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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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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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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What Does 9/11 Mean to You?

World Trade Center Tribute Lights - New York City, New York (from Flickr user dennoit)

9/11 always gives me pause. Like it does for so many others, I think it’s one of the few times where I have that chilling feeling of being “frozen” in time — captured and encapsulated within a very distinct sort of memory of pointed clarity reserved for those moments that represent something life- and value- defining.

for me, 9/11/2001 happened during my junior year of high school. in what i thought would be just another day of school, i watched the small tv in the kitchen as i ate the pb&j sandwich my dad had left on the counter for me. it was one of those old tvs on its final sprints out which you had to adjust every so often to cut through the static, but that morning, it clearly broadcast the bewildered and concerned voice of the ktla 5 news anchor that a plane had just hit the world trade center in new york city.  the rest of the day proceeded in slow motion, with teachers whose attention was progressively turned towards what was happening on the east coast, as they struggled to intersperse those eerily quiet periods with words that tried to make sense of what was taking place.

at the time, i didn’t really know what to think — i didn’t have any close friends or relatives that lived on the east coast then, but i knew it was something that would fundamentally change the fabric of this country. i remember going home that evening with those questions of why, how, and feeling a profound sense of sadness and perplexity. at 15, i had “seen” enough of the world to understand the gravity of the situation and to appreciate what it meant to be “american”, but i was still too young to grasp the full implications of the events of that day. i think for many of us who went through our high school years during that time, it was the first time that we, in the US, were personally confronted with a national tragedy of that magnitude and scale, and it continues to be  that shared moment we can all recall in clarity the events and thoughts of that day.

in the last ten years since 9/11, our nation has undergone momentous change. we have entered one war, elected the first african-american president, experienced the dawning of a communications revolution, and are in the midst of one of the most volatile economic times our nation has experienced. we have seen governments questioned and regimes crumble, and even as our worlds becoming increasingly intertwined, we are continuously reminded of the need to stay united, to come together in mutual understanding and respect.

9/11 is a day that will continue to haunt all of us for years and history books to come. but the story of its legacy is one that we have the opportunity to still write. aside from a war that has waged on for the last decade, what will be the story of the legacy of 9/11? especially as we approach the 2012 election season, what will be the stories that we will carry with us? 9/11 brought us together as a nation, and as a global community. as we continue in an era of growing multiculturalism and globalization, let us be reminded that it is in our unity that we have always found strength and while we must never forget our values, we cannot let the dogma of our fears define the course of our nation and the actions we undertake.

9/11/2001 – may we never forget.

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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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Searching for Tokyo | 東京

Ever since I started drawing smiley faces on Hello Kitty when I was 4, Japan has always held a special place in my heart. From its Sanrio super-stardom (and yes, I’ll admit it, the beginnings of my affinity for all things Japanese) and high-tech living to the intricacies of its traditional customs, I was fascinated by the story of Edo. Even the language, with its syllabic-pronunciation, took on an almost poetic tone as it wove its way between hiragana, katakana (often used to express Western-language words), and the most traditional of kanji.

The first night in Tokyo offered a glimpse into the daily life of Japan’s “salary men” – working professionals who put in 60+ hours a week at their desks and relieved stress on the weekends by going out with friends and co-workers, often ending up highly intoxicated on the streets (or subway trains) under the city’s neon lights.  On the streets of lively Shibuya, it wasn’t an uncommon sight to see men sleeping on the streets, and perhaps the most surprising thing was that no one seemed to find this surprising. I’ve always heard about those “capsule hotels” (“hotels” literally big enough for someone to sleep in in case their late-night activities prevented them from catching the last train) but I suppose that the warm summer nights in the relatively safe streets of Tokyo allowed for the former option as well.

By Monday morning, riding the subway cars was a sharp contrast to the events of two short evenings ago. The yells and excited chatters of Friday night were replaced the calm of a city waking up for another work week, with only the sound of the rails as the only accompaniment to the silence.  Regardless of the noise and energy level though, Tokyo was a city that knew how to live in style (especially the women). And in true contrast fashion that I have come to know and appreciate Tokyo by, while the men predominantly wore white collared shirts and black/grey slacks to work, the women were dressed in the cutest dresses, skirts, sandals and heels.

On the streets, fashion was definitely a serious affair, among both men and women. Never have I seen so many people with colored and/or otherwise permed up-dos, and if flair was measured by cloth, Tokyo-lites certainly had it down. Although Harajuku is the neighborhood that most associate with Tokyo’s young fashionistas, it was something that could be experienced in almost all of the city’s central (and peripheral) neighborhoods.

These days, I tend to travel with very few expectations, but Japanese food was something I had very high expectations for. After all, when you concoct something as amazing as sushi, and apply the famed Japanese attention to detail to the culinary arts, could you expect anything less? Sadly, I was disappointed though this was probably hindered as much by my inability to communicate properly beyond an “oishii!” as anything else. There also seemed to be a surprising lack of fresh veggies and meat, which I now wonder if it was in part exacerbated now by whatever may be happening just north of Tokyo following the earthquake and tsunami. Luckily, not all was lost as my good friend Simon was able to show us some of Tokyo’s hidden gems, including 風雲児 in Shinjuku, one of the best ramen houses in Tokyo (at one point it ranked first in the Ramen rankings! (yes there is such a thing J)). After a half-hour-plus wait, we were seated at small bar with seating for about 15 and presented with bowls of steaming ramen in chicken broth and dipping sauce – truly an oishii there (albeit a bit salty towards the end).

Just as no Japanese food experience would be complete without ramen, no visit to Japan is complete without visiting the traditional Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples that define the country’s religious identity.  According to one tour guide, up until she became a tour guide, she really didn’t have an idea that Buddhism and Shintoism were two different religions.  Another said that the Japanese liked to hedge their bets, and in not knowing which religion was “right”, decided to adopt the customs and teachings of both.

I was originally going to title this post “100 hours in Tokyo”, with the intention that it would sum up that whirlwind tour feeling of spending just four plus days in one of the world’s greatest modern metropolises. After those hundred hours, however, “searching” seemed like a more apt title, especially for a city who seemed to assume as many identities as adolescents and quarter-lifers searching for themselves. But perhaps, that is what defines Tokyo – a city in constant cultural evolution, looking as much to the future as it is tied by its past.

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happy chinese new year!

one of these days, i will actually spend chinese new year in china. i guess i did when i was really young, but honestly, i don’t remember. i’ve been lucky enough to spend it in recent years with good friends from around the bay so thank you all for that 🙂

it seems that in the year of the rabbit, the theme is “peace, security, and focus”. perhaps i’ll personally just take two of the three, but here’s to wishing you all a very happy chinese new year filled with love, laughter, and shared memories.

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life reminders

Live your life (The Holstee Manifesto)

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