 years. Rozerem, made by Japanese firm Takeda, mimics the effects of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. Nor is it the only one. There are at least three other new classes of hypnotic that don't go anywhere near the GABA system. And though gaboxadol works through GABA, it hits a type of receptor that has never been targeted by drugs before.

According to Stanley, there is even more scope for improvement. "It is possible that pharmaceuticals will allow you a condensed dose of sleep," he says, "and we are not that far away from having drugs that put you to sleep for a certain length of time." He predicts you could soon have tablet combining a hypnotic with an antidote or wakefulness promoter designed to give you a precise number of hours' sleep. "A 4, 5 or 6-hour pill."

We seem to be moving inescapably towards a society where sleep and wakefulness are available if not on demand then at least on request. It's not surprising, then, that many sleep researchers have nagging worries about the long-term impact of millions of us using drugs to override the natural sleep-wake cycle.

Stanley believes that drugs like modafinil and CX717 will tempt people to overdose on wakefulness at the expense of sleep. "Being awake is seen to be attractive," he says. "It's not cool to be asleep." Foster has similar worries. "It seems like that technology will help us cope with 24/7, but is coping really living?" he asks. Others point out that there are likely to be hidden health costs to overriding our natural sleep-wake cycles. "Pharmaceuticals cannot substitute for normal sleep," says Vaught.

Still, even the doubters admit that to all intents and purposes we are already too far down the road of the 24-hour society to turn back. For millions of people, good sleep and productive wakefulness are already elusive, night work or nightlife a reality, and the "stimulant-sedative" loop all too familiar. As Vaught puts it, "We're already there." So why not make it as clean and safe as possible?

Netscape: the Calacanis effect

Netscape Traffic-1Jason Calacanis said, last week, that he was leaving AOL because Jonathan Miller, AOL's ousted CEO, was one of the only business mentors he'd ever had. Loyal, touching, but maybe also rather opportunistic. Valleywag has obtained the internal traffic stats for Netscape.com, the unit which AOL gave Calacanis to run. The numbers are brutal: in the middle of June, before Calacanis overhauled Netscape's front page, the property commanded over 130m pageviews per week. Within two months, traffic had declined nearly 70%. The details, after the jump. (Hey, Digg folk. Some pics of the man himself, and adoring ladies, on Valleywag's Kevin Rose page.)

Jason Calacanis had great success with weblog titles such as Engadget, Joystiq and Autoblog, which he and his partners sold to AOL for about $25m. Moved over by his new employers to revitalize Netscape.com, a languishing internet portal, he picked a typically radical solution.

He'd been obsessed by Digg.com, a news site in which the community submits stories and votes the best to the top of the page. One of Jason's great strengths is his shamelessness: a willingness to spot good ideas, copy and improve them, fast. He'd offered to buy Digg for $4m, and been turned down; his solution for Netscape was to steal Digg's model, and some of their star contributors. Classic Calacanis.

Except Netscape visitors, most of whom only stuck with the neglected portal out of habit, were the worst subjects possible for Jason's radical experiment. Traffic the week of June 18th, before the Netscape team remade the front page, was 137m pageviews. The following week, as Netscape decommissioned areas such as news and weather, it declined to 115m. The new front page, a clone of Digg.com, went live on June 29. The first full week after the change, traffic had plummeted further, to 72m pageviews. The Comscore numbers, which help advertisers allocated their budgets to different internet properties, mirror this decline.

Calacanis has resigned from AOL ostensibly out of loyalty to Miller, and, having founded Silicon Alley Reporter and Weblogs, Inc., he probably also has several startup ideas. Part of the truth, for sure. Valleywag's more cynical theory: he messed up Netscape.com, and used Miller's departure as cover.

Update: Jason puts the blame, or at least some of it, on a migration of Netscape email users to AIM.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Ephebophilia: it's today's word, and it matters

When is underage sex under age?

Given the fussing and carrying-on, you would think the poor man had advocated massed orgies with infants. He hadn’t. All that happened was that Terry Grange, the Chief Constable of Dyfed-Powys and spokesman on child protection for the Association of Chief Police Officers, suggested greater clarity in the labelling of sex offenders: for instance, he says, it is incorrect to say that those who have sex with underage teenagers are paedophiles — and if we say they are, we risk overestimating the scale of the problem of paedophilia.

With predictable fury, Michele Elliott, the director of the children’s charity Kidscape, rounded on the policeman’s wish to reclassify those who have sex with youngsters between 13 and 16: “He is saying they are not paedophiles and they bloody well are.”

If Miss Elliott would care to borrow my dictionary, she would discover that they bloody well aren’t. A paedophile is defined as one who is sexually attracted to children; children are defined as those between birth and puberty. What our teen fanciers are, in fact, is ephebophiliacs: adults attracted to postpubescent adolescents.

Now I grant you ephebophilia is not a word that would sit easily in a News of the World headline but the distinction is actually important.

The reason for the revulsion felt for paedophilia is not just sympathy for the trauma suffered by the child, nor a judgment of the abuse of imbalanced power, even though both are real enough. It goes deeper; it goes to the defiance of a law of Nature, whereby to have sex with somebody who has not reached sexual maturity is to have sex with somebody who is, if you will, not “ready”.

By contrast, to have sex with somebody who has passed the age of puberty is merely to defy a law of Man — and a pretty arbitrary law at that. We cannot agree between one border and the next at what age a boy or girl is emotionally developed enough to give informed consent: Malta and The Netherlands think 12, Canada and Italy weigh in at 14, cautious Greece holds out for 15 and the good burghers of Iceland go as high as 17.

A lad in Dover with a girlfriend of 15 may not have his wicked way, but if they hop a ferry to Calais they’ll be fine. Meanwhile, in some American states not only may you have sex at 13 but you may marry at the same age, allowing for the theoretical absurdity that a man could marry in, say, New Hampshire but should he bring his bride to old Hampshire for their honeymoon he could be imprisoned for statutory rape.

Quite why it is 16 in the United Kingdom is not clear. To my knowledge no studies have been done to show that the Canadians pay for the laxity of 14 with posses of the psychologically disturbed teenagers that we are spared by our relative strictness.

Sooner or later, one imagines, at least the Europeans will have to come to some agreement. Yet for all that I’d give teeth to be the fly on the wall at that particular European Union committee, this is not, for the moment at least, an argument in favour of changing our own age of consent.

It is certainly the case that we shall one day need to reconsider; unenforceable laws are a waste of paperwork, and only last week a YouGov poll showed a third of British girls already thumbing their noses at this one by engaging in sexual activity below the age of 16. (This applies to only half as many boys below the age of 16, though no doubt that’s less for want of trying than the convention that insists that no self-respecting 14-year-old girl would be seen dead with a boyfriend of her own age.)

It is also the case that there are heartening signs from elsewhere that one can lower the age of consent while preserving safeguards; for instance, although Malta allows for consent at 12, it rises to 18 if the older partner has any authority over the younger. Predatory teachers, priests or care-home workers must therefore keep their grubby hands to themselves.

Furthermore, when it comes not to the seriously predatory but to a young couple where one is perhaps 18 and the other 14, the law has far less to do with whether they choose to have sex than does peer habit: when I was young my circle enjoyed a group dumping of virginities at around 16 or 17; these days, for many, it has just shifted forward by a couple of years.

Nevertheless, it is safe to assume that for the time being most of us will continue to prefer that there is a legal stalling process, however slight, that might encourage some young people to cautionary second thoughts — and given that the age of consent currently coincides with the age until which we try to force some education into their heads, it is very probably in their better interests to keep it.

But then, the lambasted Terry Grange wasn’t arguing to change it, either. He was simply asking a society already unhealthily in thrall to paedophilia to think twice before using the word. He correctly points us to a difference between the tabloid nation’s favourite bogeyman, a kind of latterday Fagin beckoning a crooked finger through kindergarten gates, and the excited hormones of a young man in the close presence of a buxom, bosomy come-hither girlie who, in other cultures and, indeed, at other times in this one, he would be perfectly entitled to embrace.

As long as the law is the law, he deserves a smacked paw if he gives in to his excitement. But he does not deserve the same opprobrium as the bogeyman — and nor do we deserve that our police forces’ time be needlessly spent in his pursuit rather than that of the far rarer, but far more dangerous, bogeyman proper.

The Relics of Mu

Yonaguni MonumentIt seems that most every culture has a legend of a great society, ripe with wealth and wisdom, which is lost to the sea. To westerners these are the stories of Atlantis or Thule. To many of the peoples of the South Pacific it is Lemuria or Menehune. To Asians it is called Mu, and was home to people who could fly and who drank an elixir that would cease aging.

After years of searching, and combing the Pacific for a possible lost land that could have been the root of one of these legends, it is clear that there is no extra continent in the sea. However, in 1986, a SCUBA diver, Kihachiro Aratake, diving off the coast of the island of Yonaguni-jima discovered something that may lend credence to the existence of Mu or Lemuria. On the sea floor he found vast geometric structures cut out of the rock. There was evidence of stairs, and improbable angles in the stone. He marked the location for future divers, and in the intervening years these undersea ruins have come to be known as the "Yonaguni Monuments".

Efforts to date the monument are derived from the last time the area was above sea level, which would have been approximately 8,000-10,000 years ago– about 3-5 millennia before Egypt's pyramids were erected. If the monuments were indeed built by humankind, it would require some dramatic revisions to the accepted chronological history of humanity.

StaircaseNot far from a set of cliffs called "Iseki Point", the main structure of the Yonaguni Monuments lies under about two hundred feet of water. It is about 240 feet long, 90 feet wide, and 45 feet tall. There appear to be clear cut stairs, and to many there are distinct similarities to ancient buildings found on Okinawa, or even heiau temples on Hawaii. Various structures surround the main building, and they seem to stretch out into a road spanning approximately 311 miles leading to Okinawa and its neighboring islands.

But as clearly defined as the structures are to some, there are others who disparage the tale of the Yonaguni Monuments. No chambers or entrances have ever been found into the monuments, and no tools have been found in the vicinity to clearly indicate human involvement. Many assert that the formations can be attributed to erosion or coral settlements. The sharp angles and lines in the stone may be the result of the way the stones erode– breaking off at right angles. One can look to the cliffs above the sea to observe that the regional stone tends to erode in a way that leaves naturally sharp angles.

Perhaps the most reasonable theory, however, is one which suggests that the mounds of stone are natural features that were carved and shaped into terraces by early man. This theory adequately explains the lack of entrance into the monuments, and the apparent post holes and etchings made in the rock.

Because of the submerged location and the strong currents in the area, the Yonaguni Monuments have proved difficult to properly study; though the area has become a popular site for SCUBA tours. Researchers have not yet found conclusive evidence implicating either erosion or humanity as the source of these shapes, so the investigation and debate regarding the nature of the Yonaguni Monuments continues.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Wallpaper made out of post-it notes

In collaboration with Sirkka Hammer

A wallpaper consisting of four layers of varying grey tones on a bright primary backing. Each layer is perforated in a grid format and backed with a tacky adhesive similar to ‘post-it’ notes. Pixelnotes is inspired by the way we work within a space. The walls become functional, an integrated noticeboard that documents our activity within the room. Pixelated formations and shapes develop according to our patterns of use.

Winner: 2nd Prize, ‘New Walls, Please!' competition

January 2004

I was a 20-something dethroned dotcom ceo that went to work the counter at mcdonald's

by scott heiferman (12/00)




5/94: graduated from the university of iowa
5/94-4/95: "interactive marketing frontiersman" at sony
4/95-10/99: founder/ceo i-traffic (acquired by agency.com 10/99)
10/99-10/01: chairman, i-traffic (an agency.com company)
10/00-10/00:  counterperson, mcdonald's (4th & broadway, nyc)
more about me


why i got a job at mcdonald's:

i spend a lot of time with bankers, lawyers, internet freaks, corporate wonks, and other people living strange lives.  as a good marketing guy, that's a bad thing.  and as a practicing anti-consumerist, that's a bad thing.  i got a job at mcdonald's to help get back in touch with the real world.  also, after over 6 grueling years in the internet whirlwind, i wanted to experience a profitable, well-oiled, multi-billion-dollar machine. and  i deserved a break today.


how i got the job:

app.jpg (40139 bytes)

i walked in, filled out an application, and was interviewed.  i was truthful.  in my interview, the manager (ralph) asked if i can handle a fast-paced, intense environment.  i said yes.  he looked at my resume and asked about my current part-time job as chairman at i-traffic.  i said, "it's an internet thing."  he said "ok" and then asked me for my waist size.


a few observations:

1. people like the "dollar menu".  the dollar menu consists of about a dozen items at mcdonald's that sell for a dollar.  not 99 cents, but one dollar.  most of these items had had existed elsewhere on the menu for about a dollar. mcdonald's has done a good job of keeping their menu relatively simple and short, but people clearly respond to the ultra-simplicity of the dollar menu.  most people weren't primarily ordering from the dollar menu because they were overwhelmed by the wider menu, but because they perceived it to be the best value.  someone call john stossel... but the dollar menu isn't always the best value. interestingly, "dollar stores" preceded mcdonald's "dollar menu" ---  it's fun to see "blue chip" kellogg-trained marketers from  mcdonald's borrow strategy from sleaze-level marketers. 

2. $5.75 ain't much. $5.75/hour X 40 hours/week X 52 weeks/year = $11,960.  that's before taxes are taken out.  some people said it was disrespectful for me to take a job at mcdonalds --- i didn't need the money, and they thought that i was making fun of people that work there.  the opposite is true:  i gained a bucket of respect for people that bust their butt for such low pay.  it's one thing to scan past stats about americans that make $12,000 per year -- or read about them in the paper.  but, to actually work a tough fry-heaving, mcnugget-wielding 6-hour shift --- and get home smelling like those fries and mcnuggets -- and realize that you only made about $30 that day... that's a serious eye-opener.  interpret as you see fit.

3.  i was never told to treat customers well.  correction:  i was never told by management to treat customers well.   before i started the job, i had read on the mcdonald's website that "our crewmembers make each customer feel like a welcomed guest."  i had even noticed a few months before that mcdonald's even went so far as to change their logo & tagline to feature the message "we love to see you smile." i expected to be specifically, officially instructed to smile and make customers feel like a welcomed guest.  well, as any patron of a manhattan mcdonald's knows, there ain't much feel-good from the counter staff.  my co-workers were downright rude to customers.  i got funny looks from my co-workers when i was friendly with customers.  they must not have seen the logo or tagline or website.

4.  nobody thanked me.  i worked hard.  i got paid peanuts.  i even ate mcdonald's food during my break (deducted from my pay).  it was intense:  the cash register was complex, people want their food NOW, the lines get deep, the mcflurry must be made just right.  i was trying hard and i was doing an ok job.  now, i've been the leader/manager for most of my life.  i've had plenty of crap jobs, but i've been the boss for the past few years.  i faithfully read my fast company magazine and my harvard business review.  i've been taught countless times the value of a leader/manager showing appreciation for people's effort.  however, my instinct has often been that showing appreciation really isn't too necessary for good people.  they just take pride in a job well done --- and, anyway, they can read my mind and see the appreciation.  well, from day 1 at mcdonald's, i was yearning for someone there to say "thanks".  even a "you're doing ok" would suffice.  but, no.  neither management experience -- nor reading about management --- teaches this lesson as well as being an under-appreciated employee.

5. most of my mcdonald's co-workers did their jobs much better than i ever could.  they just seemed quicker.  they had various talents and intuition that i don't have.   

6.  the fry basket burns skin.  

i got burned.



fry_guy7.jpg (131659 bytes)    fry_guy2.jpg (123668 bytes)


check.jpg (41341 bytes)
i got paid.


crain's called me a couple days before i started at mcdonalds.  they were doing a story on post-acquisition internet ceo's in new york.  i told them that i was starting a job at mcdonald's and didn't say much else.  i let them take my picture after i got off work one day. they put a strange spin on the piece.  most annoying were the people who thought that this was a publicity stunt.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Execution of a teenage girl

A television documentary team has pieced together details surrounding the case of a 16-year-old girl, executed two years ago in Iran.

On 15 August, 2004, Atefah Sahaaleh was hanged in a public square in the Iranian city of Neka.

Her death sentence was imposed for "crimes against chastity".

The state-run newspaper accused her of adultery and described her as 22 years old.

But she was not married - and she was just 16.

Sharia Law

In terms of the number of people executed by the state in 2004, Iran is estimated to be second only to China.

In the year of Atefah's death, at least 159 people were executed in accordance with the Islamic law of the country, based on the Sharia code.

Since the revolution, Sharia law has been Iran's highest legal authority.

Alongside murder and drug smuggling, sex outside marriage is also a capital crime.

As a signatory of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, Iran has promised not to execute anyone under the age of 18.

But the clerical courts do not answer to parliament. They abide by their religious supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, making it virtually impossible for human rights campaigners to call them to account.

Code of behaviour

At the time of Atefah's execution in Neka, journalist Asieh Amini heard rumours the girl was just 16 years old and so began to ask questions.

Crane for hanging in silhouette
To teach others a lesson, Atefah's execution was held in public

"When I met with the family," says Asieh, "they showed me a copy of her birth certificate, and a copy of her death certificate. Both of them show she was born in 1988. This gave me legitimate grounds to investigate the case."

So why was such a young girl executed? And how could she have been accused of adultery when she was not even married?

Disturbed by the death of her mother when she was only four or five years old, and her distraught father's subsequent drug addiction, Atefah had a difficult childhood.

She was also left to care for her elderly grandparents, but they are said to have shown her no affection.

In a town like Neka, heavily under the control of religious authorities, Atefah - often seen wandering around on her own - was conspicuous.

It was just a matter of time before she came to the attention of the "moral police", a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, whose job it is to enforce the Islamic code of behaviour on Iran's streets.

Secret relationship

Being stopped or arrested by the moral police is a fact of life for many Iranian teenagers.

Previously arrested for attending a party and being alone in a car with a boy, Atefah received her first sentence for "crimes against chastity" when she was just 13.

Although the exact nature of the crime is unknown, she spent a short time in prison and received 100 lashes.

Atefah was soon caught in a downward spiral of arrest and abuse

When she returned to her home town, she told those close to her that lashes were not the only things she had to endure in prison. She described abuse by the moral police guards.

Soon after her release, Atefah became involved in an abusive relationship with a man three times her age.

Former revolutionary guard, 51-year-old Ali Darabi - a married man with children - raped her several times.

She kept the relationship a secret from both her family and the authorities.

Atefah was soon caught in a downward spiral of arrest and abuse.

Local petition

Circumstances surrounding Atefah's fourth and final arrest were unusual.

The moral police said the locals had submitted a petition, describing her as a "source of immorality" and a "terrible influence on local schoolgirls".

But there were no signatures on the petition - only those of the arresting guards.

Men's word is accepted much more clearly and much more easily than women
Mohammad Hoshi,
Iranian lawyer and exile

Three days after her arrest, Atefah was in a court and tried under Sharia law.

The judge was the powerful Haji Rezai, head of the judiciary in Neka.

No court transcript is available from Atefah's trial, but it is known that for the first time, Atefah confessed to the secret of her sexual abuse by Ali Darabi.

However, the age of sexual consent for girls under Sharia law - within the confines of marriage - is nine, and furthermore, rape is very hard to prove in an Iranian court.

"Men's word is accepted much more clearly and much more easily than women," according to Iranian lawyer and exile Mohammad Hoshi.

"They can say: 'You know she encouraged me' or 'She didn't wear proper dress'."

Court of appeal

Atefah's father holding prayer beads
She was my love, my heart... I did everything for her, everything I could
Atefah's father

When Atefah realised her case was hopeless, she shouted back at the judge and threw off her veil in protest.

It was a fatal outburst.

She was sentenced to execution by hanging, while Darabi got just 95 lashes.

Shortly before the execution, but unbeknown to her family, documents that went to the Supreme Court of Appeal described Atefah as 22.

"Neither the judge nor even Atefah's court appointed lawyer did anything to find out her true age," says her father.

And a witness claims: "The judge just looked at her body, because of the developed physique... and declared her as 22."

Judge Haji Rezai took Atefah's documents to the Supreme Court himself.

And at six o'clock on the morning of her execution he put the noose around her neck, before she was hoisted on a crane to her death.

Pain and death

During the making of the documentary about Atefah's death the production team telephoned Judge Haji Rezai to ask him about the case, but he refused to comment.

The human rights organisation Amnesty International says it is concerned that executions are becoming more common again under President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, who advocates a return to the pure values of the revolution.

The judiciary have never admitted there was any mishandling of Atefah's case.

For Atefah's father the pain of her death remains raw. "She was my love, my heart... I did everything for her, everything I could," he says.

He did not get the chance to say goodbye.

10 best extensions for Firefox 2

The latest major update of Mozilla Firefox incorporates functionality from the most popular extensions for the previous version. So, what will the future bring? To use the potential features of the next version of Firefox today, install the Firefox 2 extensions that won the hearts of Download.com editors Seth Rosenblatt and Peter Butler. And if you haven't tried Firefox yet, download it here.


Why bother switching to another application to manage your music player when you've got this extension? This summer's update to version 2 added a host of Web functionality, such as searching for artists, photos, lyrics and albums on a variety of sites.

Click here to learn more and download FoxyTunes.


Tab Mix Plus

Don't like the new close button on each tab? Do you miss the multiple rows of tabs when they exceeded the width of your screen? This add-on can change those settings and almost everything else associated with tabs. Use your scroll wheel to browse through open tabs, or control tab switching via mouse gestures.

Click here to learn more and download Tab Mix Plus.


MR Tech Local Install

Not only will this extension-manager extension give you comprehensive control over all aspects of your add-ons, it can override the MaxVersionNumber of older extensions that haven't been updated for version 2. It's worth installing for the "Restart Firefox" functionality alone.

Click here to learn more and download MR Tech Local Install.


Download Statusbar

Download Statusbar takes the idea of the Download Manager, sticks it in a minimizable toolbar, and then tacks on some cool functionality. From the full mode, you can rename or delete downloaded files, or copy the source URL to the clipboard. Mini-mode changes the app to an unobtrusive progress monitor, with the full mode a click away.

Click here to learn more and download Download Statusbar.



With this option-laden weather-monitoring plug-in, you can choose between Celsius or Fahrenheit, create different location profiles and adjust when and how the extended forecast appears. There also are customizable icons, optional labels, day and night settings, and ForecastFox even differentiates between today's forecast and current conditions.

Click here to learn more and download ForecastFox.

All-in-One Sidebar

Firefox users who get accustomed to this wonderful extension rarely go back to the clunky default Firefox add-on window. From one clickable and customizable sidebar, you can access your history, bookmarks, downloads, extensions and themes, as well as an endless amount of content via other extensions.

Click here to learn more and download All-in-One Sidebar.

IE Tab

Extremely useful for those sites that require Internet Explorer and for testing purposes, this add-on loads any Web page as IE would display it, in the Firefox browser. A simple button in the Firefox status bar quickly and easily switches sites to IE and back. You also can specify some sites to always open with IE Tab.

Click here to learn more and download IE Tab.

Firefox Showcase

Despite some strong competition from Tab Catalog, this tab-thumbnail extension still gets our pick for its strong customization options and ability to show collections of tab previews in a variety of browser locations. One neat tip: clicking the scroll wheel on a thumbnail magnifies it.

Click here to learn more and download Firefox Showcase.


As a social networker, bookmarker and site reviewer rolled into one, this extension wears many hats. "Stumbling" takes one click, and interactive icons make rating sites a cinch. Combined with the topic chooser, the additional one-click features give Web surfing a useful unpredictability TV just can't match.

Click here to learn more and download StumbleUpon.

Ook? Video Ook!

This extension for downloading embedded media is preferable to similar add-ons because it lets you go bananas with video. It offers one-click downloading, and it can save videos in their native formats--Flash video, WMP or MOV. Also, it saves YouTube videos with their original file names or those of your choosing--not some nonsensical code.

Click here to learn more and download Ook? Video Ook!

Friday, November 17, 2006

The 18 Mistakes That Kill Startups

In the Q & A period after a recent talk, someone asked what made startups fail. After standing there gaping for a few seconds I realized this was kind of a trick question. It's equivalent to asking how to make a startup succeed—if you avoid every cause of failure, you succeed—and that's too big a question to answer on the fly.

Afterwards I realized it could be helpful to look at the problem from this direction. If you have a list of all the things you shouldn't do, you can turn that into a recipe for succeeding just by negating. And this form of list may be more useful in practice. It's easier to catch yourself doing something you shouldn't than always to remember to do something you should. [1]

In a sense there's just one mistake that kills startups: not making something users want. If you make something users want, you'll probably be fine, whatever else you do or don't do. And if you don't make something users want, then you're dead, whatever else you do or don't do. So really this is a list of 18 things that cause startups not to make something users want. Nearly all failure funnels through that.

1. Single Founder

Have you ever noticed how few successful startups were founded by just one person? Even companies you think of as having one founder, like Oracle, usually turn out to have more. It seems unlikely this is a coincidence.

What's wrong with having one founder? To start with, it's a vote of no confidence. It probably means the founder couldn't talk any of his friends into starting the company with him. That's pretty alarming, because his friends are the ones who know him best.

But even if the founder's friends were all wrong and the company is a good bet, he's still at a disadvantage. Starting a startup is too hard for one person. Even if you could do all the work yourself, you need colleagues to brainstorm with, to talk you out of stupid decisions, and to cheer you up when things go wrong.

The last one might be the most important. The low points in a startup are so low that few could bear them alone. When you have multiple founders, esprit de corps binds them together in a way that seems to violate conservation laws. Each thinks "I can't let my friends down." This is one of the most powerful forces in human nature, and it's missing when there's just one founder.

2. Bad Location

Startups prosper in some places and not others. Silicon Valley dominates, then Boston, then Seattle, Austin, Denver, and New York. After that there's not much. Even in New York the number of startups per capita is probably a 20th of what it is in Silicon Valley. In towns like Houston and Chicago and Detroit it's too small to measure.

Why is the falloff so sharp? Probably for the same reason it is in other industries. What's the sixth largest fashion center in the US? The sixth largest center for oil, or finance, or publishing? Whatever they are they're probably so far from the top that it would be misleading even to call them centers.

It's an interesting question why cities
become startup hubs, but the reason startups prosper in them is probably the same as it is for any industry: that's where the experts are. Standards are higher; people are more sympathetic to what you're doing; the kind of people you want to hire want to live there; supporting industries are there; the people you run into in chance meetings are in the same business. Who knows exactly how these factors combine to boost startups in Silicon Valley and squish them in Detroit, but it's clear they do from the number of startups per capita in each.

3. Marginal Niche

Most of the groups that apply to Y Combinator suffer from a common problem: choosing a small, obscure niche in the hope of avoiding competition.

If you watch little kids playing sports, you notice that below a certain age they're afraid of the ball. When the ball comes near them their instinct is to avoid it. I didn't make a lot of catches as an eight year old outfielder, because whenever a fly ball came my way, I used to close my eyes and hold my glove up more for protection than in the hope of catching it.

Choosing a marginal project is the startup equivalent of my eight year old strategy for dealing with fly balls. If you make anything good, you're going to have competitors, so you may as well face that. You can only avoid competition by avoiding good ideas.

I think this shrinking from big problems is mostly unconscious. It's not that people think of grand ideas but decide to pursue smaller ones because they seem safer. Your unconscious won't even let you think of grand ideas. So the solution may be to think about ideas without involving yourself. What would be a great idea for someone else to do as a startup?

4. Derivative Idea

Many of the applications we get are imitations of some existing company. That's one source of ideas, but not the best. If you look at the origins of successful startups, few were started in imitation of some other startup. Where did they get their ideas? Usually from some specific, unsolved problem the founders identified.

Our startup made software for making online stores. When we started it, there wasn't any; the few sites you could order from were hand-made at great expense by web consultants. We knew that if online shopping ever took off, these sites would have to be generated by software, so we wrote some. Pretty straightforward.

It seems like the best problems to solve are ones that affect you personally. Apple happened because Steve Wozniak wanted a computer, Google because Larry and Sergey couldn't find stuff online, Hotmail because Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith couldn't exchange email at work.

So instead of copying the Facebook, with some variation that the Facebook rightly ignored, look for ideas from the other direction. Instead of starting from companies and working back to the problems they solved, look for problems and imagine the company that might solve them. [2] What do people complain about? What do you wish there was?

5. Obstinacy

In some fields the way to succeed is to have a vision of what you want to achieve, and to hold true to it no matter what setbacks you encounter. Starting startups is not one of them. The stick-to-your-vision approach works for something like winning an Olympic gold medal, where the problem is well-defined. Startups are more like science, where you need to follow the trail wherever it leads.

So don't get too attached to your original plan, because it's probably wrong. Most successful startups end up doing something different than they originally intended—often so different that it doesn't even seem like the same company. You have to be prepared to see the better idea when it arrives. And the hardest part of that is often discarding your old idea.

But openness to new ideas has to be tuned just right. Switching to a new idea every week will be equally fatal. Is there some kind of external test you can use? One is to ask whether the ideas represent some kind of progression. If in each new idea you're able to re-use most of what you built for the previous ones, then you're probably in a process that converges. Whereas if you keep restarting from scratch, that's a bad sign.

Fortunately there's someone you can ask for advice: your users. If you're thinking about turning in some new direction and your users seem excited about it, it's probably a good bet.

6. Hiring Bad Programmers

I forgot to include this in the early versions of the list, because nearly all the founders I know are programmers. This is not a serious problem for them. They might accidentally hire someone bad, but it's not going to kill the company. In a pinch they can do whatever's required themselves.

But when I think about what killed most of the startups in the e-commerce business back in the 90s, it was bad programmers. A lot of those companies were started by business guys who thought the way startups worked was that you had some clever idea and then hired programmers to implement it. That's actually much harder than it sounds—almost impossibly hard in fact—because business guys can't tell which are the good programmers. They don't even get a shot at the best ones, because no one really good wants a job implementing the vision of a business guy.

In practice what happens is that the business guys choose people they think are good programmers (it says here on his resume that he's a Microsoft Certified Developer) but who aren't. Then they're mystified to find that their startup lumbers along like a World War II bomber while their competitors scream past like jet fighters. This kind of startup is in the same position as a big company, but without the advantages.

So how do you pick good programmers if you're not a programmer? I don't think there's an answer. I was about to say you'd have to find a good programmer to help you hire people. But if you can't recognize good programmers, how would you even do that?

7. Choosing the Wrong Platform

A related problem (since it tends to be done by bad programmers) is choosing the wrong platform. For example, I think a lot of startups during the Bubble killed themselves by deciding to build server-based applications on Windows. Hotmail was still running on FreeBSD for years after Microsoft bought it, presumably because Windows couldn't handle the load. If Hotmail's founders had chosen to use Windows, they would have been swamped.

PayPal only just dodged this bullet. After they merged with X.com, the new CEO wanted to switch to Windows—even after PayPal cofounder Max Levchin showed that their software scaled only 1% as well on Windows as Unix. Fortunately for PayPal they switched CEOs instead.

Platform is a vague word. It could mean an operating system, or a programming language, or a "framework" built on top of a programming language. It implies something that both supports and limits, like the foundation of a house.

The scary thing about platforms is that there are always some that seem to outsiders to be fine, responsible choices and yet, like Windows in the 90s, will destroy you if you choose them. Java applets were probably the most spectacular example. This was supposed to be the new way of delivering applications. Presumably it killed just about 100% of the startups who believed that.

How do you pick the right platforms? The usual way is to hire good programmers and let them choose. But there is a trick you could use if you're not a programmer: visit a top computer science department and see what they use in research projects.

8. Slowness in Launching

Companies of all sizes have a hard time getting software done. It's intrinsic to the medium; software is always 85% done. It takes an effort of will to push through this and get something released to users. [3]

Startups make all kinds of excuses for delaying their launch. Most are equivalent to the ones people use for procrastinating in everyday life. There's something that needs to happen first. Maybe. But if the software were 100% finished and ready to launch at the push of a button, would they still be waiting?

One reason to launch quickly is that it forces you to actually finish some quantum of work. Nothing is truly finished till it's released; you can see that from the rush of work that's always involved in releasing anything, no matter how finished you thought it was. The other reason you need to launch is that it's only by bouncing your idea off users that you fully understand it.

Several distinct problems manifest themselves as delays in launching: working too slowly; not truly understanding the problem; fear of having to deal with users; fear of being judged; working on too many different things; excessive perfectionism. Fortunately you can combat all of them by the simple expedient of forcing yourself to launch something fairly quickly.

9. Launching Too Early

Launching too slowly has probably killed a hundred times more startups than launching too fast, but it is possible to launch too fast. The danger here is that you ruin your reputation. You launch something, the early adopters try it out, and if it's no good they may never come back.

So what's the minimum you need to launch? We suggest startups think about what they plan to do, identify a core that's both (a) useful on its own and (b) something that can be incrementally expanded into the whole project, and then get that done as soon as possible.

This is the same approach I (and many other programmers) use for writing software. Think about the overall goal, then start by writing the smallest subset of it that does anything useful. If it's a subset, you'll have to write it anyway, so in the worst case you won't be wasting your time. But more likely you'll find that implementing a working subset is both good for morale and helps you see more clearly what the rest should do.

The early adopters you need to impress are fairly tolerant. They don't expect a newly launched product to do everything; it just has to do something.

10. Having No Specific User in Mind

You can't build things users like without understanding them. I mentioned earlier that the most successful startups seem to have begun by trying to solve a problem their founders had. Perhaps there's a rule here: perhaps you create wealth in proportion to how well you understand the problem you're solving, and the problems you understand best are your own. [4]

That's just a theory. What's not a theory is the converse: if you're trying to solve problems you don't understand, you're hosed.

And yet a surprising number of founders seem willing to assume that someone, they're not sure exactly who, will want what they're building. Do the founders want it? No, they're not the target market. Who is? Teenagers. People interested in local events (that one is a perennial tarpit). Or "business" users. What business users? Gas stations? Movie studios? Defense contractors?

You can of course build something for users other than yourself. We did. But you should realize you're stepping into dangerous territory. You're flying on instruments, in effect, so you should (a) consciously shift gears, instead of assuming you can rely on your intuitions as you ordinarily would, and (b) look at the instruments.

In this case the instruments are the users. When designing for other people you have to be empirical. You can no longer guess what will work; you have to find users and measure their responses. So if you're going to make something for teenagers or "business" users or some other group that doesn't include you, you have to be able to talk some specific ones into using what you're making. If you can't, you're on the wrong track.

11. Raising Too Little Money

Most successful startups take funding at some point. Like having more than one founder, it seems a good bet statistically. How much should you take, though?

Startup funding is measured in time. Every startup that isn't profitable (meaning nearly all of them, initially) has a certain amount of time left before the money runs out and they have to stop. This is sometimes referred to as runway, as in "How much runway do you have left?" It's a good metaphor because it reminds you that when the money runs out you're going to be airborne or dead.

Too little money means not enough to get airborne. What airborne means depends on the situation. Usually you have to advance to a visibly higher level: if all you have is an idea, a working prototype; if you have a prototype, launching; if you're launched, significant growth. It depends on investors, because until you're profitable that's who you have to convince.

So if you take money from investors, you have to take enough to get to the next step, whatever that is. [5] Fortunately you have some control over both how much you spend and what the next step is. We advise startups to set both low, initially: spend practically nothing, and make your initial goal simply to build a solid prototype. This gives you maximum flexibility.

12. Spending Too Much

It's hard to distinguish spending too much from raising too little. If you run out of money, you could say either was the cause. The only way to decide which to call it is by comparison with other startups. If you raised five million and ran out of money, you probably spent too much.

Burning through too much money is not as common as it used to be. Founders seem to have learned that lesson. Plus it keeps getting cheaper to start a startup. So as of this writing few startups spend too much. None of the ones we've funded have. (And not just because we make small investments; many have gone on to raise further rounds.)

The classic way to burn through cash is by hiring a lot of people. This bites you twice: in addition to increasing your costs, it slows you down—so money that's getting consumed faster has to last longer. Most hackers understand why that happens; Fred Brooks explained it in The Mythical Man-Month.

We have three general suggestions about hiring: (a) don't do it if you can avoid it, (b) pay people with equity rather than salary, not just to save money, but because you want the kind of people who are committed enough to prefer that, and (c) only hire people who are either going to write code or go out and get users, because those are the only things you need at first.

13. Raising Too Much Money

It's obvious how too little money could kill you, but is there such a thing as having too much?

Yes and no. The problem is not so much the money itself as what comes with it. As one VC who spoke at Y Combinator said, "Once you take several million dollars of my money, the clock is ticking." If VCs fund you, they're not going to let you just put the money in the bank and keep operating as two guys living on ramen. They want that money to go to work. [6] At the very least you'll move into proper office space and hire more people. That will change the atmosphere, and not entirely for the better. Now most of your people will be employees rather than founders. They won't be as committed; they'll need to be told what to do; they'll start to engage in office politics.

When you raise a lot of money, your company moves to the suburbs and has kids.

Perhaps more dangerously, once you take a lot of money it gets harder to change direction. Suppose your initial plan was to sell something to companies. After taking VC money you hire a sales force to do that. What happens now if you realize you should be making this for consumers instead of businesses? That's a completely different kind of selling. What happens, in practice, is that you don't realize that. The more people you have, the more you stay pointed in the same direction.

Another drawback of large investments is the time they take. The time required to raise money grows with the amount. [7] When the amount rises into the millions, investors get very cautious. VCs never quite say yes or no; they just engage you in an apparently endless conversation. Raising VC scale investments is thus a huge time sink—more work, probably, than the startup itself. And you don't want to be spending all your time talking to investors while your competitors are spending theirs building things.

We advise founders who go on to seek VC money to take the first reasonable deal they get. If you get an offer from a reputable firm at a reasonable valuation with no unusually onerous terms, just take it and get on with building the company. [8] Who cares if you could get a 30% better deal elsewhere? Economically, startups are an all-or-nothing game. Bargain-hunting among investors is a waste of time.

14. Poor Investor Management

As a founder, you have to manage your investors. You shouldn't ignore them, because they may have useful insights. But neither should you let them run the company. That's supposed to be your job. If investors had sufficient vision to run the companies they fund, why didn't they start them?

Pissing off investors by ignoring them is probably less dangerous than caving in to them. In our startup, we erred on the ignoring side. A lot of our energy got drained away in disputes with investors instead of going into the product. But this was less costly than giving in, which would probably have destroyed the company. If the founders know what they're doing, it's better to have half their attention focused on the product than the full attention of investors who don't.

How hard you have to work on managing investors usually depends on how much money you've taken. When you raise VC-scale money, the investors get a great deal of control. If they have a board majority, they're literally your bosses. In the more common case, where founders and investors are equally represented and the deciding vote is cast by neutral outside directors, all the investors have to do is convince the outside directors and they control the company.

If things go well, this shouldn't matter. So long as you seem to be advancing rapidly, most investors will leave you alone. But things don't always go smoothly in startups. Investors have made trouble even for the most successful companies. One of the most famous examples is Apple, whose board made a nearly fatal blunder in firing Steve Jobs. Apparently even Google got a lot of grief from their investors early on.

15. Sacrificing Users to (Supposed) Profit

When I said at the beginning that if you make something users want, you'll be fine, you may have noticed I didn't mention anything about having the right business model. That's not because making money is unimportant. I'm not suggesting that founders start companies with no chance of making money in the hope of unloading them before they tank. The reason we tell founders not to worry about the business model initially is that making something people want is so much harder.

I don't know why it's so hard to make something people want. It seems like it should be straightforward. But you can tell it must be hard by how few startups do it.

Because making something people want is so much harder than making money from it, you should leave business models for later, just as you'd leave some trivial but messy feature for version 2. In version 1, solve the core problem. And the core problem in a startup is how to
create wealth (= how much people want something x the number who want it), not how to convert that wealth into money.

The companies that win are the ones that put users first. Google, for example. They made search work, then worried about how to make money from it. And yet some startup founders still think it's irresponsible not to focus on the business model from the beginning. They're often encouraged in this by investors whose experience comes from less malleable industries.

It is irresponsible not to think about business models. It's just ten times more irresponsible not to think about the product.

16. Not Wanting to Get Your Hands Dirty

Nearly all programmers would rather spend their time writing code and have someone else handle the messy business of extracting money from it. And not just the lazy ones. Larry and Sergey apparently felt this way too at first. After developing their new search algorithm, the first thing they tried was to get some other company to buy it.

Start a company? Yech. Most hackers would rather just have ideas. But as Larry and Sergey found, there's not much of a market for ideas. No one trusts an idea till you embody it in a product and use that to grow a user base. Then they'll pay big time.

Maybe this will change, but I doubt it will change much. There's nothing like users for convincing acquirers. It's not just that the risk is decreased. The acquirers are human, and they have a hard time paying a bunch of young guys millions of dollars just for being clever. When the idea is embodied in a company with a lot of users, they can tell themselves they're buying the users rather than the cleverness, and this is easier for them to swallow. [9]

If you're going to attract users, you'll probably have to get up from your computer and go find some. It's unpleasant work, but if you can make yourself do it you have a much greater chance of succeeding. In the first batch of startups we funded, in the summer of 2005, most of the founders spent all their time building their applications. But there was one who was away half the time talking to executives at cell phone companies, trying to arrange deals. Can you imagine anything more painful for a hacker? [10] But it paid off, because this startup seems the most successful of that group by an order of magnitude.

If you want to start a startup, you have to face the fact that you can't just hack. At least one hacker will have to spend some of the time doing business stuff.

17. Fights Between Founders

Fights between founders are surprisingly common. About 20% of the startups we've funded have had a founder leave. It happens so often that we've reversed our attitude to vesting. We still don't require it, but now we advise founders to vest so there will be an orderly way for people to quit.

A founder leaving doesn't necessarily kill a startup, though. Plenty of successful startups have had that happen. [11] Fortunately it's usually the least committed founder who leaves. If there are three founders and one who was lukewarm leaves, big deal. If you have two and one leaves, or a guy with critical technical skills leaves, that's more of a problem. But even that is survivable. Blogger got down to one person, and they bounced back.

Most of the disputes I've seen between founders could have been avoided if they'd been more careful about who they started a company with. Most disputes are not due to the situation but the people. Which means they're inevitable. And most founders who've been burned by such disputes probably had misgivings, which they suppressed, when they started the company. Don't suppress misgivings. It's much easier to fix problems before the company is started than after. So don't include your housemate in your startup because he'd feel left out otherwise. Don't start a company with someone you dislike because they have some skill you need and you worry you won't find anyone else. The people are the most important ingredient in a startup, so don't compromise there.

18. A Half-Hearted Effort

The failed startups you hear most about are the spectactular flameouts. Those are actually the elite of failures. The most common type is not the one that makes spectacular mistakes, but the one that doesn't do much of anything—the one we never even hear about, because it was some project a couple guys started on the side while working on their day jobs, but which never got anywhere and was gradually abandoned.

Statistically, if you want to avoid failure, it would seem like the most important thing is to quit your day job. Most founders of failed startups don't quit their day jobs, and most founders of successful ones do. If startup failure were a disease, the CDC would be issuing bulletins warning people to avoid day jobs.

Does that mean you should quit your day job? Not necessarily. I'm guessing here, but I'd guess that many of these would-be founders may not have the kind of determination it takes to start a company, and that in the back of their minds, they know it. The reason they don't invest more time in their startup is that they know it's a bad investment. [12]

I'd also guess there's some band of people who could have succeeded if they'd taken the leap and done it full-time, but didn't. I have no idea how wide this band is, but if the winner/borderline/hopeless progression has the sort of distribution you'd expect, the number of people who could have made it, if they'd quit their day job, is probably an order of magnitude larger than the number who do make it. [13]

If that's true, most startups that could succeed fail because the founders don't devote their whole efforts to them. That certainly accords with what I see out in the world. Most startups fail because they don't make something people want, and the reason most don't is that they don't try hard enough.

In other words, starting startups is just like everything else. The biggest mistake you can make is not to try hard enough. To the extent there's a secret to success, it's not to be in denial about that.


1] This is not a complete list of the causes of failure, just those you can control. There are also several you can't, notably ineptitude and bad luck.

2] Ironically, one variant of the Facebook that might work is a facebook exclusively for college students.

3] Steve Jobs tried to motivate people by saying "Real artists ship." This is a fine sentence, but unfortunately not true. Many famous works of art are unfinished. It's true in fields that have hard deadlines, like architecture and filmmaking, but even there people tend to be tweaking stuff till it's yanked out of their hands.

4] There's probably also a second factor: startup founders tend to be at the leading edge of technology, so problems they face are probably especially valuable.

5] You should take more than you think you'll need, maybe 50% to 100% more, because software takes longer to write and deals longer to close than you expect.

6] Since people sometimes call us VCs, I should add that we're not. VCs invest large amounts of other people's money. We invest small amounts of our own, like angel investors.

7] Not linearly of course, or it would take forever to raise five million dollars. In practice it just feels like it takes forever.

Though if you include the cases where VCs don't invest, it would literally take forever in the median case. And maybe we should, because the danger of chasing large investments is not just that they take a long time. That's the best case. The real danger is that you'll expend a lot of time and get nothing.

8] Some VCs will offer you an artificially low valuation to see if you have the balls to ask for more. It's lame that VCs play such games, but some do. If you're dealing with one of those you should push back on the valuation a bit.

9] Suppose YouTube's founders had gone to Google in 2005 and told them "Google Video is badly designed. Give us $10 million and we'll tell you all the mistakes you made." They would have gotten the royal raspberry. Eighteen months later Google paid $1.6 billion for the same lesson, partly because they could then tell themselves that they were buying a phenomenon, or a community, or some vague thing like that.

I don't mean to be hard on Google. They did better than their competitors, who may have now missed the video boat entirely.

10] Yes, actually: dealing with the government. But phone companies are up there.

11] Many more than most people realize, because companies don't advertise this. Did you know Apple originally had three founders?

12] I'm not dissing these people. I don't have the determination myself. I've twice come close to starting startups since Viaweb, and both times I bailed because I realized that without the spur of poverty I just wasn't willing to endure the stress of a startup.

13] So how do you know whether you're in the category of people who should quit their day job, or the presumably larger one who shouldn't? I got to the point of saying that this was hard to judge for yourself and that you should seek outside advice, before realizing that that's what we do. We think of ourselves as investors, but viewed from the other direction Y Combinator is a service for advising people whether or not to quit their day job. We could be mistaken, and no doubt often are, but we do at least bet money on our conclusions.

Thanks to Sam Altman, Jessica Livingston, Greg McAdoo, and Robert Morris for reading drafts of this.

How to Choose a Health Insurance Plan

These days, landing in the hospital for even a few days can decimate
your savings account. That's why it's extremely important to consider
the cost, the benefits, and the extent to which your family's health
needs are met when choosing insurance. Research the various plans
that are available, and determine how specifically tailored they are to
your family's health needs and financial abilities, to decide on a plan
that is best suited to your lifestyle.


  • STEP 1: Sign on with the health insurance provided by your employer: It is likely to be the cheapest option you can find. Your employer's carrier may have more than one option for you to choose from (HMO, preferred). If you're self-employed or if your company doesn't offer insurance, you'll have to search for your own insurance.
  • STEP 2: Assess your needs, taking into account your current use of health care and your medical expenses for the near future, and decide what services are most important to you and your family. Ask about dependents' coverage. Factor in how much you can afford to spend on monthly premiums and co-payments. If you're single and healthy, your health plan needs will be very different from those of a family with three young children.
  • STEP 3: Compare benefits and coverage of key items like monthly premiums, deductibles, co-payments, co-insurance rates, costs for seeing out-of-network providers, preventive care, physical exams, immunizations and the like. Other services that are of interest to your family could include fertility services, mental health coverage, nursing care and long-term care.
  • STEP 4: Ask lots of questions: Are your current providers part of this plan? Do you need referrals for specialist visits? How easy is it to change doctors? What hospitals and facilities can you use as part of the plan? What are the procedures for having emergency room treatment approved?
  • STEP 5: Find out if benefits are limited for preexisting conditions, or if you have to wait for a period of time before you're fully covered. Some plans may completely exclude coverage of preexisting conditions.
  • STEP 6: Research whether there is a fair appeals process available if the company denies treatment, and if these appeals are reviewed by an external, independent agency. Is there a high turnover rate among doctors in the plan? Check if the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA.org) accredits the plan; the Pacific Business Group on Health (HealthScope.org) also offers information on health plans.
  • STEP 7: Pick a plan that best matches your needs and priorities based on thorough research. Read all materials and call the health plan representative or conduct Internet research to get any information you are missing. Discuss pre-existing conditions and flexspending plans before making a decision.
  • STEP 8: Investigate long-term care insurance. The rising cost of health care and elderly care can demolish your savings if you are incapacitated for long. The best time to buy it is when you hit your 40s.

Overall Tips & Warnings

  • If you're switching plans through your employer, ask when the next open enrollment period will occur. Give yourself at least two months in which to conduct and complete your research of health care options.
  • If your employer doesn't provide health insurance, investigate professional associations that offer members the opportunity to join a health plan.
  • Take into consideration any upcoming medical expenses, such as surgery, dental work or a new baby.
  • Take convenience into consideration: Will you have to file claim forms? How close are doctors, hospitals and pharmacies to your home? How often are you permitted to change doctors? Ask if a telephone nurse advice line is offered, particularly if you have young children who tend to get sick at odd hours.
  • Find out if the plan you're reviewing surveys its members to determine how satisfied they are with the services provided. If it does, ask for the information. See how member satisfaction rates. You should also take note of whether the plan offers a toll-free number for assistance. Test it out before you join.
  • Ask your primary care physician how easy it is to get referrals for specialists on certain plans. He or she can also tell you how easy it is to find a specialist, which hospitals and types of preventive care the plan covers, and what the claims and utilization review process is like.