Why I Decided to Build My Own Casual Event Planner

 

I’m a gamer and I had a problem. Some might posit that’s a problem in itself, but I guess that’d be a different essay. Regardless, my games were hard to coordinate among my friends. I wanted to fix this problem rather than live with it, so, I had to either find a solution, or I had to create one. This brief post explains why I ultimately decided to solve this problem myself.

Of course I wanted to solve my own gaming coordination problem, but, if done right, I might also produce value to others for planning of their own casual events.

The problem as I experienced it, was that, having set a date/time/place, and after sending out invitations by email, some annoying followup work was required. First I had to field and collate the responses, and then, either manually or mentally, I had to keep track of the status as the responses from my friends came in. Inevitably, one or more friends would reply to me only, while others would reply-all. Similarly some would phone me their response. Making matters worse, some would phone another person in the group, and not me. Either way, there was no communal knowledge of the status of a session. Furthermore, if a critical mass was attained, or not, it’d up to me to follow-up with another message – this time a ‘confirmed’ or ‘cancelled’ email. This process was clearly neither effective nor simple.

The spec then for the solution I needed was – “…provide a system that simplified planning, automatically tracked and maintained event status, and reduced ineffective communication between organizer and invitees.”

At this point I had reached a make or build decision. If something already existed, then great, I’d use it – if not, well, time to start building!

Calendar apps and planners are ubiquitous, surely there’s one that would meet my spec, right? Google Calendar, Facebook Event, Evite, Outlook and many apps let you easily set date/time/place and send notifications, and most have slick well-tested UI’s Many collect responses, and keep a tally of yes/no/maybe’s, and some even enable a de-confliction phase of planning characterized by back and forth proposals and counters. Remember though, my spec said nothing about deconfliction; I just wanted to float an event and see who bit. My feelings weren’t going to be hurt if an event fell through – in fact, the earlier it crashed, the better for me to move on and plan something else for my time. At best the above offerings solved only half my problem, but often at the expense of fancy UI’s and unneeded features.

Also, my research at the time, and since, for other similarly themed projects revealed a common property. They often seemed to be spec’d to solve the appearance of a problem without actually getting to the heart of the matter. For example, and this is often the case with design class projects, the spec was loosely written in the form “…simplify the decision process for the organizer and attendees of casually planned social activities.”

Solutions* emerging from the above type of spec often looked nice, and seemingly would provide nominally useable features. Still though, they did not address the fundamental problem I had which was, “what is the status of my event, how can I convey that as easily as possible.” Simply put, these solutions produced systems that had been cobbled together from what available technologies and frameworks could provide, rather than what they needed to provide. Some solutions actually complicated the process rather than simplify it with the proposal/counter-proposal feature.

To help visualize things here are a few models:

  • Based on my spec, these are the functions I needed in my planning system, presented in the form of a Data Flow Diagram (DFD):

20151025_102254

  • This highly simplified DFD captures the functionality in many of the mainstream offerings:

20151025_102332

  • Finally, the Use Case diagram on the left is representative of “the offerings” and on the right, my user interactions of “my system:”

20151025_102356

Without having been explicit before now, the focus of this post is to draw attention to the functional analysis and resulting models done to respond to an informal spec. What I think has happened, especially in the offerings alluded to here with the purpose to simplify things, is that focus has been placed on the life-cycle of the planning process, rather than emphasizing the life-cycle of the event itself. This is true at least so far with respect to addressing the problem I had first identified and specified.

I haven’t attempted to describe “how” I have solved my problem; that will be better addressed in a followup post.

Instead, I hope the post adequately describes “why” I felt I had to take the initiative to solve the problem for myself, which, as it turns out, is the very definition of a “home-grown solution.”

With that said, you are welcome to try out my solution for yourself – it is available as a fully functional Beta at Zejoop.com

* Note: DCDR, Google Fiesta, Tossup, Planito (among others) are examples of well-intentioned projects or offerings that may be viable for others, but do not meet my spec for simplicity.

Visit Zejoop Now, and Start Planning!

Exhausted

The previous post mentioned another submission to Y Combinator; this time for Winter session 2016.

Even though I started early enough that Tuesday should have been a breeze – only should require enough effort to apply finishing touches – it turned out to be anything but. All of Monday was consumed making a Zejoop demo video, required because there’s been none previously and that probably reduced chances of success. Then Tuesday morning in its entirety was creation of the founder intro video. Both required many takes, but all told, they turned out great!

Then at maybe 2 PM Tuesday afternoon, a mere 6 hours before the deadline, I attempted to open my draft application on the YC ‘apply’ site. But then, BAM, it was empty – I had to redo all the previously invested work. Frustrating.

Anyway – finished it – was happy with the result. This feels like my strongest attempt so far. I’m very proud of how far I’ve come – Zejoop presents well, and I’m happy about that. The YC outcome is out of my hands now. May the hard work pay its reward.

LLAP

As a young person growing up in the midst of America’s race to the moon, I was lucky to have exposure to the original Star Trek when it was first aired. Arguably a little young to appreciate it for all its nuance, it certainly made an impression on me and my friends. During many recess hours we were always able to improvise some makeshift ‘bridge’ among the playground equipment, and we were always destined to explore some new ‘frontier,’ if only in our minds eye.

It wasn’t until later in its syndication, while I was going to school studying Aerospace Engineering at the University of Maryland that I came to my full appreciation for the series. Both its characters and compelling storytelling, in no small part, probably helped get me through college. After a long day of classes, I looked forward to its airing daily over the dinner hour. I used to watch it as an essential break to eat, relax and steel myself for the long night of study that lie ahead. At that point, a few years older, and better able to appreciate it, the series spoke to me even more and inspired me – the friendship and camaraderie of the crew and exciting worlds they explored left a lasting impression. It did not escape me at the time, nor does it now, but I was studying aerospace engineering at the time – what are the chances (wink, wink)?

I even remember going to the first Star Trek movie with closet friends – making a party of it, and having a great time. We all had different views on which friend filled the role of each character most. Who we each thought we were did not always match what others had concluded. Regardless, the show and its characters had become important to us not just as individuals, but also important to us as a group.

Fast forward to the theater debut of the Wrath of Khan several years later. By this time I’d graduated and left Maryland, friends, and family to take my first career job. I was a young engineer working for Rockwell International on the Space Shuttle in Southern California. If I had left family and friends, I had not left Star Trek, because there I was – waiting in line for the first show. So new to California that I hadn’t had enough to have made many friends yet, I was there alone, and lonely, with the exception of one friend – Jack Daniels, he being present in the form of a half-pint bottle. To be clear, this story is not about getting drunk at the movie theater, but rather it is about a lonely guy at the time, who wanted to recreate a little bit the party atmosphere of seeing the latest Star Trek movie his friends. A lonely guy who just wanted to compensate for the absence of his friends – people with whom he had a deep bond.

So there I was, enjoying this great movie, and every now and then taking a swig off the bottle – UNTIL…. (do you see where this is going?) – until…. wait, what? NO, NO, no, nooooooo!!!!  – Spock dies!!! Gah… I was devastated, unprepared for that twist, and oh, uh, maybe a little tipsy. Surprised at how easily and unexpectedly they flowed, tears found their way out – I cried. Not just regular tears mind you, but hot tears that seemed to burn my face. Such was my appreciation for the character of Spock, and of his friendship with Kirk. This affected me greatly, and truth be told – I likely would cried without the slight nudge provided by the Jack Daniels.

If my tears were fueled in part by the whiskey when Spock died in the movie, now with the passing of Leonard Nimoy, I am sober, and very sad. With gratitude I have to acknowledge both the role that he played in bringing Spock to life and what he taught me about friendship. And so, a question; without Spock and Star Trek would I have become an Aerospace Engineer? Likely the answer is yes, but if you ask, would I have become the same engineer, then the answer is definitely no – I’ve been influenced, for the better by Star Trek, Spock, and Leonard Nimoy. Goodbye Leonard – LLAP, and thanks!

Goodbye Leonard Nimoy - LLAP

Goodbye Leonard Nimoy – LLAP

 

Ready, Set, Go – Let’s Use Zejoop!

Visit Zejoop Now, and Start Planning!

Today marks the beginning of Phase I of a campaign to actively acquire new users for Zejoop. If you haven’t done so already would you take this opportunity to create an account and start using Zejoop. To get to this level of readiness feels like a great achievement, but all the same, Zejoop will only fulfill it purpose and mission in the hands of users; users who will not only benefit from the unique offering of its ‘criteria-based confirmation or cancellation’ feature, but who also themselves have the chance to actually shape the future on Zejoop in the form of feedback, bug reports and feature suggestions.

Are you an early adopter? Do you have an adventurous spirit? Might you be willing to help a friend realize his dream of building a successful business from scratch? This is a foray in the modern frontier of tech-based entrepreneurship – early adopters can take this trip alongside a developer like myself – does this prospect interest you? If so please setup an account, and start planning by clicking one of the orange buttons! Start now, and enjoy the benefits of a simpler and hassle-free way of planning your fun – your Fun with Friends, facilitated by Zejoop!

Thank you very much! Please direct feedback, bug reports and feature suggestions to the address available under the ‘contact’ tab above.

Michael LaRue, Founder & CEO, Zejoop (Patent Applied For)

Visit Zejoop Now, and Start Planning!

PS… please help get the word out, and share on social media using the widgets below; every little bit helps! Thank you!

Zejoop Rocked Grand Prix San Jose – a WHOLE trip RECAP!

Visit Zejoop Now, and Start Planning!

Zejoop traveled, first to Grand Prix San Jose, and then to Las Vegas, and what a trip it was! It’s taken a while to post this recap, because that’s how fun and productive it was, and also an indicator of how busy I’ve been, both during, and since.

The trip itself was broken into three legs:

  1. the Grand Prix itself, from Friday to late Sunday (for the purpose of market research, promoting Zejoop, and meeting/interacting with Magic players insofar as they are a potential target audience for the Zejoop service)

    Talkin' about solving problems related to organizing gaming sessions for Magic players!

    Zejoop had lots of opportunity to meet with Magic players, and make new friends!

  2. …a stay with a longtime friend, Tom, at his house in San Jose proper (a chance to visit with a friend and his family, and to possibly network in the Silicon Valley tech startup community, because, after all, that’s what Zejoop is, a tech startup! Yay!)
  3.  …and finally a side-trip to Las Vegas, primarily to see Jack White live at the Brooklyn Bowl
this image courtesy of his website, and I'm using it here because they made it available, having discouraged from using phones and/or cameras to "as filters to interfere with our enjoyment of the live music" - that's what they said!

Zejoop.com had a blast at Jack White, LIVE at the Brooklyn Bowl in Las Vegas!

As for a post-game analysis of the trip, here are some COMMENTS and TAKEAWAYS, broken down by ‘leg’ as described above:

  • …regarding the event itself, I will call it a rousing success! My thanks to Channel Fireball and Cascade Games LLC for being outstanding hosts to me. All my objectives, and more, were met. I got to talk to a lot of players and hear them describe the problems they have, if any, in organizing gaming sessions among their friends. I made meaningful contact with many people who shared their thoughts and impressions. Was able to give out a lot of business cards to enable future conversation if that’s in the cards (ha ha – do you see what I did there?). Most importantly I met a number of people who gave directly relevant feedback as to their potential use of Zejoop, and offered their email addresses for future contact along those lines. Throughout the two days, I got a number of great suggestions for additional features; some of these were really great – almost good enough, to justify the expense of the trip on the merit of these ideas. PS… that’s what trips like this are for; to glean just such type of feedback! SUCCESS! Finally, among the many people I met, a small subset were actually fully engaged participants in the startup scene in Silicon Valley who were willing to stay in touch. Their sentiment in seems was in the form of a like-mindedness, able to relate to what Zejoop was up to. Making contacts like this, again, was almost worth the price of admission alone. The life of a startup entrepreneur, and certainly as a single-founder entity, can be solitary at times and anything that can serve to expand the network, especially with coverage into Silicon Valley can be particularly valuable.
  • My visit with Tom, what can I saw. Being true and current friends with someone you met in the third is a precious life gift, and we had a great time. Got to watch the second half of the Super Bowl with him. I will say he has a odd way with the DVR, and the prevailing concept that “for this show alone, that the commercials are intended to be PART and PARCEL of the show” seemed moot to him – we FF’d through them, but that is OK. Also as a consequence. at some point we heard in the neighborhood, the inevitable sounds of a victory celebration on front porches. The outcome was already known to most, yet somehow, our revelation as to the winner was to be probably at least 20 minutes in the future. I had another objective before leaving town – I wanted to find one or more meetups to go to in or around Silicon Valley. I will give myself a score of ‘D minus’ on that one; even though I did find one great happy-hour/mixer to attend, I misread the invitation, and I got there a full 24 hours early. Too bad – that was my one shot, and I was to leave Tuesday afternoon – the hobnobbing would have to be postponed until my next trip northwards. Oh well; my bad.
  • …FINALLY – Jack White in Las Vegas! Wow! What a show – he is quite a musician, and an outstanding showman to boot. The Brooklyn Bowl was a great venue, and I got a great meal there beforehand – blackened catfish, mashed potatoes and and a vegetable plate. Below the food, is a selfie of me with some nice people I met, who were cool and shared their table with me.IMG_20150204_203616_880IMG_20150204_203659_349

 

Well, there you have it; a slightly long-winded summary of a very eventful trip. A trip that included business, old friends, new friends, great food, and great music – thanks for the great music Jack!

Much work lies ahead for Zejoop; there are no guarantees – the business of staring a startup is rarely better than a long-shot at best – but, at the heart of the matter, it sure beats moving data around in an Excel Spreadsheet, or copy-pasting within Word as a thin excuse for what passes as “work” in modern defense contracting. There’s never been a better time for me to be at the helm of my own ship – a ship I’ve built, and one I’m ready to sail as far as she’ll take me!

Because I appreciate your time as an audience, reading this, I will end with a paraphrase of Jack White’s own show-ending salutation (inserting my own name, as you’ll see, where appropriate):

“…thank you, you’ve been incredible, and I’ve been Michael LaRue”

Zejoop is Going to GP San Jose – T minus 2 days

Check it out! How cool is this? Zejoop is on the MAP! Here is a snippet of the Grand Prix San Jose venue floor-plan for the event:

Zejoop on the GP San Jose Floorplan 2015-01-28 12:16:11Props to Jon of ChannelFireball! From what I can tell this location is the perfect spot Zejoop; I’m very happy. I mean, seriously – this is basically right on the 50 yard line (prime seating for football, amIright?). Also between the main stage and the concession stand. Should be perfect. I don’t know exactly what the ‘mystery box, 20×20 ft² area’ is, but hey – mysterious green boxes can be cool, right?

This snippet is only about one fifth of the entire map, and clearly Zejoop is the smallest booth of all vendors – a solitary 8 foot table. Surrounded by giants as it were, with many other vendors taking up 6 to 8 of those same 8 foot tables. Gotta start somewhere!

It’s going to be a great event; see you there!

Zejoop is Going to GP San Jose – T minus 3 days

Three more days and I couldn’t be more excited!

Three more days to Grand Prix San Jose, and with it the chance to interact with hundreds, if not thousands, of Magic enthusiasts! How cool is that?

Three more days, and I’m so busy getting ready that I feel like this:

Busy like a Gecko!

Living life on the Edge (or the screen, rather) getting ready for #gpsj

Been so busy, I’ve missed a few days of blog updates; not to worry – I’m back with a blog post – and I have great progress to report.

A few highlights, then back to work:

  • “https:// protection” – after a three grueling sessions of phone contact with Amazon AWS tech support I have finally protected the main domain with an SSL certificate. Not out of the woods yet, but the end is in sight. Two hours talking on Friday night, then a three hour followed by a final one hour session with Amazon. They were great, and I take a lot of responsibility for the slowness – I have some OS issues, some ‘peculiarities-of-hosting’ problems and the inability, initially to allow screen-sharing with the tech. Clearly I am not cut out to be an IT/sysadmin guy. I still have an issue with my jquery-mobile not rendering properly because it has been stored on CDN – gotta host it locally and the ‘https://’ task will be complete! Yay!
  • Graphics (the design) – can’t have a ‘naked’ booth at #gpsj, right? Spent some quality time with my friend and go-to graphic designer, Jeremiah, who helped with some posters, a banner and some logo updates – high quality work from him; the stuff will look great!
  • Graphics (the printing thereof) – dropped the several jobs off at Feathers Photo, a great print shop right here in Santa Clarita

Well, that’s enough for now – gotta get back to work!

Make sure to stop by the Zejoop booth at the Event; looking forward to seeing you!

Zejoop is Going to GP San Jose – T minus 7 days

It must be said that today is a monumental day for Zejoop – one week away from Grand Prix San Jose, and I’ve posted essentially complete, fully functioning prototype of the Zejoop software. In a quirky turn of numerario-logical fate the version just posted is ‘zejoop.200’ – I couldn’t have planned it better had a tried!

(teaser – at the end of this post I’m going to ask a favor of you; are you up to it?)

Minor things do remain though. In my last post I ambitiously asserted that the SSL problem would have been solved by now. Still waiting on that – I have the certificate and keys ready to go. Unfortunately, I’ve had a setback with the complexity of installing

Zejoop is Becoming a Brand

Zejoop is on its way to “Becoming a Brand!”

Amazons command line interface, which is required for me to interact with my deployed instance and upload/install the certificate. Looks like I’ll be calling Amazon tech support tonight. Also, I plan to plant some Google analytics magic beans into the mix: does that make sense to you? No, sorry – I am kind of going all ‘stream-of-conscience’ on you – sorry.

Tomorrow will be kind of busy too. Print shop, Staples… if I’m lucky I’ll afford myself a break to swim. Maybe I’ll have some coffee? Sure why not – coffee.

I suppose that’s enough of an update for now. I will reiterate though – very exciting times for Zejoop!

Oh, that favor I mentioned… one last thing; would you please? From your Facebook account, search for the Zejoop page, as categorized under ‘software,’ and ‘LIKE’ the page? That’d be cool! Thanks!

New to Zejoop, in December?

                   

Welcome one, and welcome all, especially if you are new to Zejoop. Zejoop is a tech startup currently under development, self-funded and bootstrapped by the undersigned, the self-appointed chief cook, bottle-wash, and oh, also founder, systems engineer and software developer.

Here the Zejoop logo on a hoodie! Cool, huh?

This is what the Zejoop logo looks like on a hoodie – fancy stuff, right?

If this is your first visit, perhaps you’ve met me and I’ve given you my Zejoop business card, a little explanation is in order.

Due to influences beyond my control, December has been a month of transition.

First, the Zejoop domain, and its corresponding blog lost their server space where they had been hosted by a friend (much appreciated Joshua, thanks!). The growth of his business required him to change his security approach and hence, a blog such as Zejoop’s, maintained by me, an independent agent, external to his business, was no longer acceptable. As of today though, the domain has been transferred and the blog has been successfully re-instantiated on BlueHost.com, an excellent provider, and also current host to my personal blog, www.whitewingcrow.com.

Second, and again, due a shift in the business model for Zejoop’s current PaaS provider, Cloudbees.com, I’ve had to find a new home for the application itself. Oh joy. Quite frankly I’ve had my hands full coming up to speed just executing the nominal software development and impromptu immersion into the admin/IT/infrastructure aspect of building a startup was not in the original plan. So, anyway, that happened and here I am. Current status is that I have ported a version of Zejoop, the application to new home of Amazon’s Elastic Beanstalk. Amazon is an excelent provider, but for an IT/admin newbie like myself it IaaS paradigm requires more touch labor than my former PaaS provider.  Bonus points for Amazon though, because under my circumstances I qualify for one year of “free tier” service…. got that? Free! That’s rare, but I’ll take it! Yay Amazon! Celebration notwithstanding, if you’d like to visit the current Zejoop implementation, please visit http://project724.mjlarue720.cloudbees.net/

There is a little work to go before I can claim that the new Zejoop is fully up and running after this transition, but the goal is to be able to make that claim before year’s end. That way Zejoop can leap into its exciting future starting fresh on January 1st, 2015! I’ll keep you posted. Note that, until then, the functional Zejoop will be offline until further notice.

In the mean time, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year! If you have comments or questions, or if you just want offer encouragement and your own good wishes, please contact me at –> michael at zejoop dot com

Be well, and prepare to watch Zejoop have an exciting year of growth and opportunities starting in January!

Michael Jay LaRue

 

Learning about Product Marketing from the Google Ventures Library

                   

Stumbled upon a great video on the topic of startup marketing that was posted in the Google Ventures library – delivered by Adam Gross who is Co-Founder and CEO at cloudconnect.com, and has been involved throughout his career at personify, salesforce.com, and Dropbox.

This is timely information for Zejoop, at this critical point in its tech startup evolution.

(Google Ventures is a seed round, or early investor for new startups – looks like a great program, with quite a few free resources – definitely worth looking into. However their  model seems to be “don’t call us, we’ll call you”, as in, you don’t apply, but you somehow otherwise “get yourself noticed.” That seems a little mysterious, and somewhat “fraught” (with peril?) but it is also interesting, and adds to the allure!)

screenshot from the presentation given by Adam Gross

Good information on Marketing – food for thought regarding the positioning of Zejoop

All of this is of critical importance to Zejoop as it tries to find its way though and past its development and beta test phases.

The entire video will be worth revisiting again later, but a few points stood out for immediate application.

The first of which were his comments on product positioning on the x-y axes of “strategic” (increasing horizontally from left to right) and “emotive” (increases vertically from bottom to top). Clearly a company like Apple is high on both scales but the the question has to be addressed early, even for a startup like Zejoop; how does it get from wherever it starts – “low” on both counts – to “high” on both? Unless the importance of this trajectory is comprehended, and that it demands a plan which is well formulated and then followed, what is the likelihood of success? Without a goal, how will you ever know you’ve arrived?

Another key idea was that of creating a industry transitional narrative – where is Zejoop going and how will it make a difference in the landscape?

The third idea which made an impression was how he described “differentiation.” To me that means asking and answering “what makes Zejoop different?” Of course this is pretty basic, but the way he articulated the point was very helpful. He told an anecdote of a friend who was at TiVo and he asked, regarding the product itself, why is it that the “pause” button is the biggest of all the buttons? – answer “that is what makes TiVo different than just TV” – the ability to pause and resume playback off a live stream. Timely story to hear as this is just the type of thing I need to tackle for Zejoop. After all there are any number of options for people to do their casual event planning. What makes Zejoop different and how can I emphasize that within the product? The good news is that a couple of good ideas have occurred to me as I’ve thought this over – but that my friends, will be a separate post!

Finally the video highlighted the importance of thinking about strategic partnerships. Clearly there are big players who have already fielded many aspects of event planning. Rather that thinking about how to take them on, head-on, why not discover the minimum viable enhancement that Zejoop can provide rather than duplicate an entire infrastructure that already exists? Oh, and by the way, an entire infrastructure developed by an army of highly skilled develops employed by big-tech? Sounds like folly, right? Better late than never, and this part of the presentation gave me a few good ideas to do just that.

That’s all for now, but I wanted to capture these thoughts while they were fresh in mind, at the risk of losing them by not doing so immediately. More to follow as I turn ideas into actions.