It changed me forever

Living without stuff for a month

Living without stuff for a month

The other day, I was reading Albert’s post Freedom from Wanting and it reminded me of the time we moved to New York.

We moved to NYC in early December 2010 from Eindhoven, The Netherlands. Moving to NYC meant wrapping up everything in Eindhoven and putting most of our belongings into a container to ship it over. Since this is old-school shipping with ports and boats, it would take 3 weeks. We lived in a short–term rental in Eindhoven for a week before flying to New York. We had an empty apartment waiting for us in Brooklyn. We only had our suitcases and an air mattress we had delivered from Amazon.

Since it would take another 2 weeks before our stuff arrived, we went to IKEA and bought two Poäng chairs and a Lack table. This is how we lived; an air mattress, a couple of Ikea chairs and our suitcases.

And then the snow blizzard over Christmas happened. The container with our stuff was stuck at the pier and no truck could come to get it. Since it was holiday time, everything slowed down. We had to wait another week before they could deliver our stuff.

In the end, we spent 3 weeks in an empty apartment. We celebrated Christmas in an empty apartment. And you know what? I was fine. It was a life changing experience. You learn that you really do not need most of the stuff you own. You can make do without them and it will not impact your happiness at all. I can even attest that it increased my happiness.

When the stuff finally came, there was a sigh relief. There were some things we did miss. But since that day, I wonder with everything I own why I own it and why I would want it. Over time, I have gotten rid of 70% of my stuff. It is pretty amazing.

You might ask yourself, how is this different from going camping? It is the same in many ways except one and that this was living a normal life. I still had to get up and go to work. There was no campfire, beautiful view or hike to entertain us. We were not “one with nature”, more like “one with the noisy smelly city” which is not the same. Really.

If you ever get the chance to do this, try it. It is truly life changing. At least, for me it was.

Sensitive ears

Curse of being a part-time audiophile

I call myself a part-time audiophile. An audiophile’s mission is the pursuit of pure sound reproduction and it is never done nor perfect. I am far from like that hence I call myself a part-time audiophile. My motivation stems from a completely different place. My ears are super-sensitive to anomalies. This is how I got into it. I did not get it from my dad or a friend. It is something I fell into by accident. It all started with cassette tapes. They sounded awful to me. There was white hiss in the background and take jank ruining the music. I was around 14 when I started on a mission to fix that problem. I sold my sailboat (true story, no joke) and got a fancy audio system, but I was not pleased with the sound and I brought it back. Instead, I researched and researched for months and dumped all the money into a single cassette recorder. I had hand-me-down speakers and amplifier. I can remember that when I connected the deck, I was blown away by the sound. It made me so happy. I could still hear some jank and some tape hiss, but it was “acceptable” to me. I can even remember that I always bought TDK SA-X tapes because they sounded better. The SA-X was the expensive version of the popular SA. The difference (according to TDK) was that SA-X tapes were selected based on lower manufacturing tolerances than SA. You might take that with a grain of salt, but I was able to hear the difference.

Today, I still have a relatively expensive audio system and I still listen to vinyl and CDs. CDs just sound better than Spotify to me. Before you shout Tidal, I tried Tidal’s HIFI service but I am 100% convinced not all music is available in CD-quality – even if the stream is labeled CD-quality.

So yea here I am. I still have giant speakers in my living room and stereo separates with too many buttons. I still spend money on CDs and records while the rest of the world moved on to smart speakers and streaming services. That is the curse of being an audiophile.

It does make me happy to see there is a renewed interest in proper audio equipment in the (computer) desktop market where people spend good money on headphones, headphone amps, and bookshelf speakers. At least, I am not the only one who thinks that Apple’s Airpods are terrible (sorry, Vlad) for listening to music.

Is it even possible?

Facebook and privacy

You can say whatever you want about Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, if you read his last memo “a privacy-focused vision for social networking” you could deduce he got the message.

I found it particularly interesting that he links privacy not only with keeping information private but also with reducing the reach and breadth of the interactions on the platform. He mentions the trend of creating small groups to interact and share within that group. He compares Facebook today as a town square whereas it used to be a living room. Now nothing he writes is new or revolutionary. This is just what Mark Zuckerberg thinks he needs to communicate to the world. It is not a leaked memo, but a public post by him. But beneath the surface he does understand where Facebook’s problems are.

I think it is good leadership to be able to look critically at your own company and decide things need to change. By doing it in public, he also makes himself and the company accountable. You bet that an army of analysts and journalists will be referencing this post for years to come when Facebook is not making enough progress to make this happen.

What is here today might not be there tomorrow

Checks and balances on new products

Checks and balances on new products

Yesterday, the Jibo robot shut down permanently. It was marketed as a social robot, I never owned one, but it kind of looked like a more engaging version of Alexa.

It reminded me of my Pebble watch and Electric Objects digital art display which are also defunct products (but still in some working order).

Now all of these products have one thing in common and I can live without them. It makes me wary though for products which are essential. My Nest thermostat comes to mind. I know it is owned by Google, but I also know that does not mean anything. Google can still decide to get out the smart home business. Google discontinues products all the time.

It happens with software all the time. I loved Mailbox and then it got bought by Dropbox and then Dropbox dropped it. Again, it was not essential, but it also shows that big corporations change their mind on their priorities all the time.

It is all about trust and investment (time or money). I notice that I started to do a mental check and balances on those things when I am evaluating new products or services. How hard is it move away from this product? How much trust do I have they will continue investing in this product? Will it be around in X years?

Even large corporations with big flagship products can let their products go stale. I have tried using Keynote by Apple, but it crashes on me all the time and I am now staying away. I will not touch their other office products either. It even makes me wary of their other products. That is just a simple example.

Trust and commitment are important. Sometimes it cannot be guaranteed. Either company is young and still need to prove itself or it is a large corporation with conflicting priorities. As technology products become more integral to our life’s, it is good to remind yourself that they might go away.

At some point, you might find that you cannot enter your house because the smart lock company has gone out of business.

Sign of the times

Lack of nuance

In today’s world, there’s a serious lack of nuance. And I wonder where it came from? There’s no nuance in politics, religion, work, or anything really. The problem is that lack of nuance kills debate and sharing of ideas. Lack of nuance makes it impossible to change your mind or leave the door open to counter-arguments. Lack of nuance isolates you with your own arguments and you stop learning.

Maybe it’s because the tone of media changed, with the internet they’ve to create “click-baity” headlines to attract attention or take a firm stance to be taken seriously. Or maybe the media changed because of it.

The world is reduced to black and white blurbs, much like how president Trump likes to communicate. They’re just blurbs concatenated together.

Lack of nuance is definitely a trait of the young. It used to be a sign of lack of maturity, but now it is the new normal.

Fault-tolerant while high-achieving company culture

High standards but forgiving

A culture of a company consists of a few fundamental values which the staff of a company holds dear. Fast-growing companies like startups are very conscious of this aspect of running the company. One of my favorite values I have been championing in the last few years is high standards while forgiving.

With high standards while forgiving I mean that the work ethic should be to get to the absolute best possible result in each circumstance. It is a careful balance between resources and time, but when the outcome is not great you sacrifice time and resources. But at the same time avoid being competition between people and teams.

In my experience, competitive attitudes as part of the culture typically lead to a toxic atmosphere where only competitive types feel somewhat at home. Granted a competitive culture can lead to great results and super high standards, but it doesn’t end up being a very inclusive culture. The non-inclusiveness leads to missed opportunities because these companies tend to be more inward focused than outward. The culture drives people to be more concerned about their position and standing than moving the company forward as a team. In the worst possible scenario, it leads to a super political environment – especially when there is a very authoritarian leader with insecurity issues.

The forgiving part is super important. It fosters inclusiveness towards people and the team. It makes it ok to reject work because it does not meet the high standard without putting the blame on the work. In the end, every person in the company needs to be working as a team to get to the best possible result. Sometimes this means sacrifices because of lack of resources or time. But more importantly, it breeds creative thinking about overcoming shortcomings in resources and time while aiming for that ultimate goal.

I’ve seen this at work at one company and it worked really well. It makes it easy to attract and retain talent, fosters a happy atmosphere in the company and the ultimate team spirit in bringing the very best work. I cannot champion this enough.

Universal law of wide adoption

Everything iterates to lowest denominator

Everything iterates to lowest denominator

Last night, I was pondering a little bit on the social network post of yesterday. One of the interesting aspects is that when something gets wide adoption the quality is reduced to the lowest denominator.

A few examples come to mind:

* broadcast TV with thematic TV shows without a real story
* Idyllic coastal towns with only cheap flashy gift stores and ice cream places
* Facebook with buzzy posts itching for likes
* Malls which are exact copies of generic merchandising stores

It is almost if there is a universal law which stipulates that when something grows in popularity, it reduces the quality of the experience to the lowest possible setting.

Maybe it is just me.

The status game

Social capital and their networks

Social capital and their networks

I regard my blog as my public notebook and one of the things I have not done lately is posting about interesting stuff other people write. I am going to change that and post more notes on great write-ups of others which I want to keep.

Yesterday, Eugene Wei posted a great essay titled Status as a Service (SaaS). It is a super interesting take on social networks and the indicators on how they become successful or not. Here are some interesting tidbits:

“The creation of a successful status game is so mysterious that it often smacks of alchemy. For that reason, entrepreneurs who succeed in this space are thought of us a sort of shaman, perhaps because most investors are middle-aged white men who are already so high status they haven’t the first idea why people would seek virtual status (more on that later).”

“How is a new social network analogous to an ICO?

1. Each new social network issues a new form of social capital, a token.
2. You must show proof of work to earn the token.
3. Over time it becomes harder and harder to mine new tokens on each social network, creating built-in scarcity.
4. Many people, especially older folks, scoff at both social networks and cryptocurrencies. ”

“Read Twitter today and hardly any of the tweets are the mundane life updates of its awkward pre-puberty years. We are now in late-stage performative Twitter, where nearly every tweet is hungry as hell for favorites and retweets, and everyone is a trained pundit or comedian.”

“Thirst for status is potential energy. It is the lifeblood of a Status as a Service business. To succeed at carving out unique space in the market, social networks offer their own unique form of status token, earned through some distinctive proof of work.”

“If a person posts something interesting to a platform, how quickly do they gain likes and comments and reactions and followers? The second tenet is that people seek out the most efficient path to maximize their social capital. To do so, they must have a sense for how different strategies vary in effectiveness. Most humans seem to excel at this.”

“By merging all updates from all the accounts you followed into a single continuous surface and having that serve as the default screen, Facebook News Feed simultaneously increased the efficiency of distribution of new posts and pitted all such posts against each other in what was effectively a single giant attention arena, complete with live updating scoreboards on each post. ”

“It’s difficult to overstate what a momentous sea change it was for hundreds of millions, and eventually billions, of humans who had grown up competing for status in small tribes, to suddenly be dropped into a talent show competing against EVERY PERSON THEY HAD EVER MET.”

“Remember, status derives value from some type of scarcity. What is the one fundamental scarcity in the age of abundance? User attention. The launch of an algorithmic feed raises the stakes of the social media game.”

“One of the common traps is the winner’s curse for social media. If a social network achieves enough success, it grows to a size that requires the imposition of an algorithmic feed in order to maintain high signal-to-noise for most of its users. It’s akin to the Fed trying to manage inflation by raising interest rates.”

“Social network effects are different. If you’ve lived in New York City, you’ve likely seen, over and over, night clubs which are so hot for months suddenly go out of business just a short while later. Many types of social capital have qualities which render them fragile. Status relies on coordinated consensus to define the scarcity that determines its value. Consensus can shift in an instant. Recall the friend in Swingers, who, at every crowded LA party, quips, “This place is dead anyway.” Or recall the wise words of noted sociologist Groucho Marx: “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.””

“Many will say, especially Snapchat itself, that it has been the anti-Facebook all along. Because it has no likes, it liberates people from destructive status games. To believe that is to underestimate the ingenuity of humanity in its ability to weaponize any network for status games.”

“Video games illuminate the proof of work cycle better than almost any category, it is the drosophila of this type of analysis given its rapid life cycle and overt skill-versus-reward tradeoffs. Why is it, for example, that big hit games tend to have a life cycle of about 18 months?”

“A franchise like, say, Call of Duty, learns to manage this cycle by investing hundreds of millions of dollars to issue a new version of the game every regularly. Each game offers familiarity but a new set of levels and challenges and environments. It’s the circle of life.”

It is interesting he does not mention Fortnite. Fornite is breaking convention by continuously reinventing itself. They have seasons which form a cadence to introduce new elements to the game to keep it fresh. They took the best elements of games like Clash of Clans and Clash Royale and iterate on it. I think Fortnite is potentially a great example of a new type of social network. Time will tell if Epic Games can keep it up and for how long.

The quotes above do not do the essay justice. If you are interested, I encourage to read it.

Keep every one in the loop

Updating stakeholders

Updating stakeholders

Marc Barros (founder of Moment and Contour) wrote an interesting post the other day about writing business updates. He makes a great case for not doing investor updates but use business updates. I have seen quite a few investor updates and he hits the mark they are too much forward-looking and less about how the company is doing today.

I always feel that investor updates are about where you wanted to be today, but have not gotten there yet while it gives not enough info about how the business is doing and the reason for where it is today. I think that many entrepreneurs feel like it is too much like a report card and with our optimistic attitude, we tend to think in the future where we want to go. But many decisions on direction are embedded from what you have learned and what you need to improve.

The audience of the business update is every stakeholder. This is important because as a leader you need to align everyone towards a common goal. A business update helps with that. It is information they can act on and use.

It might be subtle but I also like that he writes that sending it on Sunday 4pm achieves the highest open rate, but does not necessarily means writing it on Sunday. Everyone needs down time and it is healthy. Every entrepreneur works 24/7 when necessary, there is never a doubt about that, but you also have a family and friends. Without their support, you will not get anywhere and this means that for some people like me Sunday is for family.

Keeping everyone in the loop and marching in the same direction is a challenge. Especially if you consider that you simply do not have the time to sit down and interact with everyone on a regular basis. Business updates are a great way to do it while creating an archive for new people to read through when they come on board.

Accelerating innovation

Thesis: open source becomes new type of industry standard

Thesis: open source becomes new type of industry standard

The most successful and widespread technologies in the physical sense are industry standards like wifi and usb. There are similar standards in the software world like html, css and js. The driving force behind the success of these standards is the wide adoption and the ubiquitousness of the technology.

In the software world, the closest we have come to standards are standards on communication protocols and presentation specifications. But I see the first shimmers of standardized software with open source. Open source was born out of developers and academics fixing their own problems and sharing it with the world, but that has changed.

One eye-catching project is chromium. Chromium is the open source part of the Chrome web browser started by Google. But the project has slowly been adopted by other vendors and now Microsoft joins the club. Chromium can already be considered the industry standard browser through the popularity of Chrome, but many others are using it too as the basis for their web browser solutions. The industry actively collaborates together on the common elements and then mold it into a version of their own.

This is great progress. Some may lament that besides Firefox there is no competition on the market of web browsers. While this is true, industry standards have a way of moving the world forward as a whole and saving us from a lot of problems with incompatibility. Today, there is a whole service industry to deal with cross-browser incompatibilities. Not sure if that is so much better.

The biggest threat I see is that the browser becomes a commoditized second-rate citizen while everyone else focuses on native applications. This is a possible end-state in the future. Today, it saves a lot of engineering work and improves the customer experience, but there is no guarantee development will become stale. It is certainly a risk, but that risk is outweighed by the benefits today of having a standard.

Something similar happened to the Linux kernel. Even though it started out as a volunteer project, most contributions today are made by company staff. The Linux kernel has saved us from a lot of duplicated engineering and set the standard for operating systems. There is no real competitor in the mobile/small device space. It enabled standardization of hardware platforms which led to the commoditization of those platforms. This brought down the cost and that drives a lot of the innovation we are seeing today.

I can see this happening more foten. Standards are great for pushing technology forward and with open source as a collaboration method for the technology industry, we can push it forward even faster.