The Window Seat

Every time you find yourself physically boxed in, take at least a moment to consider the perspective of the window seat. Whether I’ve been sitting in a small cafe in Aix-en-Provence, France, or gliding on final approach into Newark airport, I’ve come to discover a lot about the world by simply looking out of windows. Windows provide an opening to the world that surrounds us, and we certainly pay the price along the way.

Consider for a moment: the most expensive amenity in any New York City apartment is the ability to clearly see Central Park, or that having a window in your cabin on a cruise-ship may double the cost of your stay. People are stimulated by visual senses, and there are often fewer window opportunities than people. It’s for the same reasons why the “corner office” is so coveted. Therefore, it’s natural for something as simple as a window to demand high economic power.

Beyond economic opportunity, windows provide stimulation to entertain even the most restless minds; man made creations such as the television and the web browser provide easy examples. The naming of the “Windows” operating system by Microsoft testified to the power of a window, and it’s name proved it’s worth by becoming the most popular software in the world. Regardless of natural and man-made creations seen through windows, there are incredible things to be seen all around you, as long as you put in effort to look. Here are some of my favorite examples:

From an airplane:

  • Lake Michigan
  • Staring off into space (literally) miles above the dark deserts of Nevada
  • Identifying your home amidst endless suburbia
  • Summer fireworks
  • The fiery red low-angle sun of December, reflected across fields of white snow
  • Farms (the physical manifestation of The Homestead Act)
  • Farms of windmills
  • The Rockies

 

From a car:

  • Seeing your house through the rear view window when leaving home
  • Straight roads on a rural highway
  • The waffle house sign
  • Rare license plates
  • Long empty roads
  • Hairpin turns of the Amalfi coast, or the French Riviera
  • The mega windshield-wipers of a London city bus

 

From a house, apartment, or building:

  • The mailman
  • An epic cityscape, such as New York, Miami, or San Francisco
  • The ocean
  • A lightning storm
  • The traffic flow of Astor Place in New York City, from the window seat in St. Mark’s pizza at St. Marks/3rd ave.

 

On most occasions these examples provide a gut feeling that wouldn’t be possible without simple awareness and observation. So, next time you have the chance, take the window seat, you might be surprised with what you see.

18

12 2013

Anagnorisis and Peripeteia

Mike Rowe was the host of “Dirty Jobs”, a show on the Discovery Channel for many years. I was recently watching his TED talk about the big ideas and life lessons he learned from doing manual, skilled, and dirty work. There is one particular moment in his story that has stuck with me; he recalls a lesson from his classics professor in college:

OK, I’m still in “Poetics,” in Aristotle, and I’m thinking — out of nowhere, two terms come crashing into my head that I haven’t heard since my classics professor in college drilled them there. And they are anagnorisis and peripeteia. Anagnorisis and peripeteia. Anagnorisis is the Greek word for discovery. Literally, the transition from ignorance to knowledge is anagnorisis. It’s what our network does; it’s what “Dirty Jobs” is. And I’m up to my neck in anagnorises every single day. Great. The other word, peripeteia, that’s the moment in the great tragedies, you know — Euripides and Sophocles — the moment where Oedipus has his moment, where he suddenly realizes that hot chick he’s been sleeping with and having babies with is his mother. OK. That’s peripety or peripeteia.

I’ve been fascinated with the thought of inflection points for at least a couple of years, but I had always been waiting to learn how to define these moments beyond the vanilla term “discovery”. I learned about a similar word through the documentary Life In A Day two years ago, “Mamihlapinatapai”, which is a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start. However, this word is limited to in-person inflection points in the physical world.

As you can tell, the word anagnorisis self-describes the realization that I had while listening to Mike Rowe, which makes it even more ironic and incredible. It’s a moment of clarity and change in our intuition. We can never tell when these moments will occur, but when they do happen we are able derive greater significance from our world. On the flip side, peripeteia happens nearly daily. Perhaps it’s the feeling that you won’t make it through the green traffic light, or that you don’t have enough time to make something work.

And peripetia reveals itself again, right now, when I realize that I should write a grandiose summation statement. Res ipsa loquitur.

16

11 2013

Systems Thinking

Recently I have been reading a lot about systems thinking and how it serves as a critical viewpoint for anyone involved in planning the future. By thinking about systems as a whole, you can begin to see how specific things influence one another. The example that startled me is the electric car.

I have been a long proponent of Tesla cars and their incredible progress in the race to build a desirable electric car, but now I have myself asking more questions. The introduction of better electric cars only means that more people will continue to rely on cars. More cars will increase urban sprawl and defer interest in sustainable transportation systems such as trains or busses. Urban sprawl has been linked as a serious impediment for upward mobility. And furthermore, drivers of electric cars will pay no gas tax, an important funding mechanism for upkeep of roads and other public infrastructure.

Thus, you can see that in a transportation system composed of electric cars, the cascading effect of negative externalities may outweigh the benefits of a supposed savior to the CO2 emissions problem. I am not suggesting that the electric car by itself is unworthy of attention; cars such as the Tesla Model S are indeed engineering marvels. I am suggesting that we must be more careful when applauding these innovations as they may not actually help move us towards greater good when thinking about systems as a whole.

11

10 2013

Peer Groups Continued

When I first wrote about “Peer Groups” last winter, I had meant to include this great article by Marina Keegan, “The Opposite of Loneliness“.

Many people have questioned me on what brought me back to Wake Forest, and I was not confident in my answer for a long time. Maybe it’s because we really don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness. I knew it had something to do with people, but I couldn’t get it exactly right because I also felt that the people I met through Y Combinator and the Thiel Fellowship are many of the people I respect and admire the most.

I re-read this article recently, and I think it succinctly describes why I am in school right now. She describes the atmosphere at Yale as the following:

It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.

This is the essence of a collegial experience. Many people often correlate college with studying for tests, paying a lot of money, solving structured problems, sports teams, societies, clubs, reading, etc. And I believe this line of thought is partially a fallacy.

A college can indeed be an educational institution with goals of teaching and expanding human knowledge, but it can also be “a group of professional people with particular aims, duties, and privileges”[1]. Such as the electoral college, or the American College of Surgeons.

I like the residential college experience, and I think you will find that most people do. It’s for the same reasons why people feel secure at big companies once they graduate from “college”.

When I was living in California and New York, my sense of being was constantly bombarded with feelings of insecurity. There were no group texts, serendipitous lunch meetings, familiar faces on a daily run, or a friend to share a joke with at the gym. I have found that this insecure feeling is naturally what happens when you are working alone in a place where there is no daily reminder of shared responsibility and goals.

So, while I do agree that many of the requirements, excessive cost, and arbitrary assignments do waste time and resources, I think a collegial experience is absolutely necessary. This is why nearly every four-year college requires freshman to live on campus. If experiments such as the Thiel Fellowship or higher-education alternatives are going to thrive, they will need to offer a collegial experience.

14

09 2013

How To Predict Anything

I was recently watching a TED talk by David Wolpert, a neuroscientist, who does an excellent job of explaining how the brain works. His main idea is that the brain exists solely to direct movements, whether it be your vocal chords for speech or hand movements to signal hello and goodbye.

He makes a strong point that our movements are predicted beliefs based on sensory input (new data) and prior knowledge (memory). Here is one of his key slides: (Click to enlarge.)

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 11.33.40 PM

This is a classic Bayes prediction model. Here we can see that the tennis player is moving herself and her racket to the point where all of the data intersects. Her prior training tells her that the ball will likely bounce somewhere towards the right out-line. And then the sensory input, seeing the ball move through space, gives her the information she needs to predict exactly where and when the ball will bounce.

This prediction model is repeated literally thousands of times each day as you make every little movement. Prior knowledge accompanied with sensory input allow us to make smart predictions in any scenario.

For example, with Glider or email spam filters, predictions are based on a primary corpus of data (memory) compared against new text (sensory input) from each email. Over time the classifier becomes incredibly accurate as the memory increases.

Now let’s try expanding this line of thought to even more broad applications in daily life. Think about a government official trying to formulate a new education policy… It would be helpful to have learned the prior history of education policy as well as recent information such as a declining graduation rate that makes action critical right now.

If you’re interested in this topic you can learn a lot more in depth here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naive_Bayes_classifier

Machine Learning Cheat Sheet

02

08 2013

Radicals

We do not yet have a safe place in our world for radicals that wish for the good of humanity. Unfortunately recent news reports show that the latest radical to grab worldwide headlines, Edward Snowden, has no safe place to live peacefully. This is now nearly two months after he fled Honolulu, and then most recently Hong Kong a month ago. The effects of acting on heretic beliefs in ancient and modern society have not changed. Radicals have always been imprisoned extensively or killed.

Galileo claimed that the earth revolves around the sun. Jesus Christ declared himself as the messiah. And Martin Luther King Jr. peacefully protested for the civil rights of blacks.

Edward Snowden demonstrates that the pattern goes unchanged.

What should we make of this Snowden case? I think it’s too early to fully understand the effects of extensive worldwide government surveillance and data tracking. But I do think we can see what it’s like to be a modern day creative extremist in pursuit of justice: Stuck inside an airport with no legitimate citizenship and most of all, a highly desired target prosecution.

MLK wrote in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. [Site of Jesus' crucifixion.] We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

It is my hope that Edward Snowden is an extremist for truth and goodness as well.

21

07 2013

How Google Killed My Product

Glider is an email filtering service inside Gmail. We filter bacn emails away from your inbox, so that you can focus on the emails between real people that matter most.

I left Wake Forest to pursue my Thiel Fellowship in January 2012. After a dusk-to-dawn raging Avicii party in Manhattan on New Years Eve, I was on one of the first flights to California on January 1st 2012. I knew exactly two people in California.

During early January 2012 I was prompted to install Sanebox on my Gmail account because my team was exploring the possibility of buidling an email product. Quickly after installing Sanebox, the clutter in my inbox had been mostly whisked away to a new label in Gmail, and I was immediately seeing productivity gains. I was amazed. I saw the future of email right in that moment. I knew I wanted to pursue this email filtering route because the value of the product was both immediate and on-going. And I knew I could build a better product than both Sanebox and Google’s Priority Inbox.

The problem with email filtering pre-Glider was that most services filtered emails based on priority or importance. Predicting emails that are important is a never ending adjustment task because everyone has different and changing ideas for what is important. Thus, a blackbox filter is often inaccurate and creates untrustworthy feelings. But we can filter on context and find better success in both organization and accuracy of emails filtered.

So, I set out to build Glider as the first Gmail-based bacn filtering service. Glider divides bacn into two contexts, Newsletters and Notifications. The remaining emails are likely from real people and remain in the inbox.

First we built a new web interface with the intention of having our users do their email at our site, www.glider.io. We didn’t retain any users because people are simply entrenched in their old ways; most people don’t want to leave their existing setup. At this point my founding team left the company and I left Mountain View for New York City. I decided to move Glider not because Silicon Valley is a bad place for startups, but instead because I had few close friends in California. In hindsight I would only suggest that an 18-year old move to the Bay Area if they arrange for a healthy living environment ahead of time.

Over the next eight months I recruited a new team and developed the Gmail product with a developer, designer, and a marketing partner. We released the app on Lifehacker on January 7th, and our first users all reported great reviews. A handful of the initial Lifehacker cohort even decided to pay for Glider! Man, that was a great moment. Seeing paying users who were not my close friends is a sure sign that you have created value. With a conversion rate of about 1.5% from free-trial-to paid users, I knew this number is about standard for new SaaS apps, and I was confident with moving the product forward.

Our user acquisition strategy consisted mainly of writing about “bacn“, an unfamiliar term, and sharing the information with the media. Journalists love sharing a term with their readers before it hits mainstream. So, we published a series of blog posts about bacn as the evolution of SPAM, and eventually we were picked up by BBC News.

The cycle was proving to be fairly simple… Tweak the product a bit, improve certain features, then write a new article for the press.

Then things quickly changed, beginning with the Google I/O conference in mid-May. We were nearing the 150th day of the year, about half-way through our second 100 days. So, by this point we were planning to release both a new product update and a host of articles for the press. But alas, Google announces “schemas and actions in the inbox“…These actions in the inbox are indeed great for Gmail, but we could tell something else was lingering in the air as rumors circled in the blogosphere.

Finally, boom, on May 29th the Google team announced their new inbox. A wise man once said “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”, but this update did not feel like a compliment at all. This update is nearly the exact vision we had for Glider going forward… Tabbed navigation of separate inboxes that are filtered by email context. In hindsight it was an easy choice for Google; these filters will make your life better.

Google effectively “burned our boats” by offering a similar service for free. It is the ultimate (and painful) price to pay for platform dependence.

It may be worth noting that the first contractor I worked with on Glider went on to become a product manager at Google last fall. However, I don’t have information that he worked on Gmail.

So, what does that mean for Glider? Does the product sail into the sunset? I am proud of Glider and the work I’ve done.

I could arrange for an acqu-hire and pretend like going to work at another company is great success. But I am going to go to college instead. I will leave the Glider opportunity open to any person that finds it interesting. The market for Outlook business users remains the largest yet. Need even more validation that an Outlook market exists? Xobni was acquired by Yahoo yesterday for $60 million.

And advice, please, for others looking to jump into startup life?

  • Gain validation for the problem/solution with early adopters as quick as you can by building on a platform like Gmail, but then move as quickly as you can to where business users spend their time and money. (Outlook)
  • Never lose sight of simplicity. It’s easy to get caught up in a product design full of extraneous features.
  • More to be written later on this blog.

04

07 2013

This Is What $100k of Amazon.com Revenue Looks Like

Over the past five weeks I referred 0.00000163692% of Amazon’s yearly revenue. [1]

Amazon is unlike most businesses because they do not rely on the “hits”. They rely on having the largest volume of purchasable products. As you can see in my data, few of these shipped products have a higher quantity than 1 order.

I am not selling anything in particular on Amazon.com. Their commission applies to all products for sale.

Show Me The MoneyScreen Shot 2013-07-03 at 11.43.17 AM

Or PDF version. (147 Pages)

[1]  (100,000/61,090,000,000 (2012))

03

07 2013

Denying The Denier

I was first exposed to “denying the denier” when reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2009. Author Michael Pollan explains this term with the example of McDonald’s offering salads in addition to their high-margin processed food and drink menu.  When kids ask their parents to get a Happy Meal and they receive the response “No, there’s nothing healthy there.”, the kids can respond “But they have salads.”.

I’ve seen this successfully implemented in numerous industries, and it’s smart because it helps retain users, reduce churn, and ultimately increase profits.

For Glider, we implement this marketing strategy when a user has a free trial that has recently expired:

glider-expired-expanded

The user may say to themselves, “Ah man, I have to pay to continue this service!”. But then we outline for them all of the time we have saved them during their trial, and how much that has increased their own bottom line.

If you take a look around in your own life you will see this strategy played out all of the time. Want a coke but you’re on a diet? No problem, Coke Zero has no calories. Want an expensive car? No problem, your local car dealer will give you a deal with little money down and low interest rates. Or my favorite is the casino business… Can’t afford to spend a weekend in a nice hotel? No problem, they will give you the room and food for free as long as you gamble your money all day and night.

There are countless other examples. The main idea to see is that we all have intuitive thoughts in the back of our heads when we see certain hurdles to purchasing a good or service. When you identify the main hurdle your customer has for purchasing your product, and you help them get over it through either a marketing message or additional service, you can increase the conversions for your main offering.

19

06 2013

Real-time Feedback

Recently I saw an excellent example of an organiation trying to do better by obtaining real-time feedback from their customers. It was in a place where you may least expect customer input: London Heathrow airport. Directly after picking up your bags on the opposite side of the x-ray machines at London Heathrow, there is a small kiosk with a screen and a few buttons. The service is provided by a company called HappyOrNot.

Here you can see that it’s very easy for you to simply select your mood after clearing security, and then offer any additional comments if you wish.

I’m sure there could be many other applications of this real-time feedback, such as stores, restaurants, or online sites.

Sometimes all you need is a little comfort that there’s someone on the other end of the line waiting to hear your thoughts. Customer service counts, and it’s best if organizations can react to the customer feedback immediately.

Update 6/6/2013:

Yesterday I was traveling through Frankfurt’s terminal Z  (which also deserves multiple design awards) before departing back to JFK on Lufthansa. Inside the bathroom the HappyOrNot service was deployed again, this time to ensure that the bathroom cleanliness was satisfactory.

HappyOrNot Frankfurt

31

05 2013