Allan Isfan is a co-founder of FaveQuest, a young start-up. This blog covers start-up topics.

Sunday, October 29, 2006


make meaning

A colleague recently recommended I take a look at the book entitled "The Art of the Start" written by Guy Kawasaki. I got my hands on the book through Amazon (man they make it easy!) and proceeded to devour it. It is a fantastic book with lots of great advice ... a must read for any entrepreneur looking to start a new company. The recommendation that sticks with me the most though is to "Make Meaning". Although obvious, it is very easy to forget we have a responsibility to make the world a better place.

This reminded me of a very clear moment that occurred last year during a U2 concert following the very moving song ""Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own", written by Bono as a tribute to his father who died of cancer in 2001. I was just recently rudely reminded of a pledge I made to myself during that moment. A colleague of many years lost his young daughter to cancer last week. This is such a sad sad tragedy ... I don't have the words to describe how awful I felt hearing she had lost her battle. I can't even begin to imagine how her family could possibly cope with this senseless loss. It literally brings grown men to tears.

I lost my own mother to cancer many years ago and with an awesome wife and three daughters myself, I'm scared to death one of them will get sick. Children are so sweet, innocent and helpless against the world, making the world a better place for them must become a life's mission.

So what does this have to do with start-ups? Quite a bit if we choose to. During that moment at the U2 concert, when the thousands of people around me seemed to disappear and everything went quiet in my head, I pledged to earmark at least 1% of profits of my new venture to fight the suffering of children . With your support, we will do amazing things.

The company I will build will make allot of money. I will not rest until it does because no matter what the product or service is, it has a much grander and more important mission. This will be one of the pillars of the company that goes beyond "don't do evil". So rather than wait until success finds this new venture to make such a pledge because all the money somehow feels hollow, this is now a public goal made on-line where it will live forever.

As a reader of this blog, you will have the opportunity to be part of this mission as a potential partner, future employee or customer. It's all coming together.



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Friday, October 27, 2006


people and the idea pendulum

Startup concepts often feel like a pendulum. You start with one idea, you bounce it off people you can trust, they add their thoughts and it picks up momentum and speed. Next thing you know, you've diverged significantly and hit a standstill as you realize you are way off track. Before you know it, you are somewhat back to the original concept but the "bob" is now a bit shinier.

I was a little stuck until I had a chance to meet with my crew of merry men today for lunch. We had such a fantastic discussion that I believe we may have come up with some potentially revolutionary concepts ... one idea building on another and another until some really neat thing popped out. Very exciting stuff, especially since it is tied to delivery of ads (gotta leave it there ... sorry). It is great to be in the presence of smart capable people! The ingredients for the magic potion are now appearing.

Having said that, the team is missing one or two key people that are crucial. We are playing in an emerging market but it has strong roots in radio and its usually duller second cousin on the net. I am looking for assistance from some senior people out of the radio industry to provide some critical input, feedback and contribution. If you are one or know of one that wants to be involved in something revolutionary and disruptive, please contact me. Perhaps some adult supervision wouldn't hurt either (ok, I'm nearly 40 ... but I feel so young!).

You have often heard that VCs invest in teams, not ideas. In my slightly younger, more naive days I thought this was complete bull. What good is a fantastic team if there is no fantastic idea to go with it? I experienced this at my previous company (great team) when we changed our business model and struck gold. Now I'm literally living through it again. The things we came up with today, coupled with one or two key people (whom I need to find) will catapult us to new heights.


Allan "Bob" Isfan
PS. Those that have known me for a while know that my nickname is Bob (eastern european for Bogdan ... my middle name) so this is a bit of a funny irony relative to the whole pendulum thing.

Also note that I have added links to some blogs I think are worth checking out. I'd strongly recommend Guy Kawasaki's latest blog since it covers defensibility really well (a topic I covered in my post entitled "crush crush crush")

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Monday, October 23, 2006


take a flying leap

Before I get going, I would like to encourage people to begin posting comments or sending me their thoughts via email. I've noted several repeat readers from many unexpected locations (California, UK, Southern France, Australia, British Columbia ...) and I sure would like to know who you are. I've also spoken to many of you faithful readers personally and you have much to share so don't be afraid ... start posting comments. Lastly, it would be great if you could forward the link to your friends and colleagues or include a link to the blog when you post elsewhere if it makes sense. We'll be looking for people's opinions regarding our product and ideally many would be willing to be beta users once we have a basic service up and running. The more people get involved early, the more feedback we'll get. If you friends like the service, they'll thank you.

Ok ... to the main post

I've noticed a strange phenomenon lately which I think is awesome. More and more people I know are quiting their jobs, not necessarily in disgust but because what they were doing wasn't doing the trick anymore. Most of these people left their jobs without having another job to go to but with the intention of getting involved in a start-up or a new career. In many cases, they realized that the comfort of their jobs, and the addiction to the big $$, was preventing from doing new things. I love seeing people having the guts and the confidence to simply quit! I thought I was the only crazy one.

This was certainly not happening a few years ago when jobs were hard to come by. I'm really hoping that this is an indication of a resurgence in start-up activity in Ottawa. There seem to be few truly new start-ups in the area and this should worry everyone. I've have been advised several times over the last few weeks that I should move to NY, Boston and especially Silicon Valley in order to be successful at my new venture. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do but I'm not even considering it at this point. Having said that, I'm heading that way during the second week in November to attend the Dow Jones Consumer Ventures conference (kinda pricey but hopefully worth it) Nov 7&8. If any readers are in the area, please let me know.

Ottawa is a fantastic place to live but there is no doubt doing a start-up here is much harder, especially if you are interested in developing consumer products or services (unless it has to do with ice or hockey). You'd better be developing some telecom equipment or enterprise product or you stick out like a sore thumb. I've decided this is the time to break out of telecom, H/W, ICs and all the stuff. I'm not so old yet that I can't change direction. I may have to come back to that comfort zone with my tail between my legs one of these day but it's going to take allot to do that.

Investors need to get out of their comfort zone too ... take a chance. Sometimes the only way to learn about something is to do it. So, together with a few kindred spirits willing to bust their humps and blaze some new trails, we move forward. Wish us luck (which reminds me ... gotta set up a paypal donation box for you to toss your pennies into).


Allan Isfan
Entrepreneur with an Iron Ring

Friday, October 20, 2006


Is this legal?

Remember when you used to record radio? That was a long time ago ... at least for me ... but this fad is coming back. In the search for free music, it is amazing what amazing tools people will come up with.

A number of MP3 players with FM tuners allow you to record the radio to your local memory. This is interesting but not necessarily that exciting at first thought. However, some of the legal tools that have popped make this a potentially very useful way to get all your music for free.

I recently downloaded a trial version of a product called Replay Music from a company called Applian The product can record the music you are streaming on the net, determine the song and artist, clip the beginning and end so that you get a neat and tidy mp3 of all the songs, complete with artist and song info! It even asks you if you want the songs added to your iTunes library!!! I tried it and was amazed by how good a job it did. With the quality from many streaming services being pretty decent, this is an amazing way to huge quantities of music for essentially nothing (except for the S/W) and all legally so far. They also have many other cool products, such as a Radio TIVO recorder.

It don't know if that's just me but this is huge once it hits the mainstream. It could certainly impact the operation of streaming services in major ways. Hints of changes are already coming. Creative recently removed a feature from their mp3 player that prevents you from recording from the built in FM tuner. This of course is pissing off lots of their customers that bought the player specifically due to that feature. Fortunately, you have to apply a "patch" for this improvement to take place. Naturally, the patch includes things some people may want so some may get suckered. There's lots of banter on the net regarding what caused Creative to pull this feature? Was it pressure from the RIAA (radio cops)? Quite likely. This is the same reason satellite radio players don't have a record function.

Before all hell breaks loose, I'm grabbing as much music as I can legally before someone shuts this down. Have fun.

Some start up stuff now. I continue to have discussions with many people, with some of the discussions being at very high levels (CEO, Chairman, VP, President, VC partner ...) and I keep being amazed about the positive feedback regarding the concept I'm shooting for. It is extremely encouraging. I will continue to have these discussions but I already know we just need to build it.

So here we are ... quit job in April ... consult on the side... dream up ideas for months ... hang by the pool with family and friends ... get serious in September ... nail down general concept in October ... get friends to help ... and start building. Seems simple doesn't it? That's the easy part, but you have to start somewhere. There is no better way to raise money than to actually build something and use that in your pitch instead of just powerpoint. Seems obvious I suppose but it wasn't obvious to me months ago.

If you are interested in start-ups, here is a great link several people forwarded me recently from a blog written by Paul Graham (I quoted some of his stuff in an earlier post). The article is entitled "The 18 Mistakes that kill startups"

Since many of you on this post come from companies developing broadband, I thought you might like the analysis I've copied below from "The New Yorker". The full link to the story is

"In the church, he presented meticulously researched, technically correct, but completely ridiculous charts and graphs. He compared various data-transfer systems: ISDN, ADSL, Wi-Fly (that is, pigeons). Then he showed a slide of a snail hitched to a tiny chariot with DVDs for wheels. If each disk contains 4.7 gigabytes of data, and if the snail (chasing a scrap of lettuce) travels at 0.000023 metres per second, the snail-system performance rate is over thirty-seven megabits per second. That blows ADSL out of the water. (There are flaws, however. As Vardi noted, “In some regions, most notably France, culinary habits may pose a denial-of-service problem.”) Dubno rang a bell and shooed Vardi from the stage."

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Monday, October 16, 2006


crush crush crush!

Do you remember that "Kids in the Hall" skit in which Mr. Tyzik would crush people with his fingers? It still makes me laugh!

I've been dealing with people asking me "why won't Motorola, apple or any other Goliath crush you"? A very valid question which I have asked myself many more times than others have.

This brings up many important questions for a start-up, but two key ones keep me up at night ... not with worry but to figure out the answer. The questions are:
1) have all good ideas been thought of already? If someone has thought of your idea, are you screwed?
2) if your idea is more of a concept rather than a technology, how do you defend it?

Let's tackle the first one. You come up with what you think is an awesome idea. With the giddy excitement of a child on Christmas morning, you type in your key words with shaky fingers into google .... and 100 links come up in 0.01 seconds!!! SON OF A BEEYATCH!. All good ideas have already been thought of, with some associated patents in and many websites describing your great idea. Radio TIVO? Done. MP3 player with WiFi. Done. With all the smart, motivated people out there, this is bound to happen.

Of course this is not true. However, it is wise to assume this is the case so that you can build a truly defensible product or service. If you assume you're the only one that thought of a particular way of doing something and that is your only foundation, the false sense of security makes you extremely vulnerable. New concepts fail or don't get implemented for many reasons (two of many are highlighted below).

Execution is key. The last $100M/yr product I was a major contributor on was not that novel. In fact, a major telecom equipment vendor had teamed up with a leader in DSL at that time and came up with what turned out to be a complete catastrophe. Our solution was so much better, it's not even funny. We were in a life and death situation where the whole company depended on the success of the product. We set very high goals, hired people with balls, executed with unbelievable focus. Failure was not an option and it showed. Our second product didn't fare so well.

Incumbents don't care. Big companies need big revenues and need universal appeal to hit their numbers. Even big companies have limited resources. Can you imagine if Apple came out with the next iPOD and it only sold 100k units per month. Heads would be rolling. BTW, they sold 14M iPODs in the last quarter. If we could sell 100k units/month, we'd be snorkeling in a pool of champagne (I wonder how much that would cost?)

Lots more to be said but best move on. Ok, so what if your idea is more of a concept, such as a service, rather than a magical technology, how do you defend it?

Everyone is looking for the secret sauce or that one ingredient that makes the sauce secret. I remember going to restaurants, trying to guess how they made the sauce so I could make it at home. I came close a few times but mostly didn't quite nail it. The trick is to mix ingredients such that they build on each other. Each one brings out the elements of the other. You see where I'm going with this. Amazon doesn't just have access to huge inventory and low storage costs. Their recommendations, often contributed by users, help people find other stuff. I often buy books two or three at a time to minimize shipping charges. Amazon often doesn't store items in their own warehouse. They just serve as a storefront and products get shipped directly from someone else's warehouse to you ... $0 cost to Amazon. Freaking genius. Nothing secret here.

Few people believed in search when Google was pitching. A site for crazy, user generated content called YouTube? Well ... we now have GooTube which controls an absolutely ridiculous number of eye balls and the equally ridiculous ad revenues.

Ye must have faith ... and balls.

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Thursday, October 12, 2006


The Thick Plottens

I'd like to start this post with a quote from an interview with William Shatner written by James Martin in the Air Canada EnRoute magazine. This piece in part caused a bit of a eureka moment on the way to New York City a couple of weeks ago.

Bill likes music. He likes listening to music, especially jazz radio, though he blanks on specific musicians: "If you named some, I might know them." He like making music too, "even though I can't sing!".

Someone gave Bill a free iPOD. The thing holds 5,000 songs, "but I don't know three." Downloading wasn't an option: "At 99 cents a song, that's $5,000 and 5,000 minutes, right there!" So he walked around listening to an empty iPOD"

"It was like being insane," he recalls. "My mind was empty. I had no memories, no musical identity. I'm not supposed to say this, but what the hell: Someone said, 'Well, I've got 4,000 song on my iPod ...' So they download their iPod into my iPod, which is apparently illegal. I now have someone else's musical personality. I am bipolar.

After reading this, the light went on .... there are many people just like this. Bill will be my first customer. Oh ... and I also decided it would be awesome to get him to do the launch of the product. He's a good old boy from Montreal ... I'm sure he'd love to do it. The choreography came together years ago on a ski trip with a bunch of friends in St. Sauver. We were laughing so hard, we were crying and sore. We were going to call the group "R Soul". Say it a couple of times ... you'll get it ... let's say the were lots of corks freed from the confines of their wine bottles. I now have a great reason to do it and can't wait. BTW, the name gets changed to "Out of Sink" to be a little less antagonistic ... the ladies didn't seem to think the other name was that funny. Don't want to spoil it by telling you more.

Ok ... so back to the startup. I've been having many private conversations with a large variety of people ... from non techies, ultra techies, CEOs, VCs and many in between. The overwhelming consensus is "keep going ... this is very interesting". Naturally everyone has a different tangent on it and they get some parts more than others but the whole vision hangs together well, even though the product itself is still fuzzy.

With the help of friends in high places, I will have the opportunity to share the concept with some very high level people, including potential customers and partners, in the coming weeks. I'm also very fortunate to have some fantastic people volunteer to join me in this initiative. This will allow me to spread the joy, fill some big gaps in the story, develop a demo and have fun with a great group of people. The next few weeks will be very critical and exciting.

I'll close this off with a few tips from Guy Kawasaki's excellent book "The Art of the Start" that I'm taking very seriously:

THINK BIG. Set your sights high and strive for something grand. If you're going to change the world, you can't do it with milquetoast and boring products or services. Shoot for doing things at least ten times better than the status quo ....
-anyone that knows me knows that isn't a problem for me ... it has been coined "The Isfan Way"

FIND A FEW SOULMATES. History love the notion of the sole innovator .... History is wrong. Successful companies are started, and made successful, by at least two, and usually more soulmates ...
-working on it

USE PROTOTYPES AS MARKET RESEARCH. In the early days of an organization, there is high uncertainty about exactly what you should create and exactly what customers want. In these times, traditional market research is useless - there is no survey or focus group that can predict customers acceptance for a product or service that you may barely be able to describe. .... The wisest course of action is to take your best shot with a prototype, immediately go to market, and iterate quickly ...
-already in the works

Live well and prosper ... beam me up Scotty!

Saturday, October 07, 2006


evolution of your audio experience

I have had the chance to speak with several of you one on one or in small groups in order to better understand how you experience audio information and entertainment. It turns out that nearly everyone listens to the radio to different degrees nearly every day and people often jump around from one station to another. People like radio because it is easy and free and has some variety and information people like. However, there is significant repetition, lots of commercials, too much talk and in the end there is no way they'll play exactly what you want to hear. Radio is forced to play what they think will be most popular ... top 100 music, brief news highlights ... and yet they are losing customers.

People are now migrating down the tail so that they can listen to the stuff they want. Some have gone the portable mp3 player (ipod etc) way but it seems that many people have not bothered and don't plan on bothering even though they do like to listen to music, news, sports reports and other audio content. Compared to radio, setting up an mp3 player is allot of work. You have to burn piles of CDs which is very time consuming and/or download music off the net (hopefully legaly :). Every time you have something to transfer to your IPOD, you need to dock it and it is tied up for the duration of the transfer. My ipod seems to hang quite often and syncing takes forever even if I have only added a few songs. Then you have to perform S/W upgrades quite often. Most people are not diligent about backing up their hard drives ... what if it crashes and you lose all your tunes?!!!! No wonder many people have not bothered. I'm bothering less and less and I already have one.

I believe I have come up with a completely different model. It will allow people that are too tentative to jump in with no fear. It will also allow intermediate users to do things they cannot imagine doing with any of their existing tools. Advanced users will love the refined and granular customization. The open system will let hackers create entirely new applications ... I can't wait to see what they come up with! I'm not going after the incumbent competition but I'm going after the customers they seem to have a forgotten. It will allow people to surf the long tail to their heart's content! It's time to give everyone complete control of their audio experience.

In preparation for a roadshow, I will send out an invitation to this community to join together in a live session. The next evite you will get from me won't be an annoying noisy animation (sorry about that) ... it will be an invitation to this session. It should be interesting.

This could be huge ... how fun!


Allan Isfan
Engineer with an Iron Ring

Thursday, October 05, 2006


The Long Tail

I’m finally catching up with my reading and would like to share some concepts from the book “The Long Tail” by Chris Anderson that I found quite fascinating. Note that Chris Anderson is editor in chief of Wired, one my absolute favorite magazines. This topic has been blogged to death. However, most people I have spoken to recently have never heard of this so I feel compelled to provide a brief summary since it is a very critical concept for today's economy.

The key premise of “The Long Tail” is that the economy is shifting away from hits to niches. In the past, if something was not a hit, it was essentially considered a market failure since non-hits did not have any economic viability. When products were predominantly sold in physical bricks and mortar stores, the cost to keep an item on a shelf was such that it has to sell very well in order to justify the expense. If you were a musician and your CD was not expected to be a huge seller, it was not carried by music stores and you essentially sold nothing. Labels only heavily promoted bands they thought would make it and the rest were left out in the cold. In effect the labels and stores were the filter essentially deciding for you what is good and what is bad.

However, with the advent of the internet, the cost to make a product available to the public dropped significantly. This cost can approach $0 for electronic content like music. For physical products like books, storing items in a warehouse is much cheaper than shelf space at your local books store. Amazon can therefore make money even on items that don’t sell in large volumes. As people now had access to a much greater variety of products, purchasing patterns changed significantly. Although hits and top brands still exist, people are spending much more money on non-hits or niches.

You can see evidence of this everywhere. Take television as an example. Not so many years ago, there were only a few TV channels and no internet. Everyone essentially watched the same shows. Fast forward to the present and the number of niche cable channels is incredible. Each individual niche by itself may not be a huge power by itself but if you take them all together, the revenue is significant compared to the top channels such as NBC, CBS, ABC, CBC (ha ha ha). In many industries, selling many niches is more lucrative than selling a few hits. As Chris puts it, “Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More”.


But … there’s more. Simply providing choice is not enough. It can be overwhelming and may turn customers away. The real magic comes from helping the customer find what he wants effectively and efficiently. If you ever travel and need to book a hotel somewhere, your first stop should be trip advisor or other sites like it. Travelers share their experience and rate the hotels allowing you to make an informed decision. Google is the ultimate success story in this space. The founders realized years ago that people would value a tool that lets them find what they need fast. I use Google at least 20 times a day … I can’t image surfing the net without it.

So the summary is …. there is huge opportunity in niches but you have to provide people the tools to find what they need. Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon), Brin and Page (founders of Google) figured this out long before most of us and as a result are ridiculously rich.

I’ve only scratched the surface here. I strongly recommend you get you hands on the book (got mine in three days from Amazon) and/or check out In my next post, I will touch on the impact of this market transition on my own startup concepts.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


to the top ... who's in?

How fitting to take a trip to new york city before making a major decision. This place is quite amazing in so many ways ... definitely very inspiring. Although sky scrapers and bright lights come to mind first, the history of this place is equally amazing.

Since this was my wife's first trip here, we had to cover the highlights. As we were approaching the statue of liberty by boat, I was reminded of the first trip I took here as a kid. My family drove down from Quebec city right after getting our Canadian citizenship (came to canada from romania with a one year stop in france). As we approached the border, I could tell my father was getting emotional. He held it together while getting through the border but one we got to the other side, he started crying, a very rare event. After years of dreaming about this moment, going through hell in a communist country and never thinking the dream would come true, the power of the moment was too much. I will never forget that moment ... ever. It reminds me how fortunate I am that anything is possible. Immigrants helped build this great place and I'm going to do my part.

So what does this have to do with start ups you ask?

Quite a bit actually. It takes a lot of courage think that you can do something significant when you are essentially nobody. Evidence of this courage and the associated success are extremely evident here. Most of the people that build this place came here with nothing but learned the language and did amazing things from building the longest bridge at the time (Brooklyn Bridge) to starting a major broadcasting company (NBC). It has allowed me to put away the fear and given me the energy to go for gold.

So where are things at with the start up?

I've documented a fairly long list of ideas, broken them up into three groups (primary, secondary and crazy) and presented these to the partners at the VC where I'm an EIR. After some excellent feedback, I've narrowed it down to a short list of three ideas I'm taking to the next level.

There's one in particular that I just can't seem to stop thinking about or shoot down. It nearly totally consumes my mind, even my dreams. It’s not about getting rich or being famous ... it’s about this thing that feels so right it cannot be wrong. It’s a long shot but I'm going for it! I can't wait to get going! It’s good to be alive!

Although I have to stay in stealth mode, I’m going to need some help from S/W and H/W hackers in order to build a prototype. Who’s in? If you think I'm crazy, check out this guy. He probably rakes in more than most of us after tax.


Allan Isfan
Engineer with an Iron Ring
PS. look for a separate post on Tuesday related to NYC and wired nextfest