Use your head for yourself, heart for others

I learned a lot as a child by soaking up the wisdom of my elders. My father often brought me along when he called on friends and I sat with him when he entertained visitors in our home.

While I was visiting my family in July, we received a visit from a worldly and well-read family friend. In addition to being an excellent medical doctor, he’s a voracious reader of poetry and literature.

He shared some excellent advice – “When considering yourself, think with your head. When considering others, think with your heart.”

When I recall career or academic mistakes, many had their roots in frustration or emotions coupled with lazy logic. When I think of times I really connected with someone, I succeeded because I took the time to view their whole, human self and empathize with their feelings.

The quote reminds me of two things:

First, Lord Bertrand Russell’s Message to the Future

Second, a passage from the novel Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

Chief Resident Dr. Stone is reviewing the previous week’s surgeries in a meeting with his staff. A woman wrote to him after her son died in surgery.


After sharing the letter, Stone asks, “In an emergency, what is the only treatment administered by ear?”

“Words of comfort.”


Google under threat – Facebook M and iOS9

Two new services from Google's main rivals are poised to undercut Google's ad revenue

Figure 1: Credit – ZDNetusing 2013 financial data. More recent data looks even more extreme since Google’s sale of Motorola to Lenovo. Ad revenue subsidizes pretty much all of Google’s crazy adventures, from self-driving cars to creepy robots.

Facebook and Apple fired two heavy shots at Google in the past couple weeks.

Facebook announced its message-for-anything service, Facebook M, on August 26th. M is a service that can get you pretty much anything you need via chat, à la GoButler or Magic. You send a message to M in your contact list, and human-assisted artificial intelligence places the order for you or points you in the right direction.

These types of services are a direct threat to Google’s core advertising business because they can supplant Google as the first place people go when they need a product or service. The reason Google Adwords is so successful is because search is a “high-intent” channel. Users type exactly what they are looking for into Google and have a higher likelihood of purchasing something from a targeted ad. This is the opposite of scattershot, passive channels like TV advertising which can be targeted to broad demographics, but nothing near the precision of a specific search term.

If Facebook M succeeds in popularizing the use case of “Want something? Let us get it for you,” it could conceivably become even more high-intent than Google. Additionally, human-assisted AI could be better at delivering what users want than Google’s fabled search algorithm. People could simply place the request with Facebook and completely bypass Google and its ads. Big threat.

Secondly, Apple is allowing ad-blocking apps on the App Store for iOS9 (and they’re already the top-selling apps in the App Store). This one’s pretty simple – mobile recently surpassed desktop in search traffic, and if mobile users aren’t seeing ads in search, apps or display networks because of ad-blocking software, Google is screwed.

To top it off, iOS/iPhone users are far more valuable than Android users because they tend to have greater disposable income. iOS users spend 74% of total app revenue, even though Android holds 83% of smartphone market share.

Source: Canalys via TIME.

If you extrapolate from iOS users greater willingness to pay for apps, you can trust they’re more willing to pay for stuff in general. And that’s bad news for Google since the people left are less likely to purchase from an ad. We might see Adwords prices drop dramatically over the next year.

Even if Google comes out with an improved version Google Now as expected, it will still be limited to the Android platform with its considerably less valuable usership.

Will be interesting to see how Google responds to these challenges in the weeks and months ahead, and how adoption pans out for Facebook M and adblockers on iOS – developments that could significantly reshape the balance of power in tech and the future of the web for us all.

Pocket vs. Instapaper – sacrificing growth for revenue

About a year and a half ago, Instapaper was the app of choice for saving articles to read later. The service saved the article on your web browser, stripped away all the formatting and compiled it in one place for you to read when you actually had the time.

Instapaper was super-convenient and innovative. They were the first to create a browser plugin that saved the article and archived it in one click. They were the first to launch a mobile app that synced your articles across devices, so you could read on your smartphone what you didn’t have time to read on your PC. They were the first to make content available offline so you could read in the subway when you couldn’t do much else.

Instapaper had competitors, but it was far and away the market leader. Services like Pocket and Readability were way in the rearview mirror.

A couple of years ago, Instapaper withdrew its app from the App Store and replaced it with a new one users had to buy for $2.99. Existing users were not grandfathered in (I was one of those users). Instapaper also started charging for its search feature. If you didn’t remember the title of an article and exactly when you saved it, you couldn’t go back and find it unless you paid for a year-long subscription.

Enter Pocket. Pocket is pretty much exactly like Instapaper except it has a more colorful logo. Pocket also has browser plugins. Ditto mobile apps, offline sync etc.

But their mobile apps are free. Their search function? Also free.

Instapaper’s Google Play Store stats as of today: 5,188 downloads

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 7.45.08 PM

Pocket’s stats? 222,921 downloadsScreen Shot 2015-09-10 at 7.44.53 PM

And then some people will say, “But there has to be a revenue model! Companies are supposed to make money!”

Sure. But not by charging users if you’re in the consumer space. Especially not by charging for a core feature that a competitor can give away for free.

So Pocket has since leapfrogged Instapaper and now has a bajillion email addresses to which they send a weekly digest of popular articles. I look through that every week because I find it valuable and interesting. And guess what? There’s advertising in it!

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 7.50.06 PM

And guess what. Pocket is making money. Without sacrificing growth.

They also recently launched a new tab in the app called “Recommended” articles. What’s the play there, you might ask? Pocket can easily insert paid recommendations in that tab a la Outbrain and Taboola. All of those “recommended articles” at the bottom of an increasing number of mainstream publications (Slate etc.) are paying Taboola and Outbrain to bring traffic to them. Eventually, they’ll just need to flip the switch.

So there you have it. Revenue without sacrificing growth.

Lesson: Find a different way to make money. The consumer internet game has changed. It’s not about charging users for key features. Being first doesn’t mean anything. The key is delivering a valuable service to your users and finding a frictionless way to generate revenue. That’s the ticket.


Another example:

Remember when Microsoft used to sell licenses to Windows mobile and then Google came along and said ANDROID FOR FREE EVERYBODY?!? Giving away Android for free makes Google money by funneling Android users to Google search and Google services. Your move Microsoft.

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 8.04.16 PM

But the sad thing is you usually don’t get a second shot at the growth game. Why? Lock-in. Because you can’t. Beat. Free.

And Microsoft has never caught up.

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 8.06.30 PM
Source: IDC


On meditation

Andy Puddicombe, former monk and founder of

I’m always on the lookout for tips, tricks or systems that can help me increase my productivity or reduce strains on my willpower. Most of the work I do these days is on a consulting basis, so I don’t have a manager to prioritize my tasks or make sure I’m efficient.

The most frequent piece of advice I used to get/read was to meditate. A friend even signed me up for an automated meditation phone call to guide me through daily sessions. I never used it (a clever use of the Twilio API nonetheless!)

I finally started for an entirely different reason. I was getting feedback on a marketing video and my friend Sebastian sent me an example of branding done right: Headspace.

Of course, a tech nerd like me would need an app before doing something as ancient and disconnected as meditation.

The onboarding in the Headspace app is very linear – users have to complete 20 daily 20-minute sessions where a guide (Andy, the speaker from the TED talk above and founder of Headspace) walks you through the techniques of mindfulness and focus. Each session unlocks the next, so it progresses at a comfortable pace.

I’ve since weaned myself off the app. Although I’ve got tons of respect for his entrepreneurial chops, I wasn’t crazy about Andy’s Bristol accent. But it helped me form a consistent habit and now I’ve been meditating independently 3-5 times a week for ~4 months.

The usual benefit associated with meditation is mindfulness or awareness. People bring all sorts of definitions to those words, but for me they mean having the ability to maintain perspective in the moment. When I find myself in a stressful situation these days, I feel I have greater control over myself simply because I’m examining the situation at hand and can identify the forces at work – sleep deprivation, hunger, projection, emotions or mis-directed frustration.

I’ve read a lot of productivity and “self-improvement” literature, but before meditation I felt like I missed the opportunities to implement tips and tactics – I could only identify mistakes ex post facto (you can ask my MBA classmates – I crashed and burned during mock negotiations directly after 3 days of classes).

With meditation, I give myself the space to be in the moment and apply some of the insights and practices I’ve accumulated.

Along with consistent exercise, I have to say meditation has helped me feel clear-headed and happier. I have my ups and downs as most do, but I have to say that the peaks and troughs are a bit less extreme than before.

I’ve always had trouble with these sorts of claims simply because reality doesn’t have a control group and you can never be certain which variable is really causing the effect.

I also understand why deeply secular people have trouble with meditation. In Eastern traditions, it’s wrapped up with a lot of religious doctrine, spirituality and a whole lot of non-scientific belief. I think that’s simply due to how ancient and cross-cultural meditation is (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and all manner of mono and polytheistic religious have some variation of it).

Even as an agnostic, I think the practice is valid and effective apart from the these doctrines. In my case, the results have been noticeable and I’m comfortable assigning the positive effects to meditation rather than placebo (or some divine effect!).

Where my personal experience might be unconvincing, perhaps these studies performed by Mass General and the National Institutes of Health, or this article in Harvard Business Review might be persuasive.


My meditation sessions usually go as follows:

I sit down in a chair or couch with decent back support, take a moment to acknowledge my surroundings (sounds, smells, overall setting), rest my hands on my thighs and close my eyes. I then start breathing in sets of ten (breath in = 1, breathe out = 2, breathing in = 3… and then restart at 1 after hitting 10 on the out breath).

The idea is to focus on the moment. Most guides recommend focusing on one’s breathing. Tim Ferriss recommends focusing on the physical sensation of air rushing in and out of your nostrils.

The mind always wanders. I think it takes a great deal of practice to get to the point where you can meditate without thoughts intruding. I imagine my though processes like multi-tasking processes on a smartphone – I can just swipe them out of view to kill the task. [Nerd alert]

Eventually I begin to feel a bit detached. I often get chills where I feel a rush going from my head into the rest of my body. My fingers start to tingle.

Usually, I’ll throw in a visualization. This really helps me focus because visualizing things requires most of the brain’s bandwidth and thus limits its ability to generate random thoughts.

I visualize a miniature sun that emanates rays of energy and light sitting between my feet. I try to physically feel an effect of the rays on my feet – where the rays touch, they bring me warmth and relaxation.

Once I’ve felt the effect, I move the sun to my navel, solar plexus (center of the body, below the heart and above the stomach), chest, neck, brow, and finally crown of my head, trying to feel the effect in each one of these spots.

I then return to breathing in sets of ten for another few minutes and then gradually start paying attention to my surroundings – listening to noises and moving my limbs. Then I open my eyes and return to activity.

Talk at Reinventing Organizations Berlin


My friend Sebastian invited me to a talk by Frederic Laloux on the next paradigm for workplaces/ organizations.

Here’s a YouTube video of one of his talks:

Key takeaways:

High complexity environments require distributed self-management; hierarchies cannot use traditional command and control.

Hierarchies do emerge even in what Laloux calls “teal” organizations – his prescriptive version of a decentralized organization where individuals are empowered – but they’re situational, suited to those particular circumstances.

Organizations should make room for the whole individual, not just their ego driven, aggressive, assertive and rational sides.

Company leaders should be a bit more humble and stop trying to force the future. Should perhaps try to listen and enable the evolutionary purpose of the organization.

Afterwards there was a discussion about how to spread these new modes of organizational behavior.


In my mind, when organizations that deploy holacracy or some similar self-management mode begin to succeed in the marketplace, show results and demonstrate that such an organizational structure is a competitive advantage, then it will spread.

I think the message should be that individual empowerment is a powerful competitive advantage, and while I haven’t read it, I believe Laloux shares some such examples in his book, Reinventing Organizations.

Holacracy basically dictates that the individual or team tasked with leading a domain in an organizations should have the ultimate ability to determine policy in that particular area. A necessary corollary to that is that you hire the right people – experts that you trust – to make decisions in that domain. Otherwise you retain a veneer of meritocracy and self management but the wise men at the C level retain ultimate veto.

Ultimately, the talk was valuable but it was tinged by a lot of feelings-y discussion and almost ignored the creation of business value entirely. It almost treated this paradigm of work as an end in and of itself rather than a superior way to organize institutions in order to create more value. In a way it felt cult-y. Will have to look into it more – especially “non-violent communication,” which came up a lot in the discussion.

Better outcomes – a page from sports science

Image credit: Daily Mail

As sports leagues and teams increasingly become lucrative businesses, teams are finding significant value by paying attention to previously ignored variables. Companies outside the sporting world should take note.

The English Premier League has had a massive 14% compound annual growth rate since its founding in 1992 and recently auctioned its TV rights for a stunning 7.8 billion USD, making the league and the teams that participate quite large business concerns.

Their most important employees – players – can earn up to half a million dollars per week and decide their fortunes with a single moment of genius. Quite surprisingly, many clubs ignored player behavior outside of training and matchday activities as recently as the 1990s. Arsenal midfielder Ray Parlour (‘93-’04) recounts those heady days with tales of unexpectedly starting a match against Liverpool after downing two pints of beer.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger famously put an end to the excess when he arrived in 1996 and nearly started a player revolt at the club. As the story goes, Wenger walked down the bus aisle on the way to a match and picked out the Mars bars from the players’ pre-match meals.

What began as an experiment in sports science at Arsenal has since spread throughout the sporting world. Teams measure and manage every variable of players’ physical and psychological state in order to ensure their best performances on the field.

When it comes to sleep, clubs retain specialists to fine-tune players’ sleeping schedules and book hotel rooms with customized mattresses for every player – even for home games.

Teams manage player diets, employ medical teams of physiotherapists, massage therapists, doctors and athletic trainers who meticulously assess and adjust players’ movements for injury risk. Diet is subject to similar scrutiny.

Clubs like Arsenal routinely retain sports psychologists to assess players’ mental strengths and help them discover their best form. Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey credits sports psychologists in part for helping him recover from a horror tackle that left him with an open fracture of his lower leg.

Companies can realize real value in team performance by learning from the world of professional sports.

Just as they affect player performance, variables like sleep and diet have very real effects on employee performance. Workplace conflicts are often preceded by late nights in the office, sleep deprivation or other sources of stress. There are many forces at play below the surface, any of which could cause a bad business outcome.

Consequentially, businesses can expect better outcomes by ensuring their employees consistently get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, maintain decent physical conditions and avoid unnecessary stress.

However, businesses have been reluctant to manage employees outside of the workplace. Much of that has to do with protecting employees’ free time and preserving their privacy.

Modern management has its roots in Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management theory, in which measurement and prescription played a rather large role. Similar to sports’ obsession with statistics, Taylor measured worker output in steel mills and found that he could increase productivity by integrating rest breaks into the workday.

Despite the general reluctance, a number of forward-thinking companies have been incentivizing their employees to modify behaviors outside the traditional workplace boundaries by re-framing them as perks.

Google is famous for its perks – from fully stocked espresso bars to nap rooms.

A nap at work? Rather than villainizing it as laziness, companies should heed scientific studies finding manifold benefits: a recent NASA study on drowsy military pilots found that a 40-minute nap increased alertness by 100% and overall performance by 34%. Can’t argue with those numbers.

Companies are starting to offer subsidies towards health club memberships. While they’re perceived as perks by employees, companies reap the benefit in cheaper pooled health insurance premiums in addition to the everyday business benefits. Companies like LinkedIn are also catering meals in the office, reducing the need for employees to venture out, wasting time, fatiguing their finite decision-making reserves, and potentially making unhealthy choices in the process.

Ironically, liquor company Diageo bought its employees Fitbits to track their exercise, calorie consumption and sleep. Regardless of whether the technology works, simply having one on your wrist is a powerful reminder to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

It’s easy to imagine a dystopian future where your boss sends you a message deriding you for staying out too late the previous night. Obviously there are limits that shouldn’t be crossed.

Folks will object that sometimes tight deadlines require extra effort and cutting corners. Of course those situations will require the odd late night and elevated stress levels.

But companies should be mindful that a candle lit from both ends burns twice as bright but half as long; building and delivering sustainable value means ensuring a sustainably healthy workforce that arrives at work well-rested, well-fed and maintains a healthy level of physical activity and stress.

As the sports world is increasingly demonstrating, these “perks” can be the difference between winning and losing – no matter what business you’re in.

Nacho Monreal's heatmap as a left-back. His average position is quite close to the midfield line.

Nacho Monreal’s heatmap as a left-back. His average position is quite close to the midfield line.

a16z and dumb capital

Before I jump in, a quick preface. I’ve been meaning to start writing more in order to build a body of work as well as simply maintain/get better at writing. I’m going to write a post every day for the next 30 days. For the most part, I’m going to focus on tech/startup topics.

The first is on a16z and how they’re using clever marketing to get a leg up in the venture capital game.

The VC game is usually conceived as follows: there is a limited amount of capital in funds whose sole purpose is to find high-risk investments in hope of a large payoff. Entrepreneurs vie for this limited pool of funds. The best VCs are the ones who have backed significant winners in the past (KleinerPerkins:Google, Sequoia:airbnb, Union Square Ventures:Twitter, etc.). Being backed by one of these not only allows you enough resources to pursue your business, but also comes with a seal of approval meaning you’ve been thoroughly vetted and endorsed by the apostles of high startupdom.

But due to phenomenal returns in the past decades and the success/IPO of several major venture-backed companies (Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Tesla etc.), and increasing number of investors are trying to get in on the action. Not only are these sophisticated investors like pension funds and endowments, but also smaller investors who can now invest directly in companies through platforms like Angellist.

However, in order for returns to hold as the pool of VC capital expands, the number of quality investments must expand on a 1:1 basis. While we’re seeing an increase in the number of companies/startups founded, there’s a great deal of “noise” in the market generated by lifestyle entrepreneurs or folks with delusions that their pet idea could somehow be a venture-scale business. It certainly isn’t clear that the ratio of quality investments is expanding at the same ratio, and a lot of evidence to suggest otherwise.

As a result, (venture) capital is competing to get into the best business deals. A dollar is a dollar is a dollar – capital is by definition undifferentiated. So a lot of the Venture Capital funds who had deal flow just by virtue of being the only game in town now have to compete to get into a great deal, especially at later rounds.

The brand/seal of approval isn’t sufficient anymore. Now, it’s necessary to add value some how – differentiate the investment.

One can argue that VCs are often stocked with top business school graduates and can create opportunities by tapping into their networks – traditional business by making introductions. Which is certainly very powerful. But tools like LinkedIn for generating business opportunities are eroding that advantage. Additionally, some might argue that the occasional associate/partner might offer some life-changing advice. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe…

Entrepreneurs are increasingly repurposing Mark Wahlberg’s theory on Feds for their VC relationships: “My theory on [our investors] is they’re like mushrooms, feed ’em shit and keep ’em in the dark.”

Enter a16z. Not only do they have a full-time staff or marketers and business developers to actually boost business for their portfolio companies, they’re busy telling everyone how much they know about the business of investing in startups. Classic content marketing.

a16z deploys its staff and network across all manner of channels in order to establish their credentials and reach would-be portfolio companies. The message: not only do we know tech, but we understand where tech is going in all industries and all markets. We know your business, we know what’s happening in your industry as well as what’s happening in adjacent industries that could affect your business.

a16z’s content marketing assault is firing on all fronts, not only traditional channels (panel appearances, conferences, interviews in the New Yorker, Twitter [funny that Twitter is now a conventional channel]), but also owned media such as their blog and podcasts.

Their podcast presence is particularly impressive, which first drew my attention to a16z’s leadership in the industry. Not only are podcasts in-depth, featuring serious experts from their considerable network as well as portfolio companies, but the podcasts are remarkably frequent as well, no small task for what is essentially a finance company.

It’ll be interesting to see where a16z takes it from here, but it’s already clear they’re pushing the envelope on what it means to be a VC, or at least communicating that. And it seems to be paying off so far: a16z boasts hits like airbnb, Uber, Box, BuzzFeed, Slack and Zenefits.

Aphex Twin shows that ballers work their asses off

I’ve been doing a lot of research on SoundCloud recently and stumbled upon this story: apparently the DJ Aphex Twin has been steadily posting unreleased tracks under a pseudonym.

Since January 26th (103 days ago), user18081971 has posted 208 tracks on his page – roughly 2 tracks per day. The word on the web is that some of this is his earlier stuff partially from the ’90s, but that doesn’t matter – the fact that he has 208 (and counting) unreleased tracks is an astonishing testament to his capability to produce.

There’s been a lot of discussion about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10k hours assertion (Gladwell posits that true expertise in anything requires 10,000 hours of practice), but one thing is unassailable – the greats put in the hours.

Ira Glass put it best here:

Paraphrasing Bill Gates, we greatly overestimate what we can achieve in a day and underestimate what we can accomplish in a year. The key is putting in that consistent effort, day in, day out.

h/t nialler9