Category Archives: technology

Congratulations, Mr. President — Parte Deux

As I sat glued to my computer screen earlier this week watching the election results from each state stream in, I realized that this was something I had done once before … four years ago, as again, in China, I waited anxiously in a tucked-in Internet cafe in the heart of Beijing to see what larger direction the United States of America would be headed. But this time, instead of just reading the news passively and sharing amongst a smaller group of friends, there was a real opportunity to ENGAGE, to participate or at the very least observe dialogues from not just all over the country, but all over the world, via Facebook and Twitter-streams that were often embedded right alongside interactive media units designed and put together by media organizations like Huffington Post, The Guardian, and CNN, regardless of your physical location.

It is incredible to see what can change in four years, and the type of reporting and data visualization that was available during this year’s election was a reminder of how quickly we innovate in today’s age of computing, and thankfully, how user-centered design and experience has become a key part of the conversation.  Four years ago, there was no ‘like’ on Facebook, there were no apps/open Facebook authentication that allowed you to easily share articles and stories with your Facebook networks.  And somehow 2008 seems to have pre-dated the explosion of Internet memes. Twitter was not the same global medium it now is, with over 41 million unique visitors monthly (and 32 million tweets alone on Election Day), compared to just 4.5 million unique visitors a month at its peak in 2008. If anything, these past four years can be surmised into the shift towards the ‘connected economy’, enabled by social media.

For all of the innovation there has been, however, in some ways the world has become less connected. Facebook and Twitter which had once been openly available across China were now accessible only behind VPN — 1 billion people who by and large, are not part of this digital global square.  As governments continue to grapple with how to address the rise of social media, the number of countries that now censor the internet continues to grow.   (I did a study on this in 2010 … I wonder how it’s changed since).  And this week, China’s infamously slow internet was only made slower driven undoubtedly by the series of meetings being held in Beijing at the 18th Communist Party Congressional Meetings.

President Obama — this week we rejoice with you in celebrating the American Dream and moving forward together as a nation in preserving the vision that makes this country so, so very unique. And for the next four years, let us continue to innovate, listen, and collaborate in creating a fair and neutral digital environment, being sensitive of the cultural and historical concerns each nation may bear in this dialogue.  “The best is yet to come.”

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Snippet-sized Confessions of a Buspreneur on #Startupbus Silicon Valley

ImageToday is the second day on #Startupbus Silicon Valley – making the trek from San Francisco to Austin, Texas (currently driving through the deserts of Arizona en route to New Mexico), conceptualizing, developing and selling a company … in under four days. Having never done a hackathon (I have always wanted to do a cross-country road trip though), the trip admittedly seemed a bit daunting, crazy … and undeniably exciting.

Both the tech enthusiast and journalist in me wanted to experience the startup world first-hand, seeing how a company could evolve, and what could be done with a group of determined individuals within a seemingly impossibly finite amount of time. Our team’s project – Expensieve – tackles the functional side of SxSW, focusing on transforming your paper receipts into a digital collection of images for you to categorize, tag, and organize for your tax preparation and IRS audit defense needs.

I’ll be writing more about this after this on-the-road hackathon is over, but for now, I invite you to check out www.expensieve.com – make sure to “like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. You can even buy our stock on the BUSDAQ. Look forward to hearing what you think!

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steve jobs: legacy and wise words

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

– Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech

It’s been more than five years since Steve Jobs gave that commencement speech at Stanford, but it’s a speech that I find just as relevant today (perhaps moreso even) as I did then.  Even today, I’ll pull it up on my iPhone or MacBook when I need a gentle nudge in the “right” direction. While the adage of “following your heart” is one that is doled out especially often within Western cultures, Jobs articulates it in a manner that resonates particularly well — creating that fine balance between being both personal and vague enough for you to fill in the blanks.

While we all knew that the day would come that Jobs would no longer be at the helm of Apple as the company’s CEO, it’s a fact that perhaps none of us really wanted to accept. After all, here was someone who has truly made a disruptive and lasting impact on our society, in helping us define what we want, disrupting industries, and creating entirely new business ecosystems altogether — multiple times over (of course,the fact that these changes made him one of the wealthiest men in the world helped too ;))

And despite his notorious working style (Apple employees routinely report of his near-Draconian management style), Jobs is a visionary in the true-est sense of the word.  From the idea of a “personal computer” to Pixar,  to the portable world of iPods and iPhones, Jobs has helped shape the very way we think about media, music, pricing, and technology. And with the introduction of the iPad, it seems appropriate that the individual who introduced personal computing has now sparked the catalyst for the shift into the post-PC world.

The question for Apple will now be how much of the company’s innovation was its own and how much of it was Jobs? Granted Jobs is not fully leaving his place at Apple and will remain on board as an adviser, the cultural and organizational changes will certainly be felt.

As a society, we always have a way of romanticizing the past and the accomplishments at the end of one’s professional tenure, and while this doesn’t mark the end of Jobs’ career at Apple, it certainly is the end of an era. However, in Jobs’ case, and in reflecting on the ideas he has already made come to life, perhaps there isn’t much romanticizing there.

Thank you, Steve Jobs, for your inspiration and work. There are many who can hatch grandeur dreams, but only a few who can translate them into tangible visions. Thanks for being the few among those few, and for so eloquently articulating those words of wisdom that will stay etched in this writer’s mind for many years to come.

a compilation by the WSJ of steve jobs’ quotes from over the years: http://on.wsj.com/nuTYC2 

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Transfer Pricing 101

Every few years (or months as of late), the area of “transfer pricing” surfaces itself, even if the term never (or rarely) appears anywhere, as was the case with last week’s 60 Minutes segment on the world’s “new tax havens”. Part of it is the skewed taxonomy of the word itself, evoking implications of price structuring (i.e., determining how much a product is worth (albeit partially true)) versus its actual practice, determining the internal market cost of services rendered between company subsidiaries.

But a large part of it is the complexity of the practice itself, despite a very simple and innately intuitive objective — companies should compensate their internal business units for services rendered the same way they would with any external service. In this way, according to theory, companies would be prevented from shifting profits to lower tax jurisdictions.

As an example, Apple, which makes its famed iPods and iPhones predominantly in its Shenzhen, China factories, managed by third-party FoxConn and its own Apple-owned site.  Apple pays FoxConn the equivalent of a cost plus 5% margin but could choose to “charge” its own privately held subsidiary a cost plus 15% amount. Because Apple only has to pay a 25% tax rate in China, versus the 35% in the US, Apple would automatically gain a 10% cost savings for all business expenses incurred in China.  (all numbers, except for the corporate tax rates, are made up)

Transfer pricing tries to prevent this through a principle known as “arm’s length”, and while each tax jurisdiction has its own definition of what is considered arm’s length, it’s generally accepted that companies may compensate their internal business units at a margin that is roughly equal to those realized by third party companies.

While most reports like the recent 60 Minutes special are quick to tack onto the $60 billion of tax dollars that flow overseas every year, and the questionable practices that surround it, this fundamental principle remains largely untouched and unspoken for.  Rather than calling for this practice to be done away with (which is not possible; if anything, the number of countries that have enacted transfer pricing in recent years is steadily on the rise), emphasis should be placed on creating less ambiguity. What entails a sales and marketing service? What third-party companies should be considered as comparable in determining arm’s length? Are public companies, which are often the only companies with publicly available financial statements, even the right benchmarks to use?

And perhaps the foremost challenge and threat governments, particularly the US, should consider is the question of intellectual property transfer.  Especially among Silicon Valley companies, the ongoing trend has been to shift valuable technical IP developed in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley to the corporate-friendly business environment of Dublin, Ireland (tax rates range between 10% and 12.5%), where English is also the lingua franca.   According to an article by BusinessWeek, Google has been able to save more than $3 billion in taxes by housing the company’s search advertising IP in Dublin.

More than just profits, however, what happens when a paper-based transfer of IP translates into talent-based IP transfer?  Then, while the numbers won’t be as quantifiable or seem as impactful as $60 billion in tax savings, the implications will be far more substantial. Rather than asking the question of how we need to crack down on corporations to retain tax savings, the more pivotal question will be what we can do to ensure that IP developed within the borders of any one country need not move simply based on tax merits.

views expressed are only my own, and are by no means comprehensive. i am not a transfer pricing practitioner or expert, just a passerby thinking aloud  🙂

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Does Twitter finally have a revenue model?


Twitter's Business Model? - Screen Shot

As I was scanning my Twitter feed today, I noticed something slightly different on the trending topics column — a small “Promoted” button was next to ‘Scott Pilgrim’ (which I have now learned is a graphic novel). Has Twitter finally decided on a business model in a move that will take advertising social as well?

According to the official Twitter support page, promoted tweets will include “displaying relevant Promoted Tweets in your timelines in a way that is useful to you.” I think part of what make Twitter’s latest move incredibly powerful — not to mention profitable — is that it puts viral marketing almost completely in the hands of its users. Tweeters, you are now the world’s latest copywriters.

Twitter also emphasized that these tweets will be made relevant to you, the end users — how? Will there be algorithms scanning for promoted tweets nearest to you, and delivering it to you in whatever your chosen language is? Will there be Twitter crawlers searching for key words that will give a glimpse of who you are and find tweets most relevant to you (can you imagine the reaction of “boy who cried privacy” critics here?)?

While the whole Twitter rank by number of retweets in trending topics still applies, I wonder if advertisers will also be able to self-select tweets they want to promote as well — tweets that tell different facets of the story in <140 characters.

And as someone who loves seeing the convergence of business, social media, and the non-profit worlds, I wonder how non-profits and social enterprises can get in on the game (and how many will) — while we always have trending topics like “haiti” and “chile” and “iran”  when disaster strikes, it would be great to have different causes/organizations featured in times of relative calm as well. Since all tweets are organic from Twitter users, there would at least be some kind of existing traction out there that could just use that extra boost to gain some notice amidst all the #justinbieber and #twilight tweets out there.  Could this be something a twitter.org could potentially pursue …?

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An Evening with Dr. Kai-Fu Lee

Dr. Kai-Fu Lee is a name that is increasingly associated with the Chinese technology sector, having worked with companies like Apple, Microsoft, and most recently, with Google, to make their debuts in the Asian/Chinese markets.  His blog, hosted at the popular Chinese Internet portal Sina.com, is one of the site’s most popular, with more than 18 million hits at the writing of this entry.

After a rather public transition from Microsoft to Google, and an even more exit from Google China, the Carnegie Mellon-educated computer scientist is onto his next venture with Innovation Works, an incubator which aims to nurture and support the next generation of Chinese entrepreneurs.

While the Chinese Internet space has grown significantly in the last five years, regulatory challenges, a lack of know-how in bringing concepts and technical tools to market, and a general ecosystem to promote innovation has hindered the entrepreneurial growth of the Chinese tech sector.  Lee hopes Innovation Works will be the bridge to take China’s tech sector to the next level, and help create the same environment for innovation that has historically defined Silicon Valley.

In a discussion with members of the Asian-American Investment Managers community, Lee shared some of his thoughts on the current and future state of the Chinese tech space, particularly in online services.

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Talent and Scalability. Regardless of industry, one of China’s greatest opportunities (and challenges) is the size of its population. With 1.3 billion people focused on education, Lee highlighted the opportunities in scalability inherent in the number of skilled engineers in the country, who have also won their fair share of global programming accolades.  In a marketplace where the average salary for an engineer is 18,000 USD — compared with nearly ten times that amount in Silicon Valley — there are more opportunities to explore projects and ideas that may have been otherwise passed up.

While Lee admits that like in any other start-up environment where not all ideas may pan out in the end, the lower costs of testing out different business models and products will result in greater overall success.

Gap between actual and achievable potential of the Internet. I know that this is such vague and self-evident statement, but when you look at the numbers, it’s an important concept to keep in mind.  Currently, China has 390 million internet users, representing roughly a quarter of the country’s total population. Lee explained that since most online activity is still concentrated purely around entertainment and gaming services, the full potential of the Internet is yet to be fully explored, from online advertising, to e-commerce, to business services.  Below, I’ve highlighted some of the key opportunities that Lee raised:

  • Cloud computing software will spearhead innovation in China’s software sector. Due to piracy and lack of IP protection, growth in software development has been stalled.  By forcing users online to run all processes, and in turn paying for these services, Lee predicts that cloud computing will change the way software is developed and distributed in China. He correlates this to the Chinese gaming industry, where 12 years ago, students were swapping CDs in dorm rooms, where today, they are paying spending their allowances on virtual goods.
  • E-commerce will grow by at least 200 times in the next five to ten years. According to Lee’s estimates, China’s e-commerce environment is at least five years behind that of the US and Japan.  The average spending per capita online is 1/16 of the US, the Chinese online connectivity is 1/3 that of the US, and most of that has been C2C.   Roughly half of all e-commerce transactions currently take place on Taobao, the C2C selling arm of Alibaba.com.
  • Mobile. Lee sees the greatest potential in the mobile sector, which currently has 800 million users (the number of cell phones).  Of those, Lee estimates that approximately 160 million are already on the mobile Internet.  However, most people are using their phones only for texting or reading, because that’s what’s most readily available now. What will happen when a device like the iPhone launches in China?

Google’s withdrawl from China: Of course, the topic of withdrawl of Google China came up — regardless of whether or not you agree with the company’s decision, Lee argued that it has also sent a signal to global companies like Facebook and Zynga who will be more hesitant in making significant headway/investment into the China market.

This, added with strict filtering mechanisms instituted by the government, has created an environment of two Internets — China and the rest of the world. What this means is that companies who choose to go directly to China will only be competing with local companies — for the time being.

As Professor Peter Yu, a legal scholar at Drake University once said, “The question is no longer how the Internet will affect China. It is how China will affect the Internet.”

Final thoughts: As always, Lee delivered an engaging, thought-provoking discussion that was able to break down something as abstract as “opportunities in technology in China” into bite-sized, actionable thought/action items.  As Lee himself said, “I really was not leaving Google, but rather going to Innovation Works.” With a system like Innovation Works in place, it will be interesting to see some of the developments coming out of the Chinese marketplace in the next couple years, especially in its development of not only entrepreneurs, but product managers who can combine technical know-how with business savvy to bring concepts to market.

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For more features like this in the future, please visit my site www.seekingwendy.com

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lessons from google

at dinner the other day, someone said something that really stuck with me and that i’ve been thinking about ever since. we were talking about google and my friend had commented that while he didn’t understand google’s commercial model at first — giving away very cool and incredibly useful applications for free — it all clicked when he realized that the simplistic brilliance behind google, from a business perspective, wasn’t that it aimed to profit off these products, but rather to draw the user in.

google realized (or at least that’s the way we’d like to believe in our brilliant speculations :)) that the only way it could truly monetize its online advertising machine was by building superior products that would create a larger user base and make it so that they would use not only google services for as much of their 24 hour day as they could, but also the internet.

by going open source with tools like google documents, it expanded this concept even more — giving users the ability to freely use powerful word processing and spreadsheet tools that had once been virtually monopolized by traditional software giants like microsoft.

and when you really think about it, this general lesson of giving freely is one that extends beyond the business world as well. oftentimes, the most successful people are also the most resourceful — the connectors, the helpers, the enablers of the world. they realize that success isn’t about turning short term profitability — it’s about delivering value, laughter, and happiness over an extended period of time.

besides, it makes the journey all the more enjoyable. 🙂

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the case for journalists

everyone says that journalists are a dying breed in the age of wordpress, google (and now bing — still need to check it out), twitter, facebook and the like. quite the contrary, i actually think there’s argument to be made that the propensity of these mediums only make the need for journalists far greater.

today, we have millions of pages and bytes of data at our fingertips and combing through them can be a rather time-consuming task. journalists have, and SHOULD, seek out that objective truth and perspectives that should depict a situation.

i think what needs to happen is that we should take a hard look at journalism schools again. true, we are in the age of new media and interactive media has become the overnight sensation of the journalism world. however, what cannot, and should not be forgotten are the core values that define journalism: TRUTH, ethics, and seeking that balance between perspective, fact, opinion, and emotion. more than ever, journalists today need to embrace new technology as a means of understanding how to use all these new mediums to support and uphold these core values.

in the end, i don’t think it will be new media that will kill journalism — it will be journalists themselves if they cannot learn to adapt quickly in the age of 140-characters-based communication.

i should caveat this by saying that since i’m not in journalism school and hear very little about what actually goes on, these are things that may already be taking place. if so, i think it should be communicated moreso than it currently is. can anyone else shed light on this?

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the war of the social networks

as Facebook welcomes its 200 millionth user (a country in and of itself), thought it would be appropriate to write a post on social networks from the perspective of a user.

since facebook started some odd years ago, i’ve been a rather faithful follower, and seen it make its share of stumbles during its time of growing pains.

recently, i’ve become more involved with chinese social networks, and have been impressed at the ability these sites have to quickly amass large number of users who are heavily engaged, from polls to discussion boards to groups.

as with all things these days, these chinese social networks have the bearings of the “chinese way.” discussion boards are much more active given the popularity of already existing bbs boards, which can be found at any university and any major website to discuss everything from current events to handicraft hobbies.

playing on the mentality of chinese gamers and their comfortability with virtual worlds, some chinese social networks have also adopted the platform of virtual economies. in a great article featured recently on techcrunch, it talks about how chinese social networks have “virtually” out-monetized its american counterparts, including facebook. the article also goes on to talk about how part of the growth of chinese social networks is attributed to applications which virtually force you to invite friends, a concept that would not bode well with users here.

however, what has always impressed me about facebook was their dedication to the individual user. even as they grew, they tried their best to never make feel like you were just a number. my experience with chinese social networks, however, has been less than satisfactory.

a simple request to change my name due to a technical glitch in their system went unanswered, and fell on deaf ears (with multiple messages in english and chinese).

while this fact does not detract from the success of these networks, i wonder how their neglect of the user on an individual basis will affect their global expansion (sans china). to become truly global requires an understanding of different marketplaces which i think facebook is more well-positioned to accomplish than its counterparts.

nonetheless, i’m sure we’ll be hearing much more about the activities and trends of chinese social networks going forward.

thoughts?

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The Obama Machine

What a year 2008 has been. What a year it has come to represent in the new millennium, not only in the challenges we face in issues like global warming, but also in its opportunities.

Not least of this are the dawning presidential elections this coming fall, which will perhaps be the most critical elections the United States has yet to see. With the field now cleared for Barack Obama and John McCain, where will the divisions be drawn, and the commonalities emphasized?

Especially with the story of the junior senator from Illinois, no matter what the outcome this November will be, Obama’s experiences and his campaign’s strategic decisions throughout this past year will be a remarkable blueprint and benchmark for future campaigns.

Perhaps what has impressed me most about his campaign, being the pseudo-techie that I am, is his team’s embracement and understanding of technology, and the power of social networking and the psychology behind it.

True, Obama has a charisma that resonates with his core base – young Americans – that is strongly reminiscent of the Kennedy campaign. True, his personal story is dynamic, engaging, and widely appealing, spanning not only racial chasms, but socioeconomic ones as well. True, he brings with him a breath of fresh air to a capitol that has long been perceived as rotting from within.

But no matter how much personality and personal charisma Obama has, his win and journey thus far would not have been possible without the monetization and mobilization of his empassioned supporters. He has astonished everyone with the tremendous amount of funding he has amassed from millions of Americans making five, ten dollar donations.

How?

Matching contributions + matching Obama lovin’.

In a stroke of sheer marketing genius, Obama’s campaign tapped into one of the fundamentals of mass fundraising. Especially in giving, we want to maximize our contributions (hence, sites like CharityNavigator that sort through non-profits according to their efficiency). By having someone else – another Obama supporter – match every donation through the Obama site, his campaign turned every dollar of contribution into two.

And when that happened, it connected two contributors today. For example, if Suzy Q from South Carolina donated $15, it was matched by $15 from Bobby G in Florida. An e-mail was sent to both parties, letting both contributors whose fund they had either matched or been matched by. Want to connect? No problem. The ability to send an e-mail was only a click away. It created a sense of community, allowed people to have a platform to engage, and created a snowball effect of the “I heart Obama” phenomena that has played a tremendous role in securing Obama’s place on the ticket for November.

Uniting a nation the size of the United States, across 50 states and generations, is no small task, and connecting them through this online platform nicely backs the Senator’s continual call of “Together, we can.”

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