The “Full-Stack Startup” and Jiro’s Dreams of Sushi

Five years ago, Chris Dixon coined the “Full-Stack Startup” to describe the new wave of companies like Uber looking to upend entire industries through building a new, vertically-integrated stack.

The basic idea is this. Traditionally, as startup founders we see ourselves as toolmakers because we build software and that’s what software is best suited for. If we thought the experience of hailing taxis were broken, we’d build a better taxi dispatch software and sell that to taxi companies. Software can solve the dispatch problem elegantly because it’s relatively close-ended. Running a taxi company, on the other hand, seemed extremely under-leveraged in terms of technology and a terrible business.

However, Uber not only built dispatch software but also hired drivers to offer rides, allowing them to control the entire production function and eat the taxi industry altogether. That’s a much more expansive role for software, but a truly exciting one because the experiences are much more magical when it works.

Since then, venture capital has poured into all kinds of full-stack startups. Opendoor, Compass, WeWork, Shift, Triplebyte, Gigster, Pilot, Honor, Forward, Atrium, just to name few. At the same time, we’ve seen spectacular failures like Homejoy, Sprig, Munchery, Luxe, HomeHero, and to a lesser extent, Zenefits and Altschool. What explains the differences in outcome?

I think the two most important questions to ask are 1) how variable are the customers expectations and 2) to what extent can software help deliver on those expectations.

A lesson from Jiro

Jiro Ono, the software of sushi-making

Jiro Ono is a three-Michelin sushi chef in Japan and the subject of the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. At 85, Jiro has mastered every facet of his craft. From knowing the perfect length of time to massage an octopus (40 minutes) to developing a technique to preserve sushi rice at its optimal temperature (body temperature) to only serving each ingredient at “its ideal moment of deliciousness,” Jiro has explored, refined and practiced every painstaking detail to perfection. In a way, Jiro has done to sushi-making what software has done to many human tasks — eliminated variability and refined the quality of the output.

However, here’s the kicker. Three-Michelin Sukiyabashi Jiro has only 4 out of 5 stars after 71 reviews on Yelp. The problem? Even though Jiro has the best sushi-making software, he’s in the full-stack restaurant business where software does not provide enough leverage in providing a consistently positive customer experience.

Some of the two-star reviews on Yelp

First, Jiro’s customers come with a wide variety of expectations beyond great sushi. Some expect a certain level of service for the price while others care more about comfort and ambience. Some may even be looking for the meaning of life in Jiro’s sushi. Obviously, Jiro promises none of these things, but customers expect them nonetheless.

Second, even if Jiro has the most refined process for making sushi, customers are eating the sushi, not the process, and sushi tastes are highly subjective[1]. So in a way, Jiro’s software failed to deliver against even the singular goal of great sushi.

Traditional startups sell sushi-making software. Full-stack startups operate restaurants. Operating a full-stack startup, you live and die by your ability to manage your customer’s expectations while consistently delivering against the expectations leveraging software. Sounds basic but anyone in the service industry would tell you that it’s hard to execute on let alone having to do it at scale.

The bane of variable customer expectations and why services offer “Free Consultation”

When I built Crowdbooster, a social marketing software-as-a-service startup, we would often talk about “landing pages” because our customers knew roughly what they wanted and the landing pages together with a free trial were mostly sufficient in helping them figure out if Crowdbooster was right for them.

Crowdbooster’s landing page. That screenshot of the product was worth a thousand words.

My second startup, Upbeat, was a full-stack, tech-enabled public relations agency. Our product was not something you used, but a service to help you garner media coverage. Our customers did not know how public relations worked nor did they care to. All they knew was that they desired media coverage, and they paid us to help achieve that outcome. However, even when we delivered great media coverage, some of our customers were still dissatisfied.

The problem is that full-stack customers don’t really know what they want beyond the fact that they have a problem, and when the outcome is delivered, that’s when they begin to realize what they were looking for. This is why consultants have offered “free consultation” for ages — it’s the service industry equivalent of a free trial. The free consultation is an opportunity to explore the nature of the customers’ problem, educate them on what to look for, and set expectations on what they can and cannot expect from an engagement. Many full-stack startups like Honor, Atrium, and Pilot take this approach and force you to talk with an expert agent during the sign-up process.

However, a free consultation, like any human conversation, is a lossy process at best. To avoid dealing with the fickleness of humans, you can instead choose a more bounded problem by constraining the customer segment to only customers you know you can deliver for (as long as it doesn’t constrain your market long-term). This is the like running a fast food chain as opposed to Jiro’s restaurant. For example, OpenDoor targets only customers who want to sell their home fast (and fit their many other criteria). If the customer is not in a rush or they prefer to be serviced by a real estate agent for the experience or to feel like they got the best price, then they are not for OpenDoor.

If you qualify for an OpenDoor offer on your house, they still require a “review” with a human because it helps align expectations

How much leverage can you get from software?

Assuming you figured out how to manage your customers’ expectations and filter for the right segment, full-stack startups still have to consistently deliver a great customer experience with a production function that they don’t fully control. Uber, for example, went as far as calling human drivers their existential dependency and the final barrier to a perfectly-controlled customer experience. This is despite having built one of the most successful marketplaces in the history of startups. Traditional marketplace tactics like user ratings, apps to manage workers, offering different levels of service to different customer segments, insurance, etc. will eventually be insufficient for Uber because when you sell the outcome of a ride, any problems caused by drivers along the way is your fault, so you’d want to ultimately subsume that variable.

For a better framework on how to properly leverage software to tackle full-stack opportunities, I’d send you to Andrew Chen’s brilliant essay, “What’s next for marketplace startups? Reinventing the $10 trillion service economy, that’s what.” Notice in his essay that as we move fuller-stack, the leverage you gain from software begin to diminish. This is something to watch out for and you can use the strategies in his essay to mitigate.

From Andrew Chen’s essay

As Arthur C. Clarke once said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” To me, full-stack startups are the ultimate magical feat, especially when you can appreciate the complexity of their production functions. As software continues to “eat the world,” full-stack startups will become more of the norm. I’d love to see more discussion from operators about how full-stack startups can better improve their odds of success. Let’s continue the discussion in the comments below or with me on Twitter @rickyyean.

[1] The documentary probably did more to align customer expectations and their subject taste to Jiro’s favor than anything else he’s done.

What startups get wrong about public relations

This article was originally written for MarTech Series in April 2018. I changed the title and I’m re-posting it here. Hope you like it!

If you are looking for media coverage, you’ve come to the right place. Successful PR is simple. Here are the steps.

  1. Generate interesting stories consistently.
  2. Pitch your stories to writers who create content for an audience you’re interested in.
  3. Analyze results, rinse and repeat.

It’s a simple process to follow, like keeping the count when you’re dancing. 1–2–3, 1–2–3, 1–2–3. However, in our experience, this might not be what you’re thinking about when you think about PR. You’re racing to the desired outcome — the gleaming article on a top industry news site trumpeting the latest and greatest about your company. It feels attainable (and it is) because we all consume a ton of content everyday. We read about companies, sometimes in our industry, having seemingly accomplished much less than us, yet they are receiving a glowing profile. Surely you can get the same treatment. PR doesn’t seem like it requires a process. No one expects to make a sale on the first call, rank on Google after a few days of SEO, or publish a few posts to immediately find an audience for your blog, but most people think of PR as an easy transaction — I have a story, it’s the reporters’ job to write it. This is wrong. Yes, if you just raised $50M in venture funding from Bill Gates, you can send an email to any reporter at a business publication and the story will get written. Outside of must-cover stories like that, successful PR requires a process because what is worth covering is, at the end of the day, subjective.

Let’s break down three common misconceptions about PR compared to reality.

Misconception #1: I have news (e.g. launch, milestone reached, etc) that is really significant to us. With the right PR help, we can get someone to write about it.

How it actually works. Journalists are choosing from hundreds of stories to cover everyday for maybe 1–3 slots. First, the sheer volume means that even if your story is perfectly targeted, they may simply miss it or lack the bandwidth to work on it, especially if Trump hijacks the media agenda. They are reading their inbox just like everyone else, without any more sophisticated triage processes. That’s assuming your story is a perfect A+. In reality, most stories we pitch for companies are “B+” stories. They’re interesting, hard news, targeted at reporters who would have a personal or professional interest. However, there are almost always other “A” stories being pitched to the same reporters from other sources who may be bigger and more credible than you, and in the case where we are being evaluated against 50 other “B+” stories, it takes some luck to be selected.

We like to think of PR as closer to playing baseball. A good hitter in baseball succeeds only 30% of the time. The important part is approaching every at-bat with discipline and look for the rare opportunity to really put the bat on the ball.

Misconception #2: I just read a non-news story (e.g. a feature profile, a trend story about the industry, contributed opinion piece, etc) about my competitor. With the right PR help, we can get an article like that about me.

How it actually works. News takes precedent at most publications because they are urgent and sometimes important, yet many reporters spend time (often at nights and weekends) working on non-news stories because of personal interest and potential for impact. However, reporters still have to justify it to their editor, so pegging it to a hard news pitch is still preferred. For example, if your company just raised $200M and became a unicorn, you can pitch a personal profile at the same time so the reporter can better justify doing a profile on you because you just accomplished a rare feat.

But what about the industry trend pieces? You never know when reporters are working on them, and sometimes they get shelved for months and even years because they’re not timely. There isn’t a public database of what reporters are working on (they don’t like to have their ideas stolen). However, you can influence the agenda by 1) pitching a trend piece anchored to some unique data and insight that you can bring to the table. For example, you can pitch a trend piece about how companies are increasingly ditching office spaces for completely remote setups, but you should bring supporting evidence to the table to help the journalist with research and offer help connecting journalists with companies without offices and their remote employees. Alternatively, to score inclusion in these trend pieces, you can 2) pitch frequently high-quality stories so you are constantly top-of-mind. Reporters, like the rest of us, suffer from availability bias. If they have to talk to three sources in your industry, you want to be one of those three sources.

Finally, how do you get a contributed opinion piece? Today, publications are starved for content — especially good, timely content. You have to pitch it to the editors and get them to consider letting you publish. Usually you want your piece to be finished, but not published anywhere else. Alternatively, it could be a piece that you have published already and seen a lot of traction on your own blog, which would help demonstrate that it’s “good” content that should be re-published and shared more widely. You also want it to be timely and insightful. You are competing with hundreds of people who want to write for a brand name publication, in addition to reporters on staff that have been hired, vetted, and has a track record. Why would the editor risk the publication brand to let you publish?

Misconception #3: I need a PR professional with strong relationships to the media in my industry. With strong relationships, we can get any media coverage we want.

How it actually works. Relationships are useful, but they tend to be overvalued and difficult to assess the veracity behind anyone claiming to have strong relationships. Because of that we think it should be discounted most of the time.

However, that’s not giving relationships its proper due. PR-Journalist relationships are like any business relationship: they exist to help everyone do business more effectively. Journalists trade in stories and they want access to high-quality stories. The way PR wins over a journalist in a relationship is by regularly bringing high-quality stories, and once in a while offer something exclusive. Essentially, for a journalist to see a PR pro’s name in the inbox and want to click on it more than any other email, the journalist has to trust that the story contained in this particular email will be high-quality and potentially lead to rare, unique access. PR pros can communicate that by establishing a record of consistently high-quality stories over time. However, PR is a business, and PR firms inevitably start working with less credible companies who are willing to pay. In order to keep existing credible clients, they inevitably start pitching “B+” or lower stories to journalists. From this perspective, the PR agencies that can plausibly have strong relationships are typically agencies that most businesses cannot afford or bully as a client. They’re priced high enough to filter for more credible companies, and even then, they are selective about who they choose to take on as clients and what stories they would pitch for them. It’s no surprise that the agency you paid $20k a month for did not appear to have strong relationships.

#TrustTheProcess

Obsessing about your competitors’ coverage is obsessing over the outcome, not the process. Worrying about PR agencies’ relationships is placing lopsided attention to a tiny (and typically unattainable) lever in the process.

Again, here are the steps to successful PR.

  1. Generate interesting stories consistently.
  2. Pitch your stories to writers who create content for an audience you’re interested in.
  3. Analyze results, rinse and repeat.

This process does not depend on you having to pay to retain a top-tier PR agency and it’s guaranteed to work. Of course, generating interesting stories is hard work, especially if you work on (relatively) boring enterprise procurement software. It’s also hard to find the story that is both interesting to you and the reporter. It pays to understand what drives reporters and their readers, especially when they may be different. Here’s a version of the Eisenhower Matrix from before that also includes a perspective from the average consumer of media. I hope this gives you more tools to think about your public relations efforts.


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Asian-Americans Are Cultural Orphans (aka I hope Crazy Rich Asians isn’t a flop)

The most anxiety-inducing movie poster ever

I just found out that there’s a movie coming out this summer with an all-Asian cast called Crazy Rich Asians and it’s making me very nervous. Is this supposed to be our Black Panther moment for stereotype-shattering Asian-American representation in mainstream media? Ok, that’s probably an exaggeration. I’m happy we are even represented in the first place. But what if no one watches it? Does it prove once and for all that Asian-Americans are not bankable stars? What about the fact that studios have largely given up on romantic comedies because they don’t sell as well as superhero movies. Would anyone care for our excuse? What about this male lead from Malaysia, Henry Golding. He’s not technically Asian-American and I don’t want to put it all on him, but he might be the only Asian-looking romantic male lead we will ever get. If he’s not a big enough thirst trap, can Asian-Americans men ever be found physically attractive by American standards? I’m asking, uh, for my friends…

How I became Asian-American

The media has given more attention to the lack of Asian-American representation in recent years thanks to movements like #HollywoodSoWhite and leaders like Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang and Constance Wu speaking out about the issue. However, I can’t help but feel like not much is going to change because “Asian-American” as an identity is not really a meaningful one.

I really wanted to be Asian-American growing up. I immigrated to the United States when I was eleven from Taiwan. Since I didn’t speak English, I wanted to befriend the Korean-American kids in my school because they looked liked me. Kids being kids, they wasted no time to make fun of the new kid by pointing out that I was nothing like them — I was a FOB (Fresh Off the Boat) Asian, not Asian-American. At that age, being ostracized like that by what you thought was your people pretty much amounted to devastation. I stopped trying to talk for two years until I developed enough fluency to sound just like any ordinary Asian-American kid from Los Angeles. Eventually I joined the Asian-American kids in teasing the new FOB Asians in our school and feeling like I’ve succeeded in becoming one of them.

When I got older, I started to understand the complexities of being Asian in this country. I moved here at a young enough age that I had an easier time passing as Asian-American, but those who immigrated later often didn’t have a choice because it’s much harder to get rid of your foreign accent after a certain age. Not that identifying as Asian-American should be that important, but it does give you a shared identity to relate to other Asian-Americans as opposed to feeling like an alien all the time. For many of the older immigrants that can’t or don’t want to identify as Asian-American, they’re simply immigrants or “Overseas Asians.”

The Overseas Asians usually refer to themselves as “Chinese” or “Indian” living abroad. They have lived their formative years in their native Asian country, so they are culturally much more Asian than they are American. I’d speak to my Overseas Chinese friends in Mandarin because it’s preferred, and we’d talk about the latest Chinese shows and celebrity gossip. Where I live in the Bay Area, there are authentic Chinese restaurants that cater specifically to the Overseas Chinese. It’s a big enough market that there are even dating apps (2 Red Beans) and shopping services (YamiBuy) designed specifically for this population.

Sometimes I’m envious of the closeness of the Overseas Asian community. It feels like being “Asian-American” is simply what you end up with when you are not an Overseas Asian or a FOB Asian like myself who could swing both ways. In fact, it’s way more meaningful for an Asian-American person to identify as Vietnamese-American, Pakistani-American, Filipino-American, etc. since those labels point to much richer cultures. Asian-Americans do not have much of a shared history in the United States to unite us, which can be good because that history is mostly a history of struggle, but it does deprive us of the urgency to be authors of our own cultural narrative.

We don’t know what it means to be Asian-American, and so far we haven’t shown much interest in figuring it out. On top of that, our parents would remind us that Chinese and Koreans detest the Japanese. Indian and Pakistani people don’t get along. Generally the light-skinned Asians look down on the “jungle Asians” of South East Asia. Historically, we’re just not that interested in being lumped into the same group. However, the younger generation of Asian-American like me do not have this historical baggage. We’re simply interested in finding our identity, but when we look out to the world, all we can find is the lazy portrayal of the uni-dimensional, kung-fu fighting, smart, obedient, emasculated man or hyper-sexualized woman. The Model Minority. That sucks.

What being a cultural orphan feels like

Remember Linsanity?

Linsanity was the biggest media event of my Asian-American life. I remember my friends and I would leave work early to watch the Knicks play, not wanting to miss any precious second because deep down we knew this moment wouldn’t last, and we would never experience this powerful feeling again.

Jeremy Lin showed us that Asian-Americans are strong, masculine, and competitive at the highest level of our favorite sport. Of course, we’ve always wanted to believe that about ourselves, but few of us actually did because we’ve never seen that image reinforced in the media until we saw Jeremy Lin. Maybe cultural symbols and narratives were never that important to you to begin with, but for many of us, they are important because the media is like a mirror — we look to it to reflect the ideal image we want to believe about ourselves. If you’re Asian-American, you’re always left wanting more.

The term “Asian-American” wasn’t a thing until fifty years ago. Before that, we were simply Indian-American, Korean-American, Hmong-American, each group considered different from one another. In order to gain political power, activists at UC Berkeley took a page from the Afro-American playbook to create the Asian American Political Alliance, uniting Asian-Americans under one umbrella. This movement put pressure on the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to promote “Asian-American” from the “Other” category, with significant impact on how political resources are allocated — something we still benefit from today. But culturally, we never made much progress.

The Black Power political movement in the 60s had the associated Black is Beautiful cultural movement that rejected the racist perception of the country and helped define a more empowering narrative of what it means to be a black person. Even many of us non-blacks can recite speeches, poems, songs and identify influential black cultural figures. What about Asian-Americans? Our Model Minority status is sinister because it hides the significant cultural vacuum that we operate in. We have no aspirational images. No role models. Asian-Americans are cultural orphans.

Being a cultural orphan in America means that other groups of people don’t know how to interact with us. We are asked questions that you’d ask a foreign tourist from a culture you know little about. “Where are you from?” and “Do you know kung-fu?” Despite the fact that we grew up here in the United States. Our fellow Americans do not mean to belittle or relegate us to the stereotype, they’re simply under-exposed. Asian-Americans are still only 5.6% of the American population, so most people will be under-exposed to the Asian-American narrative. We need to leverage the media to help us scale that exposure.

#AsianAmericanRising

Fortunately over the last decade, I believe we’re witnessing the beginning of the rise of Asian America. Every time Jeremy Lin attacks the rim and rocks a new hairstyle, he inflicts major damage on the stereotype. On Fresh Off the Boat, Constance Wu and Randall Park are showing off the eccentric Asian-American family and making it something endearing that we can all be proud of. Eddie Huang and David Chang are the irreverent chefs with untouchable swagger. Ali Wong, Aziz Ansari, Kumail Nanjiani, Ken Jeong, Mindy Kaling are the funny Asian-Americans that you wished you were friends with. Steve Yeun, John Cho and Harry Shum Jr. are sexy men ready to be your next male romantic lead (#StarringJohnCho). We even have an Asian-American running for president in Andrew Yang(!).

The biggest factor contributing to this rise is likely the maturation of second-generation Asian-Americans. The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 resulted in an unprecedented number of Asian immigrants coming to this country. Their now adult children are beginning to understand that culturally, they are not like their immigrant parents, but they have yet to define what it means to be Asian-American.

The Internet is also playing a big part in the rise of Asian America. For example, YouTube allowed Asian-Americans to sidestep Hollywood completely until they became too big to ignore. Pioneers like Ryan Higa, Wong Fu and Timothy DeLaGhetto paved the way for the ascendence of Michelle Phan, Fung Bros, Awkwafina and Eugene Lee.

The Internet also enabled a more global youth culture that is much more receptive to elements from outside of the United States. Asian-Americans like Maggie Q, Daniel Wu, Jay Park who moved to Asia to better build their careers abroad are now making their way back home because the American taste is becoming more multicultural. BTS, an Asian K-Pop import, just topped the American Billboard charts, and their songs are all in Korean. Music label 88Rising is seeing this opportunity and aggressively marketing Asian artists with American and Internet-friendly sounds like Rich Brian, Keith Ape, Joji and the Higher Brothers to the American audience. These Asian imports will also be part of the Asian-American narrative going forward.

88Rising artists: Rich Brian (Indonesia), Keith Ape (Korea), Higher Brothers (China), Joji (Japan)

Bruce Lee wanted to be so much more

I heard a great Bruce Lee interview recently on the NPR 1A podcast that made me think that if Bruce Lee was still alive, he would’ve already already pushed the Asian-American narrative significantly forward. In an interview from 1971, the man primarily responsible for the kung fu fighting stereotype talked about the importance of Asian-Americans like himself to be embraced more fully by our society.

Interviewer: are you going to stay in Hong Kong and be famous or are you going to go to the United States and be famous?

Bruce Lee: I’m gonna do both because you see I have already made up my mind that in the United States I think something about the Oriental…I mean the true oriental should be shown

Interviewer: Hollywood sure as heck hasn’t

Bruce Lee: you better believe it man it’s always that pigtail and bouncing around chop chop you know with the eyes slanted and all that and I think that’s very very out of date.

Perhaps my trepidation about Crazy Rich Asians isn’t actually warranted. Bruce Lee had all the confidence in the world that he was going to demonstrate all the different ways someone could be Asian-American. Fifty years after his tragic death, we are finally seeing the emergence of a new class of Asian-American role models who are doing exactly that. Crazy Rich Asians is simply the latest culminating event in the rise of Asian America, and the best is yet to come.

#AsianAmericanRising

Thanks to David Tran, Sidney Le, Jennifer 8. Lee, Nancy Hua, Cory Bray and Ian Burgess for reading a draft of this essay.

A San Franciscan tries the future of mobility — LimeBike, SPIN, Bird, and JUMP Bike

When I moved from Taipei to Los Angeles at the age of 11, I had already heard much about “America” and how it’s the best country in the world. My dad and I got off the airplane, got in a car, and went on the 405. I saw the vast freeway traversing through bald, brown hills, and thought to myself, “that’s weird.” In Taiwan, even when you see mountains and hills (always green, not brown), you also see very dense buildups of tall apartments and business buildings. We got to our exit, I saw big, single-family homes with yards, and I turned to my dad and asked, “I thought we were going to America, what are we doing in the countryside?”

The 405 (http://sanfernandovalleyblog.blogspot.com/2013/02/freeways-postcards.html)

For all the things this country offers its citizens, one thing it does not offer (outside of Manhattan) is a functioning public transportation infrastructure and it’s a distinct disadvantage. My siblings in Los Angeles endure three-hour commutes on a daily basis. You can imagine my excitement when UberX and UberPool became mainstream. I moved up from Palo Alto to San Francisco in 2015 and I didn’t think twice about selling my car. Even then, I was often stuck in traffic, and riding a regular road bike in the city is a dangerous and costly endeavor.

Recently, JUMP bikes started appearing everywhere in the city. I was already interested in the company because they put their first few bikes where I live in Bayview and they tested first with people who worked in non-profits. Bayview is a less affluent neighborhood typically ignored by startups and the SFMTA. Before introducing dynamic pricing, Lyft and Uber restricted discounts to only north of Cesar Chavez. On-demand delivery services like Postmates and Doordash also didn’t service beyond Cesar Chavez from the get-go. JUMP was different and refreshing. In addition to JUMP, LimeBike, Bird and SPIN have all been deploying their fleet of electric scooters all over the city. When the MUNI failed me again this past Saturday, I decided to give them all a try. Here’s my experience.

LimeBike E-Scooters (Lime-S)

Lime-S

Distance: 1.4 miles
Time: 10 minutes
Cost: $2.50 – $1 discount = $1.50

It’s rather odd to just see these things smack in the middle of a sidewalk because I’m not used to them yet and they look expensive. The green and white color make them look very friendly. I unlocked one by scanning a QR code and waiting for about 10 seconds. The scooter was heavier than I expected. The instructions said to kick a little and then press down the motor button, which I did and the scooter started flying. I went from Costco on 10th and Harrison to Westfield on 5th and Market mostly taking the bike lane going at about 11 MPH (it’s got a display for showing the speed). The scooter was small enough that I could easily weave through pedestrians on the sidewalk when I had to, which I wasn’t sure if it was legal. You can feel all the bumps on the terrible San Francisco roads while riding these, even in bike lanes, which I guess are more about safety than smooth, evenly paved roads. All-in, I loved the experience and I was surprised that it went up some modest hills. Definitely beats walking and waiting for the bus.

These cost $1 to unlock and then charges by the minute.

SPIN E-Scooters

SPIN e-scooter

Distance: 2.8 miles
Time: 25 minutes
Cost: $3.75 cost of ride + $1.00 base cost – $1.00 discount = $3.75

Next I picked up a much sleeker looking SPIN e-scooter on 5th and Market. Again, it was just chilling there on the sidewalk with pedestrians walking by. I tried to unlock it but was unsuccessful at first. The app made me wait 30 seconds to try again. Once unlocked, I gave the motor a pump, and I started flying even more than the Lime-S. The SPIN e-scooter felt lighter and more stable than the Lime-S, and the motor felt more powerful or maybe the battery simply had more charge. I weaved through cars on the bike lane up Market Street, feeling more exposed than I typically feel on a regular bike, and slightly concerned about the handling since scooters are less maneuverable than bikes. I shot all the way up to the Ferry Building and then up towards Fisherman’s Wharf, passing hordes of tourists biking along the Embarcadero. Just like with the Lime-S, I kicked only to get it rolling and build speed, and otherwise primarily relied on the motor. I wanted to see if this scooter could go uphill, and turned towards North Beach to find a steep hill. The SPIN e-scooter gave out immediately once I started up the hill completely ran out of power after a 25-minute ride.

SPIN does a good job breaking down the fare on the receipt into base cost and the cost of ride by time. SPIN charges the same rate as Lime-S and Bird, and I probably rode it for the longest. A 25-minute trip covering 3 miles would’ve cost $4.75 without discount. That’s getting to feel a little bit steep.

Bird E-Scooters

Two Birds in one photo

Distance: 1.2 miles
Time: 7 minutes
Cost: $2.05

The Bird e-scooters look very much like the SPIN e-scooters and the motor is just as powerful. Are they made by the same manufacturers? I didn’t have a chance to take a SPIN scooter on really bumpy roads so I rode the Bird on the same bumpy bike lanes I went on with the Lime-S. The Bird was definitely a smoother ride compared to the Lime-S, probably because the tires on these are wider than the ones on a Lime-S. However, the larger tires also make it harder to kickstart and build speed. A more powerful motor compensates for that.

One thing that Bird does differently is that if it’s your first time unlocking a Bird, they’ll require you to scan your driver’s license. The on-boarding is also more involved and really emphasizes the fact that a helmet is required. Bird’s receipt only shows the total fare without a breakdown. Upon further research, it charges the same as everyone else. $1 to unlock and charges by the minute.

JUMP Bikes

JUMP e-bike

Distance: 6.35 miles
Time: 35:02 minutes
Cost: $2.40

JUMP offers electric bikes, not scooters, and it’s a completely different beast. This. Beast. FLIES. And I love it!

Don’t get duped by the look. They look bulky and ride like beach cruisers — cushy seats and comfortable handle bars with you sitting upright. As soon as you push down on the pedal, you feel the bike start to fly. In five days, I’ve rented a JUMP about ten different times in all kinds of neighborhoods, day and night, even in the rain. JUMP bikes performed perfectly in all conditions and made San Francisco feel a lot smaller.

I’ve taken a JUMP bike to fly up the steepest hills that I normally would simply opt to push my bike up or go around. I’ve taken JUMP to parts of Mission Bay, Dogpatch and Bayview near the Warriors construction sites with really, really bad roads that have ruined my own bike multiple times. The heavy base and wide, durable tires — all the things that made the Ford GoBikes terrible — add electric assist and boom, it’s the perfect vehicle for San Francisco. If you’ve ever cycled around San Francisco, you know you are always watching out for uneven roads, potholes, debris, hills, train tracks, angry drivers, and basically fearing for your safety. With JUMP, you are thinking way less about all of that stuff and you feel way safer. Electric assist on a bike also makes you less likely to run a yellow light because stopping and starting is not really a big deal anymore.

There’s a little bit of a learning curve to learn how to unlock a JUMP bike. You can either reserve it from your phone to prevent a bike from getting taken by someone else, or you can simply walk up to a bike and punch in your account number and your PIN. All the bikes come with a giant U-lock that is large enough for even the thick parking meters, but I believe you’re supposed to park them only at bike parking. I believe this is the best option for San Francisco, and the price is more reasonable for the distance it can cover. JUMP can easily beat buses and sometimes cars if there’s some traffic.

The problems with sharing e-bikes and e-scooters

Phantom bikes / scooters and sketchy people

Just in my limited run over the last five days, I’ve already had four instances where I walked to a scooter or a bike and I just can’t seem to locate them anywhere. That’s bad if I really had somewhere to get to. Here’s a map of my GPS dot looking for a LimeBike.

I spent fifteen minutes searching for this lime…

Having ridden a JUMP bike all the way to where I live in Bayview, I can see why people might want to bring the bikes into their garage or apartment building so they can have easy access to them again the next day. It’s a lot of effort to find one, especially in a neighborhood like Bayview.

Another time I was looking for a scooter in one of the sketchier parts of SOMA, and found a Bird at a park next to a group of homeless guys. I approached the guy next to the Bird to ask if he was using it, and he told me he was even though the app clearly showed that the scooter was available. I had to go three more blocks for the next scooter.

Maintenance

Most of the bikes and scooters I’ve tried so far are relatively new and robust, but the first thing I do when I get on one is to test the brakes. I remember there were safety concerns when Uber first came out, but I was always comfortable because of male privilege knowing that the drivers and I shared the desire to stay relatively safe. The shared bikes and scooters, however, are just sitting out there on the streets, being used by all kinds of people. I have to have a lot of confidence, especially for something like JUMP that is probably going 30 MPH. The scooters can also get up to 15 MPH, which is when it starts to feel a little unstable and unsafe.

In one instance with a Bird scooter, I pressed down on the motor and it was sticky and wouldn’t come back up immediately so I had to brake hard and get a feel for it before I was comfortable to continue riding. Can these companies quickly identify broken bikes and scooters and get them serviced before anyone gets hurt?

https://media.giphy.com/media/fik950PSrAHqcbE9Cz/giphy.mp4

A really banged up JUMP bike

Re-balancing and Charging

I’ve seen the Ford GoBike workers re-balance bikes and their problem is a lot simpler since they probably only have 20–30 docks around the city. I saw a JUMP bike worker the other day putting down bikes in front of NEMA, and I was just thinking about the complexity of his problem. These bikes can be anywhere! I live near the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market, which is kind of in the middle of nowhere, and I’ve seen a JUMP bike or two parked there. I imagine there’s probably some poor worker picking up that bike and bringing it back to somewhere more popular like the Caltrain, only to have some dude take it back to the Produce Market and leaving it there for days. The density of available scooters and bikes definitely influences how much I ride them. Here are the receipts for the 4 services from the last week. I see way more JUMP Bikes and Birds so I used them more.

I ended up using JUMP and Bird way more than LimeBike and SPIN

Charging is another massive problem. The JUMP bikes are great because they have solar charging, but people often leave the JUMP bikes in shaded areas that may not get enough light exposure. The scooters are way worse because I think the batteries can probably only support 3–4 hours of ride time on a full charge. SPIN’s response to this is to create the PIN Protocol and incentivize everyone to help out. LimeBike also recently announced that they plan to pay people to charge their scooters. Bird also just started recruiting “Chargers” through their app. I’ve noticed that the scooters are pretty well charged during the day but not so much in the evening.

Is being a Bird Charger a good deal?

Helmets and Safety

All of the apps told me that I should wear a helmet, but I never have my helmet with me. Looking around, almost everyone I see on a shared scooter or bike is not wearing a helmet. Given that these are motorized vehicles, a helmet is probably a must, especially in SF with terrible streets and terrible drivers. When I was on my JUMP bike, I felt safe because it was heavy and the tires were wide, but I was going way faster than I normally would or could, so the feeling of safety was likely delusional. Scooters are smaller and much harder to control. Instead of the basket in front of the bike, I think JUMP should simply make that helmet storage, like how Scoot Networks gives you a helmet for their scooters to promote safe riding. I’m not sure what the scooter companies can do about this problem.

Parking

Message from a Chinatown neighbor

I walked up to a JUMP bike in Chinatown and I saw this message in the basket. As I was unlocking it, a guy came over to scold me for parking my bike there. I didn’t know what to say, so I told him, “This isn’t my bike!” Or is it? The app unlocked the bike and I hopped on. I guess IT IS my bike now? Or maybe this guy thinks I’m stealing it. I was two blocks away from the gentlemen by the time I worked all this out…

There isn’t that much bike parking in SF to begin with. Even when I ride my own bike, I’d often lock it to a parking meter or to another type of fixture. As these bikes and scooters begin to proliferate, they’re definitely going to make our sidewalks look really weird. I’m not sure why the Chinatown neighbors were so bothered by the bike since it was locked to a street cleaning sign, I suspect it’s probably because it’s bad business since it was in front of a traditional market. Of course, there are probably a thousand other reasons why neighbors would complain about these bikes. However, if really limit the number of bikes and scooters or restrict them to certain areas, I don’t think they’d succeed. We need the density, otherwise it’s just another Zipcar and Scoot, and probably barely better than the MUNI.

The future of mobility looks bright, like these headlights on a JUMP Bike!

A JUMP bike cupholder, basket and headlight
A JUMP bike panel

Despite the problems, the experiences so far have given me a lot of hope. For the first time, I don’t feel so far behind the Asian metropolitan cities with their convenient transportation options. All of the bikes and scooters are well made and you can feel the quality. The JUMP bikes and Lime-S have lights in the front and back that automatically turn on at night. The basket in front of the JUMP bike is robust and there’s even a cupholder inside (although you need a spill stick if you’re going to put your coffee in there). The solar charging capability and the display panel in the back of JUMP bikes are great. You don’t even need to use your phone to unlock a JUMP bike if you remember your account number and PIN to enter straight into the panel.

I’ve also been using the scooters or the MUNI to get to a JUMP bike for longer distance commutes, bridging the “last mile” gap and actually making public transportation worthwhile. When all of these options work together and begin to create enough density of options, San Francisco will start to feel more like Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taipei, and New York.

I rode a Lime-S for about a half mile to find a JUMP bike so I take a longer ride back to Bayview

I’m excited by the future of these shared transportation options. Africa skipped over desktops and laptops straight over to mobile. China skipped over credit cards and went straight to mobile pay. America chose cars and highways instead of public transport, could we turn that disadvantage into a win by leapfrogging to shared, motorized personal transport? I don’t know but I certainly hope so!

Privilege and inequality in Silicon Valley

Why “few successful startup founders grew up desperately poor”

My co-founder David and I both grew up in poverty and can call ourselves “battle-tested” when it comes to both life and startups, so when the talk in the Valley turned to income inequality, our ears perked up. For a moment, our two worlds were colliding. Here’s a quote from Paul Graham that got our attention.

“Closely related to poverty is lack of social mobility. I’ve seen this myself: you don’t have to grow up rich or even upper middle class to get rich as a startup founder, but few successful founders grew up desperately poor.” (link)

Graham was right, and it’s a truth we’re intimately aware of as startup founders. Not only are the cards stacked against us to even have the opportunity to found a startup, but building and sustaining a company that is “designed to grow fast” is especially hard if you grew up desperately poor. David and I have been fighting this very idea since starting our company in 2010, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. The main problem is what David and I call mindset inequality. To really understand it, I need to put you in my shoes. Let me take you on a personal journey.

How I got here

When I was 11, I moved to the United States with my dad. We were broke in Taiwan. I picked up the English language. My dad did not. He also didn’t work, so I started working when I was 14 by doing all kinds of odd jobs. On top of that, I did all the things immigrant kids are familiar with, like translating or simply handling all the business with landlords, bills, government services, insurance, etc. I was smart, but I wasn’t very good at school, and not knowing the language definitely didn’t help. My standardized test scores were bad enough that when I decided to take school more seriously in high school, my counselor actively discouraged me from taking even just one honors-level course. I had to bring my dad to the office the next day and told him to pretend to say some words in Mandarin while I just demanded that I get put in an honors-level English class.

I remember getting a B in that class, and that was enough to start taking some AP courses the next year. Unlike a lot of my peers at Stanford, high school was no joke for me. I was so underprepared and didn’t know how to learn that I basically committed to sleeping only three hours a night and re-read the same chapters in the textbook three times to force myself to memorize the material. I came to school every day with blood-shot eyes. One time I got a stress-induced bald spot that was pretty embarrassing, so I learned to develop a sense of humor.

I found out about the SATs in 10th grade. I took a mock test and scored around a 900 (out of 1600) and panicked. I took the money I made, and instead of helping to pay the bills, I paid for a few SAT classes at Elite Education Prep in my neighborhood. When it came time to renew, I told them I couldn’t pay anymore, but the amazing folks at Elite decided to just let me take classes for free and supplied me with all the study materials. I ultimately scored high enough that they put my picture up on the window to market to more students.

You can imagine how lucky I felt when I got into Stanford on basically a full ride (Go Card!). I spent my first year perpetually awe-struck. All these amazing individuals to talk to. All these great resources to access. Stanford successfully created this physical and financial bubble around me that, for the first time in my life, I didn’t have to think too much about money. That was extremely empowering. I felt like I was just like my peers and that I could do anything. I can’t emphasize this enough so I’m just going to say it again. During my first year at Stanford, I felt so empowered I believed I could do anything.

Of course, that was an illusion.

Reality quickly set in. I took an “elective” course about Contemporary African Politics my first quarter and I received a C+ despite grade inflation. I didn’t know how to talk in a small discussion-based class of 12 students. I was scared. I was quiet. I didn’t know how to read or skim the volume of reading we were given, so I was stupidly trying to read Week 1 materials word-for-word during Week 4. I didn’t know how to think critically about what I was reading. At one point, Professor Weinstein sat me down during office hours to ask me what was wrong and how he could help. I didn’t even know what to tell him. In the dorm, where I was constantly inspired by my peers, I noticed that everyone I talked to played an instrument, which made me feel out of place. Instead of moving on, I surveyed the rest of my dorm to see who else played an instrument only to learn that I was the odd one out. Just a poor kid out of place. Not good enough.

Sophomore year was when it all fell apart. Like many of my peers, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so like them, I decided to do everything. I joined a bunch of clubs while the classes got harder. Soon enough I fell into a slump. When you’re in a slump, you start to look around and find even more ways to show yourself that you’re not good enough. I’d go to the same classes with friends and dormmates, but then I’d notice how fast they were learning the concepts while I was struggling. I asked one of them to tutor me, and even then I wasn’t keeping up. On top of that, the extracurricular commitments I picked up totally overwhelmed me, so I shirked many of my club duties. I also noticed that, in order to keep up socially, I had to spend money to participate in a lot of activities like going out to movies or dorm ski trips — and that was on top of having to buy my own books. I remember having to borrow a few hundred bucks from one of my best friends while I applied for another loan to cover the expenses. I remember running to the student loan office crying because I felt so bad. I told the loan officer I needed the money as soon as possible because I didn’t want the lack of money to ruin friendships the way it had ruined so many other things before. I spent the next 48 hours basically stressed as fuck until the loan money showed up in my account and I paid him back. He’s still one of my best friends to this day.

The money problem was hanging over me the entire time in school. I’d get calls from home about money, but there wasn’t much I could do other than picking up a side tutoring gig. I remember lashing out at my dad on the phone because I didn’t want to carry him around as baggage while I was trying to get through Stanford like a “normal” student. I didn’t want to have a lesser, second-rate experience. I so desperately wanted to maintain the illusion that I was on equal footing. I wanted to believe that there wasn’t anything holding me back from achieving and that I’d get through this.

I did.

I went on a trip led by Kimber Lockhart and Andi Kleissner to visit social enterprises in the Bay Area. I learned about entrepreneurship through companies like Kiva and World of Good. The two of them suggested that I join BASES, the Stanford student group for entrepreneurial minds. Then I fell in love. I attended Y Combinator’s Startup School the same year Jeff Bezos announced Amazon Web Services. I ended up finding my niche at Stanford as the co-president for both BASES and AKPsi, a coed pre-business fraternity. I worked as a young VC at Alsop Louie Partners, where Stewart Alsop gave me my first Apple product (his old Macbook), then I interned at Eventbrite, where Kevin Hartz saw something in me that I wasn’t even aware myself. I started working on side projects with a very impressive individual I met named David Tran. I became “that guy” on campus who was the most gung-ho about entrepreneurship. I learned how to execute, and then I learned how to lead. Our side project became a startup that got funded by Y Combinator. We raised money, built Crowdbooster to profitability, and now we’re building PRX, which is an even bigger idea to offer PR services on demand. It’s well on its way. We can talk about that in my next post.

Mindset inequality

With that story in mind, now let me explain mindset inequality and why “very few successful founders grew up desperately poor.”

I was lucky that I found something I loved in entrepreneurship, which helped me focus my energies away from academic classes. I was lucky I found out that I was good with people and loved organizing and leading teams to achieve great things. I was lucky there were no other traumatic events that knocked me further into the deep end. I could’ve easily given in to to the realities, dropped out, or just given up the illusion and adjusted my goals — except I chose to start a company. Starting a company for me was the ultimate declaration that I wanted to hold on to the illusion and continued to believe that I could do anything.

But because I fought hard to maintain this illusion for myself all through Stanford and while building the startup, I’m extremely aware of the disconnect. The world is clearly not a level playing field. Just with myself and my experience, I can see a lot of buggy code in my mind’s operating system that isn’t conducive to building a successful startup. Here are some of the issues with my default mindset that I’ve had to fix over time.

One example of a poor mindset is to minimize conflict because fucking up is costly and opportunities are hard to come by, so it’s been a challenge putting my ideas out there and defending them. I often hear about people having intelligent conversations at home with their parents. I never ate at the dinner table because we didn’t have one in the one-bedroom apartment that I shared with my dad. You can imagine how this translates to pitching your startup. The idea of putting my grand idea out there and vigorously defending it to investors trying to tear it apart was new and counterintuitive.

Related to that, a poor founder tends to be less confident. My mom, who didn’t go to college, used to say this to me, and it bothered me a lot. She’d say, “We’re not meant to be successful, so what you’ve achieved is good enough!” Compare that level of confidence to a kid with successful parents who’d say something along the lines of “If you can believe it, you can achieve it!” Now imagine walking into a VC office having to compete with that kid. He’s so convinced that he’s going to change the world, and that’s going to show in his pitch. You can’t just muster up that confidence on the spot.

Then there’s knowing how to manage resources. Being poor makes you suck at using money as a resource. My time was always cheaper growing up, so I’d rather spend time than spend money. I had to fix this when we raised our first seed round, but it took quite some time. A simple decision to hire, for example, took a very long time to the point that it cost us growth. Then there are also human resources, networks of people who can help you. Again, growing up poor meant that there weren’t successful aunts and uncles who could show me the ways of the world or even give me a little nudge in the right direction. I’ve had to learn to work the room, to talk to and talk like a successful person, and to know how to ask for help.

I’ve also noticed the huge difference having some built-in resources can make. I don’t have “friends and family” money to get going. In fact, I’m sending money to my dad every month from the measly income I take out from my startup. Knowing that you have “friends and family” money to get going or even some family money to help you when you fail makes it that much easier to be more risk-seeking and build the appetite for hyper-growth startups. Most of the time, potential founders who share my background tend to work at lucrative jobs in finance or tech until they can take care of everyone in their families before they even dream about taking more risks — if they ever get there.

Finally, there’s the constant guilt. If you have a Stanford degree and share my background, you’re likely the only one they can count on at home. You most likely would have the opportunity to work at safer and more lucrative careers that would be of more immediate help to your family. It’s very irresponsible to pursue the startup path, and even if you do succeed in upgrading your mind software to get rid of all the bugs I mentioned above, you start to sound and act differently from the people you grew up with. You might even get accused of losing your identity. This is why successful rappers are told they’re turning their backs on their communities all the time.

All of this contributes to the mindset inequality that founders like David and me have to overcome. We think this is the reason why poor founders tend not to be successful. Fortunately for us, we consider this the biggest chip on our shoulders. Known bug in our mind software. We’ve overcome so many of these issues, and we’ll keep chipping away at it until we win. But for others, I think it’s important to note this: Tangible inequalities — that which can be seen and measured, like money or access — get the majority of the attention, and deservedly so. But inequalities that live in your mind can keep the deck stacked against you long after you’ve made it out of the one-room apartment you shared with your dad. This is insidious, difficult-to-discuss, and takes a long essay to explain.

David and I are living proof that if we can upgrade and improve the way we think, and overcome our mindset inequality, then maybe we can help others do the same. For me, that starts with sharing my story so far. Stay tuned.

Thanks to David Tran, Yin Yin Wu and Gaby Gulo for reading drafts of this.

What Steve Jobs meant to me

What Steve Jobs meant to me.
Having just learned about his death, I’m mustering something together to try to articulate Steve Jobs’ impact on my life. Unlike many people here in the valley, I wasn’t much of a geek, let alone an Apple fanboy. I came to Stanford because they offered me a great financial aid package and because it was an elite institution close enough to home in LA in case I ever needed to go back. That was ’06, I had no idea Steve Jobs just made a commencement speech one year before that I’d discover later and change my life.
Going to school at Stanford was a huge culture shock. I couldn’t fit in. In dorm activities, I learned about my peers’ amazing backgrounds and felt sorry for myself for not having any of their experiences in life. I walked around the dorm asking every person if he / she played an instrument, and I couldn’t find anyone who didn’t. I did not have the study skills necessary to succeed, and got a C during my first quarter while others marched on to great academic performance. On campus, iPods and other Apple products were pervasive, and that only added to the perception – this was a school for privileged kids, not me.
I felt that way until my first spring break. I didn’t want to go home since there wasn’t much to return to. I decided to stay and went on a trip led by some upperclassmen called “social entrepreneurship in the bay area.” A little context, I hated “business.” That was a dirty word. My father was in the stock market and he was pretty much bankrupt by the time I turned 4. Growing up, he tried to give me what he knew while trying to turn himself around with no capital to no avail. I always rejected him. My mother left around then, and I struggled to grow up like a normal kid when nothing was normal about my environment. At 14, I started working so I can help pay for things around the household. It wasn’t much, but it helped. Business (more precisely, buying and selling stocks), was the reason why all this had to happen.
On this trip, we visited companies like Kiva, World of Good, Papilia, and Benetech. I realized where I was. I am not just at Stanford, but Silicon Valley, where there are “businesses” that actually did good things and made the world a better place. That was extremely eye-opening. By the time Spring Quarter rolled around, I knew what I needed to do. My perspective was completely transformed.
By bringing me here, Stanford was lifting me up and putting me on equal footing as everyone else because for once in my life, I did not have to worry about money, at least not here. The school also gave me everything I needed to succeed, with resources like the alternative spring break trip, and incredible peers I can team up with to achieve dreams. I wanted to change the world the way that people in the Silicon Valley were doing it, with massive impact. As I learned more about startups and entrepreneurship, I found myself increasingly drawn to it. In school, I made it a point to utilize the resources available to me and, more importantly, I tried to learn as much as I could from my peers.
Over time, I found out what I was good at. I’m good with people. My upbringing had ingrained in me special sensitivities that helped me navigate teams to work better together and eventually achieve success. I was never the smartest in the room, but I didn’t need to be. I found a niche in school as someone who championed the cause of entrepreneurship, bringing the startup spirit and the message of empowerment to every part of campus. I also started dabbling in startups by first working for them, and later, with the right teammates, built products that would eventually become Crowdbooster.
So what did all this have to do with Steve Jobs? Well, in college, I discovered his commencement speech. I found myself watching it over and over again. Even though I am a fanboy now, it wasn’t about his products. It was his story. Like me, he came from a low-income, immigrant family. He had to do things like pick up cans so he can sell them to buy a meal. When he found out what he needed to do, he went after it, without fear. He took the leap, and he assured me in his speech that you can’t connect the dots going forward, so you just have to have faith. That encouraged me to go from a kid who didn’t fit in to one who dared to pursue his dreams, despite economic circumstances and allures of elite jobs that pay. I knew what I needed to do. He told me to jump, and I did. I jumped. Crowdbooster is first of many businesses I will build to maximize the impact I have in this world. Thank you Steve.