Blog post announcing MonogramX, before I knew anything about startups but tried anyway

Originally published in 2010.

MonogramX: A Better Personal Website

(Originally published on August 19, 2010)

After some back and forth, I’ve decided that the best way to have a blog is to use a site specifically designed to solve blogging. In this case, I chose WordPress.com because I feel that Google already has too much of my data, and so Blogger (while being an excellent service) was not ideal. I should also add that this move of starting a “real” blog is not random; in fact, it is the direct effect of a new cause–a new service I am launching called MonogramX.

MonogramX is about personal branding; it’s the enterprising individual’s home on the web—it’s a way to bring everything about you under one elegant, well-designed roof. If I may be so bold so as to make this claim, I would say that it’s like my own website, only generalized for popular consumption.

Along these lines, I realized that it would be foolish to try to solve the same problems that are already solved elsewhere. The most obvious example (to me at least) was my own slapdash implementation of what was supposed to pass as a blog. I realized that the smart thing to do would just be to integrate with existing solutions—solutions that have many more dollars and hours behind them than my own. I think part of it may just be growing up and learning that there is a cost and a benefit to everything. Sure the sense of accomplishment is greater whenever you’ve done something yourself, but what if it’s just not as good as the thing that someone else made? That was basically the story of my home-baked blog system versus WordPress.com.

So why stop there? Why not just have MonogramX be a—dare I say it?—mashup machine. Shudder. Well, that phrase alone is enough to dissuade me from anything resembling it, but more to the point, MonogramX actually does do that where appropriate. Are you a photographer? You probably already have a Flickr account. I can’t write Flickr as well as Flickr writes Flickr, so yes, MonogramX will just integrate with Flickr. Same with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth. All these problems are solved and solved well by big players, so there’s no need to solve them again.

So what does MonogramX actually provide, if it purposely avoids reinventing the wheel? Well, there are two things that aren’t solved well currently, in my opinion. One of these has a software solution, and the other does not.

The first problem that I haven’t found a solution for prior to MonogramX was a good, simple, and easy way to manage my portfolios. As an amateur writer, I have a collection of essays that I want to show the world; likewise, as an amateur artist, I have some paintings and drawings that I want to share. I also have some obscure documents from college that I’d like to think people have read. And I also have some freelance projects that I want to use to establish some kind of visual resume. What can I use in this case? I couldn’t find anything that would solve all these problems simultaneously (even if there are solutions for each particular medium). I needed something that understood the concept of a “Portfolio” and the different shapes it can take, be it images, pdf documents, text, testimonials—whatever. This is the problem that I believe MonogramX solves well. Finally, a simple and straightforward way to manage all your portfolios.

The second problem is actually not a technical problem at all: it’s the issue of design. Many of the big services (with the exception of blogging services) don’t do a good job of letting you put your brand on the service. For instance, your Flickr account will always be your Flickr account, no matter what you try to make it look like; the same for your Facebook profile and YouTube channel. Similarly, if you’re an artist with your work on DeviantArt, then you’ll always feel like you are member of DeviantArt when you look at your page. We all want to be our own… something. Whatever that “something” is, it needs to be unique to those of us who are trying to establish a personal brand. It’s a design, a signature, a unique impression, a… monogram (well, you knew it was coming, right?).

To solve this second problem, in addition to being slick software, MonogramX is also a custom website design shop headed by yours truly. I wrote MonogramX with the intention of being a simple but powerful backend functionality-wise, but also completely themable in the front-end. The result is that I can offer standard designs for those wishing to use the software in a generic way, but also do custom work where it’s required.

Those are all the details I can share at the moment. I’m looking to launch MonogramX.com at the end of September, and I’ll be sure to post any updates here. Thanks for reading!

Now powered by MonogramX

(Originally published on September 5, 2010)

What a week. A couple of posts ago, I introduced MonogramX and talked a little about some of the ideas behind it. That was August 19th, and at that time, I still believed it would take until the end of September to launch. So what happened? Well, I reacquainted myself with the two most powerful neuro-linguistic constructs available to the human mental capacity: “what if,” and “how.”

You probably already know these guys very well, but when’s the last time you really gave them any thought—or better yet, when’s the last time you actually used them. Like, really, really used them, on purpose. I’m certainly having some trouble thinking of specific instances besides the one I’m telling you about. My intuition is that we actually happen to use them all the time, but the catch is that it’s mostly on a reactive basis. Consider:

  • “Wow I can’t believe you made it out alive! What if you had died?!”
  • “I just lost out big time… How did that ever happen?”

Ok, so I’m using some biased examples here, but you get the point. These examples all reflect a situation in which something undesirable has happened to you, and you use these “thinking tools” to help you reason about it or cope with the situation. But that’s actually not the interesting case. What is more amazing to me is what happens when you use these tools proactively. This is what happened to me and MonogramX some ten days ago. I was lying in bed thinking too much about things (tangent: how much sleep do I lose because of this tendency?) and just generally feeling negative about things. I was desperately searching for something positive to latch on to—something that could motivate me past this little trough.

And that’s when it struck me.

I suddenly remembered a quote from the book Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki that basically explained how Rich Dad wouldn’t let young Robert say “I can’t afford it.” Instead, he would force him to ask himself “How can I afford it?” This question would then have an uncanny effect on the asker: he would necessarily have to exercise his mental capacity in order to answer it. The result of this mental effort was usually an actionable plan towards affording what it was that was originally deemed unaffordable.

From this thought, I realized that “how” is actually the general mental construct used to explore or forge the path that will take you to a certain goal. Excuse my grandiose philosophical exclamations, but wow, that’s one powerful thought (quite literally so!). However, I think the catch here is that “how” has a weakness, and that weakness is exposed when you consider that it causes the goal to be fixed. For example, when you ask yourself “How can I afford it?”, you are actually presupposing that affording it is a good thing, and that this shouldn’t be varied. For better or for worse, “how” doesn’t let you explore alternative goals, an obvious one in this case being “what if I don’t actually need this?”. This makes sense to me when I think about it from a “computational power” perspective. It seems somehow above the human mind’s capacity to try and figure out good paths to a goal while varying that goal at the same time. My intuition tells me that the human mind is not capable of solving this class of problems (well, at least my own brain can’t). For my CS-inclined readers, I kind of visualize this as complexity theory: in the same way that a DFA can’t recognize palindromes but a PDA can, the human mind is just not “powerful” enough to evaluate “how” in the context of an indeterminate goal.

If you haven’t passed out yet, then your eyes have probably glazed over at this point. But slap yourself a couple of times so we can get back to the story. Ready? Good.

So here I was with my realization that I needed something orthogonal to “how”. I first needed to get a goal before I could ask myself how I could reach it. That’s when I realized that “what if” is actually this tool. “What if” is crazy. It’s out there and it’s dreaming. Like everywhere. All over the place. It’s the greatest gift ever. It lets us put ourselves in situations that are separate from our reality; but more profoundly, it presents us with realities that we might one day actually choose to realize. What progress in the world didn’t start out as a “what if”? I can only think of serendipitous events as an exception, but certainly any intended progress must have started out with a voice in someone’s head saying “what if… ?”

And so as I lay there in the dark unmoving, bubbling up past the million thoughts swimming in my head was an unintentionally audible mumble. When it finally emerged through my unprepared larynx, it rendered itself in a slightly cracked and dry voice. It said, quietly, “what if I could launch MonogramX next week?”

It really feels like the story should end there for stylistic reasons, but then I realized that I haven’t actually given you the actual information yet. So let’s sum up quickly: I ended up considering a possibility that wasn’t anywhere near my assumed reality. The questions followed—“how”s mostly—and by the end of the night, right as I was falling asleep, I decided that I would go for it. “What if” provided the goal and “how” showed me the way to get there. Simply put, these two questions blew my mind. Literally. Wait no… what would that even mean?

Anyway, so here I am today, ten days later, announcing that http://www.mohanzhang.com is now powered by MonogramX. Development and polish is still continuing, but it feels great to finally get out the door. I spent some time getting the images and documents back up on my website, but you’ll notice that the Interests section is still empty. The reason is that I want to rewrite and reconsider a lot of my interests. I feel like I’ve phased out some old ones and added some new ones, and it’d be fun just to reflect on them again and (hopefully) write some interesting pieces about their roles in my life. On re-read, some of the current writing in Interests doesn’t really match up anymore, and I want to make sure that it really does live up to the claim of “Interests that define my life.” So look for those in the near-future, and until then, enjoy the same un-updated content that you’ve been staring at for the past year. I know. I love you too.