Navigating the trough of sorrow

While I was reading through most of the success stories that were published on IndieHackers.com, it occurred to me that my project GetData.IO really took longer than most others to gain significant traction, a full 5 years actually.

The beginning

I first stumbled upon this project back in December 2012 when I was trying to solve two other problems of my own.

In my first problem, I was trying to identify the best stocks to buy on the Singapore Stock Exchange. While browsing through the stocks listed on their website, I soon realize that most stock exchanges as well as other financial websites gear their data presentation towards quick buy and sell behaviors. If you were looking to get data for granular analysis based on historical company performance as opposed to stock price movements, its like pulling teeth. Even then, important financial data I needed for decision making purposes were spread across multiple websites. This first problem lead me to write 2 web-scrappers, one for SGX.com and the other for Yahoo Finance, to extract data-sets which I later combined to help me with my investment decision-making process.

Once I happily parked my cash, I went back to working on my side project then. It was a travel portal which aggregates all the travel packages from tour agencies located in Southeast Asia. It was not long before I encountered my second problem… I had to write a bunch of web-scrapers again to pull data from vendor sites which do not have the APIs! Being forced to write my 3rd, 4th and maybe 5th web-scraper within a single week lead me to put on hold all work and step back to look at the bigger picture.

The insight

Being a web developer, and understanding how other web developers think, it quickly occurred to me the patterns that repeat themselves across webpage listings as well as nested webpages. This is especially true for naming conventions when it came to CSS styling. Developers tend to name their CSS classes the way they would actual physical objects in the world.

I figured if there existed a Semantic Query Language that is program independent, it would provide the benefit of querying webpages as if they were database tables while providing for clean abstraction of schema from the underlying technology. These two insights still prove true today after 6 years into the project.

The trough of sorrow

While the first 5 years depicted in the trend line above seem peaceful due to a lack of activity, it felt anything but peaceful. During this time, I was privately struggling with a bunch of challenges.

Team management mistakes and pre-mature scaling

First and foremost was team management. During the inception of the project my ex-schoolmate from years ago approached me to ask if there was any project that he could get involved in. Since I was working on this project, it was a natural that I would invited him to join the project. We soon got ourselves into an incubator in Singapore called JFDI.

In hindsight, while the experience provided us with general knowledge and friends, it really felt like going through a whirlwind. The most important piece of knowledge I came across during the incubation period was this book recommendation?—?The Founder’s dilemma. I wished I read the book before I made all of the mistakes I did.

There was a lot of hype (see the blip in mid-2013), tension and stress during the period between me and my ex-schoolmate. We went our separate ways due to differences in vision of how the project should proceed shortly after JDFI Demo Day. It was not long before I grew the team to a size of 6 and had it disbanded, realizing it was naive to scale in size before figuring out the monetization model.

Investor management mistakes

During this period of time, I also managed to commit a bunch of grave mistakes which I vow never to repeat again.

Mistake #1 was being too liberal with the stock allocation. When we incorporated the company, I was naive to believe the team would stay intact in its then configuration all the way through to the end. The cliff before vesting were to begin was only 3 months with full vesting occurring in 2 years. When my ex-schoolmate departed, the cap table was in a total mess with a huge chunk owned by a non-operator and none left for future employees without significant dilution of existing folks. This was the first serious red-flag when it came to fund raising.

Mistake #2 was giving away too much of the company for too little, too early in the project before achieving critical milestones. This was the second serious red-flag that really turned off follow up would-be investors.

Mistake #3 was not realizing the mindset difference of investors in Asia versus Silicon Valley, and thereafter picking the wrong geographical location (a.k.a network) to incubate the project. Incubating the project in the wrong network can be really detrimental to its future growth. Asian investors are inclined towards investing in applications that have a clear path to monetization while Silicon Valley investors are open towards investing in deep technology of which the path to monetization is yet apparent. During the subsequent period, I saw two similar projects incubated and successfully launched via Ycombinator.

The way I managed to fix the three problems above was to acquire funds I didn’t yet have by taking up a day job while relocating the project to back to the Valley’s network. I count my blessings for having friends who lend a helping hand when I was in a crunch.

Self-doubt

I remembered having the conversation with the head of the incubator two years into the project during my visit back to Singapore when he tried to convince me the project was going nowhere and I should just throw in the towel. I managed to convince him and more importantly myself to give it go for another 6 months till the end of the year.

I remember the evenings and weekends alone in my room while not working on my day job. In between spurts of coding, I would browse through the web or sit staring at the wall trying to envision how product market fit would look like. As what Steve Jobs mentioned once in his lecture, it felt like pushing against a wall with no signs of progress or movement whatever so. If anything, it was a lot of frustration, self-doubt and dejection. A few times, I felt like throwing in the towel and just giving up. For a period of 6 months in 2014, I actually stopped touching the code in total exasperation and just left the project running on auto-pilot, swearing to never look at it again.

The hiatus was not to last long though. A calling is just like the siren, even if somewhat faint sometimes, it calls out to you in the depths of night or when just strolling along on the serene beaches of California. It was not long before I was back on my MacBook plowing through the project again with renewed vigor.

First signs of life

It was mid-2015, the project was still not showing signs of any form of traction. I had by then stockpiled some cash from my day job and was starting to get interested in acquiring a piece of real estate with the hope of generating some cashflow to bootstrap the project while freeing up my own time. It was during this period of time that I got introduced to my friend’s room mate who also happened to be interested in real estate.

We started meeting on weekends and utilizing GetData.IO to gather real estate data for our real estate investment purposes. We were gonna perform machine learning for real estate. The scope of the project was really demanding. It was during this period of dog fooding that I started understanding how users would use GetData.IO. It was also then when I realized how shitty and unsuited the infrastructure was for the kind and scale of data harvesting required for projects like ours. It catalyzed a full rewrite of the infrastructure over the course of the next two years as well as brought the semantic query language to maturity.

Technical challenges

Similar to what Max Levchin mentioned in the book Founder’s at work, during this period of time there was always this fear in the back of my mind that I would encounter technical challenges which would be unsolvable.

The site would occasionally go down as we started scaling the volume of daily crawls. I would spend hours on the weekends digging through the logs to attempt at reproducing the error so as to understand the root cause. The operations was like a (data) pipeline, scaling one section of the pipeline without addressing further down sections would inevitably cause fissures and breakage. Some form of manual calculus in the head would always need to be performed to figure out the best configuration to balance the volume and the costs.

The number 1 hardest problem I had to tackle during this period of time was the problem of caching and storage. As the volume of data increase, storage cost increase and so did wait time required before data could be downloaded. This problem brought down the central database a few times.

After procrastinating for a while as the problem festered in mid-2016, I decided that it was to be the number 1 priority to be solved. I spend a good 4 months going to big-data and artificial intelligence MeetUps in the Bay Area to check out the types of solutions available for the problem faced. While no suitable solutions were found, the 4 months helped elicit corner cases to the problem which I did not previously thought of. I ended up building my own in-house solution.

Traction and Growth

An unforeseen side effect of solving the storage and caching problem was its effect on SEO. The effects on SEO would not be visible until mid-2017 when I started seeing increased volume of organic traffic to the site. As load times got reduced from more than a minute in some cases to less than 400 milliseconds seconds, the volume of pages indexed by bots would increase, accompanied by increase in volume of visitors and reduction in bounce rates.

Continued education

It was in early-2016 that I came across an article expounding the benefits of reading widely and deeply by Paul Graham which prompted me to pick up my hobby of reading again. A self-hack demonstrated to me by the same friend, who helped relocated me here to the Bay Area, which I pursued vehemently got me reading up to 1.5 books a week. These are books which I summarized on my personal blog for later reference. All the learnings developed my mental model of the world and greatly aided in the way I tackled the project.

Edmodo’s VP of engineering hammered in the importance of not boiling the ocean when attempting to solve a technical problem, of always being judicious with the use of resource during my time working as a tech-lead under his wing.  Another key lesson learned from him is that in some circumstances being liked and being effective do not go hand in hand. As the key decision maker, it is important to steadfastly practice the discipline of being effective.

Head of Design, Tim and Lukas helped me appreciate the significance of UX during my time working with them and how it ties to user psychology.

Edmodo’s CEO introduced us to mindfulness meditation late-2016 to help us weather through the turbulent times that was happening within the company then. It was rough. The practice which I have adopted till to date has helped keep my mind balance while navigating the uncertainties of the path I am treading.

Edmodo’s VP of product sent me for a course late-2017 which helped consolidate all the knowledge I have acquired till then into a coherent whole. The knowledge gained has helped greatly accelerated the progress of GetData.IO. During the same period, I was also introduced by him the Vipasanna mediation practice which coincidentally a large percentage of the management team practices.

One very significant paradigm shift I observed in myself during this period of continued education is the observed relationship between myself and the project. It has changed from an attitude of urgently needing to succeed at all cost to an attitude of open curiosity and fascination as one would an open ended science project.

Moving forward

To date, I have started working full time on the project again. GetData.IO has the support of more than 1,500 community members worldwide. Our mission is to turn the Web into the fully functional Giant Graph Database of Human Knowledge. Financially, with the help of our community members, the project is now self-sustaining. I feel grateful for all the support and lessons gained during this 6 year journey. I look forward to the journey ahead as I continue along my path.

Key aways from Anabasis, Xenophon

Anabasis, Xenophon
  • The same set of raw facts can be used to construct a really positive story or a really negative one. Choose your frame wisely.
  • Ethics is not universal, but restricted for application only on a group. In domains where ethics don’t exist, Might means right applies.
  • Do not count on continued gratitude and love from the crowd. They will just as soon turn against you as they would worship you
  • When dealing within conflict first elicit all existing context, thereafter make your case by applying clear logic and consistent argument.
  • Be wary of individuals with dubious characters. If anything, you can always trust them to stay dubious.
  • Market is not always readily available. There needs to be willing buyers and willing sellers
  • The vision will stay the same while the nitty gritty details should remain flexible to cater to changes as required.
  • Timing is important. Some times are not conducive for specific activities while others are. The use of sacrifice /blood magic should be helpful in decipheringbthe present moment given a clear binary frame.

Reflections in the Judea desert

Nature has two types of changes

Type 1 Change: Change that is so gradual it is almost not perceptible to the eye

Type 2 Change: Change that is discontinuous, things seemingly stay the same for a long time but dramatically shifts when change happens.

I-Ching, the book of changes might have been a simple framework used by the elders to help predict environmental changes resultant of interactions between the broad categories of Water, Earth, Wood and Fire. It could be speculated the intent was to avoid starting initiatives during natural cycles that are counter productive.

It is likely given the long lapse of time between the originators (people who knew what it was used for) and subsequent users (people who don’t know its intended use), it became shrouded in mysticism and used for spiritual and divination purposes instead. Another explanation for the conflation of function and mysticism can be attributed to the intertwine between nature and of religion.

Nature and space

Nature provides a really vast space for all its creatures. In this space, majority of changes fall into the type 1 category. Given the thorough lack of sensory stimulation for prolonged periods of time, all sense of personal identity inevitably disintegrates. It can speculated man through sheer boredom sets himself apart by putting up walls to shield himself from the vastness of nature. He does so by setting rules and norms, making music and engaging in drama with other men.

Ali the Bedouin huddled over his iPhone to stave off boredom while riding his camel across the unchanging landscape

The desert in the canyon is observed to be flooded after sudden huge volume of rain

Type 1 change a dramatic landscape that formed slowly overtime through gradual erosion of soil

Reflections on the Dead Sea

View of the sky when floating on the Dead Sea

Reflection

It did not take too long for me to arrive at the dea sea after driving out of Jerusalem.

Waddling into the waters of the Dead Sea I was at first skeptical I would actually float. I was quickly proven wrong. I did float.

I experimented to figure out the most relaxed position I could adopt without drowning.

It quickly dawned on me, I was in a natural sensory deprivation tank. I was freely suspended on the water feeling zero body weight. Overhead, the clear blue sky with not a hint of cloud reminds me of the blue screen of death commonly observed when the OS crashes. My ears, submerged in water, were insulated from any noise I would otherwise hear.

This was close to the same location John the Baptist got himself baptized. I wonder how long he stayed floating in the waters of the Dead Sea when he went through the process.

I stayed suspended in this position focusing my full attention on my 5 senses. It was totally fascinating to be swept around by the ebb and flows of the Dead Sea. I conclude while the mineral concentration is abnormally high, the Dead Sea is not dead.

 

Chance morning encounters in Temple Mount

After multiple failed iterations attempting to visit Temple Mount, on my final morning in the holy city of Jerusalem, I managed to get into the venue.

I sat myself down and focused my full attention on my five senses to find out for myself if this space would be any different from other spaces I visited in the city.

20 minutes into my undivided attention, I was approached. He proceeded to explain his purpose for seeking my attention.

The purpose was to convey a very simple message. There is only one reality/collective consciousness and there have been many people/messengers sent on different occasions to remind us of this.

It made obvious sense. He seemed really happy when I agreed there were no contradictions in the statement he just made. He then proceeded to make a video of us voicing that statement in his language. Which I happily complied. He left me a card before his happy departure.

Once again mustered my full attention on my 5 senses. It was no long before I was once again approached. This time by a dude wearing shades.

”What are you doing here?” He asked in a not so happy manner. “I am sitting” I replied. “Go” he motioned, which I did. Thus my attempt to sense if anything out of the ordinary at this venue was brought to and end.

Useful references

  • www.islam-guide.com
  • www.newmuslimguide.com