Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 in Review

I wanted to take a few minutes to summarize my year for a few reasons:
  • it was a pretty eventful year that I don’t want to forget
  • many people have asked me about it
  • most importantly, I’d love to reconnect with people I haven’t been in touch with, and meet like-minded people. So if something in here resonates with you, get in touch!
Here's the summary version:

We got off to a wonderful start with the birth of a baby boy in January. Needless to say, he has been a big part of our days and, more importantly, our nights since then. My wife’s family came to spend time with us after the baby was born, and my sister very sweetly came and spent three weeks of her vacation helping us survive.

I quit my job as a software engineer at google in May with only a fuzzy idea of what I was going to do next. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We send my daughter to a co-op preschool, where parents are required to work one day a week with the kids in addition to a parents-only class about once a week. My wife had been doing that the past few years, but I took over as work parent for 6 months from January to June. It was an amazing experience to see her interacting with her friends and learning and growing over time. I also developed tremendous empathy for primary caregivers (mostly moms) and had my own tiny experience of parenting trauma.

Two recent obsessions of mine came together this year also. I’ve been following the Tiny House movement from afar - enamored by the idea of choosing to live simply. I’ve spoken to several friends who report a sense of freedom and lightness that comes with discarding possessions. Separately, ever since I was a kid, I wanted to go on an RV trip. About four years ago I almost bought a VW westy but decided against it for various reasons. Well in March we rented one for a weekend. It was meant to be a father-daughter trip but my wife was feeling up to it even though our son was just 8 weeks old. Before we got to the campsite, she told me that she was falling in love with it. So two days after getting back from the trip, I bought one. I love the VW more than other campers because of how small, yet how efficient and spacious it is. It isn’t much bigger than a regular minivan yet it has two double beds, a two-burner stove, a fridge, and plenty of storage. And of course, it is such an iconic vehicle.

We started hearing from so many friends and neighbors that they had amazing memories of taking trips in a VW west when they were young. One memory they all had in common was going to visit a mechanic on every trip they took. Being not at all good with stuff like that, I decided to sign up for an auto mechanic class at our local community college. It’s a class I’d been eyeing for a while, and it was the best $235 I’ve ever spent on my education. I’m definitely not capable of fixing a car after one quarter of classes, but I felt much more able to at least diagnose things to the first order, and ask marginally more intelligent questions of a mechanic. I ended up having to change a set of belts at the campground on one of our shorter test-camping trips so I’d call it a success.

While getting to know our van, I spent a lot of time going to various parks and vista's near our house and either meditating, or studying Digital Signal Processing and brushing up on Linear Algebra on Khan Academy (just one of those things).

My last official week working at google was spent traveling to London to teach a mindfulness class - Search Inside Yourself - to other googlers. Teaching mindfulness has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It was total happenstance that I got to combine a personal passion/practice with a job. And to think that I’d get flown to Dublin, London and Tokyo the past few years to share that passion with my coworkers - what a rush!

Because of how much fun I’d had teaching mindfulness over the past few years, I wanted to explore the “crazy” idea of turning it into a career. Over the summer I got a chance to teach the same content at a few other companies. I was apprehensive for various reasons. At google I’d always been “just a coworker sharing my passion”. If I was now “the expert” coming in to teach this content, would I have to pretend to be something I wasn’t? Would it feel as authentic? I went it to each teaching arrangement with the same introduction being very honest about who I was and, more importantly, who I wasn’t. I was happy to see that what I had to say was well received, I was able to make a positive impact, and received outstanding reviews at the end of each course. I taught in Grand Rapids, MI, Duluth, MN, and Miami, FL - not places I’d ever imagined I’d be teaching mindfulness.

I also did a lot of writing. I did a lot of journaling over the months (I’d highly recommend investing in a fountain pen - I was amazed at how much fun it was to write with), and also started writing up thoughts on mindfulness at Of the many things I learnt, I have a stronger conviction that “how” I live my life is so much more important, and so much more difficult to change, than “what” I do. I hypothesized that, 40 years from now, I’d look back and wish for a life focussed on health, character, community, and service. I wasn’t successful making regular exercise a part of my life, though I tried hard during the beginning of the year. The taught me a bit about learning how to live.

July was spent “on the road” in our VW westy. We spent about 10 days driving up from Palo Alto to Seattle, a week in Seattle, and the rest driving east to Pullman, WA (where my wife grew up) and then back home via central Oregon. In general we’d planned it as 4 nights of camping followed by 2 nights in a hotel. What an amazing trip! I’d planned our packing list for months - refining it each time we did a practice camping trip. Eventually, I had every single piece of clothing and kitchen and pantry item written down and assigned to a particular spot in the camper. Having a place for each item was crucial to staying organized on a long trip. Kudos to my wife for agreeing to do this with a 4.5 yr old and a 6 month old, AND for doing it on our 10th anniversary. We got honked at a lot that week.

It was an exhausting trip. Both the kids behaved exceedingly well and yet, it was very tiring. But my did we see some amazing places. We fell in love with Oregon, and I realized how much I missed seeing snow capped mountains. We came back excited to be home, and enriched by the month. We’ve done more camping trips this year than we’ve done in the last eight years of living in the bay area. We’ve gotten rid of a lot of things at home in an effort to live more simply.

August and September were family months - my dad visited August, and we had a string of family visitors until the end of September.

My wife and I also hosted a small storytelling series  at our house - where a neighbor volunteered to tell indian folk stories to a bunch of kids in our neighborhood.

That’s when I finally started to feel an itch to start thinking about “work”. While I loved teaching mindfulness and I’ll continue to do more of it (i might be flying down under in April to teach there) I’m not 100% convinced that it’s the right time in my life to make that my career. I love the freedom that comes from it not being my primary source of income - I get to treat each engagement like an act of service, without worrying about the next teaching gig. As a side effect of my writing, a few friends and acquaintances have reached out to me, and I’ve been teaching mindfulness over What’sApp! - how crazy is that? I send a new guided meditation every time they tell me that they’ve done practicing the previous one for 5-7 days. No revenue model needed or wanted - just lots of love and a little bit of service.

After finally deciding to become a citizen earlier this year, I quickly got a chance to fulfill my civic duty as a juror. It was a fascinating experience. Listening to potential jurors being interviewed in a Palo Alto court was humbling. Everyone there was so accomplished; a dean from Stanford, an old woman who said she was retired and then just added as a side note that she had worked on life support systems for early NASA missions, successful entrepreneurs, physicists, the list went on. The case was a criminal case against someone who had been driving after a few drinks and had killed someone. So the selection process involved answering questions about personal experience with alcohol. It was also troubling to hear that there wasn’t a single person who wasn’t personally affected or didn’t have a friend or relative who was affected by alcohol. What a toll that drug takes on our society.

In August a ludicrous question had come to mind; “what would it take to provide banking services to a billion people?” It wasn’t really a question about technology or marketing or regulation, but a more fundamental observation about the business of banking. Banking relies on two business models - interest spread and transaction fees. Both of those are weighed against the lower income. To a bank, $100K in one account is better than $10K in 10 accounts. I am convinced that there exists a business model in which the customers are the asset/lever, not the assets under management. This spawned a few month exploration understanding the regulatory environment around banking, talking to the homeless, to retail bankers, private equity bankers, angels and venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and anyone else who would listen - about the absolutely crazy idea of starting or buying a bank and then building a business based on radical transparency, generosity, and technology. There’s something there, but the lynchpin still eludes me so I’m putting the idea on ice for the moment.

A much less crazy idea spun out of this exploration, and it’s one I’m currently exploring. In our ever-more cashless society, it’s extremely difficult for kids to understand the value of money. Schools and some apps teach financial literacy through games or simulations, and some products exist to help kids get used to a cashless world (via a debit card), but there’s no product that guides kids and teaches them about money as they’re actually using it. A few of us are working towards a prototype that should result in kids leaving home with a solid credit history, experience using plastic, and responsible habits when given access to credit.

Phew. Would love to (re)connect with you so drop me a note.

And finally, Happy New Year! May you fill your 2016 with compassion, wisdom, and gratitude.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Money is Time

Money Is Time 
Living in the Bay Area where housing prices are insane, tradeoffs are very real. Pick any three - a good school district, a reasonable commute, adequate space, and a house less than a million dollars.

While thinking about these tradeoffs, it occurred to me that we are essentially traders in time. We:

  • put in our time 
  • to earn money 
  • to spend it on things 
  • that we didn't have time to spend making ourselves.

And then we make tradeoffs (where to live, how big of a house to have, etc) that help us allocate how we spend the money we earned, during the remainder of our time.  Often we put in more time at work so that we can have more money to buy more things.

But what is "buying" really? Money is only a store of value. Really we trade our time for other people's time - the time they spend learning how to do what they do, and the time they spend doing it.

Here's another way of looking at it. There is some lucky squirrel out there who absolutely loves what they do. When you slog away at a job you tolerate, to earn some money, so that you can afford some luxury that they provide (maybe they design clothes, maybe they cook food, maybe they build neat computer programs) - what you're really doing is subsidizing their hobby.

These thoughts were interrupted by my 20-month-old daughter insisting that I "play blocks".  And then it hit me. She is not part of this ridiculous self-referencing charade. She spends her time (almost) exactly the way she wants.

Somewhere along the way, we forget the big picture, and assume that we have to have certain things. And we give away 53% of our waking hours without even putting up a fight.

If you could start from scratch, reboot; what would you spend your time doing? 

Why not turn things around and spend your days doing what you love to do? I'm sure there will be enough fools out there willing to subsidize your hobby.

PS: In case you're wondering; I consider myself a pretty lucky squirrel. There was a several month stretch recently when I didn't. But then I decided that I was going to find people to subsidize my hobby.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Crazy Scifi Future is here.

Almost eight years ago, I got the chance to help bootstrap amazon's development center in Bangalore. One of the things I did was go on a recruiting trip to the Indian School of Business - one of the premier business schools in India.
As an 'out of the box' thinking question, I asked all the candidates: "Imagine that 3D printers become cheap enough to be available in your corner store. How should Amazon react to take advantage of the new reality".

I posed it as a thought experiment; a sci-fi question that seemed completely futuristic.

And here we are today in 2012. The MakerBot Replicator 2 costs just under $2,200. That's about the same price as the early laser printers.

I also just heard Chris Anderson talk about his new book - "Makers - The New Industrial Revolution" at google today and it blew my mind.

We're there. In that crazy sci-fi future.

Some quotes and links from his talk:

The guy who runs techshop is the same guy that used to run kinkos
 If you're a toy company, this should fill you with terror 
Hiring today is not about talent optimization, but about access optimization
and some random links that I want to refer back to later

Ronald Coase's Theory of the Firm
Lego Digital Designer

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sobering thoughts

It takes 10,000 hrs to be proficient at something.
Assume for a moment that meditation is the key to happiness.
How long until you achieve permanent bliss?

Life expectancy in the US =~ 80
Assume you start meditating at 30
You have 50 years of meditation available to you.

If you meditate:
- once a week for an hour => 192 yrs ~ 4 lifetimes.
- 15 minutes a day => 110 yrs ~ 3 lifetimes.
- 30 minutes a day => 55 yrs ~ 1 lifetime if you're lucky
- 1 hour a day => 23 yrs
- 2 hours a day => 14 yrs

So what are you waiting for? Time is of the essence.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Meditation Experiment

In January this year I decided to conduct an experiment.

I had just gotten back from my second 10 day meditation retreat, and - no surprises here - I met many people who'd done courses before, but had never followed up with the suggested two hours of meditation per day (two hours? who has two hours a day to spare?!). But the ones who had been meditating for a long time were convinced that a regular daily practice was the key to going deeper.

So I decided to commit to three months of meditating two hours a day. Why only three months? Well - let's just say that I've been told that, any time now, my life is about to turn upside down. I didn't want to make a commitment that I couldn't keep, so I decided to make a strong commitment for at least three months.

My wife wrote a short piece about meditation, and my commitment, on The New York Times' Well Blog. Since then, a lot of people have asked me if I've noticed any benefits, and what they are.

I have. I'm convinced that it's become easier for me to bridge the gap between the person I am and the person I strive to be. My friend who's an associate editor at Yoga Journal said that would make for a terrible quote in any reputable publication because it's such a general statement devoid of any specific examples.

But it's really hard to give specific examples because the benefits are so personal and subjective. And luckily this isn't a reputable publication. Would I behave differently if I weren't meditating two hours a day but only 15 minutes? What if I were chanting or praying instead of meditating? Who knows. I'm not really concerned about answering those questions because I'm not trying to test the efficacy of meditation (I'm convinced of it already).

My experiment wasn't about the meditation, though that was a crucial part of it.

During the course, one follows the eight precepts of Sila (Morality). Among these include 'non violence' - which also translates to being vegetarian, and 'no intoxicants'. The theory goes that perfect morality is an essential foundation for concentration, and concentration in turn is an essential foundation for Wisdom.

I've tried being vegetarian several times (longest stretch - one month), and also tried giving up alcohol (longest stretch - a year). I don't consume either in excessive quantities, and I've always enjoyed both - so I decided that I didn't really need to suppress my desire to consume them. Until now. I mean - would you forgo Wisdom for a plate of chicken tikka masala? (I know someone who just might)


Starting with the premise that meditation (especially at the two-hour-a-day-level, and after having spent ten, ten-hour days at a retreat) makes one more aware of oneself, I decided that I wanted to see if I could actually notice the effects of consuming meat or alcohol.

Experimental Method

Just giving them up wouldn't work - because I wouldn't have a good 'control' for my experiment. Instead I decided to limit my intake of both to: three times a week each of meat/alcohol in January, twice a week in February, and once a week in March. I marked every intake on google calendar with an A for alcohol and M for meat. I also annotated my calendar any time I had a particularly difficult sit.

A quick diversion. I realize that it is counterproductive to think of a Sit as either "good" or "bad". The whole point is to observe the reality of your experience as it is, in a non-judgmental way, and do so with equanimity. But that doesn't take away from the fact that sometimes I'd sit down and spend the hour calmly focussing on different parts of my body and other times my mind would be a storm, I'd struggle to keep my eyes closed, and then realize that it had only been thirty minutes. I marked those times with a "-1".


What I found was fascinating.

As suspected, it was almost impossible to have even one drink, and then sit down to meditate. I'd usually organize the evening so that I'd meditate first, and then have a drink (This was made particularly easy thanks to my awesome employer google, where there are meditation rooms on campus. I've meditated in several buildings in Mountain View, as well as in Seattle while on a business trip).

Also, as suspected, the morning after having a couple of beers was a little difficult. But I was surprised that even a single drink tended to have an effect on my meditation the next day.

But the big surprise was the meat. Sure - a big meal of red meat makes most people feel a bit sluggish, but I noticed that the effects of meat were just as unsettling on the mind as alcohol. Definitely less intense (I rarely planned my meditation around a meal unless it was going to involve alcohol), but tended to last for three to four sits (1.5 - 2 days). Dropping down from three meals a week to two, and then to one, really brought this point home. In March I was able to clearly see that the single meat meal upset a balance, whereas in January it was a little harder to notice since the various effects merged together.

On a side note - counting my meat meals had this strange effect where I'd always have to figure out if it was worth using my single meat-coupon (as I called in in my head) on any given meal. Suddenly sausage at breakfast, or chicken soup at lunch was just not worth blowing a coupon on. Note also that, given how fantastic the food at google is, the bar was extraordinarily high.


So where does that leave things now that it's April?

Now that I've meditated at least two hours a day for a little over one hundred days in a row, I really hope to keep going. In fact the thought of stopping pains me. I'm particularly inspired by someone about my age who's been meditating for over seven years.

What about the consumption restrictions? Contrary to my intuition, going through a period of "self-deprivation" actually ended up being instructive and wasn't just an exercise in masochism. If I hadn't controlled my intake in a systematic way, I wouldn't have been able to notice the effects.

But living in such a forced, controlled way doesn't necessarily add to a joyous life. I stand by my earlier conviction that if I give up something (meat or alcohol), it shouldn't be because of some sense that it is right but, rather, because it's just not worth it. Like how putting your hand directly inside a flame is just not appealing because you know you're going to get burnt.

So - I'm no longer counting my meals or my drinks. But I'm pretty sure, if I keep up my "daily practice", I'll change the way I eat and drink.

PS: That's not me in the picture. I don't meditate upside down, and I can't even do lotus position right-side-up.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Monetization Part III: Virtual Currency as Business Model Abstraction

This is the third part of my mini series on virtual currency monetization after Part I: Understanding Monetization and Part II: Social Games and Virtual Currency.

Dot Coms

Dot Com Sign

In the past decade, many companies assumed that publishing ("let's get a bunch of users and make a ton of money off ads!") was the only viable business model online since only a few companies (amazon, ebay) seemed to be able to actually sell stuff to people. But while some were making a killing on ads, most found it unsustainable - either their audience wasn't large enough, or it was too fragmented to sell to publishers.

Fast forward to a few years ago, and a few interesting things happened to challenge that assumption:
  • iTunes is wildly successful at distributing paid digital content
  • Facebook opens its platform, and some game developers figure out how to make more than half a billion dollars of revenue
  • the Fremium business model is successfully adopted by several services
...thereby showing that
  • some (many?) people are willing to pay for things online
  • it is possible to create a sustainable online business from paying customers
Today, entrepreneurs like my friend Max need to decide up-front whether to create a paid experience or to go with an advertiser supported model. This affects the fundamental design of their service, and may be a difficult decision to change down the road.

Social game developers, meanwhile, have hit on a formula that lets them abstract their monetization strategy from the experience they provide. Let me explain.


Remember (from my earlier post on Social Games and Virtual Currency) that developers price their experience in virtual currency, and provide multiple ways for users to earn that currency including playing the game, completing an offer, purchasing the currency, or paying for some sort of subscription.

That should sound super familiar to you from Part I which talks about the monetization funnel. Here's that funnel again (click to enlarge):

You can see that all of those methods of monetization live on the funnel too. And, just as you'd expect, the further down that funnel you go, the more virtual currency you get - because that's where the developer makes the most money.

For example, when you're just playing the game to get more points, the developer isn't really making much money off you. At most they may display some ads on the side that you happen to click - this was more popular a few years ago in the early days of social games. And so, earning currency by playing the game usually takes a long time.

On the other end of the spectrum, subscriptions is the most lucrative type of monetization because many people have too much inertia to cancel a subscription so even if they don't use your service, they continue paying you. That's why developers will offer you all sorts of extra benefits if you sign up for a subscription service.

What's so cool about this? Aren't game developers just re-using all the same tools that we've known about for decades?

What's cool is that they've created an experience that's agnostic of the particular monetization strategy. Whereas Max needs to decide upfront which strategy to pursue, using virtual currency adds a layer of abstraction that allows users to self-select, based on how they value their time and money. Developers create up a pricing model for their experience, and then provide different ways for users to obtain the virtual currency - setting things up so that value to them is about the same no matter how the currency is obtained.

So what next? Should Max use virtual currency for his online service? I'll share some final thoughts in Part IV:Virtual Currency for Everyone?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Monetization Part II: Social Games and Virtual Currency

In Part I of the Monetization Story, I wrote about an insight that my friend Krishna had shared with me pertaining to monetization, and also about my other friend Max's monetization dilemma when it came to designing his service.

The world of social games and how they use virtual currency is really quite fascinating, and I think could prove instructive for Max. But first, let's take a quick look at how that world works.

Farmville flowers

The experience (a tractor to tend to your farm) is priced in a virtual currency (2000 Farm Cash for the tractor). Why buy a tractor? It helps tend your farm, which lets you grow more stuff, which lets you build a bigger farm than your friends (Read more about game dynamics from Gabe Zichermann).

And how does one come by 2000 Farm Cash with which to buy the aforementioned tractor? Well, you could:
  • Play the game: Social games are almost always free to play. The more you play, the more Farm Cash you earn (but only a little), and the more involved you get. Maybe you invite your friends to play too. And just maybe now and then you accidentally click on an ad.
  • Complete an 'offer': Want to get 250 Farm Cash quick instead of slogging at the game for two days? How about signing up for a free Netflix subscription? Netflix has estimated the average value of a trial subscription at $70 (I'm making up these numbers somewhat). So they pay an advertising network $70, who pays another network $50, who pays another network $40, who pays the game developer $25 for every new netflix signup. The developer pockets $25 and gives you 250 Farm Cash. You're happy, the developer is happy, all the ad networks are happy, and netflix is happy too.
  • Whip out your wallet: Already signed up for all the free subscriptions and answered all the surveys you can bear? Still need some more Farm Cash to get ahead of your buddy? Pull out your credit card, and you can load up with 250 Farm Cash in seconds - for a mere $20.
  • Subscribe: Are you a baller? Subscribe to Club Pharm and, for $15 a month, you can get 500 Farm Cash as well as special member-only farm itemz!
Most people undervalue their time (they're the ones willing to spend hours looking for a deal that saves them $5) and they'll tend to play for free or by completing an offer. But every now and then you'll get a few loyal users who value your service, or their time, enough to pay you in cash.

Although only a few people will pay, it's estimated that over 80 percent of game revenues come from direct payments.

Reflecting on this, it's important to note that using a virtual currency doesn't magically mint money for you - it's just a useful representation of value, and is only as valuable as the experience it enables.

Using virtual currency instead of real money is useful for multiple reasons:
  • It provides an easy way for developers to incentivize specific actions within the game without actually giving away real money.
  • It makes it easy to price items and charge users small amounts of money
  • It retains the fiction of the game - it's less jarring to think about farm cash, rather than realize that you're spending hard-earned USD.
There are many tricks to making a virtual currency work well - like making it difficult for people to judge the 'real value' of that currency, making sure that the tasks that enable you to earn it are meaningful, and ensuring that there are sufficiently interesting things for people to spend their virtual currency on, so that they are enticed into figuring out how to obtain it.

However, what I'm really interested in doing is taking a step back and exploring if and how we can apply some of what games have done with virtual currency to the broader question of online monetization; hopefully in a way that will help Max. In my next post, I'll try to explain how I think games have been able to abstract away their monetization strategy, and then see if this is of general use to others.