Going the Distance – Back-to-Back 10ks in Stanford and Eugene

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I pretty much don’t do things halfway. So it won’t surprise you to know that despite having never completed a 10k distance race before I found myself entered to compete in two of them, one weekend after another. Here’s how that went.

Stanford Habitat for Humanity Home Run – 11/12 

Great race. As an alumni, I was excited for an opportunity to see the campus again and I was not disappointed: the organizers put together a scenic windy tour around Stanford. I raced in a new pair of shoes (yes, another pair!): the Vibram Five Finger Bikila’s (named after Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian who won 1960 Olympic marathon barefoot). [1]

I LOVE my Bikilas.

They weigh about the same as my other shoes (~7 oz) and have the same shape, fit and road grip as my VFF KSO’s, but more of the New Balance Minimus MT20’s “cushioning”. I think the MT20 are better for trails and the KSO’s are more flexible / truly barefoot-feeling but the Bikilas seem to exist to help you run fast. This praise comes with a warning: they really encourage you to run with a forefoot strike, (more than the KSO’s because of the 4mm Vibram outsole) not and even as a guy who runs exclusively in minimal footwear, my calves get a serious workout every time I run with the Bikilas.

My goal for the Home Run 10k was to run a smooth race and not push myself too hard. I aimed for a 9:20 pace and was able to stay roughly on target. I definitely spent most of the run chasing middle aged runners which didn’t do particularly much for my self-esteem [2]

I ended the race on a strong kick as usual and had a great time. Below is a screenshot of my race as tracked by Runkeeper. I was happy with how it went and of course, the money went to a great cause as Habitat for Humanity was studied in Forces for Good as a high impact nonprofits.

My official time was 54:57, putting me in 116th place out of 223. See official race results here.

EWEB Run to Stay Warm – 11/20

The second weekend I took a trip up to Eugene Oregon to compete in EWEB Run to Stay Warm, their gas/electric provider’s charity race which helps householders in tough financial conditions keep the heat on during the cold Oregonian winter.

Why did I pick this race? It was featured in Runner’s World’s run of the month! And also, it gave me a chance to rideshare up and down via Ridejoy!

I was Couchsurfing in Eugene and was fortunate enough to have my host, Jesse, drive me to the center and he ended up bandit running the race (that’s Jesse in green in the picture).

First off, it’s freaking cold in Oregon. I know all the race organizers get a laugh out of the fact that not only are we helping keep the heat on through the race, but we personally are staying warm in the 37 F weather through running.

I don’t think I prepared adequately for the race and struggled quite a bit in the middle. Here’s what I learned:

  • Dress appropriately
    I knew it was going to be cold so brought a jacket and a long sleeve Under Armor shirt. Sounds reasonable except that the jacket wasn’t meant for running and the compression from the Under Armor shirt made it hard to breathe [3] I spent half the race with a bunch of crap tied around my waist, which wasn’t great. Next time I do a race in this climate I’d make sure to either have a running-specific jacket, or at least arm warmers and perhaps longer shorts or tights that fit not *too* tight.
  • Don’t drink too much coffee right before running
    I drank a big cup of coffee less than an hour before the race — it was really cold (see above) and drinking a hot beverage made me feel better in the moment. However, later in the race my stomach was not doing so great and I think it was in part because of the java.
  • Get more rest before the race
    The week leading up to the race there was a lot going on at work, so I don’t think I rested adequately, which is unfortunately a tradeoff you have to make when running a startup.

I was able to pull it together toward the end of the race and finish strong but it was definitely not easy. I am sort of amazed I finished slightly faster than the Stanford race. I definitely worked a lot harder…

Check out the differences in the splits (from Runkeeper)

Eugene Run to Stay Warm Stanford Home Run

Official finishing time was 53:57, placing 86 out of 272 runners. Official results here. Runkeeper link here.


Now that these two races are over, I’m taking a little time to rest, recharge and prepare for my next race. I’m jumping into a half marathon distance, which I’ve been told is a bit of a leap up from the 10k. We’ll see what happens! As always, I’ll keep you updated on how things go. Shoot me questions or comments down below!

FOOTNOTES


[1] I’ll be honest, I’ve coveted the Vibram Bikilas since hearing that Vibram was building a version of the shoe specifically for runners, but since I already owned KSO’s and then getting  the New Balance Minimus Trails, I didn’t feel it made sense to get another pair. But I’ve kept hearing good things from my running friends and when I got linked to a special 30% off deal, I took the plunge. [2] I’m mostly kidding – it doesn’t necessarily feel great to get passed by someone 20+ years older than you, but after reading the book Run Faster from the 5k to the Marathon, I’m heartened by the author/running coach’s rule that most runners don’t hit their peak until 30 and no matter what age you are, if you haven’t been much of a runner, it’ll take about 7 years of serious training for you to reach your lifetime best. So I confident to know there’s so much progress I can look forward to making. [3] I don’t know why but after getting this shirt as a gift, I always want to try to wear it for running, despite the fact that it’s a little too small and exerts force against my chest cavity opening and closing – making breathing just that much harder. I definitely learned my lesson this time.

How to Set Great New Year’s Resolutions (Backed by Scientific Research!)

This is an expansion of a post I wrote on Quora (the social q & a site) that answered the question: “What Are the Best New Year’s Resolutions?

Is it possible to set successful New Years Resolutions?

I am a big believer in personal change. I think that we have a power within ourselves to dramatically change most aspects of our human experience for the better without the use of drugs, money, fame, the “perfect” mate or anything else.

Most of the good things in life can be acquired for free, or for very little money, through simply focusing on doing things (over and over) that will make you feel the way you want to feel. Is this a little vague? Here are some more concrete examples:

  • Feeling happy: start a happiness project – figure out what makes you happy and do more of it, figure out what makes you unhappy, eliminate it from your life, get therapy
  • Feeling healthy: do a combination of anaerobic and aerobic exercise 2-3 times a week for 30+ mins, eat a primarily plant based diet that’s low in refined sugars and saturated fat
  • Feeling smart: block out time to read high quality fiction and non fiction literature, write essays, converse with intelligent people on subjects that interest you, do brainteasers, play chess
  • Feeling confident: do positive affirmations, work on developing a skill that you are better than most people at, act “as if”, hang around other confident people

At Stanford, I had the opportunity to create and lead instruction for a course called “The Psychology of Personal Change” (PSYCH 15S). I’ll write a longer post on the experience overall but basically it was a chance for me to really dive into a subject I’m really passionate about.

About 36 students signed up to take this 2 unit course held in Spring of 2009. The first half of the course was reading papers, the second half was putting the learnings into action via a personal change project that each student did. Don’t remember the final numbers but I’d say a majority of the students made significant headway into their behavior change.

There is actually some really great research out there on the study of how people are able to self-initiate and sustainably maintain behavior change (smoking, drinking, diet, exercise, etc).

One stunning fact: in several studies published in peer-reviewed journals of 150+ people, about 40% of participants in each study who could be reached at 6 months said they were still being successful with their resolutions.

The Bottom line: You CAN make change your life and plenty of people succeed in setting New Year’s Resolutions

What are the qualities of great New Year’s resolutions?

In general, I believe a great New Year’s Resolution:

  1. improves your well-being or the well being of other sentient creatures
  2. has a decent chance of actually being achieved

To get more specific, a great set of New Year’s Resolutions have these qualities:

  • They are typically behavioral changes that are largely within your control (Resolutions should not be confused with Goals – which are external targets that rely substantially on things outside of your immediate control)
  • They are concrete and measurable (otherwise how will you or anyone else know that you achieved them?)
  • They are limited to 2-3 at one time. (Too many makes it difficult to stay on track on all of them, increasing the chances you’ll get overwhelmed and dump the whole thing)
    • It might actually be better to have resolutions for the 1st six months and after you have achieved and internalized those, go after another set of resolutions for the 2nd six months.
  • You have a strong desire to make the change (sounds obvious but can be overlooked. Do you want it or do you *want to want it*?)
  • You believe that you actually can and will maintain this behavior change (Again, also sounds obvious but most people don’t think about this)
  • You are ready to make this change NOW (not in a few weeks or a few months. Everything is set to go right away)
  • You have a some tactics you’ve prepared (reminders, an accountability partner, rewards for success) and a plan of action (“call Sue and ask for her help”) for making the change really work

So How exactly would I go about doing this?

Block out some time – maybe a few hours spread out over a few days. Think about what’s going on in your life. What’s going well? What’s not going so well? Consider what the root causes are – what can you do to make things go more right? What can you do to make things go less wrong?

You probably already have some things you’d like to change about your life. Let’s say you want to stop being late for everything (a problem that I definitely have). Spend some time thinking about whether you really want to not be late – why is it so important for you to make this change? Are you ready to spend a lot of mental energy *trying* to avoid being late? Will the satisfaction of being on time everywhere out-weight all the  time, effort and opportunity costs spent on making the change?

If it is, then design a program that will help you actually achieve this goal – starting with specific behavioral milestones you’d like to reach (“I am late to work 2 times or less in a week  by Jan 30th”) and COMMIT to making the resolution happen – while staying open to changing your tactics/program.

On what research are you basing all these absurd claims?

There are actually a lot of great studies in peer-reviewed journals on the effectiveness of New Year’s Resolutions. I’ve read lots of them when I was preparing my course on the psychology of personal change – but don’t have the time to summarize all of them here. Let’s dive into the data on one such study shall we?

Auld Lang Syne: Success Predictors, Change Processes, and Self-Reported Outcomes of New Year’s Resolvers and Nonresolvers

John C. Norcross, Marci S. Mrykalo, and Matthew D. Blagys – University of Scranton – JOURNAL OF CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY, Vol. 58(4), 397–405 (2002)

  • 159 “resolvers” interested in changing vs “123” non-resolver control subjects (subjects are all white, mostly female, and located in NE Pennsylvania)
  • Get structured telephone interviews before Jan 1 and 1-2 weeks, 3-4 weeks, 3 months & 6 months after Jan 1
  • Weight loss, exercise program and quitting smoking were top change processes
  • END RESULTS: “Although the success rates of New Year’s resolutions obviously depend on the interval and criteria considered, the proportion of self-reported continuous success was 46% at six months. This figure is consistent with, although a bit higher, than that reported previously in samples of student and community volunteers (Gritz et al., 1988; Marlatt & Kaplan, 1972; Norcross et al., 1989).”
  • KEY FINDINGS: (Parenthetical additions are mine) “Nine processes differentiated (with statistical significance) successful and nonsuccessful resolvers at 1 and 2 weeks. Successful resolvers reported using – self-liberation (aka will power) – reinforcement management (aka rewards or incentives) - stimulus control (aka reminders for the right behavior) – avoidance strategies (aka avoiding situations where you would do the wrong thing) – positive thinking significantly more than nonsuccessful resolvers. By contrast, nonsuccessful resolvers employed – self-reevaluation (thinking about how your problem is hurting you) – self-blame – wishful thinking, and – minimize threat (tell yourself the problem isn’t that bad) significantly more than the successful resolvers.” (so don’t do those things!)

Bottom Line: It is totally possible to make significant changes to your behavior but it takes serious commitment and some strategy to do it effectively. And I’ve read lots of these kinds of papers.

Aardvark Business Analysis for Stanford MBA Course

This was the final paper of a course I took at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in Spring of 2009. The class was on technology and science based startups and it was half MBA students and half graduate students in engineering or science. The MBA’s conjectured about how’d they run the company, and the grad students called BS on the MBA students when they went out of line.

it was fun =)

It was taught via the case method which I enjoyed. The final projected tasked students to interview the founder of a startup and then write a business analysis of it. I thought this was pretty good given what I knew about startups and the info I had on the company.It turns out Aardvark never specialized and still succeeded (they got acquired by Google in February of 2010).

Ultimately what matters a lot more that business analysis is the execution to build a successful business – still it’s fun to crunch the data sometimes. Enjoy!

Aardvark Overview

Aardvark is an early-stage startup company focusing on “social search” and helps consumers with subjective questions get useful, real-time answers from people within their social network.

Aardvark was founded in late 2007 by Max Ventilla, Damon Horowitz, Nathan Stoll, and Rob Spiro. They raised $2M in early 2008 by issuing convertible debt to angel investors like Google executive Joe Kraus, Stanford University professor Rajeev Motwani, and Napster cofounder Shawn Fanning, which they used to build a small engineering team. In September of 2008, August Capital led a $5.5M round of funding, which included investments from other VC firms and angels.

Max Ventilla has a BS in Math, a BS in Physics and an MBA, all from Yale University. He spent a few years working with the CEO of a $2 billion classified media business before moving to Google for several years until he founded Aardvark.

Damon Horowitz is a recent Stanford Computer Science PhD who oversees product development and research strategy and has started several other high tech companies. Nathan Stoll worked as a Product Manager of Google News and has degrees in Computer Science and Political Science from Stanford. Cofounder Rob Spiro leads quantitative and qualitative user research initiatives, has cofounded two tech startups and has a BA in History from Yale.

Aardvark is based in San Francisco, has 16 employees, and is in private beta: new accounts can only be created through invitations from existing users, limiting the number of people in the system. Aardvark provides multiple ways for people to interact with its services, mostly revolving around IM clients such as AOL Instant Messenger, Google Chat and others. In my experience using Aardvark, my queries result in 1-3 answers of varying quality within five minutes of the query and I receive between 5 to 20 queries a day related to topics that I have indicated knowledge of.

Personal Impression

My impression of Aardvark is that it’s a group of people with a great idea: create a system to help people find answers to “un-Googleable” questions, from people they trust. I think this idea can turn into a business if it focuses on finding paying customers and executes well, but right now it seems like a technology driven company that has a very broad market and zero revenue.

Product, Service, or Platform – While Aardvark provides a service to its users, it can be better understood as a platform, like Fuel-X, Facebook and Trulia because it has a broad range of applications and different people will use it for different purposes. While this makes Aardvark an exciting place to work, there is the danger of getting distracted and stretched too thin by the multitude of applications.

Strong Market Demand – There is a huge demand for the service that Aardvark provides. According to Max, 25-40% of all the searches done on Google (his former employer), are what he calls “subjective search” queries. Queries like “What are the coolest places for a vegetarian to eat around Stanford?” cannot be answered definitively by Google, but could be answered by someone who is familiar with the Stanford area. I think the possibility of being a better alternative to billions of search queries puts Aardvark in a strong position as a company. However, demand does not equal profitability, or for that matter, revenue.

Trulia also had a huge market in which it could provide value: buyers and sellers of homes, but were not able to make money off of their service because of the industry’s other players. Aardvark’s problem is not the industry, it is figuring out who will pay them for their service.

Tentative Business Model – One of the biggest weaknesses of Aardvark is their lack of a clear business model. Max saw two opportunities for monetization:

1) Affiliate links – where retailers would pay Aardvark for any transaction that came directly out of a query/answer on their system. For example, if someone recommends a book on Amazon and the querier purchases it, Aardvark could make a small profit off of that transaction.

2) Sponsored answerers – where people interested in answering particular questions pay to respond to certain queries, somewhat like “Sponsored Links” on Google. For example, a real estate agent might want to answer all questions related to “buying a home in Brooklyn”.

It seems that most internet companies are still not focused on revenue, but focused on producing a popular product, and then hoping to make money off of the traffic or user interaction with the site or service. I recognize that they have the means and desire to take their time in making a rock solid product before trying to make money. However, if I were a founder, generating revenue is something I would spend a lot of time thinking about and working on as the platform grew in features and in usage.

Moving forwards

Aardvark has gotten off to a good start – they have a technical founding team united behind the concept of “social search” web applications, they have the support of big name investors and VC firms, great press coverage in Business Week, TechCrunch and other media, as well as a working product.

In the long-run, I do think Aardvark has the potential to make a real impact on how people find answers, market products and services, and build personal credibility. If I were running Aardvark for the next year, my goals would be to 1) Reduce risk, which I will discuss further below and 2) Select a narrower target market to focus on.

This second goal is important because I don’t believe Aardvark can be all things to all people, but would be better served in targeting a smaller knowledge or opinion driven market, like fashion designers or IT employees. A focused target market would allow Aardvark to tailor its platform features to provide a great deal of value. Fashion designers would probably want the ability to send pictures along with their queries, while IT employees might want to send queries directly from certain software.

Risk Factors

Technical risk – Aardvark has created a basic version of their product – allowing users to ask “into their network” on various questions and receive a response. However, a great deal of Aardvark’s value proposition relies on its ability to do two things:

1)   Parse natural language questions for the right topics. While the current product is unexpectedly good at this, it will need to be much better before it can really compete with human interaction.

2)   Determine the areas of expertise of online users. The current product connects user queries to people who claim to have expertise on a particular topic, without real validation of the claim. The power of Aardvark will be connecting queries to people who have demonstrated, through their online activity on social networks and blogs, their areas of expertise.

Market/User Risk – The company must prove that users will use their platform for their finding query answers. Consumers have many choices for answering their questions, (friends, Google, Yahoo Answers to name a few), and it will be important for Aardvark to demonstrate that people are willing to move their searches to this platform, and that they find it valuable enough to use it consistently.

Business Model Risk – Finally, if it desires to continue as an independent organization (which I would want if I were running the company) Aardvark must prove that it can make money from this service. Earlier I described their two proposed revenue streams: affiliate links and sponsored answerers. Beyond these, I think selling user data on queries, the ability to charge for “expert answerers”, and basic advertising targeted towards the query information are other revenue streams to pursue.

Founders/Management/Culture

The founding team is young – only Damon Horowitz, is likely older than thirty. However, all members have experience working in either start-ups or successful internet companies, so I think will have they will be able to stay in senior management roles in the company for quite some time.

Max indicated that his role in the company was managing the public face of Aardvark as well as determining the internal culture. Decision-making at Aardvark is spread throughout the company – Max said that no one person was responsible for determining the product, which explains why they may not have focused on a particular market. The company looks for “Smart, type A individuals who go into meetings looking to be proved wrong”. They also hire for generalist, jack-of-all trades engineers instead of specialists.

This demonstration to be flexible and follow the demands of their users is admirable and a smart move as they first figure out their product and market. But in the next two years, I would look to begin hiring for more specialized engineers based the strategic direction the company decided on.

Exit

Aardvark has two exit options: an IPO or an acquisition. Which path it takes depends largely on how many users they can obtain, and how much revenue they can generate off of these users. If it gets lots of users, it can become a strategic acquisition for a bigger firm like Yahoo, Microsoft, or Google. If it can generate lots revenue per user, an acquisition is also possible. Only if it can demonstrate both is an IPO a consideration.

Lessons to learn from the Psychology of Personal Change

In Spring of 2009 I developed and lead instruction for a quarter-long course called the Psychology of Personal Change. I worked with Greg Walton, a Psych professor at Stanford in the weeks leading up to the class but once it got startedI was responsible for organizing and teach all 36 of the students who signed up.

The focus of the class was on studying the research done on how people are able to initiate and sustain lasting behavioral changes in their lives. We read papers on dieters, smokers, new year’s resolvers, on self-regulation, on relapse and other topics.

The studies we read lead to a number of actionable ideas that I’ll outline here.

· Choose 1-2 behaviors, not an outcome, to control – you must pick behaviors that you believe will be the most important to achieving your outcome. Then just try to do those behaviors. Use the outcome only as a guide, the focus is on the behavior (don’t obsess over your weight, focus on the food and the exercise)

· Measure your behavior – get a baseline for the behavior, and measure EVERYDAY. Food diary, website (joes goals), iPhone app, etc.

· Get a change coach – someone in the class or out who is supporting you and someone you check in with EVERY WEEK to discuss how things are going. This person will need to answer a few questions at the end of the quarter

· Prepare for relapse – if you screw up (and you will screw up) what are you going to do to get back on track? Create a step-by-step action plan for recovering

· Model after success – find someone (better yet – multiple people) who has done what you want to do (not someone who has always been that way) and ask them for advice on changing

· Identify your focal point – comb your memory for a crystallizing moment – if you don’t have one, create one by writing down what would happen 1 year, 5 years out if you don’t make a change, and 1 year, 5 years out if you DO make a change.

· Control your environment – how can you get reminders for the bad behavior out? How can you introduce new reminders for the good thing? Throw out all the junk food, or bring fruit with you everywhere. Make stick notes all over your room.

· Develop self-efficacy – figure out ways to make yourself feel more confident that you can get this done. This is not the same as self-esteem! Spend time reading about people who have made it. Set small goals, hit them, and repeat.

· Affirm yourself – spend some time thinking/writing down things that are important to you – your values, core beliefs and your intrinsic worth as a human being. Tell your friends and family that you care about them. People who do this are better able to make changes.

· Create a new identity and/or worldview – How will you be a different person because of this change? Can you try to see the world differently that might help facilitate and reinforce the change?

· Exercise – Research indicates that exercising helps people through ANY kind of change. How can you introduce a bit of exercise into your day to help your changes stay?

· Make a firm commitment – Use a friend or a website to put money down that you’ll stick to your change. Enter in a 5k. Tell your parents, your friends and neighbors you’re getting straight A’s this quarter. Buy clothes that are will fit you when you slim down some. Commitment leads to success.