Relationships Are Priceless Transactions

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Arturo was a smart guy. He didn’t have many teeth left, but he eyes were bright and quick, his collared shirt clean and pressed, and his pantomimes of art history happenings more exuberant than anything I’d ever done sober. We had run into him at a museum in Mexico City, and he proceeded to walk us through every single aspect of Diego Riviera’s intricate murals. Our encounter encompassed almost two hours, 5 murals, and several conversations about both parties’ personal lives.

When it came time for us to leave, I held my breath and braced myself for the supplication that had been a foregone conclusion in the back of my mind from the moment Arturo started talking: “How much money is he going to ask us for in return?”

Thankfully, it never came. Arturo bid us goodbye with nothing more than a smile and a wave, and my faith in humanity was restored ever so slightly.

Yet the encounter remains poisoned in my memory due to the  suspicion I had harbored during the whole exchange. I expected him to demand money from us  because he had shared his time and knowledge with us, because he didn’t look well-off, and because, well, this was Mexico. Western travelers are used to shrugging off persistent pleas for alms or purchases at the numerous tchotchke shacks that line every tourist attraction in the developing world. It’s easy to shrug off the fusillade of begging when presented at you all at once, and as long as you speak firmly and don’t dally, such vendors usually give up and leave you alone.

But it’s harder to deal with the seemingly friendly local encounters that reveal themselves as scams designed to bring out your wallet rather than your goodwill. Like the man in Bulgaria who struck up conversation with us in the street only to foist the business cards of his gentleman’s club on us five minutes in. Or the Thai peddler who let my friend carry his bag on a stick for a block, only to turn around and demand payment for the privilege. Or the elderly Moroccan man who found me wandering lost in the medina of Tangiers and accompanied me to my intended destination amidst friendly conversation, only to sink to his knees upon arrival and beg for coffee money.

Such interactions are intrinsically disappointing, but what’s worse is that they poison the few legitimate relationships I happen upon (like Arturo) with suspicion and doubt. I cannot be sure of a stranger’s intentions in the Third World, but I’m usually not far off the mark when I guess them to be fiduciary.

And this is a terrible shame. I view all relationships as transactional – in any friendship things are being freely given and taken by both parties. Solidarity, a partner in crime, common interest, or just someone to talk to – these are all common things in the friendship marketplace. But what makes it magical is the lack of money exchanged for such services. You’re not friends with someone because they pay you to be – you’re friends with them because you like them and get just as much out of the relationship as they do. Accordingly, you give them little bonuses, like picking up their lunch here, offering a couch to crash on there, or a shoulder to lean on in times of need. These are starkly priced commodities outside of friendships (look at restaurants, hotels, and psychiatrists, respectively), but on the inside they are unspoken guarantees.

Romantic relationships have even more give-and-take going on, since they provide vitally important things to each party. That’s why they’re so much harder – so much is being given and taken that sometimes the balances are uneven, or one person comes in looking for something that the other is not willing to offer. And they provide an even more obvious distinction between organic and inorganic offerings – you can’t hire somebody to be your girlfriend; it becomes a completely different relationship at that point

This trust and goodwill is often absent when rich travelers come to developing counties, sadly. Certainly you can find authentic friends in such places – if you stick around and invest in the community with an open heart, there’s always true friends to be had. But on the street, when you only have a few days in the city, they see you as nothing more than a big walking dollar sign, and thus you come to see them as nothing more than greedy scavengers. Human interaction is transformed into a soulless accounts payable spreadsheet, and the joy of connecting with fellow humanity is lost, to the detriment of all involved

But who am I to condemn these opportunists? They’re never asking for more than what I would spend cavalierly on a candy bar at the gas station back home. That paltry sum is worth far more to them than it is to me, as it probably comprises the majority of their daily income. By refusing to play their game I may be shirking them of the daily bread, and the only cost to me is a few moments of annoyance along with a dollar or two. Shouldn’t I acquiesce to their demands and brighten their bland lives that short bit? Yet by doing so I reinforce their addiction, and the next hapless traveller to come this way will get set upon just as vociferously. Most importantly, I contribute towards degrading human kindness into commodity bartering.

This is why I detest the American policy of tipping. I shouldn’t have to pay you extra in order to receive my food or beer without hassle – the cost of the delivery of the product should be part of the product itself. It’s not like we’re shipping it across the country. By separating it, every nuance of my interaction with the waiter/waitress is now part of the balance sheet, and any kindness on their part becomes inauthentic, as it is now a calculated business decision. But that’s an entirely different blog post.

I still haven’t come up with a good answer to the question of whether to enable such commodification of human interaction abroad (or here, amidst homeless beggars who are just as grateful for a dollar). It makes me treasure the authentic friendships and interactions I have with others all the more, no matter where I am. Meaningful connection with other humans is possibly the most important and rewarding part of life, and thus it should remain sacred.

Photo from Greg Younger

Weekly Review #48: Startup School, @thinker on blog startups, and content toolkits

I attended half of Y Combinator’s Startup School Silicon Valley event this week, which was an accurate portrayal of the Hacker News crowd in real life. Very few blonds, lots of Russian and Chinese last names, mediocre social skills but all working on something awesome. Here’s some talk summaries:

Danae Ringelmann, founder of Indiegogo

  • Figure out the Why behind your project, as it attracts like minded cofounders, removes your ego, gets you through the tough years, and allows you to refine you strategy (similar to Simon Sinek’s mission)
  • Use the 5 Whys exercise – ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing 5 times, ending on a basic belief you hold. The last answer should be “Because I believe X”
  • Diversity is super important because without it everyone thinks the same and you cannot innovate
  • To build your culture and values, ask the early employees why they work there. Their answers determine culture.

 Kevin Systrom, founder of Instagram

  • Built ‘Treelist’ Craigslist competitor at Stanford – pretty sure a college student has this startup idea every year, to connect seller students with buying students
  • Built it while studying abroad in Florence, which helped because he didn’t have to see all the bad responses in person
  • Was able to have a successful launch because of a stellar network built over years. Then he just sent Instagram to everyone he knew saying: ”Hey can you use this thing and maybe tweet it if you like it”

 Reid Hoffman, founder of Linkedin

  • Game changing companies are usually funded when capital is tight, because there’s less competition
  • Raising too much money in Series A is a recipe for disaster, it makes you overconfident and feel like you have time/cash to spare when you do not. Track record for these companies is bad.
  • He asked all smart friends what they thought about his idea at first, and they said it was dumb, which is fine. You just have to know why they think it is dumb, and then address that issue. (With Linkedin was lack of initial value, without people)
  • He thinks that the fact that everyone has a phone remains underexploited
  • Key nuance of Peter Thiel’s infamous question is: against which audience?
  • Against Silicon Valley, he believes government is important, as its the platform we’re all on. We’re like fish saying that the aquarium water we’re in doesn’t matter. Somebody needs to optimize it better.
  • Entrepreneurship is facilitated by dense connections like those of Y Combinator
 I also sat down with a few smart SF denizens, namely Andrew Chen (who had enough advice to warrant a blog post) and Nick Frost, Mattermark’s BizDev guy and the founder of StartupList. He said:
  • There are 2 things to do with every startup idea- customer development, and things that don’t scale. That’s how you get to the next stage of growth.
  • He built StartupList from his tent in Afghanistan, and jumpstarted a strong network as a result, allowing him to move right into the Valley.
  • Find a niche market underserved by content and build THE platform for people to connect there. Bam, you’re an expert – now find sponsors, and you’ve got a business.
  • Many startups started like that – as blogs or newsletters
  • There are so many digests along those lines now that there could be value in cultivating a digest of digests
  • Look for ways to ‘increase your personal gravity’ – things that make others join your orbit. This is done through creating stuff that other people like – social media, business, content. Kinda like a personal brand.
  • His personal mission is to create environments for people to thrive in – what’s yours?

Nifty startups: Kitestring, which texts you to make sure you’re okay and will alert friends if you don’t respond, Downtyme, which cross-checks your friends’ schedules to find mutual free time, and Point, which lets you share specific parts of webpages super easily, and Trippy, a sort of Quora for travel questions. There’s definitely still a need for a smart personal scheduling app out there, and while the sharing space is over saturated, I’ve always wanted something that would almost automatically send the cool stuff I see to the people I know who’d like it.

Resources: SumoMe, with free traffic-growth tools that work on any website, Course Report, which helps you choose which coding bootcamp is the best fit, QuickSprout’s Content Marketer Toolkit, and the Lifehacker’s Best Of How We Work 2014. San Francisco’s Hill Mapper map is also helpful.

Blog posts: Scott Britton on getting a startup job – the best tactic is to do the job before you are hired. Serious Pony warns of the dangers of willpower depletion as a result of all these push notifications. And Psychology Today’s data on what makes marriages work remains as timeless as ever.

I find the Curators Code a novel experiment in today’s internet, where the curator matters almost as much as the creator. New symbols can’t be the right answer – surely there is a tech solution here where you can mouse over links and see where they came from?

Fun video of the week: French hobbyists races tiny drones through forests in first person view mode, which ends up looking just like the the Endor speeder chase from Star Wars.

Andrew Chen on Job Searching Like a Founder

I recently had the good fortune to chat with Andrew Chen, he of viral startup marketing fame. We took a power walk through downtown SF while talking career advice, with me struggling to keep up. The man walks as fast as he talks, (very fast!) which should be no surprise given his prodigious body of writing.

He cut to the heart of my job search by asking “Where are you trying to be in 20 years?” I admitted that the logical conclusion of my startup love was to start one myself someday, even if now was not the time. Thus, the rest of Andrew’s advice was geared towards building a career that facilitated that goal. After listening raptly, I rushed to take notes, know it would make a perfect “How to Find Your Next Job Like a Founder” blog post, and so here we go:

Think Like an Investor

Taking a job is like investing in yourself in a company. Beyond the simple paycheck – it also determines things like future job experience, professional network, and career trajectory. You can’t compare this investment to finance, where you invest money and reap dividends off of a single metric. And you can only work one full-time job at a time, so it’s not like a stock portfolio where you can diversify your holdings among multiple options. Investing yourself in something is far more difficult, and important than investing your money. You need to choose wisely.

You Can’t Pick Companies Well

Continuing the stock investment analogy, you’re not going to hire a novice portfolio manager to take care of your finances. You look for someone who knows the landscape, has seen a few cycles come and go, and is able to make an informed decision concerning who is the best choice, backed up with reasons why.

A job search is just as fraught with deceptive promises and a tumultuous landscape, and you can’t hire someone to do it for you. Recruiters, family members, and everyone else have their own vested interests in where you end up – only you know exactly what you’re looking for. And you are an uninformed picker. You’re not an informed chooser – all you’ve got to work off of is what you’ve heard from the public, what the company website claims, and (hopefully) input from friendly employees.

One needs to do some serious research into options while soliciting advice from varied sources because they can make a confident choice as to what is really the next best step for them. Andrew noted that if I had come to him with a ranked list of the top 20 companies with current hockey stick growth and reasons why they’re A) appealing to me and B) growing sustainably, then he could trust my decision. But as it is, I’m working off of a few weeks of online guessworks and executive opinion.

The Best Teams are Obvious

I brought up some companies I was excited about, citing personal beliefs in their product and smart teams ripe for learning. Andrew shot back, asking “How do you know they’re smart? They’re not one of the hockey stick growth companies that everyone is talking about right now (Uber, Airbnb, etc), which is where all the best talent is heading. There’s a reason why their startup isn’t the talk of the town.”  Look at objective company results, not at your subjective opinions of the team.

(I’m unsure if I’m completely swayed by this particular argument, since market expectations can falsely pump up companies, and just because a good idea isn’t one of the top 5 doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. But it is important to distinguish between objective and subjective.)

Establish Credibility First

Andrew pointed out that neither of us are Stanford CS majors. That’s who venture capitalists are looking for. It’s a checkmark on their resume that says they’re one of the least riskiest options for investment. Since we lack that qualification, we need to to look for other ways to establish personal credibility in order to get a foot in the proverbial door (here, it’s a literal ‘close the round of funding’).

The best way to do that as a new grad is to join one of the aforementioned hockey stick growth companies. Andrew mentioned a friend of his who was something like the 100th employee at Facebook and spoke at a small conference. His Powerpoint sub header (chosen by the conference) was ‘early hire at Facebook’. Ten years later, that header remains his primary indication of expertise. It may actually be the best indication of expertise, but this is the way the world works, and there’s no doubt all the early hires at a company like that learned a ton.

Establishing credibility is critical if you’re trying to raise money, but it’s good to have no matter what you end up doing. Andrew noted that if I was trying to be a venture capitalist, his advice would be different, though credibility still would factor into it. (He cold called Mohr Davidow every week for four months after college in order to win a year long unpaid internship, finally culminating in a actual job there) Credibility gives you optionality – regardless of whether you end up taking those options.

I brought up the Clinkle founder as a counter example to this (a VC’s wet dream whose company isn’t doing well) and he stood firm, noting that Lucas Duplan and any Clinkle alum are bulletproof, because they somehow retain that credibility, bolstered now by the lessons of failure.

Optimize For the Long Run

This is bitter medicine to take for a rosy-eyed young startup romantic like myself, but it’s hard to argue with the long term results. Just look at his sister Ada Chen, whose Linkedin profile reads like a textbook execution of this strategy. There’s no guarantee here, but this method minimizes risks while maximizing probable reward. Taking any other course may be the right path for you, but it’s not the objectively strongest option.

Andrew brought up the story of his friend who got dumped by a long term girlfriend and spend a few weeks despairing. Then he got into online dating, and realized that his old girlfriend was at best an average partner for his needs. We’re so used to optimizing locally, based off of what is available, instead of the absolute best option, which may not be immediately visible. Zoom out, and look at things from a birds-eye long-term perspective as an informed observer. Only then are you qualified to make the best possible choice.

Big thanks to Andrew for taking the time to sit down with this young grasshopper, and to Tom Bedecarre for connecting us.

Weekly Review #47: @lleung on content, startups worse than having kids, and best questions for the first date

I sat down with Leo Leung, CMO of Scality, who had several poignant points to make:

  • Content marketing is not about what our product is, but what it can do. You talk about related subjects, and where things are moving towards, the problems you face and how you confront them.
  • Existing marketing tools are still not all that good today (Even though there are tons and tons of them!)
  • Content Marketers make the customer buying cycle as easy as possible – even before the sales funnel. You’re not convincing them, you’re making them aware of you and what you can offer.
  • Scality isn’t just for enterprises, it’s for anybody with a ton of data. And everybody has lots of data these days.
  • Saas is just a buzzword for ‘hosted applications’
  • Product management has all the responsibility without the authority, and thus is relatively thankless.
 Somebody packaged the Stanford class How to Start a Startup as an Online Class, complete with progress reports and the like. Paul Graham published a new essay as part of that class - Before the Startup, packed with solid advice. Choose the right people over anything else, realize you don’t need to know what you’re doing and that there’s no ‘trick’ to win, and that startups are all consuming.

Starting a successful startup is similar to having kids in that it’s like a button you push that changes your life irrevocably. And while it’s truly wonderful having kids, there are a lot of things that are easier to do before you have them than after. Many of which will make you a better parent when you do have kids. And since you can delay pushing the button for a while, most people in rich countries do. Yet when it comes to startups, a lot of people seem to think they’re supposed to start them while they’re still in college. Are you crazy? And what are the universities thinking? They go out of their way to ensure their students are well supplied with contraceptives, and yet they’re setting up entrepreneurship programs and startup incubators left and right.

Gregory Ciotti pens a stellar blog I just discovered – his posts on Cultivating Knowledge vs Consuming Content and Hiring a Content Marketer are standouts.  (Is it just me, or do I fit all three of those Venn diagram circles in the field of tech marketing?)

Some handy tools this week – the Impossibility Domain Name Generator will add adjectives to your noun and check if the domain is available, the Get Honey Badger extension will tell you who owns the website and how their traffic is doing, and the Visa Machine will take care of all the paperwork behind you upcoming international trip for you, for a nominal fee. Tentsile sells a triangular tent that is suspended in the air, which prevents many normal tent problems. And the Good2Go app makes sure both partners are consensual before any hanky panky – although I doubt anyone would go through all that tapping in real life. It’s a good example of something that makes sense in legalese but is completely impractical.OkCupid’s blog post on the Best Questions for a First Date is enlightening. Apparently your taste for beer is correlated with willingness to have sex on the first date, and the best indicators for long term relationship success rely on the partners agreeing on the following three responses:

  • Do you like horror movies?
  • Have you ever traveled around another country alone?
  • Wouldn’t it be fun to chuck it all and go live on a sailboat?
I NEED to mention the extension that’s filled job hunting quest with giggles -  Butt to Butt Plus. All it does it change ‘butt’ to ‘butt’ and ‘my butt’ to ‘my butt’ anywhere on the web. For anyone in tech who sees this buzzword everywhere, this is a  must download – you forget about it then break out laughing when some serious company page starts talking about ‘Secure Storage in My Butt’. We need a ‘disrupt’ version!

And here’s a dose of stellar fiction to finish off – Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge is considered one of the best short stories of all time, and was a very worthy use of ten minutes for me.

Learn A Language for Your Next Best Friend, Not Your Boss

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There’s a Freakonomics podcast which attempts to determine whether the massive chunk of time Americans spend learning foreign languages in public schools is a worthwhile investment. Stephen Dubner juxtaposes optimistic elementary schoolers who think Spanish will help them become millionaires alongside a lighthearted Spanish professor’s findings that the economic impact of a new language is nil in most cases. And Bryan Caplan highlights the opportunity cost of a new tongue, noting that many Americans aren’t even literate or numerate in English yet.

It is surprising to see exactly how unhelpful it is to learn another language. Even the Economist’s breakdown of exactly how much each Romance language would net you over a lifetime with compounded interest doesn’t make a compelling case to those trying to pull their kids out of language classes. It does highlight the fact that the less common languages earn you more, as the native Spanish speakers in America render your halting Spanish moot in a job hunt. You’re better off learning German, statistically speaking.

But both the Economist and Dubner are missing something. They are viewing the world through an economist’s eyes, where money and marketable job skills are the only things that matter. When the discussion is centered around American public school requirements (and its accompanying taxpayer costs) then this view is justified. General education requirements aside, I think we can agree that the function of public school should be to provide students with the ability to earn a living (which it currently does not, but that’s a different post).

Al-Bab is the only blog I’ve seen that comes close, in an interview with a British diplomat at the Egyptian embassy. He notes that it is not his Arabic knowledge that lets him excel at his job, (as his important interviews are conducted in English), but rather the fact that he has tried to learn it. Locals see that he has spent hours attempting to learn their language, and that goes a long way towards respect and mutual understanding, no matter how paltry the vocabulary may be. That is the reason to learn a language; not for the economic payoff but for the life understanding that comes with it.

Learning a second language is NOT about earning a living. You can do that fine in one language. Instead, it is about making connections with other humans. Nelson Mandela said it best: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”  You wield a new way of conveying your thoughts to others, and this changes the very nature of how your brain interprets the world, while at the same time letting you connect with millions of new people. While these may not be valuable skills in the global marketplace, they are very valuable skills to have in the globe itself.

You only get one life to live, so why not make the most of it? If you accept that rationale, then learning a language is one of the single best things to do in order to carpe the hell out of diem. A new language fundamentally changes the way you form thoughts and enunciate them into words, as well as the way you process identical sensory inputs – in effect transforming the very world around you. As one example of many, Germans think of bridges as elegant while Spanish think of them as sturdy, due to their respective grammatical genders.

If ‘the world is a book, while those who don’t travel read only one page is an apt metaphor, then let me extend it further: The world is a story, and monolinguists have only heard one version of it.

Just as movies are never carbon copies of the books they’re based on, an official press release is not the same as the eyewitness accounts, nor is the published version the same as a fireside retelling, and so forth. Different languages allow you to approach the same story that the world gives you from different angles. When you only have one shot at hearing that story, don’t you want to hear as much of it as you can?

The static world is one thing, but the living characters inhabiting it are unique multifaceted entities, each with their own story to tell. Any seasoned traveler has noticed that while the ancient architecture, breathtaking vistas, and alien landscape are enjoyable parts of a journey, it is the people you meet on the road who make travel truly special. From the differences between their culture and yours to the personal quirks they sport, it is the people who stand out in my memory far more prominently than the places they inhabit.

And while the life of a traveler is not the same as that of the homebody, many of the truths learned on the road apply at home. It is my firm belief that the above maxim learned on the road (paraphrased as, “It’s about people, stupid”) is one of the best examples of this. Traveling is about people. Home means people more than place. Life is about people. Meaningful relationships, shared laughs, and quality time spent with living, breathing people.

And how are you going to connect with people if you can’t understand them? Not only will you win more hearts with another language, but you’ll gain a greater connection and empathy with the way they see the world, rather than getting your own version of reality parroted back at you. It forces you to think about what you’re saying, instead of just opening your mouth and letting words come out naturally. Indeed, researchers found that people speaking in a second language make less emotional decisions, even with personal preferences controlled.

My own forays into languages other than English have gifted me countless moments of the kind that make life worth living. From my excitement when I finally dreamed in Spanish, to the laughs I’ve shared with Brazilian friends over my mangling of Portuguese words, to simple translations like Turkish’s take on “I’m all grown up” coming out as “I’m as big as a donkey”, my knowledge of other languages has enriched my life in ways that could never be measured on an economist’s line graph. Standardized testing doesn’t measure this stuff – you can’t tie a line between knowledge and joy as neatly  as you can between knowledge and money, but that doesn’t mean the former should be neglected.

Learn a new language for the friends you have yet to meet who speak it. Learn a new language for a new way of processing the world. Learn a new language for yourself. And who knows – there’s always a chance it’ll come in handy at work someday.