My 2016 highlights

2016 was my first full year living in San Francisco and also my first full year as a post-college “working adult”.

In the past twelve months, a lot has happened: I explored the Bay Area, launched a handful of side projects, grew my app development business, became a pseudo-grandmaster of memory, started a new job at Intuit, learned how to draw portraits, traveled, solved a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded, spent time with family, read 80 books, took a few classes, played some poker, and had over 500,000 people read my articles on Medium.

With everything that’s happened, I thought it would be interesting to compile and share my personal highlights from 2016, so here they are…

January

January was my first full month living in San Francisco (before that, I lived on the Peninsula). So, for much of the month, I explored the city and sounding areas. Surprisingly, the weather in January was quite nice, so I spent most of my time visiting San Francisco’s typical outdoor spots, like Land’s End, the California Coastal Trail, and Golden Gate park.

View of the Golden Gate from the Coastal Trail
My first encounter with Land’s End

Midway through the month, I started to develop an itch to draw/paint portraits. In an attempt to make something that was commercially viable, I decided to paint a portrait of Donald Trump (with some help from my computer and a projector).

After finishing the painting, I tried to sell it quickly, before the news cycle moved onto something/someone else, but it looks like my window of opportunity is still open into 2017. (I still haven’t sold it).

This portrait drawing itch is reprised throughout the rest of the year (until I finally scratch it in December).


I also hired a personal trainer in January — probably as some sort of New Years resolution type thing. In 2015, I was working out regularly, but only at about 60-70% intensity. Having someone keep me accountable definitely helped.

I continued working with Matt (the trainer) through September, and put on about 12lb of muscle, which I’ve since all but lost in these past couple months.

During this extreme exercising phase of 2016, I started experimenting with green smoothies, which (at least) my gastrointestinal system was happy about.

Lots of spinach…

Since I have some pretty aggressive and specific physical goals in 2017, I’ll probably start working with Matt again in a couple weeks. (More on these goals later).


January also marked the start of a new client relationship and a big, six-month project for my app development company Rhombus.

I spent much of the latter part of January designing basic flows for the app and writing up specs.

First draft of the app’s flows

Specs on specs

February

In February, I turned 23.

I celebrated with some Indian food and birthday naan (since I don’t eat cake/sweets).

For my birthday, I took a private painting lesson, continuing the interest from January. The lesson was with a full-time painter who works in an artist commune in Benicia, CA.

During the lesson, I attempted to paint a self-portrait. The experience was amazing, but the portrait is less so.

I look very angry. I think I’m trying to match the face in the painting.

I attempt to conquer my self-portrait again later in the year.


I continued exploring the Bay Area in February. One of my favorite spots was Point Reyes, which is north of San Francisco.


I also spent a few weekends joining the pilgrimage of all 20-somethings to Dolores Park.

View towards downtown SF from Dolores Park

During February, I finished creating all the designs for my client’s app, ready to start development in March.


March

In March, I continued working down my list of “must-do Bay Area day trips”, and visited Muir Woods. During my hike, I learned that redwood trees absorb enough water daily, just from fog, to fill an entire olympic swimming pool.

This seemed crazy, until I started hiking through the extreme fog.

I absorbed water like a tree.


In March, I started taking weekly Hebrew lessons — particularly, to work on my conversational skills.

The lessons mainly focused on topics like economics, technology, science, etc.

Hebrew vocab list on economics

After five weeks, I felt too busy, and sadly cancelled the lessons.

In 2017, I’ll be returning to Hebrew, and have plans to greatly accelerate my language learning progress (more on this later).


One weird thing I found in my March 2016 Google Photos archive was this photo of a potato.

In March, I read an article about photographer Kevin Abosch, and how he sold this photograph for over $1 million dollars.

This seemed like a lot of money for any photo, especially of a potato, so I tried to replicate it.

My potato photo

It turns out that it’s not as easy as it looks to photograph a million-dollar potato.


Later in March, I read the book The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau, which may have been the most impactful book on my 2016 (versus 79 other books I read this year).

This book planted the seed for something to come in November 2016.


April

I started April off with my first April Fools prank since about age ten.

I created a fake news story, attributed it to the fake Wall Street Journal, took a frightening mugshot, and discretely sent the story to my family and friends via a well-targeted Facebook ad.

In other words, when my family and friends were scrolling through Facebook on April 1, they would have come across this ad…

Some people were tricked, some people were amused, and some people were just confused how I “got this on their Facebook”. In any case, I got some good reactions.


I also started writing articles on Medium in April, which supported the exciting launches of a few of my side projects.

The first app to launch was speed-listening app Rightspeed, which was accompanied by one of my favorite article of the year.

A few days after launching on Medium, my cousin Sam sent me this text.

And this is how I found out my app was written up on TechCrunch.

In fact, on that day, the article about Rightspeed was TechCrunch’s most popular article.

I never received press before, so this was really exciting.

The story got picked up by dozens of tech blogs, and was featured on LifeHacker and Product Hunt.

One of the coolest write-ups was in The Hustle’s daily email newsletter. The newsletter featured four stories: One about Mark Zuckerberg, one about Elon Musk, one about Google, and one about Rightspeed.

That’s pretty awesome company.

As a result of this press, lots of cool things started to happen. I was asked to consult on a number of apps and tech products, Rhombus received dozens of inbound requests from new potential clients, and I even got to chat with Audible’s CEO and CTO about my technology.

Rightspeed continued to grow through 2016, and is still getting press coverage. Here’s an article that headlined the Evening Standard a few weeks ago in November.

Excitingly, there’s also a big write-up coming soon in 2017.


Soon after Rightspeed launched, my family came to visit me in San Francisco for a long weekend.

I toured my family around mostly on foot (and a little bit on bike). As a result, the weekend clocked in as the #2 weekend of 2016 for most steps taken at around 50,000 (only to be topped by September’s trip to Yosemite).

Across the bridge
Taking my family to the Bi-Rite Creamery the one day there’s absolutely no line

Also in April, I visited the UC Berkeley during “Cal Day”, which is Berkeley’s attempt to woo admitted students, but is also open to the public.

I sat in on lectures about material science, number theory, and nuclear engineering. I even got to tour inside of Berkeley’s nuclear reactor.

Is this a good thing?

At the end of April, I published a new personal website at maxdeutsch.me.


May

After receiving promising feedback on my personal website, I teamed up with Mario Zigliotto to launch personal website builder Somebody.io in May.

Soon after launching, Somebody.io climbed to the #1 product in Tech on Product Hunt, which was a big deal for us.

Eventually, Somebody.io even passed Soylent in the Product Hunt rankings.

Somebody.io was also unequivocally my best received tech product of 2016.

Just from the Product Hunt launch, thousands of people signed up to create their own personal Somebody.io sites.

As a result, my personal SEO (search engine optimization) flourished: At the beginning of 2016, if you googled “Max Deutsch”, I wouldn’t have shown up on the first page. Now, as a result of all the links traveling through Somebody.io, I rank as the first three results for my name.

A nice side benefit.

On the heels of these successful launches, I capped off May by writing one of my favorite articles of the year, “Brute force is the best way to grow your product”.


June

In June, I finished developing my client’s app and helped her with the public launch. The app is called Jibe and it’s an interesting take on group photo sharing.

Along with the launch, I shared a detailed case study on the process of making the app.


In June, I read the book Peak, in which the author, Anders Ericsson, discusses his research on the “Science of Expertise”.

This book was the second source of inspiration for the project I started in November (more on this later), and I later read the book again in September.

Before November though, I had a mini burst of inspiration to try to master a new skill a la the techniques discussed in the book.

I spent one month learning how to solve a Rubik’s Cube from memory. In other words, I can be handed a scrambled cube, work out how to solve the scramble in my mind, memorize that sequences of computed moves, and then put the cube behind my back and execute the solve.

Here an attempt I videoed.


For Father’s Day, I traveled back to New York to see my family.

We went to a Yankees game for the first time in maybe five years, we escaped an Escape Room, and I got to break out my road bike for the first time in months.

Decent seats…
Biking with dad

In June, after my successful product launches, I started a weekly Medium series called “Max’s Startup Advice”, where I solicited questions from students and young entrepreneurs on Facebook.

After a month of advice, I decided that I hadn’t quite yet earned the right to disseminate my startup commentary on an ongoing basis. Instead, I wanted to continue working on my own projects, learning, demonstrating results, and earning the right to be an authority.

So, I decided to pull my “Max’s Startup Advice” articles, and focus elsewhere. I did, however, answer the remaining ~20 questions (that were left in the MSA queue) over email.

Even though I stopped the series, I think some of those articles were the most valuable I wrote this year. Here are two of them…


July

In July, I became interested in Deep Learning (a subset of Artificial Intelligence), and completed the Deep Learning course that Nando de Freita teaches at Oxford.

I highly recommend the course if you 1) Have a math background or 2) Want to learn the math underlying DL techniques. If you just care about implementation or application, this probably isn’t the right course for you.

With that said, since Nando’s course emphasizes theory over application, after completing the course, I wanted to work on a small deep learning project that I could use to hone my implementation skills.

So, I decided to build a deep learning algorithm (LSTM Recurrent Neural Net) that could write in the style of J.K. Rowling. I used that algorithm to write a new, 2,000-word Harry Potter chapter.

The chapter definitely captured J.K. Rowling’s style, but was mostly nonsensical and thus amusing.

He punished Uncle Vernon, so loudly that she could barely use it with Viktor Krum.
Ron didn’t even upset her little ingredients on the toilet, and a group of third-year girls last year. Highly bushy and then burst away from them quickly.
Harry grinned at Harry.
The Snitch was very impassive.
“Pig snout,” they bowed back to the cabinet above the table. “That’s right,” said Harry offhandedly.
Dumbledore will get out from behind a cream cake.

After sharing the article on Facebook, things exploded.

In the first week, the article received over 50,000 views organically.

Then, on day nine, Medium shared the article on their homepage and the number of views increased 10-fold.

The article became so popular that I was getting invited to interview on radio shows, podcasts, and for a number of articles, many of which were in other languages.

In the Digital Trends article, I made an offhanded comment about the computer’s creativity:

“…you can argue that the Harry Potter neural network was very creative. In fact, this might be the first time anyone, or anything, has constructed the sentence: ‘Dumbledore will get out from behind a cream cake.’”

But a commenter on the article pointed out that this wasn’t true — The Dumbledore Sentence had already been constructed many times.

This realization led to my favorite article of the year, Dumbledore will get out from behind a creak cake” isn’t an original sentence after all.

As a result of this virality, I decided to use the same algorithm to generate a new song based on the lyrics of the musical Hamilton and a new episode based on HBO’s Silicon Valley.

These articles also became massive hits (although, not quite to the scale of Harry Potter).

Following these new articles, after many requests, I wrote up a step-by-step “Deep Writing” tutorial, as well as launched a community-based publication called DeepWriting.co, where others can share their AI-generated fan fiction.

The tutorial was a hit, and, for a few weeks, was the top search result for “Artificial Intelligence” on Medium.

After launching the tutorial, I was contacted by TEDxHollywood to speak about artificial intelligence at their “Technology vs. Humanity” event in September. I would be joining an impressive lineup of other speakers…


Although it seemed like a great opportunity, I ultimately turned down the invitation. I was still early in my Artificial Intelligence journey and had said everything I was hoping to say at this point.

After about six weeks of craziness and hundreds of thousands of article views, most of the excitement died down. If I thought the publicity from Rightspeed was a big deal, this Deep Learning stuff yielded 100 times more activity.

This was really my first (and only) time flirting with genuine internet virality.


On a totally different note, in July, I bought a tent and camping gear, kicking off a number of camping/hiking trips over the latter half of 2016.

My first trip was to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Sonoma, CA.


Upon returning from Sugarloaf, I launched a new app called Silicon Moji, an emoji keyboard for “everything Silicon Valley”.

The app was my response to other highly popular emoji keyboards like Steph Curry’s StephMoji, Kim Kardashian’s Kimoji, Bitmoji, etc. (as well as the general emoji trend of 2016).

While I saw this as a fun opportunity, I also saw this as a serious money-making effort: When Kimoji launched, the app was making over $1 million per minute. Stephmoji easily surpassed this. Bitmoji sold to Snapchat for $100,000,000. And I was ready to join the club.

I definitely (not-so-proudly) had money signs in my eyes.

Nevertheless, the app turned out great — it was colorful, playful, and high-quality.

Even Silicon Valley’s own Marc Andreessen liked the app on Twitter.

On launch day, I quickly recouped my investment and thought I was heading towards Kimoji-level of riches. But then, I received this comment on Product Hunt…

Apparently, it’s not legal to sell other people’s likenesses, even if they are cartoon characters. This spooked me.

I spoke with an intellectual property lawyer, and was advised to stop selling the app. I was even advised not to offer the app for free.

Without an emotional stake in the app (like I had with Rightspeed or Somebody.io), I immediately took the app down. There was absolutely no internal struggle about this.

While this wasn’t my highest moment of 2016, I definitely learned a hard lesson: Don’t just chase the money or the shiny thing.

I quickly went back to focusing on projects I was prepared to fight for.


August

In August, I traveled to Washington state for 10 days.

For the first half of the trip, I camped in Olympic National Park at the Kalaloch campground.

The campground was located right on the Pacific shoreline, so I spent most of the days on the beach.

I also took a day trip to the largest rainforest in the United States, which happens to be a 50-minute drive from the Kalaloch beaches.

The Hoh Rainforest

For the second half of the trip, I headed to explore Seattle. On my drive over, and in anticipation of visiting the University of Washington, I listened to the audiobook rendition of “The Boys in the Boat” — a terrific read about the 1936 University of Washington crew team.

In Seattle, I visited popular spots like Pikes Place Market, the Olympic Sculpture Park, and Gas Works Park. I also crashed a local chess club meeting at the Seattle Public library, where I played 12 games of chess against well-prepared highschoolers.

View from Kerry Park in the Queen Anne Neighborhood
Right outside Pikes Place Market

After returning from Seattle, I moved into a new role at Intuit, which I continued in through the end of this year.

In my new role, I got to work directly with Intuit’s founder, Scott Cook, and Intuit’s CTO, Tayloe Stansbury, on some interesting cross-Intuit projects. This was an exciting and humbling experience.


At around the same time, I was accepted as a Product Manager to the software-on-demand platform Gigster. My plan here was to take on a few additional client projects on the side, in order to keep my product work diverse and learn about new technologies.

After a little experimentation, though, the PM role on Gigster seemed a little more administrative than product-y, so I never ended up taking any gigs.


September

In September, I took the orange tent to Yosemite for a long weekend. I volunteered alongside 1,500 others for Yosemite Facelift, a week-long organized cleanup of the park.

The orange tent

Most of my time was spent hiking, and picking up any trash (if any) I saw along the way.

View of the valley

While at Yosemite, along with my other trips this year, I captured lots of GoPro video. I’m still not sure what I’m going to do with this footage though.

Goproing

After three days of hiking, I had accumulated about 70,000 steps, overtaking the weekend with my family for the most steps taken.

Our biggest day of hiking

October

In October, to join in the chat bot uptick of 2016, I launched an SMS bot called OneThing that’s designed to help you complete your daily goals.

I actually built OneThing in November 2015, but only used it for myself up until this point.

In October, I added subscription payments to the bot (to offset the costs of sending SMS) and launched it on Product Hunt, marking my fifth featured product for the year (Rightspeed, Somebody.io, Silicon Moji, OneThing, and ReallyLongTweets.com, which was launched in April, but didn’t make the cut as a 2016 highlight).


Also, in October, I took three 3-hour calligraphy classes at the SF Center of the Book in San Francisco’s Design District.

Here’s my early attempt at blackletter / gothic. Not my best work.


In October, Intuit opened it’s new building, and I moved in on the second floor.

I particularly like the new building’s outdoor work area on the roof.


Later in October, I read Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, which was probably my favorite book of the year.


November

In November, I launched a new, year-long accelerated learning project called Month to Master (M2M).

In the launch post, I explained that, from November 1, 2016 to October 31, 2017, I plan to master twelve expert-level skills — devoting one month to each skill and writing daily about the process.

Here’s the list of the M2M challenges:

  1. November: Memorize the order of a deck of cards in less than 2 minutes
  2. December: Draw a realistic self-portrait
  3. January: Solve a Rubik’s Cube in under 20 seconds
  4. February: Land a standing backflip
  5. March: Play a 5-minute blues guitar solo
  6. April: Hold a 30-minute conversation in Hebrew on the future of tech
  7. May: Build a self-driving car
  8. June: Develop perfect pitch — identify 20 random musical notes in a row
  9. July: Defeat world-champion Magnus Carlsen at a game of chess
  10. August: Complete one continuous set of 40 pull-ups
  11. September: Continuously freestyle rap for 4 minutes
  12. October: Finish a Saturday NYT crossword puzzle in one sitting

In November, I completed the first challenge: I successfully memorized a shuffled deck of cards in one minute and 47 seconds, becoming a pseudo grandmaster of memory.


Earlier in November, I enjoyed a 2-hour “sourdough starter” class at La Victoria bakery in San Francisco.

I made an excessively-garnished flatbread.


For the last week of November, I flew back to New York to spend Thanksgiving with my family.

We did all the normal Thanksgiving things like watch football, eat turkey, and take a trapezing lesson…


December

In December, I started journaling every morning. In particular, I would spend four minutes each morning writing my stream of consciousness. It was a nice meditative way to start the day.

To facilitate this process, and to ensure my writing was uninhibited, I built a simple website called Morning Four, which automatically erases everything you write after four minutes of typing.

I never launched Morning Four publicly, but you can try it out at MorningFour.com.


In December, I started and completed a new Month to Master challenge: Drawing portraits.

Here’s my before portrait from December 1 next to my final portrait from December 24.

And here’s a time lapse of the 8-hour drawing process.

During the month, I also drew a few other portraits, including one of Derren Brown, who originally inspired me to draw.


One of the last books I read this year was When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. A sad, yet inspiring memoir, and my second favorite book of the year.


What’s Next in 2017?

There are few things I can predict for 2017: I’m starting the year still in San Francisco and still at Intuit. Over the next ten months, I still have ten Month to Master challenges to complete, including landing a standing backflip, building a self-driving car, and developing perfect pitch. I’ll probably still listen to 6–7 audiobooks per month.

Other than that, it’s hard to say exactly where I’ll be in a year, but I’m excited to find out.


Max Deutsch is a product manager at Intuit, the creator of Somebody.io and Rightspeed, and the guinea pig for Month to Master.

If you want to follow along with Max’s year-long accelerated learning project, make sure to follow this Medium account.