Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Alchemist

Some have ridiculed me for only having read business, programming, and economics books in the last few years - maybe with the occasional spy novel as long-haul flight fare. Thus, I was ready for some fiction, and I'm happy to say I chose the right book: The Alchemist by Paul Coelho [1]. Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, and Will Smith all liked it, so I figured it must be good.

The Alchemist is a fable about following one's great goals in life. While the religious side of the book is not for me, it's underlying message is very strong: Identify your dreams, and follow them at all costs. Santiago, the main character, suffers various setbacks and distractions, spends a year working on something unrelated, and leaves much behind in the search for his treasure. The writing is simple and the book is brilliantly written. Perfect reading for entrepreneurs.

[1] Ironically, I read about The Alchemist in David Rothkopf's Superclass, a non-fiction book about how a small group of 6000 people runs the globe. I disagree with that book in many parts - more in a future book.

World Tour: Bangkok

Once again, I was surprised. From the moment you arrive at Helmut Jahn's Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport, Thailand screams at you with its newfound prosperity.


I wasn't sure what the country would look like, but 9.4% average GDP growth from 1985-1996 and the ~5% average growth from 2002-2007 have certainly left their mark. Downtown Bangkok is full of new skyscrapers and malls selling designer goods and Rolex watches.


I still have a high level of nostalgia for a weeklong vacation on the island of Crete in 2001, interrupting a 6 month internship at Yahoo Germany. During that trip, I read Charles Petzold's Code and many other books while chilling on the beach. I was worried I wouldn't have enough to read while travelling and relaxing. Yet, in Bangkok, I found B2S, an upscale book store that puts any Borders to shame, complete with its very own Starbucks.


If anything, it's almost too much like America here. But Bangkok has other sides as well. Teeming markets with ventors cooking Pad Thai, fried rice in the open (And other delicacies such as these little delicious pancakes I don't know the name of.) Long-tail boats are zigzagging the river, floating markets - that's Bangkok as seen on TV.


Than there is the Grand Palace, with its impressive temple, impeccably maintained. To see the temple, there "gringo tax" of 300 BHT ticket for foreigners, common in India, but unexpected in otherwise highly developed Thailand.


I'd never been exposed to Buddhism before. I'm fascinated by the ritual of taking off your shoes before entering, but I'm having serious trouble in keeping my toes from pointing forward at the Buddha statue, which is a big no-no.


Then there's the sex tourism. There's nothing covert about it: One of the parts of town with many hotels is full of middle-aged European men, with a Thai "lady" in arms. I'm not sure what to think of this, but it's apparently accepted in the local culture. Oh, and the smog and the density of traffic are also a bit disturbing.


Most importantly, Thai people are very friendly. I don't know a word of Thai yet, but misunderstandings are soon forgotten with a smile and a laugh. Even the hawkers try to charm rather than giving you the hard sell, even while haggling. The Lonely Planet says Thai culture regards visitors as guests from heaven - I've definitely been feeling that way.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Arrividerci, India

I'm about to leave for Bangkok, where I'll be for the next 2 weeks.

I was just getting the hang of India. But I only planned to stay for a few days because I'm a wimp. I didn't think I could figure it out in just a few days.

I guess the core insight for the India traveler is that you have to work with probabilities. The engineer's mind wants to allocate blocks of money and time and keep planning the trip. But the train might not show up. Prices depend entirely on bargaining skills. Hotels will charge by how much they think you make. I was almost going to start planning with probability trees, but then saw how ridiculous that was. I figured I'd just go with the flow. I miss the plane, so what? I'll cross that bridge when I get there.

But the county is very impressive. In terms of culture and development, it's different from what I've seen so far, ever. And I used to think I was well travelled. India's monuments are timeless and make all the craziness around them seem unimportant. I'm sure I'll come back with friends someday to travel more and see more.

India Negotiation Tactics - Addendum

Sometimes hawkers initially quote you an insanely high price. For example, they'll tell me the ride to the airport is 1200 Rupees, when the ride from the airport was 250 Rupees.

My reaction to this in the past was that I tried not to get emotional. I wouldn't scream or laugh at them. That didn't seem like an adult thing to do. A great example of this was when years ago, my Google recruiter named me the number of shares and options I'd be getting. My reaction internally was "you've gotta be kidding, there's a digit missing," but instead it was "let me think about it ...".

The lesson: When confronted with obviously imbalanced deals, I should express my emotions. As for the taxi driver, I just started laughing. The ride ended up costing 350 Rupees, after 10 minutes of bargaining. I did learn something in India after all.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

India: Touts and Scammers

I should probably be writing about how much I liked the Taj Mahal, and how it effortlessly transcends the vibrant chaos around it. But instead, more about hawkers and scammers in India. Sorry guys, but I'm just really fascinated with this whole phenomenon.



First of all, huge thanks to the Rough Guide to India authors. They've included so much information about scams in Delhi that I was able to steer clear of most. Without this book, I may have been screwed over many times: Taxi drivers that forget where your hotel is, take you on a shopping tour, and tourist bureaus that sell you overpriced train tickets - I was able to steer clear of all.

The one time they got me was in my morning drowsy state at 5:00 am at the New Delhi train station, on the way to Agra. My reservation didn't have a seat number on it, and an official-looking man took my ticket, said "you have to go get a stamp at the tourist ticket office", anbd I followed him to its entrance. It was only fair, I thought, to give him 20 Rupees of baksheesh. The ticket office, of course, turned out to be closed, but there was another guy who said that he knows another place that was open. He took me downstairs and pointed me to it. At this point I saw through the charade: The shop he was pointing to was outside of the train station. I went straight to the train where the conductor just gave me a seat number. No stamp needed.

Otherwise, I was able to steer clear of most scams, but I'm sure plenty of other visitors might fall for this.

Side note: While there seem to be lots of scammers, there seem to be virtually no pickpockets. At least that's what I've heard from other travelers. Is this a cultural phenomenon?

India Negotiation Tactics

There are no prices in India, anywhere, and everything is up for negotiation. Having negotiated in various countries, with various levels of success, here's a contrast to Switzerland and the US.



Switzerland: The price on the sticker is the price you pay. Swiss salesmen will always insist there is no room for negotiation. Not always true. Sometimes they'll throw in a goodie for free. Some companies will give you a "Neukundenrabatt" of 10-20% for new customers if you promise more business and insist long enough.

US: Before any prices are named, salesmen will go for minutes, if not hours about why their product is the best, and try to get you to connect emotionally to what they're selling. Only then are prices named, once you're predisposed to saying "yes". Price drops happen only after they've talked to their "manager" or some other - possibly imaginary - higher authority. Insist, assert yourself, set a limit, and be prepared to walk out.

India: A price is named quickly, but it can be a long way to go from there: My guidebook suggests to counteroffer one-third of the price they name. I'm often not brave enough to go that low and counteroffer one-half, then listen to them drop the price by 10%, and then pretend to walk away. Usually, this results in another price drop and puts be at around 75% of the original price tag.

Impressions from India

Huge disclaimer: Limited travel experience + overgeneralization == travel wisdom. What I write here is based on just a few days of travel in New Delhi and Agra, which are far from representative for the whole nation. However, nothing adapts to new circumstances faster than the human mind, so I figured I'd write it down while it's still fresh on my mind.


What Transformation?

I guess I was a little bit naive about coming here. After reading Friedman's The World is Flat, where he describes the gleaming HQs of outsourcing companies in Bangalore / Bengaluru, I expected a country on the verge of a big transformation to modernity. i guess that's the dangers of comparing the max of one country - the Electronic City Industrial Park on the outskirts of Bangalore - with the median of the West. I expected something on the level of communist Hungary where I spent my childhood, but found conditions significantly worse.


You see more construction cranes in Munich, Germany, than you see in New Delhi. Still, around the city, you see a lot of construction for the New Delhi Metro. Inside, you will find sparkling new stations and trains that put Europe to shame. Yet, you see only Indians riding it.


Poverty

The level of poverty, and its contrast to the rich few is striking: You see bicycle rickshaws and tut-tuts, buses teeming full of people, next to a Mercedes S-Class sedan. When you ride one of those tut-tuts, beggars and children will beg you for money at every red light.


My first impression was the most shocking: After leaving the glass, marble, and steel Indira Gandhi International Airport, I took a taxi to Paharganj, a cheap tourist area in New Delhi where my hotel was. after avoiding the driver's "I don't know where your hotel is, let me take you to another one" scan - more on that in a later post -, I found myself in an area that was crowded, smelly, dirty, with ramshackle buildings, and cows, goats, and dogs walking the streets.


Highlight

The highlight for me so far was the Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum in New Delhi. It's the house in which Indira Gandhi (former Prime Minister of India, not related to the Mahatma) was assassinated by her own bodyguards in 1984; and in which she lived quite plainly for the leader of a huge country. Her study with the bookshelves stuffed with books reminded me, for some reason, of my grandfather's library. Streams of Indians of various backgrounds and religions are pushing themselves through the museum all the time.


While I don't agree with her policies, the exhibition about her and her son Rajiv Gandhi, who followed her as a PM and was also assassinated, is very moving. Formerly an airline pilot, he became quite the reformer and seemed to have almost Obamaesque speaking qualities:

In the heart of a truly non-violent person, there is a profound belief
that hate can only be driven out by love,
that anger can only be driven out by compassion,
and that fear can only be overcome by courage.

-- Rajiv Gandhi

Monday, September 22, 2008

World Tour: Europe

I'm on my way to India, the next stop on my world tour. In Germany, I went to Munich to pick up my new O-1 visa, and to Berlin for some sightseeing. Then, to Switzerland to hold a talk and see friends from ETH Zurich. I spent the last few days in Rome, where I checked out the sights. With this many stops, this part of the trip wasn't quite as relaxing as I thought it would be.

Some random observations from the last few days:


German infrastructure: There's something very pleasing about how well-maintained German roads are. On the entire autobahn from Munich to Berlin, you'd be hard-pressed to find a single pothole or even faded lane markers. The same applies to much of the rest of the country: Clean streets, freshly painted houses, and many modern glass-and-steel buildings. I guess growing up there probably formed my tastes: My love for Bauhaus-style modernity, my worrying about maintainability before even starting a software project, or all the little checklists I write for myself. More self-reflection is in order.


Outdoor dining: In the summer, Europe has tons of outdoor dining, and some restaurants double or even triple the number of available seating. I wonder why San Francisco doesn't have this, although this might be a consequence of cold summer evenings.


Rome: So much history in one place! I only wish I'd been able to go see the Sistine chapel, but for reasons that are beyond me, the Vatican museum is closed during Saturday afternoons and Sundays. Aren't those the times when visitors would most expect it to be open? The rest of the city was a blast, though. Loved the food! I recommend standing and snacking at the crowded Caffe Greco by the Spanish Steps, where amusingly pretentious waiters in suits serve you possibly the best pistachio cake in the world.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Upcoming Talks: Geneva, Sydney

I've been invited to give two talks while I'm traveling around the world:

  • University of Geneva, Switzerland
    Tuesday, September 16th 2008, 5 pm (Unitec Seminars)
    Auditoire du Rez, Bat A, Battelle, 7 rte de Drize, 1227 Carouge (map)

  • Macquarie University / CSIRO, Sydney, Australia
    Wednesday, October 15th 2008, 11 am (HAIL Seminars)
    Building E6B, Eastern Road, Macquarie University (map)

In both places, I'll be talking about the Future of Email and how we can improve email clients far beyond where they are today. I'll also chat about my experience with startups in Silicon Valley and what lessons can be learned from here. The talk in Sydney will focus on the former, the one in Geneva will focus on the latter.

I'd love to see you there! I hope both talks will lead to inspiring discussions.

Thanks to Andrew Lampert and Matthias Kuhn for organizing these talks.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

World Tour

I'm leaving this Sunday for a trip around world. I've always wanted to do this: before Google, I didn't have the money, and before Xobni, I didn't have the time.

I'm also seeing this as a great opportunity to relax and unwind before starting my new thing, and I hope that a little bit of time off will allow me to find clarity on some things and think more deeply about the challenge ahead.



My trip will take me to Switzerland and Germany to see parents, friends, and more. Then, off to India to see New Delhi, Thailand (I hope all is calm by then), Hong Kong, and the Australian East coast. I'll be moving at a fast pace and should be back in California by late October.

I won't be completely off the grid, and hope to blog and have some access to the wonders of email on the way.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

I Want Your .com For New Startup

My new startup needs a name and the corresponding .com domain. I've spent hours and hours trying to come up with something good. Why not crowdsource it? My blog now has over 400 subscribers. Thus, there must be someone in my audience who owns the perfect domain name for a new email / communications startup.

Here's my "wishlist":

  • It has to be a .com as people have difficulties with domains like del.icio.us

  • If possible, I'd like to closely follow Guy Kawasaki's naming guidelines.

  • Unambiguous spelling: It should be easy to map from how it's pronounced to how it's spelled.

  • I like alliterations such as FriendFeed, they really stick to your mind. Not a must, though.

  • Either a name that has something to do with communications ... (good examples are PostPath, TellMe, Gmail, or Twitter);

  • ... Or a word that sounds good and can be used for any type of business, such as Google, Skype, Yahoo, Zimbra, Groove.


To give you some more inspiration, I like these words: shine, glow, joy, happy, dream, sky, light, utopia, drum, jet, jam, fun, run, hop, leap, fly, flow, fast, now, right, easy, wow, zap, clean, and fresh. (Yes, I've tried combinations of these and ones domains I liked were taken.)

Do you have a .com that fits these criteria? Let's chat! My email address is here.

If you don't have a stack of .com domains piled up, please send a link to this post to your friend who does. Thanks for your help!

Monday, September 01, 2008

Someone's got Email Overload ...



994 unread messages - wow! (From the alleged Google Chrome Comic).

Re-Reading Built to Last

I'm re-reading Built to Last, the one book I keep referencing when talking about my startup. For one, it's one of the business books that's backed solid comparison studies, and its claims are backed by evidence. But it also emphasizes a style of building a company that makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. It promotes building your company such that it has:
  • Core Values, out of which profits are not the #1 goal, but in balance with interests of employees, customers, and investors. A great example of this is Johnson & Johnson’s Credo.
  • Big Hairy Audacious Goals - clear-cut, compelling, cutting edge goals the company sets to progress forward. An example is Boeing’s BHAG of building the 747.
  • Cult-like Cultures: A cohesive staff of people who share company’s core ideology, are indoctrinated into the company culture, and develop a tight fit with others in the company, Nordstrom's sales teams operate in this manner.
  • No charismatic figurehead leader, but leadership that focuses on building the organization instead of investing their time in extensive PR work. Sam Walton is this kind of guy.
  • Constant experimentation that quickly addresses emerging market opportunities. While this is especially true for technology companies, a great example in the book is how Marriott invented the highly profitable flight catering business after seeing its customers buy lunch boxes for flights.

As an entrepreneur, if you haven’t read this book, you should.

P.S.: Here's a great article about the book's validity today.