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.


I want you to write a scathing review.


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?

Sunday, January 29, 2017

How To Change The Minds Of People Who Voted For Trump

I know that many people are frightened and angry because of the actions of the Trump administration, and rightly so. It's very tempting to express that fear and anger by insulting or verbally abusing those who voted for and/or support Trump. But doing so, while it might make you feel better in the moment, is not going to have any positive impact. Have opposition criticisms of a leader you support, be it Obama, Bush, or Clinton, ever convinced you to change your mind? Or did the attack on "your" leader simply cause you to harden your heart further? It may take a while, but I think the most effective approach is to simply ask, and keep asking, consistently, continuously, and in many different ways, "How does this specific Trump administration policy make you personally better off? We are not going to change minds by calling Trump a racist, a misogynist, or a demagogue. Many of his supporters may very well prefer a whiter, more male-dominated America, where educated "elites" exercise less power. To put it in terms my Silicon Valley friends will recognize, to Trump's supporters, these are features, not bugs. But many people voted for Trump because they felt that he was the only candidate offering them potential solutions that would better their lives--less globalization, fewer immigrants, more jobs for "real" Americans. Trump's solutions are unlikely to work. Cajoling a small number of companies to preserve a small number of American factory jobs is not going to help more than a infinitesimally small proportion of people who voted for Trump. I believe that Trump and his team realize this, and believe that their best chance to keep those voters from realizing that the Trump administration is going to make their lives worse, rather than better, is to keep them distracted by trying to focus their attention on "enemies," be they foreigners or those coastal liberals who look down on "real" Americans. I'm not arguing against protests or condemnation of the Trump administration. These seem to me to be justifiable and potentially useful. But reaching out to people who voted for Trump requires a different approach. And in a year or two, when they are still working the same job (or not working) and their lives have not improved one iota, I think they may very well start to listen.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Mathematical Formula for Success

If failure is more likely than success, what is the formula for success?

If you're really lucky, you might succeed right away.  In that case, you could retire immediately and rest on your laurels.  But this seems unsatisfying.  Very few people have the willpower to walk away from the roulette wheel right after they win, and even if you do, you have to put up with hearing the "L" word (lucky) being used to describe you for the rest of your life.

Most people concentrate on maximizing their chances of success.  "If I just think hard enough," these folks say to themselves, "I can plan my way to success."  Yet while intelligence, hard work, and brilliant insight can increase the chances of success, they certainly don't guarantee it.  As the smart, hard-working, and very-successful Mark Pincus likes to say about his startup Tribe, "I started one of the first three social networks, and I still managed to fail."  There doesn't seem to be a way to tilt the odds fully in your favor.

The best strategy seems to be to increase your number of attempts to succeed, or "shots on goal" as they might say in soccer (football) or hockey.  Yet while this increases both your expected number of successes, and reduces the chances of getting ended up with zero successes, the numbers game doesn't change the expected value of each attempt.

To make the numbers game work, you have to do two other critical things, in additional to increasing your shots on goal:

First, you have to reduce the cost of failure so that even a string of failures doesn't take you out of the game.  If you're forced to leave the table when you're down, you'll never end up in the black.  Reducing the cost of failure can also improve your expected value.

Second, you have to aim high (though not so high as to eliminate the chances of success) so that the rewards of each success far outweigh the costs of the failures along the way.

We can write this equation as follows:

Success = Sum (1 to N, where N = #Attempts) for f (Chance of Success * Benefits of Success - [1 - Chance of Success] * Cost of Failure)

(Feel free to offer a better mathematical statement in the comments; I'm not a mathematician!)

Successful venture capitalists try to solve for this equation.

VC funds invest in 20+ companies per fund, giving them a very good chance that they'll have at least one success, and a good chance to have more than one.

But funds also reduce the cost of failure by investing smaller amounts up front and doubling down on what appear likely to be the winners in the portfolio.  The option value to abandon investments that don't seem to be working helps reduce the average cost of failure in the portfolio.

Finally, venture capitalists focus on "venture scale" investments--startups that could conceivably be worth billions of dollars.  These outside outcomes (such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook) can make up for a multitude of failures.

(Note that VC firms also try to increase the chances of success by providing useful advice, key introductions, and useful services, but these efforts supplement, rather than replace, the three principles outlined above).

Nor do you have to be a wealthy venture capitalist to follow this strategy.  I'm employed it in my own life, by being open to interesting and unusual opportunities, avoiding any that risked my financial or professional ruin, and prioritizing potential upside over what I believe is the illusory sense of safety.

I have failed many more times than I care to remember, but because I kept the costs of my failures low and stayed in the game, people only seem to remember my successes!