Further Along the Road to Recovery
NWEN Entrepreneur University 2005: Passion, Endurance and Speed

The Re-emergence of Interrelativity

After months of seclusion, Interrelativity, Inc., is finally ready to re-emerge and open up to new business opportunities.  By way of brief background: Interrelativity designs, develops and deploys proactive display applications, software that runs on computers connected to large displays and sensors (e.g., RFID readers) that detect people nearby and show visual content that is related to those people (e.g., from their online profiles).  Our goal is to bring the benefits of social networking in virtual communities into physical communities, enhancing face-to-face networking opportunities at places and times -- such as conferences, meetings and other events -- where people gather to connect with one another.  I'll share a brief history of Interrelativity below, but first I want to be explicit about our current status: if anyone is organizing, hosting or sponsoring any events that could be enhanced by our proactive display applications, please contact me -- we're ready to roll!

I founded Interrelativity, Inc., in February as a business venture to support the mission of using technology to help people relate to one another.  As I noted in an earlier blog post in the midst of my most recent career transition, I have pursued this mission through various paths over the past 9 years (and in less direct ways before that).  I didn't know much about entrepreneuria at that time, but I decided to exercise some gumption and follow the path with heart.  I am still on the steep end of the entrepreneurial learning curve, but I have been fortunate to connect with some fabulous organizations (e.g., the Northwest Entrepreneur Network) and people (most notably, Doug Miller and Melissa DeLong) who have been helping me in a variety of ways since I took this leap of faith.

As I started developing the business, my friend and erstwhile intern, David Nguyen, started developing the technology.  At the time, David was traveling the country, visiting friends and family, applying to graduate schools, and working on the technical design and development of software for Interrelativity as time permitted.  In May, he was accepted into the graduate program at UC Irvine, where they recently initiated a focus area on ubiquitous computing and applications.  Shortly thereafter, he made the sound career decision to accept an offer for another summer internship at Intel Research to work with another friend, Trevor Pering, where he could focus more on research  ... and actually earn a salary.

Fortuitously, another [mutual] friend, Khai Truong, was finishing his Ph.D. at Georgia Tech, and he agreed to join Interrelativity to take over the technical development on the same day that David started his internship.  Around that same time, I was contacted by Darryl Drayer of the Advanced Concepts Group at Sandia National Labs, who is part of a team exploring the idea of using technology to build community to help secure "soft targets" -- public and semi-public places (such as malls and transportation centers) where it is impractical to deploy guns, gates and guards for protection.  I was honored and excited to have an opportunity to work with Darryl and his fellow team members Curtis Johnson, Judy Moore and John Cummings, to help organize an event, Foil Fest, that brought together a host of brilliant people inside and outside the Sandia community to brainstorm about the topic.

The Foil Fest, held in Albuquerque in July, also represented the first opportunity for Interrelativity to deploy proactive displays, as well as incorporate some innovative new features -- such as a group weblog and a mechanism for posting and viewing biographical sketches of the participants -- into our solution.  While the event itself was very successful, the deployment was a mitigated success.  A new application that Khai developed, which generates semi-random collages of profile photos, ran flawlessly, but we had some problems with the RFID reader interface for the Ticket2Talk application (so it, too, ran in semi-random mode).  There was some confusion among the participants about the different profiles, usernames and passwords required for the Interrelativity web site and the group weblog, hosted by TypePad (and for which we configured password-controlled access ... so I'm not [yet] at liberty to reference it in this blog).  In a post-event survey, the vast majority of respondents reported that the applications added "moderate" or "significant" value to their experience at the event, and the identification of areas for improvement provided invaluable feedback, and overall, I was very grateful for the experience.

However, shortly after the Sandia deployment, family health issues lead to my refocusing priorities from business matters to family matters.  Khai, who had already accepted a faculty position at University of Toronto that starts in January 2006 before joining Interrelativity (and so, even in the best case, I knew he was only intending to be actively engaged in Interrelativity for a limited period of time), decided that the intensity of effort required for ongoing technical development of Interrelativity software was taking away too much time from his research ... in fact, it was taking all of his time.  So, after walking me through the code -- which I tried to understand as best I could, having never programmed in Java, PHP or MySQL before -- he turned his attention to research, and preparing for his new job and upcoming move from Atlanta to Toronto.  I was (and remain) grateful for all his help in getting us to a stage where we could do a deployment, and understand why this was the right decision for him to make. 

Given that I still had/have no financial means to offer a respectable salary (although I was, and am, willing to offer respectable equity), and was running out of friends who were both technically proficient and available for unpaid work, I decided I had to either seek financial investment -- which [I believe] would require learning a lot more about business planning, finances, marketing and sales, in order to develop a comprehensive and compelling business plan -- or assume the technical development responsibilities myself -- which would require learning a lot more about Java, PHP and MySQL.  To be honest, the challenges of the former path scared me more than the latter path, as the fomer path deviated more significantly from my past experience, whereas I did have strong technical skills at a earlier stage in my career.  Under other circumstances, I might have been more inclined to feel the fear and do it anyway, but I was already near the edge of my stress threshold in dealing with Amy's cancer and its treatment, so I selected the latter path (first).

In the long run, I decided it would be better to redesign and redevelop the proactive display code from scratch (informed and influenced by the code that Khai had developed), so that I would truly understand how everything worked, and be in a better position to make subsequent modifications to accommodate future deployments ... and/or future alliances or partnerships.  I had forgotten how much joy -- and accompanying occasional frustrations -- I used to experience in programming.  I was delighted to discover a suite of valuable resources to assist me in this path, including my new favorite technical book, Head First Java, the incredibly helpful JavaRanch forums that were initially created to augment that book, and my new favorite blog, Creating Passionate Users, written by Kathy Sierra, one of the book's co-authors (and which, er,  recently recommended that bloggers reduce talking about themselves by 80% ... oh well).  When I put all the software components together this weekend, and saw a complete working system, I felt a wave of joy -- and empowerment -- that I haven't felt in a long time.

So, now that the technology is in a stable state -- and, just as importantly (if not moreso), Amy's health is in a more stable state -- it's time to turn my attention to the development of the business of Interrelativity ... and I hope I will experience a similar measure of joy and empowerment as I stretch to meet the challenges that lay before me down this path.

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