Navigating the trough of sorrow

While I was reading through most of the success stories that were published on IndieHackers.com, it occurred to me that my project GetData.IO really took longer than most others to gain significant traction, a full 5 years actually.

The beginning

I first stumbled upon this project back in December 2012 when I was trying to solve two other problems of my own.

In my first problem, I was trying to identify the best stocks to buy on the Singapore Stock Exchange. While browsing through the stocks listed on their website, I soon realize that most stock exchanges as well as other financial websites gear their data presentation towards quick buy and sell behaviors. If you were looking to get data for granular analysis based on historical company performance as opposed to stock price movements, its like pulling teeth. Even then, important financial data I needed for decision making purposes were spread across multiple websites. This first problem lead me to write 2 web-scrappers, one for SGX.com and the other for Yahoo Finance, to extract data-sets which I later combined to help me with my investment decision-making process.

Once I happily parked my cash, I went back to working on my side project then. It was a travel portal which aggregates all the travel packages from tour agencies located in Southeast Asia. It was not long before I encountered my second problem… I had to write a bunch of web-scrapers again to pull data from vendor sites which do not have the APIs! Being forced to write my 3rd, 4th and maybe 5th web-scraper within a single week lead me to put on hold all work and step back to look at the bigger picture.

The insight

Being a web developer, and understanding how other web developers think, it quickly occurred to me the patterns that repeat themselves across webpage listings as well as nested webpages. This is especially true for naming conventions when it came to CSS styling. Developers tend to name their CSS classes the way they would actual physical objects in the world.

I figured if there existed a Semantic Query Language that is program independent, it would provide the benefit of querying webpages as if they were database tables while providing for clean abstraction of schema from the underlying technology. These two insights still prove true today after 6 years into the project.

The trough of sorrow

While the first 5 years depicted in the trend line above seem peaceful due to a lack of activity, it felt anything but peaceful. During this time, I was privately struggling with a bunch of challenges.

Team management mistakes and pre-mature scaling

First and foremost was team management. During the inception of the project my ex-schoolmate from years ago approached me to ask if there was any project that he could get involved in. Since I was working on this project, it was a natural that I would invited him to join the project. We soon got ourselves into an incubator in Singapore called JFDI.

In hindsight, while the experience provided us with general knowledge and friends, it really felt like going through a whirlwind. The most important piece of knowledge I came across during the incubation period was this book recommendation?—?The Founder’s dilemma. I wished I read the book before I made all of the mistakes I did.

There was a lot of hype (see the blip in mid-2013), tension and stress during the period between me and my ex-schoolmate. We went our separate ways due to differences in vision of how the project should proceed shortly after JDFI Demo Day. It was not long before I grew the team to a size of 6 and had it disbanded, realizing it was naive to scale in size before figuring out the monetization model.

Investor management mistakes

During this period of time, I also managed to commit a bunch of grave mistakes which I vow never to repeat again.

Mistake #1 was being too liberal with the stock allocation. When we incorporated the company, I was naive to believe the team would stay intact in its then configuration all the way through to the end. The cliff before vesting were to begin was only 3 months with full vesting occurring in 2 years. When my ex-schoolmate departed, the cap table was in a total mess with a huge chunk owned by a non-operator and none left for future employees without significant dilution of existing folks. This was the first serious red-flag when it came to fund raising.

Mistake #2 was giving away too much of the company for too little, too early in the project before achieving critical milestones. This was the second serious red-flag that really turned off follow up would-be investors.

Mistake #3 was not realizing the mindset difference of investors in Asia versus Silicon Valley, and thereafter picking the wrong geographical location (a.k.a network) to incubate the project. Incubating the project in the wrong network can be really detrimental to its future growth. Asian investors are inclined towards investing in applications that have a clear path to monetization while Silicon Valley investors are open towards investing in deep technology of which the path to monetization is yet apparent. During the subsequent period, I saw two similar projects incubated and successfully launched via Ycombinator.

The way I managed to fix the three problems above was to acquire funds I didn’t yet have by taking up a day job while relocating the project to back to the Valley’s network. I count my blessings for having friends who lend a helping hand when I was in a crunch.

Self-doubt

I remembered having the conversation with the head of the incubator two years into the project during my visit back to Singapore when he tried to convince me the project was going nowhere and I should just throw in the towel. I managed to convince him and more importantly myself to give it go for another 6 months till the end of the year.

I remember the evenings and weekends alone in my room while not working on my day job. In between spurts of coding, I would browse through the web or sit staring at the wall trying to envision how product market fit would look like. As what Steve Jobs mentioned once in his lecture, it felt like pushing against a wall with no signs of progress or movement whatever so. If anything, it was a lot of frustration, self-doubt and dejection. A few times, I felt like throwing in the towel and just giving up. For a period of 6 months in 2014, I actually stopped touching the code in total exasperation and just left the project running on auto-pilot, swearing to never look at it again.

The hiatus was not to last long though. A calling is just like the siren, even if somewhat faint sometimes, it calls out to you in the depths of night or when just strolling along on the serene beaches of California. It was not long before I was back on my MacBook plowing through the project again with renewed vigor.

First signs of life

It was mid-2015, the project was still not showing signs of any form of traction. I had by then stockpiled some cash from my day job and was starting to get interested in acquiring a piece of real estate with the hope of generating some cashflow to bootstrap the project while freeing up my own time. It was during this period of time that I got introduced to my friend’s room mate who also happened to be interested in real estate.

We started meeting on weekends and utilizing GetData.IO to gather real estate data for our real estate investment purposes. We were gonna perform machine learning for real estate. The scope of the project was really demanding. It was during this period of dog fooding that I started understanding how users would use GetData.IO. It was also then when I realized how shitty and unsuited the infrastructure was for the kind and scale of data harvesting required for projects like ours. It catalyzed a full rewrite of the infrastructure over the course of the next two years as well as brought the semantic query language to maturity.

Technical challenges

Similar to what Max Levchin mentioned in the book Founder’s at work, during this period of time there was always this fear in the back of my mind that I would encounter technical challenges which would be unsolvable.

The site would occasionally go down as we started scaling the volume of daily crawls. I would spend hours on the weekends digging through the logs to attempt at reproducing the error so as to understand the root cause. The operations was like a (data) pipeline, scaling one section of the pipeline without addressing further down sections would inevitably cause fissures and breakage. Some form of manual calculus in the head would always need to be performed to figure out the best configuration to balance the volume and the costs.

The number 1 hardest problem I had to tackle during this period of time was the problem of caching and storage. As the volume of data increase, storage cost increase and so did wait time required before data could be downloaded. This problem brought down the central database a few times.

After procrastinating for a while as the problem festered in mid-2016, I decided that it was to be the number 1 priority to be solved. I spend a good 4 months going to big-data and artificial intelligence MeetUps in the Bay Area to check out the types of solutions available for the problem faced. While no suitable solutions were found, the 4 months helped elicit corner cases to the problem which I did not previously thought of. I ended up building my own in-house solution.

Traction and Growth

An unforeseen side effect of solving the storage and caching problem was its effect on SEO. The effects on SEO would not be visible until mid-2017 when I started seeing increased volume of organic traffic to the site. As load times got reduced from more than a minute in some cases to less than 400 milliseconds seconds, the volume of pages indexed by bots would increase, accompanied by increase in volume of visitors and reduction in bounce rates.

Continued education

It was in early-2016 that I came across an article expounding the benefits of reading widely and deeply by Paul Graham which prompted me to pick up my hobby of reading again. A self-hack demonstrated to me by the same friend, who helped relocated me here to the Bay Area, which I pursued vehemently got me reading up to 1.5 books a week. These are books which I summarized on my personal blog for later reference. All the learnings developed my mental model of the world and greatly aided in the way I tackled the project.

Edmodo’s VP of engineering hammered in the importance of not boiling the ocean when attempting to solve a technical problem, of always being judicious with the use of resource during my time working as a tech-lead under his wing.  Another key lesson learned from him is that in some circumstances being liked and being effective do not go hand in hand. As the key decision maker, it is important to steadfastly practice the discipline of being effective.

Head of Design, Tim and Lukas helped me appreciate the significance of UX during my time working with them and how it ties to user psychology.

Edmodo’s CEO introduced us to mindfulness meditation late-2016 to help us weather through the turbulent times that was happening within the company then. It was rough. The practice which I have adopted till to date has helped keep my mind balance while navigating the uncertainties of the path I am treading.

Edmodo’s VP of product sent me for a course late-2017 which helped consolidate all the knowledge I have acquired till then into a coherent whole. The knowledge gained has helped greatly accelerated the progress of GetData.IO. During the same period, I was also introduced by him the Vipasanna mediation practice which coincidentally a large percentage of the management team practices.

One very significant paradigm shift I observed in myself during this period of continued education is the observed relationship between myself and the project. It has changed from an attitude of urgently needing to succeed at all cost to an attitude of open curiosity and fascination as one would an open ended science project.

Moving forward

To date, I have started working full time on the project again. GetData.IO has the support of more than 1,500 community members worldwide. Our mission is to turn the Web into the fully functional Giant Graph Database of Human Knowledge. Financially, with the help of our community members, the project is now self-sustaining. I feel grateful for all the support and lessons gained during this 6 year journey. I look forward to the journey ahead as I continue along my path.

Reflections on decentralized file storage

In the pursuit of the GetData.IO concept to its logical conclusion, one sees a wall where three problem needs to be solved to ensure no mega silo is created as a by-product

  • decentralized data storage for retrieval
  • decentralized data aggregation
  • economic viability

Reference

https://medium.com/fragments-network/state-of-decentralized-file-storage-mid-2018-27bd5664f3b7

Ray Dalio: Beating the stock market by learning history

  • History inevitably repeats itself
  • If a trend is occurring that you don’t have a good idea of how it will pan out, it is more likely because you have not lived in a time where a similar situation had happened before and less likely because a similar situation had happened before
  • Application of FinTech is to make it possible to leverage on assets that we have like the following:
    • Human Capital
    • Social Capital
    • Real Assets
  • An economy built on talent versus an economy built on natural resources and tourism tends to grow faster
    • Singapore versus Jamaica
      • important to educate local population to ensure they do not become second class citizens in their own country to highly qualified expats
    • Three Kingdoms – Cao Cao versus Yuan Shao
  • Algorithms for decision making
    • Be wary of purely deriving algorithms through data mining and regression analysis.
      • The user of this algorithm will not be able to decipher causation versus correlation
      • The training data available might be missing existing significant events
    • The algorithm should instead be a derivation of your own thought processes. Computers/algorithms should be used to complement human decision making instead of replacing it.
  • An environment of radical transparency is helpful towards supporting idea meritocracy
    • helps match individuals strong in one area with other individuals strong in complementary areas.
    • A real world ensemble decision tree model
  • On China
    • Main challenges the country face
      • Debt restructuring
      • Economic restructuring – the need to shift away from export focused economy to domestic focused economy
      • Develop capital markets
      • Balance of payments
    • Developments to date
      • debt being restructured
      • economic restructuring happening dealing with state owned enterprises. Fast development of cutting edge industries. AI advancements comparable to US
      • capital markets like Hong Kong depth of liquidity is impressive
      • balance of payment is being dealt with effectively due to capable leaders and ability to control via levers unique to a strong central government
      • Strong emphasis on kids education
      • Reinforcing Integrity of law through eliminating corruption

Reflections for the afternoon

Betting on technology companies that fall into one of the three categories

  • aggregators of trust
  • aggregators of financial liquidity
  • aggregators of data

On aggregators of data, bet on the storage caching layer as opposed to the presentation layer. The former is harder to displace than the latter

Lateral thinking: To derive as many possible application/implication of the same insight as possible.

Book summary: the success equation

  • When more skilled than opponent, make rules simpler to reduce variance introduced by luck
  • when being the underdog, make rules more complex to introduce variance introduced by luck
  • imoortant to differentiate luck and skill
  • when situation is mainly dependent on luck judge likelihood of outcome by base rate
  • when situation is mainly dependent on skill, judge likelihood of outcome base on single success story
  • practices equanimity towards luck
  • focus on practice to improve skill

Humor of the day

Reminder to Engineers involved in related projects: When automating and replacing every single conceivable task associated with the preparation of a wonderful dish with AI, please don’t replace the person who is suppose to experience the joy of tasting the dish with a machine

Insights for one on ones with Friend said in Singapore

  • Countries are starting to feel threatened by a centrally controlled Chinese economy that works
    • one belt on road
    • tight coordination between government and companies
    • relationship was good until 2008 before which US helped China grow rapidly
  • Trump’s tactic as a strategy to consolidate control in the government
    • of lowering tax rates for bringing back funds to US
    • tariffs on other countries to drive up USD exchange rate
    • VC might consider doubling down on existing companies
  • impact
    • Chinese economy slowing down
    • Chinese merchants extracting money from companies and laying low while tsunami passes
    • US companies implicated
    • most Singapore companies not thriving
    • increased occurrences of suicide  in Singapore
    • Port activities slowing down in Singapore, potentially moving to Tuas Area
    • will last for next 7 years
    • demand for entertainment/tourism will increase to stave off feelings of aimlessness
    • Tired looking grab driver
  • On transition period for next four years
    • high risk and uncertainty
    • foreigner disadvantaged in US with Trump as president
    • be wary of entering into legal agreement overseas
  • tech trend
    • when everybody going high tech
    • Time to go really low tech
    • focus on cash flow and avoid liabilities
    • Go into farming and buy a piece of land
    • Uber caused a lot of accidents in Singapore hence banned
  • NUS school of computing requires students to have triple AAA in their A levels before they could even be considered for admission

Contacts

  • Thomas Gorissen
  • Peter Gwee
  • Jim Ellis
  • Dad
  • Garis
  • WenKang
  • Mr Khoo

Kenji and Johnson – Learnings in trading patterns

  • Volume always precedes price movement
  • A drastic increase or decrease in price movement without corresponding volume is not sustainable
  • Discussions on the following platforms can be used as raw materials
    • SeekingAlpha
    • Yahoo finance
    • investor village
  • Bloomberg news costs USD1000 per month but is not real time and mainly editorial
  • private investors that are not hedge fund managers will want this product if it exists

Useful resources

  • Laughing at Wall Street

Loss aversion and reversion to mean earnings missed patterns

Companies that exhibited pattern

Netflix

  • Earnings date: July 16th 2018
  • Pre-earnings price: USD416
  • After hours base price: USD340
  • Next day opening price: USD359
  • Net gain: 5.58%

Facebook

  • Earnings date: July 25th 2018
  • Pre-earnings price: USD220
  • After hours base price: USD168
  • Next day opening price: USD178
  • Net gain: 5.9%

Spotify

  • Earnings date: May 3rd 2018
  • Pre-earnings price: USD170
  • After hours base price: USD154.25
  • Next day opening price: USD158
  • Net gain: 2.5%

 

External references

Reflections on the decentralized multi-sided market place – GetData.IO

The beginning

The concept of GetData.IO was first conceived back in November 2012. I was rewriting one of my side project (ThingsToDoSingapore.com) in NodeJS back then. Part of the rewrite required that I wrote up two separate crawlers each for a different site which I was getting data for.

Very soon after I was done with the initial rewrite, I was once again compelled to write a third crawler when I wanted to buy some stocks on the Singapore stock exchange. I realized while the data for the shares were available on the site, they were not presented in a way that facilitated my decision making process. In addition to that, the other part of the data I needed were presented on a separate site and unsurprisingly not in the way I needed.

I was on my way to write my fourth crawler when it occurred to me, if I structured my code by cleanly decoupling the declaration from underlying implementation details, it is possible to achieve a high level of code re-use.

Two weekends of tinkering and frenzied coding later, I was able to complete the first draft of the Semantic Query Language and the engine that would interpret this query language. I was in love. Using just simple JSON, it allowed anybody the ability to declare the desired data from any parts of web. This includes data scattered across multiple pages on the same site or data scattered across multiple domains which could be joined using unique keywords.

The Journey

Five years have past since, during this time, I brought this project through an incubator in Singapore with my ex-co-founder, tore out and rewritten major parts of the code-base that did not scale well, banged my head countless times on the wall  in frustration due to problems with the code and with product market fit, watched a bunch of well-funded entrants came and went. To be honest, quite a few times I threw in the towel. Always, the love for this idea would call out to me and draw me back to it. I picked up the towel and continued ploughing.

It’s now June 2018. Though it has taken quite a while, I am now here in the Bay Area, the most suitable home for this project given to the density of technological startups in this region. My green card was finally approved last month. I have accumulated enough runway to allow my full attention on this project for the next 10 years. Its time to look forward.

The vision

The vision of this project is a multi-sided market place enabled by a Turing complete Semantic Query Language. The Semantic Query Language will be interpreted and executed upon by a fully decentralized data harvesting platform that will the capacity to gather data from more than 50% of the world’s websites on a daily basis.

Members can choose to participate in this data sharing community by playing one or more of the 4 roles:

  • Members who need data
  • Members who maintain the data declarations
  • Members’ who will run instances of the Semantic Query Language interpreter on their servers to mine for data
  • Member’s who sell their own proprietary data

From this vantage point, given its highly decentralized nature, it feels appropriate to deploy the use of block chains. The final part that needs to be sorted out prior to the deployment of blockchain to operate in full decentralized mode is figure out the “proof of work”.

Operations available in other database technologies will get ported over where appropriate as and when we encounter relevant use cases surfaced by our community members.

Why now and how is it important?

More as I dwell in this space, I see very clearly why it is only going to become increasingly important to have this piece of infrastructure in place. There are namely 3 reasons for this.

Leveling the playing field

The next phase of our computing will rely very heavily on machine learning. It is a very data intensive activity. Given that established data siren’s like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft have over the past years aggregated huge tons of data, this have given them a huge unfair advantage which might not necessarily be good for the eco-system. We need to level the playing field by making it possible for other startups to gain easy access to training data for their machine learning work.

Concerns about data ownership

GDPR is a cumulation of concerns of data ownership that has been building for the past 10 years. People will increasing want to establish ownership and control over their own data, independent of the data siren’s use to house them. This means a decentralized infrastructure which people can trust to manage their own data.

Increasing world-wide need for computing talents

Demand for engineering talent will only continue to increase as the pervasiveness of computing in our lives increase. The supply of engineering talents does not seem like it will be catching up and short fall is projected to continue widening till 2050. A good signal is the increasingly high premium paid to engineering talents in the form of salaries over the recent years. It’s just plain stupidity as a civilization to devote major portions of this precious engineering resource to the writing and rewriting of web crawlers for the same data sources over and over again. Their time should be freed up to do more important things.

The first inning

Based on historical observation, I believe we are on the cusp of the very first inning in this space. A good comparison to draw upon is the early days of online music streaming.

Napster versus the music publishers is similar to how the lay of the land was back 5 years ago when Craigslist was able to successfully sue 3Tap.

Last year, LinkedIn lost the law suit against folks who were scraping public data. This is a very momentous inflection point in this space. Even the government is starting to the conclusion that public data is essentially public and Data Siren’s like any of the big Tech should have no monopoly over data that essentially belongs to the users who generated them.

Drawing further upon on the music industry analogy, the future of this space should look like how Spotify and ITunes operate in the modern day online music scene

What about recumbents?

Further readings