roughly edged ideas about building stuff

3 Paths to Essence

Posted by suneelgupta on November 4, 2012

“I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” – Pascal, Provincial Letters: Letter XVI

 I’ve had the good fortune to work with different kinds of Creators, including writing speeches at the White House under the direction of Michael McCurry, directing documentaries under the guidance of Hoop Dreams Director Steve James, and building products under the tutelage of John Lilly. What made these people excellent wasn’t just their ability to create, but their ability to reduce. They weren’t afraid to cut lines, chop clips, or axe features if it trimmed the final product down to its Essence. Achieving Essence is more of a discipline than an art, and here are three things that I’ve learned from the best:

1. Create, then Edit — but not both at once. Most of us edit while we write. Our cycle looks something like this: write 1-3 sentences, evaluate/adjust, and then write another 1-3 sentences. This means we’re constantly context-shifting between Creator and Editor, which prevents either role from being truly excellent.

Near the end of the Kerry presidential campaign, when we were in full-court press, I was often asked to produce end-to-end speeches in under 30 minutes. Initially, I would go through the painful cycle of write-edit-write, but by the end of the 30 minutes, I was totally flustered, with a lack-luster product in hand. After seeking advice from advisors to the campaign, including my personal hero and Kennedy-speechwriter Ted Sorensen, I changed my approach. I spent the first 10-15 minutes just writing anything and everything that came to mind within the scope of the topic (e.g., healthcare). If I wanted to tweak something, then I’d literally write the sentence again — no Delete button allowed. After allowing myself an undisturbed chunk of time to Create, I’d spent the next 15-20 minutes cleaning up the cruft and polishing it into something reasonable. Sound inefficient? Well, the results were astounding. I was able to write higher-quality speeches in less time, with a much more confident state of mind. By the very end of the campaign, I actually welcomed time-pressured work, because I had a system: create, then edit — but not both at once.

2. Build half, not half-ass. I’m a supporter and fan of Eric Ries and his Lean Startup movement, but startup teams often miss the nuance between cutting scope and cutting quality. I’ve been guilty of this. After joining Groupon, I set out to build a loyalty product for the business. There were lots of features that could be potentially be in scope — currency, levels, leader boards, etc. — and I made the mistake of trying to do it all at once, instead of carefully focusing on the small set of stuff that was truly essential to solving the problem. The result was an overwhelming welcome experience, and in the digital world, much like the physical world, you only get one chance at a first impression.

Adding non-essential features to a product is like adding irrelevant scenes to a film. My friend Oren Jacob, now CEO of the ground-breaking startup ToyTalk, tells me about the agonizing process him and his team at Pixar would go through to find the right ending point of a film like Toy Story. It’s tempting to add an extra special effect or a punchy scene, but doing so can completely ruin the rhythm of the entire film. To achieve Essence, you want to challenge every new addition with a filtering question: is it truly core? If not, it can probably wait or be axed altogether. Jason Fried says it well: “build half a product, not a half-ass product.”

3. Discipline your schedule. You can’t achieve Essence without focusing your own time on what’s essential. In a productivity-obsessed world, it’s easy to create and execute on massively large task lists. But it takes discipline to filter your list to what’s really important, even if that means having fewer opportunities to check things off. After having my first child a few months ago, I’ve been trying to get more disciplined about breathing and visualizing in the mornings. It helps me be a better father, but also helps me to look at the day ahead in retrospect and think about what’s really core — really essential. When I compare those thoughts to my actual to-do list, I nearly always find items that are non-essential and have very little to do with what’s important. That stuff gets de-prioritized or removed altogether.

I’ve observed different kinds of excellence throughout my career, and believe that the common thread amongst the best Creators is their ability to cut to the Essence. Luckily for the rest of us, finding the Essence is a discipline that can be learned.


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matt puchlerz (1984 – 2010)

Posted by suneelgupta on September 16, 2010

It’s easy to find people who are humble, and even easier to find people who are humbling. It’s rare to find someone who’s both.

Matt Puchlerz was a teammate and a friend. Shortly after I joined Groupon, we teamed up together to build a new product, along with Keith Norman, Anthony Caliendo, Steven Walker, Sean Iams, Evan Farrar and Seth Lochen. To focus on the job ahead, we isolated ourselves from the rest of the company by moving to a windowless room with no air-conditioning, or elbow room. It was a cast of characters — a bunch of talented goofballs who loved to build stuff from scratch. Our surroundings didn’t matter. We could have been in the Gaza Strip and still had a good time.

But our team needed a rock. Someone who could be the voice of reason, and resolver of debate. Matt Purchlerz played this role like Brando played Don Corleone. In a room full of constant noise, when Matt spoke, we listened. Always calm, always thoughtful, he examined a decision from all angles. Yet in his own way, Matt was probably the biggest goofball of the entire crew.

Matt once grabbed the mic during a random Karaoke night and busted out a version of Maneater (why?) that would have made Hall & Oates jealous. It stunned the team, and everyone else who joined us that night. It wasn’t just he had an awesome voice. It was the style in which he delivered it. But that was Puchlerz — results plus style.

Two weeks ago, we attended Matt’s memorial. In his mid-twenties, he died suddenly from a heart complication, leaving behind two loving parents, a devoted younger brother, his newly wed wife, and a team full of guys that day-after-day look over at an empty desk full of promise.

In a short amount of time, Matt influenced the way we think and act. And as the team grows, we’ll undoubtedly pass a bit of Matt on to those who never had the honor of knowing him. We’ll tell stories about a group of dudes working long, memorable hours in a cramped, uncomfortable room — and the guy who taught us how to deliver humbling results with a humble style. That is the Puchlerz legacy.

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Arriving in Afghanistan

Posted by suneelgupta on September 9, 2009

It’s a bit unsettling to keep updated on your family’s well-being through the television. My brother arrived last week in Afghanistan to report on the tragic medical consequences of war. Today was the first time we were able to speak. Conditions are rough, but as always, he is staying positive and contributing in every way he can, both as a surgeon and a journalist. Friends have commented lately on how human his reporting has been. I agree. Here is his first clip taken minutes after arriving in Kandahar. Keep safe, big brother.

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coldplay covers michael

Posted by suneelgupta on July 14, 2009

cross-posted to MTV here.

A little over two weeks after the death of Michael Jackson, Coldplay offered a tribute at a concert in the San Francisco Bay Area. I shot a little of it on my Flip cam.

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thoughts on the mozilla mission

Posted by suneelgupta on July 12, 2009

mozilla logo

Inspired by the 3.5 launch, Q3 goal setting, this post (John), and that post (Mitchell), I took an *unsolicited* crack at a mission statement for Mozilla into and through 2010. It’s a work in progress, so post your comments and thoughts:

In the next 18 months, we turn big ideas into executable goals. We expand our global impact, while empowering others to expand theirs. We remain entrepreneurial, while leveraging the opportunities that accompany our scale. We strengthen our grassroots fight, while realizing our brand-built ability to influence decisions at the highest levels. We deepen the commitment to our existing community, while building new relationships with the remaining 75% of the planet. We engage these people, many of whom will discover the web for the very first time, with a time-tested promise that Mozilla can be a meaningful part of anyone’s life.

For those who choose to participate, Mozilla is your enabler.
For those who aim to innovate, Mozilla is your vehicle.
For those who aspire to change the world, Mozilla is your partner.

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the need for speed

Posted by suneelgupta on June 30, 2009

cross-posted to mtv here.


Most of us spend more time online than we do on the road. And whether we’re behind the wheel or behind the keyboard, we want to move fast. This is why I’m incredibly proud of my peeps at Mozilla today for releasing Firefox 3.5 — the fastest way for you to get around online. 3.5 is more than two times faster than Firefox 3 and ten times faster than Firefox 2.

I could say more, but a few guys in Hyderabad, India, channeled their passion for Firefox into a video that pretty much says it all. Check it out:

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Lay down a track with me…from across the world

Posted by suneelgupta on June 18, 2009

cross posted to MTV here.

Indaba lets musicians around the world collaborate without ever leaving their home. Say you play the acoustic guitar in New York, my cousin plays the tabla in New Delhi, and I play the fiddle in San Francisco. The three of us want to record a little Beatles meets Blue Grass. In the past, we would meet in a central location (Amsterdam?) and pay for studio time. But with Indaba, we can create anonline session and pull something together that would make Ringo proud.

Indaba is part social network, part web application, and has attracted over 125,000 musicians in over 170 countries into its community. I recently met the team’s co-founder, Dan Zaccagnino, a laid-back guy with lots of authentic passion for music and the web. Here’s what Dan had to say on Colbert Nation:

colbert pic

Indaba removes the barrier of geography from the making of music. Their concept makes me think about the Djembe drum circles I loved hearing in West Africa. For talent like this, Indaba takes undiscovered musical brilliance and gives it a platform to be heard.

That means musicians get to collaborate with new tones and rhythms, and we get to enjoy the product. So the next time you’re at a bar and hear a fresh new sound, you may have the Indaba community to thank.

you can follow suneel on twitter here.

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motwani’s advice

Posted by suneelgupta on June 6, 2009

(cross-posted to MTV here)

The tech community lost a hero yesterday. Rajeev Motwani, an omnipresent Stanford professor who advised the creation of Google, passed away suddenly sending ripples of melancholy through Silicon Valley. Sergey Brin, Spencer Ante, and Michael Arrington blogged about the loss, while Ron Conway delivered a powerful memorial at last night’s Tech Fellows event.


I knew Rajeev for only a brief time. Having freshly arrived to San Francisco, I began reaching out blindly and generically to people in the tech space who I thought were interesting. Not surprisingly, the response rate was low — for every ten emails I sent, approximately two replied. Rajeev was one of the few that did.


The weather is perfect. We are seated outside the University Cafe in downtown Palo Alto, both turned slightly towards a busy Stanford sidewalk filled with flip-flops and backpacks. It’s easy to spot the freshmen, because like me, they carry a blended look of excitement and confusion. I kick off our conversation with an overly broad question: “I’m new to the area. Do you have any advice?”

I’m a bit surprised when Motwani nestles into his iron-rod chair and deliberates the question. Surely, he had been asked the same by hundreds of his students. Surely, he had a canned answer. But he takes his time. He studies me for a moment, perhaps to gauge my sincerity. He thinks…then he begins:

(paraphrased from my notes. yes….I took notes.)

1. “Work with big ideas you believe in.”: Motwani stresses the importance of being emotionally attached to your work. “If you can get emotional about an idea, you increase your chances of executing well.”

2. “Share those ideas actively.”: Perhaps sensing my anxiety, Motwani leans over. “Silicon Valley may seem big to you now, but the more people you meet, the more you’ll realize how tiny and close-knit this community actually is.” Motwani encourages me to be open about my work and to share my ideas actively, even if they aren’t complete.

Rajeev’s simple, but prescient advice continues to inform my approach to product development. Yet I crave another iced tea with him. I have more specific questions now…so much more to learn. I can’t say that I knew Rajeev well, but I knew him well enough to join thousands of others in missing him today.

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mishra’s fusion

Posted by suneelgupta on May 30, 2009

Beginning today, I’ll be guest-blogging a bit for a MTV Iggy. This is the first post.

My parents would play classical Indian music during every car ride we ever took…ever. Before buckling up, my dad would carefully select from a well-organized box of cassette tapes, each of them neatly labeled with the names of classic Indian artists….”Lata Mangeshkar,” “Hemant Kumar,” etc. He would rap the steering wheel to the beat of a Bollywood tune, and even bust out a few notes. Sometimes, my mom would join in, turning our Ford Taurus into a mid-day Karaoke session, minus the Soju.

If it were a summer day and our windows were down, I would slump into my seat so that no one could spot and associate me with the ‘un-American’ music. I was embarrassed to be a part of it. Fifteen years later, I’m embarrassed to have been embarrassed.

Rolling Stone magazine once wrote that Sanjay Mishra‘s music finds a “distinct idiom”. For me, his uniqueness fills an important gap. He busts out my father’s kind of music, but does so on a nylon-string electric guitar. On the hour-long train ride from San Francisco to Silicon Valley, he reconnects me to car rides with my father, but with a style that the random person sitting next to me would appreciate.

Mishra is one of the classics. He cut an album back in the day with Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead) called Blue Incantation, and more recently laid the tracks to Chateau Benares, which has one of my all-time favorite tunes. I won’t be able to fly out for his upcoming gig in Manhattan, but a friend will be flip camming it for me.

My parents recently came out to visit. On a ride through Twin Peaks, I popped Sanjay Mishra into the CD player, and out of the corner of my eye, noticed my father tapping his knee to the beat. That’s Mishra’s fusion.

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art and the browser

Posted by suneelgupta on May 4, 2009

Last week’s Mozilla all-hands meeting was both informative and inspiring. Nearly ever discussion I participated in was filled with healthy amounts of debate, and the end-result of each session was almost always generative. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to discuss the recent Personas launch, and collaborate with some highly imaginative folks on one specific Q2 goal: how to engage, scale, and support a community of artists that share the values of openness and participation.

Since the launch, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how quickly our artist community has scaled. Our gallery now contains over 5,000 designs from over 3,500 individual artists. Our all-hands discussion was focused on ways to increase the ratio of original art (vs. repurposed art) in the gallery, and provide our emerging community of artists with support and visibility. I have consolidated over a dozen ideas from this discussion (at the risk of losing some pearls) into a few actionable concepts:

1. Designer Profile and Dashboard: a couple of weeks ago, we implemented designer pages, which gives each designers a central spot to display their persona art and share it with friends. The next step is to make that page more valuable to each individual artist. We can do this in two ways. First, by adding an artist profile, so that people can learn more about the person behind the art. Second, by developing a dashboard to give each artist a set of controls to manage their art in the gallery and gain a better sense of how their art is performing.

2. Better Preview Functionality: Sean Martell assembled a strong tutorial for the most recent launch, but we have big steps to take for making the process of designing a persona more accessible. A good first step would be to provide designers with a simple preview of their design (across operating systems) prior to submitting it to the public gallery. A longer term step would be to learn and possibly incorporate some of the fascinating things already being done to make online art creation more accessible (check out Aviary).

3. Movers and Shakers: to be discoverable a design must be popular, but to be popular a design must be discoverable. This is the classic dilemma for a new piece of art added to the gallery. We can solve this in part by expanding our definition of “popular” to not only include designs have been hits since our product launch, but also designs that have gained momentum in the recent past (eg, the past week).

4. Collaborate with other Design communities: as stated above, there are other creative communities doing compelling things. Through talking and learning from several of these communities, it has become clear that we share a common goal: to provide a platform for artistic creations and promote the artists that create them.

5. Collaborate with other add-on authors: the AMO community includes dozens of art-related extensions. To the extent that there is overlap with mission and goals (see #4), there could be opportunities to sync art from the Personas community with offerings and distribution of these add-ons.

Like each session during the all-hands, the next steps for scaling and supporting a design community will be interesting and full of debate. Within a short session, we produced five actionable ideas, and I’m sure there many more will emerge as the dialogue continues.

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