• AM/FM Radio

    AM/FM radio continues to be the most common way for americans to listen to content ( source). It accounts for over 50% of the time that people spend listening, compared to only 2% for podcasts. This shocked me years ago when I first heard it, and it continues to amaze me today. 

    I suspect a big part of this is due to how much time americans spend in cars. In the car, radio is simply so easy on so many levels. It’s zero buttons away (cars turn on radio when started), and if something bad is playing, just tap the same button again and again to switch between the finite options. When the options run out, pick the best one found so far.

    Compare that with a podcast or music app that presents an effectively infinite number of options and requires many taps to start playing, and it’s easy to see why radio, with all of its flaws, remains the most common way to listen to content.

  • Working from home

    At Google I experimented with working away from my team 1 and 2 days per week. I worked from home and from many Google offices around the world.  

    While alone I worked on tasks that needed focus, like getting an idea out on paper. When I was with my team I spent lots of time working one on one and in small groups. This worked well.

    Since leaving Google my schedule has been almost the opposite. I spend 1 or 2 days alongside other people and the rest on individual work. While it’s necessary to have this much focused time at this point in my business, I really enjoy working with other people and I can’t wait to have a schedule closer to what I had while at Google. 

    Side note: I find most cafes awful for work, too much noise, and too many strangers coming and going. I prefer a quiet, comfortable home or office.

  • What would an Uber-killer look like?

    Note: Today’s blog post is much longer than my typical post. If you have feedback about the length, feel free to send me an email.

    Much news has been made of Uber’s sky-high valuation. This valuation rests on the assumptions that (a) Uber is much bigger than just taxis, and (b) it is very hard if not impossible for another company to beat them in their market.

    What would it take for (b) to be false? In other words, what would an Uber-killer look like? First it’s worth understanding the structural advantages Uber has.

    Uber’s primary advantage is the users they have. This aggregation of users who collectively start their trips on Uber means that drivers have little choice if they want to get trips. But similar to messaging apps, this advantage is surprisingly geographical in nature. For messaging apps, this is because people generally talk to people they already know, and people they already know are local. For driving, it’s unlikely that an uber driver will drive 100 miles to find customers, and impossible that they will drive 1000 miles, at least in the short term. This means that even if Uber has many users in a given city, the network effects are limited mainly to that city.

    Second, Uber is able to capture users earlier than taxicabs or public transit. For the former, you can get a ride from the comfort of your home, for the latter you need to venture outside before you know if you will be successful or how long you will need to wait. This certainty is valuable. However, it is at risk of users finding rides even earlier in their decision process, for example when they find a restaurant on Google Maps or Facebook.

    Third, Uber has benefited from the extreme focus on driving in the 20th century, at least in the US. Their drivers use cars bought for another purpose, on roads built by taxpayers, to destinations that are easily accessed by car, with a density and design that makes transit and walking unpalatable. Yet this isn’t the only model of development, and it’s unclear that cars will enjoy as much focus in the 21st century as they did in the 20th.

    Anyways, back to the question. What would an Uber-killer look like? For today I’ll just describe one form it could take. 

    An Uber-killer would be branded as “local”, supported directly or indirectly by the city, and would generally only operate in a one or few markets in contrast to Uber’s global presence. The underlying technology would be powered by a white-label supplier. And the costs would be heavily subsidized by advertising, perhaps with a core partnership between a single advertiser and the transportation service. An experiment is already underway in Minneapolis. Notice that 75% of the cost of the ride is subsidized by the city, similar to the subsidy given to many mass transit systems. This is impossible for Uber to match.

    Can this scale? Yes, at least for bike shares. One company in Canada provides the technology for the bike shares in DC, NYC, SF, among others. The bike shares are sponsored by large brands like Citibank and Ford. They enjoy special support from the city in the form of dedicated bike lanes and street space for their stations.

    There are several opportunities here. For cities to retain their leverage by encouraging the creation of local ridesharing companies. For the white-label provider who can focus on the technology and enjoy dozens or hundreds of large customers. For the rideshare operator who can  compete with Uber in a way that was unthinkable before.

    Cities still have leverage over the roads they build and who can use those roads. For example, a city can paint a road red and make it busses only, or paint it green and make it bikes only. It can build rail tunnels and subway stations, spending on infrastructure that Uber currently only dreams of. 

  • Innovators and executors

    An innovator creates things that might not work, but when their innovation works it seems like magic. Innovations are risky, impossible to schedule, and built on faith. Don’t bet the farm on an innovation if you can’t survive when it fails.  

    An executor creates something that has already been shown to work. She works to reduce risk and to prevent the project from being over budget, late, or incomplete. An executor can circle the date on the calendar when her work will be complete, and tell you how much it will cost.

    We need both types of creators, yet it’s best to know which one you are for your project. The good news is that you can pick, and that it’s possible to be an innovator for one project and an executor for another.

  • If cars are private space, what is Uberpool?

    It’s ok to listen to an embarrassing audiobook in the car where nobody else can hear. Also ok to gossip about other people, have a loud cell phone conversation, and honk loudly at the grandmother crossing the road too slowly. Cars are private space. Except when they’re not.

    Uberpool is a car ride with strangers. Strangers typically make a space feel public. And so it becomes awkward to do some of the things that are perfectly ok when driving with friends and family. Furthermore, violators are weeded out through bad reviews.

    How does this change driving? Do cars become more respectful of pedestrians? Does the city get more quiet? Do homes get less violent because people are less likely to return home in a rage?

    On the contrary, do trips get slower? Do people feel less comfortable riding across town in their sweatpants? And are drivers fired simply because they don’t have a good grasp of social norms?

    Perhaps all of the above.


  • Dense Living

    Raise your hand if you want your park, or your job, or your favorite restaurant to be closer to where you live. The way to achieve this is to live more densely. 

    It’s easy to imagine dense living as lack of personal space, as scary strangers, as expensive rent and a lack of peace and quiet. But it doesn’t have to be this way. It could also mean more public space than one person could ever use, a vibrant community for every interest, less money spent on transportation and quieter vehicles that don’t need the powerful (and noisy) engines required to travel long distances.

    Imagine for a moment that we could take an entire metropolitan area and keep the population the same while doubling the density. We’d suddenly have hundreds of square miles of roads and suburban homes that could be reverted back into greenspace. And all of those millions spent on roads could instead be spent on education, other public services, or even lower taxes. 

  • Work/Non-work balance

    So I’ve left my job at Google to build my own company. Stay tuned for more details. For today, some thoughts on work/non-work balance.

    From the very beginning this will be a company for people who want work to be a part of their life but not all of their life. It’s a delicate balance, especially when inspiration comes at midnight. At that moment it’s worth remembering that we’re building something for the long term, not something urgent. Better to keep non-work time sacred, so that work time can be sacred too.

  • "Working on our Legacy"

    You have two job offers.

    The first says “You will be maintaining our legacy system and supporting our existing customers” while the second says “You will be working on our legacy. It’s a great way to learn how our core business works and to form connections with our most important customers.”

    Which offer would you accept?

  • Designing a better survey: Ask about impact, not about the product

    From https://m.signalvnoise.com/are-you-asking-for-an-answer-or-are-you-asking-about-impact-ad5cb641182f:

    If you want to get people talking, ask them about themselves. [We asked] “What’s changed for the better since you started using Basecamp?” and, wow, impact came streaming in. Nearly 4000 people responded in just a matter of days — making it one of our most successful surveys ever.

    This was also the case in my work at Google. When we asked questions like “What is your favorite feature of Google Play Music” or “What would you change?” the results weren’t anywhere as insightful as when we asked about how people’s lives were changed as a result of using our products.

  • Listening for learning and for pleasure

    I enjoy listening to books, because they give my eyes a break and because I can do something else at the same time. Actually, I can’t do just anything else, just a few things, and it depends if I’m listening for learning or for pleasure.

    I can listen for learning when

    • walking to or from work, or anywhere else I have been many times before

    • cooking something simple that I have made a dozen times or more, like breakfast

    • waiting in line, waiting at the doctor’s office

    • on a plane, train, or other transit

    I can listen for pleasure in all of the places that work for learning, as well as when

    • cooking something new

    • walking or driving somewhere new

    • grocery shopping

    If you need a book recommendation, here are three fantastic picks:

    Check your library, because these audiobooks are often available for free.

  • Is it meant for lingering or for passing through?

    Some things are meant for lingering, while others are just a means to an end, a hurdle to pass through. Some examples:

    • A highway is for passing through

    • A park or civic square is for lingering

    • The McDonalds drive-through is (quite literally) for passing through

    • A table at a restaurant is for lingering (usually, but not always)

    • Facebook is for lingering

    • Google search is for passing through

    Unsurprisingly, things that are meant for lingering get better if lingering is made easier. The infinite scrolling and all-in-one nature of Facebook, benches in the park, and dessert options at the restaurant.

    And things meant for passing through get better as they take less time. Google works to give you ever faster search results. McDonalds lets you pre-order before you get to the payment window, before you get to the pickup window. A highway passes above or below other roads, eliminating intersections.

    If you’re building something, it’s worth deciding whether it’s for lingering or for passing through. You get to choose.

  • Free and open to the public

    A coffee shop is open, but only if you have money to pay for coffee, you don’t look too weird, and you speak the right language. What seems like a public space is actually private, and it might not listen when you speak up calling for change.

    Homes and most offices are even more restrictive. They have locks on them and are very selective about who they let in.

    Contrast this with a public square, which is open to everyone. Except for people that break a few societal rules, like theft of property, these public spaces are open to everyone. 

    Case in point: I spent some time on Saturday afternoon enjoying the PROXY square in Hayes Valley. Completely free to linger, and with easy access to food, drink, and music. Sure enough there were hundreds of people who lingered over the course of the afternoon.

  • Building software on a budget

    Many of the software businesses I hear about use venture capital to get started and grow. But this isn’t the only way to do it.  indiehackers.com has interviews from dozens of founders who built their businesses with a few thousand dollars or less. 

    Some stories that are worth checking out:

  • Subsidies for markets that scale

    A common theme I’ve heard about Uber is that prices are artificially low due to venture capital subsidies. The thinking is, at some point these subsidies must end and prices must go up. The fear is that, by that time, no competitors will exist and consumers will lose out due to high prices.

    But what if the cost of providing a ride will decrease in the future? How could it? The most obvious answer is self-driving cars. Other options include:

    • Add cars that seat more people, and share the cost of the driver

    • Enable drivers already headed to a destination, like work, to pick up passengers

    • Allow businesses to directly subsidize rides to their location. This already happens with happy hours and validated parking

    • Allow businesses to buy ads for people who haven’t yet made up their mind

    Each of these could reduce the cost per trip by 10% or more. From this point of view, offering cheap rides now is just a preview of low prices in the future. Put another way, it’s kind of like taking out a loan to start a business where the first product you make is expensive, and each additional product gets cheaper and cheaper. If you can, best to start with the final price rather than get the reputation for overly expensive stuff.

  • Recover with a new skill

    Traumatic life events happen. A breakup, or layoff, or worse.

    One response is to commit to a new skill. Learn to paint, or sing, or program. Become a certified yoga instructor. It’s a great way to create a new routine and use the time that previously went to the job or person. 

  • Two rules for efficient decisions

    A Google product manager once told me that he has two rules for the endless stream of decisions that must be made a project moves forward:

    • Never let a decision go undecided for more than 24 hours

    • Never take more than 60 minutes of focused time to make a decision

    These ensure that both the hard and the easy decisions get made, not just the easy ones.

    An example of someone who embodied these rules, Robert Moses, who built almost every bridge, highway and park in NYC, famously worked from a table rather than a desk. This was so letters couldn’t be forgotten in drawers. Instead, he would start the day by making decisions for each letter.

  • When do you work best?

    I’m a morning person. All other things equal, I do my best work in the first three hours after I wake up. If I try to get the same work done later in the day it either takes twice as long or simply isn’t possible.

    Yet somehow I can always attend a meeting or respond to an email. So I try to cluster these activities together, and tackle them later in the day when it’s harder for me to do individual work.

    Not everyone is a morning person. I have friends who work their magic in the afternoon, or after everyone else has gone to sleep. It’s worth figuring out when you’re at your best. Once you know, use it to do your best work.

  • Hindsight Bias

    Say that it’s cloudy today. “It’s going to rain”, a friend says. If it does rain, there’s a good chance that she’ll go on to say “Look, I knew it was going to rain, it was cloudy.” This is hindsight bias at play. Clouds don’t always mean rain, and this friend is in danger of incorrectly assuming that she can predict the rain. 

    Hindsight bias can affect us when we’re interviewing for jobs, or betting on a sports team or watching an election. To avoid bias, it’s better to observe the actual probability from many instances. When that’s impossible, perhaps best to remember that the event was actually unpredictable.

  • America in context

    One way to understand everything that’s happening in the United States is to follow the media and scroll through Facebook. To add color and context I recommend these wonderful books:

    The True Believer by Eric Hoffer is a a 1951 classic on mass movements and revolutions. Also a great way to understand what just happened in american politics.

    Gang Leader for a Day, where Sudhir Venkatesh gives a firsthand account of his years spent hanging out with a Chicago gang.

    Evicted shines light on how many poor americans cycle through housing, and how in many cases they pay more for less.

    Meg Jay tells us about the importance of your 20s through intense stories of her clients in The Defining Decade.

    The Three Body Problem is an immersive sci-fi novel from the very popular Chinese author Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu. Best of all it has a second and third book that continue the adventure. Ken grew up in Lanzhou (兰州市) which has the best beef noodle soup (牛肉面) I’ve ever tasted.

    American Icon is a classic turnaround story, and shows just how narrowly Ford missed bankruptcy in 2008.

    A great way to enjoy these is through the library. Mine offers kindle ebooks, eaudiobooks, as well as good old fashioned dead tree versions. But they’re also 100% worth the cost to own.


  • The 6% realtor fee

    When a home is sold, the realtors typically get 6% of the sale price. For a 1 million dollar home, that’s $60,000. Why so much? I think it has to do with the value of the human touch for large, infrequent decisions. A homeowner might only buy and sell a few homes in her entire life, and if she screws it up she could be leaving a lot of money on the table, or even worse, could end up with a home that she doesn’t want. The realtor can make the sale on an emotional level, something that’s hard to automate.

    I see startups like haus.com that add technology like transparent pricing. This is great, however I don’t believe that will eliminate the realtor or fee. 

    On the other hand, what if there was a trial period and after moving into a new home where you could back out if you found out something you didn’t like? This could fit well with the opendoor.com model where they buy and sell the homes, turning a two sided market into two one sided markets. This is a startup to watch.