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Change Is the Only Constant

It’s been woefully long since I’ve updated this blog — more out of lack of time (and okay, just not sitting down and doing it) than forgetfulness and not thinking about it.  This doesn’t mean that a lot hasn’t happened in the past few months and year, and really, quite the opposite. 

Events are a funny thing and it’s always interesting to think about those moments that give us pause and push us to reflect on what’s happened. Tonight, after excitedly moving to Seattle and buying a car for the next four months that I’ll be here, my co-founders and I subsequently crashed said car in an accident that albeit we had not fault in, left us car-less and a few bruises worse for the wear (thankfully everyone is okay). 

Everyone says that entrepreneurship is a journey of highs and lows, and how true that is.  To think that just four months ago, we would meet over a Facebook recommendation, go on to launch a Kickstarter campaign that ranks in the top 0.5% of all campaigns on Kickstarter to date, leave the path less traveled to try and build something of our own, to moving to Seattle at the blink of an eye to join a Microsoft accelerator for four months — if you had asked me where I would be come fall at the beginning of the year, this probably would not have made it to the top of the list, or even the middle.

But events can be funny like this, and by now, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise. As much as we like to plan (and I’m not one that’s particularly fond of planning, preferring instead to prepare for situations of mediated serendipity like this), change is still the only constant to rely on. 

For me, especially as both myself and my team go into that ever-so-critical stage of any startup that is fundraising, it’s a reminder/lesson that whatever successes and wins we’ve had, staying humble, working our butts off, constantly being open to feedback — especially from our customers, balancing that feedback against our values/vision, and being prepared for change are constant principles that will never go away.  

I’m sure that the next four months will bring even more change than what I can imagine. And that’s something I’m looking forward to and can only work hard to make sure we can be as ‘lucky’ as possible. And in between, I’ll try to update this as much as I can — as much social networks like Facebook/Instagram/LinkedIn exist to make us more connected, nothing has ever really quite replaced the written word for me in the absence of actual face time. 

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Q4 Goals

Looking at the calendar, it’s already almost 9/30 … almost October, and the last quarter of 2013.  There’s a funny thing with time – in the moment, it can pass by excruciatingly slowly at times, but if you don’t pause to look up, it can also fly by in the blink of an eye.  September — a new season of TV shows, the end of others (and really, that is to say #BreakingBad, which has been on an AMAZING run). 

In some ways, as I’ve commented to others as well, I feel as if 2013 has been some what of a wash — when I look back on it, I’m not sure what exactly I’ve accomplished.  And some times, that can be a fearful thing to admit — it’s one thing to bring it up in conversation with friends, another to post it on a (semi-) public blog like this one, and completely different still to admit it to yourself (which is the hardest yet).   It’s not to say that I accomplished nothing, but I think … it’s more the intent of how things are done. I’ve always been one who’s been comfortable with ambiguity and taking the course of serendipity, but at the same time, there’s a growing part of me who firmly believes in shaping one’s destiny / future as well.  After all, life ultimately is more about creating yourself than it is about finding yourself. 

In the grand scheme of things, nine months may not be much — a drop in the ocean against the many moons that you ultimately live out. But it’s not insubstantial either — in nine months, you complete the cycle of giving birth to an entirely new life,  you can teach yourself a new language — and then some, you can train to run a marathon … the list can go on.  

And so, I suppose in this last stretch of 2013, as the title suggests, I think it’s time to lay out some intention. In this case, the form will be goals, committed to text.  In the day to day, it’s far too easy to forget (for me) some of the bigger questions at hand, and so here goes — goals to help live with intention to end 2013: 

Languages

– Improve my Chinese (translate one article at least once every two weeks)
– Obtain basic proficiency of Portuguese
– Read one book in French

Career

– Write weekly. I’d love to get this to be a daily habit but will write one thought-out blog post a week on a subject matter I care about on my public site
– Help break down and analyze the following topics:

1) China’s Third Plenum in November
2) The role of brands in defining culture — brands in owning share of culture
3)  Brazil’s changing economy and social values — communities in transition and the balance between tradition and progress
4) Profile three entrepreneurs and cover their stories in depth (a la New Yorker style)

Fitness

– Fully run six miles/hour
– Watch diet more closely (in terms of type of food intake) — Eat fruit daily

Travel

– Fully immerse myself in a country for a month (done — this one is kind of a freebie as I’ll be in Sao Paulo  / Brazil for all of November) 

Reading

Read three more books (haven’t determined what they will be yet). 

Books finished to date:

– The Power of Habit
– Quiet
– The Paris Wife
– The Name of the Wind

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what i miss

miss writing. 

just sitting down and letting fingers fly across the keyboard driven by some miraculous connection between neurons from the mind and heart to ten digits that sit on my hands.  the other day i paused and found myself in august. AUGUST of 2013. more than half a year come and gone.  i thought about the physical distances traveled this year and more importantly, the internal ones. were they mere distances of running around in circles, or something more? 

like most things, physical distances are the simplest to track with sound, tangible data. if only there were “frequent flyer miles” to track the journeys that your mind made from the wee hours of the morning to the sparkling twinkle of dusk. how would you quantify it then?  do loops around the block weigh as much as leaps from one space to another? and how do you track backward movement as compared with forward? 

i miss writing in its ability to quantify the unseen. to help piece together data points that no database can ever help you churn out other than listening to the calmness of your mind in the quietest of seconds.  

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Another year, another chapter

I love reading recaps — recaps of conferences, events, and especially of years. Year — and time in general — are one of the few instances where almost all 7 billion individuals on this planet we call home are in sync.  The moments relived all happened some time in these past 366 days, and regardless of who you are and where you live, the time elapsed is something that we all share.

For me, 2012 has been a whirlwind of a year — personally and professionally, filled with friends old and new, journeys on this side of the Pacific and across, building relationships, discovering old family ties, saying hellos and good-byes, defining future aspirations, and simply growing. At the end of the year, there isn’t much more that one can ask for, except to look forward with excitement at what the next year will bring.

Professionally, it was a year that made me think how lucky it was to be able to do something that I loved (for the most part).  That intersection of media, technology, and culture is always interesting and thought-provoking, but especially now, in the age of not just smartphones and apps, but tablets and general interactivity and connectivity.

Although I didn’t get to write about it as much (save for a bit at CES in January), I did get to actually live it more.   In March, I went on StartupBus – Silicon Valley to Austin, Texas to be a part of SxSW – Interactive as a ‘buspreneur’.  Over three days, you lived, breathed, and worked on an idea that became a business — on a bus — with a group of strangers who became fast friends in 72 hours.   At the end of it, all ten buses worth of teams gathered in Austin to meet and pitch their ideas (our baby, Expensieve, made it to the semi-finals but not the finals, unfortunately).   While hackathons are something that is pretty much unique to the software industry, this experience made me think how useful something like this would be across industries — giving you the creativity within a short period of time to re-think and re-engineer, or simply create something entirely new.

There was something special and unique about building a product, and that infectious enthusiasm of a group of willing individuals collaborating to build something different, something they believed in, or something just because they wondered ‘why not’ captured so much of that can-do spirit that I love about Silicon Valley and startups in general.

The conception and very rapid prototyping of OpenCoSF  was a great opportunity to share that same spirit in a very personal setting with a larger group here in the Bay (the whole thing ended up being put together in six weeks!) in October.   Instead of a convention, the idea was to have “open companies” (not unlike the houses you’d often find in Austin during Sx where companies like Spotify and MSN invited you to check out their latest integrations/products) where founders/senior leaders would share what “innovation” meant to them.

And of course, being able to end 2012 working in Shanghai, particularly in exploring the Chinese luxury market, added a very unique lens to it all.  Even today, after following the China market for some years, it’s always mind-boggling to see the pace at which it changes.  Beyond its economic growth, I’m always more amazed by the speed at which it changes socially.  Fortune comes and goes, but the belief — the soul and identity of a society — is something you rarely, if ever, see.  While it’s generally easier to write about the numbers and make sense of something based on its facts and figures, diving into the psyche and ambitions of a group of people who have seen so much change over a generation presents a much more nuanced picture with 50+ shades of grey.

Personally, it was a year that included xiao long baos in 4 different cities on 2 continents, lychee adventures, hikes in snow, rain, and blistering heat, weekend trips along the coast, a brief trip to Big Island, and a very key visit home to Shanghai. Being home in Shanghai, chatting with my cousins on Weixin, was a glimpse of an extended family that I never really knew growing up.  The age gap that had seemed once seemed so daunting seemed to disappear in the face of time (my oldest cousin is 46).

The most profound event of the year, however, came at the very end of he year — on Christmas Eve — with the passing of my grandmother. Even though I didn’t know her very well and she’s slipped in and out of moments of clarity for a couple years now, she always represented that unifying figure in a family of 20+, including all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. My mother is the youngest of seven and I feel very thankful to have been able to know her for the time that I did. I’ll always remember those pears she magically made appear after afternoon naps, telling me how Guanyin (she was a devout Buddhist) had granted them in reward for being such a good napper (I used to be a terrible sleeper).  At 96, it really is a celebration of her life, especially for a woman who was repeatedly told that she wouldn’t live past 40.  In the last week of the year, her life really made me think about what legacy and time meant, and the value of living out one’s personal legends.

As a wise friend shared his experiences with his grandfather’s death a few years ago, he vowed to do better.  And I think that’s the best thing we can really do to honor the memories of those who’ve gone before us … is to do and live better. To live more consciously in acts both big and small.

Happy 2013 – to being better.

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On Cultural Leadership and the Liberal Arts

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At the Shanghai Music Conservatory — a piano signed by all the great musical maestros that have passed through its halls.

One of the more happenstance events on my trip so far has been randomly participating in the 6th Annual Shanghai International Piano Competition (unfortunately, not as a pianist :)) in helping interview Robert Blocker, the Dean of Music at the Yale School of Music.  In his interview (where I was the interpreter), Dean Blocker articulated a thoughtfulness of the role of music and culture that inspired hope and delivered a clear vision of his own personal ethos — that it isn’t enough to be a gifted performer, but in that capacity, one must also strive to be a cultural leader in using the universal voice of the arts and music to connect cultures,and initiate and participate in programs that strive to give similar opportunities to those who may not otherwise have them, particularly youth (I was never planning to write about this but perhaps having been in hardened Shanghai for a few days, this brief encounter has left me thinking about our discussion for the past few hours). 

No stranger to China, Dean Blocker has been coming to China since the 1980s in various capacities as a cultural ambassador and connector between Asia and the various initiatives he’s led at both Yale and UCLA (where he was the presiding dean of the Department of World Arts and Cultures and the Center for Digital Art).  And in that time, he has seen how music has often been able to serve the capacity of being the connecting thread between communities. 

One of my favorite stories he shared was from a performance that Dean Blocker gave in 1998 with the Shanghai Symphony — before the final performance, there were a series of public recitals that were held, and at one of those recitals, a group of elder Shanghai natives gathered.  During one of the breaks in the recital, one of the ladies began to sing, a song that Dean Blocker recalled having learned from his grandmother as a young boy in Charleston, South Carolina.  To him, this epitomized the universal spirit of music, whose timeless messages transcend both time and cultures, and have the ability to create instantaneous bonds between people. 

And it is in this same spirit that Dean Blocker now teaches a class at the Yale School of Management, focusing on the analysis of music as a lens to view management.  “In music, you really learn to work in three ways,” said Blocker. “One, you learn how to work individually, second, in teams, and third, to read between the lines and the black and white notes on a music score to find your own interpretation.” 

Particularly in a country like China, whose current economic revival has been based largely on the backbone of a heavy emphasis on the sciences and math, I hope that this also sheds light on the importance of the liberal arts and in delivering performances that focus as much on individual artistic expression as it is about technical mastery.  And for Dean Blocker, the high-school football player and once pre-med student turned concert pianist, he epitomizes that spirit of self-discovery and definition in finding a path that is uniquely your own. “I was not very good student, but I think in the end, you always find your way. When I was once performing at a festival in the US, a reporter asked my first piano teacher what she ended up learning from me, to which she answered: patience. ” 

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你好,上海

Seems like I chose one crazy week leave the States — Giants winning the 2012 World Series in a stunning sweep, Superstorm Sandy touching down on Manhattan and ravaging the island city into a surreal and unfathomable darkness. Especially as the months and years go on, ‘timing’ seems to be an ever-present factor in determining the course of actions.

This time, I find myself in Shanghai at the heart of fall, filled with a crispness and beat in the air that signals at the bone-chilling winter that’s just around the corner.  “This year’s cold is coming particularly early. You’ll have to wear socks soon,” says my deskmate as we look out at part of Shanghai’s sprawling skyline (I’m not a particular fan of socks). 

It’s hard to believe how much this city has transformed and changed. The once sleepy fishing town and port continues to lay down high-rises, and the sound of construction has become the rhythm of the city’s growth. As I walked down the streets of Shanghai this morning to work, it felt even much less like the city I remembered from childhood than any other time — on this particular walk, gone were the streets filled with bicycles, replaced instead by the motors of taxi cabs. 

My home for the next month is in the Former French Concession, a quiet oasis popular amongst expats in an otherwise bustling city.  Ironically, it is here that I have felt most in Shanghai (granted I’ve only been here for a few days), in a flat rented from a Taiwanese-Australian teacher and practitioner of 茶道 cha dao (the way of tea). The old building creaks under the weight of feet above, and the wooden floors remind me of the apartment my family had lived in once upon a time in a Shanghai that feels eons away.  Like older Shanghai dwellings, the kitchen is outside the room and shared amongst four families (two who live downstairs, and two upstairs). The bathroom is also outside, and while it’s since been renovated with modern conveniences like a shower head, you’ll be hard pressed to find a bathroom of that size in any of Shanghai’s newer establishments these days (I’ll try to include some pictures soon!).

As I start on my search to understand how Chinese consumers make decisions around luxury purchases, and how they then share those purchases amongst their friends, families, and social networks, I’m most looking forward to discovering a new Shanghai, and that ever-delicate dichotomy behind a city’s economic and infrastructure growth and the mindsets of its residents. 

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what i think about when i think about writing

writing does not come easily to me.

really writing is a struggle that involves numerous fresh documents, as if each ctrl (command)+n will magically result in a fresh new slate of ideas, a fresh new perspective in grappling with a story that has been stewing and cooking for hours within your mind.

but yet, it’s in writing that i often find myself working out those kinks — not always in the finer nuances of language, but in the framing and positioning of a story, of blurred lines. depending on what i set out to write, it forces me to be decidedly deliberate about the set of words chosen. of how they are introduced, one before the other.

but most importantly, it is through writing that you discover the tangents and the tangled webs we weave. and like a maze, one story leads you to the next, and impresses on you how delicately intricate and interconnected everything is, from the way gaming shapes the way kids grow up to the environmental impact of conferences like rio+20. you’ll start out looking at increased economic activity in one city and discover that it’s really a story about changing weather patterns. or old stories that have re-emerged.

so what is writing really? it is as much about discovery as it is communicating. it’s but another step in helping build that experience and capture that moment, that idea, that emotion, and help crystalize it in time.

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A Week in Paradise

Out on the lookout of Waip’io Valley, there is a placard that says: “He ali’i ka’aina, he kaua ke kanaka” (Land is chief, man is the servant). Looking down on the Valley of the Kings with its lush vegetation and green hills spilling into the sandy black beaches of the Pacific Ocean as the island of Maui looms overhead, you can’t help but understand the meaning of those words, struck by both a sense of awe and profound sense of peace.

At the bottom of the valley (a trek you can make either in a 4×4 or by foot) lies a series of taro farms and rice paddies, intermixed with signs warning tourists of trespassing (one of my favorites was “Forget the dog, beware of the owner”)  and Hawaiian greetings, signaling at the conflicting interests that run deep throughout Big Island.  While tourism is key to the economic survival of Hawai’i, there is also a fear that time and external influences will also erode away at the culture and tradition that makes up so much of the islands’ identity.

In Waip’io Valley — one of the most known destinations on Big Island — this apprehension of tourists often translates into local residents taking construction signs from other places on the island and strategically placing them on the public roads throughout the valley.  On the single-lane road down to the beach, we ran into one such sign that warned of ‘dangerous road conditions’ ahead.  But for those that do find themselves in the valley, you’ll likely find yourself greeted with the calm sounds of waves crashing along empty beaches and the occasional wild horse that finds its way to the main road.

And no matter where you find yourself on an island that boasts 11 of the world’s 13 ecological zones, it’s this common feeling of tranquility and general presence of the land that will follow you.  Whether you are exploring the beaches or the famous Kona coffee farms on the western side of the island, making your way through generations of hardened lava flow, standing in the unforgiving winds at the island’s southern-most tip, or walking through the wind-torn fields along the islands north shore, you are constantly reminded of how fire, land, and sea have — and continue — to shape the evolution of the island and its lore.

People find themselves on Big Island for a multitude of reasons, for better or worse, but a general law they can’t escape is the role of nature itself on these islands and the respect you come to have not only for the land, but its history.  Near the end of the Chain of Craters Road in Volcanoes National Park, there is a small collection of Pu’u Loa petroglyphs nearly a mile off the road. Here, in the midst of a seemingly endless lava field, you’ll find yourself transported in time as you look closely at the ground where etchings reveal a history of a people. In addition to the sketches of ships and fish, the most prominent petroglyphs are actually of what at first seem like non-descript holes. Scattered throughout, these holes (puka) were actually once used to house piko — or the umbilical cords of new-born babies. The hope here was that the energy of these ancestral lands would bless the children with long and prosperous lives, and root them to the land, Pu’u Loa, the ‘Long Hill’.  Of the 23,00o or so-petroglyphs found throughout Pu’u Loa, about 19,000 are piko -related.

So yes, while Hawai’i is often tied to images of paradise with tropical breezes, lazy hammocks, and cocktail in hand, it is a very different sense of paradise that often greets the senses. Instead, it is one that as the Hawaiians so astutely observed, where nature is the master of ceremonies and we, as individuals, mere visitors. Aloha and mahalo.

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The Buspreneur Chronicles

There are many ways to SxSW, the annual music, film and interactive festival in Austin, Texas, and while most choose to make their way to the Lone Star State by air, a (growing) group of individuals have chosen to make that trip by bus instead, coming from as far away as New York City and San Francisco.  This isn’t any ordinary road trip, however, and participants are expected to hatch, develop, market, and launch a product by the end of their three-day trip to Austin.

Hello, StartUpBus, the brainchild of Australian Elias Bizannes who first thought of the concept as a half-joke with friends. The first StartupBus took off from San Francisco to Austin in 2010, and since then, it has grown to have a presence in more than six cities (including from Mexico City, Mexico!)

As far as a “buspreneur” goes, I probably come as one of the more unlikely candidates – a marketing professional at an ad agency and a freelance journalist. Startups have always fascinated me, both as a tech enthusiast and writer, but I’ve never actively been involved in one (I’ll help out here and there but nothing from start to finish). What better way to do it then to go on a bus for three days with a group of complete strangers? 🙂

And so, what have I learned:

  • Team formation is everything and defining roles early will help make sure you hit all key milestones, especially in such a short period of time
  • Culture drives strategy – in business, the strategy is often the first thing that’s defined and what often dictates larger companies. But especially in such a finite time, you’ll discover that your aspirations and the values your team stands for can really drive you strategy and approach
  • Messaging and pitching are two different things.  Messaging should guide all communications, pitches are written to be delivered, and at the end of the day — even if you’re selling a technical product, it should be a story.  Features and technical usability keep a user, but a story should always be the hook that draws them in.
  • Hackathons shouldn’t just be for developers – the opportunity to refine, iterate, and improve your skills in such a short period of time is invaluable
  • And above all else, have fun and learn  🙂

Our team developed Expensieve, a tool designed especially for freelancers to track expenses. Digitize and manage your receipts in a central digital hub, taking paper receipts out of your pockets, and putting them into the cloud.

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Shipping It

A couple years ago, I made a friend who constantly said “ship it!” It was his favorite phrase, and he repeated it enough times in his already enthusiastic and mantra-laden nature to pique my curiosity. To him, it marked progress — shipping a product was a culmination of iterations made to create something purposeful, something that represented collaboration, and innumerate hours spent poring over specs and adjusting as necessary.

While I always appreciated the sentiment behind this, often thinking about it in semi-awe, I never really experienced it until recently. Just as there is a high associated with so many things like runners’ high, there’s also a product high — that moment of elation in the wee hours of night as you put on the final touches before your product gets thrown in the spotlight.

Perhaps this moment was a bit more profound  for me because I’ve always been in a service-oriented profession where the template of work is traditionally in place. Even with journalism, any article you write is but a contribution to a larger content network — it’s not an act of empowerment in and of itself.

While it’s a product I see as a work in progress, as a draft looking for disruption rather than evolution, it  spoke to something I knew that I want to become a part of my work — I want to build products. I want to help create products and give life to ideas that live on beyond simply services. I’m not sure what shape or form these products will manifest themselves in — and they may very well be in services — but “ship it!” will be a mantra that I certainly will begin to to adopt as one of my own.

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