Insights from house party at Qyunh’s

On Crypto-currency

  • Major institutions like hedge funds and banks are trying to figure out how to increase exposure to this currency type while mitigating against volatility
  • Governments are exploring into how this new  form of currency can be regulated
  • Companies in this space are increasingly gearing towards providing missing infrastructure like secure wallet as opposed to creating new Token
  • Transaction throughput
    • Visa gateway allows for 50,000 transactions per second
    • Lightning networks as well as off chain transaction provide ability to temporarily by-pass bottleneck
  • Promising candidates
    • EOS (Chinese currency) supports up to 1,200 transactions per second
    • TRON (Chinese currency)
    • Ethereum

On Data API

  • New travel portals need to be able to prove traction before existing providers like Viator is willing to become partners
  • Normal affiliates get 7% commission while partners get 18% commission
  • This is a missing step in this eco-system that startups will need to gap before they can reach partner status.

On AR/VR

  • Much of efforts is done on AR right now as opposed to VR. Where there is actual industrial application

On Reality

  • Accurate interpretation of signals provided by reality requires the ability to set aside predisposed lens
  • Morality is one of the hardest lens to set aside when interpreting signals
  • Morality derived construct like the Good and Evil dichotomy is inherently subjective, while useful for marketing, branding and messaging purposes, is not useful for analytical purposes.

Book Summary: Lost and Founder

Radical Candor/Transparency

It is hard but it works – needs to be tampered with empathy

On being product focused

  • Consulting is limited by time and people – not scalable
  • Effective Product-focused business
    • reach
    • scalability
  • Start with a product informed by your consulting – real life problems others face

Impediment to shifting focus

  • Too comfortable
  • not enough time
  • difficulty finding the right customers for the product

On being a founder

  • Great founders enable a vision
  • forget about being hands on most of the time
  • job scope changes every six months – for any road block encountered focus on sufficing the requirements instead of perfecting it
  • you rarely get to do what you love to do
  • be cognizant on when to lead and when not to – have the specialist do the job
  • Cultivate self awareness in strength and weakness – structure company to work around them
  • Attribute of founder is instilled with near-permanence in the organization while those of supporting team fluctuates
  • the hardest parts of the business is less a reflection about the business than about the person experiencing them
  • Build expertise before building network, build network before building company
  • Focus on and reward the behavior, let the outcome take care of itself

On Values

  • Authentic values force hard decisions – held to be more important than money
  • have real costs: Impede certain behavior and strategy
  • Values are discovered instead of set
  • Used as a yard stick for recruiting new members to the cause. Helps get pass the competence versus cultural fit dilemma

On recruiting

  • CTO should be those that should be oriented towards education instead of shielding you from the nitty gritty details (black box)
  • Use your value system as a yard stick
  • Hiring for diversity will make the mental model of the organization more holistic
  • Great managers / coaches might not be great individual contributors

On markets and pivots

  • Pivots Are expensive don’t make it a habit – only resort to this tactic when the original hypothesis is not longer valid
  • focus on the market and then find a field ignored by others because it appears unsexy. From there craft a solution
  • Err on the side of execution

On investors

  • Need to take money for the right reason
  • Investors interest will tend to get out of alignment overtime (return multiples and investment horizons)
  • 80 percent of returns are by 20 percent of investments
  • They need at least a 10X to break even in a position for all the other losing positions they took
  • They don’t bring much value to the table
  • follow up with CEOs they invested in to understand how they react in a shit storm
  • Can help provide information on salary ranges

Choosing a market

  • If you can keep your ego in check you can chase after smaller markets and don’t need VC money
  • Great ideas are born of mediocre ideas that become better by
    • time spent iterating
    • humility learning
    • surviving
  • look for searches that indicate problems
    • Google Adwords
    • Moz’s keyword Explorer

Knowing your customers

Defining your user base

  • Call 3 different types of users
  • Find out why they subscribed and stayed
  • Craft messaging toward this group of people

Discounts are a doubled edged sword – while they might attract signups, these folks tend to have a higher churn rate

Schedule regular interactions with your user so that you can understand their habits. It helps you get to an empathetic position with them.

On Products

  • Feature set needs to be coherent enough to be able to deliver value
  • Early adopters
    • have very different expectation as compared to early majority –
    • hence more forgiving
    • ok accepting MVP
  • Retention triumphs acquisition any day

Marketing

  • Optimize for acquisition loops that reinforces the UVP instead of linear acquisition channels

Focused Execution

  • Practice the discipline of focus.
  • Important to Focus and not waver around unnecessarily. Its a waste of resources
  • A very focused and simplified product offering will help users to more easily understand and adopt it
  • Helps keep teams lean as a by-product
    • ROA improves dramatically
    • helps avoid future layoffs
  • Focus on what will not change in the next 10 years

Related references

  • Lean Startup, Eric Ries
  • Sprint, Jake Knapp
  • Venture Deals, Brad Feld

Reflections on communicating with your users via email

While sending a personal email to each individual user who directly uses our API just now, it occurred to me the main difference between talking with someone you have relationship with (like your mum/girlfriend/wife…?) versus simply doing a mass email blast to a group of “strangers”, is the potential lack of warmth and empathy in the latter on the sender’s side.
 
No one really likes being treated like a number on a Excel sheet. It sucks.
The key challenge becomes how do you scale your communication as the amount of people you need to communicate with increases without alienating them. Or does it even matter?

Related Reference

  • Permission Marketing, Seth Godin

Reflections on organizational observations

On the benefits of being under resourced

An organization that is under-resourced is similar to an individual who regularly practices intermittent fasting.

In the case of the individual, weaker cells are cannibalized by the body to produce new cells. Studies has shown decreased probability of developing cancer and Alzheimer, coupled in some cases with increased longevity.

In the case of the organization, operations are forced to be focused and only opportunities backed by stronger market signals prioritized and pursued. Wastage and distractions are structurally curtailed. ROI improves as a by product.

On organic growth

An organization that is organically grown tends to be happen-chance and exhibit somewhat illegible and opaque structure.

In contrast, an organization that is deliberately designed tends to exhibit a legible and transparent structure.

Counter intuitively, it is the former that exhibits more resilience in times of environmental stress. The observed illegibility and opaqueness is attributed to the process of organic adaption to its environment. Chief historical examples are:

  • Military of Carthage
  • Genghis Khan’s Mongolian horde

Related readings

Key take aways from the Blockchain revolution

The Blockchain revolution
  • ensuring the integrity of data exchanged among these billions of devices without the need for a trusted third party
  • allow people that do not have access to the service of these third part into the digital economy
  • easier ability to get compensated for your work or ownership of digital property
  • Ronald Coase on types of costs
    • Searching cost
    • Coordination cost
    • Contracting cost
  • Dimensions of search
    • horizontal search – wide search across the web
    • vertical search – within a specific website
    • sequence – blockchain?
  • Innovation typically comes from the edge
    • monopolies have a lot of resources but lack the culture and will to explore, Yochai Benkler
    • This can be attributed to high levels of bureaucracy within the core

Related references

Reflections on maximizing output with limited resources

  • Embrace constrains. The main constrain anyone will experience is time
  • When constrain is acknowledged, one learns the importance of prioritization
  • When the importance of prioritization is acknowledged, one learns the need to horn one’s judgement and foresight through constant learning
  • When self aware of where one’s lack of judgement and foresight in specific domains, one learns the need to exercise prudence
  • When one learns the importance of prudence, one practices by utilizing minimal amount of resources to de-risk the maximum possible areas of uncertainty.
  • When one learns the importance of de-risking, one gives emphasis on strategizing and avoids blind execution.

Related references

  • The Goal, Eliyahu Goldratt
  • Mastery, Robert Greene

Understanding cognitive biases is important for startups

Overview

All decisions are inherently emotional. Our lymphatic system is a more ancient and robust system than our logical faculties. Its been shown in studies, conducted by Antonio Damasio in 2000, that patients with damage to the part of the brain that processes emotions have trouble making even the smallest decisions.

Humans are by nature social creatures. Studies show that our brains contain mirror neurons which endows us the ability to empathize with another fellow human being. This also implies our emotions are easily subjected to the influence of others. This is why it is important to get familiar with the various cognitive biases in the human brain and what triggers them (see lecture by Charlie Munger).

On the flip side, it is possible to exploit cognitive biases to boost sales conversions. This is an art that touts in the streets of Cairo have mastered through years of practice. The effectiveness of any street tout is dependent on the number of cognitive biases he can exploit during the short period of encounter with his subject.

A case study on how cognitive biases are combined and used

A tout might start the conversation with a small ask, e.g. as simple as “what is your name?”. This seemingly innocent question when responded will trigger off the consistency bias. The subject will inevitably feel a sense of cognitive dissonance if he were to stop further conversation after having started the conversation by telling the tout his name.

The tout next proceeds to offer a seemingly harmless “gift” which might be small and of little value. This gift, when accepted, will exploit the reciprocity bias. The subject having received something of value will inevitably feel uneasy if he does not reciprocate in kind.

Since the subject at this point, without any prior data points, is yet sure on the “value” to place on the “gift”, a skillful tout might take the opportunity to exploit the anchoring bias by providing an high arbitrarily number about something seemingly unrelated such as one of the following:

  • the age of his 90 year old mum
  • the age of the pyramids
  • the inhumanly high temperature

This arbitrarily high number will help facilitate a higher perceived valuation of the “gift”.

And while he is telling about his mum or kids, he might exploit the authority bias by saying his mum is sick and needs money to see the doctor. One might say there is no person of authority in the immediate proximity. However in this scenario, the person is actually some authority figure the subject had in his life, while he was growing up, who preached to him the importance of being a good human being and helping others in need. Having delivered his story till this point, the tout should have successfully wiggled himself to a moral high ground in relationship to the subject.

It can be assumed that sometime has already past since the subject was given physical possession of the gift. The endowment effect should have kicked in by then. The subject if he was even mildly inclined towards the gift at the onset, he will feel a potentially higher level of psychological discomfort at returning the “gift” to the tout.

At this point from a psychological perspective, for the subject to be able to refuse the request of the tout for a donation, he would necessarily need to have priorly developed much mastery over his own emotions. It can be safely assumed the percentage of subjects parting with a “token” amount of donation to the tout will be significantly higher than an alternative scenario where a beggar simply approached begged for money.

How it is relevant to your funnel

Now one would ask how does this relate to driving up conversion rates in my startup application? The point of the story is not to teach you how to be “evil“, by getting your user to doing something against his will, but to illustrate the importance of catering to his psychological needs within your onboarding experience. The reason why your user landed at the top of your funnel was because he has a genuine need that he hopes your application could get done for him.

A smooth flowing onboarding experience coupled with a compelling story will help keep your user motivated as you drive him down the funnel towards the magic moment within your application. There is a reason why folks call the magic moment an Aha! moment. From a biological perspective, your user’s brain releases a small dose of dopamine (a feel good reward) during that very instance.

The key to user retention is to figure how to encourage repeated actions by your user so that he could experience the Aha! moment again and again until the action becomes a habit and your user does it reflexively without needing to think about it. Of course, to ensure your service can continue to benefit the world,  it is important to remember asking for contribution to pay for server cost at some point…

At GetData.IO, our mission is to turn the Web into the fully functional Giant Graph Database of Human Knowledge. We aim to do so by nurturing a community of like-minded contributors, hence the importance of successfully on-boarding our users. This is because every successfully created data source will not only benefit its creator but also other community members that might have need of it in the future.

Related References

  • Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, Nir Eyal
  • Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, Daniel Goldman
  • AARRR framework, Dave McClure
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition, Robert B Cialdini
  • The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg
  • The psychology of human misjudgment, Charlie Mung
  • Jobs to Be Done: A Roadmap for Customer-Centered Innovation, Stephen Wunker

Key take way from the Truth Machine, Michael J.Casey

The Truth Machine, Michael J.Casey
  • Blockchains are decentralized ledger systems
  • trust is a vital social resource, the truth lubricant of human interaction
  • human social organization comes from our ability to craft meaningful stories that we all believe, Yuval Noah Harrari
  • Engineering talent is still in severe shortage

Three great power centers in US

  • Technology, Silicon Valley
  • Finance, New York
  • Government, Washington

Use cases

  • Refugees are thrust into statelessness. Easy for criminal exploitation
  • Removing the central silos such Uber, Facebook and Twitter and replacing them with
  • barter trade, double entry
  • Support the scaling internet of things while avoiding one central controlling big brother
  • Self-sovereign identity
    • priorly done by government,
    • now done by Facebook Google and Twitter

Types of blockchains

  • private permissioned block chain to protect sensitive information
    • gate keeping prone to monopolies and oligopolies
  • permissionless block chain where management of data is done by individual themselves

Most popular chains

  • Ethereum
  • BitCoint

Moon shot scenario

  • Technology has freed humans from work
  • Human free to focus on creativity instead of the drudgery of work
  • Getting paid for creativity instead of it being captured by Facebook

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.