Ashok's Blog

I think therefore I blog.

Sensitivity to Aesthetics

Since I was a child, I’ve always been sensitive to aesthetics.  A beauty of an Eames Lounge Chair, the cut of a perfectly tailored blazer, or the button on a website that you know took the designer about 73 layer masks to complete. But there’s an idea in business, even ones that have deep creative implications, that focus on beauty is distraction from efficiency.  There’s an idea that it’s a zero sum game.  To gain efficiency, one must not waste time on how they dress.  They should wear a sweatshirt.  One must not waste time on how their website looks.  It should be built in wordpress.  Or even more scary, how their website feels.

It’s all bullshit.

It’s true that excessive focus on styling of a website, or the cut of a suit has no direct link to the quality of your work.  (I use the internet here as the example since that’s what I know).  But in any business, in any pursuit, the emotional response that one has to your work is why they continue to come back.  It’s not always that it’s the cheapest or the fastest.  But does it solve a problem one has in a way that makes that experience uniquely affecting.

Pinterest is a good example of this.  Yes Pinterest is fast, and yes Pinterest works remarkably well for what the underlying goal is, of saving and sharing beautiful imagery.  But Pinterest strikes a deeper chord in most of us.  As Ben Silbermann, the CEO once said, “We want you to feel as if it was built for you.  As if it’s your own magazine of all the things you love”.  That’s why it works so well and that’s why their usage metrics are through the roof.  People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

It’s not a hoodie that builds an empire.  It’s the idea that the world can be connected.  So don’t just build things that work.  Build things that work beautifully.  Build things that are so beautiful to use, they disappear into your life.

How To Find a Co Founder in 24 hours

It’s unbelievably tough to find the right co founder.  There are so many variables to consider, the truth is that most teams are often doomed before they begin.  Some do try to address these variables.  Finding someone who has executed in the past seems to be the first metric, quickly followed by a brief, yet often failed, test of team chemistry, and then off to the races.  Understanding one’s propensity for risk, determination, potential for friendship and the ability to actually execute all come into this equation.  But with the market moving so fast, and large companies iterating so rapidly, how do you address these metrics fast enough so you can begin building and developing customers? How do you know the guy you’ve picked can build fast enough?  Or that the non technical developer can design well enough, or network well enough? Build.  Not your original idea.  But something (relatively) small, something that can be done in a weekend.  Something that forces you to stay awake for 30 straight hours coding and reiterating at a pace faster than anyone would expect of you.  Something that you’re proud of.  Something that allows you to say, “we’re proud of it”.

I met Travis on techcofounder.com.  Arguably not the best way to begin a company.  Sure these co founder networking websites seem to be solving some arguable gap in the market, but they’re generally not the best place to meet talent.  That being said, Travis sent me an email after I heavily pitched him and we met for a coffee.  We brainstormed my idea, spoke about the customer development I had done, spoke about his projects, had a few laughs and decided to meet later that week for drinks.  Last Thursday we met for drinks and had a fantastic idea to give each other a measurable guage of the other.  We felt we could work well together but we really had no way of saying that was true.  So why not build something?  Inspired in part by the Startup Bus, we set out to build an MVP in 24 hours.  But not just any small web application.  An application that wouldn’t even be considered an MVP because of the pace and depth we forced ourselves to build at.  We built http://thestyli.st.

It wasn’t easy.  Between the twelve pack of Cola, the pizzas, the hours, the unseasonal warm weather in NYC that we had to avoid, the sleep we lost, the St Patty’s drinks we missed, and the overall zombie like nature we found ourselves in the next day, it was definitely not easy.  But out of all of it, we learned something.  Not just about the other person.  Not just that the other person could execute, and was excited to build.  And that it was fun to build with them.  But we learned something about ourselves.  That we could do it if we wanted to.  That with enough self determination and grinding, you can build an awesome, beautiful web application in 24 hours.  Most people can’t say that, and now, as a team, we can.

It’s been the most fruitful 24 hours for me in this search to find a co founder.  Wasteful are the hours you spend going to co founder networking events.  Wasteful are the hours you spend sending hundreds of emails to friends asking them to find someone for you.  The truth is things are only going to get more difficult.  Finding the right co founder gets you most of the way in truth, but there are far more things to figure out in building a great company.  But finding someone is the first and most important step.  Pick someone, try and build and move on if it doesn’t work.  It’s a simple, albeit tiring, filtering mechanism in building a team that I think more people should adopt.  It worked for us.

Being Afraid to Share Who You Are

I hope this post doesn’t come off as too preachy, but I’ve recently taken to posting music that some would call questionable in the traditionally “cool” sense.  Music like Dave Matthews playing with Tim Reyonlds.  Music like Alexi Murdoch.  Music that most would find correlates with a specific kind of person.  Those types of generalizations are part of why most people update their status’ using very calculated posts.  Ones that portray them to be the person they think they want to be.  The person that they think others will most respect.  The truth though is that respect comes from having the courage to show the world who you really are.   While social media allows you to convince others that you’re not really listening to a specific song, or reading a specific book, or watching a specific tv show by curating your updates, the ability to understand the value in diverse interests is what depth is all about.

Music is supposed to inspire emotion.  So how does a logical person rationalize the value in only listening to one specific type of music?  And if you actually do listen to multiple genres, why not share that with your graph?  Inspire others to be unafraid of showing the world who they are.   I listen to Dave and Tim when I want to sit down with a coffee and a cigarette and think about the mistakes I’ve made in my life.  And think about what the future may hold.  I listen to Thugz Mansion when I want to realize how much of my life I take for granted.  I listen to Led Zeppelin when I want to feel like I’m a sex god and live in a world of delusion.  And I listen to Tyler and Pusha when I want to feel like a boss.  Emotion isn’t unidimensional.  There’s no reason to prove to the world that you are as well.

The Long Tail of Social Sharing

Pinterest, Tumblr, Facebook, Blogging, Twitter.  It seems like we’re approaching the long tail of sharing online.  The question is how?  What’s the best medium for sharing photos?  Where do I tell my friends about what I’m currently doing?  Compartmentalizing and understanding how to share all that we consume online and offline is an important part of any social media strategy.  It’s an important part of understanding the ongoing paradigm shift in sharing.  No longer is one platform most efficient in sharing all mediums of information.  As we are given more platforms, and our social graph is diluted among these platforms, it’s important to think about how to share, and why we share.

Content is king. The problem with that is that content is extremely easy to disseminate these days.  But that complicates things as the signal to noise ratio is completely out of whack.  But as more and more platforms cater to specific aesthetics, interests, and mediums of content,  users can now choose where and how to share content they consume.  This is both good for the user, their social graph, and for the content creator.  It allows content to efficiently find the most viable distribution platform where similar minded users will share and enjoy said content.  For example, Pinterest, on a current unheard of tear,  is slowly shaping up to be the best place to share photos.  But particularly, photos related to style, design and food.   And Pinterest doesn’t need to enunciate that as their users have decided that.  And that’s a good thing.  It shows that users have taken to a platform to share a very specific set of content.  While it may sometimes seem cluttered at first glance, there’s actually very little noise on Pinterest.  Hence the hockey stick growth chart.

Probably the most interesting thing about the long tail of social startups is that it’s not a long tail in a traditional sense.  And that’s primarily because of how many social startups there are today.  In an economic sense, the startups we talk about are actually the blockbusters. They’re on the left hand side of the graph.  Where the long tail model comes into play here is in the way users approach the startups.  They have to completely rethink the way they understand sharing.  So in a market where there’s even five blockbusters, that’s four more than we’re conditioned to accept.  But it seems like that model is what’s going to win out.   Understanding how to accept various platforms and knowing how to take full advantage of them.  And that’s when users will have power over what tracks.  Over what content hits and where it hits.  Because as Mark Twain said, “Public Opinion… is the voice of God” and the internet has shown that to be truly so.

IPO’s, The Social Web, and an auction from Holland

The recent ruckus around Facebook’s IPO has forced me to come back to blogging.  Not in my adult life, or even post pubescent life has such a media frenzy around an IPO been seen.  Are valuations too high?  Who can justify $700,000 in private airfare?  Facebook’s ability, (or according to some, lack thereof), in creating shared value that’s resilient to the rest of time is under question, and rightfully so.  Are the naysayers wrong?  It’s too early too tell.  One thing is for sure.  Facebook controls the social internet.  The question is if that means anything yet.

The easiest comparison would be Google.  And it seems to be the only comparison most can come up with.  The problem with equating the Google situation to Facebook’s is that it’s an Apples v. Oranges argument.  Google was insistent on using a Dutch auction.  An auction, that in their eyes, avoided volatility by forcing a market equilibrium.   But for a company like Google, who is so deeply technical in value, that’s okay.   Few knew about the true value of a company like Google, at the time, relative to their competitor Yahoo.  The level of information asymmetry allowed an efficient rational price set using the model of the Dutch Auction.   But Facebook isn’t Google.

Your grandmother knows about Facebook.  Never before has a company reached so many people so quickly and on such a deeply personal level.  How that translates to revenue isn’t even the argument here.  There’s in effect no information asymmetry, which by design creates shared value.  It doesn’t concentrate value in the hands of investors, but in the hands of it’s users.  By taking the route of a traditional IPO, you allow more investors into the mix, by definition creating a much more rational market equilibrium.

Most argue the future of the web will be driven by mostly social mechanics.  Who not better to back then the company that owns that space?  Sure their revenue is only $4 and change/user and they need to accelerate that as they scale, otherwise their current multiple on their revenue simply purely isn’t sustainable.  At least not for a public company.  But why is no one talking about the single biggest value add that Facebook has given itself?  Their platform.  By initiating a well designed, well executed platform, Facebook hasn’t focused as much on creating revenue for itself, but has designed a market that forces smart entrepreneurs to not compete with it, but leverage it.  Leverage its network, its data, and its access.  Everyone is talking about how important Zynga, the other hot IPO of late, is to Facebook (it’s even up 26% since the filing on Wednesday).  Sure 12% is a significant amount.  And amount that, if lost, could cause Facebook to stumble.  But Zynga makes 93% of their revenue from goods sold on Facebook’s platform!!  Without Facebook, there would be no Zynga.  The inversion here is NOT true.  Zuckerberg has effectively made sure that the next Zuckerberg won’t beat Zuckerberg!  The ecosystem of entrepreneurs today understand the value of Facebook’s network.  It’s a distribution platform, the likes of which has never been seen before.  That’s sustainability.  Instead of shipping and iterating at a rapid level (which, by the way, they do), they focused on polishing the user experience, and forcing competition to need them.  Facebook will scale.  They’re smart enough to accelerate revenue/user as well.  What others can’t do is take their network and their platform.  That’s the real value of Facebook.

Finding Solace in the Unknown

Sometimes I wonder what really drives me.  Is it the lack of success? The anticipation of failure?  The anticipation of grandeur?  As a former poker player, it was often the time between playing that was most engaging.  The unknown place that’s between now and what’s next.  Comforting in its solitude and morose in its ubiquity, it was what had not happened yet that was most appealing.

In starting a business there are times that frighten.  What if it all really works out?  Then what?  Of course, good problems aside, is there ever a time in an entrepreneurs life where that question is even worth asking?  Is it ethical to ask such a question?  Is it appropriate?  Is hesitant optimism too much of an oxymoron to take seriously?  What if customers don’t like the product?  What if they love the product?  What if it’s all for nothing?  What if it’s all for everything?

But in the end, when approaching such questions, I find myself realizing that it’s the questions that drive us.  It’s the unknown that drive entrepreneurs.  The unknown that compels us to wake up every morning to find out.  And, like the proverbial dog who tries ever so hard to catch his tail, we really wouldn’t know what to do when we catch it.  But, really?  That’s okay.  That’s what it’s all about.

Three Kinds of New Yorkers

I wanted to write a follow up piece to my posting on my Tumblelog titled “There are three kinds of New Yorkers”.   It’s a bit of a tangential post, but I hope you guys don’t mind me sharing.  I loved E.B White’s short summary of the three types of New York’s that she has encountered.  And primarily because of her laudatory praise of the third kind.  The third kind being the people who come here and see New York as a target.  As a place to achieve their dreams.  A place that will allow them to be the person they’ve dreamed of being.

After reading that quote, I’ve considered myself to be part of that third group.  Now thinking back, it was almost out of a process of elimination.  I wasn’t born in NYC (first group), I don’t commute to NYC (second group), so I must be part of the third (with the assumption that the three groups cover all of NYC—impossible, but go with it).  But there’s another reason I put myself into the third group.  It’s because, while I think I can achieve what I’ve set out to achieve much faster and much more efficiently in NYC, it’s that NYC stands as a beacon of hope for so many.  It stands as a light in the darkness of all the troubles that people live with.  And while I generally don’t like to talk in intangibles, the intangibility of hope is often the single biggest economic driver in a person’s success.  It’s that they believe there may be a better tomorrow.

Coming back to NYC from Cambridge, where I spent some time for work,  I noticed an older foreign couple on the bus.  It being NYC, the multicultural capital that it is, I just assumed they were going home.  As we approached the city, coming in from Brooklyn, the woman, who must have been at least 65, actually stood up as the bus was moving to get a better glimpse of the skyline.  She actually had to hold on to two of the seats just to keep her balance.  At one point, I was going to go over and help her because her husband was sleeping, but she soon sat down.   While watching this woman, I saw something I hadn’t seen in a long time.  A look that I had only seen once in my cousin’s eyes when he had first moved to NYC from India.  I could see in her eyes that she truly believed things would get better for her.  That maybe she wouldn’t be so unlucky anymore.  That there was a chance.  As Thomas Wolfe said, “One belongs to New York instantly.  One belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years”.

The Social Media (lack of a) Bubble PT1 : Personal Connections

Umair Haque, a brilliant Economist from London who runs his own shop, Havas Media Lab, recently wrote an article for Harvard Business Review titled “The Social Media Bubble”. He likens what he thinks are “low quality connections” that we encounter in social media to the subprime mortgage market–“linkages that are unlikely to yield meaningful, lasting relationships”.

Now while I generally do agree with Umair’s hypotheses, I do have to disagree with him here.  This is Part 1 of my rebuttal, the second one refuting his argument against social media marketing.

Nominally, you have a lot more relationships — but in reality, few, if any, are actually valuable. Just as currency inflation debases money, so social inflation debases relationships. The very word “relationship” is being cheapened. It used to mean someone you could count on. Today, it means someone you can swap bits with.

Thin relationships are the illusion of real relationships. Real relationships are patterns of mutual investment. I invest in you, you invest in me. Parents, kids, spouses — all are multiple digit investments, of time, money, knowledge, and attention. The “relationships” at the heart of the social bubble aren’t real because they’re not marked by mutual investment . At most, they’re marked by a tiny chunk of information or attention here or there.

I think Umair misses the point of social media.  For simplicity, let’s use Facebook as the standard.  Facebook is effectively a very, very, efficient networking tool.  And by that I mean it is essentially a rolodex that has much more than your name and number listed.  And that’s okay.  Because what Umair doesn’t realize is that for the youth, who meet people everywhere, Facebook allows us to stay in touch with those people who may be of some value in some capacity later on.  Whether it be for a restaurant recommendation in a foreign town, some advice on a new business idea where that “friend” is a domain expert, or simply to find a new apartment. Social Media provides connections and a way to manage those connections without any underlying obligation.

While it is true that most people only have so many relationships, and the majority of their connections consist of acquaintances (I think I remember reading somewhere that a human can only have something like 5 or 6 meaningful relationships based on the time it takes to invest into a meaningful relationship), the point of keeping in touch with those acquaintances can be likened to grabbing a business card at a conference.  You don’t know that you’ll ever need to contact that person, but if you do, or they do you, there’s already some basis of trust installed, even if it’s that you just met them for an hour over drinks.  Furthermore, I would argue that the lack of privacy, which is these days a good talking point, often leads to a deeper trust being built between both parties.  The simple fact that I can, if I want (and I don’t encourage social media stalking lol), follow X person’s digital life through her pictures or her status updates and that X person can follow mine, there is a mutual underlying trust that’s built by the framework of Facebook itself.  I’m allowing that person into my life simply by friending them, and vice versa.  The comfort level of which varies from person to person of course, but as we delve and embrace social media even more, it’s almost a sort of Pavlovian type of conditioning that we encounter in accepting these new types of interactions.  And that’s also okay.

Embracing and accepting these new changes in society is part of progression.  Interactions will be different online, and translating our physical world to the digital world is still a new idea.  But if we don’t accept the natural progression of things, and accept the way the market reacts to these new interactions, then we will force a bubble on ourselves that the market was not ready for.

How Social Media Helped Me Find An Apartment

Looking for an apartment in NYC isn’t easy.  “No Pets”. Ok, no problem.  “No smokers”.  Ehh, okay, no problem.  “No one under the age of 25″.  Slowly becoming a problem.  “No one who eats in the kitchen, eats meat, sleeps after 12AM, sleeps past 5AM, is okay with 14 roommates, is okay with 5 subways running all day within 10 feet of the windows and can walk up a 15 floor walkup.  It’s good for a workout!”.  Um, yeah.

The permutations and combinations of people’s expectations for roommates are endless.  Lucky you’d be to find an apartment that is being rented out by a compatible roommate, only to find out that the room itself is the size of a closet, requires income to be 100x rent and is in the middle of Long Island

Now the interesting thing here is not that I found an apartment through Facebook, and someone to fill my current share, but rather that the value on both ends is immediate.  Generally speaking, there’s an implied risk involved in finding a place to live, as well as finding someone to live in your place.  On both sides, the uncertainty involved creates a risk that’s mitigated by a deposit; i.e the financial security of the deposit counterbalances the downside that the roommate is a financial flake.

But with the social referral system that is Facebook, things are automatically mitigated.  The implied risk is much lower on both sides.  We assume that if someone is friends with a friend, they would be able to carry their own weight.  This of course can be a dangerous assumption, but is generally true.  And of course, correlation is not causality.  But there is a high correlation there, at least in my personal experience and come July 1st, I guess I’ll find out if I’m right.

Why Entrepreneurs Need To Be A Bit Delusional

Delusion.  Often derided, sometimes embraced, yet rarely so. Obviously, delusion has its negative connotations.  The craziness, the unexpected, the misunderstood.  But as an entrepreneur, being delusional, albeit, and maybe oxymoronically, rationally delusional, is as important as any piece of execution.  When the world says no, the entrepreneur must say yes.  As Reid Hoffman put it, “An entrepreneur will jump off a cliff and figure out how to make an airplane on the way down”.

The business world is a hard world.  And trying to start a business is even harder.  The numbers are just simply against you.  The majority of businesses fail, the majority of entrepreneurs fail, and the logical person would never get into either game.  But as any entrepreneur will tell you, it’s all they know.  It’s all that logically makes sense to them.

Entrepreneurs are optimistic animals by trade.   Everyone around will tell them they can’t do it.  And they will always tell themselves they can.  And this singly handedly is the difference between a successful business and an unsuccessful business.  The ability to keep going, to keep hustling and to keep believing when everything and everyone tells you otherwise.  As Henry Ford once said, “If you think you can or cannot, you’re right”.

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