A scope tug-of-war

Most people don’t realize how small we are. We don’t have a group of engineers or dedicated client support. We don’t have “ambassadors” or interns. There are only two of us building and maintaining Smashrun full time, and a third who’s trying to balance a full time job with our startup, which means that we have to be ruthless about scope.

Ideas are plentiful and it’s easy to get excited about a new idea! If we had a forum, I bet “Suggest a new feature” would be the most popular section.

All new features are at the tip of something big

On the surface, a lot of things might seem simple enough to implement, but there’s always unforeseen overhead costs that go hand in hand with developing new features and improving existing ones. When features are closely tied to one another and, when there are a lot of interdependencies, it gets tricky whenever you build new things on top of it.

From a design perspective, I have to constantly make room for new additions, swap out unpopular sections of an existing page, or create an entirely new interface that is expected to grow into something larger.

  • When you make room for something, inevitably, you’re making a decision to emphasize this new addition over an existing feature.
  • When you swap out existing features, you’re at risk of upsetting the small group of users that still use that functionality.
  • When you create an entirely new interface, you have to ensure that it’s discoverable, learnable, and usable.

From a technical perspective, if there’s new data that we’re importing, we have to figure out how we store it, in what form, how we retrieve it, and how we display it.

There’s also a more prominent multiplier effect when working with numbers. If the cost of delivering a particular feature is something like:

(x # of variables) times (y # of runs) raised to the nth power of number of users

…we’d have to seriously think hard about our server costs or spend even more time (than the crazy amount of time we already do) thinking about performance optimization.

This led to our development principles

Every time we’re on the fence about adding something, every time some new tech catches our attention, or a new suggestion pops up in our inbox, we go back to these guideposts:

Minimize Noise
– Noise is unnecessary information.

Manage Attention
– Users only have so much bandwidth. Every decision to emphasize one thing is at the expense of something else.

Try to Extend Before Branching Out
– Build on top of something vs. creating something entirely new.

Weigh Support Costs Before Building
– Consider ongoing maintenance and 3rd-party dependencies.

Understand the Target Demographic Before Building the Feature
– We’re not our customer, but saying ‘yes’ should be an informed decision.

Features providing a social good should be accessible to all users
– Paid features should essentially support the development of features that benefits the largest number of users in the biggest possible way.

With these in mind, we’ve gotten better at this tug-of-war. I certainly have. The drawing board has gotten much bigger, but there’s something kind of fun about understanding the scope of something from ideation to design to testing and implementation.

I imagine a silly giant iceberg and ask how far down the base we’re going in order to build something new. If we’re heading too far under water, it’s probably worth shelving for now to revisit at another time.

Fitness trackers are a lot like playing video games

It’s been a while since I last played a video game. Traveling often and bootstrapping isn’t really conducive to gaming, so I had to give that up. Although, I sometimes wonder if other people notice that fitness trackers are constantly mimicking the coolness factor of newer video games. I’m always oggling new tech, so it’s hard not to notice.

Take a look at this game reel, which demonstrates the Snowdrop engine, fairly new in gaming technology.

The first impression that most people have is that it’s hyper realistic, which makes it pretty awesome. The second impression most of us might have are the awesome UI elements.

Part of the reason why Smashrun looks the way that it does is because all three of us are gamers. Of course, it helps that @chrislukic used to build badass dashboards for investment banks and I used to work on a data analytics platform for S&P. From the moment Smashrun went live, we were all about understanding data.

Video games have always made an effort to provide context through UI elements as a way to link the player with the game’s narrative.

Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 8.05.26 PM

The only way you’ll finish a game is if you’re invested in it and the only way you’ll feel invested in a game is if you’re part of the story. We felt the same way about running. That’s why Smashrun has dashboards.

The only way you’ll stick with running is if you know where you stand as a runner. What’s the story behind your running? What’s the big picture? The context is important because you’re more likely to stay motivated if you know how each run stacks against each other:

You just ran your fastest 9mi run in 6 months.
This was your lowest average HR in a year.
This was the most negative splits you’ve ever run.

Gratuitous data is so frustrating sometimes because it gives fitness tracking (and fitness trackers) a bad name. I am down with Quantified Us.

We should make like players in a game and utilize what information we have to keep moving forward. Google’s Hummingbird engine got it right with its adaptive algorithm. Moov has the potential to change the wearable tech market with smart hardware. Even Garmin’s Vivofit (which I oppose on principle, because I’m not a fan of glorified pedometers) is making a difference by automatically adjusting your goals based on performance. It’s also the one thing that Nike+ did right with Kinect Training.

What It’s Like to Move A Startup to Spain

It was sheer luck that Smashrun recently ended up in Spain. We  needed the change. Something about living in suburbia for the past year and a half felt wrong. We hadn’t seen most of our friends, we rarely went out, we spoke to only two other people on a regular basis and the highlight of our social life was waving to the lawn guys across the street once a week. Our work still felt tremendously meaningful, but our only outlet for stress was running around our neighborhood.

I get that it’s hard to achieve both meaning and happiness but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a shot. So, we packed up our bags, including a 30 lb computer tower and two monitors, and moved to a small town in Spain.

A Quick Background on Smashrun

Smashrun is our data crunching analytical site for runners. It started out as one of Chris’ personal projects, which evolved into a full blown repository for run data collected by various apps and devices. We’re a bit of a stats haven for runners, we shamelessly dig deep into the details of your run data, and we let our personality run wild when you break through a running milestone. Really, what’s the point if you can’t stay motivated?

Why We Moved to Spain

Arcos Trails

Sometimes it’s necessary to detach yourself from the familiar to rekindle your awareness of where you stand in your life. Talking to complete strangers in a foreign country can do that to you too. It flushes out your identity and reminds you of all the little things that you might not otherwise pay attention to like: why you’re an entrepreneur, why you moved to a small town in the middle of nowhere in Spain, or why you say you’re “American” when you were born in a foreign country and lived there for 10 years before leaving.

Speaking to complete strangers in a bar or a supermarket in a foreign language is so much worse than talking to a VC. You’re not even asking for capital and yet they want to know everything about your startup. In Arcos, they also want to know whether or not I cook, if I go to church, what my plans are for Christmas, and why I like to run. You’re always answering questions. You can’t not have an answer.

Travel fundamentally changes your life. Experiential lessons are often served more quickly than you might prefer, and that’s okay. Changing is living. This is why we moved.

But, why Spain?

The Spanish economy has suffered quite an economic catastrophe and they’re just starting to show signs of recovery. You would think that means everyone, everywhere, in Spain would be ridiculously and blatantly bitter, but you would be wrong.

Like most other small towns, people treat you like tourists for the first week or two but, it quickly changes when they realize you’re staying longer. It’s hard to not spend at least 20 minutes at the deli or meat counter without the person asking you about your day. I have to memorize all sorts of small talk before heading out, because I’m worried I’ll look like an idiot for not knowing what to say other than what I already said last time.

Our rent is only about USD $660/month and while our “line-of-sight” included internet is occasionally an embarrassment to be reckoned with, our neighbor and makeshift landlord across the street has run an ethernet cord from his house to our living room (across the street) so that we can average between 7MB/s – 12MB/s and work all day without skipping a beat.

Arcos is also notoriously well known for its hills. These hills stop you halfway up carrying your groceries, because you (at a ripe young age of 27, way younger than the 70-year old man walking past you) have to catch your breath. Chris, describes it perfectly:

There’s this one hill that leads up the side of the cliff face to the cathedral. We’re using that hill to calibrate a “Level 9″ hill difficulty on Smashrun. It kicks off at a 20% grade, and only rarely lets off, but the bit that’s not over 20% grade is hardly noticeable. Well, what with all the the sweat dripping in your eyes and the light-headedness precipitated by oxygen deprivation.

Each time I run this hill, I make it just a few steps farther than I did the last time before I have to start walking. Let me say that again. Before I have to start walking. No. Not slow down, not dig deep and find my inner champion, but walk….slowly…very slowly. And, when I start walking (very slowly) I don’t start running again, because quite frankly, I would have a heart attack and I would die on the spot. And then I would roll head over heels for next 10 minutes until I reached the bottom of the hill. And then this hill, this level 9 hill, would probably send a boulder rolling down after me and crush me with a kind of grim finality usually reserved for cartoon characters and blockbuster movie villains. You know, because, there’s a slim chance that some prospective hero who knew CPR might be happening by, and this is a hill that doesn’t take chances. It is just that kind of a hill.

This is our level 9 hill that we use for calibration.

This is our level 9 hill that we use for calibration.

These paths were not made for runners but, they sure do a good job of helping us perfect our hill index and tuning those performance factors.

Cost of basic goods?

  • 1 fresh baked loaf of bread: €1
  • 2 kilos of tomatoes: €1,40
  • 1 decent bottle of Tempranillo or a Verdejo: €2
  • 1/2 lb of jamón serrano: €2,33
  • 2 kg of mussels: €1,80
  • 75 grams of caviar: €1,50
  • 1 liter of milk: €0.64
This Is How We Did It

There’s really no secret sauce to how we pulled it off. Before the big move, I searched for all the cities in the world where the cost of living is low and where the internet is good. Then I cross referenced it with cost of plane tickets using ITA Software, I looked at AirBnb/HomeAway options, MindMyHouse, and cost of local travel (getting from the airport to the final destination).

My list actually started out with Nicaragua, Singapore, Munich, Panama City, Ecuador, and Buenos Aires.

Nicaragua, Panama City, and Ecuador were ruled out on the basis of unreliable internet, Munich was ruled out on high cost of living, and Buenos Aires was a steep plane ticket from the East Coast. We also thought about Budapest, but the language barrier was a minor deal breaker and, again, the plane tickets were no good in October. On a whim, we checked out Spain and the numbers aligned. We just needed a low cost of living, decent internet, and a good location for running, and we found it.

Startups Move to Connect or Reset

A lot of people would disagree with our decision to move to a small town in Spain without a startup community. You see, I’m convinced that founders uproot themselves for one of two reasons: to connect with other founders and seek funding or to seek change in order to break out of a mental rut. We fit the latter. Arcos is not a bad place to call home for a few months and it’s just enough of a change to jumpstart our creativity and keep us focused.

Smashrun in Spain

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story. –Orson Welles

After a year and three months at Virginia Beach, I find myself surrounded, once again, with a thoroughly packed suitcase, an overnight backpack, and about two week’s worth of clothing. I took a quick inventory of what I consider “essentials” and noted two pairs of jeans and a pair of solid running shorts. For someone who runs everyday, I should really own more than one pair of shorts but, why mess with what works? It doesn’t take much to wash it and dry it overnight, get going the next day.

I have to admit I miss having more clothes. Or even just a pair of flats that would go with something other than my jeans. Flip-flops get the job done but, not so much during winter. It’s so liberating, though! The idea of living out of a backpack still appeals to me. The “not unpacking my suitcase until it’s laundry day” reminds me of college. My bank account right now reminds me of college! Although, I’m still about to squeeze in one more stamp in my passport before that account hits zero. Really, what’s the point of living if you’re not actually “living”?

I thought the sound of Kansas City had a nice ring to it. Right alongside Google Fiber. That didn’t really fly. Chris made a good point that if this is Smashrun’s final stretch before that fork on the road, we might as well enjoy it … in another country. So, sometime in the end of August, I narrowed down our list of destinations to Panama City, Ecuador, Buenos Aires, Budapest, Munich, Madrid, and Singapore. I cross-referenced it against places with high-speed internet access, low-cost of living, culture, and cheap flights to find Smashrun’s next HQ and we made our decision…

Arcos de la Frontera

This is Arcos de la Frontera. We’re gonna be there in 3 days. Here’s a quick aerial tour:

It’s located about six hours south of Madrid, an hour south of Seville, an hour and a half north of Gibraltar and a reasonably short train ride away from crossing the border into Portugal. Rent is cheap, internet is comparable to where we are now, very few distractions, and the opportunity to see Chris practice a little spanish como la Andaluth just makes it all perfect.

Don’t get me wrong, I like living by the beach (I’m a sun baby!) but I wouldn’t mind staying in a small town on the countryside surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, eating jamón ibérico, and seafood caught off the Atlantic or the Balearic coast.

Of course, the running would be tough. I’d get lost in winding streets, probably get chased by sheep. Or cows. Maybe chickens. It’ll be a perfectly good time! And those hills? Just think “thighs of steel”. I’ll be so ready for marathon season next year.

We’re in a good spot, though. We have awesome runners using Smashrun! Just truly awesome people. They give us lots of good reasons to keep doing what we’re doing. And, I know that sounds really corny but, I’m trying to be sincere here and usually when I try that, things come out super corny.

We have huge plans for Smashrun. I mean: monumental. We’re venturing into some serious data crunching territory, beautiful maps, cross-run analytics, and new badges! I am dying for this release to go live. We’re counting the days.

There will be another week or two more of long nights. A lot of testing. So much time will be spent comparing and contrasting data aggregates from different device sources and file exports from different apps. Working on something that requires so much attention to detail should sufficiently prepare me for the end of year tax season.

Let’s do this.

June 2013 – end of month running report

The easy run month. I know I’m not supposed to cop out and neglect my training schedule, but a rising heat index isn’t the most conducive for hard runs, which ruled out most of my speedwork. Blah.

Last month’s Cooper Test also left me a bit out of it for the first week of June and I finally gave in and bought a pair of compression sleeves for my knees. So far, so good! The compression felt a little weird, at first, but you get used to it and it seems to work. Two weeks in and recovery feels quicker.

I wear the Blitz Knee Compression Sleeve after a tough run – size was smaller than I expected and crazy tight. I switch to the Shock Doctor sleeve when my legs get restless and cramp from sitting still all day. I’m not sure if they work for everyone, but I’m pretty happy with my decision to have them around in case I need them!

Here’s what worked:

  • Morning runs for the win! They worked in the past. I might as well keep it up to avoid the heat.
  • Indulging on easy days meant warding off potential injury. R.I.C.E. and then M.I.C.E.
  • Fartleks are a better option than Tempos on warmer days. It’s nice to have a choice.
  • Jumping in a cold pool post-run. Any run. Reduces inflammation!
  • It’s better to have at least one quality run in a week than none at all – good for morale.

Here’s what didn’t work:

  • Trying to run hard even when my RHR tells me I’ve overtrained is pointless.
  • Sprintwork in the summer. Haha.
  • Running to a sushi place, having lunch, and then (struggling) to run back home. Brilliant plan.

Another busy month with Smashrun but, perhaps, a different kind of busy. The paperwork kind. Taxes and bookkeeping. I mean, I like dealing with numbers but I thoroughly dislike QuickBooks. We also rolled out annotated runs and we’ve been busy working on weekly reports. It’s been ridiculous trying to re-wire my brain to work between balancing accounts, testing functionalities, blogging, and design work. That said, Smashrun’s July schedule is showing a lot of promise.

Thinking this month will be the month of short runs with bursts of speed. Lots of easy runs if it’s too hot, steady state runs if it’s manageable. I’m adding back the power drills and I think I’m gonna start logging my RHR every morning. I’m really curious to see how much my sleeping habits – or lack of sleep – affects my recovery. Should be interesting.