The future is Asian American


In Silicon Valley parlance, we are witnessing a “zero-to-one” opportunity in Asian American cultural construction. I’ve been thinking about this since my reaction to Crazy Rich Asians got more attention than I expected. 

Still, saying that Asian Americans are doing anything new might come as a surprise to a lot of people. After all, there are sixth and seventh generation Asian Americans, and you can easily find Asian restaurants, Chinatowns, and even Asian-themed museums. However, these artifacts are vestiges from a different generation. They are closer to representing the few sentences that mentioned Chinese railroad workers and the Chinese Exclusion Act in our history books than anything we can relate to today. As an Asian American, visiting an old Chinatown or an Asian museum makes me feel just as foreign as when I visit Asia. The idea of the model minority has stripped us of any discernible character.

Wesley Yang’s been writing about this for a while.

Wesley Yang on the New York Magazine cover

Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality. An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits. Not just people “who are good at math” and play the violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally. — “Paper Tigers” by Wesley Yang in New York Magazine. May 8, 2011.

That is what zero feels like.

But what does one feel like?

These Tweets from famous Asian American athletes look quite ordinary because…they are. But these were also the rare moments where an Asian American got to display her or his full personhood, in all of its simplicity (like feeling hangry and having a celebrity crush) and complexity (like talking about cultural appropriation). Something that most ordinary Americans are not used to seeing from Asian Americans so publicly. 

Since Yang’s article in 2011, Asian Americans have experienced an unprecedented number of opportunities to publicly renegotiate with the rest of America about what it means to be Asian in this country. At the Oscars, Chris Rock inadvertently ticked off Asians, fueling #OscarsSoWhite and the ensuing attempts at reconciliation, which helped set the stage for the success of Crazy Rich Asians. Harvard, the most sought-after Asian brand, is currently contending with its biggest boosters about how to fairly evaluate their children. The progression from zero to one will require more cultural representation and public discourse about what it means to be Asian American. In Taiwan where I grew up, people can’t tell white people apart. Racism and stereotypes strike me as problematic largely because compelling alternatives are not readily available. I feel like we are at the cusp of this rise in the American cultural consciousness as I read these names — Michelle Phan, Steven Yeun, Amy Chua, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Ryan Higa, Tim de la Ghetto, Hasan Minhaj, Eddie Huang, David Chang, Shib Sibs, Fung Bros, Bobby Hundreds, Akwafina, John Cho, Ken Jeong, Ali Wong, Daniel Dae Kim, Grace Park, Shim Lim, Lana Condor, Randall Park, Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang, Harry Shum Jr., Ted Chiang.

This rise is not an accident. We are seeing the rise today because Asian Americans have built up hard power (i.e. economic means) and we are beginning to demand soft power (i.e. cultural influence) in the United States.

Asian American Hard Power (the market)

It must first be noted that the simplicity of the “Asian American” grouping ignores the important differences among the 40+ subcultures that fall in this bucket.

Population: The Asian American population is projected to grow to 25.7 million by 2019 (7% of the U.S. population), more than doubled from 10.9 million in 1999 just twenty years ago (and the year when I moved to the United States). Asian Americans are the fastest growing population group, faster than the Hispanic-American population. 

Purchasing power: According to Nielsen, Asian American buying power increased 257% between 2000 and 2017 (compared to 203% from the second-fastest growing group of Hispanic Americans). They are projected to have a combined purchasing power of $1.3 trillion by 2022. Asian American household income of $110,523 is the highest among all population groups including non-Hispanic White households (Asian Americans are also the highest in individual mean income of $44,887).

Young and educated: Because the most recent immigration wave started in 1965, Asian Americans skew younger than the general population (34 as opposed to 38). If you only consider the second-generation, the median age is only 30. Asian Americans are more likely to enroll in college at 87% compared to 72% for the average American. 

Greater Asian Diaspora: It would be remiss to not mention a similar rise in the Greater Asian Diaspora. In terms of population, there are 1.7 million Chinese in Canada and 1.2 million in Australia. There are 1.8 million Indian-British, 1.5 million Indian-Canadian and 1.3 million Indian-South African. Unsurprisingly, Crazy Rich Asians, the movie that spoke specifically to Asian Americans, also dominated the box office in Canada and Australia.

The rise of Asian American Soft Power (the opportunity)

A few months ago, I started noticing my Asian American friends started to share memes from a Facebook group called “Subtle Asian Traits.” The group now has more than one million members and it seems like almost every Asian American I know is in there. If you’ve read this far, it shouldn’t surprise you to find out that the group was started by students in Australia. As one of the founders told the New York Times:

She said she doesn’t mind that her friends ask her about her heritage, although answering questions can be “a bit tedious.”

The endless stream of memes in the “Subtle Asian Traits” group provides relief — it’s a chance to belong for once without having to try.

“We don’t have to explain stuff,” she said.

A New Yorker article describes the impact of this random Facebook group has had on an Asian Canadian:

Jin Angeles, who is twenty-six and lives in Toronto, told me that he has become much less apprehensive in opening conversations about his own Asian upbringing — topics that, before Subtle Asian Traits, would only come up if some event occurred to break a silence that he had never quite noticed before.

Specifically the way Subtle Asian Traits (“SAT”, lol) helps create feelings of belonging is through the sharing of memes that only those in the in-group would understand. Here’s an example:

A meme from “Subtle Asian Traits”

According to Pew Research, second-generation children of immigrants are more likely to identify with the Asian American or American label than the label associated with their heritage country (i.e. “Korean-American”). There is a tremendous opportunity in being part of this secular movement, and entrepreneurs are starting to pay attention.

Opportunity: Asian American-first businesses

What does it mean to build a business to specifically cater to Asian Americans? With an exploding population and spending power, it pays to explore this idea more. 

Yamibuy

The first 99 Ranch Market opened in 1984 in Westminster, CA and has since expanded to 50 locations, making roughly $350M a year. Alex Zhou started Yamibuy in 2013 as the online equivalent of 99 Ranch Market to target the younger generation of Asian Americans. In just five years, Yamibuy has grown to $100M in annual revenue and has received $10M in venture funding to fuel its growth. Yamibuy has expanded to beauty and home/kitchen appliances, which maps perfectly to the categories Asian American consumers over-index on according to Nielsen.

Coffee Meets Bagel, EastMeetEast, 2RedBeans, Minder, Shaadi

In the competitive dating market, Coffee Meets Bagel has survived against better funded competitors by carving out a niche of Asian Americans and that niche pays at a much higher rate. Compared to CMB, EastMeetEast is more overtly focused on Asian Americans, from working with Asian YouTubers to creative billboards in LA K-Town to having “fobbiness” as a filter in your dating profile.

Filter for “age arrived” aka “fobbiness filter”

2RedBeans went directly after the overseas Chinese market (you can log in with WeChat), which has also enabled them to stay relevant. I haven’t checked these out but I hear there are Minder and Shaadi to tailor to Muslims and Indians specifically.

Michelle Phan / Ipsy

Asian Americans are the most digitally connected minority group in the U.S. Using the YouTube, Asian Americans have side-stepped being overlooked by the mainstream media and built their influence online. Amongst all the Asian beauty and food influencers, Michelle Phan has had the most success riding this wave. Her company, Ipsy, is doing north of $360M in ARR and has people talking about a $2B exit. Building on YouTube is a great way to target Asian Americans.

Instant Pot

When I first heard about Instant Pot, it was around 2016. My Asian American friend Esther Yu was spreading the good word about the Prime Day discount. Then in 2017, my other friend Wil Chung convinced me to buy one, but by then I’ve already seen Instant Pot infiltrate every Asian household I go to. The product was engineered to facilitate making immigrant comfort dishes like curry. It even has buttons specifically for “porridge” and “rice.” Typically, the young people are the first to discover new products, but in the case of Instant Pot, they started magically appearing in the homes of my older family and relatives at the same time because Asian Americans are the more likely to be connected with their families through messaging apps like Skype and Whatsapp (Young Asian Americans are twice as likely to be using those apps compared to the average population because of their families), and they made for convenient gifts for our immigrant parents who love to cook.

Crazy Rich Asians, GoldThreads and NextShark

Movies are like startups (with longer odds). The phenomenon that was Crazy Rich Asians grossed $238M worldwide on a $30M investment. The lesser-known movie Searching, #StarringJohnCho, did $78M worldwide with South Korea accounting for $22M of the box office on a shoestring budget.

South Morning China Post with their Goldthread and Abacus properties are bringing professional, high-quality media production to target Asian Americans and those with an interest in China. New media startups like Nextshark has also quickly carved out a niche celebrating Asian Americans in a relatively short time.

These are just the first of many businesses that are smart enough to take advantage of Asian Americans’ digital savvy and desire to identify with their culture.

Opportunity: Asian cultural import

It’s not rocket science to think that something that works in Asia might work in the Western world, especially with a growing and established Asian Diaspora. Many Asian Americans I know grew up without role models who look like them, beauty standards they can aspire to or products that speak to them, but when we visit Asia, we find them in abundance. 

Mari Kondo / KonMari Media, Inc.

What sparks joy for me is to tell people that Mari Kondo is VC-backed. She’s helping to export Japanese Shintoism and minimalist values to the rest of us. While she is clearly Japanese, the backlash she’s facing in the United States has many Asian Americans up in arms defending her because the other-ification is not dissimilar to how they’ve been treated and threatens to take away one of the few heroes they can look up to who looks like them.

K-Beauty and Yoga

K-Beauty, at least according to my female friends (and a few male friends), has been on the come-up for a while. South Korea exported $5B worth of cosmetics. While it’s unclear how much ended up in the U.S., Rakuten’s survey indicates that the category has grown by 300% between 2015 and 2017, and these products are disproportionately purchased by Asian Americans.

Yoga, which came from India, has also been growing rapidly in recent years. 36M people now practice yoga according to the 2016 Yoga in America Study, which is up from 20.4M in 2012. It’s a $16B industry that has grown 60% between 2012–2016. 

K-Pop

This past February, BLACKPINK went on Good Morning America to announce their US tour dates and quickly sold out. A week later, BTS presented an award at the Grammys. You can find many Asian Americans at the root of K-Pop. Jae Chong moved to Korea in 1992 to start the first K-Pop Hip-Hop boy band SOLID. Tablo from Epik High grew up in Canada and graduated from Stanford before moving to Korea for his music career. Jay Park was doing YouTube videos from Seattle before he became one of the biggest K-Pop stars to cross back over to the U.S.. You can trace many more K-Pop producers, songwriters and business executives back to their Asian American roots. The rise of K-Pop is really Asian American homecoming. 

88Rising

There’s this guy, Sean Miyashiro, who’s been going around signing artists out of Indonesia (Rich Brian), Australia (Joji, who recently became the first Asian artist to debut #1 on Billboard‘s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart), Korea (Keith Ape), China (Higher Brothers) and making them superstars in the U.S. and worldwide. Only a few artists on the label are Asian Americans, but the formula is a hit with Asian American youth.

Rich Brian addresses the audience at the 88rising Double Happiness show at the Shrine Auditorium & Expo Hall in Los Angeles on February 10, 2018 (Forbes / 88 Rising)

Opportunity: American fast-follow

We’ve moved from the days of Chinese knock-offs and copycats to Americans “fast-following” Chinese startups and localizing their strategies for the U.S. consumers. Not only has venture capital started to flow more to China than to the U.S., the staggering number of urbanized consumers in China will inevitably produce ideas that Americans will only adopt later on as we become more urban over time. Connie Chan has been talking in much more depth and nuance than I can capture. If you follow her on Twitter, you will find great talks like this one on how Chinese startups have more diversified income streams than advertising. 

Lime

Lime is a clear fast-follow from the Chinese trend of dockless bikesharing, but they’ve adopted it for the American commute by electrifying its micromobility fleet and adding scooters to the mix. The startup is most recently valued at $2.4B. Asian Americans who have experienced these services first-hand in Asia and have strong ties there are most likely to be the ones to help bridge their cross-over to the United States. 

Wish

Wish is a shopping app that boasts 300M users with a valuation over $8B. Chinese consumers already benefit from being able to order from Chinese sellers on sites like Alibaba and JD.com, but American consumers has to go through various middlemen marking up low-priced Chinese products. Wish offered an alternative. 94% of the sellers on Wish are Chinese while 30% of its buyers are based in the U.S. (the rest are in Europe).

American Ninja Warrior, The Masked Singer

Americans will also continue to copy the best of Asian media. You probably could’ve guessed that American Ninja Warrior is based on a Japanese show Sasuke, but did you know that the latest show on FOX, The Masked Singer, is based on the South Korean show The King of Mask Singer (you will be really delighted to learn who won the first season)?

Betting on #AsianAmericanRising

Now is literally the defining moment in history for Asian Americans and I’m optimistic because betting on Asian America has always yielded high returns against all odds.

In the technology industry where Asian Americans historically have the most advantage because they represent 27.2% of the work force, only 18.8% become managers and 13.9% become executives. This is the classic “bamboo ceiling” and it highlights the struggle that Asian Americans face even when they are relatively privileged.

However, when I compiled a list of “unicorn” startups (i.e. companies with private valuations over $1B) and their founders, I found that out of 206 unicorns, almost one in four (23.8%) are led by an Asian American or Asian Diaspora founder. In other words, Asian Americans have created nearly $200B (29.4% of $659B) in aggregate value. Just like with Hollywood, Asian Americans are impacting Silicon Valley by side-stepping traditional corporate ladders and writing their own rules as entrepreneurs.

In a world where everyone is connected through the major tech platforms, focusing on niche populations and helping them fuse their identity makes for smart business. The restaurant review platform Yelp can attribute much of its success to finding product-market fit among Asian Americans. One study found that Asian American women are 201% more likely to use Yelp. The online publication BuzzFeed has also found success by identifying with Asian American users. Their staff of writers regularly create content about Asian American topics after discovering that people like to share content that help them express their identity.

I’m excited for the future of Asian America. There are a lot of exciting opportunities to create new products and services created for a population that is more likely to live in multi-generational homes, more likely to travel, more likely to purchase consumer electronics, home, kitchen and beauty products, and more connected digitally and globally.

Where can we share stories through food? Where can we buy glasses that fit our noses and falsies that fit our eyes? Where can we watch our version of BET, Univision and Telemundo? Where do we go to feel like we belong? Where is the next Uniqlo that’s made for our bodies? Where is the next Lime to bring innovations we enjoy in Asia to us?

I can’t wait to see what we do next.

Fans at the 88 Degrees & Rising Tour show in New York. Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider

If you’d like to chat more about this essay, follow me on Twitter or shoot me an email at last name dot first name at gmail

How we take care of our mental health

I like to joke that startup founders eventually become interested in mental health because startups turn you into a nutcase. I got interested in this topic about six years ago during some of the toughest times of my startup journey, and I feel much stronger today mentally having worked on it. I wanted to go beyond my own experiences to talk to other “users” of mental health and write about it as part of a regular series where I explore various topics that interest me (check out my last article about my teenage nephews’ digital habits), so I posted this to Facebook.

People love an excuse to talk about their mental health

Based on the number of comments, my post definitely struck some kind of nerve. Over the past two weeks, I was able to talk to twelve of my friends about their experiences with mental health. Note that my friends are mostly in their late-twenties / early-thirties and relatively privileged in society, and I’m not a mental health professional but simply viewing their experiences from the perspective of a startup founder interested in building something useful in the space.

As the conversations got going, I quickly realized what I got myself into. I assumed people wanted to tell me about solutions like how they meditate and what kind of therapy they go to. Instead, almost everyone I spoke with wanted to give me a bigger picture of the journey they had to go through to get better. I really had to scramble to grasp the complexity of this problem enough to write about it.

How we become aware of our mental health challenges

The first question I asked my friends was how they became aware of their mental health problems enough to want to work on it. I wanted to find someone who was good at it so it doesn’t seem like it’s always too late and requires a lot of suffering before you realize you can help it. Unfortunately, everyone sucks at this.

For many of my friends, there’s typically a life trigger like the death of a loved one, a health scare or a career failure that hijacks their attention to really tune in to their feelings, but I also think some people are just naturally more in touch with feelings. The stereotype that women are better at this seems true to me. Talking to men about their mental health definitely felt like pulling teeth. A male friend described it as a “lag” — men are aware of their feelings, but they don’t address it until the condition is right (who knows when). Until then, you drown yourself in some other activity that helps get your mind off of it.

I have a friend who was very aware of his emotions starting when he was a small child, but was very inhibited because his immigrant parents called him “too sensitive.” Another friend of mine felt depressed growing up but didn’t really understand it. Her immigrant parents told her, “you don’t get to be unhappy, you have everything.” These children grew up depressed without anyone there to supply the labels and validate their feelings. In some ways it feels worse than simply being unaware because you have to repress the feelings and mistakenly think that something is wrong with you.

Imagine trying to address a problem that you don’t even know the name of. All you know is that you are experiencing pain, so you look for ways to soothe the pain. People come up with all kinds of solutions that aren’t real progress. In my friend group of ambitious young people, the answer is typically to overachieve. It never feels quite satisfying, but it’s the only societal prescription they know. Some people turn to substance abuse and alcoholism.

Sometimes, people get lucky. Maybe someone points them in the direction of counseling. Maybe they came across a book, a lecture, or a website that gave them the words to understand why they feel sad. Maybe the suffering is so great that a switch eventually flips in their brain to start actively defending against it. They go from being a passive victim to an active caretaker of themselves. They know the problem has to do with what’s in their head. As someone who has built startups and interviewed countless users, I’m very unsatisfied with how random this whole process seems to be.

We suck at this as a society. A friend quipped that there’s not a common understanding of what is good mental health versus bad mental health. How do you improve what you don’t know how to measure? As complex as our body is, we still have measurements like our weight, BMI, blood pressure that most people understand despite being imperfect proxies. When it comes to our mental health, we have basically nothing before the clinical definition of mental disorders, which is scary and not user-friendly. “Am I bad enough that I need therapy?” “If I call the suicide crisis line, does that make me suicidal?” “Am I just sad or do I suffer from depression?”

A lot of the commonly touted “solutions” are fraught with friction as well because different things work for different people. Multiple friends told me that “meditation didn’t work for me.” One friend said he basically tries to get into meditation every year and every year he fails. For friends that have sought out therapy, it took most of them multiple tries until they found the right therapist. It’s a miracle how anyone actually gets better.

What it feels like when you are suffering

Source: http://www.collegehumor.com/post/7043699/what-you-say-about-mental-illness-vs-what-you-actually-mean

I feel like it’s important to talk a little about what suffering feels like in the context of mental health. A common feeling is that there’s no one to talk to. Even if you have lots of friends, you feel like your friends don’t understand. Some people don’t have close enough friendships that are conducive to opening up and others simply don’t want to be a burden. This feeling can persist even if you go to therapy because therapists don’t have super powers. You may not connect with your therapist. You may find that they don’t have the context to really empathize with what you are dealing with. Some therapists don’t listen well and sometimes they say the wrong things.

When you try to help yourself and you fail over and over, you start to feel helpless. Learned helplessness can set in and you may retreat from people completely. You can get in a “funk” that lasts many months where you aren’t able to do anything. Getting out of bed becomes difficult. You become numb.

Almost everyone I talk to understands the idea of the downward spiral. When you feel depressed, everything reinforces the depression and it easily spirals out of control. You start to consider suicide or you see that you are only a few spirals away from doing it, but you can’t seem to get out. The downward spiral starts to surface in your relationships. When you are suffering, you attract negative people who make you spiral faster because you forget what normal, positive people look like (or you’ve never known). You don’t let yourself be better. You think you don’t deserve any better.

Getting better is ultimately about a perspective shift

Before going into specific methods people use to improve their mental health, it seems to me that the goal is always some sort of perspective shift. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer on how people get there. One friend described it as knowing the inputs (your mental problems) and the output (perspective shift), but he has no idea how the function works.

In almost every conversation, I was reminded of how powerful the stories we tell ourselves are. However, I was also impressed by my friends’ abilities to eventually reinterpret the stories or make them less powerful. One friend felt that she grew up disadvantaged and that story led her to feel maligned by parents and an unfair society. Growing up for her was about doggedly fighting that disadvantage and never winning. Today, that story of disadvantage is still there and a source of strength, but it’s only a piece of her much greater story. She no longer feels it viscerally.

One friend felt like he was abandoned by his parents. “Why won’t they love me?” was the question that caused him a lot of grief. Today, he has learned to sit with that feeling of abandonment. One big thing he did was to live abroad by himself. He lets himself be sad when he feels alone instead of feeling bad about being sad, and after a while, his story began to lose its grip. One day he was told that his battles growing up made him who he is today, and he relishes in that new understanding.

A friend defined his life by being an overachiever, but today he focuses on the journey rather than the outcome. Another friend felt like she couldn’t fit in with the overachieving peers she met in college, but these days she has embraced her individuality and loves that she is pursuing a path that is unique to her.

All of these perspective shifts “make sense,” but they happen slowly over time. I asked a friend what would happen if he were to go back and tell his 24-year-old self exactly what he needed to do. He said the message would’ve simply fallen on deaf ears. Even if these new stories make perfect sense, you have to hear them over and over again until the time is right for the message to be received.

I tried to explain to myself why some people seem naturally happier than others. What I came up with is perhaps these people adopted positive versions of stories earlier in their life and they’ve experienced the positive version of the spiral. For example, I have a friend who has always cared mostly about family. I have another friend that loves his freedom above all else, and another who wants to live out his individualism to the fullest. They seem very confident in what they care about, which helps them focus on doing the things that make them happy.

What to do to get better

The “work” people do to get better really varies. Our mind is so complex, different things work for different people. Something that has worked for someone in the past may not work for that same person in the future.

A good place to start seems to be journaling. That’s what I’ve personally found the most useful. Journaling forces me to put the thoughts swirling around in my head down on (digital) paper, helping me sort out what I’m feeling, why I may be feeling it, and creating a healthy distance between me and my thoughts. My friends recommend different variations like Minimalist Journals, Gratitude Journals and Morning Pages, which can help achieve similar effects depending on what you’re looking for. I recently started tracking my mood throughout the day using Daylio, which has enabled to become aware of changes in mood throughout the day and better hone in the causes. I think there’s a lot more that can be done here to popularize tracking mental fitness just like how we track physical fitness.

Daylio (left) helps track your mood through out the day and Youper (middle/right) has incorporated some concepts from the emotional color wheel to help people better label their feelings.

Therapy is very common, but finding the right therapist is so hard a friend described it to be similar to dating. Some go for the same reason why I journal, which is to talk out their feelings and understand them. For me, I was looking to talk to a therapist who has a different background and context than my friend circle, while others look for therapists who have coached successful startup CEOs or dealt with a specific life trauma so they can have the shared context. Some people really care about their therapists’ credentials because that helps them suspend disbelief and buy into a self-improvement program that they otherwise wouldn’t have considered. Others appreciate the therapists age and experience level so that they can feel like they’re not the only ones with the problem. Some friends specifically look to get mental frameworks and thinking exercises from their therapists while others use their therapists just for prescribing anti-depressants. A friend uses a therapist to keep himself accountable to a third party, kind of like a personal trainer. Three people I spoke to go to couple’s counseling, and they use their therapists to help articulate hard truths and moderate uncomfortable conversations. Sometimes the reason why a therapist works out is simply because there’s a connection that helps you feel open to be more vulnerable. This is a really hard matching problem.

This kid is really good at meditation

Meditation has become so popular recently I was surprised to learn that the leading app Headspace only celebrated 1M subscribers in June 2018. That’s such a small number! Most of my friends have tried meditating, but it’s hard for the habit to stick. The most successful friends take their practices very seriously, and one friend mentioned having been on weeklong silent retreats. A friend of mine meditates because he knows his default state is hot-headed, so he meditates twice a day to bring himself down. Another friend meditates so she can practice being okay with all of her thoughts, insecure as they are. A good number of friends like to practice yoga, which is a more physical manifestation of meditation that works for them.

Some of the most transformative effects can be attributed to mental frameworks people get from therapy, meditation or just reading. For example, “Unlearning ideas that don’t serve you anymore” is a popular framework that, when heard at the right moment in life, can help people get rid of the autonomous programming they grew up with. Another one is “Thought, emotion, and behavior,” which is the idea that whenever one of the elements like emotion gets out of control, you can mobilize the other two elements to bring the emotion back in control. A framework I like for measuring if you have achieved healthy mental state is, “your pain one day will just play like a movie” because that’s when you know you are no longer reacting viscerally to your past traumas.

People who get better practice being kind to themselves. It sounds simple but most people prefer to beat themselves up all the time instead. This starts with knowing what activities make you happy, and then proactively seek to do them with regularity. That could mean sleeping in, reading, playing basketball, sending updates to the family group chat, hiking, planning trips, visiting family, volunteering, working out, hanging out with friends, or simply being a potato. Whatever it is that makes you feel good, let yourself do it. Even the busiest people like my friends who are doctors and lawyers find ways to squeeze in an extra 15 minutes of sleep or an extra 30 minutes of alone time in the morning. It’s important to know that what it takes to be kind to yourself can be something really tiny. For example, a friend of mine said that if she has a bad day and she’s about to go to bed, she’ll drink a glass of water to be healthy and call that a win for the day.

You have to be a little lucky or just wait until you’re older

I couldn’t help but notice the role luck plays in all of this. Two people with equally traumatic upbringings can have such radically different interpretations that one person got really good at choosing to be happy and the other person had to struggle for much longer before becoming nicer to herself. Some people were exposed to meditation and mental health because of their parents or religion, while others grew up in families where that’s simply not a thing. This is especially true if their family is immigrant or low-income. Some people have personalities that afforded them close friendships while others had to learn to build relationships that truly served them. Some people had big life events that triggered deep self-reflection while others had to wait until the pent-up feelings finally tip them over in a long and painful process. Some people are lucky enough to reach their goals, even if they’re unsatisfying, false goals, while others don’t even get to achieve the false goals that they thought would give them meaning.

And then there’s just age. They say “time heals all wounds” but also you just give less of a f*ck about your wounds. Time wears out the power of your negative narratives. Some of the friends I talk to swear by their practice or therapist as the reason why they are better, but others hesitate to really attribute their improvement to anything other than just getting older and getting a better understanding of what actually matters. The ego becomes less of a thing as you get older and you begin to treasure relationships, health, family, and yourself much, much more.

To better appreciate the role luck and age plays, I recommend checking out the Oscar-nominated documentary Minding The Gap.


Thanks for reading! Are you working on your mental health? Please leave me your feedback in the comments section.

This is the second post in the series where I deep-dive into topics that I’m interested in by talking to users. Check out the first essay on teenagers and their digital habits:

View story at Medium.com

My teenage nephews’ digital habits

One of my favorite activities as a startup founder is talking to customers or potential customers to understand how I can create something to make their lives easier. Now that I’m not working on anything specific, I’d still like to have some of these conversations and force myself to think about them. I was home in Los Angeles for Lunar New Year celebration, so I decided to casually chat with my 16-year-old twin nephews about their digital habits because every consumer startup seems to be trying to get their attention. I’d love to hear how their experiences compare with the teenagers in your life!

How do my nephews talk with their friends?

They mostly talk to their friends on Snapchat and Instagram. Ever since Instagram copied the stories feature, some of their friends moved over to Instagram, but Snapchat still retained a good amount. “I used to use Snapchat more when I was doing streaks,” is what one of my nephews said. For the uninitiated, here’s a Tweet about Snap streaks.

They also use the default Android Messages (texting), Facebook Messenger, and Discord (but they don’t play games or use the voice chat), depending on whom they’re trying to reach. This doesn’t sound very different from what I do, but it is way less convenient compared to when everyone was on AIM and later, Gchat.

I saw on one of my nephews’ DMs that he takes advantage of groups. One that I saw was called “the Musketeers” and the other one was “key club.” I love that “key club” is being coordinated via group DMs because that’s definitely better than what we used to do without group messaging.

What surprised me was how much phone and FaceTime are being used. If they needed to get in touch with someone, they’d just call or FaceTime them. I assume calling would mean VoIP via any of the messaging apps or calling their actual phone number. My nephew told me that he uses his MacBook mostly to do homework and FaceTime because he doesn’t have an iPhone. This all sounds similar to what I did in high school, minus the FaceTime and VoIP calling, of course. Not having to save phone numbers and being able to FaceTime feels to me like a significant improvement, and from what I hear, talking to friends in-person is totally still a thing, despite the apocalyptic prognostications from the olds.

What about sharing more intimate thoughts?

I remember I had a Xanga and then a LiveJournal to broadcast my teenage angst. I didn’t really bother with limiting who could see my posts (they were public) since discoverability was relatively weak without a full-fledged social graph. I imagine that’s harder to do when you live in the Facebook world.

My nephews told me about “spam accounts” on Instagram (some called it “finstas”), but they professed that they didn’t have one 😏. Apparently some people would create “spam accounts” and only let their closest friends follow and that’s where the real feelings and interests are shared. There’s also a “close friends” feature on both Snap and Instagram that you can use. I knew about this phenomenon but I was skeptical about how much you can actually express on Instagram between feed posts, stories and DMs. Looking at my old LiveJournal posts, I shared a lot. A picture is worth a thousand words but sometimes I wrote more than a thousand. My nephews told me that you can make the texts really small, but still. They also said that sometimes you post something to hint that you’re feeling some kinda way, and the people who care will message you to talk more. Maybe that’s good enough.

How about self-expression?

I remember my Myspace had a music player playing my song of the moment complete with a custom theme and lots of pictures. That was how I tried to express myself. Instagram and Snapchat just seem infinitely better because they’re way more dynamic. Sure, Instagram filters make everyone’s life look awesome, but that’s exactly what we tried to do with Myspace. The only difference is that Instagram updates way more, making it a more realistic representation of the person. To that point, Snapchat’s stories feature was revolutionary because it made self-expression even faster and way more authentic than anything that had come before. I think teenagers today clearly have us beat in terms of their ability to express themselves.

How do they waste time?

The primary time-waster for my nephews is probably tapping through their friends’ stories. Outside of that, Instagram’s Explore tab is where my nephews get the basketball highlights and Internet memes to forward to their friends. They told me that they also watch the Discover content on Snapchat, which Instagram is trying to copy with IGTV but it’s not as good yet. They also waste time together with their friends posting stories with questions, polls, lenses, stickers, etc.

Having never thought much about consumer apps, the basic product strategy from these companies seems quite straightforward and similar to Facebook and the consumer web portals from the early web days. You aggregate different types of content (ephemeral, permanent, short-form, long-form, professional, semi-professional, social) to keep users in your ecosystem as long as you can, and you build out communication utility like text, voice, and video-calling to keep them there even longer. Open DMs are like email. Different lenses and stickers are like Yahoo! and Facebook Games and Quizzes. A Snapchat-commissioned show is like Yahoo! paying to livestream NFL games.

I had to ask about YouTube because I spend so much time on there and I was surprised it was never brought up. My nephews said that sometimes creators they follow would do a preview on Instagram and then send them to YouTube to watch the full clip, and that’s when they would go. They rarely go to YouTube otherwise and they don’t really follow any creators on YouTube. Gaming-wise, they told me Fortnite is for kids. Instead, they play Brawl Stars and Clash Royale (both Supercell games). They don’t use TikTok and neither does anyone else in their school, but they get a lot of TikTok content on Instagram. They have never heard of tbh or Houseparty.

Given that Fortnite is all the rage with kids and I for sure have seen another crop of teenagers in Taiwan obsessed with YouTube and TikTok, my nephews’ answers made me think that I’m stupid for expecting all teenagers to be roughly the same. Now I wonder if the Fortnite-playing population correlates with playing Minecraft when they were younger since it’s a First-Person Shooter. As far as YouTube and TikTok go, maybe because they’re not social, there’s no real reason to visit them if the best content are already getting ripped and shared to Instagram. This is why Facebook’s moat is extremely formidable.

What else?

When I asked my nephews what gifts they’d want me to buy them they said the iPhone, and the primary reasons are Facetime and…GamePigeon. On Android phones when their friends send them GamePigeon games it just looks like a link and it doesn’t work.

My sister has parental controls over their phones and that’s why they have a VPN, which sometimes lets them get around it. The device differences and parental involvement probably underscore the “not all teens are created equal” realization.

Finally, here’s a picture with my nephews!


Have you talked to teenagers about their digital habits? How do they compare to my nephews? Let me know!

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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What will it take for us to trust Facebook again?

Are we about to see a Facebook bank run?

Building trust is hard because trust has to be built incrementally, and it only takes one (perceived) mistake to undo years of trust-building. Facebook is very publicly dealing with this issue today, but the problem they face goes beyond locking down developer access to user data and investigating potential offenders. Facebook has to design for consistently trustworthy user experiences and roll back initiatives that have created mistrust.

Let’s look at banks for example. It’s mind-blowing how we almost never question whether or not banks are trustworthy because giving the banks our money is just the thing that we do as Americans. The banks have so much of our trust that no one really cares about the fact that banks reinvest our money instead of keeping it in a vault somewhere.

The way the banks built up our trust is by meeting our expectations every single time over the course of decades, but even then, they are always teetering on the edge of losing our trust. Every time we withdraw money and get it, every time we check our balance and it checks out, and every time we send a payment and it’s received, the banks earn our trust. However, the slightest hint of failure (even in perception) will immediately cause us to panic and explore moving our money somewhere else. The last real bank run was almost 90 years ago, but the financial crisis of 2007 was enough to dramatically lower the percentage of Americans with strong trust of banks from 41% to 27% today (Gallup). This is in spite of government regulations, FDIC insurance, the Federal Reserve and other trust infrastructure that have been put in place to help. It takes decades to build trust and you can lose it in a second.

Technology companies typically do not have to deal with bank-level trust problems because technology companies are much less visible than banks. Google and Apple have all of our browsing data through Chrome and Safari as well as our contacts and text messages through Android and iCloud. AT&T and Comcast are ISPs, so they can monitor our entire Internet activity. These companies have way more information about us than Facebook, yet they’re not being asked to testify in front of Congress like Facebook. Facebook’s real problem is that it is the most visible technology company, and the visibility breeds mistrust.

We very explicitly and visibly gave Facebook our data, just like we give bank tellers our money

Facebook has a high bar to clear because from the first time we signed up, we overtly handed over our personal information for the purpose of using it to express ourselves and connect with our social circle. We typed in every piece of personal information and essentially told Facebook, “I am giving you my information now, please treat it with respect.” This is a very explicit act and it comes with expectation that we don’t ask from other technology services. Google, for example, has built a profile of me in the background that is arguably more extensively than Facebook, but they’ve never asked me explicitly for it. Everything Google did happened behind-the-scenes with every search, every visit to an AdSense-powered website, and every time I use Chrome.

Facebook as a product also has evolved very dramatically since its founding in 2006. When I gave Facebook my personal information, I never thought that it would be used to log into apps on my phone. The first time I accepted a friend request, I did not expect my thoughts to be algorithmically delivered to that friend. This is like depositing your money to a bank, only to discover later that it was being used to…uh, bet on sports at a casino? In order to restore our trust, Facebook needs to create more consistencies between expectations and reality.

Facebook relies on our data too heavily and obviously to create an engaging experience on Facebook

When we use Facebook, we are constantly reminded of the personal information we gave them because the entire user experience is predicated on our social graph and our interests. We see what our friends are liking and sharing. If we interact with a post from someone, Facebook reinforces our “friendship” with that person by showing us more posts from them in our feed. The makeup of our feed changes so readily with our interaction patterns that we all understand at some level that Facebook is tailoring the experience very aggressively. On one hand that leads to a feeling of control, but on the other hand, it makes Facebook’s targeting prowess way too obvious, inspiring fear.

Other tech companies do this, too, but just less obviously. For example, when we search Google, Google will show us ads based on that search. However, the search results still feel relatively objective (even though they are personalized), and it feels like it’s happening one search at a time so the targeting doesn’t feel like it’s compounded based on all the data they’ve accumulated about me over time. Imagine if you searched for “basketball scores” and Google learns from your past search history to show you scores specifically for your favorite team, Houston Rockets. Unless it’s clearly disclosed as location-specific or based on some other factor, it gets creepy pretty quickly when it becomes obvious that Google is keeping a close record of everything we do in its ecosystem and using it aggressively.

Facebook is omnipresent, making it seem like it is tracking our every move even when we are not using Facebook

Facebook is on the sign up and login screens for every new app we download because of Facebook Login. Every article and video we consume comes with a Like and Share button. This is not like Google AdWords or a Gmail email address. We barely pay attention to AdWords and we think of our email as a neutral utility. Facebook login and the Like/Share buttons are very clearly branded, and they are proactive activities that make us think a lot more about Facebook. Even when we are not using Facebook, we are always using Facebook.

And when we do use Facebook, the rest of the Web also finds its way back into our Facebook feed. Advertisers can retarget us inside of Facebook, making it too obvious that either Facebook follows us around or Facebook is selling our name and information to advertisers so they can track us down inside Facebook. This conflates the different contexts and spaces we operate in. Is Facebook following me around? Why am I seeing ads from that website on Facebook? This makes it harder for users to feel in control, leading to anxiety.

This context-conflation also bleeds into real life. When Facebook crosses our location data with our social graph to figure out who we are hanging out with in real-life in order to show us posts and ads they showed to the friends we hung out with, it creates the illusion that Facebook is listening in on our real-life conversations through the microphone on our phones, causing even more anxiety.

Conclusion

What Facebook is battling today is the consequence of years of trust erosion, and it’s going to take years for Facebook to restore that trust. To accomplish this, Facebook needs to first 1) create more consistencies between expectation and reality whenever they ask us to hand over our data 2) dial back on aggressively using our data to create an ultra-personalized experience and 3) reduce the cognitive dissonance from context-conflation when users go from Facebook to non-Facebook Web to real-life.

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!