Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Donkey Killers

We talked cars today. Why are all cars finished with fancy paint that scratches with the minimal contact with another car, a wall, a small rock, or almost any other object? Seriously, what are car manufacturers thinking??? Cars are finished like grand pianos, not like something that is moving around in the city every day, with people getting in and out, parking in tight spots, supermarket carts bumping into them, going over dirts and small rocks. Shouldn't cars exteriors be made of some sort of rubbery material that wouldn't get damaged from its intended use? Better yet, shouldn't all cars have proper bumpers designed for the realities of parking? Cars used to have proper bumpers (although I admit that those seemed to fall down instead of absorb minor impacts). We started looking at cars on our way to school this morning. Every single one had dings and scratches on the paint...

I proposed that we build the Poler-Weitzman car with the exterior made entirely of rubber and bumpers mounted on dampers that absorb the typical bumps of street parking. No "parking assist" system. Just bump into the other cars (that is what they will do to you anyway!). There are many product categories in which one big factory in China makes the products for most brands who just make some tweaks, e.g., mobile phones. Maybe one day most cars will be made by the same factory in China. We could then take the basics of, say, a Prius, and just change the exterior to be all rubber.

As we were arriving to school an SUV with a large grille guard drove buy. I told the kids that in Venezuela those are called mata-burros (donkey killers) and that when I was a youth we all put them on our SUVs (since we did go to forests, mountains, rivers, beaches, etc). The most hard core people had winches on their mata-burros, to be able to get themselves out of trouble if they got stock. Now, that is practical! None of this porcelain paint that today's cars have.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Boiling Frogs

To my surprise the boys were not familiar with the boiling frog phenomenon: drop a frog in boiling water and it will immediately jump away and save itself. But put it in cold water and heat the water gradually and the frog will boil to death. So, if you want to boil a live frog, heat the water gradually (or make sure the pan has a lid). At a "personal" level, beware of situations that deteriorate gradually. Every little bit might not justify a reaction, but before long you might boil to death - at least metaphorically...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Slippery Slopes

I was telling the boys about Steve Jobs' obsession with every aspect of his products - including the interiors which no customer got to see. It told them that while such extremes as making the inside of a computer look good might be considered excessive, they helped avoid "slippery slopes". They boys, to my surprise, were familiar with the expression. Once you let the inside of the computer be ugly, then maybe the part behind the cover could also be ugly. And at that point, maybe the bottom, which you rarely see, could be crapy as well... And before you know it, as Steve would put it, the product is shit!

We spoke about other slippery slopes: maybe it is not such a big deal if I don't do all my homework today or study all the material for tomorrow's exam... Maybe it is not a big deal if I eat two donuts for breakfast... Or, if I skip swim practice today... Or, break the law in some "tiny" way... But you do end up on a slippery slope and humans are not very good at defying gravity. Better to keep things Black and White. Stay on the solid and flat surfaces.

I gave the boys an example that worked for me: I used to have a hard time working out regularly and efficiently. Swimming almost worked, but I would frequently stop after half the time or skip a workout altogether. Until I joined a Masters team that trains three times per week. I decided that I would not miss a single practice. Period. Some days I don't feel like going, other days it is cold. But I know that the moment I start missing some of the practices I'll be on a slippery slope.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Information sources - and cows' milk

N mentioned this morning that calves drink a bathtub worth of milk every day. His statement generated a discussion among the three boys about the plausibility of his assertion. When I asked him for his source, he said the milk container. This got us into a conversation about sources of information and their varying degree of reliability. We felt the milk container was probably a moderately reliable source. Not as reliable as Wikipedia or the Encyclopedia Britannica, but probably more reliable than "the Internet" or your friend who heard it from a friend...

Spoke a bit about facts vs. editorial. It is important to determine whether we are reading someone's opinion (editorial) or reading the facts (news). Ideally we are getting a thoughtful opinion with the underlying facts that support it. Like in the Economist.

We agreed that if multiple sources have the same info, that is a plus, and that ideally we obtain, and understand, the facts supporting the information. Although P made the insightful statement that the world is often counter-intuitive and that sometimes things are true even though we can't quite understand why. This remind me of the process of optimizing web sites (for purchases by visitors, for example) and how one must test many variations and often the best one is not the one anyone would guess (ugly, strange). Nothing like hard data.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Diesel & Coffee

I was in Spain last week. I had two incidents that were very telling of Spanish culture. I told the kids about them this morning... The first one was when I returned my rental car to Hertz. Normally I fill the tank before returning rentals but this time I didn't. I knew walking into Hertz that I would have to pay extra for the fuel. The attendant said "you filled the tank, right?". When I said no she was alarmed. "But, we'll charge you double the price per liter. Please go and fill the tank". I said it was OK. I would pay the higher price. "No, but we also charge a 17 Euro refueling fee". We went back and forth but she was so insistant that I took the car, drove to the nearest fuel station and filled the tank! Have you ever had that kind of reaction in the United States? I haven't...

The next day I asked for a coffee at the breakfast restaurant (breakfast was included with my room). It was terrible coffee. I figured the least I could do while in Spain was to drink decent coffee so I went to the front desk and ask where I could get a proper coffee. They said the hotel's bar had an espresso machine so I went there. After preparing my coffee the bartender asked me if I wanted some food. I said no as I was going to take the coffee to the breakfast restaurant. I only came to the bar for a proper coffee. How much do I owe you? Don't worry about it, she said. If your breakfast is included then you might as well get a good coffee from me!

Both the Hertz and the hotel employee were obviously more concerned with me than with their employer. And this was not an issue of providing good "customer service". It was an issue of interpersonal relations: they were relating with me at a person-to-person level, rather than an employee-to-customer level. I find this common in Spain and rare in the US.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A New Chapter?

Last week I assembled a compilation of the posts that I liked most from this blog and published them as a Kindle Book. It is amazing how easy the process of creating a Kindle book was!

I priced it at 99 cents so that you can all afford it :-). Seriously, if you like it give it a good review. Who knows? Maybe my next career will be as a writer!

This week I started an experiment: writing a short science fiction book with the boys one mile at a time. Each kid is a different character in the novel and I am the narrator. I set the stage and move the story along and ask them to fill in their dialogues and actions. I haven't decided if I'll publish it bit by bit as it is created or if I'll wait to have the whole thing done. I'll probably experiment for a few more weeks before deciding. For now, I'll share their characters' names: Dr. Peter Zarmin, Jim Garfunkel, and Ford Freeman. Can you guess who is who?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Negotiate the Price Last

One of the start-ups that I am advising is trying to hire its first employee. The candidate said he was making a certain amount of cash in his current job and would like to make more if he changed jobs. The start-up's founder told him they could do that and offered him a specific salary. The problem? This candidate has not yet decided that he wants to work at the start-up. So what? Well, he might use our offer to negotiate a better salary at his current job, then ask us for even more. Or, he might think of this offer as a starting point and ask for more once he is ready to take the job. A better approach is to first focus on getting the candidate to want to join the start-up (without getting into the specifics of the compensation, other than communicating that, if both sides want to make it happen, we are confident we'll find a way). Once the candidate wants to join, then the start-up can find out what the is least amount of cash that will be necessary to hire the candidate (within reason of course) and try to agree to that. BTW: If the cash is lower than market rate most start-ups are better off compensating for that with a generous equity package. But it is hard to go there after you've offered a high cash comp.

So what does this have to do with the kids? It will be a while before they are hiring anyone :-). But the same principle applies when selling anything (not just a job at a company). For example, A recently sold his iPad, and P might want to sell his old iPhone when the new one comes out. Imagine you have a potential buyer who is interested but hasn't yet decided they want what you are selling. Maybe they are undecided between an iPad and a Kindle Fire, or between an iPhone and a Blackberry. No point in negotiating the price until the buyer has decided that they want to buy what you are selling (assuming you can agree on price). If you tell the buyer what your lowest price would be before he has decided that he wants what your are selling he will go to other sellers and try to get a lower price from them. If he does you might be out of luck. If instead you wait until the buyer is "ready", he might get final prices from other sellers and be ready to close when you give him your best price.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Subsidized Pricing

The big news on the tech world this week was Amazon's launch of a $199 tablet and a $79 kindle. I mentioned to the boys that an analyst estimated the tablet costs Amazon $250, so they will lose $50 on each one they sell. I asked them why they thought Amazon would do that. P thought it was to achieve critical mass and generate network effects (I guess he was listening the other day when we spoke about operating systems!). I said that was probably not the case as Amazon's tablet will run on Android, which already has critical mass. I said it was probably because they can sell more than $50 worth of books, music, videos and apps to each tablet buyer. We also thought of another reason: this aggressive price will force other tablet manufacturers to lower their prices thus accelerating the growth of the entire market for tablet computers. Since Amazon sells content to customers with competitive tablets then a larger overall market of tablets also benefits Amazon.

Another interesting element of the $79 kindle is that it shows ads on its screen saver and home screen. The ad-free version costs $30 more. I would love to know how much Amazon makes on those ads...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Marketing Math

C joined us in the car today so I put her on the spot and asked her to share something with us. She has been preparing an after-school program for kids who want to participate in math competitions. Yesterday she went to all the 6th grade classrooms in our kids' school to tell the kids about it. She gave the kids a problem as an example and asked those who would come to the first session to try to solve it. Afterwards one of the math teachers approached her and told her the problem was too hard and the kids would be discouraged. So C is worried about it. P thought it was good that it was challenging because that way it would attract the kids who took math seriously and were good at it. A said the problem with that approach is that some kids might turn out to be good with a bit of training and practice but would not get to that if they were discouraged with the first problem. I said the good thing about the specific problem she gave them is that a) it was a fun one, and b) kids wouldn't know if they got it right or wrong until C explained the answer. Furthermore, it is easy to take a stab at this problem, so that even if most kids got it wrong, I doubt they would get discouraged. We also discussed that she could have given them several problems (some easy some hard) to cater to all levels - and to quickly find out the level of the kids.

I mentioned to the boys that companies often face a similar challenge: in such areas as dieting, exercising, language training, gardening, etc., companies often start with easy steps to get customers hooked, and only move to harder more meaningful challenges after the customer is committed. Of course, some companies never go beyond the easy stuff, thus keeping their customers "happy" even if the results remain elusive...

What is the problem C gave the 6th graders? If an ant is standing on one of the corners of a cube, what is the shortest route it should take to walk to the opposite corner?

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Sky is Falling

An old satellite is falling to Earth today. The boys didn't understand why a satellite would fall (since satellites just use gravity to circle the Earth). I don't know either. Maybe satellites use their own power to make small corrections and stay in the correct orbit and this one can't do that anymore. Maybe the orbit deteriorates gradually over the years until the satellite falls... But what I am really wondering about is whether the scientists who first launched the satellite carefully planned for it to fall into the Earth in 20+ years, or didn't worry too much about what would happen in such a distant future.

I mentioned to the boys that I wouldn't be surprised if it was the later, as we rarely do much planning for the very long term. Maybe they thought something like "Heck, in 20+ years we'll have super rocket robots that will pick up old satellites...".

When I did my second start-up my CTO suggested that we use Oracle as our database (N asked what a database was so I explained). Knowing that the licensing cost would be over $100K per year I pushed back. But then my CTO came back with a "great" deal from Oracle: The software would be free the first year, cost 10% the second, 20% the third, and full price afterwards. My reaction? In 3+ years the company will either have been sold, gone public, or gone under, so lets do it. Guess what? The 3 years came and went and the company was still a medium sized private company for which $100k+/year in licensing fees was a lot. Ooopppss.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Don't Pass the Hot Potatoe - and cows

I sometimes leave a sweater (or two) inside my car. And maybe a few other things such as a hat or glasses (yes, I admit it, I am guilty!). Since my car is a Mini, the boys need to move my stuff to have room for themselves. P complained today that N would frequently move my stuff from his seat to P's. N argued he needed to move my stuff to seat down. I acknowledged the situation and asked how else they could deal with it so that instead of making it someone else's problem they would actually solve the problem. P suggested calling me to come move my stuff. I said that wasn't a great approach as they sometimes got to the car before I was anywhere near. A then said that when he found my stuff on his seat he would put glasses and hats where he knew I moved them to (the glove compartment) and sweaters on my seat for me to deal with. I agreed that was a good approach: he was solving the problems he could and passing those he couldn't to someone who could, i.e., me.

We are frequently in similar situations in which the easiest thing to do is to transfer our problem to someone else. That is rarely the right approach. If you can you should solve the problems rather than move them around. And if you can't solve them, at least move them to someone who can.

What about the cows? Ask N. He claims that is what we spoke about!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Don't Lecture Me

I told the boys this morning about a great program I heard on the radio last week. It is the story of some physics professors who realized their students were not learning the basics concepts of physics - even though they were doing well in the tests. Long story short their conclusion was that lectures were a very poor teaching method. If you think about it a bit this is pretty obvious. The term lecture comes from the Latin lectura, reading. From before the printing press, when someone had to read stuff out loud because you couldn't just get the book. Forget the impact of computers, the Internet, iPads, and smart phones. The educational system has yet to adapt to the printing press! Otherwise, what are professors still lecturing students when students could simply read the material on their own? Besides being medieval, lectures have other problems: research has shown that we learn better when we participate. When we are active. Research has also shown that our short term memory is simply not equipped to retain an hours' worth of facts after facts. And the list goes own...

Back to the physics professors, and, btw, I believe they did this 10+ years ago, they asked students to read the material (at their own pace) before each class (duh!). They used classes for problem solving in the following way: they wrote a problem on the board (or screen), they showed three possible solutions, and they asked student to pick one. Then students had to find nearby students with different answers and explain to them why they choose the answer they did. After a few minutes of this the students voted again. This second time around most students got the answer right. A couple key points:

- Students were much better at explaining the solution to other students than professors. Why? The students just learned the material. They could relate to the doubts and challenges of the students who didn't yet understand things. They also had fresh in their minds the process by which they got to understand the material. On the other hand, professors had learned the material so long ago they couldn't relate to the notion of not understanding it, much less remember exactly which doubts they had when they learned it or how they went about understanding the issues.

- The students that had the right answer normally convinced those that didn't - as oppose to the other way around. They had better logic on their side and more confidence. Plus many of the students with the wrong answer knew they probably had the wrong answer.

Some of the critics of this approach point out that the traditional lecture is more efficient and allows more material to be covered. Yet in the age of Google & Wikipedia, who cares about covering lots of material? All that maters is for student to grasp the key concepts and know how to apply them. The rest that can find online...

The kids could totally relate to all this and agreed the same applied to their classes. I wonder how much longer it will take for education to adapt to the development of the printing press!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Keep your hands inside the vehicle at all times...

A & P are at a retreat so N is getting the single child royal treatment. He loves seating in the front with me :-). N noticed the funky turning signal of the car in front of us. This reminded me of when I used to stick my hand out to indicate that I would turn. I can't remember if the reason was that cars had no turning signals or that drivers didn't pay attention to them. But I am pretty sure we used to signal with our hands. N thought this would be very dangerous. I said it was, but not necessarily for the reasons he had in mind. For example, my dad once had someone try to steal his watch (in Venezuela where I grew up). My dad always told us not to argue or fight with thieves but to just give them whatever they wanted. Yet he pulled back his arm, pushed the thief away and managed to get away with his watch. Similarly when another thief entered our house (armed with a stone) and asked my father for his watch my father managed to keep the watch. Why? We act differently under pressure than when we rationally and calmly plan proper behavior. N can relate very well to this...

BTW: eventually a third thief put a gun to my dad's head and that was the end of the watch...Probably best not to wear fancy watches at all!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

My Favorite Day of the Week? Thursday!

Last Monday we spoke about favorite and least-favorite days of the week (Thursday and Sunday respectively for me). N hates Mondays, with the full week ahead. P thinks Tuesdays are even worst, because at least on Mondays you get to see your friend whom you haven't seen for a couple of days. I told them that for me, the anticipation of something good or bad is often more powerful that the thing itself. That is why I hate Sundays, particularly in the evening, knowing that the next day is a Monday but I love Thursday, knowing that the next day is the beginning of the weekend :-).

We then spoke about other things for which the anticipation matters more than the thing itself: a tough exam, a dentist appointment, a sports competition, a party... The takeaway? Enjoy the anticipation of positive events as much as possible. If possible, you might even want to postpone or delay the event to have more time to enjoy the build up. On the flip side, try not to think about the negative events because they are likely not as bad as the build up to them.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Smelling the Neighborhood

Last rainy season, after several days in a row of getting my newspaper drenched (even inside two plastic bags) I had decided that I would let the subscription expire and start reading it on an iPad. The moment came this week but I am having second thoughts. The reason? I like walking out of my house at 7am to pick up the day's paper. That is the moment when I normally realize if the day is warm or cold. It is some weekdays the only time I set foot on my street (as I otherwise mostly drive in and out of my house). It is sometimes the occasion when I interact with a neighbor that walks by with his dog. I love walking into the typical cool & misty SF morning...

A few years from now physical newspapers will disappear altogether. Think about the waste of all that paper & ink, the delivery, and the disposal. Every day. It doesn't make sense with the technology that is fast becoming mainstream. To a lesser extent the same can be said about physical books. Books are not as bad since they have a longer "shelf-live". Still... P said he still prefers to read physical books, and N said he wanted a tablet with pretend physical pages. But there is no way around it. Those who enjoy physical books, papers and magazines should enjoy them while the can. They are a "luxury" and will soon become collectors items. This reminds me of an article I read a few days ago (in my printed paper) about car collectors concern with the disappearance of cars with standard transmission. They worry that no one in tomorrow's generation will be able to drive a collectors car. I am glad I taught the boys how to drive standard this summer on the beaches of Brazil :-).

Back to my newspaper dilema. The boys had a suggestion: every morning I can grab my ipad, walk out to our street where the printed newspaper would normall be, smell the neighborhood, and hit the download button.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

If you could have dinner with anyone...

My brother read my post from yesterday and is wondering who would I pay to have dinner with. So I asked the kids today who would they choose if they could have dinner with anyone. P immediately said Douglas Adams. He is a hard core fan. P would ask him what he meant with some of the things he wrote in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. N would like to meet Jim Carey and ask him for some acting tips. A would have liked to meet Freddy Mercury and asked him how he dealt with being so famous. So, we covered literature, acting and music. Not bad.

What about me? Since we are talking about anyone dead or alive I would choose Leonardo Da Vinci. What would I ask him? I would show him the modern world and ask him what the next few inventions should be. I bet he would come up with some pretty awesome stuff :-).

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Dinner with Obama

I mentioned to the boys that I got "invited" to a dinner with Obama. The catch? The required $35K donation. N was very excited and at the same time very disappointed that I wouldn't go. A asked me an interesting question: how much would I pay to go. I wasn't sure... Not much as I've been disappointed with Obama and have no interest in contributing to his political campaign - not to mention that "having dinner with celebrities" is not really my thing. I explained to the boys that Obama would probably raise $1MM towards his reelection campaign with this dinner. And that his target was to raise one billion dollars. The boys were surprised by this. What would all that money be for? TV, Radio, Newspapers, direct marketing, etc. etc.... But, asked P, shouldn't he just be focused on being a good president rather than on raising money to run again? Ahhh, to be young and naive!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Lindbergh vs. Nungesser

There is an article in today's paper about a French historian who believes a French aviator, Charles Nungesser, actually beat Charles Lindbergh in crossing the Atlantic. The attempt took place two weeks before Lindbergh's flight but Nungesser went missing and was presumed to have crashed on the ocean. The historian just uncovered some coast guard records that point to him having crashed on the mainland of the US - thus having beaten Lindberg, even if he died in the process... The reason they were all trying at the same time is that there was a prize of $25,000 (1919 dollars) for the first one to accomplish the crossing.

I mentioned to the boys that prizes such as this one (and the X Prize, the Netflix challenge, Darpa's challenges, etc.) have spurred great innovations. I asked them why they thought that prizes were a good approach. P said that the competitive nature of prizes got people trying really hard. A said that the prize sponsor only had to pay for success, as opposed to taking the risk of funding someone who might fail. I agreed these were key factors and added a third one: a prize of $25K might generate a combined investment by all the participants of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. Prize money has a multiplicative effect.

I asked the boys for suggestion on the W Prize. A prize they would compete on which C & I would fund. Nothing viable came out but I think there might be something there...

Friday, September 2, 2011

There are no original ideas

We were brainstorming today about the kids' middle school science projects. Since P has a microscope I suggested he do something that used it. I thought he could take samples throughout the school, e.g., water fountain, cafeteria, biology lab, and see in his microscopes what bacteria and other things they had. We all got talking about this idea a bit then N said P wouldn't do it. Why, I asked. Because it was not his idea N said. I told them that few ideas were entirely original. Most are based on existing ideas, then modified, and, most importantly, well executed. What matter was not whether P had had the original idea or whether I had suggested it. But what P would do with it: make it his own, refine it, execute it. I gave them the example of my first start-up, which was the first company that measured web traffic. The inspiration for the company came from someone else' suggestion (back in 1993) that the Internet needed the equivalent of supermarket scanners to track everything. I combined that, with some existing analytics tool to create a company that was original on its own. The same can be said for most of the "new" products and services that we are familiar: the iPhone, Google, FaceBook, etc.

I think the got it, although P then told me about his own original idea for a science project :-). I liked it even better than mine!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Don't Do Anything Halfhearted

Back to school for A & P. N starts on Thursday. I thought today was an appropriate day to tell the boys about my recent commitment to do things wholeheartedly or not at all. In reviewing what was working well and what was not in my professional life I concluded I needed to eliminate those things I was doing halfheartedly. The boys don't have the luxury of eliminating some of the things they are doing halfheartedly, e.g., some classes, piano practice, but I made the case that if you are forced to do something, you might as well do it wholeheartedly. Why? By giving it your best you often discover that something you thought was boring or uninteresting can actually be fun. You can make it so. Otherwise, you are not giving that activity a chance. Also, when we only devote part of our attention to something and, for example, read or draw something unrelated in a class (or check our email during a meeting) we are actually kidding ourselves into thinking we are making better use of our time. The reality, at least most of the times, is that we are not less bored and don't really accomplish much else. All we are doing is a crappy job at more than one thing at a time!

I know this is easier said than done and it takes some discipline, so some "tricks" might help. For example, suppose you have a lousy teacher, rather than "check out" form the class and daydream or draw, maybe you can have some fun challenging the teacher. The teacher might not like it, and it might even get you in more trouble than just checking out, but you will probably get more out of it - and have a better time.

Monday, August 22, 2011

On Being Helpful...

I have a relative, who shall remain nameless, who can't see someone struggling with something without trying to help. That is often a great thing and he does help we he can. But, he sometimes tries to help even we he can't and in so doing makes the situation worse. I'll give an example: I am very tech savvy, he is not. I was struggling to figure out the navigation system of a rented car and he couldn't help himself from trying to do it himself. But rather than helping me, he got in my - trying things that I had already tried or that were simply wrong. I don't mean to say that we should let the "experts" alone and not contribute on matters in which we know less. Sometimes you need to be ignorant about something to view it in a new creative way, My point is that when we see someone struggling, we should fight the frequent urge to try to take over the challenge and address it ourselves - even if we are in no better position (or even a worst one) to do it. What can we do? How about offering specific help, such as "do you want me to hold the manual for you?", or "do you want me to call someone and ask for help?". Or, if you believe you have specific information the person is missing, you could share it politely, e.g., "Have you tried the Red cable on the top instead of the bottom".

Another related issue is when too many people try to help at once. The poor person who is struggling has to deal with a cacophony of voiced giving him contradictory recommendations. This can be particularly bad when the struggle is related to hearing something, which obviously is nos imposible to hear on top of all the advice. Why did I discuss this topic? Yesterday I was trying to put the buggy inside the balsa that takes us across the Cunhau River. It is best to go in reverse to make the exit from the balsa easier. I was struggling with the buggy and couldn't understand what the balseiro was telling me. I knew he wanted me to move the buggy, but I couldn't figure out where to. As I was using all my concentration powers to understand his Portuguese, one of the boys started telling me (rather loudly) to leave the buggy where it was. In so doing he made it harder for me to hear the balseiro and wasn't helpful - even though he obviously had the best of intentions.

I think it is human nature to try to "take over" when someone is struggling with something. Reminds me of the scene in the movie Airplane in which a passenger becomes hysterical and the other passenger start taking turns trying to calm her down - until you see a line of people with ever larger weapons...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Adjusting Plans

One of my favorite features of GPS Navigation systems is the automatic route recalculation they do if you take a wrong turn: "recalculating route". It takes the stress out of making a mistake because the navigation system quickly gives you a new route from your new location. Sure, you might have lost a few minutes, but that is rarely an issue. Humans are not as good at constantly recalculating routes...

Yesterday we were planning for me to take the kite gear to the kite center in the buggy, then return the buggy to its owner, then walk back to the house so that we could all walk to the kite center. At the last minute we decided to have A come with me in case the buggy broke down. We also got delayed so that by the time we were returning the buggy, C and the other boys were already leaving the house and walking to the kite center. It would have then made the most sense for A to stay at the kite center rather than walk back and forth to the house with me, but we had failed to "recalculate" our plan and A had not changed into his bathing suit before leaving the house. Not necessarily a huge deal, A had to walk an extra half hour, but this lack of adjusting plans when I change them at the last moment sometimes gets me in bigger troubles. What made perfect sense before, no longer makes sense after a minor adjustment, and we fail to recognize the need to "recalculate" until it is too late. We take great care in making our plans but then fail to grasp how a last minute change might totally ruin them. Not sure there is an easy answer to this other than being vigilant to the implications of seemingly small changes to our well thought out plans.

Friday, August 19, 2011

You Might be Surprised What You get by Just Asking

We are traveling in the North East of Brazil. Yesterday we rented a beach buggy. Unfortunately the buggy is not quite to the standards of Hertz... We got it with almost no fuel and were at risk of running out (as there is no fuel station in our town). The tide was low so we decided to cross the river to the sandbar to kite a bit before dealing with the fuel situation. On the balsa (barge) across we were joined by another buggy, but this one had a tour guide as a driver. I know that some buggys carry a plastic bottle with a few liters of fuel as reserve so I approached the driver and asked him (in my non existent Portuguese) if he would sell me his reserve. He said he didn't have a fuel reserve but that if we were going to be at the sandbar for a while, he could bring me some fuel on his way back from his tour. Long story short: I gave him 20 Reals and a couple of hours later as we were packing our kiting gear he showed up with a couple of plastic bottles worth of fuel. Lesson for the kids: ask and you might be (pleasantly) surprised with what you get. And if not, not much lost. Corollary: sometime you have to trust people. The driver could have disappeared with my 20 Reals... Which, again, wouldn't have been a huge loss for me.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Help me Help you - Part 2

[N: Ariel, you already told us this story! A: No, wait, this is a bit different! BTW: Glad you are paying attention :-)]

I am often approached by entrepreneurs asking for advice. Some make it easy to help them. Some very hard. How can you help someone help you? A few suggestions:

1) Be specific. It is much easier for me to provide feedback on a specific marketing initiative, for example, or on a specific potential investor, than to answer a broad question such as "how should we go about marketing" or "who should we raise money from".

2) Do your homework. Don't ask something that you can easily learn yourself on the Internet. For example, if you are looking for an adviser with experience in pricing, you might be able to identify such a person and simply ask me for an introduction - rather than putting me to work and ask me to recommend someone.

3) Add Value. I've learned things from some very young and inexperienced entrepreneurs. I remember a specific young entrepreneur (then a college drop-out, now a successful venture capitalist after taking his company public) who would research his industry in such depth that he would know every company, product and individual in it. So, when he contacted someone in the industry asking for advice or some other help, he would also help them by sharing with them his know-how, and sometimes even making personal introductions to some of the other people that he had contacted.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunk Costs - And Throwing Good Money After Bad

I spent over six months negotiating with my neighbors to get their support to build a roof deck. In addition to the time, the process was also costly thanks to legal and design fees. Fortunately we reached an agreement. Unfortunately, the revised cost estimate for actually building the roof came in at twice the cost of the initial estimate. It is so high that I am debating whether to proceed. Now, after devoting so much time, energy and money to reaching an agreement with my neighbors it is tempting to proceed with the project regardless of the cost. Otherwise, all my efforts would have been for nothing. However, what I've already done is a "sunk cost". There is no point in thinking too much about it. I must focus on the future and decide whether the additional cost of the project justifies it. It is a tough call... And, ideally, I should have gotten a more accurate estimate beforehand. Unfortunately we first needed to agree on the design compromise in order to get a proper estimate.

We also spoke about throwing "good money after bad". Suppose you buy a fancy espresso machine and it breaks down. Turned out it was an unreliable machine. You might be better off throwing it away and buying a new more reliable machine than spending a lot of money fixing the old one. Or, suppose you invest in a start-up and it turns out the entrepreneurs wasted your money. It might be tempting to give them more money so that the start-up stays in business and you don't "lose" your original investment, but if the entrepreneurs are no good, it would be better to "cut your loses".

Friday, April 1, 2011

We are moving to Cabarete!

I dropped the bomb on P & N this morning that after the summer we are moving to Cabarete for one year. They took it better than I expected. N's main frustration was having to go to school in Spanish. P was worried about having a proper piano to play on. And then they were very sad about the fact that we are going to sell our SF house and look for a new place when we come back. N said he would really miss our view...

Happy April's Fool Day!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Venezuelan Chocolate

This morning I had to ask a small favor from a very busy person that I barely know. I mentioned that to C as I was about to leave the house and she suggested that I take some Venezuelan chocolate to our meeting. A small show of goodwill to get him on my side. Since I knew he has kids, I figured I could give him the chocolate for the kids... Sometimes, the little details can make a big difference.

So, did it work? Indirectly. He wasn't that excited about the chocolates but when he found out that I am from Venezuela he was all excited to talk about idiotic communists such as Chavez. Turns out he is from the Czech Republic and suffered first hand from communism. We spent some time talking about Venezuela and the Czech Republic and definitely developed a bit of a personal connection. I guess you can say that the chocolates worked - and it looks like I will get the help that I need :-).

Monday, March 28, 2011

Reap what you Sow

A is in an exchange trip in Paris. He is staying with the family of a teen who came to stay with us a month ago. When his correspondent was with us, C sent his mother frequent reports about him. She did it because she knew his family would appreciate it, but also because she hoped they would do the same when A went to stay with them. So far it seems to be working: A has been there for two days and we have gotten two reports from the family :-). Cosecharas lo que sembraste...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Jump on Opportunities

We spoke a bit about how much in life is driven by random events, or what some people would call "luck". I told the boys the story of the women who rented an extra bedroom in her house (or something like that) to the founders of Google. She is now one of Google's top executive's - and needless to say extremely wealthy. But, was it just luck? Of course not. Three key factors turn "luck" into success:

1) Being prepared. The women in the above example had an MBA from a top university and was well positioned to add value to Google. Imagine instead if she had no college degree and no appreciation for start-ups and technology. It is unlikely she would have gotten involved with the company.

2) Maximize the chances of "lucky events". What are the odds that the tenants of your extra bedroom are working on the next technology home run if you live in suburban South Dakota (I hope I am not offending anyone)? The point is that lots of the things we do impact the chances of having "good luck". Your college roommate might become the founder of Facebook or Microsoft right? Well, seems like going to Harvard increases the odds of such an event... Or, attending events, such as conferences, attended by other interesting people... Many of the serendipitous events of history can be tracked to actions that someone took that increased the odds of such an occurrence.

3) And the final point is to jump on opportunities. If you get a job offer at the next Google, will you take it right away? If you wait too long, the opportunity might disappear. And, btw, I am not referring to situations in which you are not sure the opportunity is a good one. In those, you should figure that out quickly and either accept or decline. You will get some wrong (I know I have) but those that you get right you will benefit from. Hiring people is the same: you meet someone great? Don't procrastinate or she might take another job.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Do you want me to come back later?

I was out of town at a conference and needed to sign and scan a document. I went to the conference's concierge desk and ask them if they could scan and email the document for me. They said yes, but then were taking a while to do it while trying to juggle several tasks. I couldn't keep waiting, but since they were doing me a favor I didn't know how best to tell them to hurry up. As the expression says "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth". But then it hit me. I ask the person helping me if she wanted me to come back some other time to deal with this. She realized that she had been keeping me waiting and said no, she would finish it right now, which she did. It is a pretty universal rule that the nicer you are at getting your points across the likelier people are to help you...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Help Others Help You

I was at a conference recently at which each attendee got a bag full of goodies from sponsors. During the conference I found out that I had not gotten the coolest goodie: a Bluetooth speakerphone. I went to the person handing out the bags and asked her for one. She said that unfortunately the sponsor had not given them enough and they had run out. No worries I said, here is my business card with my mailing address. After the conference she could get more from the sponsor and mail it to me. My intention was to help her solve my "problem". It wouldn't have done much good to get upset and say that I deserved one yada yada. Well, my approach worked better than I expected: I put her in a situation in which it was hard for her to say no, yet she probably didn't want to deal with the hassle of mailing something to me. So, what happened? She suddenly remembered that they might have saved a few extra goodies in the back and within a minute I had my Bluetooth speaker - which, btw, turned out to be great for hearing music when traveling :-).

Friday, February 25, 2011

When trying something is a lose-lose situation

I was telling the boys today how I have never smoked a cigarette (seriously!). I asked them to guess why and they had several good reasons, but didn't really guess the gist of the matter. I never did it because I felt it was a lose-lose proposition. Suppose I smoke a cigarette and like it. Now I have something that I like but that I know I shouldn't do because it hurts me. Not a good place to be... On the other hand what if I try it and don't like it? That is not a great outcome either right? With hindsight I think most of us would skip the things that we try and didn't enjoy. Better to leave cigarettes alone!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Too Little Too Late

After ignoring the protesters for over a week, President Mubarak of Egypt finally went on TV last night and made some minor concessions. The analysts this morning described his speech as "too little too late". Had Mubarak reacted quickly to the protests and made some significant concessions, he probably would have prevented the protests from escalating. Instead, he waited too long and let the problem get much bigger - then did not deal with it with properly. [we now know Mubarak eventually had to resign altogether].

I gave the kids other examples of this: if we start falling behind at school, the sooner we deal with the problem the better. If we wait too long the knowledge gap often becomes so large it is impossible to address it in time. Or, if we start getting out of shape or gaining weight, it might be manageable to address the situation early with some moderate exercise and a reasonable diet. But if we let the situation deteriorate we might end up needing a medical intervention or worst.

Stay ahead of the problems and they will stay small (well, at least most of the times).

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Customer Economics

Had a pretty "utilitarian" chat with the boys today... I told about my visit to the optometrist yesterday. I am trying out some contact lenses and wasn't happy with the pair I had. Asked the optometrist if I could try a different brand. She suggested that I first tray a different cleaning solution with my existing contacts. I told her that she should give me both the new cleaning solution AND a new pair of contacts. Why? The contact sample don't cost much (if anything) yet her time (and mine) are pretty valuable. Why risk having to schedule a follow up visit in a few days? She agreed and gave them to me... My point to the boys: we sometimes save a little bit of money but then end up spending precious (more valuable) time as a result. Be it on ourselves or our customers.

This led us to a brief conversation about good customers vs. bad customers. The contact lens trial has a fixed cost and an unlimited number of visits and lenses that I can try to find the right ones. I'll probably end up costing money to the optometrist as I want to find the best possible lenses and I am willing to try different brands and types. Other customers probably give up after the first pair - or find some that are good enough for them. Those are great customers. Sometimes you need to factor this into the price because you can't afford the "bad" customers. Other times you are better off taking your losses with the bad customers as a trade off for more good customers. Sort of like an "all you can eat" buffet. Of course, you can try some middle ground, e.g., "one lobster per customer & no eating the sushi without the rice".

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Second Guessing Yourself

A couple of days after buying some airline tickets with miles I found myself re-checking how much it would have cost to purchase them outright, and second guessing my decision of using miles to buy them. I mentioned to the boys that it was important to establish some criteria for when it made sense to second guess yourself, and when it didn't. In my case I consider:

1) Can I do something about it if I change my mind? No point in revisiting a decision about which nothing can be done, e.g., should I have gone to see that movie yesterday? On the other hand, if there is still time to do something, then it might be worthwhile to think about it. For example, A concluded he shouldn't have bought an iPad. He was able to resell and thus undo most of the "damage".

2) How significant was the decision? A major decision, such as where to go to school or where to go to work might deserve additional "analysis". But we shouldn't rethink minor things such as whether we picked the best shaving cream at the store the day before.

3) Finally, I try to avoid things that stress me, while devoting time to those that I enjoy.

The day after this conversation N came to me and told me he was second guessing his decision to cancel his WOW subscription the previos week. His friends were very disappointed he was not playing with them anymore. That was an easy one: after a bit of analysis he decided to reactive it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In an elevator with James Cameron

P can be pretty longwinded in his explanations - I know, I know, he is only 10... Still, this morning I played a "game" with them to help them practice being concise. I told them to imagine walking into an elevator and bumping into James Cameron (they all saw and loved Avatar). He might offer them a role in his next movie, but he has a test: during the elevator ride they must describe to him a movie. Any movie. The point is, can they skip superfluos details and get all the key points? I went first and did Iron Giant. P did Pirates of the Caribbean 3, A did i Robot and I forget the movie N did [note to self: fix this after I find out]. As expected, they struggled a bit. And N in particular was frustrated. I explained that being concise is something that even most adults can't do. It takes practice, as most other things. But it is an important and worthwhile skill to pursue.

How was that? Was this entry concise enough? Maybe I could have skipped the specific movies we each did :-)...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Moments of Leverage

A mentioned that he wished his school would add rock-climbing as PE elective. I told him that now was a good time to ask the school's administration for this because he had leverage. What leverage? He is in the process of deciding which high school to attend. His school is k-12 and encourages all students to stay there for high school. They know he is considering other high schools and will make an effort to retain him. I don't know if they will go as far as adding rock-climbing to the school's program, but now is certainly the best time to try.

I mentioned to the boys that when I am trying to hire people I sometimes get pretty extreme requests: "I am almost ready to accept this position but I have an issue. I booked a month long trip to Antartica next Winter". If this person was already working at my company and was full of responsibilities I might have a hard time agreeing to him taking a month off to go to Antartica. But when I am trying to hire him, he has a lot more leverage. If that is what it will take to get him, I'll probably accept. Besides, the person doesn't yet have responsibilities - and I can even rationalize that if I don't hire him, it might take me another month to hire someone else, so I wouldn't be any better off saying no.

It is similar to when you are negotiating to buy something: before you've paid (or agreed to pay) you might get a few extras from the seller (how about a set of mats for that new car?). After you paid? You are at the seller's mercy...

One final point: A hasn't yet heard back from the other high schools that he applied to. He might not get into any of them (other than his current one). But then he might. He shouldn't wait until he gets the answers because he risks losing his leverage if he doesn't get in. Moments of leverage can be ephemeral: take them when you have them!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Chinese Mothers

I recently read a fascinating article in the paper contrasting the stereotypical "Chinese mother" with the stereotypical "American mother". Wont rehash the piece here, but basically the Chinese mother forces her kids to do what she knows is best (Get straight As, practice 3 hours of violin per day, have no sleepovers, play no computer games, etc.), while the American mother gives her children more freedom and more fun.

I suggested to the kids that we try the "Chinese" approach for a month. N went ballistic. A just gave me a smile that meant "good luck trying". P thought it was a good idea. We had an interesting conversation about the trade-offs of extra effort and sacrifices today for benefits in the future. There is no question that practicing piano for 3 hours per day wouldn't be fun for them, or that studying a lot more to get straight As wouldn't either, but there is no denying that being a better piano player and having better grades would have benefits down the road.

But is the future more important than the present? Is going to a "better" college more important than having fun in high-school? The argument for focusing on the future is that it is, to a certain extent, "unlimited". At the very least longer than the present (for most people at least). But where do you draw the line? When do you transition from saving to spending? When does the son know better than the mother? To quote my favorite band:

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find that ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

Thursday, January 6, 2011

BCC Etiquette and history

Nico saw me writing an email with someone in the BCC field. He asked me what BCC meant. Turned out none of the boys knew. They didn't know what the cc field was for either. I explained the CC field to them along with the origin of the term, at least what I think is the origin: "Carbon Copy" from the time when we used typewriters and carbon paper to make copies. I think the boys have a hard time relating to such ancient times and methods...

We then spoke about BCC. It is a somewhat delicate tool: blindly copying someone. I gave them examples of situations in which it was appropriate, such as BCC'ing someone from my own company in an external communication, or, maybe BCC'ing someone's boss/superior when you don't want them to feel like you are trying to make them look bad - but you do want their superior to be aware of the situation. I also mentioned to them the common BCC faux pais of replying to all when you are BCCed on an email. If someone BCCs you, they might not want the public recipients of the email to know about it. So don't reply to all unless you know it is OK. Just a few weeks ago someone did that to me. I found it frustrating and was incredulous that this person had been so careless.

Does Facebook have CC and BCC? If not, maybe all of this is irrelevant for my kids!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Be Careful with the Expectations that you Set

During our recent holiday we took a surfing course. The instructor agreed to pick us up the first day at 9am. Since we were in the Caribbean I assumed he would show up around 9:15am, but to my surprise he came at 9am sharp. The next day he came at 9am again. I figured it was his German origins and concluded he would be on time in the future. So when he hadn't showed up at 9:05am on the third day I got annoyed. He eventually arrived around 9:07am and was very apologetic for being so late. Truth is, seven minutes is nothing in the Caribbean - particularly for a surfing lesson! But by being on time the first two days Marcus had set up an expectation in us that he would be on time in the future? It reminded me of something that happened in the office a month ago: we have a new contractor to whom we agreed to pay Net-30, i.e., within 30 days of the end of the month. During the first week of the month one of my co-workers asked me to pay the contractor for the previous month. I said no. I said I didn't want to set the expectation in him we would pay him on the first week of the month. I suggested waiting until the 2nd or 3rd week of the month.

Sometimes it makes sense to "under-deliver" to set "appropriate" expectations and then be able to exceed them in the future.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Rip Currents

We took some surfing lessons during the holidays. The instructor explained to us what to do if we found ourselves in a rip current: don't fight it. Stay relaxed and swim sideways until there is no more current, then swim back to the beach. Last night our street reminded me of rip currents. It is a very steep street made out of bricks. When it rains some cars have a really hard time making it up. We hear their tires screeching as they try and try. They should pretend our street is a rip current and go up one of the parallel streets (which are not slippery because they are not made out of bricks). I discussed this with the boys and gave them a challenge: design a street sign that conveys the point that cars should go for a parallel street when ours is slippery. I also mentioned that many things in life are similar to rip currents. The key is to know when it is best to swim sideways for less current and when not to. We also talked about the fact that the current is not really what downs you, as it is simply moving you. People drown because they become exhausted from swimming against the current (until they can no longer thread water). Same as in many other things in life: it is often how we react to challenges that gets us in trouble, not the challenges themselves.