Fast Company Loves the Simplicity & Power of Hipmunk

Getting back on track to a user/viewer/shopper experience--I recently heard about Hipmunk. The nice thing about this interface is how clean the design is, while still offering a sophisticated pricing/display mechanism. I really hope it takes off--but the reason I think it will is because the user psychographic which motivated the hipmunk team to build such a thing is driven by a surprising trend: online bookers are getting smarter. It's not a coincidence that hipmunk didn't emerge at the same time as the old schoolers--10 years ago no one knew what they were looking at and users wanted big radio buttons and simple, prioritized list displays. Now people are much more used to infographics and far more sophisticated ways of displaying information online. They've also gotten to understand that booking travel is complex, and, in reality, pretty difficult. The "Travel Made Easy!" (or whatever) entreaties of yesteryear have created a disillusioned online user base. Users know they're being gamed and that travel isn't easy to buy--so why should it look that way? It shouldn't, of course.

Thanks for the writeup, Michael! The author has a great point there: power ticket shoppers are much savvier than they were a decade ago, yet most flight search technology hasn't really caught up.

Of course, we hope hipmunk isn't so sophisticated that it's intimidating -- rather, that it's so user-focused, anyone can have a refreshingly agony-free flight search.

Fantastic Customer Review of xkcd: volume 0

Anyone who has said, “Comics are stupid,” has never read XKCD. Requiring knowledge of math, science, computing, and pop culture, XKCD should be required reading for a PhD...a PHD in Awesome.

XKCD follows the typical webcomic format: comics varying in length from a single panel to a few pages. In short, you are never sure what you are going to get either in style or in substance...and that’s okay! Part of the excitement is that there are no boundaries. The comics can be as long or as short as they need to be. This allows Randall Munroe, the creator, to move beyond the confines of a typical strip. Whereas most strips have a single genre or hook (be it gag strips, auto-bio, or commentary), each day at XKCD brings with it limitless possibilities.

One day it may be a cute comic about a new relationship. Another day it may be a comic that deals with open source code and competing visions of the internet. A third day may be a treatise on the reality of all existence and the possibilities of time travel. All of this is conveyed in simple stick figures and minimal setting and background.

But, you probably knew all that. See, what I am finding is that, at least with webcomics, people reading the collections (like me!) are probably late to the game. There are legions of fans who regularly follow the comic on line and are well aware of the awesomeness of whatever comic I am reviewing. The real question for those readers is, “Why should I bother to buy a collection of something that I can get for free on the internet?” For most webcomics, it comes down to a desire to support the creator of the comic in a tangible way. However, with XKCD, there is another reason: the author provides a new and all-encompassing experience in the printed version.

Munroe has gone through his archives and culled some of his favorite strips from the early years of XKCD. For most fans, this would be enough to pick up the book. However, he has filled this collection with notes and information about the strips, as well as challenging the reader along the way. From coded messages at the bottom of most pages, to the binary numbering system, Munroe has found a way to offer something to the people who purchase this book that is not available to his regular readers. Even people who have read every strip will find something new and exciting on each page.

These coded messages exemplify the range of topics and knowledge which is common in XKCD. There are coded messages in numeric and alphabetical form as well as visual patterns and some that I can’t even begin to describe. There are even a few that are in QR code requiring you to break out your iPhone and go over them with your QR reader app.

In short, XKCD is an all-encompassing reading experience. It challenges every reader to interact with the material, while rewarding the regular reader for making the effort and spending the time and money on this print version. Pick it up today and see what you have been missing!

Thanks for the great review, stumptowntrade!

I should also mention that it makes a great Christmas gift for that special geek in your life!

Oh, and breadpig builds schools with our profits! What's not to like?

Hey Congress, Tax Me More - Please!

As the Economist reports, "Mr Obama and most Democrats would like to prevent any rise for families with incomes below $250,000, but not for wealthier ones. The Republicans want to forestall any increases at all."

I wish more households with incomes north of $250,000 (or individuals with more than $200,000) would say this: Please, raise my taxes back to those Clinton levels.

I can afford it. I'm a big boy. And a small business owner. I promise I'll get by.

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Missing the point of WikiLeaks - @TheEconomist nails it

Yet the debate over WikiLeaks has proceeded as if the matter might conclude with the eradication of these kinds of data dumps—as if this is a temporary glitch in the system that can be fixed; as if this is a nuisance that can be made to go away with the application of sufficient government gusto. But I don't think the matter can end this way. Just as technology has made it easier for governments and corporations to snoop ever more invasively into the private lives of individuals, it has also made it easier for individuals, working alone or together, to root through and make off with the secret files of governments and corporations. WikiLeaks is simply an early manifestation of what I predict will be a more-or-less permanent feature of contemporary life, and a more-or-less permanent constraint on strategies of secret-keeping.  

I was asked this at Yale on Monday about all of the WikiLeaks drama and tried to articulate what the Economist explains splendidly here.

This is simply the new world we live in. And it's going to be mighty awkward for the old guard to adjust to that until they're replaced by those of us who've grown up with this understanding of the [new] status quo. Shutting down WikiLeaks tomorrow isn't going to change the fact that a hundred more can instantly spring up -- this is a new age of information dissemination.

Bonus material from a commenter, lifesized:
Add to the Economist summation further analysis by the Guardian and John Robb discussing the secrecy tax

What Good is Wall Street? (or, Builders vs. Extractors - a @cdixon insight)

But Philippon and Reshef determined that up to half of the pay premium was due to something much simpler: people in the financial sector are overpaid. “In most industries, when people are paid too much their firms go bankrupt, and they are no longer paid too much,” he told me. “The exception is when people are paid too much and their firms don’t go broke. That is the finance industry.”

On Wall Street dealing desks, profits and losses are evaluated every afternoon when trading ends, and the firms’ positions are “marked to market”—valued on the basis of the closing prices. A trader can borrow money and place a leveraged bet on a certain market. As long as the market goes up, he will appear to be making a steady profit. But if the market eventually turns against him his capital may be wiped out. “You can create a trading strategy that overnight makes lots of money, and it can take months or years to find out whether it is real money or luck or excessive risk-taking,” Philippon explained. “Sometimes, even then it is hard.” Since traders (and their managers) get evaluated on a quarterly basis, they can be paid handsomely for placing bets that ultimately bankrupt their companies. “In most industries, a good idea is rewarded because the company generates profits and real cash flows,” Philippon said. “In finance, it is often just a trading gain. The closer you get to financial markets the easier it is to book funny profits.”

New York programmers, I hope you'll join team "builders." Where's the challenge in extracting wealth from a system that has no punishment for failure?

Speaking of which, can we please create a financial system where risk actually has, you know, risks?

Our Y Combinator Summer 05 Application [what would lead to reddit]

Steve & I ventured up to Cambridge, MA on our senior year spring break to hear Paul Graham read his essay, "How to Start a Startup". He announced Y Combinator shortly thereafter and we sent in the following application, which PG & Steve have allowed me to publish. We hope it's somewhat instructive, or at least entertaining.

Oh, and we'd love for someone to actually do this startup so we can stop waiting in line.

We were rejected after our interview, but Paul called us the next morning as we rode back to Charlottesville to say we could join YC if we came up with a new idea. That idea was Reddit.

Read about all of this and more in my book, Without Their Permission.

I've redacted Andy's personal info since his relationship with our startup didn't go beyond the application (he didn't come interview with us and had decided to stay at UVA after graduation).


Please list your company's name, url (if any) and a phone number (preferably a cell phone).

Redbrick Solutions, LLC (No website, yet).


Please list the founders, one per line, with age; year, school, degree, and subject for each degree; slashdot id; email address; and url. Put unfinished degrees in parens. List the main contact first. Put asterisks before any who won't come to Cambridge.

Alexis Ohanian, 21; Senior, University of Virginia, (B.S. Commerce in Management & Intl. Business and B.A. History); kn0thing (870409); [redacted];

Steve Huffman, 21; Senior, University of Virginia, (B.S. Computer Science); mrhat56 (760594); [redacted]

Andy [redacted], 21, Senior, University of Virginia, (B.S. Computer Science); [redacted]; [redacted]; [redacted].


Tell us in one or two sentences something about each founder that shows he or she is an "animal," in the sense described in How to Start a Startup.

Animals? We're a freaking zoo.

Andy: When Paul described the type of person whom he believes is an animal at his "How to Start a Startup" talk, Andy was the first person of whom I (Steve) thought.

Steve: Steve regularly works extra hours at his current programming job, even when over-time isn't an option (i.e. working for free) to fix nagging bugs. At school, Steve often works late nights with Computer Science friends helping them get assignments working.

Alexis: See current schedule. When it comes to design, Alexis literally won't rest until every pixel is aligned--sleep deprivation is the status quo and when it comes to working in general, coffee makes sure he's the last one to go to sleep at night and the first one up in the morning.


Tell us in one or two sentences something about each founder that shows a high level of ability.

Alexis is currently writing 80page Honors thesis on 20th century German history, taking a 21 credit hour semester (7 classes), acting in the lead role of a student film, preparing for an International Business German exam in April, fulfilling the final requirements for his dual-concentration degree in the McIntire School of Commerce and planning a startup software company.

Andy: [redacted]

Steve: Steve was hired out of high school to work as a programmer/systems administrator for a local software company (Image Matters LLC).


For founders who are hackers: what cool things have you built? (Extra points for urls of demos or screenshots.)

Steve: Steve is currently working on his undergraduate thesis, which is a web application written in Lisp. Other notable projects include a rigid-body simulator to lay out graphs and a distributed raytracer. (Some screenshots from the raytracer are at ).

Andy: I wrote a set of php scripts to accept an image, find barcodes, decode the barcode, and look up prices on amazon. (Note: Paul, if you recall from when we spoke in Cambridge, this was something we spoke about).

Alexis: He's done our logo. View at


How long have you known one another and how did you meet?

Steve + Alexis: Going on 4 years, we lived across the hall from one another in a freshman dorm -- we met over a game of Gran Turismo.

Steve + Andy: Have been in the same CS program for nearly four years but did not really meet until about a year ago.

Alexis + Andy: Met two days ago over dinner arranged by Steve.


What is your company going to make?

We are going to build an infrastructure that will allow consumers to order food from their cell phones (via a text-interface, rather than voice), drive to the restaurant and pick up their order. The consumer will already have registered with us and submitted their credit card information. When the consumer actually orders a meal, the transaction is completely cashless.

Restaurants will also have an account with us, through which they can access their menus via a web interface. Restaurants will be free to update their meals, update the prices, and offer specials (etc.) as they wish.

There is a possibility that we will need to design some type of hardware that can be installed in a restaurant that will receive orders from our system (e.g. a box that sits under McDonald's counter and puts orders into their already-computerized system).


If your project is software, what OS(es) and language(s) will you use, and why?

Steve likes Lisp; Andy likes perl. We haven't begun implementation yet, so we will see what works best when the time comes.

As far as OS(es) go. We will likely use a *nix OS as that is what we use best.


If you've already started working on it, how long have you been working and how many lines of code (if applicable) have you written?

No code written yet.


If you have an online demo, what's the url? (Big extra points for this.)


How long will it take before you have a prototype? A beta? A version 1 you can charge for?

We are hoping to implement a working prototype (i.e. an end-to-end implementation) by the end of the summer. This prototype should take an order, charge the user, and deliver the order to the target restaurant.


How will you partition the work this summer; who will work on what?

Steve and Andy will do the coding, Alexis will work on the company's website, market research, finances, general PR, and business plan development. Also, Alexis is handy with graphics and HTML and will likely do websites and graphics-design to earn the company some extra cash (which we do currently).


If you already have a business plan, what's the url? (Don't send us your business plan. Put it on a server and tell us the url. Ascii text preferred. Don't password protect it.)


How will you make money? Who will your customers be, how many are there, and how will they hear about you?

We will make money by charging a % commission on every order made through our service. Our business model is B2B, and our business clients will be restaurants. We already have a restaurateur in our starting market who is very interested and once we have a proven service, we'll directly sell it to other restaurants. The product benefits greatly from word-of-mouth advertising (particularly as recent graduates of the local University), but direct sales to clients will be made by Alexis.


Will you do price discrimination?

Depending on the size of the restaurant (and order volume) we would be dealing with, yes we would charge different buyers different prices for our service.


Who are your competitors, and who might become competitors? Who do you fear most?

  • (Partnered with, a subsidiary of Oracle Corp.)
  • SeamlessWeb
  • SnapFood

We suspect if our plan actually works, competitors will appear out of the woodwork. We can beat smaller competitors (like the current ones we have listed) because we will offer a superior product.

What we fear most is probably a competitor with a huge bankroll steam-rolling us to market.


Who will lose most if you succeed? (This need not be a competitor; TV networks have been hurt by email.)

Restaurant employees who will be displaced by structural unemployment as our service reduces the labor costs of restaurants.


Which companies, in order, are most likely to buy you?

An IT company (e.g. Oracle and
A Telecomm company
A fast-food chain (e.g. McDonald's, Subway)


What do you know about your business that other companies in it just don't get?

That our type of service is far superior to the existing browser-based online ordering format, which restaurants (despite the inferiority, still pay for). Restaurants are the real customers in our business and should be interested in a more robust service that would take orders faster and without error; consumers don't want to be waiting in line to get the same burger meal they order every Tuesday at lunch.


What's new about what you're doing?

Ordering food from cell phones is not an option currently available to consumers. This is a convenience that has been talked about in passing but never implemented successfully.

The restaurants will have an easy (free) method of managing their menus that are available to consumers.


Why would it be hard for someone else to duplicate?

It's not, but if we can establish relationships with restaurants and develop strong brand loyalty from end-users, we should be able to secure a niche in the market.


Have you made any discoveries you consider patentable?

Not yet.


What might go wrong? (This is a test of imagination, not confidence.)

  • Restaurants are not interested.
  • Consumers are not interested.
  • We cannot offer a smooth-enough user experience to promote the growth of our business.
  • We botch the handling of users' credit cards and cost them money, eventually costing us money and users.
  • A restaurant may botch the order, reflecting poorly on us. Or, a restaurant does not manage their end of the system (e.g. their fax-machine breaks, preventing the delivery of orders).
  • Unreliable data transfer from cell phones could cause an order to be dropped or duplicated.
  • Fraud (and other nefarious activity).


If you're already incorporated, when were you? Who are the shareholders and what percent of the company do each own? If you've had funding, how much, at what valuation(s)?

Our LLC was organized in Virginia on October 22, 2004. Steve and Alexis are the 2 shareholders and each own 50% of the company. We have been entirely self-funded up to this point.

Andy is a recent addition. We will divide the company into thirds the next time we meet with our lawyer.


If you're not incorporated yet, please list the percent of the company you plan to give each founder, and anyone else you plan to give stock to. (This question is more for you than us.)


If you'll have expenses beyond the living costs of your founders, Internet access, server rental, etc., what will they be?


Describe, in one sentence each, any companies any of you have started before. If they failed, why? (We consider failed companies valuable experience too.)


If you could trade a 100% chance of $1 million for a 10% chance of a larger amount, how large would it have to be? Answer for each founder. (There is no right answer.)

Steve: A million dollars is a lot of money. Considering the paltry amount we need to actually build the system (we need to eat), a million dollars would go a long way. Since we would have only a 10% of the larger amount, I would expect $1 million to be 10% of the large value (i.e. $10 million).

Andy: The statistician in me wants to say that the expected value of the second item would need to be more than $1 million (so $10 million).

Alexis: See above. I tend to be more risk-adverse (ironic, given how gung-ho I am about this startup despite the pitiful odds of its success), so it would have to be a few million more than $10mil.

Note: Andy and Steve came up with their answers seperately. Alexis copied us.


If your startup seems at the end of the summer to have a good chance of making you rich, which of the founders would be likely to commit to continue working on it full time over the next couple years?

All of us want to work on this full-time. The only reason we would not would be for strictly financial reasons.


Which of the founders would still want to be working for this company in 10 years, if it were successful, and which would rather sell out earlier and do something else? (Again, no right answer.)

Alexis: Hard to say at this point, but if the opportunity to sell presented itself, I'd likely seize it and enroll in a graduate program in foreign affairs.

Andy: I think half the fun is coming up with the ideas.

Steve: Ten years from now I hope that we would have either sold the company for gazillions of dollars, or realized we could not do so and tried to come up with something new.


Are any of the founders covered by noncompetes or intellectual property agreements that overlap with your project? Will any be under consulting contracts this summer?



Was any of your code written by someone who is not one of your founders? If so, how can you safely use it? (Open source is ok of course.)



Will any of the founders have other jobs, responsibilities, or consulting work this summer?

Steve has accepted a programming job offer from a small software company (he has not signed any restrictive agreements); pay from which was going to fund the beginnings of our company. Whether he continues with this company depends largely on the outcome of this application.


Tell us something surprising or amusing that one of you has discovered, and who discovered it. (The answer need not be remotely related to your project.)

Steve has been convinced for a while that it is possible to use neural networks to predict the stock market. He recently heard word of someone succeeding in doing such.


What else would you have asked if you were us?

How much of your life are you willing to give up to start a company?

Empowering Young Entrepreneurs in Nepal (@breadpig approved!)

Twenty-year-old Pushpa Basnet was on a college field trip to a women's jail in Kalimati when she met Kanchi, daughter of one of the inmates. Basnet, unaware that when parents are imprisoned their homeless children often stay with them, was surprised to see a child there. "At that moment I knew I had to do something to make the lives of these children better," says Pushpa. That was when she opened the Early Childhood Development Centre.

Now, seven years later, Pushpa is sheltering and educating 35 children whose parents are in jail. She also runs a day care centre for children who are too young to be away from their mothers. But though she collected money from friends and family to support the centre, she was all too aware of the need to become self-sufficient.

Stay tuned for some great news about a partnership between breadpig and Change Fusion Nepal!

They're doing some great work that we're excited to be a part of -- it reminds me a lot of Y Combinator...