Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Yeh Family in Washington DC, Day 3

On Friday, we set aside our last full day in Washington DC for "the big one": The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH).  While I've always been a bigger fan of technology than nature, the rest of the family is clearly much more on the nature side of the pendulum.  When we're at the Air and Space Museum, I'm the expert, and explain to the family the intricacies of things like the evolution of swept and delta wings, or the relative merits of American and Soviet ICBMs.  But when we're at natural history museums, I rely on Jason to identify and explain the animals on exhibit.

I first visited the NMNH when I was a boy, and I still have two very clear memories of the experience: Looking at the Hope Diamond, and holding a caterpillar in the insect zoo, where it promptly pooped on me.  Take from that what you will.  (For what it's worth, my clearest memory of my first visit to the Air and Space Museum was playing with the interactive display that let you design a supersonic airliner)

Naturally, we began our visit at the Hope Diamond (which gets incredibly crowded later on during the day).  The Hope Diamond is part of an enormous display of gemstones provided by Harry Winston.  Marissa was drawn to it, of course, photographing it from every angle.  The story of the Hope Diamond also provides some valuable history lessons--it was part of the crown jewels of France, and disappeared during the French Revolution, only to reappear 1 day after the 20-year statute of limitations on prosecuting its theft had expired.  Sheer coincidence, I'm sure.

Outside the exhibit, Alisha chatted with one of the guards, who gave us some good advice--besides the Hope Diamond, the next most popular exhibits were the butterfly pavilion and the dinosaurs.  He recommended we hit those early before the rush took over.  After thanking him, we moved on to the butterfly pavilion, where, as he predicted there was no line.  (We walked past later in the day, and the line was about 30-45 minutes).  Here, I shelled out $16 so that the kids and I could enter.  A bit extravagant, since the kids regularly visit the rainforest at the Cal Academy of Sciences, which has much the same butterflies, but when you've already spent thousands of dollars on a vacation, what's a few more?  The butterflies were beautiful, of course, but I also learned some fascinating facts about butterflies that I didn't know before:
  • For every species of butterfly, there are over 10 species of moths
  • Butterflies evolved from moths about 65 million years ago
  • Before flowering plants evolved in the twilight of the dinosaurs, moths fed by chewing leaves and pollen with their mandibles, since nectar didn't exist yet

Then we took the elevator down to the lobby to hit the final exhibition the guard had mentioned, the dinosaurs.  There were some pretty interesting videos about how 3D printing has changed how the museum displays dinosaurs.  Because most dinosaur skeletons aren't found intact (they lacked the courtesy to build gigantic coffins for their burials--must be those tiny arms), most of the skeletons you or I remember seeing from our youth are Frankenstein monsters--assembled from the bones of many creatures.

With the advent of better imaging and creation techniques, that can be remedied.  The film I watched showed how computer animation allowed paleontologists to manipulate skeletons virtually, until they were properly arranged to allow full motion, and how 3D imaging and printing allowed them to do things like flip a left hip to print up a matching right hip.  Cool stuff!

Of course, we couldn't resist taking the time to take a picture:

After leaving the dinosaur exhibit, we worked our way through ancient mammals and the new "African Voices" exhibition and headed to lunch in the museum's cafe.  Yelp warned us in advance about the exorbitant prices, but as with Air and Space, it made no sense to leave the museum and brave the 100 degree temperatures to find a better place to eat, especially given the need to go through a security line upon re-entry.  We ordered a slice of cheese pizza for Jason, and a overstuffed BBQ beef brisket sandwich with macaroni and cheese and coleslaw for the rest of us.  One of the benefits of having varied taste preferences in our family is the ability to feed many people with a single meal.  Marissa ate the macaroni and cheese (one of her favorite foods).  I had half of the brisket and coleslaw, which left Alisha with a reasonably sized sandwich for her lunch.

After lunch, we went through the entire minerals and gems exhibit (with Marissa taking pictures all the way) and visited two special exhibitions: Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt (AKA Mummies!), and Written in Bone.  While a bit macabre, both were great exhibitions, complete with actual mummies (gruesome) and skeletons.  Written in Bone is a new exhibit on forensic anthropology that focuses on what scientists have learned from the bones they found at the recently rediscovered Fort James, the initial Jamestown settlement.  104 men and boys arrived at Jamestown in the initial expedition; within 9 months, only 38 were still alive.  There were a lot of bones.  Among other things, the bones confirmed written reports that the colonists had resorted to cannibalism during "The Starving Time," though as I pointed out to the family, the colonists probably only ate people that were already dead.

Alisha and I also reassured them that we were very unlikely to face the prospect of cannibalism in our own lives.  For example, in the event of a civilization destroying apocalypse that we somehow manage to survive, we have plans to loot the local elementary school farm for its livestock, steal the goats from the baylands, and head for the hills of Portola Valley, which combine high ground, several friends' fortress-like family compounds, and at least one friend who has socked away an impressive array of weaponry and enough ammunition to destroy a zombie army.

We moved on to Genome: Unlocking Life's Code, an exploration of genomics.  This was a great exhibit, but I couldn't shake the impression that it was a gigantic 23andMe commercial, despite the fact that 23andMe wasn't mentioned, except as a sponsor.  "We should get our genomes sequenced," Alisha said, after watching a couple of films detailing how genomic sequencing had helped save various people's lives.  I suppose it would finally establish the truth about the Yeh family legend that the curly hair found in some members of the family come from long-lost Jewish ancestors.

After this, we made our way down to the rotunda, where I met up with my old friend and classmate, Price Roe, who was kind enough to make time in his busy schedule to come see me.  Price worked for the W campaign in 2000, focusing on relationships with the technology industry.  After 9/11, Price joined the Department of Justice and then later worked for the Department of Homeland Security, where he focused on technology infrastructure and issues.  A proud Texas Republican who co-chairs the DC Chapter of Maverick PAC, an organization for next-generation Republicans that was founded by George P. Bush (Jeb's son, W's nephew, Bush 41's grandson).  We took a picture, appropriately enough, in front of the elephant in the rotunda:

We finished our time at the NMNH by looking through a gallery of the Windland Smith Rice International Awards for Nature Photography.  While the kids objected at first (we were getting pretty tired), they were soon fascinated as well.

Sandra Windland "Wendy" Smith Rice was a famous nature photographer who died suddenly and tragically at the age of 35 of  Long QT Syndrome Type 2, a rare inherited heart condition.  Her grieving father, Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, established these awards, as well as the Mayo Clinic's Windland Smith Rice Sudden Death Genomics Laboratory.

These nature photographs were amazing.  There's also something special about seeing giant physical prints up close and personal.  Here's Marissa with one of them:

We finished our day at the Smithsonian by visiting "The Castle," the headquarters of this remarkable organization, as well as the attached gardens and the Sackler Gallery.  A great way to end our stay in Washington!

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Yeh Family in Washington DC, Day 2

We began the day at the Smithsonian's most popular museum, the National Air and Space Museum.  Airplanes and rockets--what more could someone want?  (Sadly, they still haven't found a way to justify an exhibit on giant fighting robots)

The Air and Space Museum is always inspiring; as you walk through the museum, you go from the primitive gliders and attempts to fly from the turn of the 20th Century, all the way to the giant rockets that carried man to the moon, all in the span of minutes.

First flight took place in 1903; man landed on the moon in 1969.  So in 66 years, we went from our first 12-second foray into the sky to reaching another world.  Seems insane, right?  But you can apply the same principle to computers.

66 years ago, it was 1947.  Computers was gigantic monstrosities the size of a house, running on relays, with less computing power than your average microwave today.  Imagine going to an average person in 1947, and telling them that in 66 years, they would have access to all the world's information, including color television, on a device they could keep in their pocket.  "Amazing," they'd think.  Then add that the device would be so cheap that schoolchildren would carry them around, and they'd marvel at the wonderful world of the future.  Finally, tell them that the hottest application for these incredible devices was to allow people to send self-destructing photos of their genitalia to each other.  And then their head would explode.

Some of the highlights of the museum:
  • Seeing the backup mirror for the Hubble telescope
  • Marveling at the incredible level of detail in the deep field photos--it's hard to believe that so many of those little pin pricks of light in the sky are entire galaxies
  • Checking out actual nuclear missiles (sans warheads, of course)
  • Being able to see the re-entry battered spacecraft that carried John Glenn into orbit and Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins* to the moon
 * Poor Michael Collins.  Everyone always forgets about him, or thinks he was that guy Liam Neeson played in a movie.  But I was surprised and entertained to learn that among other things, after leaving the service, he became the director of the National Air and Space Museum.  I probably would have abused the position by commissioning an exhibit: "Why staying in the Command Module was much cooler than walking on that lousy old moon."

To avoid the hassle of leaving and then going through security a second time to get back in, we ate lunch at the museum, which features the world's most expensive McDonald's.  I'll forgo comment on the food other than to note that Marissa had a menu item I'd never seen before, the Southern-style Chicken Sandwich, the McDonald's version of the classic Chik-fil-A sandwich.  Not bad, and homophobia-free!

Another digression: My strategy for maintaining my low-carb diet and saving a few bucks on the trip relies heavily on what I consider a near-perfect food for such expeditions: Justin's nut butter packets. Justin's, which I first encountered during my stay at the Unreasonable Institute, makes the world's best nut butters.  In addition to their standard jars, they also make 1.15 ounce foil packets, which fit easily in your pocket, are easy to open and use, and keep for years.  I buy up their Maple Almond Butter, Chocolate Almond Butter, Chocolate Hazelnut Butter, Honey Almond Butter, and Honey Peanut Butter whenever they go on sale.  Each day during the trip, I eat several packets, dipping in whenever I can't find appropriate food in a restaurant, or to stave off hunger pains.*

* I don't have any business relationship with Justin's, and am not a paid endorser, but I would be happy to accept an endorsement deal and/or free product!  Hopefully they've got an alert set up, and spot this blog post!

In the afternoon, we left the Air and Space Museum and went next door to the National Museum of the American Indian.  Opened in 2004, the NMAI is one of the newest museums in the Smithsonian family, and even after 9 years, it still looks brand-spanking new.  It's a striking building with an amazing stairway that takes you between the four floors:

I freely admit that I don't have that much inherent interest in Native Americans, but since Alisha has Taino heritage (the Tainos were the native inhabitants of Puerto Rico; they were the first people oppressed and enslaved by Columbus), it's an important subject for her and the kids.

The museum's collection includes over 800,000 items, and is pretty darn amazing.  Kids will especially like the activity center, which allows kids to learn about daily life as a Native American by going from activity station to station, collecting stamps in a "passport" along the way.  Of course, Jason and many of the other boys simply ran around collecting stamps without actually doing the activities, but I think they learned by osmosis.

We ate an early dinner in the Mitsitam Cafe, which is a high-end museum eatery, similar to the excellent (if pricey) food at the California Academy of Sciences, but based on Native American cuisines.  We had seared Buffalo steak, cedar planked salmon, spicy chicken and Buffalo tacos, and of course, that most authentic of native foods, chicken fingers and french fries.  Alisha and the kids also had fry bread and coconut passionfruit flan for dessert.  The food was quite good, though it will end up being our most expensive meal of the trip!

After a brief rest in our hotel room, we headed out to a walking tour of the landmarks via Free Tours by Foot.  My awesome travel agent, Pam Hill, suggested the tour, which is a name-your-price tour, where you pay after the tour is over.

Here are the places we visited, along with some highlights and fun facts:

Washington Monument:

  • The initial fundraising effort for the monument forbade any donations over $1.  After collecting $27,000, construction was suspended for lack of funds.  Oh well, at least it's better than calling it the Quicken Loans Washington Monument.
 World War II Memorial:
  • When veterans were presented with the memorial, they thought that something was missing.  At their insistence, "Kilroy was here" graffiti was carved into the marble of the monument.
  • Each morning, the newest Marine Corps recruits who jog by the memorial are forced to polish the Marine Corps seal, keeping it nice and shiny.

Vietnam War Memorial:
  • Every night, the offerings that people leave at the wall are collected and stored in an archive, rather than being thrown away.  These are often quite moving.

Korean War Memorial
  • On the reflecting wall, the image of the German Shepherd has been petted so much that the stone is actually discolored
  • I happened to notice that there are several floral bouquets that are replaced every day.  They are paid for by various organizations in South Korea, to express their eternal gratitude for the service of the Korean War veterans who defended their country.
Lincoln Memorial
  • When they were carving the words of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, the stonemasons misspelled the word "FUTURE" as "EUTURE".  They filled in the extra space with putty, but the typo is still visible.
 Two final points:

1) I think it's amazing that the National Mall is taken over every night by people playing kickball and softball.  Apparently they switch to football and soccer in the Fall.  I think this is uniquely American to take the space between our two most sacred monuments (Washington and Lincoln) and open it up to the people.  Can you imagine the public playing cricket on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, roller hockey in the Kremlin, or badminton in the Forbidden City?  U-S-A! U-S-A!

2) Last night was the first time any members of the Yeh family ever saw fireflies, or as they call them in the South, lightning bugs.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Yeh Family in Washington DC, Day 1

Greetings from our nation's capitol!  This year, the Yeh family is continuing its tradition of exploring the USA by paying a visit to Washington, D.C.  While the food and natural wonders can't compare to our last summer vacation (Puerto Rico), we're certainly getting an incredible dose of history.

The day began at our hotel, the Holiday Inn Capitol.  I chose the hotel by the simple expedient of using Google Maps to find the hotel that was closest to the National Mall.  Located a 2 minute walk from the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, right by the L'Enfant Plaza metro station, the Holiday Inn Capitol fits the bill...and it has a rooftop pool which the kids have forced me to take them to every night.

I picked up breakfast for the family at the Wall Street Deli, which is run by a friendly Asian family (the proprietor, spotting my face, was very excited, and also urged me to visit the other deli by Capitol Hill that her husband runs).  I ordered both the Grand Central Biscuit (a biscuit sandwich with 5-6 strips of bacon and two scoops of scrambled eggs) and the Sausage Gravy Biscuit (a biscuit halved and smothered with sausage gravy).  The portions were huge, and despite their simplicity, the family loved the meal.  I loved the fact that the total bill was under $10.

Since DC is in the middle of a historic heat wave, we took a cab to the Everett Dirksen Senate Office Building.  (The ride over prompted a classic Marissa-ism.  I was describing the President of the United States as, "the most powerful man in the world," when Marissa asked, "Oh yeah? What about Genghis Khan?"  This prompted the cab driver to burst into laughter and comment, "She really knows her history.")  As I was planning our trip, I reached out to my old friend and HBS classmate Heidi Nelson Cruz, whose husband, Ted Cruz, is the junior Senator from Texas.  Ted's office showed us some good old-fashioned Texas-style hospitality (special thanks to Amy Herod, who organized the visit and sent on the pictures below, and Brittany, who entertained the kids when we first arrived, and got us our gallery passes).  Not only did they get us Senate Gallery passes and loan us one of their interns, the estimable Thomas "Zach" Hornton of Princeton, Ted even made time to take photos with me and the family.  Then in true Yeh Family style, Jason asked to take a photo with bunny ears, which Ted took up with the gusto of a born politician:

Even more typically, Marissa then asked for another photo with just herself and the Senator, using her own camera.  Once again, Ted graciously agreed.  I have a hunch this will not be the last time in her life that she brings a powerful man to his knees:

As a special treat, right when we finished with our photos, who should arrive but two astronauts in full uniform.  I immediately recognized the world-famous Chris Hadfield, who had won the Internet with his various videos from the space station (including singing "Space Oddity," chatting with William Shatner, and showing what happens when you try to squeeze out a wet towel in zero-G).  He was accompanied by his 1st Flight Engineer, Thomas Marshburn.  After chatting with the intrepid space explorers, Marissa insisted on taking a picture of me with the astronauts, which I'll post after we return home and I can transfer the photos.  To top it off, the NASA representative escorting the astronauts then gave Jason and Marissa official Expedition 35 mission patches and pins.

(Strange yet cool stuff seems to happen every time we visit DC; the last time we came was when I was still at HBS.  It also took place during a massive heat wave, and the New York Times ended up using a photograph of us to show tourists admiring the Capitol's rotunda.)

After our outer-space encounter, Zach took us to the Capitol on the secret underground subway--something my friend Spencer Connaughton recommended we ride, and boy was he right.  Zach gave us an awesome tour of the Capitol, complete with professional-grade explanations of what we were seeing and fun bits of trivia about the different rooms.  It must be an incredible experience to spend a summer interning in DC.  Zach is majoring in Political Philosophy and Spanish at Princeton, so if you find yourself reading about Ambassador Horton's work in Latin America, you read it here first.

After our visit to the Capitol, we strolled down Pennsylvania Avenue a couple of blocks to eat lunch at the Tune Inn, which we knew from its appearance on one of our favorite TV shows, "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives."  We love that show.  It's such a good formula that it transcends its insufferable host, Guy Fieri.

For lunch, Alisha and I shared a beer-battered burger (the house specialty), while Marissa had the chocolate chip pancakes, and Jason had the chicken fingers.  I was worried about the chicken fingers at first--the menu said the dish only included three fingers--but they ended up being Jerry Rice-sized fingers; Jason didn't even finish them all, which is saying something considering his growing 11-year-old boy's appetite.  The food was good, but it ended up being only the second-best burger of the day (more on that later).

After lunch, we caught another cab to go crosstown to the White House.  Sadly, the sequester has closed down the White House tours, and the actual White House visitor's center is also closed for renovations.  I did get an excellent map from the temporary visitor's center, which displaced the previous maps I had been using (free maps obtained from the hotel and some random homeless guy respectively).

From there, we walked a couple of blocks to the Federal Triangle to visit the Old Post Office Tower.  We learned that the Federal Triangle was actually a massive urban renewal project to clean up the part of Washington that had acquired the charming sobriquet of "Murder Bay."  We rode all the way up to the 12th floor of the tower, and took in a 360 view of DC.  With the Washington Monument undergoing seismic reconstruction, the Post Office Tower offers the best view of the city.  We also listened to two talks by the ever-friendly National Park Rangers who provide the tours of the tower.  We also stopped off at the souvenir shops in the courtyard of the building.  From afar, I noted a "going out of business" sign and joked that it ought to say something like "going out of business since 1968," but it turns out to be legit.  The GSA is running the Old Post Office building at a loss, and recently turned to private developers to take over.  The winning bid came from none other than...Donald Trump.  The shop proprietors had an unflattering picture of the Donald on display.  I just hope that, given access to such a historic building, that he resists the temptation to gold-plate it and rename it the Trump Old Post Office Tower.

After leaving the Old Post Office Tower, and making a brief stopover in Barnes and Noble to soak up the air conditioning, drink some Starbucks, and shop for books, we proceeded to the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum.  The museums were amazing.  We saw a number of special exhibits, including Portraiture Now: Drawing on the Edge (incredible set of portraits, mostly in graphite/charcoal, by contemporary artists), Mr. TIME: Portraits by Boris Chaliapin (cover paintings by the legendary artist, who painted them in as little as 24 hours to meet the magazine deadlines), the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition (collection of portraits from a national competition--some absolutely amazing work here, including a 100-pound sculpture made out of rice), and Patent Models from the Rothschild Collection (including, yes, a better mousetrap).  We also saw a number of the permanent exhibitions, including The Struggle for Justice (incredible photographs and art documenting the struggle for Civil Rights from early America to today), America's Presidents (official portraits and other art about all our past presidents; I was particularly taken with some plaster life casts of Abraham Lincoln's hands--his fists were double the size of mine!), and Jo Davidson: Biographer in Bronze (busts by the famous sculptor, who created busts of many famous people from the early to mid 20th century, including Albert Einstein).

We spent a couple of hours there, and amazingly, saw less than half the exhibitions.  Yikes!

We finished the day with dinner at Shake Shack, Danny Meyer's fast food empire.  I've wanted to try Shake Shack ever since they came out on top in a three-way burger-off in A Hamburger Today, where they defeated Five Guys and even my beloved In-N-Out.  Being an In-N-Out partisan, I had to try Shake Shack for myself to challenge the AHT judgement.

Jason had a Shakeburger, Alisha had a Shakeburger, hold the lettuce, and I had a Shakeburger with pickle and onion.  Marissa, not being a meat fan (at In-N-Out, she gets the grilled cheese--a bun with cheese and ketchup, but no patty) had the cheese fries.

After tasting the Shakeburger, both Alisha and I agree--it does taste even better than In-N-Out (though In-N-Out is still awesome).  The beef, a custom blend that includes brisket and short rib, tastes incredible, and the butter-toasted bun provides a rich, potato-y contrast.  I bow to the judgment of the writers at A Hamburger Today.

In defense of In-N-Out, the two are very different; a Shakeburger costs more than double its equivalent at In-N-Out.  On a price/performance basis, In-N-Out is still tough to beat.  Still, at a mere $4.75, a Shackburger is the cheapest gourmet burger I've ever had, and I'd put it up there with all the fancy restaurant burgers I've experienced.  Alisha also gave Shake Shack the nod over Umami Burger's truffle burgers.

The one place where Shake Shack isn't affordable are the $5 shakes.  Here, In-N-Out clearly wins the battle, though Shake Shack offers more flavor options.

Full of burgers, we headed home from our first day in DC, full in mind and body, and ready for the day to come.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fear of Failure > Promise of Success

Anyone who has been following applied psychology in the past decade has heard of loss aversion--specifically, people react more strongly to the loss of $100 than the gain of $100.  This asymmetry is best expressed in the old startup adage (which predates loss aversion research), "Sell painkillers, not vitamins."

In my own professional career, I used this several times.  For example, when I was in the Web application performance management business, I always advised our team to focus on the potential losses caused by slow performance, rather than the potential gains of improved performance.  Logically, they are one and the same, but the former elicits a much stronger reaction.

Thanks to Eric Barker's Bakadesuyo, however, I've now learned a further nuance (Via Martin Lindstom's "Brandwashed":
In a surprising 2008 study, researchers at the University of Bath, UK, found that the fear of failure drives consumers far more than the promise of success; the latter oddly tends to paralyze us, while the former spurs us on (and pries open our wallets). In fact, as the study found, the most powerful persuader of all was giving consumers a glimpse of some future “feared self.”
It may not be inspiring, but painting a detailed, concrete picture of the future self your customer most fears can be frighteningly effective.

In the realm of public health, decades of public service announcements explaining the dangers of smoking had little effect until they switched to a two-pronged attack of showing horribly ill smokers and characterizing smokers as the dupes of the tobacco industry (as opposed to sexy rebels).

A similar technique helped with Crystal Meth...not by focusing on the dangers, but on the fact that taking the drug rotted your teeth and made you look older than your years.

I'm ambivalent about this technique; I am by nature a very positive person.  But a marketer needs to know all the tools at his or her disposal.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Self-control is irrelevant to success in the game if you believe the game is rigged

If you're a psychology junkie like me, you've probably heard about the Stanford marshmallow experiment:

In this experiment, 5 year olds were offered a choice: Eat a marshmallow now, or be left alone in a room with a marshmallow.  If they went 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow, the researcher would give the child *two* marshmallows.

The experimenters found that the kids who didn't eat the marshmallows turned out to do better in school, score better on the SAT, and perform better in life.  The conclusion?  Self-control is a critical skill.

But it turns out that there was a follow-up experiment, which I learned about on the awesome Priceonomics blog:
"In the modified experiment, researchers at the University of Rochester first gave children crayons and stickers. But they promised to return with an even better set of stickers and crayons in a few minutes if the children held off playing with the toys until the researcher returned. After the wait, one group received the promised art supplies, while the other were told that a mistake had been made and that the promised goodies could not be found. 

When the researchers then presented the children with the marshmallow test, they found that the children’s ability to resist was influenced by some shrewd thinking:

'Children who experienced unreliable interactions with an experimenter waited for a mean time of three minutes and two seconds on the subsequent marshmallow task, while youngsters who experienced reliable interactions held out for 12 minutes and two seconds. Only one of the 14 children in the unreliable group waited the full 15 minutes, compared to nine children in the reliable condition.'"
It turns out that self-control is irrelevant to success in the game if you believe the game is rigged.

Priceonomics goes on to note that Westerners viewed the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans as lazy and happy-go-lucky savages in the early 20th century--a far cry from the unstoppable tiger moms of today.  The cultural work ethic was there, but the confidence in the system was not.  Once that was put in place, the Asian tigers took off.
"There is no incentive to start a new company in Russia if the oligarchs who own the competition can imprison you or shut down your business via a corrupt judicial system. There is no incentive to plant more crops or improve your farm if a wealthy and well-connected person can confiscate your land. Acemoglu suggests a simple point: people will work hard, but only if they expect to benefit from it. That expectation is widely absent (and often rightly so) in impoverished circumstances."
Many people criticize the poor for failing to take the long-term view and investing in the future.  But it doesn't make sense to invest in the future if you think your society is rigged against you.

This is the hidden cost of injustice; not only are the disadvantaged kept from thriving, the problems they face remove the incentives for self-control and creating value.  Why bother, if it's just going to get taken from you?

Silicon Valley is a great place for startups because we reward entrepreneurs for creating value.  Sure, we also reward people for being lucky, but that's a necessary side effect.  No one I know believes that their company is going to be stolen by an oligarch or appropriated by machete-wielding paramilitaries.

Good government and fair societies produce economic gains; the tricky part is breaking nations out of the downward cycle of corruption and expropriation.

The Right and Wrong Ways To Use Scarcity in Marketing

Nir Eyal is one of the top minds in applying psychology to the startup world.  His posts are a must-read, and he's also a nice guy.  My only complaint is that I foolishly went barefoot running with him and developed a foot problem that kept me on a cane for months (I had a problem that the running exacerbated; under normal circumstances, the run probably wouldn't have harmed me.  Also, Nir repeatedly encouraged me to wear shoes or forgo the run, but naturally, I was too macho to listen to reason).

I was particularly interested in his recent post on the psychology of scarcity.  Many of the startups I work with are forced to meter user adoption; even with the benefit of Amazon Web Services, it's still tricky to scale up under heavy demand.  As a result, they need to manage the issue of scarcity.

Nir stepped in with a great explanation of how scarcity impacts the desirability of a product, complete with specific examples:

"When scarcity is a feature, as was the case for early Facebook converts, the service’s limited access increased its appeal.

Mailbox and Tempo, both iOS productivity apps, released their services to small groups of users. If you were not at the front of the line, you had to wait for an indefinite period of time.

But unlike in the case of Facebook, frustrated customers punished Mailbox for the wait. They trashed the app by writing poor reviews despite never having actually used it.
The study showed that a product can decrease in perceived value if it starts off as scarce then becomes abundant.
To potential users, Mailbox and Tempo’s scarcity backfired, at least in the short-term. Attempts to placate users by telling them about the technical limitations of “load testing,” obviously didn’t cut it. Instead, the message received was akin to, “this is going out to the cool kids now and the rest of you plebs, well, we’ll see.”

In contrast, Facebook and Quibb never made any appeals for patience or promises of expanding to the masses. Their products started-out as scarce and the founders closely guarded the perception that they will remain so."
Scarcity sends a powerful signal, but the ending of that scarcity also sends a powerful signal.  If you decide to play the scarcity game, don't switch to abundance without careful consideration.

Based on Nir's example, I'm going to advise my startups to avoid calling attention to scarcity unless they intend to maintain that scarcity for a significant time.  Otherwise, they're actually reducing the perceived value of their product over simply saying nothing.

Michael Birch's 8 Years to Overnight Success

I'll freely admit, I never thought much or or about Bebo, the social network that Michael Birch sold to AOL for a pricey $850 million in 2008.

Bebo occupied the same space in my mind as Hi5, Tagged (which, ironically enough, now owns Hi5) and a similar bunch of whimsically named also-rans.  As a result, I thought of Birch as lucky, rather than good.

This was a lazy and incorrect assumption on my part.  This recent profile of Birch's overnight success (which took 8 years and three failed startups) disabused me of that notion:

It's a great piece, but here's the summary:

1. Birch launched Lemonlink, a web-based address book in 2000.  Despite all his efforts, he couldn't push its viral coefficient about 0.7.

2. Next, he mortgaged his house, and he and his wife Xochi ran a babysitting service that also failed to take off.

3. Getting desperate, Birch partnered with his brothers on an online wills business which also tanked.

(I'll note that all of this took place during the worst ravages of the dot com crash--it was pretty hard to make anything successful in those days.)

4. Startup #4 was BirthdayAlarm, which reminded you about your friend's birthdays.  He paid $99 to advertise it on Cool Site of the Day (holy crap, now that's a blast from the past!) and gradually grew it $10,000 per month and moved his family to San Francisco on its revenues.

5. Startup #5 was Ringo, an early social network he coded in 13 days and grew to 400,000 users.  He ended up selling to for a couple million in stock.

6. Startup #6 was Bebo, which began as yet another address book.  He was able to build it to 6 million users while waiting for his non-compete with Tickle to expire.  He then built it into a full social network.  And waited.  Nothing happened.

7. After two months, Bebo suddenly took off.  For whatever reason, British and Irish teens took a shine to the site.  At its height, it was the highest trafficked site in Ireland, passing Yahoo and Google.  Birch sold it to AOL on March 13, 2008.

This isn't overnight success; it's the triumph of persistence.  Of his six startups, three were outright failures, one (BirthdayAlarm) was a niche lifestyle business, Ringo was barely above acquihire level, and only Bebo was a hit.  But all the experiences and learnings helped Birch build Bebo into what it was, and with exquisite timing, he sold before the global crash in 2008.

This doesn't guarantee Birch success in his future endeavors, but it does show that he earned his luck.

Doug Engelbart and ageism in Silicon Valley

Doug Engelbart's recent passing elicited glowing eulogies for the computing pioneer who gave "The Mother of All Demos" in 1968, introducing the mouse, videoconferencing, teleconferencing, hypertext, word processing, hypermedia, object addressing, dynamic file linking, revision control, and real-time collaboration all in a single hour-long talk:

Amazing, right?

Yet lost in all the accolades was the fact that the industry he had created had largely ignored him (though not his inventions) for the past 40 years.  Longtime journalist Tom Foremski had the good fortune to meet Engelbart in 2005, and struck up an acquaintance with the pioneering genius:
"In 2005, Mr Engelbart confided to me: "I sometimes feel that my work over the past 20 or so years has been a failure. I have not been able to get funding and I have not been able to engage anybody in a dialogue."

Silicon Valley lauds its pioneers but doesn't know what to do with them if they keep living. Logitech, which made a lot of money from the computer mouse, one of Mr Engelbart's creations, gave him permanent office space. And some of his supporters have provided modest amounts of money to enable him to keep working, as part of the Bootstrap organization, recently renamed the Doug Engelbart Institute.

Almost a decade later following our conversation, nothing much changed for Mr Engelbart. A lonely genius wandering for nearly 40 years amidst a desert of resources.

He died in the belief that there is an unfinished computer revolution, and with important unfinished work that he wasn't able to complete.

Silicon Valley has lost not only one of its greatest computer pioneers, but also squandered an incredible opportunity to fund his work and see what else he could have created. What new platforms of innovation could have come from his work, what new hundred billion dollar industries might have emerged? It's a truly tragic loss."
Ageism is an ugly word, and when we're young, few of us think it will ever affect us.  But if one of the greatest minds in the history of computer science can be sidelined for two decades, what chance do the rest of us have?

I can't imagine how frustrating it must have been for Engelbart, to struggle for funding while seeing various consumer startups raise hundreds of millions to fund better sexting or tanning salon deals.

It's hard for individuals to change the system, but you can do your part by examining your own ageism, and trying to control your own irrational biases.

The Future of Work

As we hurtle rapidly forward into an undiscovered country of robots and 3D printers, people are starting to ask, "What is the future of work?"

Economic changes have already decimated traditional middle-class blue collar work like car- and steel-making.  A lot of folks in Silicon Valley have jumped on the "everyone should learn how to code" bandwagon, but that conveniently overlooks the facts that a) not everyone has the right talents to be a coder, and b) the demand for code isn't infinite.  In fact, oDesk can put a price on coding skills right now, and it's not that high.

Now imagine a world in which every home has a 3D printer, rendering an entire supply chain, from manufacturing to distribution to retail completely irrelevant.  Not everyone can design product blueprints; Etsy is a fine site, but it's not the basis for an entire economy.

One of my pet techniques for considering a problem is to follow a trend to its logical conclusion.  Imagine a world in which machines can do all productive work, ranging from manufacturing to surgery.  What would we do?  Would this be paradise or hell?

Some subset of people will carve out a role as creators and designers (boy am I glad that I got that Product Design degree now!).  But what about the rest of folks?

My guess is that our focus will shift to the things that only humans can do.  Connecting with others will be the key job skill.  With so much leisure time, we'll need people to organize and lead activities.  Clubs will spring up everywhere, and sports and games will return with a vengeance.  Teachers will work closely with students of all ages to help them learn using the "flipped" classroom model enabled by the Khan Academy and other such institutions.

At least that's what I hope we do.  The alternative is that we all retreat to our future social networks and MMOs, finding meaning in artificial worlds and none whatsoever in the real one.

Ultimately, the choice is up to us.  But the next time someone tells you to learn how to code, you might want to polish up your people skills...just in case.

Searching for Equality in a Winner-take-Most World

I preface this post with the admission that I have always been a child of privilege.  I come from a family of well-educated Chinese immigrants; my mother is the only member of her generation on either her or my father's side of the family that didn't earn a Ph.D. (she only has a measly Masters, much like her slacker son and his Harvard MBA).

I grew up in a home my family owned, with a mother who didn't have to work outside the home, and could focus on raising two kids.  We even paid exorbitant sums of money so I could attend a pricey private school for gifted children (we weren't rich however; once I started attending the Mirman School, our old practice of vacations around the world--Bermuda, the Bahamas, Japan, Taiwan--went by the wayside, replaced by shorter domestic trips to visit family).

My parents got to live the American dream--they sent their son to Stanford (which they paid for), and put me on the express train to success.

But I also recognize that I have been insanely lucky.  Thus far, my family has been sheltered from the economic storms of the past few decades.  My father was never out of work.  We never had to move or do without.

That's why I spend time thinking about the plight of Americans who have been shunted aside by our winner-take-most world.  I recently read this New Yorker article about two working-class families that filmmakers followed for 20 years:
"If you screened “Two American Families” for Charles Murray and other social critics who believe that the decline of America’s working class comes from a collapse of moral values, social capital, personal responsibility, and traditional authority, they would probably be able to find the evidence they’d need to insulate themselves against the sorrow at the heart of the film. None of the four parents finished college. The Neumanns’ divorce leaves Terry and the children in worse straits than ever. The Stanleys don’t move to rural Mississippi, where life is cheaper. The kids make plenty of their own mistakes. None of them thinks of inventing Napster. The Stanleys and Neumanns are punished to the fullest extent of the economic law for every mistake made, and for all the mistakes they didn’t make.

But the intellectually honest response to this film is much less comforting, for the overwhelming impression in “Two American Families” is not of mistakes but of fierce persistence: how hard the Stanleys and Neumanns work, how much they believe in playing by the rules, how remarkable the cohesion of the Stanley family is, how tough Terry Neumann has to become. Both families devoutly attend church. Government assistance is alien and hateful to them. Keith Stanley says, “I don't know what drugs or even alcohol looks like.” In the words of Tammy Thomas, whose similar story is told in my new book, “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” these people do what they’re supposed to do. They have to navigate this heartless economy by themselves. And they keep sinking and sinking."
The reasons for the sinking are well-known; a global economy and improved technology have eliminated the low-skill, high-wage union manufacturing jobs that enabled so many blue-collar workers to live the American Dream during the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.  My father-in-law, for example, hustled his way into the American Dream, owning his own home and sending his daughter to Harvard, despite being an immigrant with no more than a high school diploma.  But there is no way to bring those jobs back, despite what economic creationists like Barbara Ehrenreich might think.

Yet the fact that people aren't well-suited to the new global economy is not a good excuse to discard them like obsolete laser discs.

The Charles Murrays of the world can argue that the poor make poor decisions, but those poor decisions occur because people don't have the training or experience to make good ones.  I remember one TV special about a young Ivy-league graduate who spent a year on his own, with no money, no help, and without revealing his education.  He worked his way up to a steady job, an apartment, a used car, and a growing savings account.  Yet while he couldn't use his tangible advantages, he could use the discipline and skill built up over a lifetime of privilege.

The way to break the cycle is to give all Americans the breathing room to develop that discipline and skill.

There are three big non-discretionary expenses most families face: Healthcare, Education, and Housing.  The three are intimately linked; Senator Elizabeth Warren for example, wrote a book about how the pursuit of education launched a housing arms race (thanks to our system of tying education to geography).  As a result, even middle-class families' finances are stretched thin, and the most common reason they break is because of unexpected healthcare costs.

I'd be willing to bet that most of the stress in families' lives come from those three factors.

We don't have to fix all three; simply relieving the strain on two of the three would be enough.

If we really want to help those who have been harmed by structural changes in the economy, America should provide universal healthcare and education.  (Universal housing is simply too difficult to make happen, as urban planners have repeatedly learned to their sorrow)

Universal healthcare and education would give all Americans the opportunity to get an education and develop life skills, without the constant tension today's working-class families feel.

Even with these supports, some people would make poor decisions and lead hapless lives, but that is simply part of reality.  We cannot and should not target equality of outcome.  But these supports would help the talented but poor focus on maximizing their talents and, in the process, the value they create for society.

Success isn't about Money, it's about Time

Dave Winer is a true technology legend.  He founded his first company in 1981, and became a high-tech millionaire in 1987 when he sold it to Symantec...and that was all before he created blogging, RSS, OPML, and podcasting.  He's uniquely positioned to comment on the impact of monetary "success" in Silicon Valley:
"A few years later I got hit by the Silicon Valley money truck. I had a big bank account, house, long driveway in the best neighborhood, and was young and beautiful, had everything one could possibly hope for, in terms of possessions, the things money can buy. And then the bottom dropped out of my life out at exactly the moment you would have thought I had it made. I realized I had believed in something that was wrong. That wealth would lead to a feeling of happiness and security. Almost exactly the opposite was true.

As long as I was poor, I had something to struggle for. A reason to justify my unhappiness. Once the struggle was over, how could you explain the empty small feeling inside? That was all that was left after the struggle.

The truth is that no matter how much you have, you still occupy the same amount of space and time. You can buy big things, but they are not you. That's the other side of the sadness of Parker's wedding. His anger isn't really with the Internet or journalists. He's projecting. His anger is with existence. Look, I got all this material stuff, and they don't love me. They aren't impressed. Which is just a trick your mind plays. What the anger really means is that there is no love in here, inside me. My soul is not impressed. All this crazyness isn't me. Help, I'm lost. Where am I?"
I covered this topic a few years ago, so I'll let Dave's eloquent explanation stand on its own.  Rather, I'll add that success is really about having the ability to freely allocate your time.

Time, unlike money, is fixed and immutable.  Becoming financially successful gives you the ability to spend your time however you want.  If this fills you with joy, and a series of things you want to do spring to mind, you will be happy.  If you sit like Dustin Hoffman at the end of "The Graduate" and wonder, "What now?", you've got work to do.

Yet if success is about time, rather than money, the inevitable conclusion is that you can build a successful life without wealth or riches.  Simply engineer your life so that you're spending your time according to what you actually love.

The Age of the Aging Entrepreneur

I've often compared Silicon Valley to "Logan's Run"--once your Lifeclock hits 30, the system encourages you to "renew".  In the movie, this meant Silicon Valley, it means becoming an angel investor or VC (no comment).  After all, this is a place where an investor can say with a straight face, "We love older entrepreneurs!  Many of our best entrepreneurs are in their 30s."

This inherent ageism frustrates many older entrepreneurs no end; they avoid in-person meetings as long as possible to avoid revealing their age.  Think discrimination doesn't exist?  Check out this recent story on how Kim O'Grady got a much better response to his resume once he added "Mr." to clarify that he was a man:

Hopefully new studies will help put a stake through the heart of this discrimination (and in time for the next time I want to start a company!).  Here's a great set of stats from HBR:
"The average age of a successful entrepreneur in high-growth industries such as computers, health care, and aerospace is 40. Twice as many successful entrepreneurs are over 50 as under 25. The vast majority — 75 percent — have more than six years of industry experience and half have more than 10 years when they create their startup," says Duke University scholar Vivek Wadhwa, who studied 549 successful technology ventures. Meanwhile, data from the Kauffman Foundation indicates the highest rate of entrepreneurship in America has shifted to the 55-64 age group, with people over 55 almost twice as likely to found successful companies than those between 20 and 34."
It gives me great hope to hear that entrepreneurship is taking root among AARP members.  With constant change the new reality of our economy, counting on your current profession (or Social Security) to be around when you hit retirement age is a sucker bet.

By definition, entrepreneurship is the one profession that will never go out of style!

The VC Cosmological Constant

In his recent essay on "Startup Investing Trends", the always insightful Paul Graham referred to the VC cosmological constant:
"There's a rule of thumb in the VC business that there are about 15 companies a year that will be really successful. Although a lot of investors unconsciously treat this number as if it were some sort of cosmological constant, I'm certain it isn't. There are probably limits on the rate at which technology can develop, but that's not the limiting factor now. If it were, each successful startup would be founded the month it became possible, and that is not the case. Right now the limiting factor on the number of big hits is the number of sufficiently good founders starting companies, and that number can and will increase. There are still a lot of people who'd make great founders who never end up starting a company. You can see that from how randomly some of the most successful startups got started. So many of the biggest startups almost didn't happen that there must be a lot of equally good startups that actually didn't happen."
The 15 companies a year principle is actually the driving assumption behind Andreesen Horowitz; their explicit assumption is that a few handfuls of companies each year matter, and their goal is to be in as many of those companies as possible, valuation be damned.  It's hard to argue with their initial results.

But I agree with Paul that 15 companies per year isn't a universal and immutable constant.  Silicon Valley as a startup hub has only been around for about 40 years, and it's hard to see how something like the 15 companies per year rule could apply across all those different markets and market conditions.

Where I disagree is that the limiting factor is the number of sufficiently good founders.  I've met billion-dollar founders, and I've met failed founders.  Anyone who says that there is a surefire way to tell the difference is kidding themselves.

In my experience, the limiting factor is the number of ripe markets.  Ultimately, the startup world is a subset of the overall economy; even we can't conjure up revenue from thin air.  There have to be consumers or businesses that spend money, and there's only so much money to go around.

Technology opens up opportunities by disrupting old markets and opening up new ones.  In addition, audiences change.  10 years ago, SaaS was unthinkable to most IT departments.  Now it's widely accepted (if not loved).

If you want to beat the cosmological constant, follow new technologies and cultural changes into new or newly disrupted markets.

Lessons from my Mother-In-Law

One of the thing that always amazes me when I visit my in-laws is the condition of their household.  Everything is always completely clean and tidy.  There isn't even a stack of old mail near the door--somehow, even the products of the direct mail industry are whisked away to some hidden repository.

After observing my mother-in-law's habits carefully, I think I've discovered her secret: Finish everything as soon as possible.

For example, she makes coffee for me in the morning.  As soon as I've poured the last of the coffee out of the coffee maker, she tosses out the filter and grounds, rinses out the pot, sets up a new filter and grounds, and pours in the water for the next batch.  Even before I've finished my cup, the entire infrastructure is ready to go again.  All I have to do when I want another cup is to push the starter.

In contrast, at home, where I make my own coffee, I usually remember to empty out the filter before I go to bed, though about 25% of the time, I end up emptying it out right before making the next batch.

A similar process applies to the kitchen.  Immediately after every meal (and sometimes before everyone is even finished), the cleaning process begins, including wiping down all surfaces and sweeping the floors.

There are some downsides to this approach; when I use a cup for drinking water, I usually use it all day.  Here in my in-law's house, an empty cup is apt to end up in the dishwasher as soon as it leaves my hand.  But the end result is a pristine house where the only things lying around at random are the possessions I scatter around me.

It helps that my in-laws have been able to routinize their lives; it's much harder for a startup that is trying different things all the time to apply the same kind of routine.  But the principle of finishing everything as soon as possible can apply, even for startup entrepreneurs.

Launched an AdWords campaign?  As soon as you have enough data, write up your conclusions and shut it down.  Interviewed a candidate?  If you're not going to hire him or her, break the news quickly and file the resume for the future.

The more you're able to tie up loose ends on the little things at your startup, the more energy and focus you'll have for the big ones.

Travels in the "Heartland" Part 1

I'm on vacation this week, and getting a chance to experience life outside the Silicon Valley bubble.  I use the term "heartland" with a certain irony, since for our vacation, life outside the Silicon Valley bubble consists of visiting Los Angeles (my ancestral home) and the suburbs of Orlando (where Alisha's family now lives)--both of which might qualify for among the most artificial places on earth outside of Asia.  Nonetheless, they are very different from Silicon Valley.

One thing I found astounding was the omnipresence of celebrity culture in LA.  Not surprising, given Tinseltown's status as the American dream factory, but still striking.

When I was young, I was an avid and daily watcher of "Entertainment Tonight," a daily half-hour show that covered movies and television.  Back in the glory days of Leeza Gibbons and John Tesh (John Tesh!), ET covered actual entertainment news.  To appear on the show, you had to be a movie or TV star.

This vacation, I caught an episode of ET's spiritual descendent, "Extra" (starring Mario Lopez from "Saved by the Bell") and was hard pressed to find any actual TV or movie news.  Instead, there was endless coverage of reality television "stars" and a recurring segment in which alleged matchmaker Steven Ward (who was the star of some reality TV program called "Tough Love") considers a newly single celebrity and then recommends which other celebrity he or she should date.

As this segment kept playing, each time with different celebrities, I became increasingly incensed.  It's one thing to cover TV and movies--frivolous as they might be, they are an important cultural product.  It's another to cover "reality" TV, which panders to the basest of human instincts.  But it's a sign of the apocalypse when a national TV show dedicates about 1/4 of its running time to a self-appointed celebrity matchmaker who presents hypothetical celebrity couples (though I assume that this is actually how Taylor Swift decides whom to date next. Instant rimshot.)

I'm fond of reminding people that every generation thinks that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and thus far, we have avoided both.  Nonetheless, it's hard to watch a celebrity matchmaker pontificate on whom "Katie" (Holmes, that is) should date now that she's over "Tom" (Cruise, that is) without wondering when the gates of Hell will open to swallow us all.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

What busy professionals and the working poor have in common

Most busy professionals view the working poor who struggle from paycheck to paycheck with barely veiled contempt.  These holier-than-thou Whole Foods shoppers marvel at the poor decisions of the poor, whether in consumption of fast food, using payday loans, or worst of all, buying lottery tickets.

What these yuppies don't realize is that they're doing the equivalent of binging on Big Macs when it comes to managing their time.  Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan explains:
"Workers who log 60-plus hour weeks gripe that they don't have enough room in their schedule to even tame their inboxes, much less think about big projects in some creative way.

But time isn't the problem, says Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan. The ultimate barrier to success is a shortage of mental "bandwidth," or the ability to focus on a task in the moment.

What they've discovered is that shortages lead people to make poor decisions. That's because the brain can only process so much.

The problem extends across income levels. Busy professionals fail to schedule their time in efficient ways for the same reasons low-income people fall for predatory lending schemes. They're distracted, Shafir says.

Take an example from your own life: If you're thirsty, and desperately want water, it's hard to think about anything else. If you're low on money, budget concerns frequently pop into your thoughts.

The same is true in the professional world. A lack of time isn't the issue; a lack of focus is."
I've noticed this very effect at work...the busier people get, the more they struggle with taking the time to focus and really think.  How many times have you heard others (or yourself) say things like, "We don't have time for this discussion right now!" or "I don't want to think about that right now."

The same people who criticize others for bad decision-making when it comes to food or money are just as guilty when it comes to their own time!

When you find yourself with a time shortage, carve out the time to focus and make good decisions, rather than falling into the Big Mac trap.

Addressing the founder liquidity problem

The recent reports that Snapchat's founders each took $10 million off the table during their Series B raised the usual debate about founder liquidity:

On the pro side are the arguments espoused by one anonymous investor:
"Founders get 'rich' now, and de-risk some of the startup. Doesn't change alignment, just rewards them for their progress so far, and gives them life flexibility and security to focus on building bigger company"
Bleacher Report founder Bryan Goldberg went even further, calling for more secondaries:
"Venture capitalists have no right to encourage disgustingly irresponsible financial health any more than they have the right to encourage disgustingly irresponsible physical health. If your doctor told you that you needed to take a medication, or else risk severe physical consequences, I bet the investors would get behind that."
On the con side, PEHub's Dan Primack wrote about the signal that secondaries send:
"Why do your founders feel so strongly about banking huge checks today, if they believe in their company's future? And don't I want entrepreneurs building for the long-term, rather than ones just waiting for the first decent exit opportunity? Entrepreneurs who care as much about their vision for its own sake, as they do for the dollars that vision can represent?"
The problem is, both sides make good points.  As a founder, it seems unfair to tie my financial success to a single, completely undiversified investment, especially when my VCs spread their risk across a portfolio of more than 20 companies.  It's also the case that taking money off the table reduces the pressure to settle for an early exit.

But it is also true that secondaries can be abused.  I've heard of multiple instances where the founders at well-known companies took money off the table, and then stopped focusing on their companies.  Sudden wealth affects everyone, even founders.

I think I have a solution that addresses both issues.  What if the secondary proceeds were placed in escrow?  The funds would be released over time, say 5% per year, with a balloon payment of the final 75% after 5 years, or upon liquidity, whichever came later.

This would provide founders with financial security and some current cash, addressing the pro arguments, while keeping the founders focused on their company.  Even a smaller $5 million cashout would result in $250K/year payments for 5 years, followed by a final balloon payment.

Would this work?  Who knows.  But isn't trying something different better than trotting out the same standard arguments?

The Smoking Gun of College Hook-up Culture

It's always dangerous for old married guys like me to opine on college culture and relationships.  It's kind of like retired athletes arguing that the darn kids today don't have any respect for the game.  But hey, that's never stopped me before.

The New York Times just ran an extensive article about college women and the so-called hook-up culture:

The narrative (about which I have some skepticism--more about that later) is that college women today are avoiding long-term relationships because they don't want a man weighing them down as they pursue their education and career.  Those women that still want physical intimacy seek out casual sex or "hook-up buddies" who provide sex but no emotional attachment.

My skepticism comes from the fact that every generation of parents has always criticized the morals of their kids (while desperately trying to hide their own personal histories from those same kids).  Already in recent years, we've seen the debunking of memes such as "rainbow parties" as media creations with no basis in fact.

Yet assuming that this actually is a trend, I find it hard to swallow the narrative that this represents a new feminist freedom for women.  To me, the smoking gun can be found halfway through the article:
"Women said universally that hookups could not exist without alcohol, because they were for the most part too uncomfortable to pair off with men they did not know well without being drunk. One girl, explaining why her encounters freshman and sophomore year often ended with fellatio, said that usually by the time she got back to a guy’s room, she was starting to sober up and didn’t want to be there anymore, and giving the guy oral sex was an easy way to wrap things up and leave."
Getting drunk to overcome one's discomfort with one's actions, and performing oral sex to get out a man's room because it's "an easy way to wrap things up and leave" does not strike me as empowerment.  Rather, it seems like these women are buying into old-fashioned patriarchal assumptions ("good girls" don't have casual sex; women shouldn't "lead men on") even as they loudly proclaim their freedom from those same assumptions.

True freedom is choosing casual sexual partners while stone cold sober, and being willing to tell a guy, "You know what?  I don't actually want to have sex with you.  Sorry.  I'll be going now."

Scratch that--true freedom is being able to choose how to express your sexuality, whether with anonymous sex in a bathroom or by waiting until your wedding night.  All of these are legitimate choices (though goodness knows I know which choice I'd prefer to make for my daughter), provided they are chosen freely, rationally, without intoxication or social pressure.

Why George Zimmerman was found "Not Guilty" (and why this verdict is unsatisfying)

As usual, if there's a controversial topic that no one in their right mind wants to touch, I'm going to write about it.

The news came out this morning that a Florida jury found George Zimmerman "Not Guilty" of the charges of 2nd-Degree Murder and Manslaughter in his shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin.  This case has long been polarizing.

One side sees Zimmerman as an overzealous racial profiler who pursued and eventually shot an unarmed black teenager who was returning home from buying Skittles for a friend.

The other sees Zimmerman as a man who was tired of crime, and who shot Martin (a marijuana user who had a history of fighting in school) in self-defense.

Not being a lawyer, I relied heavily on this post by Cornell Law Professor William Jacobson:

What's tricky about the case is that Zimmerman clearly acted foolishly in his actions leading up to his confrontation with Martin.  He followed Martin on foot despite suggestions from 911 dispatchers that he stay in his car, apparently fearing that the supposed "criminal" would "get away."  In that sense, everything that followed was Zimmerman's fault.

None of us will ever know what happened in that confrontation.  Here is the total of actual evidence:
  • George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin with a single gunshot to the heart and lung
  • Gunshot expert Vincent Di Maio said Martin's clothing was 2-4 inches from his body when he was shot, consistent with his leaning over at the time
  • Zimmerman had suffered a number of minor injuries which did not require hospitalization--two head lacerations, wounds to his temples, and wounds to his nose and forehead.  The police and EMT who responded to the scene and tried to resuscitate Martin all observed Zimmerman's injuries at the scene
Zimmerman's story, which he told to police that night, was that he and Martin had a confrontation, and that Martin punched him.  The two struggled on the ground, and Zimmerman thought that Martin was reaching for Zimmerman's gun, at which point Zimmerman drew the gun and fired.

Zimmerman's argument of self-defense is simple: He used his gun because he thought Martin was reaching for it.  This meets the standard for Imminence and Reasonableness, and probably meets the standard for Avoidance as well, since he had no alternative, being on the ground and unable to disengage at that point.

Given the paucity of evidence, and the consistency of Zimmerman's story with that evidence, I suspect that the jury had no choice but to render a "Not Guilty" verdict.  I would probably do the same in that situation.

Yet this verdict leaves most people (including me) feeling a sense of injustice.  Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager is dead, and his death would not have occurred without Zimmerman's overzealous racial profiling.  The fact that Zimmerman is going unpunished, while Martin is dead, feels horribly unfair.

And yet, according to how the law works, Zimmerman was "Not Guilty."  There are times when the law violates our instinctive sense of justice.  Yet these are precisely the times when we need to heed the law, rather than our own feelings.  An objective standard is generally fairer and easier to enforce than "gut feeling."

My hope from all this is that the tragedy of Trayvon Martin's death leads people to re-examine their own actions, and realize the dangers of racial profiling.  It is small comfort for his family, but it is the comfort that is available to them.

Note: I drew heavily on Wikipedia for this piece: