roughly edged ideas about building stuff

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

some stories are never told…because no one asks

Posted by suneelgupta on April 21, 2009

Tonight, Sanjay and I launch the Kahani Movement, a social network aimed at capturing stories from South Asians that immigrated to the United States, and giving these stories a platform to be heard.

After fleeing the bloodshed of India and Pakistan’s partition, my mom, as a child refugee, decided she would one day be an engineer for Ford Motor Company. She worked her way from impoverished areas of Gujurat to Frankfurt, Germany, where she eventually saved enough for the journey to Detroit in 1963. After being turned away several times, she finally convinced a hiring manager at Ford to give her 15 minutes. He began the conversation by saying “We don’t have any female engineers on staff,” to which she replied: “If you don’t begin with me, you may never have that benefit.”And that is how Damyanti “Rani” Gupta became Ford’s first female engineer.

Every family has a story that is worth preserving. This is why tonight my brother Sanjay and I are launching the Kahani Movement, an open-source film project focused on telling stories from South Asians that immigrated to the United States, during the opening ceremony of the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles. We began Kahani, which means “story” in Hindi, with three goals in mind:

1. Assemble a well-organized archive of content that helps current and future generations better understand the South Asian immigration experience. I believe that second-generation immigrants reach a point in their lives when they begin to truly appreciate their parents’ story. When that switch flips, we want people to document their discoveries. Specifically, we want second-generation South Asians to pick up camera, interview their parents, and upload these stories to

2. Empower the Kahani community to collaborative creatively. Simon Beaufoy was inspired to write Slumdog Millionaire after reading the novel, Q&A. Similarly, Kahani Movement inspires community members to add their content under a Creative Commons license and remix the community’s content to tell the the South Asian immigration story in new, imaginative ways.

3. Inspire others outside of the South Asian community to create their own Kahani Movement. Every community has powerful stories that are worth preserving. An important goal for Kahani is to lower the barrier to capturing these stories by creating a digital model that is easy to replicate.

In about an hour, Sanjay, Leena, and I will be driving to the Arclight Cinema to unveil the Kahani Movement vision to an audience of over 500 people. I’m anxious for a few reasons. Kahani is special to me personally on different levels. Kahani has changed the way I look at storytelling and made me realize the amount of influence a well-told story can have. It has given me the opportunity to blend my interest in tech with a longstanding passion for film, which never quite left me since the day I stayed up way past my bedtime to watch “the Graduate”. It has brought me closer to my parents, and given me the opportunity to collaborate with my big brother, my best friend and greatest mentor. If my mother were here with me in L.A., she’d sense my anxiousness. She would sit me down and tell me a story about how she was nervous walking into an all-boys engineering school in India. I miss that story.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Nineteen Degrees of Happiness

Posted by suneelgupta on January 28, 2009

I’m eight days late posting about our trip to D.C. To make up for it, I pulled together some video from inauguration. Since everyone has already seen much higher-quality footage of the actual ceremony, here is a condensed version of our 3-hour journey to travel 2 miles to the Capitol. It was nineteen degrees. It was packed. And everyone was happy.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Nineteen Degrees of Happiness on Vimeo“, posted with vodpod

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

should Mozilla empower movements?

Posted by suneelgupta on November 11, 2008

In my last post (build your movement here), I thought out loud about Mozilla creating a “Movement Suite”, which would offer a set of applications to empower any group looking to build or expand a movement. In his reply, Mark Surman correctly pointed out that existing sites, such as Social Source Commons, have similar offerings. So there are two issues here: 1) whether Mozilla can make a meaningful contribution in the movement empowerment space; and 2) whether Mozilla would be competing with existing sites if it made this contribution.

1. Can Mozilla make meaningful contributions to a crowded space of sites that offer a central point for movements to build their toolkits? My sense is that we can for two reasons. First, the Mozilla add-ons site, which would be a natural place for a “movement suite” to live, has the traffic to ramp adoption of movement applications better than any other mission-based site I’m aware of. According to, is the 797th most popular online site (over the past 3 months) and nearly 85% of that traffic directs itself to the add-ons site. The ramp is further illustrated by the following chart, which compares traffic with that of, a fantastic and relatively well-known resource for movement builders. and Traffic

The second, and more important reason, is that Mozilla has enough trust to ramp a movement suite. A high traffic applications site doesn’t have impact if a user doesn’t trust it enough to proceed with a download. At the beginning of the year, Ken Kovash at Mozilla announced that 600 million add-ons had been downloaded from This is a positive sign of trust.

2. Would Mozilla be competing with existing sites like Social Source and Tech Soup if it decided to help empower movements? I don’t think it would. The primary objective of a “movement suite” is not to build, but to gather existing applications into a central point. Mozilla’s add-ons site currently hosts over 6,000 add-ons, the overwhelming majority of which were not built internally. To create a movement suite, Mozilla might pick the best 8-10 applications for movement building and package them, like Linked In did with its application suite. If other non-profit sites share our vision to empower movements by guiding them to the right tools, then we would be supporting their mission, not competing against it.

Furthermore, a movement suite might actually include tools built by other movement enablers. Mozilla’s objective would be to promote these tools widely so that more movements have the tools they need to operate effectively.

Lots of wrinkles and further thought needed here. First, we need to continue to build our list of applications that would go into the suite (eg, what does a group need to build a movement effectively?). Second, we need to determine a fair way to select the best applications that achieve these objectives amongst over 6,000 add-ons that live on the site. Third, we need to figure out a way to push the movement suite to those who need it the most – other than promoting it on the add-ons site.

I continue to seek advice, and have learned a lot over the past few days from Nicholas Reville at the Participatory Culture Foundation as well as Atul Varma and Paul Kim at Mozilla. These conversations are helping me to move past the “why” and on to the “how”.

Posted in Movement, Mozilla, Uncategorized | 9 Comments »