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.


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.


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))


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:


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.


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


05 2013

Glass: Wearable Tech Coming To Life

Google Glass is the most hotly anticipated hardware device since the iPad and preceding smartphone devices. This summer Google will sell about 8,000 Glass devices ($1,500 each) to those that have opted for a chance to participate in the Glass explorers program.

In anticipation of the release to this closed group of testers this summer, Google has released the source code for the device, available for download here: https://code.google.com/p/google-glass-kernel-source/

I’m excited to see what it is like to wear Glass even with the out-of-the-box functionality. Could this device bring on a new wave of wearable hardware? I think so. Smartphones have proven how powerful technology can be when it’s on us all of the time. But unfortunately phones currently force us to escape the present; we’re constantly staring into our screens. Wearable technology changes this.

MYO is an easy example of a device that is currently under development. The MYO will let you interact with computers through simple hand and arm gestures.

My friend Arye Barnehama is building the Axio Melon headband. The headband does EEG scans of your brain to help you find your most productive music, which will help you stay focused for longer.

Finally, FitBit has lead this trend since 2009. They have already proven how lucrative this market can be; their pedometer and sleep tracker has been a hit with fitness junkies for over two years.

How about the price point on these devices? The Glass will start at $1,500 but that’s just to lure in only the die-hards and scare away the naysayers. Early reports indicate that Google aims to sell the device at just above the bill of materials, around $300. MYO is $149, Axio’s product will be about $100, and the Fitbit One is $99.

This is exciting because the price points on all of these devices are within reach of millions of consumers. I predict this summer’s fashion trends for early-adopters will include an array of wearable tech devices.


04 2013

Emails Like This…

and this

make startups worth doing. Herwig and I did our best to explain “bacn” earlier this month, and it was later picked up by BBC News. Thank you to our customers for your support, you mean the world to us!



03 2013


You may have heard of a controversial new currency named “Bitcoin“, most well known for it’s independence from government and reliance on an anonymous peer to peer network.

This past month the price for one Bitcoin rose above the $32 high water mark set in 2011. And it has nearly tripled to $33 from the $13.50 price at the start of the year. We are seeing this growth because the number of Bitcoins in circulation is capped and as a result the price will continue to rise as long as the number of transactions continues to grow rapidly. This is simple economics: There is an upward pressure on pricing due to a decrease in supply. Most importantly, the price elasticity of supply is inelastic due to the controlled release of additional Bitcoins into the market. So, over the short term the inflation of Bitcoin will likely continue.

The easiest way to buy and sell Bitcoins is through Coinbase, and they’re definitely seeing the complementary growth.

The growth in Coinbase transactions parallels the rise in Bitcoin prices.

It’s obvious that this new currency is becoming more and more popular; companies such as WordPress and Reddit already accept Bitcoins as an alternative payment method. This type of distribution is not too far off what was seen a decade ago when big retailers started accepting PayPal.

Critics claim Bitcoin can not sustain rapid growth for the long term given that Bitcoin’s are mainly being used for illicit purposes. But if this trend continues where we see major companies tagging on, it’s certain that the Bitcoins will continue to grow in value given their limited number.

Here’s my test investment so far:

I purchased 7 Bitcoins on December 31st, about a $100 value.

Current market rate for 7 Bitcoins: $235

I was impressed to see my small test run had more than doubled in value over the course of just 60 days. If you’re interested in doing this on a larger scale, do your research, and remember timing is everything in finance!’

Update March 5th:

NameCheap now accepts Bitcoin for payments. This is yet another example of NameCheap supporting efforts for pioneering online innovation and freedom.


02 2013

Sori Yanagi

I picked up this product design tidbit from Dustin Curtis a few weeks back:

“Things that are easy to use survive, regardless of what is fashionable, and people want to use them forever. But if things are created merely for a passing vogue and not for a purpose, people soon get bored with them and throw them away. The fundamental problem is that many products are created to be sold, not used.”  - Yanagi

Sori Yanagi hails from a family that made samurai swords, and that’s no surprise when you take a look at the flatware he designed himself.

In my opinion, the test of time is the ultimate test for your product. Products will survive a “passing vogue” if they are purely designed to be used. I strive to keep this in mind every time I go to the drawing board.


01 2013

“The Disadvantages of an Elite Education”

There is some incredible content in this writing about life at an elite college. Thank you to the Wake Forest Arch Society for passing it along. I encourage you to take some time to read at length:


Something that does not appeal to me about elite institutions is when an overwhelming part of your experience is simply saying that your went to xyz school. Though I’m certain it’s also not appealing to be negative towards the opportunity.

There is nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s intellect or knowledge. There is something wrong with the smugness and self-congratulation that elite schools connive at from the moment the fat envelopes come in the mail. From orientation to graduation, the message is implicit in every tone of voice and tilt of the head, every old-school tradition, every article in the student paper, every speech from the dean. The message is: You have arrived. Welcome to the club. And the corollary is equally clear: You deserve everything your presence here is going to enable you to get. When people say that students at elite schools have a strong sense of entitlement, they mean that those students think they deserve more than other people because their SAT scores are higher.

This is the type of independent spirit I believe I exhibited in high school; I focused my time on internet markting and making websites.

Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so it’s almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that it’s even there. Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time. Paradoxically, the situation may be better at second-tier schools and, in particular, again, at liberal arts colleges than at the most prestigious universities. Some students end up at second-tier schools because they’re exactly like students at Harvard or Yale, only less gifted or driven. But others end up there because they have a more independent spirit. They didn’t get straight A’s because they couldn’t be bothered to give everything in every class. They concentrated on the ones that meant the most to them or on a single strong extracurricular passion or on projects that had nothing to do with school or even with looking good on a college application. Maybe they just sat in their room, reading a lot and writing in their journal. These are the kinds of kids who are likely, once they get to college, to be more interested in the human spirit than in school spirit, and to think about leaving college bearing questions, not resumés.

The greatest benefit I have seen from leaving college is the freedom to engage in a lot of introspection. I am particularly worrisome about this amongst students at top-tier schools:

I taught a class several years ago on the literature of friendship. One day we were discussing Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, which follows a group of friends from childhood to middle age. In high school, one of them falls in love with another boy. He thinks, “To whom can I expose the urgency of my own passion?…There is nobody—here among these grey arches, and moaning pigeons, and cheerful games and tradition and emulation, all so skilfully organised to prevent feeling alone.” A pretty good description of an elite college campus, including the part about never being allowed to feel alone. What did my students think of this, I wanted to know? What does it mean to go to school at a place where you’re never alone? Well, one of them said, I do feel uncomfortable sitting in my room by myself. Even when I have to write a paper, I do it at a friend’s. That same day, as it happened, another student gave a presentation on Emerson’s essay on friendship. Emerson says, he reported, that one of the purposes of friendship is to equip you for solitude. As I was asking my students what they thought that meant, one of them interrupted to say, wait a second, why do you need solitude in the first place? What can you do by yourself that you can’t do with a friend?

So there they were: one young person who had lost the capacity for solitude and another who couldn’t see the point of it. There’s been much talk of late about the loss of privacy, but equally calamitous is its corollary, the loss of solitude. It used to be that you couldn’t always get together with your friends even when you wanted to. Now that students are in constant electronic contact, they never have trouble finding each other. But it’s not as if their compulsive sociability is enabling them to develop deep friendships. “To whom can I expose the urgency of my own passion?”: my student was in her friend’s room writing a paper, not having a heart-to-heart. She probably didn’t have the time; indeed, other students told me they found their peers too busy for intimacy.

What happens when busyness and sociability leave no room for solitude? The ability to engage in introspection, I put it to my students that day, is the essential precondition for living an intellectual life, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. They took this in for a second, and then one of them said, with a dawning sense of self-awareness, “So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?” Well, I don’t know. But I do know that the life of the mind is lived one mind at a time: one solitary, skeptical, resistant mind at a time. The best place to cultivate it is not within an educational system whose real purpose is to reproduce the class system.

The world that produced John Kerry and George Bush is indeed giving us our next generation of leaders. The kid who’s loading up on AP courses junior year or editing three campus publications while double-majoring, the kid whom everyone wants at their college or law school but no one wants in their classroom, the kid who doesn’t have a minute to breathe, let alone think, will soon be running a corporation or an institution or a government. She will have many achievements but little experience, great success but no vision. The disadvantage of an elite education is that it’s given us the elite we have, and the elite we’re going to have.


01 2013