We flew from San Francisco to Austin on Saturday, March 9. Collections was one of eight finalists of SXSW Accelerator 2013 in the ‘Innovative Web Technologies’ category. Below are a few quotes I remember from the event:
- 'A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds'. -Ralph Waldo Emerson
- 'Disruption is a side-effect of successful entrepreneurship, it is not the end goal' -Phil Libin
- 'Refuse to play zero-sum game' -Phil Libin
- 'When you strive for consistency, you usually achieve it through mediocrity' -Phil Libin
- 'There is no exit strategy for your life's work' -Phil Libin
- 'We like investing in companies that are losing money. They have lots of ideas' -Peter Thiel
- 'Companies with a plan do not sell' -Peter Thiel
And some photos:
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Collections at the moment is a fairly general product. Not to fall in the trap of ‘doing 1,001 things and none of them well’, our current roadmap is to go usecase by usecase and majorly deepen the experience. Big portion of the last week was devoted to improve the experience of collecting links. For every link you collect we generate an image which represents it. Sometimes it’s a screenshot, sometimes (in the case of links from, say, Instagram or Youtube) it’s an embedded picture from the page.
Having spent a couple of days writing our home-grown (and grass-fed) screenshot generator server with a dozen of optimizations, what we had was still not fully reliable service. Taming the entire internet is not easy. Some links would just crash the PhantomJS renderer leading to the entire server being unresponsive. Then we asked ourselves - is our mission in making webpage screenshots? If no, why bother when we have a dozen of more important tasks as the part of our roadmap? If you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should be doing it. I’m sure if we spent an entire week (or a month as optimistic developers are bad at estimating how long things take), we would get something fairly stable. It’s OK (and efficient) not to be heroic, give up and let someone else who already solved this problem handle it for you.
Below in alphabetic order - the list of (some) services we happily use at Collections:
- Amazon Web Services - We are using S3 to store files uploaded by users, URL screenshots, user avatars, design assets, public Collections binaries, etc.
- Asana - After attending Justin Rosenstein’s talk at YC, we decided to stop the search for a single project management solution and track all the tasks, feature requests and bugs in Asana (before that we were dabbling with Wrike, Pivotal Tracker, Basecamp, Trello, and Kickoff).
- Bonsai - These guys provide us a hosted ElasticSearch index for fast full-text search.
- Dropbox - Sharing files when the folder hierarchy is important (syncing internal Collections binaries or design assets).
- Embedly - We use Embedly to generate image previews for URLs coming from 261 providers they’re heavily optimized for,
- Evernote - To write down ideas and blog posts like this one ;)
- Github - That’s how us and millions of developers on the planet host their private code repositories.
- Heroku - No surprise here, that’s how we quickly deploy our core REST API server as well as a few mini-servers we have (e.g. file downloading proxy, thumbnail generator, etc.).
- inDinero - Thanks to Jessica Mah and the team for an awesome accounting service they built!
- MailChimp - They helped us build the mailing list when we used to be in invite-only mode. Now we use MailChimp to communicate with our users via email.
- MailGun - that’s how we send email notifications to our users.
- MongoHQ - MongoDB is how we store things, and MongoHQ is a cloud-based service for it
- olark - That’s how we chat with our users on the website and within the app.
- Pusher - Some of our real-time functionality (like instantly updating the shared collections across all users) is courtesy of Pusher.
- Redis to Go - Redis is extremely fast key-value store and Redis to Go is a hosting for it.
- Segment.io - One-stop analytics API which sends our analytics data to KISSmetrics, Customer.io, Google Analytics, Keen IO and mixpanel.
- URL2PNG - the aforementioned screenshots as a service.
- uservoice - That’s how we collect user feedback on our website.
- zendesk - That’s how we streamline user support from emails, Facebook, and Twitter.
- zenpayroll - We pay ourselves using yet another Zen solution.
A few developer-oriented services we’re considering:
- CircleCI - Hosted Continuous Integration. They run your tests whenever you push code to GitHub.
- context.io - We dealt a lot with archaic IMAP protocol when working on email attachments from GMail. For future maintenance, it might be a good idea to outsource dealing with IMAP to the experts.
- DiffBot - Their awesome Article API takes any URL as an input, and produce a clean article text as an output. We’re thinking of using DiffBot to enhance the experience of collecting links.
- Parse - This might be a stretch at the moment when we invested so much in our backend server. Regardless, we see the appeal of a backend server as a service.
- Firebase - Entirely new way of looking at the database system. All the data is stored as a single JSON-like document. Real-time persistence.
It’s easy to forget that time is the most precious resource. If you’re a startup, focus on what you’re best at. And let others do all the heavy lifting outside of your core competency. That’s the true specialization, that’s the true division of labor Plato talked about back in 4th century BC. There’s a trend among startups to refactor every possible developer’s need and provide ‘the pickaxes during a Gold Rush’. If all the company does is generates screenshots and charges money for it, you bet they know much more about this than you do. Save time, pay for a pickaxe and continue the journey.
Collections - The File Manager Reinvented.
P/S: Thanks to my friend and colleague Tony Xiao for discussions leading to this post!
I believe in rituals. I stretch, memorize new Japanese words or do pushups at around the same time every day. This way I don’t have to spend precious mental cycles deciding what has to be done now. You apply this energy for more creative endeavors.
I happen to do my online reading (which is separate from one hour I spend reading books on Kindle) at around 10pm after work. Collecting links is essential part of this experience. When on iPad, I use Flipboard or Hacker News app and share the most interesting reads on Twitter. It appears to be the easiest way to save the articles I read when I’m on iPad. However, if you want to organize your links, still nothing can beat the desktop.
Here’s a simple streamlined routine I use when reading online on my Mac:
- Reading new articles / watching talks and interviews from my subscriptions on Google Reader (the usual suspects are blogs like ‘Study Hacks’, ‘Thought Catalog’, ‘Both Sides of the Table’, ‘Altucher Confidential’, ‘Signal vs Noise’, ‘The Blog of Tim Ferriss: Experiments in Lifestyle Design’ and many others) as well as links whose titles caught my attention on the front page of Hacker News. 
- Collecting. After each article read or a talk watched, I save those which are worth collecting by pressing Cmd + Shift + C in Chrome. They immediately appear in my Collections Inbox.
- Organizing. Once the best links of the day are in my inbox, I drag and drop them in appropriate collections. Articles on productivity or career advice go to ‘Learn thyself’ collection, reads on behavioral economics or mental performance go to ‘Learn to learn’, blog posts on random things like faster reading or memorizing a deck of cards go to ‘Learn anything’. Papers and technical posts on new web frameworks or libraries are the perfect candidates for the ‘Learn to code’ collection (intentional “beginner’s mind” title). ‘Learn to start’ is my collection on the lasting pieces and insightful videos on startups and entrepreneurship.
Now your turn! Share in comments what tools you use to collect interesting links from the web. What in those tools do you find useful and what you wish was done differently?
 Due to ‘second spring of cleaning’, Google Reader unfortunately will not be the part of this process. Constraints enforce creativity (and procrastination), so I will most likely find a replacement on the last day of June ;)
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It’s finally time to share the new version of Collections we have been working on in the past couple of months.
This is the very first 1.0 version. We’ve added some really major features, so there are bound to be bugs that we are eager to squash with your help. More importantly, please tell us a story of how Collections is useful and how it is not.
Here’s a taste of what you can do with Collections
- Browse content from your online services. Including Google Docs, Instagram, Facebook, Youtube and Twitter
- Collect files from Finder, links from Chrome and Safari, and content from all your online services with drag and drop or keyboard shortcut
- Organize your content into collections, which are super-charged folders that can contain Google docs, tweets, Youtube Videos, web links, in addition to good old files
- Share your collections with anyone with an email address (and Mac user :P )
- You can collect things from your browser, Finder, etc. either by drag-and-drop or with hotkey Cmd + Shift + C
Let the collecting begin!
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Tony, Arman & Slava
"Apply what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own."
– Bruce Lee
Monday, June 11, 2012 – Princeton, NJ
School is over and so is an 18-year academic marathon that started on September 1, 1994 when I entered first grade. It’s time to start a new chapter that opens with building Dewey. According to the idea of time arbitrage, it’s better to spend mornings on creative tasks that require concentration and intensity and evenings on physical training or urgent tasks with low yield (email, paperwork, etc.). Defying this bit of rationality, I start the day with a refreshing morning jog around campus. This is followed by Dillon Gym for a quick 30-minute routine that includes martial arts, “6-minute abs,” splits, and pull-ups. This is how I began every day that hot summer in New Jersey. What did three friends do during the day? After breakfast blends into lunch, we would get to work on Dewey. Our office was a moving target. One day we’d work in the ribosome-shaped “cave” in the Genetics building; on other days we would visit the chemists in Frick, the mathematicians in Fine Hall, the normally empty Lewis Library, or sometimes Infini-T Café, known for its tea selection and eclectic atmosphere.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012 – Mountain View, CA
A sunny day is conducive to self-reflection and looking over the last 6 months. We stopped working on Dewey in the second half of August, just weeks after its private-beta launch, not persisting and giving it the time and effort required to make it what we envisioned. Minqi joined Google, Peter – Venmo. I, on the other hand, joined a couple of friends – Tony & Jordan – who had just went through Y Combinator over the summer. We’re working on an app called Collections. We asked ourselves, “What would Mac Finder and Windows Explorer look like if Apple and Microsoft had created them today, rather than the 1980s?” Today – when our files are no longer confined to folders on a local disk, but scattered across countless services: photos on Facebook and Instagram, all sorts of files on Dropbox and Google Drive/Docs, notes on Evernote, interesting links on Twitter, liked videos on Youtube… and the list goes on.
What lessons can I take away from the last 6 months? What worked and what didn’t?
- It’s extremely hard to build a social network as a social network from the get-go. Most services don’t end up solving the infamous chicken-and-egg problem: it takes users to create interesting content, and it takes interesting content to attract users. One of the approaches founders take is to start with content and populate the site with what they perceive to be interesting and publishable. It worked (in some form) for Quora and Reddit , but we don’t hear about the thousands of startups where this method led to silent failure. It’s much more effective, to my mind, to build a service that can be useful in “single-player” mode such that you can derive value from it without depending on your friends/acquaintances/experts using it. What’s a good example? Truism alert: Instagram! Having registered back in the fall of 2010, for more than a year I was using the app merely to “post beautiful pictures fast” to Twitter and Facebook. The fact that not even one of my friends was using it at the time wasn’t an obstacle. If you wake up one day with a million “loners,” like me, voila – it’s time to build a network.
- Intense 9-to-7 work results in higher productivity than the endless grind that many Silicon Valley startups like to brag about. We start the day at 9:00am sharp with a quick 10-minute stand-up meeting where each of us briefly discusses what he plans to accomplish by 7. Every task is then attached as a post-it note on the glass door of our conference room under the “To-Do” column . So as not to distract focused colleagues, most questions are resolved asynchronously using Campfire. At 7:00pm we finish the day with another quick stand-up meeting to recap what was accomplished. What follows is leisure time: some of us go to the gym, others prepare dinner or meet friends on Castro or in SF. Even under the pressure of deadlines, it’s important not to forget that very few things lead to better productivity than 7-8 hours of good sleep.
- Startup meetups, talks, and conferences are distractions that do not directly improve your product. However, if it’s a day off (Saturdays) or time after work then it’s important not to lose your connection with the outside world. You should therefore actively participate in everything you enjoy that takes you away from the narrow confines of the day-to-day.
- The most successful product-related decisions we’ve made grew out of a “zen mind, beginner’s mind” mentality. Decisions that resulted from long intellectual debates, complicated forward-looking arguments, or ornate over-intellectualizations rarely led to anything useful.
- The ability to produce “hard to build, easy to use” services is inversely proportional to the number of articles read on startups and productivity. The number of times I visited Hacker News and the like in the last 3 months can be counted on one hand .
- When working on the same problem for a long period of time, we need productive distractions: and when we’re in the middle of it, we’re blind to the bigger picture. To fight hyperopia, step away from the trees and take in the forest. A quick caveat: excessive distractions -> productivity deficit. How many of 8 hours are spent on actual work? 6 sessions one hour each produce more than 18 twenty-minute sessions spread over 8 hours of low-intensity work.
- Be happy, but not content. Whatever hardships you encounter, find time every day to feel gratitude and joy for where you are now. This need not inhibit inspiring dissatisfaction and one’s energy to continue the journey.
- Quite often, clearly figuring out what has to be done takes more time than actually doing it.
- You don’t get distracted when you’re enjoying the process. You enjoy the process when you’re sufficiently good at it. The sad conclusion is that there will be a distraction barrier when you’re just beginning to acquire a new skill that challenges your status-quo and pushes you into new terrain.
- In the beginning, thinking that you don’t need money and are only driven by the mission is presumptuous (I was a victim of this mentality). You can’t afford those statements until you’ve reached financial independence. We’re all watching Steve Jobs, Reid Hoffman, and Mark Zuckerberg talk about intrinsic passion and product drive as their main motivations. They’re truthful to the present, but not necessarily to the past.
- The best answer to “What do you think about competition?” is the following demonstration: start juggling two balls with one hand thinking about the opponent doing the same thing in one case, and in the other case be in a state of “no-mind” or at least complete focus on the balls. In which case do you drop a ball sooner?
- Ironically, when we work so hard and with such passion on perfecting our craft and producing output worth sharing, we often don’t find the time to share it.
Which of these lessons resonated with you?
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Engineering at Collections – Finder for the Cloud
Thanks to my friend and colleague Jordan Lee for editing the first draft of this post!
 Reddit famously created an enormous amount of content with 10,000 fake accounts to give the appearance of popularity. Quora used a hybrid model: on one hand, founders invited their high-profile Silicon Valley friends. On the other, they themselves initially populated the site by giving high-quality answers to each other’s questions (after researching the topic on Wikipedia for 2-3 hours).
 We have the simplest of kanban boards, one with only three columns: “To Do,” “In Progress,” and “Done.” Some planning is good, but at the end of the day it’s important to remember that all of these tools are meta: they don’t directly improve your product.
 You can criticize this for its complete dismissal of the basic “correlation vs. causation” argument, but you’ve got the idea.
The folks over at PandoDaily were kind enough to write an article about our private beta launch, which generated thousands of invite requests over the weekend. A few highlights from the piece:
The idea is based on the notion: How would the Apple Finder be different if it were invented today? The Y-Combinator backed company built a native Mac app that lets users manage all of their media content like Facebook and Instagram photos, Tweets and videos, alongside other cloud-based things like Google Docs. Integrating your Gmail account allows you to sift through thumbnails of email attachments.
The product also allows a user to toggle between Dropbox and Google Drive content and the more traditional Finder material like Word docs and other native apps. “For all the talk about moving to the cloud, the reality of it is we still have a lot of things on our computers,” says Jordan Lee, one of the company’s cofounders. “We don’t think that’s going away anytime soon.”
Check out the full story here.
The file manager remains the bedrock application of the personal computer. Every day over a billion people use Windows Explorer or Apple’s Finder to manage their digital content. And yet the file manager is an anachronism. In an age defined by cloud, mobile, and tablet computing, the file manager is a clunky remnant of simpler times, a quaint reminder that all of our most important digital content used to dwell contentedly in the local filesystem on our personal computers.
Today, the files, photos, documents, and videos we care about are strewn across the consumer Internet. To sync our files we use Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, and SkyDrive. For photo storage and sharing we turn to Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and iCloud. For more productive pursuits, we increasingly rely on Evernote, Google Docs, and, assuming Microsoft’s plans come to fruition, the Office Web Apps. YouTube and Vimeo host our videos.
Amidst all of this diversity, the file manager, the wizened veteran of the personal computing revolution, gazes slackjawed from the sidelines, unable to comprehend – let alone to “manage” – this bafflingly complex universe of digital content. Whenever it has sought to get back in the game – iCloud and SkyDrive being the prime examples – it has kept its ambitions strictly in check, reluctant to venture beyond the universe of possibility already thoroughly explored by the file-sync leaders. And for their part, these leaders have done an extraordinary job making files accessible on the go from an increasing number of devices, but they’ve inadvertently contributed to the service creep that leaves many of us scratching our heads every time we want to find or share a given file we know is stored somewhere.
At Collections, we still believe in the file manager’s original mandate. We still believe that a computer user should have a robust native application that provides easy access to all of their most important digital content and makes managing this content efficient, intuitive, and enjoyable. We still believe that people like to feel in control of their digital possessions. To this end, early in the summer before we entered Y Combinator, we asked ourselves a very simple question: What would the Finder look like if it were invented in 2012, rather than in 1983?
After months of concerted focus, we believe we’ve found the answer. Collections is a native Mac app that centralizes access to your digital content (and restores to you, the end user, control over that content). With the speed and reliability that only native technology can deliver, it provides a one-stop solution for browsing and sharing all of the photos you have on Instagram and Facebook, the files you store in services like Google Drive and Dropbox, the videos you’ve uploaded to or liked on YouTube, and even the thousands of email attachments you have buried deep in the recesses of one or more Gmail accounts.
With Collections, all of your heretofore scattered digital content is instantly within reach and ready to be organized, backed up, and shared. Why? Because technology at its best should reduce complexity and fade into the background, not commandeer your every waking hour.
If you’d like to learn more about Collections or participate in our private beta, sign up here.
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Jordan Lee (@jordanglee)