Archive for the Startup Category

Amazon Kind Of Sucks And We’ve All Just Come To Accept It

Posted in Startup with tags , on November 10, 2015 by Genius

I hate writing this article because I’ve loved Amazon forever. I still remember my cousin telling me about it back when I was in high school. He was staying with me while my dad was out of town. We were browsing the web on our old Compaq (Intel 386 baby!) via AOL dialup (it was a different time, don’t judge) and I wanted to buy a book. He told me about this new site selling them online. It was so much cheaper than bookstores at the time, which had a markup somewhere between excessive and violating the Geneva Convention.

Over time they came to sell more stuff and I started buying it. When they announced Prime, I signed up right away and have never looked back. Yeah, their Netflix and Spotify competitors are pretty mediocre. The UI on everything Amazon does looks like it was designed by Helen Keller. You’d think a company with $90b in revenue could hire one decent UX and one decent UI guy. They’re ugly but they get stuff done.

And maybe that’s part of the charm. It’s like walking into an Aldi. You don’t expect to see reclaimed wood floors and exposed beam ceilings. If you want that, go pay twice as much to shop at Whole Foods. The place looks cheap because it is cheap, and cheap’s sometimes what you want. 

Except the problem with Amazon is, it’s not cheap. In fact, it’s quite expensive. Yes, Amazon prices are still great on some things. Things that have a high dollar density, meaning the ratio of their cost to their shipping weight and size is high. But for anything else, forget it. I was joking with some friend about how I bought a $5 roll of tape there and something else much more expensive, and of course the $5 roll of tape came in a big bubble-wrap filled box, while the expensive electronic item just had a label slapped on it. And my friend said “you know that roll of tape is like $1 at Home Depot right?” Which killed the joke, but turned out to be true.

I started looking around, comparing prices, and found that this is not unusual. Pretty much anything Amazon sells that is also sold at your local big box store costs much more. That wasn’t true a decade ago when I started ordering paper towels and the like. I mean, it certainly makes sense. They’re cheap but large, so the cost to ship them alone is probably close to what you buy them at Costco for.

I’m willing to put up with the fact that Amazon, despite having some of the best programmers in the world, can’t do a simple price sort. Seriously, pretend you just want the cheapest iPad that’s currently made. Go there, type in “iPad”, and search from lowest to highest. I’m too lazy to figure out which page the first one pops up on, because I gave up on page 12. Even if you sort by Apple as the manufacturer, you get a bewildering array of crap that isn’t what you’re looking for. Walk into an Apple store or Best Buy and you can figure it out in seconds.

And half the time, their price sort doesn’t even manage to sort by prices! I think it has something to do with the fact that one item can be sold by multiple vendors at multiple prices. Whatever the reason, it’s confusing.

On top of that, returning stuff to Amazon sucks. Here’s the Amazon return process.

1. Go to site, fill out a form to get a shipping label.

2. Print said form. That’s pretty much all I use my printer for because it’s not 1998 anymore. I even upgraded to a wireless one so I don’t have to plug my damn laptop into it every time I want to return something.

3. I probably threw away the Amazon box. Gotta dig up a suitable one from the pile of spares I have in the attic just for returning stuff to Amazon.

4. Print packing slip, insert in box.

5. Now I have to bust out the old packing tape. You know that stuff always comes out of the little guides on the side no matter how careful you were, so you have to un-stick it. Do so while seething in rage that nobody has yet invented packing tape that doesn’t stick to itself.

6. Shellack that damned label to the box with tape. I don’t have shipping labels for my printer because what am I, FedEx? So I cover it in like 8 strips of tape.

7. Go to whichever shipping service Amazon sent it from because unless you ordered a tiny USB cord, it’s too big to fit into their drop box. It could be USPS, FedEx, or UPS, all of which are located next to the Best Buy where I could have just dropped the damned thing off in way less time and without having to fight a roll of packing tape.

This isn’t Amazon’s fault really. I don’t know what they could do better on the return angle. Maybe they could make a deal with UPS, so people with returns can just come drop the product off in a bin at any UPS store, without having to repackage, and not have to deal with it? Perhaps that’s excessive, I just know that if something isn’t at least $20 I’m probably just going to throw it away due to the hassle.

I’m willing to deal with the fact that a lot of searches are far harder than they need to be because Amazon lets a bunch of sellers list things as iPads that are either iPads so ancient nobody could possibly want them, or iPad accessories. I’m willing to deal with the fact that when I search for something and try to filter by Prime Only, I get lots of results that are in fact not Prime only, despite the fact that Amazon has some of the world’s best programmers but a CS101 student would be failed for that. I’ll even very grudgingly accept the returns process because I don’t know what they can do better, and how often do you return something anyway? They once took back an expensive remote my dog chewed on, so the issue isn’t their customer service policy.

But when everything they sell costs substantially more than I could get it for somewhere else, I start re-thinking my options. Nowadays I just order it from Home Depot or Best Buy or Sam’s Club online and pick it up the next time I’m near one. If you live in suburbia, that’s never long.

I think that’s why is doing what it does. If you follow tech news, you’ve probably seen a lot of people laughing about $500m being given to a company that appears to be selling things at a loss.

Amazon’s real advantage, though, and why their pricing has crept up so high, is that they’re the internet’s everything store. People are skipping Google and going straight there. If you spend some time Googling, you can find almost any product Amazon sells sold somewhere else reputable for cheaper. And it’ll ship to you freely and quickly too, they just don’t call it Prime. But Amazon has gotten to the point where people don’t spend time Googling anymore. They just search for stuff they want to buy there.

A legitimate competitor might change that. If Amazon had to face the idea of people looking elsewhere for general purchases, they would be forced to be more price competitive. And maybe they could write a functioning price sort too.

To get from nowhere to an Amazon competitor is going to be very tough. It’s going to require building out a world-class distribution system. It’s going to require spending a lot to get customers in the door. I don’t know that is burning $50m a month because they’re doing things the right way, and it’s entirely possible they’ll crash. But I think that if someone does become a serious challenger to Amazon, it’ll have to look a lot like this at the start. 

I sure hope someone gets there, because Amazon has grown to kind of suck, and I’d love to have another option than just accepting it.

Modernist Cookware

Posted in Cooking, Startup, tech with tags , , on March 26, 2015 by Genius

I was checking out Y Combinator’s recent batch and was surprised (and elated) to see two low-temperature cookware devices in it! As someone working on a product in the space it’s good to see the segment of the market heating up. Pun intended.

For those who don’t know, low-temperature cooking is a new(ish) method of preparing food. The old style of cooking (we’ll call it high-temperature cooking, for lack of a better term) had a good run. It had a near monopoly from the dawn of humanity until about ten years ago. The idea is that you throw food onto or into something much hotter than the desired final temperature of the food (a grill, a pan, an oven, etc.) and then pull it out when the center of the food has reached your desired point. For instance if you’re trying to cook a steak to medium rare (130F) you toss it on a 500F grill and pull it off when the center reaches 130F.

The downsides to high temperature cooking are numerous. For one, it’s extremely easy to overcook your food. I’ll spare you the thermodynamics, but suffice it to say that while it may take 10 minutes to get your juicy rib-eye to medium rare, it may only take one more to get it to well and still one more to be burnt to a crisp. The chef must play what Modernist Cuisine calls “the role of human thermostat.” This is why you’ve probably eaten more food in your life that was overcooked than properly cooked.

Worse yet, the heat in the final product is distributed unevenly. Even if you cook a steak to perfect medium rare, cut it open and look at the inside. You’ll see a ring of well-done meat around the outside. It’s because heat is overcooking the outside as it diffuses toward the center.

Because of this there’s also something chefs call carryover cooking. Carryover cooking is just heat that continues to diffuse from the outside in after you take the meat off the hot surface. If the outside of the steak is 500F, and the inside is only 130F, it’s easy to see that heat will transfer toward the center, cooking it more. So a chef must actually guess at what temperature to pull the steak off (probably more like 125F) based on the cooking that will happen afterward.

With low-temperature cooking, things are much simpler. Thanks to accurate temperature control technology, which is now very cheap, it’s much better to just cook the steak at 130F. Now you no longer have to guess when to pull it out. A simple formula (don’t worry, you can just use a chart or app because nobody wants to do that math) tells you how long it will take to get your steak to the same internal temperature as the heating element. Because you’re cooking it at the final temperature, if you wait a little too long nothing bad happens. The steak will never get hotter than the 130F.

Your food is cooked to one internal temperature throughout. Here’s a graphic from Cooking Issues (thought I’d replicate it here before that blog’s takeover by Viagra spammers is complete) showing you the difference.

So low-temperature cooking is considerably better. You’ve probably had a ton of food cooked sous vide (one type of low-temperature cooking) and didn’t even know it. Chipotle cooks their barbacoa and carnitas that way. Panera cooks their steak, turkey, salmon, and even their oatmeal that way. High-end restaurants cook many things sous vide, in fact you’d be hard-pressed to find a Michelin-starred restaurant without a rack of immersion circulators.

So needless to say, Y Combinator made a smart move investing in the space. I don’t know much about the two specific companies but am excited to see them.

The first was Nomiku, which is a decent home immersion circulator. An immersion circulator is one type of device for cooking sous vide. Sous vide is a form of low-temperature cooking in which food is (almost always) sealed (sometimes in a ziploc bag, sometimes a vacuum bag, sometimes in its own shell like an egg) and cooked in an accurately-controlled water bath. If you’ve watched shows like Top chef, you’ve probably seen contestants cook in something that looks like this:

That’s sous vide. You can see the carrots are bagged (probably with a little oil) but the eggs shells serve as sufficient packaging. 

I actually pre-ordered Nomiku’s upcoming Wi-Fi model months ago on Kickstarter. I’ve been cooking sous vide for years, having built my own from some schematics I found online. Back then the Polyscience models shown above were the primary option and cost close to $1,000. In recent years we’ve seen the prices on immersion circulators fall to $200, and I think they will drop all the way down to $100 in the near future. (More on that later.)

More interesting, though, was Cinder. Cinder is kind of a cross between a George Forman grill and a low-temperature cooking machine. It’s not really sous vide at all, despite using the term many times on its website, it’s low temperature cooking. I have a lot of questions as to how exactly this thing works for many types of meat. But it does look like an incredibly simple way to cook a steak or pork chop! That thing would be really awesome for someone in a situation where a full stove is impractical too. Imagine having that in your college dorm.

I have a lot of thoughts about the space in general, having been doing this for a few years. I’ll get more into depth on that in the not-too-distant future.