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Featured on Oct 21, 2011

Lee Semel

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. - Albert Einstein"


As co-founder of Sawhorse Media, I launched the Shorty Awards, honoring the best of Twitter and the real-time web. Previously, I founded a software business developing enterprise web applications for major companies, universities, nonprofits and museums.

I’m interested in entrepreneurship, technology, creativity and making great products and user experiences. Since I have a background in computer science, art and art history, I bring a variety of different perspectives to everything I work on. I’m passionate about photography and can often be found taking photos of people and things on the streets of New York.

  • Title: Co-founder of Sawhorse Media and The Shorty Awards
  • Age: 37
  • Location: Union Square
  • Contact: @semel,

We asked your co-founder, Greg Galant, how you guys came to create Sawhorse Media and subsequently the Shorty Awards.  Do you have any general advice for other entrepreneurs trying to manage multiple projects?

It’s important to hire good people to manage each project. We work with talented people for each aspect of the Shorty Awards, whether it’s sales, event planning, or dealing with celebrities.

We’ve been able to release many sites as we have by getting new ideas out the door quickly, so they can sink or swim in the real world.  We came up with the idea for the Shorty Awards over Thanksgiving, created the site over the following two weekends, launched it, and it immediately took off and became a top trending term on Twitter.  Later, when we had the idea for a Twitter people search engine, I created a working version in about a week and a half.

From a technical perspective, it’s important to value quality code and put processes in place to facilitate this.  It’s hard to manage multiple projects if your code is buggy and opaque, so I’m a stickler for well-written, readable, and elegant code. I’ve gone back and asked developers to adjust code if they name something unclearly, or if the code is too complicated to follow or test.

It’s equally important to know when not to write code. The code that’s easiest to maintain is code that doesn’t exist. For one of our sites, instead of spending time creating admin screens, I set it up to be powered entirely by Google Spreadsheets.  The site automatically pulls in changes from the spreadsheet into its database, and the familiar interface made it easy for editors to learn.  That site’s still working well and making money today.

Where are some of your favorite places here in New York to take photos? What’s your personal favorite photo that you’ve taken yourself?

New York is full of spectacular places, but you don’t need to go to some special location or famous tourist attraction to take good pictures. As long as you have a camera, some light, and know how to look, you can take interesting photographs, even of the most ordinary things.

Photography is like entrepreneurship in that in you need to notice opportunities right in front of you that others may not see.   Some of my favorite photographs I’ve taken are of unremarkable objects you could see while walking down any city street:

I’m a very interested in architecture, the built environment, and New York City history, so when I do go somewhere specifically to take pictures, it’s often somewhere of architectural or historic interest, like the unopened section of the High Line, the industrial cobblestone streets of Dumbo, or the 5Pointz graffiti building in Long Island City. One of my favorite places is Thomas Edison’s lab in West Orange, New Jersey, where you can experience what it was like at one of the most innovative companies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

 You mention on LinkedIn that you were a Senior Developer / Information Architect during the dotcom days.  Do you have any particular memories (good or bad) from that time?  Bonus question (optional) - Are we in a bubble? 

I moved into the city right when the dotcom era was ending.  A block away from my apartment was the office of a giant Web agency, a public company that employed hundreds of people and would charge millions of dollars to develop a static, brochure-like HTML site.  This company’s office was in a sprawling first-floor space with glass windows open to the street, so anyone walking by could see in.

Every day when I left my apartment I’d walk by their windows, and see hundreds of people hard at work on the next big site for some consumer brand.  A month or two later, I started to notice some empty desks.  Soon, half the office was empty.  It wasn’t long before were just two or three people remaining, and the rest of the floor full of empty cubicles and stacks of Aeron chairs. That office is now the home of an insurance company.

Today we talk about lean startups, but during the dotcom days, startups were anything but lean. The idea of a couple entrepreneurs launching a viable business from a coffee shop using open source software was unheard of. Companies would have to raise money simply to afford expensive web server hardware and outrageously priced software licenses, as well as to pay for extravagant offices.  Coworking spaces were nonexistent, and I remember visiting a startup’s office that reminded me of the Starship Enterprise's conference room, complete with futuristic furniture and expensive flat-screen displays on every wall.  I also remember attending some classes on how to start a startup, which focused heavily on writing the perfect business plan, predicting revenue five years out, and pretty much anything other than actually releasing a product.

I don’t believe we’re in a bubble now.  The Internet is more pervasive and profitable than it ever was, and the barriers to creating valuable companies are lower than ever. Any irrational exuberance that may exist hasn’t spread to the general public, as it did during the dotcom era.

When my parents start reading TechCrunch, then we’re in a bubble.