Five Startup Ideas

"The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas." -Linus Pauling

Video Editing Swiss Army Knife

I just want to chop off the last two seconds of an MP4. Is that so much to ask?

Usually Quicktime Pro, VirtualDub, FFmpeg, or Adobe Media Encoder will do the job, but there’s no simple application that can perform all of the minor tasks that I don’t want to load up Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro to do.

There’s a ton of lame shareware in this market (many of which are illegally built on top of FFmpeg.) And then there’s always iMovie or Windows Movie Maker. (Even just the words “Windows Movie Maker” make me shudder.) Some new web apps have the right idea (likeJayCut) but I’ll be damned if you want me to upload a 2 gig file just to cut, convert, and download back the first 750 megs of it.

Basically, I want an Adobe Lightroom for video. I’d be more than happy to pay for a clean and simple piece of software to cut, merge, scale, crop, and transcode video files. (Add some basic three-wheel color correction at most.) With the recent proliferation of video DSLRs, there’s definitely a growing market for something like this.

College Recommendation Engine

High schools, colleges, parents, and students all have a vested interest in successfully matching potential applicants with higher education institutions. This is no easy task, as evidenced by the high transfer rates among undergrads. Studies have found that a majority of students attend multiple institutions before graduating. [1]

The challenge here seems similar to that of building a successful dating service. The best approach may involve machine learning, but this doesn’t address the more fundamental question: What metrics signify a good match between a student (currently enrolled or post-graduation) and an institution?

The solution may instead lie in connecting currently enrolled students or alumni with prospective students. College admissions departments already facilitate this, but inevitably they introduce some bias. And it’s still necessary to determine what this connection should consist of. Just exchange email addresses? Or maybe there’s a better way to have students accurately convey what it’s like to be enrolled at a particular school.

My high school guidance department enthusiatically subscribed to Naviance. I had to log in and fill out an online survey with questions to the effect of “Do you like urban or rural areas? Are you interested in engineering or the liberal arts?” It then generated a list of colleges which fit my criteria and have accepted students with roughly my SAT scores. The list was marginally useful, but there has to be a better way to tackle this problem.

Stop Motion Animation Software

Stop motion animation is awesome. [2] When I last shopped around for stop motion software, I was surprised by how limited the options were. Admittedly, I didn’t give most of the selection much of a chance. But everything google turned up seemed to be either weak (or at least poorly designed) shareware or professional software that was way out of my price range. And ever since Adobe dropped their Stop Motion Recording Mode with the release of OnLocation CS4, none of the major editing suites ship with any stop motion recording capabilities.

A first release would just need some basic DSLR driver support, very basic video editing/encoding, onion skinning, and video playback.

Culinary Education Site

There are plenty of great recipe databases online. But it doesn’t take long to figure out that there’s more to cooking than just the recipes. It would be a wise investment for just about anyone to improve their culinary skills given the total number meals we’ll end up cooking in our lives. But actually enrolling in culinary school isn’t worth it for the average amateur chef. I’d love a go-to site with information on everything from proper knife technique to the difference between cooking fats. There are some great resources and food blogs out there, but I’m unaware of any comprehensive sites geared towards beginners.

I’m unsure of what the best approach would be here. Quality video content would be great for some topics, but less so for quick reference. Maybe vetted community-generated content would be the way to go.

Writing Education Application

No one doubts the benefits of being a good writer. But learning how to write well is hard. And teaching good writing is really hard. Although I strongly doubt that writing skills could be successfully taught solely by software, there must be some piece of technology that could benefit teachers and students. There must be some way to allow instructors to coach students while they’re in the process of writing, rather than simply commenting and correcting finished products. (A lot of good ideas could be drawn from EtherPad in developing something like this.)

Or perhaps software could serve a better role by interactively presenting the basic concepts of good writing. (I’m thinking of something like “TryRuby meets Strunk & White.”) And maybe there’s a way to more clearly expose how and why talented writers outline, flesh out, and edit their work in the ways that they do. With this in mind, exploring parallels between the teaching of writing and other skills may prove helpful. Perhaps the greatest teacher of the modern era could serve as inspiration.

Follow me on twitter: @noahlitvin

[1] Also, it’s worth acknowledging that not every student transfer occurs because of a “poor match” (e.g. Students may have financial or personal reasons as well.)



Timelapse Me

For about a month, I’ve documented each of my days in timelapse with a Brinno GardenWatchCam and posted the videos to YouTube. You can find me doing everything from playing basketball to shooting a music video to writing this blog post.

I got the idea from artist and engineer Dan Paluska. He noted in a talk given at the EdLab that the videos can serve as a mirror which can be used for self-improvement. Watching back some of my videos generated a few useful self-criticisms. (I should slouch less, smile more, eat breakfast more often, etc.) But the most noticeable effect began right when I turned the camera on.

I became aware of time - and how I decided to spend it - in a way that I never had before. Questions consciously presented themselves at every turn: What am I doing right now? Am I doing something interesting? More importantly, is my lifestyle something I’m proud of? Forfeiting so much of my privacy forced me to start living up to my own standards. “Should I watch another episode of Law & Order? I’ll work on that essay first.” On the whole, I became more productive. And there was much less, if any, drifting between daily activities. [1]

After watching even just one of these videos, you may have noticed something: my daily timelapse videos are, on the whole, boring. Some are really boring. That is, they amount to something like reality television minus the flashy editing. Of course, a large part of my boredom stems from my already knowing how I’ve spent my day. Other people’s daily timelapse videos I would find intriguing. It would be great to reconnect with a friend or family member, when unable to spend time with them in person, by watching back their day on the internet. And when deciding how to spend my own time, I’d love to see how others spend theirs.

Now if this doesn’t sound like a tech start-up pitch, I don’t know what does. A social network based on mass-produced timelapse cameras would fit right in with the slew of social media start-ups tapping into our desire to share our lives and pry into others’. [2] Bored? Log on and browse some of the highest rated daily timelapse videos from the most fun and interesting users! Single? Scope out potential dates based on how they spend their time! (Now isn’t that a terrifying concept?)

Would something like this actually be a viable business? I couldn’t say. Carrying the strange green device on me has elicited a pretty wide variety of reactions. A curious Barnes & Noble cashier seemed ready to run out and buy one for himself. But then there have been others who’ve expressed a terrible fear and hatred of cameras. Most reactions fall somewhere in between: Typically a polite “What’s that?” followed by an indifferent “Cool.” But there’ve also been some very interesting discussions sparked by the camera regarding self-image, privacy, social media, and related topics. So, if nothing else, it can make for a great conversation starter.

But whether or not there’s a profitable business model here, I would love to watch timelapse videos from a wide cross-section of cultures. How does an old man in Tanzania spend his day? A homeless person in the Bronx? A fourth grader in Nicaragua? Kanye West? And what about famous historical figures, society’s cliche role models, like Ghandi, Edison, or Mozart? Benjamin Franklin gives us something close:

via Can Do

But did he regularly follow this routine? For more details, we can read letters, journals, and autobiographies. But even still, this only gives us a biased retrospective interpretation of his life. Timelapse videos provide a sort of diary without this bias. (If I’ve spent half of my day watching television, it won’t be omitted or downplayed; I’ll be watching TV for half of the video.)

To be fair, this discussion is pretty silly considering daily timelapse videos of great historical figures don’t exist. And even if they did, I’m skeptical that they’d capture what it is that led to these people’s great achievements. There’s plenty of nuance in people’s behavior that gets lost in compressing a day down to a mute three minutes. As the biographer Plutarch wrote, “…oftentimes some slight circumstance, a word, or a jest, shows a man’s character better than battles with the slaughter of tens of thousands, and the greatest arrays of armies and sieges of cities.”

Despite this, there’s still a feeling that I’ve put an (albiet, low fidelity) copy of myself on the internet. There are certainly important elements of my character which aren’t captured in these videos. But don’t we primarily define others by how they spend their time (and often specifically between the hours of nine and five)? Many, if not most, introductions include the introducee’s career. “This is my dad. He’s an architect.” I am, in large part, the way I spend my time. So perhaps when considering the broad question “Who do I want to be?”, it isn’t wrong to focus on the more practical concern of how I’m spending my time right now.

Anders Ericsson’s 10,000 Hour Rule suggests what, in retrospect, seems obvious: I should spend my time practicing. If I want to do something extraordinary, genetic predisposition isn’t important after all. I just need to work at it for a long time. I’ll need to generate 2,000 minutes of mostly boring, repetitive timelapsed footage of a particular task. And perhaps it’s true that the non-existant timelapse videos of most of our role models would fit this description.But even if Ericsson has it all figured out, not everyone is striving to become the next Mozart or Bobby Fischer. Some would find a perfectly fulfilling life in working an average job and supporting a family. I’m not sure for myself what to aim for. Perhaps when confronted with the question “What should I do with my life?”, it isn’t right to look for an end product which I would be proud of, but rather a process which I would be proud of, a life that I wouldn’t be afraid to share. Needless to say, this lesson wasn’t exactly what I had expected to get from a GardenWatchCam.

Follow me on twitter: @noahlitvin

Watch me write this article… in timelapse! (Inspired by James Somers’ article The Simple Software That Could — but Probably Won’t — Change the Face of Writing

[1] Here’s an easy way to one-up Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret: Make a timelapse video (or normal video or even just a photo) of yourself doing your task every day and then upload them to the web. Tell a few people about it. As an added bonus, task permitting, you’ll be able to watch yourself make progress.

[2] Check out Devin Friedman’s excellent essay, Viral Me.


Lessons Learned: A non-designer’s attempt at a redesign

Last summer I decided to learn Ruby on Rails. I came up with a project to build and launch before the summer ended. A week before my deadline I realized something huge: Developing design skills is a summer project of it’s own. Eager to get the site online, I put together what I could and launched BookShout.

(Pretty ugly, but at least it had a fancy little javascript slideshow…)

Don’t (completely) re-invent the wheel.

I understand the desire to have a “unique and memorable design,” but basic design decisions can be (and, most of the time, should be) dictated by the norm. It’s no secret that most tech start-up websites look pretty similar (as was well articulated in this post). So from the very beginning, I decided to go with what was working for everyone else. For instance, I used a width of 950 pixels, a big sans serif headline, a dark footer, and rounded rectangular buttons.

It’s also helpful to seek out inspiration for more specific elements of your design. I searched for “books” on dribbble and came across this shot. It was exactly what I needed to get going on the header. (WebCreme and Smashing Magazine are also great sources of inspiration. Feel free to suggest others in the comments).

Small changes make a huge difference.

For the header, I took the text “BookShout” in Museo (which I found via Font Squirrel) and added a 1 pixel white drop shadow to get that nice inset look. I put a subtle gradient on the header’s background and applied Photoshop’s “Texturizer” with relief set to 1 pixel. Although the black text looked pretty good, a piece of advice from an oil painting class I took a few years ago came to mind: Avoid using pure black and pure white. So I set the text to a very dark blue. (A bit of color theory comes in handy here. Blue is complementary to the orangish-brown of the header background and makes the text “pop” a bit better). Voila!

Use gradients and drop shadows like salt and pepper.

Moving on to the buttons, I used the same dark blue for the background and added another 1 pixel white drop shadow and subtle gradient to the button. Generally, whenever a design element wasn’t looking too great, adding a gradient and a drop shadow helped. (Obviously, this isn’t to say it’s an appropriate solution to every design problem). Again heeding the advice above, I used an off-white for the text of the button.

Have a talented artist-friend.

I started to add content to the homepage, but it was looking pretty bare. I got in touch with my friend Jack of Jack & Zach Food and he sent me some great sketches. I ran them through Adobe Illustrator’s Live Trace and dropped them into the site. Lowering the opacity on the stack of books and adding a light glow around the open book made the page look more cohesive. In the process of putting this page together, it became very clear how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Adding that dashed line between the search box and the random book suggestion made the whole page look far better than a dashed line could by itself.

Take breaks.

This bit of advice is given all the time in all sorts of fields, but it seemed particularly helpful in design. Like a programmer, a designer may return to a particular problem anew and the solution can make itself apparent. But unique to the designer, what seemed to look great after hours of non-stop work can look much worse after time spent away from the desk.

So BookShout’s design is still a work-in-progress, but it is a big improvement. For my next design project, I plan to try out the 960 Grid System and decide on a color scheme in Adobe Kuler at the outset.

Follow me on twitter: @noahlitvin