[VIC – 84] Name your own price. AI rockstars. A successful day. I’m a noob!

Business & Money

Most in the tech media spend all their time writing about Google, Facebook, Amazon, and a handful of other tech darlings (not to mention the ones shrouded in controversy, a la Uber, Theranos, etc). Unbeknownst to many, there’s another tech juggernaut that rarely gets any Love. Priceline was founded in 1997 before the internet boom of the early 2000s and made its name on the “make your own price” commercials. Then when everything went bust in 2001 the company’s market value shrank to $130 million. Since then the stock has grown more than 30,000 percent and earnings have risen at a compound annual rate of 42%. That’s faster than Apple, Amazon, Google, and Netflix.
What’s even more interesting is the company’s history of deal-making. Over time they’ve acquired Kayak, OpenTable, Booking.com, and others. Booking.com happens to be the largest hotel accommodation site in the world and perhaps one of the best acquisitions ever.
What’s more, Priceline might be the largest competitor to Airbnb, one of Silicon Valley’s sweet hearts. In 2016 Priceline listed over half-a-million “alternative accommodations” (privately owned homes, apartments, etc) while Airbnb listed 3 million. While that’s only about a sixth of listing volume, Priceline has an advantage if you consider the entire travel experience. You can book your flight, hotel, and make a dinner reservation, all in one place. Airbnb has recently launched its own experiences brand but we’ve only heard rumors about flights and other travel services.
And remember what I wrote about last week, this is another one of those platform businesses with strong network effects.

Human Progress

With so much hype about AI these days, it can be hard to separate the signal from the noise. As such, I tend to skip over AI pieces from main stream media outlets in favor of research and content from deep domain experts. I’ve been asked a bunch of times for recommendations on who to follow, so I thought I would share a few here.
Fei Fei Li is a computer science professor at Stanford where she leads both the AI lab and vision lab. She’s a rockstar in computer vision and played a key role in the creation of ImageNet.
Andrew Ng was chief scientist at Baidu, did a stint leading the AI lab at Stanford, was the original lead on the Google Brain team, and oh yea, also co-founded Coursera. No big deal.
Yann LeCun is the director of AI research at Facebook. Given that data, actually boat loads of data, is required to build effective machine learning models, it’s no wonder that Yann and his team at Facebook are among the best.

Philosophy

Over the last few years, I’ve been constantly working on a list of questions that define a successful day. If I can answer yes to each question on the list, I’m in good shape. Of course, there will be days where I fall short, but the idea is to have more good ones than bad. Here is the list in its current form:
Did I work on my physical fitness?
Did I work on my mental fitness?
Did I make progress towards my goals, however small?
Was I proactive with my time and energy?
When thinking about the important people in my life, did I do something to make one or more of them smile?

My Latest Discovery

I’m such a noob when it comes to travel. Here are two examples:
I just signed up for TSA pre-check. It’s awesome! No lines. I can keep my shoes on. No need to remove my computer. Game changer!
I just realized that you don’t need a specialty credit card that’s associated with a specific airline to sign up for their frequent flyer programs. I’ve been missing out on soooo many miles!!

Platform businesses with network effects. Musk vs Zuckerberg. Subatomic particles. Duo neck pillow.

Business & Money

In looking at my investment portfolio, I noticed that nearly all of my holdings are platform businesses with strong network effects.
I define a platform business as one that creates more value for the businesses built on top of it than the platform business captures itself. Take Amazon for example. If you add up the value of all of the businesses that sell their products via the Amazon marketplace and leverage their fulfillment services, that would be a much larger number than Amazon’s market cap.
Network effects occur when the value of the network increases as more participants join. Take Apple. As more people use iPhones, more developers are incentivized to build apps for iOS. As more apps are available in the app store, more users are incentivized to join the platform.
If you look at the most valuable public companies in the world by market cap, 7 of the top 10 are platform business with strong network effects (AAPL, GOOGL, MSFT, FB, AMZN, BABA, TCEHY). This might be the most powerful business model in existence.
The latest addition to my portfolio is Teladoc (TDOC). It is a telehealth company that provides on-demand medical services via mobile devices. If you think about many of your doctor’s appointments, there’s no reason that they couldn’t have happened via video chat from your iPhone. Right now, TDOC is a B2B2C (business-to-business-to-consumer) service in that they sell to companies, and the companies, in turn, offer the service to employees as part of a benefits package. But I see no reason they can’t enter the B2C channel directly.
And healthcare is perfect for a platform business with network effects. You have providers and patients that come together to form the perfect marketplace. With more providers, the service is better for patients and vice versa. And due to the regulatory environment, this could be a winner take all market where the first to scale takes the lion’s share of the profits leaving a long tail of companies to fight over the scraps.

Human Progress

In reading business and technology news these days, you’d be hard pressed to avoid pieces on artificial intelligence and automation. Still, it’s not every day that two tech luminaries way in on the subject and get into a twitter spat more common of Donald Trump or a couple of c-list celebrities.
When asked about Elon Musk’s warnings about the existential threat posed by AI, Mark Zuckerberg replied with “I have pretty strong opinions on this. I am optimistic. And I think people who are naysayers and try to drum up these doomsday scenarios — I just, I don’t understand it. It’s really negative and in some ways I actually think it is pretty irresponsible.”
Then Musk fired back with this gem.

As funny as this is, our time is probably better spent thinking about the real implications of AI. Without trying to guess about specific future scenarios, the general possibilities might look like the following:
1. AI is caught up in the hype cycle. We’ll continue to get better search results, more personalized Facebook feeds, and even robot radiologist that can read x-rays and CT scans better than a human. That said, to say AI poses an existential threat to human civilization is simply an exaggeration and overly pessimistic.
2. AI will be massively beneficial. Human productivity and industry will see incredible gains due to the automation of boring and repetitive work. Entire industries will be transformed as the rate and efficiency of production explodes. While these things are clearly positive, there will likely be large sections of the population that see unprecedented changes to their lifestyle and ability to make a living.
3. Take number 2 to the extreme. The AI explosion will lead to superintelligent machines and there will be no more jobs left for humans to do. Best case we become cyborgs completely integrated with technology. Worst case, we become paperclips.
Something akin to number 2 seems to be the most likely scenario. But however things end up, it will be important to ensure that the gains of this technology are appropriately distributed across society and that negative externalities are minimized. We’ll need to ensure that all groups (political, racial, economic, etc) are at the table and engaged in thoughtful conversation.

Philosophy

In quantum mechanics (the study of the motion and interaction of subatomic particles), you are never sure of a particle’s specific location. Instead, you can only calculate the probability of the particle’s position at a given time.
I find this idea to be extremely elegant and one that should be applied to other areas and not just this specific domain.
Much of life seems to exist in polarities. It’s hard for some people to conceptualize being transgendered because they have only ever understood male and female. People identify as democrat or republican. A statement is either true or false.
If the very foundation of matter and reality is imprecise, we as human beings would be well served to understand that idea and think in those terms more broadly.

My Latest Discovery

A friend recently told me about the Duo travel pillow. If you travel a lot for business or pleasure, this is a must add to your travel accessories.

[VIC – 79] WIFI. Crisis Text Line. 📖 vs 💻. StashInvest.

Business & Money: WIFI

A friend and I were recently talking stocks and he asked me what pick I was most excited about right now. I answered with Boingo Wireless (ticker WIFI). Here are my reasons:

While smartphone growth in terms of total subscribers has slowed substantially in recent years, mobile data is exploding. People are spending more time than ever on smartphones and the growth shows no signs of abating.

And much of that time is now spent consuming mobile video. Video is far more intensive on the network then text, images, or audio.

Mobile networks were not built with this deluge in mind. As a result, most of the growth will be handled by WiFi and DAS (distributed antenna systems). Roughly 80% of mobile data consumption happens on WiFi.
The big wireless carriers are engaged in a race to the bottom. All are launching unlimited data plans due to consumer demand, which is putting serious strains on margins. Simultaneously, in order to acquire customers, they are rapidly reducing pricing and offering ridiculous promotions like a free year of service if you switch providers.

Given all of the above, Boingo seems positioned perfectly. They are partnering with the cell providers which allows the providers to automatically offload capacity to DAS (Boingo is one of the leading providers). They’re also building out DAS at strategic locations like airports, stadiums, military bases, and the like. And these contracts are all 10+ years in duration. That’s predictable revenue if ever seen it! Take a look at their latest investor deck if you’re curious.

The primary risk I see comes from carrier competition. Theoretically, carriers could choose not to partner with Boingo in favor of building DAS infrastructure themselves. But this seems unlikely because 1) building DAS is altogether different than building wireless networks. 2) Margins are already under a ton of pressure making this level of capital investment hard to swallow. 3) Cell companies are too busy trying to become content/media companies.

Human Progress: Crisis Text Line

All of the AI applications that you read about in the media reside in the for-profit realm. You have silicon valley and Detroit battling it out in self-driving cars. The big tech companies fighting for supremacy in voice assistants. Everyone trying to figure out how to use AI & ML to add real value to the bottom line.

Less publicized are applications in the nonprofit world. One such example involves Nancy Lublin and one of her nonprofits called Crisis Text Line. The organization provides relief to those in crisis via text messaging. How is AI relevant here you ask?
It turns out that people in crisis use certain trigger words in their messages that might reveal how likely they are to harm themselves. What are the first words that come to mind that might signify a suicide risk? Perhaps, death, die, suicide. That’s exactly what I thought too. After feeding all of the text messages into a database with the associated outcomes, then running a machine learning algorithm over all the data, it turns out we were wrong. Words like Tylenol, ibuprofen, and a crying face emoji were far more likely to lead to a suicide attempt than words like die or suicide.

Check out Nancy’s story in a recent episode of the Masters of Scale podcast from Reid Hoffman.

Philosophy: Books vs blogs

There’s an epic battle playing out in my psyche and I thought I would let you in on the mayhem.

In the right corner wearing the blue gloves we have books. I love books. They allow you to dive deep on a subject or story and require a certain level of sustained attention. It’s a kind of commitment to inquiry, analysis, and learning that I truly believe is vital so self-development. The great ones take on a life of their own and withstand the test of time, passing on their wisdom for posterity. Since we’re riding with the boxing analogy, let’s call books the intellectual heavyweight.

In the left corner wearing the red gloves we have blogs. I love great blogs. Not the shallow pop culture stuff, but blogs from interesting and insightful people that produce quality long-form brain food. Given their relative brevity, you get a far more diverse set of authors and ideas than is possible in the realm of books. You also avoid the trap that many book authors fall into wherein they pontificate about a subject for pages on end when an idea could have been just as easily presented in a paragraph. In other words, the value per word is far greater on a blog. You also have a level of interactivity with blogs offered by the comments section and their inherent shareability.

These two fighters seem to always go the full distance and end in a draw. And that’s ok because I don’t believe there has to be a clear winner. Both are wonderful in their own right.

I WILL add one thing though. At the end of the “blog” section, I mentioned interactivity as a point in the win column for blogs. However, books force another type of interactivity. While you don’t get to discuss things with the author or other readers, a great book forces you to interact with yourself in a way that sometimes carries much greater weight than interacting with others. They challenge your ideas and perspectives and often force you to reconsider things. And for more than 10 or 15 minutes. This might be why, for me at least, books get the nod.

And in boxing for that matter, things were clearly better back in days of heavyweight slugfests!

My Latest Discovery: StashInvest

A friend of mine reached out a few months ago asking about investing in stocks. I spoke to him for a while about my approach to picking companies. After the discussion, the friend said that they wanted to start investing, but many of the stock they wanted to buy were really expensive. One was Priceline which currently trades at $1,874. Given he wanted to start with a small portfolio, it’s pretty tough to diversify if you’re spending almost $1,900 for one share of one company.
Lucky for my friend, Stash (the company is actually called Collective Returns) is breaking down barriers for entry-level investors. They allow you to buy fractional shares and you can open an account with as little as $5. Gotta love how technology democratizes things!

[VIC – 74] Small mammals prevail. AI for X. Ode to mothers. Voice dictation on Mac.

Business & Money

I spend a lot of time thinking about what personal project to embark on next. But rather than writing today about any particular idea, I wanted to write about the process of idea generation instead. There’s a lot of conventional wisdom out there regarding how to come up with ideas, some of which seems insightful while some seem utterly useless.
One trope you often see involves working on something that you’re passionate about. And it makes sense. If most ideas will ultimately fail, and those that are successful will take a long time to materialize, you might as well spend time on something you enjoy doing. While it’s hard to argue with this logic, it seems it can also lead you astray. After all, when thinking about the things you’re passionate about, many other people are often passionate about those same things. If you want to work on something related to music, healthy food, taking/sharing photos, entertainment… get in line. Countless other people also love these things and would love to turn it into a lucrative career.
Then you have the “scratch your own itch” idea. May as well work on solving a problem that you experience in your own life. I like this one better than the first. Even if you can’t scale the idea or figure out how to make money, at least you’ve solved a problem for yourself. But again, I think you run into the problem of competition. “I wish there was an app for [insert problem here].” We all have this thought a thousand times a day (at least many of the people I hang out with do). I’d encourage you to set aside twenty minutes one day, Google each of your last 10 “I wish there was an app for….” ideas. There’s probably at least 20 apps that do something very similar, all of which are relegated to oblivion in the app store. So while this one has some value, I’d say you have to go a bit deeper.
Where things really get interesting is with seismic changes in the larger (economic, social, cultural) environment. When a giant asteroid struck the earth 65 million years ago, which happened to coincide with a cataclysmic volcanic eruption, things were poised for change. If you were a giant reptile relying on sunlight to regulate your body temperature (the asteroid collision and eruption blocked out the sun for years), things were not looking so good for you. The environment had quickly changed to favor small mammals. Friendster and myspace were pretty cool, but supercomputers in every pocket allowed Facebook a much better opportunity to succeed. Voice as input has been an attractive proposition for decades, but improvements in natural language processing have finally allowed Apple, Amazon, and Google to bring viable voice assistants to market.
Recognizing these environmental shifts, and being first to market in an area that was previously not possible, seems to me where the most viable businesses can be built.

Human Progress

I often write on VIC about the impact of artificial intelligence. While I’m excited about the possibilities, there are also signs that the “AI for X” trend is getting a bit out of hand. Like this one for example. Do you like Roti (Indian flatbread)? What if you had a robot in your kitchen that could make fresh Roti on demand whenever you wanted? Even better, what if that Roti robot was smart? “Equipped with patented AI technology and intelligent sensors, Rotimatic does all the thinking for you! It makes real-time computations and adapts to every doughball’s characteristics.” AI powered Roti robot, I’d say that definitely solves a first world problem.

Philosophy

There’s one woman on this planet that’s unlike the rest. My mom. She delivered me into the world. Quite literally, my mother gave me life.
Then circumstances changed and I was forced to go live with my Dad’s family at his sister’s house. She was responsible for feeding and housing 7 children (not including me). Without question, my aunt took me in, despite her own plight.
Safe to say that situation was less than ideal. Lucky for me, I had an angel watching over me in my grandmother from my mom’s side. She swooped in at the perfect time to give me a better chance in life. Quite literally, my grandmother saved my life.
While much better, times were still hard. Extremely hard at times. Out of nowhere, one of my best friend’s mom came to the rescue. She often took me to stay at their house when things were challenging at home. Delicious food, a warm bed, the love of an entire family… all were offered in spades. Quite literally, my best friend’s mom changed my life.
I know a lot of incredible mothers out there and I wish you all a Happy Mother’s Day! But for me, it was important to take a second to give thanks to these three in particular. Thanks to you, I am the man I am today.
I may say it far too infrequently, but I owe these women my life!

My Latest Discovery

I’ve written here on VIC before about input/output methods in computing. That is, the methods by which information processing systems communicate with the outside world. The Amazon Echo, and to a lesser extent Google Home and Siri, are showing that voice will be a major input method of the future.
I was thinking about this one night this week and started to reflect on all of the time I spend on computers and how I could speed up my input. By far, the application that consumes the most time on my laptop is email. And most of that time is spent typing new emails.
After a few minutes of Google searching, I discovered that you can hit the function key twice (on a Mac that is), and you can immediately begin using voice dictation as an input method within most applications. The words you speak will begin appearing in the text field. This has been a God send!

[VIC – 69] Early stage investing. Everything is digital. We can do better. National Poetry Month. Flattery or plagiarism?

Business & Money

When thinking about early stage investment opportunities, conventional wisdom says that these are generally reserved for silicon valley elites. There’s a small cabal of elite VCs that get access to all of the best deals and companies, while most are shut out. Thus the astronomical returns that accrue to these firms far out pace what the average person can expect to make while investing.
While mostly true, there are a few other ways to get a foot in the door for early stage opportunities. Here are a few:
1) You can always invest in startups yourself. Title III of the Jobs Act opens up the opportunity for regular retail investors to get their turn at startup investing. Regular people can create an account with any number of equity crowdfunding platforms (e.g. SeedInvest, MicroVentures) to participate in startup fundraising. While Title III is a good thing in general terms, it’s very unlikely that I’ll try my hand at picking individual companies. Chances are, all the best deals will be picked through by the VCs, angel syndicates, or individual angel investors. In other words, the equity crowdfunding platforms likely offer the bottom of the barrel in terms of investment opportunities. The platforms do take on some of the due diligence work to de-risk things a bit, but chances are you’ll still lose your money.
2) More realistically, you can try to take advantage of early stage opportunities by investing in public companies. For example, take artificial intelligence. We’re clearly in the hype cycle for AI and every company, both large and small, are trying to participate in the “AI gold rush”. To understand where the investment opportunities lie, we first need a bit ot context. Without getting into the weeds, deep learning is a subset of machine learning that uses computational systems loosely modeled on the human brain. Deep learning systems require a lot of processing power and thus require advanced GPUs (graphical processing units) which are far more powerful than their CPU (central processing unit) brethren. There are basically 2 companies that own the GPU market, Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices, and both are publicly traded. NVDA is up 285% this year and AMD is up 481%. Not bad at all for a public market returns.
3) One slightly more esoteric way to get involved, and somewhat similar to above, involves investing in underlying technologies. Not investing in companies that produce the underlying technology, but the technology itself. I’ll give you two examples. First, think about the early days of the internet. Everyone and their mother were building internet based businesses and every one of those required a website. If you went on a buying spree in the 90s purchasing as many domain names as possible, you would be incredibly wealthy today. The average domain back then sold for around $0.50 – $5.00. Today, the average 5 letter word in the dictionary will cost you anywhere from $500,000 to $1,000,000 if you want to purchase the domain. That multiple is (you guessed it), 🍌🍌🍌🍌🍌! Secondly, I’m betting that cryptocurrencies will explode over the next 5 years. The value has already gone up over 100x since inception, and I’d say were in the first inning with no outs. I’ve been purchasing modest amounts of Bitcoin and Ethereum, the two leading cryptocurrencies, betting that they will be far more valuable in a few years. I’m less worried about these as digital currencies or stores of value, and more excited by the applications that will be built on the underlying technology. We’ll have to wait to see how this last one pans out.

Human Progress

If the 20th century was an industrial century, the 21st will be a digital one. Absolutely everything is going (or has gone) digital. Money, media, communication, commerce, conflict… everything. This transformation will, of course, bring great progress. But, it will also bring unprecedented risk. Cyber security risk that is. As the number of connected devices goes through the roof, so too do the number of vulnerabilities. I’m no cyber security expert, so I won’t try to delve into the details of the myriad vulnerabilities. Instead, I’d like to suggest 3 simple ways to greatly improve your digital security profile.
1 Turn on 2-factor authentication (2FA) for your email. For those unaware, 2FA is the process by which you use a second device to verify your identity. So when you log into your email account on your laptop, it will ask you for a password that you need to retrieve from your phone (SMS). As a result, you have a second layer of protection from someone trying to gain unauthorized access. And, while you can also enable 2FA on many other applications, email lies at the crux of everything. Anytime you need to reset a password, the reset link is sent via email. Thus, if someone gains access to your email, they likely have access to everything.
2 Use a VPN (virtual private network). VPNs offer a simple way to protect the data being transmitted over wireless networks by forcing all of your data through a server run by a VPN provider. These providers encrypt all of the data providing, again, another layer of protection. These require a simple, low-cost software download from any of a number of reputable providers. This is especially important if you regularly use public wifi networks (e.g. coffee shops, NYC parks & subways, etc). Anyone on these networks can access your data if it’s unprotected.
3 Use a secure browser (e.g. Opera). These run security checks in the background while you browse (checking for phishing, malware, etc) and many also include free built-in VPN software.
None of these will guarantee that you’re 100% safe, but you’re far better off with them than without.

Philosophy

You know that philosophical question, “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” I’ve been thinking about my own version. “If a person apologizes for a certain wrongdoing that they’ve committed, but the victim is not around to hear it, did the apology actually happen?” I would answer “no” to both questions. In the first, the tree hitting the ground would clearly disturb the adjacent air creating sound waves. But “hearing,” that involves those same sounds waves interacting with an ear drum and the associated nerve endings that translate those vibrations into an intelligible signal. In my own version of the question, the same logic applies. Yes, the apology is spoken, but the act of apologizing, if it is to be at all meaningful, involves both the speaker’s message and the listener’s reception and interpretation thereof. So even if the apology is heard, but there is no eye contact or a lack of conviction in the voice of the apologizer, we’ve adulterated the content of the words.
I began thinking about this when someone posted on Facebook about what’s often referred to as the Apology to Native Peoples. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of it (I had not before coming across this post). In essence, this was a resolution signed by President Obama in 2009 as an acknowledgment of the depredations and mistreatment of Native Americans by the US government. A formal apology of sorts. I see two glaring problems right off the bat.
First, the delivery. The resolution was quietly passed, buried deep within the Defense Appropriations act of 2009 (not an obvious location for such a resolution). But no attention was drawn to it. It’s almost like the apology was whispered under the breath so that no one could hear it. Not an apology at all if you ask me. If no one can hear it, it’s safe to assume that the act itself is narcissistic or inward focused. It serves to remove some guilt or responsibility, without putting the speaker at any risk or empathizing with the listener.
Secondly, the language.
“Whereas the arrival of Europeans in North America opened a new chapter in the history of Native Peoples.”
A new chapter?!?! Are you kidding me?? Let’s drop the warm and poetic language and call a spade a spade.
“Whereas while establishment of permanent European settlements in North America did stir conflict with nearby Indian tribes, peaceful and mutually beneficial interactions also took place.”
Peaceful and mutually beneficial? 😂😂 What a joke!
“Whereas Native Peoples and non-Native settlers engaged in numerous armed conflicts in which unfortunately, both took innocent lives, including those of women and children.”
Innocent lives taken on both sides? More like genocide or extermination of one side and flourishing on the other.
There is so much power in language. What is said is often less important than how it is said.
All of this makes me think about my own progress in delivering apologies. I, for one, can say I have a long way to go. I’ve often delivered apologies while staring at the floor, using defensive language, voice raised, arms crossed, and no eye contact. If I can’t do any better, our nation and our federal government likely can’t either. 😩 Come one! We’re better than that!

My Latest Discovery

On the same topic of native peoples, Layli Long Soldier is both a US citizen and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation (a Native American Tribe). She is also an incredible poet. And, I’ve discovered that April happens to be National Poetry Month. I thought I would share one of her exquisite yet painful compositions called “38.”

I would highly recommend you listen, but if you prefer to read, you can do so here.

Question Of The Week

When is it ok to copy?
I’m thinking about this in the wake of rampant copying by Facebook. After seeing the success of SnapChat, Zuckerberg has basically copy/pasted SnapChat’s best features, pixel for pixel, into all 4 Facebook properties (WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger, And Facebook).
I’m specifically thinking about this in relation to other great innovations that have been copied and commoditized. In the digital realm, think about the like button or the news feed. Basically every social application now has both. Someone had to be first. In cars, what about sunroofs? Whoever came up with the sunroof is a genius. Now every car on the block has one. The inventor must be pissed!
When does copying stop being the sincerest form of flattery and become plagiarism? Should there be more IP protection for digital products? Would this impact innovation in a negative way? So many questions!

[VIC – 68] Amazon vs the 🌎. Mnuchin off his 💊💊. Let her finish. Via 🚙.. Which identity comes first❓❓

Business & Money

Amazon has an incredible business model. Start by building an e-commerce platform to sell books. Once at scale, allow anyone selling anything to leverage that platform to sell their own goods for a nominal fee. In the process of building this massive marketplace, create a powerhouse of a logistics network (warehouses, software, supply chain expertise, etc) to facilitate all of this activity. Once at scale, allow manufacturers and retailers to leverage these same logistics services and facilities for a nominal fee. In the process thereof, build out world-class cloud infrastructure for all of your own storage, processing, and computing needs. Once at scale with these efforts, allow any other company to leverage these same cloud services for a nominal fee.
It’s an absolutely genius model that continues to pour more and more gasoline on the fire that fuels growth. One hell of a flywheel!
This model shows no signs of slowing down. You may have read about how Amazon is experimenting with physical grocery stores where customers can simply walk in, grab what they want, and leave without stopping at a cash register. Or perhaps you’ve come across the fact that they’re leasing planes and investing in their own cargo hub in Kentucky. I’d say it’s pretty safe to assume that, once they figure out the model, the self-checkout technology will be offered to other retailers and the cargo hub will service the other logistics companies (of course for that not so nominal fee).
So, despite Amazon shares being crazy expensive (P/E ratio of 180.56), it may yet be undervalued. The company accounts for only 5% of retail sales (half the share of Walmart) and e-commerce still accounts for a single-digit percentage of all retail sales.
If you couldn’t tell, I am looooong Amazon!

Human Progress

Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary of the US, might be off his 💊💊.
“I think that is so far in the future – in terms of artificial intelligence taking over American jobs – I think we’re like so far away from that, that uh [it’s] not even on my radar screen. Far enough that it’s 50 or 100 years away.”
Are you f*&%$* kidding me??? I don’t think I’ve ever disagreed more with a single statement. This guy must be off his rocker.
Now, I don’t want to spend valuable time deriding this guy, but let’s focus on the crux of the issue. Why is artificial intelligence, or machine learning (ML) more specifically, important? Computer scientists have been touting its power and potential for decades and we have nothing to show for it except for movie recommendation algorithms and autonomous vacuum cleaners. Why is this time different?
I’ll tell you why this time is different. It has to do with something very fundamental to where we are with regards to this technology.
First, a definition. Now, I’m no engineer or machine learning expert, so I won’t even attempt to get technical here. In my own laymen terms, ML involves computers learning from lots and lots of data. You’ve likely taken a basic statistics class at some point. Do you remember covering probability? Simply calculating the likelihood of a future event based on historical data points? For all intents and purposes, that’s ML. Whether you want to talk about facial recognition, translation, product recommendations, self-driving cars, or anything else. It’s just looking at a bunch of data and past events, and using that to predict the future.
With that out of the way, we can get back to why this time is different. Throughout the history of technology, we’ve been building machines to work for us. Steam engines, the printing press, cars… All of these things burn fuel to do work so that we don’t have to and faster than we would be able to on our own. But, as wonderful as they all are, these machines are not “creators.” By that I mean, they have no ability to create anything outside of what is hard coded by human beings. Once you turn on the printing press, it will continually print things exactly the same way over and over again until the energy source is depleted or the machine breaks down. At no point will the machine figure out a better way to print something. Only a human being can design a better machine to replace the old one. This has been the model for technology since time immemorial.
With machine learning this changes. Take speech translation for example. When early translation programs were developed, the software was very simple. Here is the English dictionary. Here is the Spanish dictionary. Replace each word with its equivalent in the opposite language and voila. Translation! Of course, this fails because that is not how translation works. It isn’t a word for word type of thing. Different languages have different ways of conveying tone, capturing tense, etc. With the latest incarnation of Google translate, however, we have a whole separate ball game. The algorithm can look the entire library of books, articles, speeches, web pages, etc that have been translated into another language and start to predict how a sentence should be translated. What’s more, as the system takes in more translation examples and receives feedback, the algorithm can actually learn and improve mid-flight. That is, without human intervention, the translation service actually improves over time. That’s bananas!! 🍌🍌🍌🍌🍌
This is what Mr. Mnuchin is not understanding. This is not like other technologies where we invented something new that was better at doing a job. We have computers getting “smarter” by themselves.
Now I don’t want to overstate this. The capabilities are still very narrow. Each ML system is very good at one specific thing, but completely incompetent with regards to every other domain. None the less, this is a big deal.
Further, in addition to the fundamental difference just described, the speed of proliferation will be unprecedented. If we go back to the printing press and steam engine example, once these technologies were developed, it might take years or decades for the technology to spread across the globe. In the digital era, this is not the case. When talking about software and other digital goods, things can spread instantaneously, the cost of distribution is 0, and the marginal cost of creating another unit, also 0. When a new algorithm or application is created, you click a button and it is available in every corner of the globe. Again, 🍌🍌🍌🍌🍌!!
With these two fundamental differences, that is the machines playing the “creator” role and the speed at which these things can spread, we’re in uncharted territory.

Philosophy

A few days ago my fiancé made Tteok-bokki (pronounced “duck-bogi”). It’s a stir-fried Korean dish with fish cakes, rice cakes, boiled eggs, onions, and red pepper paste (among other things).

While she was cooking, she was multitasking with a few other things, so asked me to stir the pan. As I began to stir, the dish seemed overly watery. I opened my mouth to ask the question, “It’s a bit watery, no?” But then I paused. There was a slight a fear of being punched in the face, but more so, a realization that I should wait to ask the question. She’s made this dish countless times and perhaps it congeals as it cooks.
That’s exactly what happened. it was absolutely perfect. In fact, probably the best she has ever made!
This got me thinking about asking questions more generally. There are many times when I’m in a meeting at work or having a discussion with a friend and something that’s said doesn’t sit well with me. I either don’t fully understand or I simply disagree. But, usually, it serves me well to let someone fully articulate an idea or complete a thought before butting in with a question. Often times the idea makes a lot more sense in the full context of what’s being said, or at least you can see the other’s perspective with more clarity.

My Latest Discovery

I’ve been using the Via ride sharing app as of late. It’s essentially Uber Pool or Lyft Line, without the option to take a ride by yourself. It’s “ride sharing” in it’s purest form. They operate a fleet of Mercedes vans that seat up to 6 passengers. Due to the purely “shared” model, prices are far lower than they are with Uber & Lyft. It cost me $8 for a ride from Long Island City to the Flatiron district. The only downside is that you occasionally have to walk a few blocks for pickup in order to best optimize routing. Not a big deal if you ask me. If you’d like $10 in free ride credit and want to help me out as well 😊, my referral code is “jeremy2e7”.

Question Of The Week

We all have so many identities. I myself am a friend, soon-to-be husband, dog parent, salesperson, black, American (purposely separated those 2), student, NYC resident, etc.
How do you prioritize your various identities? Is there a rank order? What happens when two of these are in conflict?

 

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts! Onwards and upwards amigos(as)!

[VIC – 67] 👔 Company culture. 💻 👀 Computer vision. 🐝 We’re so busy. 📰 Email newsletters. 😊 💸 How to reconcile happiness with ambition?

Business & Money

At my last company, the kitchen was filled with snacks. There was a ping pong table in the middle of the main workspace and beer constantly on tap. Sleeping around with coworkers was not only fair game, it might as well have been encouraged. We also had paintings of the company spirit animals on the wall, each of which represented a core value. These were values like “be open and authentic” and “do more with less”. Basically the typical things you would expect from a mid-late stage startup. This is where I first began developing my conception of what it means to have a company culture.

At my current company, snacks are an endangered species. We have beer on tap, but it’s locked until 5 pm. We don’t burn copious amounts of cash on unnecessary travel or lavish parties. We’ve just hit 200 people, and our CEO is just now thinking about formalizing core values. Based on my old conception, you might even say we lack a company culture.

But then I started to think more deeply about this. Over time I realized that there is a difference between culture and perks. Snacks and free lunches are perks. Unlimited expense accounts, massages, yoga… Same story. Even formalized company values, while seemingly the most overt example of culture, often solely play lip service to it.

What I’ve come to realize is that company culture is not about what perks are offered. It’s not even about what the core values proclaim. It is more about the decisions you make and what you do on a daily basis.

Take my current boss for example, our SVP of sales. When I started almost two years ago, I shadowed him to a lot of meetings. I generally arrived early, but he was always there first. After the meeting, a follow-up email was always sent within a few hours. It doesn’t need to be said out loud to convey that punctuality ranks high in his mind, as does customer follow-up.

Or take our chief strategy officer. I used to think she was cold and mean during meetings. What I realized over time is that she’s just brutally efficient with her time. While a normal person might block off an hour for a meeting, she often skips the pleasantries, gets straight to the point, then walks out of the room before you’ve had a chance to confirm next steps. I’m exaggerating slightly, but I’ve never met a more efficient human being in my short 28 years.

The way people carry themselves, the way they respond to disrespect in the workplace, the way they speak to one another, how they prioritize, how they deal with poor performance, how often they communicate with the rest of the company… These are the things that make and define a culture. And whether or not you write them down or shout them from a mountain top, they will persist and pick up momentum as the company grows. As our friend sir Isaac Newton said, any object in motion will remain in motion.

Human Progress

There is an area of computing known as HCI, or human-computer interaction. This field describes the interaction of an information processing system (e.g. a computer) and the outside world, often a human being. For most of the history of computing, input methods have been limited to mouse and keyboard. While these 2 inventions were revolutionary in their own right, they’re also defined by major limitations. I’d say the most notable of these is input speed. All the sources I’ve checked say that average professionals type somewhere between 40-50 words per minute. If only I could type as fast as I can think or speak.

This partially explains all of the hype today around voice interfaces. We have Amazon (Alexa), Google (Home), Apple (Siri), and Samsung (Bixby aka Viv Labs) all competing for supremacy in this category. And with good reason. While none have nailed a killer application, the potential for speech dictation combined with natural language processing is massive.

More interesting than voice, though, is computer vision. Here we have “intelligent” cameras as the input method connected to powerful computers for information processing. And the amount of data that ingested via a camera, as supposed to text or speech input, is greater by several orders of magnitude. Let me provide 3 examples of really compelling computer vision applications:

1) The most mainstream example would be autonomous vehicles. And it’s clear why. Computers can recognize problematic driving conditions and respond appropriately with much greater speed and accuracy than a human being ever could. That’s why Uber, Tesla, and all the incumbent car makers are all competing to incorporate computer vision systems into their cars in an effort to not be left behind when self-driving cars become a reality. Intel, one of the major pioneers in chip technology has even jumped in the ring with it’s recent $15 billion dollar purchase of MobileEye.

2) Remember VIC 47 when I spoke about selling shovels in a gold rush? Computer vision is the gold rush in this example and applications will be frequent and far-reaching. Enter Clarifai. They’ve built a computer vision API so that other developers can quickly integrate computer vision into their own applications.

3) What about baby monitors? It turns out you can find out far more information than whether or not your baby is crying with computer vision enabled baby monitors. Nanit brings baby monitors into the 21st century by tracking sleep patterns, movement, breathing, and much more using advanced cameras and machine learning.

Before we know it, we might all be living in the Minority Report.

Philosophy

A few days after the recent snow storm in NYC I was walking on 23rd street behind a family of 3. It was 2 parents and their young daughter pushing her own small baby stroller. The path through the snow on the sidewalk was not very wide which didn’t allow much room for passing. I became a bit frustrated as the families progress down the street was slow-going. As a glanced to the right and left for glimpses of an opportunity to make my move, my frustration only grew.

When I finally saw a break in oncoming pedestrian traffic, I quickly sidestepped the dad, hurdled a small ice mountain and was safely in the lead. Then I hit a group of tourists who were gazing upwards at buildings and taking pictures. Great! As a dodged selfie sticks and foreign phrases, I made little progress. When I finally made it through the mayhem I was at the next traffic light. I looked to my right and realized that the family I made so much effort to pass, was arriving at the same moment. All that hard work for nothing.

When the light turned green I decided to switch to a leisurely pace, walk contently behind the family, and gaze around at the beautiful snow-capped trees in madison square park.

Why had I been in such a rush? I wasn’t late for a call or meeting and no one was holding their breath waiting for me to return. It wasn’t uncomfortably cold out and I wasn’t being chased by a maniacal homeless person. As it turned out, there were a grand total of 0 reasons to be in a rush.

As I reflect on this more, I’d say we’re often in a rush due to the modern cult of busyness. We’re always so busy. As I glance over at my phone now there are 5,335 unread emails (most of which will never be opened). My to to-do list grows every day with many items that will never be crossed off.

It seems likely that it would serve us well to occasionally appreciate the architecture of the city, to take in the myriad sounds and smells, admire the beauty of our fellow human beings, laugh at the silliness of the child in front of us as they march through the snow.

In the words of Omid Safi, “when did we forget that we are human beings, not human doings?”

My Latest Discovery

2016 was the year I discovered email newsletters. I’ve told you all before about Revue (the platform I use to send this weekly newsletter), but I thought I would share a collection of my favorites in case you’d like to check them out.

Letter from Loring Park is a weekly digest from Krista Tippet. Here’s a recent sample (you can subscribe via the link in the top left corner). Krista is incredible and this weekly digest “opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live? We explore these questions in their richness and complexity in 21st-century lives and endeavors. We pursue wisdom and moral imagination as much as knowledge; we esteem nuance and poetry as much as fact.”

Fortune CEO Daily is a daily digest from Allan Murray at Fortune. It’s the must-read business news of the day for anyone hoping to keep abreast on major issues facing the enterprise.

Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View is delivered every Sunday as a finely curated collection of top news and stories withing the realm of artificial intelligence.

Howard Lindzon is a fintech (financial technology) investor and entrepreneur and has been neck deep in this space for over 20 years. His daily updates are simultaneously witty and insightful. They’ve become a much loved part of my morning commute.

Question Of The Week

I came across a Dale Carnegie quote this week.

“Success is Getting What You Want; Happiness is Wanting What You Get.”

Every wise person ever has explained that, the more you strive for happiness, the more elusive it is. You need to let go of the striving itself in order to truly be happy.

Sure, I’ll buy that at face value. But ambitious people would be hard pressed to give up striving altogether. With the goal of building value for others, and simultaneously capturing some of the value for oneself, it would seem that some level of striving is necessary.

So, my question is, how do you reconcile these two? How do you effectively relinquish striving while maintaining some ambitious pursuit?

With Love! ❤️️

Jeremy

[VIC – Issue 65] The product + marketing symbiosis. No need to fear the machines. We’re failing our women. Raising brave girls. Know any eye people?

Business & Money

When I was in college, I completed a brand management internship at Johnson & Johnson. I worked within the baby products group. This was the first time that I became exposed to the fact that product development and marketing were integrated functions. It was astonishing how much research and planning went into the color of the box, the size of the text on packaging and how an open/closing system worked. Testing these things through focus groups and customer surveys was huge, then translating the findings into messaging and marketing activities.

With digital transformation, this becomes even more true. The lines between product and marketing continue to blur. One example I love is Dropbox. When you open a free account, you are encouraged to invite your friends. And this isn’t some random ploy to get users. Both the inviter and the invitee get free storage space within Dropbox, a clear mutual benefit. Here we have core feature of the user experience serving as an incredible marketing and growth tactic.

Facebook is another phenomenal example. Throughout the company’s lifetime, they’ve done very little paid user acquisition. The very use of the product constitutes all the marketing they’ll ever need.

As companies grow, it becomes harder and harder to maintain an effective interplay between product and marketing as functions become increasingly siloed. However, it serves those well that hold dear this symbiotic relationship.

Human Progress

With so much technological progress its easy to fall into the trap of thinking about problems far removed. Artificial intelligence is clear example that comes to mind. At the summit of the hype cycle, there’s a lot conversation about how machines might take over the world and how afraid we should be. The “paperclip maximizer” thought experiment is a great example of this. In this fictional scenario, a super intelligent machine is tasked with maximizing the number of paperclips in existence. While a seemingly harmless goal, the logic purports that, as the AI system continues to improve at an exponential rate, there would be an intelligence explosion of sorts wherein the system begins to self improve and constantly expand its paperclip acquisition capabilities. Over time, this system might get away from its human overlords and use all of the resources on planet earth towards solving its own narrow paperclip maximizing goals.

I find this kind of thinking to be stupid and quite frankly a waste of time. Clearly AI will have far-reaching implications in many areas of our lives, but we’re not anywhere close to artificial super intelligence. Just ask Siri a few questions and you’ll have an idea to where things stand at the present moment. Narrow AI systems are incredibly proficient within their areas of competence (think Facebook’s news feed, Netflix movie recommendations, IBM Watson’s Jeopardy performance, Google’s Alpha Go, etc), but we have a long way to go with more general systems.

What’s more, in the last 6 months, we have much more serious problems to deal with regarding technology and software. Forget about AI, what about human bad actors using software and technology for nefarious purposes. I’ll provide a few examples in case you missed them.

The most recent example is Uber with its “Greyball” software. Here the company used software to figure out who might be an undercover cop in cities where it was operating illegally. Whenever an undercover tried to summon a car, they would instead see fake cars on the map and be unable to secure a ride. As a result, the company could scale to new markets without interference from regulators and law enforcement.

Then we have Zenefits. This insurance tech startup wrote code that allowed employees to skirt the normal certification process for insurance brokers. Thus, the company could hire sales people rapidly who could, in turn, start peddling insurance products much faster than would otherwise be possible.

We can’t forget about Volkswagen. They used software to dance around emissions inspections. During testing, their diesel engines would automatically switch to “energy efficient mode” giving the impression that they were far more energy efficient than was actually the case. In this instance, there’s a real cost to society in terms of pollution and people that may suffer health complications as a byproduct.

With examples like these, it becomes clear that we need to focus more on the human beings operating in the realm of technology than the technology itself. Technology is a tool. How we choose to bear responsibility in the usage of these tools needs serious consideration.

Philosophy

I’ve largely been very lucky in my life. Despite being black, the number of times I’ve had to deal with overt discrimination have been fairly limited. Of course, the systemic problems and unconscious bias are always present, but those are par for the course.

I’m very sad to say that it is painfully obvious that this is not the case for women in the workplace. Following National Women’s Day this week, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Why is it that, in 2017, gender discrimination is still so pervasive? Susan Fowler’s experience at Uber is just one recent example in what seems like a constant deluge.

To our female community members, I’d love to hear from you on this. What has been your experience? If (more likely when) you’ve been a victim, how did you respond? Did you say something? How did your leaders respond? Perhaps most importantly, how did you stay motivated to show up and perform at a high level? From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like a catch 22. Say nothing and deal with it, or speak up and suffer retaliation, marginalization or worse yet have your words fall on deaf ears.

We’re failing our women and it’s disgraceful. While I’ve never been a preparator (not intentionally or to my knowledge at least), I feel ashamed to function as a part of a society where this is ok.

My Latest Discovery

Following on the thread above, I stumbled upon an incredible TED talk this week called “To raise brave girls, encourage adventure.” In case you can’t spare the 12.5 minutes, here’s the conclusion:

“Finally, when your girl is, let’s say, on her bike on the top of the steep hill that she insists she’s too scared to go down, guide her to access her bravery. Ultimately, maybe that hill really is too steep, but she’ll come to that conclusion through courage, not fear. Because this is not about the steep hill in front of her. This is about the life ahead of her and that she has the tools to handle and assess all the dangers that we cannot protect her from, all the challenges that we won’t be there to guide her through, everything that our girls here and around the world face in their future.”

Shouts to Tim Ferris for sharing this one in his “5 Bullet Fridays” email newsletter.

Question Of The Week

Huge favor to ask this week. Within your networks, are you close with any optometrists or ophthalmologists? Hoping to connect with professionals in this space and would be very appreciative for any introductions you can provide.

It’s A Wrap! Have a wonderful week everyone! ❤️️ ❤️️