Tuesday, July 04, 2017

35 Words

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

It's probably hard for us to imagine, from our modern perspective, how revolutionary these 35 words were.  When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, some monarchs still ruled by the divine right of kings, millions (including many in what would become the United States) lived in the bonds of slavery, and the pursuit of survival was the best most people could hope for.

To paraphrase Hamilton, despite all the many troubles in the world, we are incredibly lucky to be alive right now, especially here in the United States.

Yet if there's one thing I'd like us to learn from the lessons of the Founding Fathers (and Mothers, Abigail Adams would point out) it's that we must continue to fight and make sacrifices for these ideals.

Our society is far from perfect.  We have institutions that continue to deny certain people equality, life, and liberty, let alone the pursuit of happiness.  To form a more perfect union, numerous individuals have to choose the hard path of standing up for these ideals, rather than the easy path of least resistance.

Here in Silicon Valley, we've seen a week that was unprecedented in my decades of experience here, where women publicly detailed the sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior of wealthy, powerful male venture capitalists.

In the past, many of the women who were subject to this kind of behavior did what must have seemed rational and kept quiet.  Just in the past half decade, women might look at the examples of Ellen Pao, Adria Richards, and Gamergate (Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and Brianna Wu), consider the harassment (including death threats) that women suffered after speaking up, and conclude that speaking up would bring hardship and not justice.

And yet, the women who came forward this week persisted.

Fortunately, these women got some measure of justice, as men like former Binary Capital partner Justin Caldbeck lost not just their reputations, but millions of dollars.  And that has encouraged more people to come forward.  While I am worried that this enthusiasm could go too far (calls for establishing a blacklist don't seem aware that most such blacklists have a pretty bad connotation), progress is still progress.

I saw another item today that speaks to the 35 words.  "Hawaii Five-0" actors Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park left the show after the two Asian-American actors refused to accept contracts that paid them 10-15% less than their Caucasian co-stars, Alex O'Loughlin and Scott Caan.  It's probably worth noting that the population of Hawaii is 26.7% Caucasian, 47.2% Asian/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 23% mixed-race.

Being a lead actor in a television series is one of the greatest jobs in the world, and Kim and Park were likely making around $100,000 per episode, which means that they walked away from roughly $2.5 million per year to stand up for the principle of equality.  I admire their willingness to put ideals ahead of paycheck; I would have a hard time making the same decision!

One of the favorite criticisms that reactionaries level against people who speak up is that, "They're doing it for the attention."  If only that were the case.  Sadly, speaking up generally costs people money, which means that it is often "unreasonable" to stick with your principles.

But as George Bernard Shaw wrote, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

On this 4th of July, we celebrate the unreasonable men who signed the Declaration of Independence, complete with those 35 amazing words.  But we should also celebrate the unreasonable men and women who continue to strive for the ideals contained in those words, despite the cost to themselves.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Silicon Valley in the Mirror (a Trump Silver Lining)

It's safe to say that Silicon Valley's reputation hasn't been having a good year.  Uber has reached the point where the number of pages that claim to be "the definitive list of Uber scandals" runs off the first page of Google results, with widespread sexual harassment and discrimination resulting in the termination of over 20 employees and the resignation of co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick.

Personally, I'm partial to The Guardian's list: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/18/uber-travis-kalanick-scandal-pr-disaster-timeline

Meanwhile, this week saw a bright light shined on a number of male venture capitalists' propensity to sexually harass female entrepreneurs and colleagues, starting with an Information story about Justin Caldbeck, formerly of Binary, sexually harassing female entrepreneurs:
https://techcrunch.com/2017/06/23/female-founders-accuse-vc-justin-caldbeck-of-making-unwanted-advances/

The week concluded with a bombshell story in the New York Times that revealed that prominent VCs Chris Sacca and Dave McClure had admitted to inappropriate behavior (though not to the level of Caldbeck's alleged actions, which included explicit text messages, sexual propositions, and grabbing a woman's thigh): https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/30/technology/women-entrepreneurs-speak-out-sexual-harassment.html

(Full disclosure: I have previously pitched Justin Caldbeck during his days at Bain Capital.  I've known and liked Dave McClure for many years.  I never witnessed either of them behaving inappropriately towards women, and am relying on the published journalism rather than any personal knowledge.)

Many people feel rightly disgusted by these revelations, which make for an ugly contrast with Silicon Valley's self-image as a progressive industry, that is changing the world for the better.  One of the things that has often irked me is the tendency by people in Silicon Valley to look down on other industries, such as Wall Street or Madison Avenue for being knuckle-dragging Neanderthals, confident in being oh so much more evolved.

But while the temptation might be to wait for these scandals to die down, and to go back to business as usual, these revelations are in fact a good thing for Silicon Valley.  We are being forced to look in the mirror and confront issues, that, frankly, we've ignored for too long.

It was only two years ago that Kleiner Perkins defeated Ellen Pao's long-running sex discrimination lawsuit in a decidedly pyrrhic victory.  Even though Kleiner technically won, the testimony included descriptions of numerous instances of sexual harrassment perpetrated by former Kleiner partners against female staff.  Yet perhaps because Kleiner "won" the case, it didn't seem like much changed in Silicon Valley.  Nobody at Kleiner lost their job, or were punished.

So what changed?  Ironically, I think it's possible that we can thank Donald Trump for convincing women to step forward and testify.

During his campaign (and after his election), Trump repeatedly demonstrated his misogyny by denigrating women's appearance (Alicia Machado, Carly Fiorina, Heidi Cruz, and Mika Brzezinski were only the most famous recipients of this abuse; full disclosure, Heidi Cruz was an HBS classmate and friend), admitting to sexually harassing women ("grab 'em by the [vagina]"), and using insults and name-calling to attack his opponent, Hillary Clinton.  By the way, I found this website, which claims to track all of Trump's offensive sexist comments; I suspect it's incomplete:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/politics/donald-trump-sexism-tracker-every-offensive-comment-in-one-place/

The result was the Women's March on Washington, the largest single-day protest in US history, and what seems like an increased resolution to call out sexism and sexual harassment.  The behavior I outlined at Uber and on the part of certain venture capitalists date back years.  Heck, it's not even "he said, she said," since in nearly all of these cases, there was written evidence of the bad behavior!  We just simply ignored it until now!

One of the worries that people--including me--had about Trump's election is that it would normalize bad behavior.  This may still occur, but it seems clear that it has also sensitized people to that same behavior.  It's as if Trump were an infection that produced antibodies to the kind of sexism that comes so naturally and instinctively to him.

This is the opportunity before us.  Thanks to the bravery of the various women who are coming forward, we can work to root out and punish this kind of bad behavior.  In the case of Uber and the VCs, there have already been real consequences.  Kalanick was forced to resign by his investors.  Binary lost both its most recent $175 million fund, and the additional $75 million that it was scheduled to close, just days after the Information story came out.  At a standard 2.5% management fee over 10 years, that's a $60 million loss even before considering the lost potential carried interest.  McClure has turned the running of his firm, 500 Startups, over to new CEO Christine Tsai (his female co-founder) and is undergoing counseling.

Men also need to play a role.  For example, look at my co-author Reid Hoffman, who wrote a widely-read post condemning Caldbeck's actions and calling for the VC industry to take a "Decency Pledge" and to stop doing business with any VCs who engage in such behavior: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/human-rights-women-entrepreneurs-reid-hoffman

His willingness to step forward and condemn this behavior in no uncertain terms seems to have encouraged other male VCs to step forward, and to encourage other people who have been harassed to speak out.  By lowering the perceived risk of speaking out, we can help more people to come forward and tell their stories.

It is important to note that we have to avoid getting swept up in what Donald Trump would surely call a "witch hunt."  This is not the time for vigilante justice, or accepting claims without evidence.  There is no such need--as the Caldbeck story shows, there is plenty of evidence of wrongdoing, and there are immediate punishments available, such as LPs invoking morality clauses and pulling out their funds, and those who have been wronged seeking civil judgments.

There's an old saying about cockroaches; there's never only one.  Sure enough, Caldbeck's story has already uncovered others, and I suspect that more are soon to come.  One prominent investor estimated that around 5-10% of men are sociopathic enough to commit these kinds of acts...IF THEY THINK THEY'RE GOING TO GET AWAY WITH THEM.  Think about it--people like Caldbeck sent explicit texts and emails.  That's hard evidence.  The only reason you would do such a thing is if you thought you would get away with it, regardless of the existence of a smoking gun.

Fortunately, this belief has been proved wrong.  Unfortunately, this belief was apparently right for many years, and it is disgrace that it took so long, and the election of a harasser-in-chief in the White House to get us to actually hold these bad actors accountable.

We can't change the past.  But we can change the future.  Don't let these antibodies go to waste.  Call out bad behavior when you see it.  Make it safe for those with less power to present their evidence against powerful evildoers.  In other words, make America great again.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Travis/Trump: What Uber Tells Us About The White House

The fall of Uber's Travis Kalanick offers an interesting gloss on Donald Trump. If anything, Kalanick had a stronger position than Trump. Rather than narrowly winning an election in which he lost the popular vote, Kalanick had absolute control over Uber thanks to his super-voting shares. And unlike Trump, who is a mediocre real estate developer with a questionable record, Kalanick actually accomplished something by building what was once the world's most valuable startup (though admittedly, it is also the world's most unprofitable startup). Just six months ago, even though it was already apparent based on publicly available information that Kalanick had presided over a great deal of legally and morally questionable behavior, it seemed like his position as CEO of Uber was unassailable. And yet, despite his super-voting shares, Kalanick gave in to pressure from his board and resigned this week.
Let's be clear; the actions of Uber's board were not driven by moral outrage. It's not like anyone who was following the news would believe that Uber was a paragon of ethics and responsible treatment of women. Rather, Uber's board acted for what is nearly always the reason for action in the world of high finance and high politics: self-interest. Uber's investors pulled the rug out from under Kalanick when it became apparent that his leadership was reducing, rather than increasing, the value of their investment.
I often joke that if baby-eating aliens came to Silicon Valley, and built a successful, rapidly-growing startup, their investors would say, "You know, it's culturally insensitive to judge someone else's beliefs and habits. And besides, it's not like they're eating human babies." The line gets a laugh, but it is often an uncomfortable laugh, because they can picture the talking head in their mind already.
Kalanick didn't eat babies, but the people whom he brought into Uber did regularly break the law, and tolerated horrendous behavior towards their own people. In many cases, rather than feeling the proper shame for their actions, they gave off the sense that their only mistake was getting caught. And none of that mattered as long as Kalanick's people delivered their numbers. (In fact, that was the justification for ignoring sexual harassment complaints--the perpetrator was too valuable to the company to discipline!)
Over in Washington, Trump is Kalanick and the Republicans in congress are the Uber board. To date, they have largely gone along with Trump because he is more popular than they, and because they think it's in their self-interest to support him, largely because they fear the wrath of loyal Trump supporters who feel more loyal to him than to the GOP.
Each morning, Republican Congressmen/women and Senators ask themselves, "Will I be better off if I support Trump or oppose him?" The answer differs depending on their particular district or state, but by and large, what drives the answer is not whether they think Trump has behaved illegally in covering up his campaign's collusion with Russia (which he probably has) or whether they think he is a liar, bully, and sexual predator (which he definitely is). What drives the answer is mainly summed up in a single number: Trump's approval rating.
Richard Nixon held an approval rating of nearly 70% after his landslide victory over George McGovern. But the revelations of Watergate took their toll. In just a single year, his approval rating dropped to 24%, and it stayed between 20-25% until Nixon's resignation. While a core of loyal Nixon voters continued to support the embattled President, it became apparent to the leaders of the GOP that Nixon was going to turn the 1974 mid-term elections into a slaughter for the GOP. Key leaders like Barry Goldwater went to Nixon and told him that if he resigned, he would be pardoned, but that if he did not, he would be impeached and convicted. Nixon took the deal they offered and resigned.
Three months after Nixon's resignation, the Democrats gained 49 seats in the House (pushing them past a 2/3rds majority) and held a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate. Of course, the results might have been even worse if impeachment proceedings were going on during the election.
Trump's power, like that of any elected politician in the United States, ultimately rests on his ability to win votes. The less popular he gets, the less power he'll have. And when he crosses some critical threshold, those Republican Congressmen/women and Senators will wake up in the morning and conclude, like the Uber board did, that while both alternatives would be bad, letting a compromised leader stay in power would be worse. At that point, just like super-voting shares didn't prevent Kalanick from being forced out, it won't matter if Trump still has a vocal core of supporters. The President cannot stand alone.

Friday, June 16, 2017

If Words Matter, Use Them Responsibly

As someone who makes a living with words, it bothers me that so many choose to use them wastefully, extravagantly, and paradoxically enough, cheaply in today's political discourse.

Many have argued that our politics are at the most polarized point in recent memory.  To date, I've scoffed at the alarmists, pointing out that the invective of our early Republic was more inflammatory than even today's feverish exclamations.  During the presidential election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1800, the following things were said:

Jefferson's camp accused President Adams of having a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." In return, Adams' men called Vice President Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward. Even Martha Washington succumbed to the propaganda, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was "one of the most detestable of mankind."

Yet the events of this week demonstrate that things have gone too far.  The attempted assassination of the GOP baseball team, which resulted in serious injury to Congressman Steve Scalise, and gunshot wounds to staffer Zach Barth, lobbyist Matt Mika, and heroic Capitol Police Officer Crystal Griner (Officer David Bailey was treated for a minor injury and released from the hospital), could be seen as the work of a single mentally unstable man, James Hodgkinson, but I find it hard to believe that he would have acted as he did without the current feverish atmosphere of national politics in America.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, for which I am glad.  People have a right to use inflammatory rhetoric, but that doesn't mean that they have an obligation to us it.  How you choose to use words is your choice.  If words matter that much, shouldn't we use them responsibly?

I've noted how a number of the things I've written have drawn criticism from people on both the left and right.  What this tells me is that many people are spoiling for a fight when they turn to Facebook or Twitter; otherwise how could a post about Attorney General Sessions' boyhood experiences draw accusations from the right of slandering a civil rights hero, and from the left of excusing racism and discrimination?  People want to fight, because getting angry makes them feel good, however temporarily.

Trump is an exemplar, and perhaps the trigger of this new tone.  He may very well be the first president impeached based on the evidence found in his angry Tweets!  Yet he has no monopoly on inflammatory language.

The recent production of "Julius Caesar" by Shakespeare in the Park sparked controversy by dressing Julius Caesar like Donald Trump, and going out of the way to make the comparison obvious--Caesar's wife Calpurnia speaks in a heavy accent (an obvious nod to Melania Trump) and another character even speaks of Caesar's supporters, saying, “Had Caesar stabbed their mothers — on Fifth Avenue — they would have done no less.”

This is free speech, but it also strikes me as both reprehensible and poor theater.  Poor Julius Caesar was a great military leader and politician; to compare him to a real estate developer who rode a populist wave to the highest office in the land is an insult to Caesar.  Portraying Caesar as Trump and staging a bloody assassination might be wish fulfillment for his opponents, but it's also dangerously close to advocating violence.  While the director tells the audience, "Neither Shakespeare nor the Public Theater could possibly advocate violence as a solution to political problems, and certainly not assassination," this seems awfully close to the kind of "wink wink" verbal gymnastics that Trump engages in.

I can already hear the torches being lit: "He's apologizing for Trump!  He's calling for censorship of legitimate criticism!"  Never mind that I've carefully balanced the examples I use; both sides will no doubt use this post as more evidence that I'm a tool of the other side.

But let me ask you this--if you believe that inflammatory rhetoric is helpful to your cause, can you explain why?  Does symbolically assassinating Trump, or holding up his fake severed head help convince any of his supporters to change their minds?  Does loudly proclaiming your love of guns and hinting that you'll "do something" about your opponents convince them to switch to your point of view?

I'll accept that inflammatory rhetoric might fire up the base, but I suspect it turns off the even greater number of people who are stuck in the middle, and it doesn't seem like a good long-term strategy for winning elections (Trump's victory should be chalked up to Hillary Clinton's weakness as a candidate--partially due to her poor skills and bad strategy, and partially due to sexism and unreasoning hatred of her).

And if you still think that the best way to convince people is to yell louder, well, to quote the Bard, "A pox on both your houses!"

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Notes from Doha: Building Silicon Valley in the Desert

I just spent a fantastic week in Doha, Qatar, working with the researchers and entrepreneurs of the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) Research To Startup program.  In this program, the first of its kind in Qatar, we brought together about 20 entrepreneurs from around the world (including a couple of local entrepreneurs) to work with the researchers of the Qatar Computer Research Institute (QCRI) to decide if they wanted to build companies to commercialize QCRI technologies.

It was an awesome experience for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, I got the chance to work with an incredible group of people.  The entrepreneurs included three of my HBS classmates, as well as serial entrepreneurs, experienced executives, and top talent from around the world.  The researchers were an equally impressive crew, albeit with more PhDs and fewer MBAs.

Second, all the other people we interacted with were warm and welcoming, from the QSTP staff to the various VIPs who attended the various proceedings.  I was even invited to visit a number of people's homes.

Third, Doha was full of interesting attractions.  Even though we were kept very busy, I did manage to sneak away to visit the Museum of Islamic Art and the markets of Souq Waqif.  Alas, since I had to get home in time for a family commitment, I was unable to participate in the final day of the program, where the team got to ride camels, fly falcons, and hang out on Doha's famous beaches.

Finally, Qatar presents a combination of fascinating challenges and opportunities, which definitely engaged my mind.  Qatar has incredible oil and gas supplies, which have made it one of the richest countries in the world.  As a Middle East novice, I've always thought of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as rich; Qatar's per-capital GDP is nearly triple that of Kuwait and nearly quadruple that of Saudi Arabia.  Add in the fact that 90% of Qatar's population consists of expatriates (mainly low-paid construction workers and service industry professionals), and the GDP per Qatari citizen is a mind-blowing $750,000 per year.  The figure is even more astounding when you adjust for purchasing power parity (PPP); this roughly doubles GDP again, making Qatar the richest country in the world. The government distributes this largesse like a benevolent patriarch--Qataris are given cushy, well-paid jobs, cheap housing loans, free utilities, and massive cash gifts for getting married and having children.

However, Qatar's leadership also realizes that the oil and gas which have provided the country's wealth are finite and non-renewable--a fact that has been hammered home by the free-fall in oil prices over the past few years.  The fact that Qatar is still the richest country in the world despite a 20% drop in GDP is remarkable.  Qatar is investing heavily in an attempt to transform itself into a knowledge-based economy; the QSTP cost some $800 million to build; the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) which funds institutes like the QCRI, dispenses some $100 million per year in grants.

The strategic challenge is for Qatar to use its current wealth to build an asset base that will allow it to maintain a high quality of life in a post-carbon world.  In many ways, the simplest approach would simply be to build an enormous sovereign wealth fund; Qatar is in fact doing this--the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) now owns $335 billion in assets around the world, or well over $1 million in assets for each Qatari citizen!  That's double Qatar's GDP.  But in order to provide complete current income replacement at the standard 4% withdrawal rate that most foundations use, the QIA would need an endowment of 25X Qatar's current GDP, or roughly $4 trillion.

Qatar's bet on transforming itself into a knowledge-based economy is that investing in human capital will deliver better long-term returns than simply investing in financial capital.  This is challenging and riskier than simply building up the QIA, but offers a much bigger payoff, not just in terms of money, but also human happiness.  The big vision that QSTP Managing Director Maher "Dr. Maher" Hakim laid out is that Qatar is trying to spark an Arab renaissance; to hearken back to the Islamic Gold Age, when the Muslim world led the globe in science and technology.  Not only would this generate wealth, it would also offer hope and purpose to the young people of the Muslim world.  Qatar's current wealth can provide luxury to its citizens, but it cannot provide meaning--that has to be earned, not given.

The road will be challenging.  The "edifice complex" is very real; the buildings in the QSTP were magnificent, but also operating at a fraction of full capacity.  Institutions can be rigid and resistant to change--the two running jokes of the trip were that the security gates never worked, and that the cafeteria in our residence refused to let us have omelets, which were "reserved for students."  Workers live in fear of being fired, since doing so would force them to leave Qatar almost immediately.  Low oil prices have impacted the economy; we ate at a number of high-end restaurants, all of which were nearly empty, as was the student center in Education City (an American student getting his masters told me that while things were emptier than usual thanks to recent exams, the facilities never got close to being crowded).  Yet there was still plenty of excitement on the part of the QSTP and QCRI staff, Qatari and ex-pat alike, and the markets of Souq Waqif were bustling with natives and tourists.  I even got the chance to mentor some local entrepreneurs, who were just as energetic and optimistic as the young people of Silicon Valley.

Many of the leaders in Qatar realize the need for change; for example, the QSTP is a "free zone" where businesses can be 100% foreign-owned and tax free (I must admit, I was pretty tempted to set up my own entity there!), and Qatar is starting to increase the number of non-Qataris it accepts as citizens (although at this point, most of these lucky folks are still football/soccer stars).  If Qatar opens itself up, and allows a thriving community to develop, it could see its vision of a knowledge-based economy become a reality.  Not only does it have immense carbon wealth to fund investment, it also has a central location and premier airport that makes it a crossroads of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.  I'm excited to see what comes next, and to play some small part in this story.

P.S.

Special thanks to QSTP's Maher Hakim and his hard-working staff, my Wasabi Ventures Global business partner Jeff Abbott, and fellow mentors Tim Taylor, Katherine Glassey, and Scott Johnson, as well as all the hard-working researchers and entrepreneurs in the program!

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Extended Stay America - Santa Rosa - South Is A Dumpster Fire

This past Saturday, my wife and daughter traveled to Santa Rosa (home of the Charles M. Schultz museum!) for a fencing tournament (FYI: Marissa won her first medal, and everyone is very proud).  Since it was a two-day tournament, and since Santa Rosa is about two hours from Palo Alto, they and most of the rest of the fencing club decided to stay up in Santa Rosa.

One of the other moms prepaid for rooms for the traveling party at the Extended Stay America - Santa Rosa - South using Hotwire.  Take a gander at the Yelp page--I'm not sure I've ever seen a 1.5 star rating before!  (My wife swears the ratings were better last month when they booked the rooms.)

Shortly after receiving a picture of the girls on the medal stand (again, very proud moment), I received the following text:

OMG hotel is overbooked. They don't want to give us a refund.

A bit concerning, but essentially an unpleasant nuisance.  Then a few minutes later, I received the following:

This hotel doesn't want to help us book somewhere else.  They called the police.

Okay, that's reason for concern!  Fortunately, that was followed up with:

Police are cool.  They understand.

Finally:

I want you to write a scathing review.

Done.

I won't bother writing about the poor condition and cleanliness of the hotel.  After all, my family never even stayed there, and the Yelp reviews more than have that issue covered.  I particularly appreciated the review where the reviewer posted photos of the rash she developed on her arms from staying there.

Rather, I'd like to write about the unhelpfulness of the staff.  Overbooking is unfortunate, but it happens.  When it does, hotels have to "walk" some of the guests.  But that's where the Extended Stay America - Santa Rosa - South really distinguished itself on unhelpfulness.

Here is what is supposed to happen when you are "walked" from the article linked to above:

If you’re in the unlucky position of being walked, there are a few things the hotel must provide. First, they should cover the cost of one night at a comparable, alternative hotel. If necessary, they should also pay for a cab to the new hotel and the cost of a phone call to inform loved ones of your new location.

Or how about these guidelines from USA Today:

If your hotel is overbooked — either in advance or when you attempt to check in — ask the hotel to find you a room at a nearby property. The hotel should also pay for your first night there, plus the cost difference if the new room is more expensive and you stay there on subsequent nights. It should provide you with transportation to the other hotel. It should also give you a free phone call to notify your family or office of your lodging change.

In other words, if a hotel can't honor a reservation, it should a) find you a room at a nearby hotel and b) pay for it.  If you need transportation, it should provide it at no charge.

Instead of following these standard procedures, the front desk at the Extended Stay America - Santa Rosa - South (got to get the name right for Google's spiders so that this review comes up on all future searches) opted to a) say it wasn't their responsibility to help find other accommodations and b) refused to refund money that had already been paid (albeit via a third party like Hotwire).  But the coup de grace is that when the traveling party asked to speak with the manager, the front desk clerk actually called the police, and when the police arrived, claimed that the overbooked guests were verbally abusive and threatening.  Fortunately, the police appeared to be used to this sort of thing, apologized for the inconvenience, and quickly left.

The traveling party also called Extended Stay America's main line, explained the treatment they had received, and were told that these decisions were up to the front desk.

Extended Stay America is a NYSE-traded company with a market cap of over $3 billion.  CEO Gerry Lopez (a fellow Harvard Business School alum) is a well-respected executive who was previously CEO of AMC Theatres, and also held positions at Starbucks, Pepsico, and Procter & Gamble.  There's no good excuse for the company to treat paying guests so poorly, and to allow disgracefully bad front desk service.

Normally, I'd write a letter to the CEO, but I'm afraid that even if they offered me vouchers to stay at Extended Stay America, I'd be reluctant to risk the mysterious rashes, unclean sheets, and rude service that would apparently await me, so I'm settling for simply leaving this warning to other potential customers who might be considering a stay.  Don't.

In the words of Charles M. Schultz's most famous character, "Good grief!"

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Punching Down Is A Matter Of Perspective

One of the comments on my post on conservative comedy made an argument that I've seen a lot:
"Someone (can't remember who) said that comedy is about kicking up, not kicking down.  Republicans kick down. It's not funny."
I generally see it referred to as punching up, rather than punching down (I think my reader was either mixing up this metaphor with "kissing up and kicking down," or, like Lloyd Dobler, is into kickboxing) but the general argument remains the same.  Liberals are funny because they are sticking it to the man, Conservatives are unfunny because they are beating up on the little guy.

There's an argument to be made that this statement about comedy is, in itself, untrue, but since Ben Schwartz did so quite well in this Baffler piece, I'll focus instead on the fact that punching down is a matter of perspective.

I don't think that the majority of conservative comedy punches down. The primary targets are the media and cultural tastemakers in the media, who are "above," not below, since they are the ones rendering judgment on what is and isn't of value.

I may not be a fan of NASCAR or the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, but their actual fans have every right to enjoy them without being mocked for their taste.  It's not that surprising that "Red State" residents resent how they are portrayed in the news, on television, and at the movies, since they are often the subject of criticism, or worse, the butt of jokes.

(Side note: I'm not arguing for total relativism.  It's just important to unbundle and criticize specific actions, as opposed to dumping on an entire demographic.  If you want to criticize a racist, criticize his or her words and actions, not his or her ZIP code.)

In this sense, things like mocking Donald Trump for ordering steaks well-done and topping them with ketchup plays right into his (unusually small) hands. Medium-rare steaks with a red wine reduction are for effete coastal liberals who look down on honest, hardworking Americans who get their steak at the Sizzler well-done. (I exaggerate, but only slightly!)

Liberals think they're better than conservatives, who are reactionary troglodytes. Conservatives think they're better than liberals, who are godless perverts. Very seldom does either side praise the other's virtues, such as a respect for tradition, or compassion for others.

Rather than worrying about punching up or punching down, let's focus on punching people who truly deserve it, like that Martin Shkreli guy.*

* By the way, did you know that Martin Shkreli grew up the son of working-class immigrants who came to this country and worked as janitors to give their children a better life?  Or that he opposed Donald Trump's presidential bid?  Even the most punchable guy in the world has sympathetic elements.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Situational Shyness

Very few people would characterize me as shy.  Based on the classic "Big Five" personality factor model, I score heavily on the extroversion scale.  Yet there are definitely times in my life when I have felt shy, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, and I've concluded that there is a pattern.

First, I'm more likely to feel shy in unfamiliar settings, when I'm surrounded with unfamiliar people.

Second, the level of shyness I feel is generally inversely proportional to the level of status I feel in that setting.

Here are a couple of examples, that help illustrate these principles at work.

Over a decade ago, back when I was still an unemployed bum during the dot com bust, I attended the Silicon Valley Forum Visionary Awards.  Since I was a volunteer, I got to attend the invitation-only event, which took place at some successful entrepreneur's luxurious estate, and was packed with famous and wealthy.  On the bus ride up to the estate, I sat next to one of the honorees for the evening, legendary founder and investor Andy Bechtolsheim, who was both incredibly smart and probably one of the nicest people I've ever met.

It was an unfamiliar setting, filled with unfamiliar people, and I was clearly one of the lowest-status people there, other than the catering staff.  While I had a good time and chatted with a lot of people, I felt much shyer than I would have at a less high-faluting event.  A symptom of this is that I spent much of the evening hanging out by the food with other low-status volunteers in attendance, like Jonathan Abrams, who told me about a startup he was about to launch called Friendster, and some developer relations guy from PayPal named Dave McClure.

Fast forward to last year's Visionary Awards, which I also attended.  This time, I was there in my capacity as a member of the Silicon Valley Forum board, which meant that I was now a host of the event, imbued with positional authority and status.  It was now my job to work the crowd and make sure people felt welcomed to the event.  Quite a change from being an unemployed bum filling up on crab cakes!

It was the same event, full of famous and wealthy people, but thanks to the twin factors of familiarity and status, I now had a very different experience (though I had a good time both years).

(Incidentally, if you're interested in attending this year's Visionary Awards, reach out to me, and I'll try to get you an invitation.  I promise, I'll introduce you to interesting folks!)

There are very few occasions on which I feel shy these days, but I would argue that this is due to environmental changes, not psychological ones.  Most of my time is spent here in Silicon Valley, where, even if I don't know the folks I'm meeting with, I'm very familiar with the mores and customs of their tribe, and we likely have a host of mutual friends and contacts even if we don't know each other yet.  In addition, even without Silicon Valley's primary marker of success (starting a billion-dollar company) I have enough secondary markers (best-selling author, teaching at Stanford) that my status is high enough to allow me to feel comfortable in most company, despite my embarrassing lack of private jets, vacation homes, etc.  I'm sure I would feel very different at an Oscar party in Hollywood, where I would be in an unfamiliar millieu with essentially zero status (imagine being at a Silicon Valley party without any knowledge of the industry, and without even appearing in Crunchbase or Angel List).

So if you do have a tendency to feel shy, maybe the answer isn't to try to change your personality, but rather to change your situation.  Develop a familiarity with the millieu; you might use your first year in attendance at an event to familiarize yourself with the customs and layout, and then return the next year with greater confidence.  You can also use the technique that I did (intentionally or unintentionally) with the Visionary Awards, by acquiring official positional authority and status.  Maybe you can volunteer for the organization that puts on the event, or if you're really gung-ho, organize your own!  This will also help you with your status at the event, and maybe even boost your overall status.

As I'm fond of saying, if you know the world is rigged, why not rig it in your favor?  You might be naturally shy, but if you rig the situations you find yourself participating in, you can arrange your environment so that you never feel shy.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Come with me to Doha in April (all expenses paid)

The week of April 23-27, I'll be working with the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) in Doha to run an all-expense-paid program for entrepreneurs.

The QSTP has a host of promising technologies in its labs around which entrepreneurs can build startups.  The "Research To Startup Program" lets entrepreneurs from anywhere in the world apply to spend a week in Doha checking out the technologies, meeting the researchers, and getting mentored by experienced entrepreneurs and investors like me.

The QSTP will pay all your expenses, including 4-star travel accommodations.  If you find a technology you like, and the QSTP likes you, you get to come back for a 2-month accelerator program in Doha to actually build your startup.

At the end of the accelerator program, you'll present at a Demo Day where the QSTP's associated venture fund will invest $500K in the seed round of each promising company.

Since we're only accepting about a dozen entrepreneurs into the April 23-27 program, your odds of being invited back and, ultimately, receiving that $500K investment are very good!

Plus, even if you aren't picked for the accelerator program and/or seed investment, you still get to spend a week in Doha with yours truly and other similarly fun and helpful mentors.

If you're interested, you can apply on the Research To Startup Program website here:

Be sure to mention that you were referred by Wasabi Venture Global so that I can stack the deck in your favor evaluate the effectiveness of my outreach efforts!

Conservative Comedy

An oft-made observation is that comedy in the United States tends to be overwhelmingly liberal in its politics.  Despite the existence of a small number of Republican funny men and women (and most of those are more in the Libertarian bent anyway, e.g. Adam Carolla, Larry Miller, Vince Vaughn), there is no conservative equivalent of The Daily Show, This Week Tonight, or Full Frontal.

I've often pondered this puzzle myself, but never came up with an adequate answer.  Maybe it's just inherently difficult to make jokes about school voucher programs and tax breaks.  But just yesterday, I was struck by a different thought:

What if the polarization of society has reached the point where liberals and conservatives simply have different senses of humor, and don't find each other's comedy funny?

The realization hit me when someone described the importance of Rush Limbaugh's use of humor on his talk radio show.  I freely admit that I've never listened to Rush Limbaugh's radio show, but I've seen the occasional clip, and I never found him funny.  So I looked up "rush limbaugh funny" on YouTube, and found a recording of his performance at the CPAC conference from a few years back.  You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gf4iwfkzbK4

I watched the entire clip, and never laughed once.  Not even close.  And I wasn't trying to suppress laughter; I just didn't find Rush funny, though he had an energetic and amiable delivery.  At one point, he even tells a joke about Larry King going to heaven--Larry King is God's gift to comedians--and even that wasn't funny.

But, during the clip, you can hear the audience rolling in the aisles.  It's full of genuine belly laughs, and the clip is from CSPAN, so you know they didn't have the budget to add in a laugh track.  Limbaugh's audience found him hysterically funny.

Conservative comedy might not be funny to me, or to the effete, coastal, liberal, Ivy-league educated television and film critics of the country, but it appears to be very funny to its chosen audience.

I thought Dennis Miller was hilarious back when he was on Saturday Night Live, and crashingly unfunny as a conservative pundit.  But my taste isn't the final arbiter of humor; the audience is.  Many people love to trash the comedian Carrot Top, but he continues to play to sold out shows.  Many others mock "The Big Bang Theory," but it remains the top-rated comedy on television.

More to the point, saying, "I don't find Rush Limbaugh funny, so he obviously isn't funny," is the semantic equivalent of saying, "I don't enjoy listening to rap, so it obviously isn't any good."

I don't have to agree, approve, or even condone someone else's point of view.  I can and should contest mistaken beliefs with facts and logic.  But I (and you) should start with the premise that most of the people you disagree with have honest and sincere reasons for their beliefs, even if they are wrong--after all, shouldn't they assume the same about you?