Why Silicon Valley and thinking like a maker

On why Silicon Valley…

It seems like so many people are talking about leaving San Francisco / Silicon Valley, given how much I complain about the shoddy city infrastructure, I’ve had to answer why I’m still here many times. The short version is I that the same toxic groupthink is what pushes what’s considered “normal” to the edges, and that makes for extremely stimulating conversations and collaborations. But recently I found even better answers from Patrick McKenzie and Marc Andreessen:

Probably the single biggest change in belief I’ve had since joining is that ambition properly harnessed can be an enormously productive force in the world. This is largely informed by working with people who are extremely ambitious and yet well-grounded, both at Stripe and at our customers. There is a great, great difference between “Build a credit card processor? That’s impossible.” and “Build a credit card processor? That probably involves compliance with an enumerable set of regulations and writing a finite number of lines of code.” You want more people in your life who say the second version, probably at most margins.

Relatedly, I think I agree with Tyler Cowen that raising others’ aspirations is an effective way to increase productivity.

One way that Silicon Valley does this at scale is creating a space in the culture for being just a little bit wild-eyed when envisioning potential impact and then, this is important, actually shipping tractable engineering artifacts against the vision.

This is often poked fun of when it is deployed in the service of ends people view as unserious or when done by folks who confabulate. I have probably made jokes like that before. I think I have come to regret them, because they’re also heard by people with serious goals who are scrupulous. The jokes, and the broader culture, discourage those people from trying extraordinarily ambitious things.

Patrick McKenzie (@patio11) on “What Working At Stripe Has Been Like

Couple things notable. It is also my experience that the circle I have around me are both “extremely ambitious” and “well-grounded.” The magic of the valley has been the same this whole time which is that it is the only place in the world where it’s not only okay but encouraged to be “a bit wild-eyed” because “shipping” is also ingrained in the culture.

And then there’s Marc Andreessen.

Marc: And part of it is you should get into a scene. So this is part of it. By the way, this also goes to another kind of view of unfairness right now which is like, okay, why do all the great movies and TV shows get made… why do the vast majority get made in LA.? Like, that’s so unfair to people. There are people who, like, try to make movies in San Francisco, and they’ll tell you like, “It’s so unfair. Like, it’s just so much easier to do this in LA. Like, it should be easy to do this…” We get this in the startup world, like, why are a disproportionate number of startups built in Silicon Valley? Isn’t it unfair that you don’t have equal odds of doing this if you’re in Topeka?

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at it is, if I’m the indiv– you know, I grew up in rural Wisconsin — like, if the job is to get enmeshed into the system, right, into the network, then basically, what you wanna do as an individual is you wanna get yourself into the scene.

Brian: Yah Tony Hsieh calls them “collision spaces”.

Marc: Yeah. You gotta get in the mix, right. And if you’re not willing to get in the mix, it’s not their fault. It’s your fault, right? Again, as an individual, that’s the

Brian: Because we’re talking about is people who… what did… other than Van Gogh get to paint those paintings and feel that feeling, but his inability to talk to people — the work ultimately, it did him some good, but not nearly the good it could have done him, right? …Emily Dickinson, the same thing.

Marc: Yeah. Look, I’m completely open to the idea that there’s an alternate-universe Brian Koppelman, let’s call him “Krian Boppelman” <Yes!>, who’s a machinist in Albany, New York, who’s got a whole bunch of genius screenplays on the shelf. And, you know, someday he’s gonna die and his kids are goona discover and publish them and we’ll be like, “Oh my god. Look at all these great TV shows that never got made.” Because the world wasn’t enlightened enough to be able to go seek him out. I’m open to the possibility that that person exists… [but] I don’t know what to do with that?

Marc Andreesen on The Moment with Brian Koppelman podcast (transcript)

The point here is that it is unfair that these ecosystems are concentrated and exclusionary, but as an individual, the basic understanding should be that the great work you create has no value if people can’t find out about it. Because people are busy, they’re not going to go out of their way, so it is imperative for the individual to do everything in their power to inject themselves and their work into the mix, and that’s why you have to be in Silicon Valley.


On thinking like a maker…

The media has been calling out tech, which is warranted. Power should be checked and tech is powerful. However, I find that there’s a lack of empathy for the makers of tech and how they are grappling with these complicated issues. Recent long-form interviews with Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg show that these two CEOs are thinking deeply about very difficult problems and I think it’s important to notice that and help move the more productive conversations forward instead. If we could see this level of deep thinking from powerful people regardless of industry, the world would be a better place. But we are not directing the attention to these discussions.

Jack Dorsey on introducing Edit Tweet:

you could build it such that you know maybe we introduced a 5-second to 30 second delay in the sending and within that window you can edit…

But the issue with going longer than that is that it takes the real-time nature out of it. Then we’re delaying these tweets like when you’re watching UFC or Warriors basketball a lot of a lot of the great Twitter is in the moment just like, you know, it’s the roar of the crowd…

if you’re if you’re in the context of an NBA game you want to be fast and you just want to be in the moment, you want to be raw, but if you’re in the context of considering what the president just did or making a particular statement that you probably need some more time and and we can be dynamic there.

Jack Dorsey on The Joe Rogan Experience

On fighting harassment:

What we are seeing with harassment is I don’t know this person and they’re just coming at me. What they’re doing is that they’re just gaming the system or that we haven’t provided enough tools to ward that off. We’re looking at product fixes like what if you could, being a host, have more control over the replies, who replies, or hide it from your conversation. What does that do for you and what does that do for the experience? It has positives for the author, but it also has negatives in that you’re likely creating more of a filter bubble. We see a lot of the power of Twitter is speaking truth to power. You can imagine some folks you disagree with heavily moderating or having teams of people heavily moderating their own reply space which takes out some of the conversation that might have been enlightening or emboldening to you.

…with the thesis being you tweeted something and you are effectively host of a conversation. Should we give you more controls to curate the conversation to the degree that you want to take it. If we were to do something like that we can only do so by saying, ‘Sam moderated this reply, it’s still here you can see it if you tap this button but you have to do some work to get to it because he has chosen to go in this direction.’

We ultimately believe that we need to measure our success here and I don’t know of another tangible metaphor than health. I know it sounds a little bit abstract and weird right now but we intend to study conversational health and understand what it means in the digital space and what it means specifically for Twitter and share all of our findings.

Jack Dorsey on Sam Harris’ Making Sense podcast

Mark Zuckerberg on decentralizing authentication on Facebook:

So, the question is if you have a fully distributed system, it dramatically empowers individuals on the one hand, but it really raises the stakes and it gets to your questions around, well, what are the boundaries on consent and how people can really actually effectively know that they’re giving consent to an institution? In some ways it’s a lot easier to regulate and hold accountable large companies like Facebook or Google, because they’re more visible, they’re more transparent than the long tail of services that people would chose to then go interact with directly. So, I think that this is a really interesting social question. To some degree I think this idea of going in the direction of block chain authentication is less gated on the technology and capacity to do that. I think if you were doing fully decentralized Facebook, that would take massive computation, but I’m sure we could do fully decentralized authentication if we wanted to. I think the real question is do you really want that?

Mark Zuckerberg’s discussion with Jonathan Zittrain at Harvard Law School

Zuckerberg on encrypting messages:

Yeah, so, this is a really interesting point, right? So, when people talk about how encryption will darken some of the signals that we’ll be able to use, you know, both for potentially providing better services and for preventing harm. One of the— I guess, somewhat surprising to me, findings of the last couple of years of working on content governance and enforcement is that it often is much more effective to identify fake accounts and bad actors upstream of them doing something bad by patterns of activity rather than looking at the content.

…You can identify a lot of that without necessarily even looking at the content itself. And if you have to look at a piece of content, then in some cases, you’re already late, because the content exists and the activity has already happened. So, that’s one of the things that makes me feel like encryption for these messaging services is really the right direction to go, because you’re— it’s a very pro privacy and pro security move to give people that control and assurance and I’m relatively confident that even though you are losing some tools to— on the finding harmful content side of the ledger, I don’t think at the end of the day that those are going to end up being the most important tools—

Mark Zuckerberg’s discussion with Jonathan Zittrain at Harvard Law School

On curbing misinformation:

So but then you get the question of what’s the cost benefit of allowing that. And obviously, where you can accurately separate what’s good and bad which you, like in the case of misinformation I’m not sure you could do it fully accurately, but you can try to build systems that approximate that, there’s certainly the issue, which is that, I mean, there is misinformation which leads to massive public harm, right. So if it’s misinformation that is also spreading hate and leading to genocide or public attacks or, it’s like, okay, we’re not going to allow that. Right. That’s coming down. But then generally if you say something that’s wrong, we’re not going to try to block that.

We’re just going to try to not show it to people widely because people don’t want content that is wrong. So then the question is as something is approaching the line, how do you assess that? This is a general theme in a lot of the content governance and enforcement work that we’re doing, which is there’s one piece of this which is just making sure that we can as effectively as possible enforce the policies that exist. Then there’s a whole other stream of work, which I called borderline content, which is basically this issue of as content approaches the line of being against the policies, how do you make sure that that isn’t the content that is somehow getting the most distribution?

Mark Zuckerberg’s discussion with Jonathan Zittrain at Harvard Law School

If we were to listen closely and try to answer some of the questions pose by Dorsey and Zuckerberg ourselves, we can gain more appreciation for the difficult job these people have at designing meaningful systems for the rest of us. Maybe some of us can then contribute perspectives to help shape their thinking.

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.

The immigrant time capsule

MIT’s time capsule. Buried in 1957 to be opened in year 2957.

As an immigrant myself, I’ve been thinking about the idea of a time capsule and how it could be a useful tool to understand the immigrant experience. What is the immigrant time capsule? Let me introduce two characters based on people I know to help illustrate the idea.

Alice is 40-years-old and immigrated from China in 1995.

Bob is 80-years old and immigrated from China in 2015.

If you had to guess, who is more likely to know how to withdraw cash from an ATM in the United States? If you answered Alice because she’s younger and likely savvier with technology, you might be wrong. Alice could be stuck in a time capsule.

In the U.S., ATMs were popularized in the 70s and 80s, but they were very new in China when Alice immigrated in 1995. The Bank of China installed the first ATM in 1986, and by 1995, there were fewer than 9 ATMs per 100,000 Chinese citizens (I couldn’t find the number for 1995, but in 2006 there were only 9 ATMs per 100k people in China). Chances are, Alice has never seen an ATM in her life.

For 80-year-old Bob in 2015, it’s a completely different story. The Chinese economy grew like gangbusters in just twenty years, and modern banking services like ATMs became increasingly commonplace. By 2015, there were 50 ATMs per 100,000 people in China. That number is still well below what we see here in the United States (~200 ATMs per 100k people), but growing rapidly. 80-year-old Bob would’ve benefitted from seeing ATMs get promoted in his native language. He would’ve known friends who magically got cash out of a machine, and perhaps even tried it with assistance from the banks that installed them in an effort to educate their customers to the new technology. When Bob lands in Los Angeles in 2015 and sees the first ATM at the airport, it’ll look familiar to him and he’s more likely to know how to operate it.

Shenzhen’s dramatic transformation.

For Alice landing in Los Angeles in 1995, the ATMs don’t look like anything to her. Unfortunately for Alice, the United States has already moved on from the introductory period of ATMs. No one is going to bother explaining to her what an ATM is. She may not even be familiar with banking services in general and might still be stashing her money under the mattress. Alice is several steps behind because she was plucked from her timeline in China and shunted into a new timeline in the U.S., with a significant gap in technological progress. Alice missed all of the developments in the U.S. that were ahead of China at the time, and unlike her peers who stayed behind in China, she doesn’t get to learn alongside the rest of the Chinese population, in her native tongue, at her own pace. Alice is stuck in a time capsule that is China in 1995. Do you know someone like Alice?

Our immigrants face significant challenges like having to overcome the language barrier, culture shock, loneliness, securing employment, just to name a few. However, I suspect most of us are overlooking the fact that many immigrants are stuck in an immigrant time capsule, making it even harder for them to assimilate. In the most fortunate case when things significantly improve in their home country, the immigrants don’t get to experience that development first-hand. Instead, they are stuck in the United States, belonging to neither here nor there.

Too often, our immigrants simply turn inwards and stick with what they knew when they arrived. Alice would see the U.S. in 1995 through the lens of 1995 China, ignoring ATMs and rejecting basic services like banking because trusting an institution with their money was inconceivable to them. Imagine moving to a new country to start a new life, and seeing unfamiliar things like ATMs everywhere you go.

Alice: “It doesn’t look like anything to me.”

This blog post was inspired by the documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, a story about a community bank in New York’s Chinatown that was the unfortunate target of an Manhattan District Attorney looking to make an example out of a bank following the financial crisis. Abacus Federal Savings Bank was built by an immigrant to serve the underserved Chinese immigrant community, which was a tremendous challenge that required Abacus to employ different techniques to help the community feel comfortable with banking services, especially since New York Chinatown consists primarily of immigrants who moved shortly after the 1968. Below is a clip about how Abacus got people to deposit money directly with the bank by first introducing safety deposit boxes to ease the community into the idea. The clip doesn’t really do it justice, so I recommend watching the entire film. Start watching at 3:58.

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!