Monday, January 28, 2013

Is There Something Tactile About Math Notes?

One of the things startups do a ton of is "market research." That's in quotes because the term conjures images of big fancy reports conducted by high end firms, and of course no startup can afford that. What we really do is talk to people. A lot. Particularly if we think they might be the type of person who could become a customer.

One of those conversations this weekend was with a friend who's studying to take an actuarial exam. He's a math guy; he estimated he spends 8-10 hours a day doing math and has about 300 books on math. So to say he'd be in our target market is a bit of an understatement.

We talked through his existing math process when he does problem sets. It was similar to just about everyone's we've spoken with (and our experience); pen and paper, a couple calculators, maybe some Excel, he'd given up on MATLAB years ago.

He said he'd tried all sorts of software, but nothing had ever replaced pen and paper, so I asked if he could imagine the perfect program, and, if that program existed, would he use it?

This led to a conversation about what we really do when we do math with a pen and paper. After about algebra one, math becomes more an exercise in symbols and manipulation than it is about numbers. That's part of why an even basic understanding of math is so frikkin' cool: It's screwing with the universe's rules, using code.

My friend acknowledged that there was something fulfilling about scribbling on paper and manipulating the symbols himself, and that he had always come back to writing by hand. As someone working on an online math program, this was troubling to hear. What if there was something inherently tactile about math that couldn't be replicated by a computer?

outdated math homework methods?
This remains state-of-the-art for some math homework.

But my friend pointed out that 20 years ago, we would have thought the idea that one should write letters on a TV screen was silly. The creation of art - one of the most tactile experiences in the world - has been completely expanded by technology. Sending a postcard is still fun, but so is texting a picture with Instagram. Finger painting stayed fun, but so is messing with images in Photoshop. And noodling around on a piano wasn't made obsolete by the fact that recording an album can be done well in a home studio today.

Technology can take experiences and make them even more rewarding by letting us focus on the parts we're looking for at any given moment. Sometimes, we want to scrawl out long equations and feel like Einstein at his Princeton blackboard, or diagram out what we're building because it's a cool project. Sometimes, we're on problem 7 of 43 and want this homework to be over as soon as possible. At FastFig, we've done both.
Einstein's princeton office
We share Al's understanding of desk organization.
But what we think is less important. What is your experience with math? Can a computer screen take the place of your process?

Monday, January 21, 2013

How to Outfit Your Lean Startup: Cheap Whiteboard by the Acre

At FastFig, we're very proud and honored to be a DreamIt company. When we were accepted, we were very excited to be part of such a great network, to have access to people with incredible experience, and to move to Austin with nothing to do but work on our business full-time. It's like a lean startup wish come true.

Of course, then we got to Texas and realized we had an empty apartment. And there is nothing a group of entrepreneurs (particularly engineering-inclined ones) likes more than the prospect of getting to fill empty space with DIY projects.

Step one for us was pretty simple: Whiteboard.

Now, we at FastFig are big believers in lean methodology. So the idea of purchasing whiteboards at any local big box store seemed somewhere between extravagant and opulent. As you can see:

Whiteboard prices
Con: A 3' x 4' sheet is $136. Pro: It gets four stars!
Definitively not lean. Plus, we're a tech startup; we need LOTS of whiteboard. That would end up being our pizza budget for most of 2013.

Fortunately, our local enormous big box hardware store was less than a mile away. And there, they sell something called panel board. Panel board, for all intents and purposes, is a dry-erase surface stuck on top of something between particle board and really sturdy carboard. And a 4' x 8' sheet costs about $12. So that's around 100 square feet of whiteboard for $36.

Pros: Gets five stars (!), is awesome dry-erase surface, is dirt cheap. Con: Must be cut to fit in a Subaru.
Protip: Measure your car's cargo space before buying and carting the panel board out to the parking lot.

Fortunately, the fine folk at your large home retailer will cut the boards for you for free, but it's better to know the dimensions going in. Getting a bunch of different sizes was actually something we found to be useful. If you've got a truck, just make sure the stuff is secure before you peel out of the parking lot in your haste to sketch site architecture.

Now, if you're in a place where you will be for a long time, you can buy some cheap strips of wood or metal and create frames and mount them. We're only in this space for three months, though, and we like to be able to move stuff around, so it basically became slideable wallpaper.

whiteboard lining the walls
We really wish we'd done this in college.
lots of whiteboard cheap
That table is perfect for laying a big piece flat so we can all stand around it and diagram.
Right now we're working at the Capital Factory, and the lean life dictates it may be some time before we have our own office space. But this can work anywhere your team is, be in home or office. Honestly, this is valuable thing for anyone who's going to do some work at home, whether it be a startup team, consultant or engineering student. It became an instant hit at our inaugural DreamIt house party. The one investment you'll want to make is Windex and paper towels; for some reason, dry-erase erasers have a tendency to leave streaks on panel board.

If you do wind up with weirdly sized small pieces of panel board, you can lay them flat on the table and take notes as you work.

Protip: Watch your elbows.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Announcing the Launch of FastFig Beta (now with FigPads)

Today, we are very pleased to announce the release of our latest version, FastFig Beta.

Designed to help instructors and students in math, physics and engineering classes with homework, FastFig Beta combines the powerful math tools of the original FastFig with our new FigPads, an easy-to-use notebook system that can tell if you are typing text or math, and then process it accordingly.

We think this is the first step in our quest to get math homework off the page and into the cloud. It's also the first step in our journey through Austin, Texas with DreamIt Ventures, and you'll be getting  a lot more content from us on everything from development updates to how to properly outfit a tech startup house (and all with math!).

But for now, we want to hear from you! Take a look at the tutorials and try the new FastFig out. Let us know if it can help you, or if there are features you'd like to see added. We'd love to hear what you have to say, here or in the comments!