31 Lessons at 31

It’s sort of a tradition at this point for me to do a post around my birthday (see: 3029282726. This year, I decided to write down 31 lessons I’ve learned in the past few years. Anything older than that tends to become a “known fact of life” and stands out a lot less.

These were initially written with modifiers like “most”, “often”, or “tend to”, but since that makes the points less pithy, I’ve taken them out. However, know that I don’t mean these lessons literally to be true in all circumstances and situations. The universe is messy and the right answer is always: “it depends”.

So without further ado:

1. Life comes in two speeds: too slow, and too fast.

2. No matter what you’ve achieved in the past, it’s what you’re going to do next is what people often care about.

3. Related: everyone has a boss. Everyone’s boss wants more out of them.

4. Getting a few minutes of quality face time with someone important is worth the time and effort if you care about building a relationship.

5. Two signs you have a really good friend: they let you crash at their place anytime. They’re comfortable with lending you a lot of money.

6. Media-free commutes are a great place to do some thinking.

7. People don’t read/finish books. Which means reading can be a real advantage.

8. The best writing provides the most clarity with the fewest words.

9. People have a hard time with change. Accepting that change is inevitable is not intuitive.

10. Things take time to permeate the world. Keep at it.

11. In larger organizations, it’s worth developing an alternative plan to put in your back pocket should you be called to propose something new.

12. While in reality, everyone is complex and messy, developing a crisp personal narrative helps create opportunities.

13. When people dislike X or say “X is bad”, what they really mean is “X is bad for me”.

14. You don’t really know how much power you have in a situation until you try to assert it.

15. Related: Bluffing can take you a long way.

16. Humans are visual creatures. Never forget that a picture/diagram/whiteboard drawing can be 10x more effective than a write up.

17. Related: well-executed designs are another 10x improvement against basic wireframes.

18. A strong network/community is one of those things that doesn’t seem super useful until it does. Then it seems like magic.

19. When you win, people come up with all sorts of reasons (accurate or not) for why you were better. And when you lose, the opposite happens.

20. Brands matter because our attention spans are limited, so we jump to what is known and familiar over something new and potentially unsafe (thus requiring further investigation).

21. People don’t actually want feedback or advice—they just want to feel validated and praised about what they’ve already done or are planning to do.

22. There will always been a desire to experience live performances people: plays, concerts, speaking engagements. We crave human connections.

23. People would rather defend their beliefs and protect their egos than be wrong, even when they could reap benefits of course-correcting.

24. Breakthrough technologies often have uncomfortable implications. Cryogenics. Strong AI. Autonomous vehicles. Lab grown organs.

25. Happiness is adequate rest, daily workouts, meaningful work, friendship, and physical touch.

26. Long-term planning can actually work if you stay flexible but focused.

27. No system is completely meritocratic—status, gender, race, and other factors are too hard for people to totally separate. Doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile goal to strive for.

28. We crave leadership most when times are tough or uncertain.

29. On one hand, people all pretty much care about the same few things—safety, progress, love, novelty, connection. On the other hand, we have a really wide range of ideas about what will get us there, and just opinions on things generally.

30. Myths are more powerful than facts.

31. There are many more ways to get things wrong than to get them right.

Ridejoy: Lessons Learned

On April 24th, 2011, I sat down with my friends Kalvin and Randy for an intense 10 minute interview with Paul Graham, Sam Altman, Jessica Livingston and several other partners at Y Combinator (YC). We were hoping to convince the world’s most powerful startup accelerator to accept our Reloveit, our idea for “a Mint.com for photo books”, into their Summer 2011 batch of startups.

YC prides itself on making a day-of decision about whether to accept a startup, so that evening, I found myself pacing back and forth at an outside patio by Kalvin’s childhood home. I was 24 years old and had quit my job at an advertising startup to do something on my own. A friend had come over to keep us company while we waited, and I was telling her about my back-up plans were we not to get into YC. I had limited savings and we didn’t have any other funding options lined up.

Just then Kalvin walked out of the house on the phone. He sounded hesitant and for a moment I thought he had just gotten a call for the wrong number until I heard him ask if he could put the caller on speakerphone.

Kalvin placed the phone on the table and PG’s voice came through:

“Guys, we’d like to offer you $20,000 and a spot in the next batch in exchange for 7% of your company. Are you interested?”

In the spring of 2011, I cofounded Ridejoy, a community marketplace for sharing long-distance rides, with my two friends and roommates Kalvin Wang and Randy Pang. We were a part of Y Combinator’s Summer 2011 alongside 62 other companies and 150 other founders [1].

We raised $1.3M in funding after YC’s Demo Day, and built out a team of designers, community managers, and engineers. But after working on the business for 18 months, we concluded we would not achieve the level of traction in the carpooling market necessary to justify a venture-backed business. We laid off our staff, leased out our office, and spent six months trying to identify a new business opportunity we all could believe in.

We weren’t able to find one, and after lot of soul-searching, decided to shut down the business and return about half of our seed round back to our investors. We were roommates throughout the entire journey and remain good friends to this day.

Most startups die. Which means most founders end up having to fold their companies, lay off staff, and inform their investors that they failed.

Despite Silicon Valley’s ethos of embracing failure, I think we can do better at examining why companies fail and what founders and product managers can learn to avoid making the same mistakes. Today, I am a PM at Etsy and partner at Ship Your Side Project the cofounder of a performance hiring platform called Headlight and I use what I learned from my startup experience every day.

To that end, this is a list of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from starting, growing, and shutting down Ridejoy.

Right after we got PG’s call

1. Find a proxy for demand

When you’re making something new, it can be difficult to assess exactly the size of the market for your idea. A proxy for demand is an indication that people already use/pay for things similar to your product or service.

Kalvin, Randy, and I envisioned a world where people traveling long distances would share rides with each other rather than drive alone. Our proxy for demand was the fact that on Craigslist, hundreds of people were posting every day looking to share rides despite having no way to verify who you’d be riding with, no way to find the right kind of ride (location, offer vs request), and no way to manage the transaction securely. We felt this was a clear indication of significant and unmet demand for a product like Ridejoy. While we ultimately discovered that the US market for ridesharing was smaller than we thought without that proxy for demand, we never would have ever tried to pursue it.

2. Every investor is different

Kalvin and I did most of the fundraising meetings together (which many people advised against, but we did it anyway), and the thing I really learned is that investor has a different style. Some investors like to pepper you with questions and put together their own understanding of your business. Others want you to walk them through your business step-by-step.

Some funded us because we focused on comparisons between our business and Airbnb, and how we were both peer-to-peer marketplaces disrupting old school businesses. Others told us they “weren’t really idea people” and funded teams, we focused on how Kalvin and I had been classmates at Stanford and started a nonprofit while in school. With fundraising, every investor wanted to see confidence, competence and opportunity, but beyond that, each one had a different approach and you have to be ready to adapt. It took us about a month to get our first major check, for about half our round, and another month to close out the rest.

3. Funding does not equal product market fit

Raising funding often causes founders to feel like they’ve validated their idea, no matter where their business really is, and that makes them want to move into the next stage. One of our biggest investors told Kalvin that he wanted to see us spend through our seed round in a year-and-a-half (which would have meant spending $72k every month!) We were much more frugal, but in hindsight we still probably started spending too early.

We made our first hire, a community manager, not long after closing our round. While amazing, Margot and the other employees we hired changed the working dynamic for Kalvin, Randy, and I in major ways. Instead of being a few people in an apartment just trying to make a crazy idea happen, we were suddenly trying to act like a legit business: signing a lease for office space, figuring out a benefits package, and acting more certain about the business than was truly warranted. While I loved working with everyone on our team, I think we might have been more able to recognize and confront the fact that that our carpooling idea wasn’t going to work, and pivoted sooner if we hadn’t felt responsible to our team for maintaining our current product / business focus.

4. Marketplaces need liquidity and power sellers

Our first carpooling attempt was a site called BurningManRides.com – Kalvin had gone to the art festival Burning Man in 2010 and knew that the conditions were right for a better carpooling site—the date and location were fixed, and people already had a sharing spirit. He was right: a few weeks after launching we had 1,600 rides posted on the site despite spending zero on paid advertising.

A big part of the value we offered was liquidity. There were enough drivers and passengers coming from different parts of the country that most people were able to find a match for themselves.

But when we launched Ridejoy nationwide, liquidity was no longer so simple. Because of the nature of our inventory, which had a specific origin, destination, and date, our rides posts did not always find a match and expired very quickly. We had to constantly find new people to post rides or else the site would look like a ghost town. The reason why Craigslist (as a general platform) works is that the each local site eventually captures a large enough percent of the population that it can achieve liquidity within its different verticals: housing, jobs, dating, and to some degree, carpooling.

Another important thing that happens in marketplaces that they eventually get dominated by power sellers: people who compete aggressively to win buyers and do a larger share of the business. Power sellers typically end up making enough from the marketplace to go full-time and eventually outcompete most other ”casual” sellers. When you look at supposedly peer-to-peer marketplaces like eBay, at Airbnb, Lyft and Uber, and Etsy (my current employer), the majority of their revenue comes from full-time power sellers. The economics of long-distance carpooling made it difficult to earn enough to go full-time.

If you go from SF to LA and drive four passengers at $40 a seat (which would not be particularly comfortable), you’re basically capped at earning $3,000 a month, assuming you drive 25 days a month and spend $40 on gas per drive. That’s not a huge upside for driving full-time compared to what you could make as a power seller on Airbnb or Uber (plus you have to spend the night in LA or drive back alone). The lack of financial upside for drivers reduced the likelihood of power sellers, which made it harder for our marketplace to have the inventory to grow, something I’ll keep in mind for future marketplace opportunities.

5. Ship early and often

One of the things we did pretty well at Ridejoy was ship early and often. BurningManRides.com launched after just four weeks of development. Shortly after, we launched Ridejoy.com to support general purpose carpooling, with SF to LA being the primary route.

We had originally planned to not launch the site right away and instead spend an extra month working on credit card payments. After talking this plan through with YC partner (and Twitch CEO) Emmett Shear, he convinced us to launch without payments and focus on learning rather than having what we saw as a “complete” feature set. It was the right move. I’ve seen many founders struggle because they get so caught up in making their V1 perfect that they never launch or launch far later than they should have.

The one time we broke this rule ourselves was when we were building the Ridejoy iPhone app. We poured a lot of our design effort into the app and pushed back the launch date multiple times. Yes, we ultimately shipped a beautiful app that got tons of press, earned a 4.7 star average rating on the App Store and was featured 2x by Apple editors. And yet, in retrospect, it didn’t drive the growth we needed, and it would have been far wiser to launch with a smaller feature set. If we had been more clear about making growth our only priority, we might have even decided not to invest in a native app until we were much further along.

6. Sometimes external events can tank your company

In the end, we shut down because we couldn’t grow fast enough. We were using events, social media, and PR to acquire users, but by far our biggest acquisition channel was Craigslist. We used two non-nefarious tactics to acquire carpooling users from Craigslist:

  • We maintained an internal database of all the rides posted on either Craigslist on Ridejoy. Each day, we posted a daily calendar into the rideshare section of all the ride offers and requests originating out of that city hub. We received tons of email thanking us for this service since the rides were so disorganized and hard to find.
  • We allowed users to easily post their Ridejoy rides back to Craigslist s using the information from their Ridejoy post.

Dozens of startups were attacking Craigslist in the same way and for a while, we all slowly siphoned off users. But in the fall of 2012, the sleeping giant woke and we were all sent cease and desist letters, demanding we stop posting anything into the Craigslist rideshare section and disable the post-back-to-Craigslist feature on Ridejoy.

One of our fellow YC batch mates had also received the cease and desist and told us they spent $10k investigating ways around it with their lawyers and found nothing. We had to comply.

Even before the Craigslist cease and desist, we were becoming concerned with our growth. We had run the numbers and determined we needed to increase our inventory growth rate and double the percentage of transactions that used a credit card [2] if we were to prove the business model worked and eventually raise another round of funding.

With our largest source of users gone, our aggressive growth goals went from being hard but possible to essentially unreachable. We also were not excited and not well-equipped to be the third or fourth entrant in the fast-growing urban ridesharing market. We spent a few weeks with the whole team trying to explore related opportunities in the transit / carpooling / travel space, but did not hit upon anything compelling. After an agonizing weekend, Kalvin, Randy and I decided to dramatically lower our burn rate by letting go of our staff and trying to incubate a new idea with just us founders. We rented out our office space to another company, gave our staff about a month of severance and helped them land new jobs.

This was a difficult time. We had recently appeared in a full-page spread in Vanity Fair about Y Combinator startups and it felt pretty awful to have to admit we weren’t working on the carpooling thing any more (or pretend like we were). Despite being a pretty social person, I avoided hanging out with friends (who were of course all in tech) and often just stayed in the apartment.

While having an open field of ideas to explore was exciting at first, over time the novelty wore off as week after week we came up with more startup ideas that we’d then shoot down. An-demand laundry service. A site for sharing your favorite quotes. A site that helps you make smarter donations. I began to feel trapped inside my own apartment and I was lucky I had people close to me who weren’t as wrapped up in tech that I could retreat to and keep my sanity.

8. Make sure you’re really willing to commit to for the long-haul

Look, we were unbelievably privileged to be in the position we were in. One of our YC mentors, Garry Tan, told us as much in a call we had with him:

“Do you know how many founders would kill to be in your position? Just talk to YC founders until you find a problem they’re willing to pay you to solve, and then sell that solution to other companies.”

It sounded so simple, yet we just couldn’t do it. I’ve seen other founders push through far more hardship than we did, lose cofounders, fail to get funding, and pivot numerous times while doggedly pursuing their startup ideas. For whatever reason, maybe because we had such trouble choosing an idea initially—we applied to YC with one idea, interviewed with another, and decided to focus on long-distance rideshare three weeks into the program—or maybe because we didn’t truly understand what it took to build a venture-backed business, we weren’t ready to commit to Ridejoy for the long-haul.

After six months of ideating inside our apartment, we couldn’t find a new idea we all wanted to pursue, which is why we folded. We stripped out all the payment systems on Ridejoy and left the rest of the product, including the app, messaging system, and the user registration intact, and returned the remaining funds back to our investors.

For the next two years, people continued to sign up for and use Ridejoy despite our complete lack of involvement in the site. Apple featured our app twice in the App Store, once in a travel collection, and later for Earth Day. Finally, in April 2015, Ridejoy disappeared completely after we forgot to renew the domain. We ended up with around 45k users and 69k rides posted—representing about 35M miles of potential roadtripping adventure.

After Ridejoy folded, Jason went off to work in DC as a Presidential Innovation Fellow, and 6 months later Randy and Kalvin became early members of the Healthcare.gov fixit team. They were honored by POTUS at the White House in 2014


There are, of course, many more lessons than I can list here, and I can only hope they all come to mind should I decide to do another company someday.

To name a few more: sometimes just sticking around is the most important thing you can do to grow. Never underestimate the market for “convenience”. Read between the lines on lukewarm reference calls. Always be having regular conversations with great people so you can recruit them the moment they decide they’re looking. Make the time to have heart-to-heart conversations with your cofounders. Never be afraid to try something crazy with the business once in awhile.

As for the “ridesharing” market? Well, I’m obviously biased, but when it comes to long-distance rides in the United States, there’s not a lot there. Consider these two facts:

  • Lyft’s original parent company, Zimride, which we competed with in 2011-2012, sold off its carpooling business in 2013, the same year we ceased operations on Ridejoy
  • BlaBlaCar, a French company that raised $200 million dollars in 2015 and has been helping people carpool across Europe for ten years, has never entered the US market

It’s ironic: when we started Ridejoy, we had a conversation with Robin Chase, cofounder of Zipcar, who had previously started a carpooling site called GoLoco. She advised us not to pursue this market, but we waved her off. We knew we’d find a way to crack the nut. Now, when I do take a meeting with someone interested in carpooling (which is rare), I’m the one trying to convince them not to do it.

I am grateful to my cofounders, Kalvin and Randy, our team, Camille, Christine, Margot, Rebecca, Seth, Suelyn, and Zachary, and our investors, including Freestyle Capital, Founder Collective, and Y Combinator, for believing in this crazy dream of ours and pursuing it together.

Finally, I honor the tens of thousands of intrepid drivers and passengers who used Ridejoy to travel hundreds of miles with strangers they had only connected with online. You surprised us, challenged us, infuriated us, and ultimately, humbled us.

I’ll end with one of the many colorful emails we received from our users when we announced we were shutting down:

“I am a music teacher and this week is Christmas concert mania so I don’t have the brain-power to write an amazing, kick-ass Rideshare story. I just wanted to say THANKS!!!!!!!! I’ve loved your service and have a great next season of your life!” — Mary

Thank you Mary. And I have.


[1] The original idea we had applied to YC with was focused on helping people discover great things from their past, not dissimilar to what is now Timehop (then just a side project called 4SquareAnd7YearsAgo). As we wrote in the application: “It’s like receiving pages from an effortless, serendipitous scrapbook, in your inbox. If you’ve ever come across an amazing email or letter or photo you’d forgotten about, you know the feeling you’ll have. How many of those great moments are you missing out on? Reloveit.”

When we were invited to interview, we were also told to come prepared to pitch new ideas. The night before the interview, we decided to pitch them on algorithmically-generated photo books of your most memorable content, printed on demand. They accepted us on our enthusiasm, but noted that we would probably change our idea by the time the program started. They were right. We abandoned the photo book idea shortly after the interview and it took us till June 23rd, three weeks into Y Combinator, to decide on Ridejoy

[2] At the time, our system allowed passengers to pay in cash or credit card cash. We wanted to move eventually to making credit cards mandatory (which is how we could take a cut of the transaction and make money) but were concerned it would turn away users who were used to the Craigslist system, which primarily relied on cash.

How Camaraderie is Forged Through Hardship

Reflections on teamwork after reading Tribes by Sebastian Junger

I recently finished reading Sebastian Junger’s excellent new book Tribes: on Homecoming and Belonging. It\’s a slim volume that addresses something really important: how hardship builds group cohesion and solidarity.

In my keynote speech at the PRCA conference, I spoke about I believe is the most critical factor in high performing teams: trust. And I pointed out that groups never work closer together than after a crisis. This applies to acts of terrorism (America’s sense of unity after September 11), natural disasters (the pan-Asian support in response to the 2011 earthquake/tsunami of Japan) and even corporate crises (morale and productivity at Airbnb actually skyrocketed following a major debacle where a host had their home vandalized in 2011).

In a crisis people are usually more aligned on what’s at stake and they have to trust each other in order to work together to face the challenge.

Junger talks in Tribes and in his previous book, WAR, about how people often miss wars. Both soldiers and civilians. While this may seem crazy, there’s a reason for it. War heightens the sense that “we are all in this together”, breaks down class boundaries (especially during combat operations or during periods of heavy assault) and drives people to help, support, and defend one another in far reaching ways. After the war, or otherwise crisis, ends, things change and that sense of belonging is less prevalent.

In Tribes, Junger writes about war and peace in modern society and hunter gatherer ones. I was fascinated to hear that during the time when Europeans were just starting to settle in North America, that there was a phenomenon of men and women joining the local American Indian tribes and never coming back. Why?

It’s believed that the general freedom of activity, social cohesion, and lack of class hierarchy may have drawn women (who had many rules guiding their behavior in their “modern society”) and lower class men (who had a tough time rising in status) into the fold. The funny thing is, despite being a more “civilized” culture, almost no Indian ever wanted to stay and be a part of the settler’s society.

From a personal perspective, part of why I am drawn to startups is the sense of social cohesion and close knit bonds. I felt that most deeply when I was training as a gymnast at Stanford. I spent 4+ hours a day with my teammates. We took the same classes, lived together, traveled together, and are together. We worked hard, faced physical danger, faced down competitors, and won glory for team and our school. Few things more satisfying than having a small group of people united and working towards an important, deeply held goal.

Another idea that really struck me while reading Tribes was the idea that people need to be around other people. People who experience trauma are able to recover much faster when they are in a more inclusive society with a high degree of interaction than people who are highly rigid class based society. Lonely people are more likely to be depressed and face a higher mortality rate.

Junger spent a lot of time embedded with combat soldiers and he notes that during your entire deployment, you were almost never alone and probably had 2-3 other people (whom you knew and knew you) within an arm’s reach away at all time. Then you return back to modern society where you are surrounded by strangers almost all the time.

Humans seem to function best when we are with people we know.

I wonder what that means for introverts and people who work remotely. It’s possible that too much space / alone time can have harmful effects, even if they might be desirable for other reasons. It was once pointed out to me that luxury and wealth is always shown as a lack of other people: more space on the plane, a rooftop al to yourself, an empty beach, and yet these exact things might lead to less enjoyment and fulfillment. And yet how can we spend our money in ways that give us more satisfaction, not less?

Neither Junger nor I have any answers from all this, but just to say that giving people meaningful work/responsibility is important, hardship is not always something to avoid. Instead, hardship, especially shared hardship, could be appreciated for how it fosters unity, trust, and even love

An Open Letter to Managers of Women

This article first appeared on Medium, where it has received over 205,000 views. It has been republished to QuartzUpworthyHuffington Post and featured as a LinkedIn Editor’s Pick.

Dear manager,

We need to talk about her. You probably know who. That analyst, designer, writer, engineer who has been at the organization for just a year or two and is already doing the work of someone several levels above her current pay band. Or maybe she’s not even on your radar, because she’s the dependable one who always delivers on-time and under budget, without any drama.

Despite this woman’s outstanding contributions, you haven’t promoted her or given her a raise. It’s not fair and you know it.

Maybe you think she has to wait her turn, or brush up on her soft skills and work better with others, or that she simply needs more experience. But all of those things also applied to the many talented men who have rapidly advanced through the ranks of your organization. They had somehow not been beholden to the same constraints of “promotions are given every three years” or “but what if so-and-so gets upset that they didn’t get a raise too?”

You’ve talked a big talk about mentoring and development opportunities, but when push comes to shove, you give her the less glamorous work, the “maybe next time” speech, the completed plan decided in a separate meeting without her, because it was just easier and perhaps you think she won’t make as much of a fuss about it.

Maybe you even think you’re getting away with it because she says “fine” and does a great job anyway. But do you really think that there’s no resentment in that moment? No disappointment that’s stacked on top of other disappointments that she suffers quietly with along with the occasional leer, dick joke, and unwanted touching that she deals with as just the day-to-day life of a woman who is killing it in a company run by men?

She’s no fool. She’s taking classes outside of work, maybe with company support, but often paid out of her own pocket. She’s got side projects where she’s developing new skills and learning how to lead, because outside the company walls there’s no one who can hold her back. She’s got a network and she knows what her friends at other companies make and she has thought about what she might do if her paycheck were 20%, 30%, or 50% bigger.

It’s not too late. You can still turn this around. But you’ll have to move fast. Back up her decisions, especially when they are right but politically uncomfortable. Get her in front of senior leadership and show off her work. Give her a real challenge and the authority and space to operate. Show her how she can do better next time when she makes a mistake instead of just being annoyed. And pay her what she’s worth, with a title to match. After all, she’s grown more in the last six months than some of your team have grown in the last six years.

Do these things and she’ll respect you and keep doing phenomenal work. Her dedication and ingenuity will pay off in dividends for your product, your team, and your KPI’s — making youlook like a star in front of your boss and your clients.

Fail to do these things and she will leave, probably after a big project wraps up because even in the end, she’s still responsible. She’ll take a better role at a new organization, where she hopes to have a manager who will appreciate what she brings to the table. You’ll then have to write a job description, realize she was doing three people’s jobs,and spend six months interviewing candidates, hoping to find someone as good as she was, only to discover that no one will accept a job at the salary you were paying her. And even after you finally hire her replacement(s), you’ll still have to spend months getting them up to speed so that they, cross your fingers, might do as good a job as she did.

But all that hasn’t happened yet. You still have time to make it right. So make it right.

Photo courtesy of wocintechchat.com


First off, I’d like to say thank you to these wonderful women:

These women took the time to provide meaningful feedback that improved this piece. I have immense respect for all of them and I hope you have a chance to work with, or work for, them someday.

This article is inspired by the struggles I have heard from many talented, ambitious women who do amazing work that is as good and often better than the men around them, but don’t get the recognition, compensation, or opportunity they deserve. These issues are often worse for women of color. Sexism in the workplace is not always overt harassment. It can be downplaying of the ideas and contributions of women, comments like “she can be abrasive”, or simply enforcing a higher bar for raises and promotions.

This isn’t just something “other people” do. Well-intentioned men and women may still unintentionally reinforce patriarchal patterns and devalue women.

I include myself in that group.

While writing this post, I asked these women — two of whom edit writing by trade — to help review my article, for free. It was presumptive and wrong of me to make such a request and not even offer to pay them for their time and expertise. #facepalm

I’m lucky that Chevon made the effort to call me out on this in a kind way and helped me see my mistake. Ultimately I was able to provide direct financial compensation or make a donation on their name to RailsBridge, an organization that helps women and underrepresented minorities level up their programming skills. An important lesson learned.

Additional Reading and Resources:

Product Insights from Pokémon GO

Unpacking the year’s biggest mobile game sensation

As you probably have heard, Nintendo has partnered with game developer Niantic to launch a wildly popular game for iOS and Android called Pokémon GO. The game has already reached over 21M daily active users, dominated the in-game purchasing market, and players are spending more time in the game than on Facebook. It even stopped traffic in Central Park as players abandoned their cars to chase after a rare water Pokémon that had appeared in the vicinity.

Rather than emulate existing Pokémon games for Nintendo’s handheld devices [1], this game uses AR (augmented reality) to place your character in a map that is modeled after the real world. From time to time, wild Pokémon will appear on your map — when you tap on them, you are taken to a feed from your phone’s camera and you see the Pokémon superimposed on top of whatever is in front of you. This is the AR piece of the game and it means that other people playing the game can also “see” the same Pokémon you’re looking at if you’re both in the same location

There’s a lot to say about the game but I thought I’d focus on what designers, PM’s and makers can learn from the game’s popularity.

1. Variable / Intermittent rewards

As games go, Pokémon GO is pretty boring most of the time. Your in-game character only moves when you move in real-life, so if you’re sitting at home or at work, not much happens. By walking past Pokéstops, which are mapped to millions of real landmarks, you can earn Pokéballs, and occassionally, better rewards like Pokémon eggs and incubators for those eggs. Every so often, a wild Pokémon appears and you can “throw” your Pokéballs at them by swiping up on the screen to catch it. Pokémon are not distributed equally either, there are common Pokémon, uncommon ones, and super rare ones that only appear once in a blue moon (hence the traffic jam for the Vaperon).

I’ve written before about the power of intermittent rewards. They are actually the most powerful reward mechanic for reinforcing behavior in mice and clearly a similar dynamic is at play here. Both for collecting items and for catching Pokémon, variable rewards play an important role. Due to the way you acquire items from the Pokéstops (by spinning a wheel) and how wild Pokémon appear (regularly but at unpredictable intervals)

2. Completion

As anyone who has been exposed to the Pokémon theme song knows, one of the primary goals of every Pokémon trainer is to “catch ’em all”. The franchise started out with 150 Pokémon but has ballooned to over 700 over time as new games introduced new Pokémon. Fortunately, there are only 151 to catch in Pokémon Go and the rarity of certain Pokémon means that players will be working hard to complete the set. Each Pokémon you discover is added to your Pokédex, with grayed out entries making it very clear that you’ve got more to go.

All the ways Pokemon reminds you that you have NOT caught them all

3. Cooperation and Competition

Like World of Warcraft, or Destiny, this game is better with others. But unlike a raid in Warcraft which requires coordinating several players of high skill and hours of free time, Pokémon GO is more like a casual game ala Words with Friends and can be “played” with just about anyone, anytime, anywhere. By coordinating the use of lures, which draw Pokémon to a particular Pokéstop, a small team of players can quickly catch many more Pokémon than they can alone. And since lures can be seen all players in the nearby area, more players might come by to get on the action, which increases the chances that a rare Pokémon might occur.

But there’s also room for competition in this game. After you reach Level 5, you can start battling in Pokémon Gyms, which are scattered throughout the area like Pokéstops, but less common. If you’ve got a strong Pokémon team and a great battle skills, you can become the Gym Leader. I’ve caught friends posting about earning gym leader status on social media, which, beyond bragging rights, earns them daily in-game rewards. And even within this competitive aspect of Gym battling, there’s cooperation as multiple trainers can contribute to strong Pokémon to a gym’s line of defense, keeping would-be conquerors from taking over.

Even without more direct social features like having “Pokefriends” or trading Pokémon with other trainers (though that undoubtedly is coming), the game has found great ways to make the game more fun with other people. Whenever you can get people having conversations or organizing activities around your product, you’re in a really great place.

4. Ongoing Challenge for Skilled Players

While this game seems at times like a giant RNG (random number generator), there are still opportunities for players to develop better strategies for catching rare Pokémon and coordinating with others to optimize the use of powerups and special items. From what I understand, there’s a fairly sophisticated mechanic for battling in gyms, and the rarity of certain Pokémon will keep most players from completing the whole set anytime soon.

So similar to other casual games like Threes or Angry Birds, the Pokémon GO is easy to pick up, but has enough sophistication to challenge dedicated players to develop in-game expertise and skill. This is what Kathy Sierra calls the spiral model of engagement. By giving players ever-more challenging activities followed by payoff and that “I Rule” feeling, they continue to get satisfaction from playing the game.

5. Focus vs On the Go

The game straddles a thin line between demanding attention and being a casual past time. On one hand, you need to have the app on in order to catch Pokémon, earn items from Pokéstops, and register distance on your egg incubators. That’s why the total time in app is so high and it forces a level of focus and commitment to the app — this is not an asynchronous game like Words with Friends or Chess. On the other hand, since nothing is happening most of the time, you can go out with friends and semi-discreetly play Pokémon GO. Since half the time you’re just waiting for Pokémon to appear, you can just leave it on in your pocket and go about your business, waiting for a buzz to alert you to a nearby monster.

6. Novelty of Augmented Reality

One of the things that makes Pokémon GO special is that it is one of the first mainstream, broadly used applications of AR. It’s just plain fun to see these creatures “out in the real world” and it plays very well into the Pokémon universe. Just like Oreo’s enormously successful “Dunk in the Dark” campaign was one of the first examples of real-time social that will be hard to repeat, the giddy, “this is so cool” factor of Pokémon GO was a one-time event that most developers will be hard pressed to repeat.

7. Proven System

Pokémon GO might be the first truly mainstream use of AR, but many of the dynamics in Pokémon GO were developed over the past four years in another AR game called Ingress. This game was created by Niantic, the Google-backed game development firm that produced Pokémon GO with Nintendo and has many similar features: The walking to points of interest to take action. The joining a particular faction. The capture of stations by defeating enemies. The coordination of players to achieve shared objectives.

In many ways, Pokémon GO is a heavily customized mod of Ingress that builds on proven game mechanics honed by seven million players around the world, not some brand new game that was birthed from the ether. This is not to discredit the innovation that’s emerged from the game, but simply to point out that the developers had a lot of opportunities to iterate and build on their work before this game came out.

8. A Dominant Legacy Brand

Beyond everything else that we’ve discussed about Pokémon GO and why it’s so damn engaging, there’s one thing I rarely see people talk about: the massive legacy of the Pokémon franchise. Anyone who grew up in the United States in the late ’90, early 00’s was exposed to this franchise in some form or fashion and many have fond or at least not unpleasant feelings about Ash, Pikachu, and the quest to “catch ’em all”.

Pokemon is the 4th best-selling video game franchise of all time (behind Mario, Tetris, and Super Mario) at 279M units sold, and one of the top animated movie franchises of all time, with $939M in worldwide box office sales, and the trading card game has shipped over 21B cards to 74 countries and 10 languages. In other words, there are very few things that have even a line of sight to Pokemon’s pre-existing popularity before the game’s launch.

Yes, that is an actual Boeing 747 covered in Pokemon

You could take the exact same game, the AR angle, the collecting monsters with balls, battling others, etc and there’s no chance in hell it wouldn’t be a worldwide phenomenon like Pokémon Go is. (See Ingress) Yes, it’s a well-designed game with some interesting mechanics, but it also has a huge and well-developed franchise going for it.

Pokemon GO is surfing an enormous 20 year-long wave of toys, games, movies, TV shows and more. Pikachu is one of the most widely recognized fictional characters in the world (more known by Americans under 30 than the Vice President), and it’s $825M annual haul made it one of the 10 highest earning fictional characters according to 2003 Forbes article. In the same way that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would not do nearly as well with a set of random, newly invented super heros, Pokémon GO would be nothing without the franchise. [2]

The legacy brand offers many things:

  • An easy learning curve for the game since most people already understand the idea of how Pokémon are caught by balls, can evolve into other forms and battle each other.
  • Popularity -> social acceptability — I think many people who might otherwise be shy about playing a game that makes you look as much of a dork as Pokémon GO does feels more comfortable doing so because it’s a widely acknowledged franchise and game.
  • Popularity -> know other people who might be playing — it’s very easy to find people to talk to about Pokémon GO. I was shopping with my girlfriend and playing the game and a store clerk started a conversation with me about it. “Catch any good Pokémon lately?” is the new conversation starter.

Ultimately, we will still have to see if Pokémon GO is just a minor fad or a massive resurgence of the billion-dollar brand that is Pokémon. But meanwhile, there’s a lot to learn from its incredible popularity and depth of engagement.


[1] In the original Gameboy games, your character was an aspiring Pokémon trainer who walks through forests, rivers, towns, and mountains running into these little monsters out in the wild. You’d use your existing Pokémon to battle, and hopefully capture them by throwing a Pokéball at the monster once it was sufficiently weakened. YourPokémon earn experience by battling otherPokémon (owned by other trainers) and become stronger in the process, sometimes evolving into more powerful creatures. You to travel the world, capturing wild Pokémon and battling trainers until you become “the very best”.

[2] Yes, superhero movies are doing well right now, but they’re almost all based on existing and well-known characters (Superman, X-Men, Batman, etc), For every surprise hit like Guardians of the Galaxy, there are lots of flops like Steel, Phantom, and Mystery Men.

What the Black Lives Matter Movement Means to Me

The events of the last week have been horrifying, infuriating, and deeply saddening.

Two black men, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile, have been shot dead by police officers. Men who were not resisting arrest, not posing a threat, and who should not be dead. Their final, awful moments, filmed on mobile phones, have been seen millions times. Then, during what was otherwise a peaceful protest in Dallas, five white police officers were shot and killed by a gunman who appears to have been motivated by his frustrations with how black people are treated by the police. My heart goes out to all of these victims and their families.

Where do we go from here? I don’t see any easy answers. Race is an incredibly divisive issue, and the United States is a country where many people from racial minority groups are deeply mistrustful of the police. I cannot fully appreciate the danger and difficulty of being a police officer, and yet I can\’t understand why police in other nations are able to serve and protect with far less killing. In America, black people are shot by police officers at twice the rate of white people, while a white man who shot and killed nine black people during a church service in 2015 was captured and detained unharmed. In 2015, 102 unarmed black people were killed by police officers, of which, only 2 cases was the officer charged with a crime.

Can you even fathom how awful this fact must be to the families of those killed? How deep the wounds are when the people who are assigned to protect life instead take it away. I don\’t know if I can, but I am trying.

As an Asian American man, what is my role in this? Am I the oppressor because I enjoy many of the same privileges that whites do? Am I the oppressed because Asian Americans also experience hate crimes and racial discrimination? I don’t know.

All I know is that I can\’t stay silent. And though this blog  focuses mostly on tech and business, this topic is too important not to say something. So I am.

Black lives matter. And we all need to do more to ensure that everyone in this country receives fair and equal treatment under the law and law enforcement officers.

When I was in Alabama for the PRCA Game Changers conference, I met Chuck Reece, another speaker at the event, who runs an online magazine called the Bitter Southerner. He got up in front of an almost entirely white audience of PR professionals and said that they had to acknowledge that the backdrop and context for any story or event that takes place in the South is the specter of slavery and a long history of violence and mistreatment toward people of color. I thought that was a brave and important thing to say and an idea that bears repeating now.

Consider the backdrop of everything that\’s been happening up until now. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. The Charleston Nine. The Orlando shooting. This is not just a race issue. This is not just a police issue. This is not just a gun control issue. This is a “how do we foster a peaceful and pluralistic society after so much painful history” issue and none of us are exempt from playing a part on its solution.

One particular resource I’ll point to is an incredible letter to Asian-American families about the Black Lives Matter movement that’s been translated into a dozen languages by hundreds of people over the last few days (hat tip Chevon Drew). The Asian American community has often failed to be an ally for other people of color and there’s a dark streak of anti-black sentiment sometimes crops up within our group. I’m glad to see this crowdsourced effort to address some of those things.

I don’t know exactly what we should do next, but this seems like a good start:

Support the families of those who were killed. Don’t assume you understand someone’s experiences. Listen. Hard. Be willing to change your mind and revise your stance on things. Be mindful of the many advantages you may enjoy over those less fortunate (but not less deserving) than you. Don\’t look away from the hurt and keep your heart open.

Photo credit: Tony Webster

Beyond the 10,000 Hour Rule

What Anders Ericsson has to say about developing mastery

We’re all familiar with the 10,000 hour rule, which was made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2010 bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success. In it, Gladwell makes the argument that 10,000 hours of practice is a critical number that separates the great from the truly extraordinary. One of the bodies of work Gladwell relied on to support his thesis were from research by Florida State University Psychology Professor K. Anders Ericsson, the granddaddy of research on how people developing expertise.

Ericsson studied violinists from the West Berlin Music Academy: the highest performing students did not differ significantly from average or low performing students by IQ, family background, or other factors. The only thing that separated top students who and those who would likely end up as music teachers was the total number of hours they had logged over their lifetime engaged in deliberate, focused, independent music practice.

By the age of 20, the top students had logged over 10,000 hours of this kind of training — a nice round number that Gladwell hammered home over and over again in Outliers. Gladwell disputed the notion that he oversold the special qualities of ten thousand hours in a recent interview on the Freakonomics podcast, despite having written sentence ‘10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness’ in Outliers.

The problem is, people have distorted the 10,000 hours concept, which has become second-hand for “getting experience” or “working hard”. And the truth is more nuanced and more interesting than that.

So with all that said, I’m really excited to introduce an interview with Professor Ericsson. He’s recently published an awesome book called Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise with co-author Robert Pool. As someone who’s read a tremendous amount about deliberate practicemastering skills, and developing talent, this book still provided a lot of depth and breadth into this field of study. I really enjoyed my conversation with Ericsson, who at once thoughtful, friendly, and deeply knowledgeable about how people develop expertise across a wide range of disciplines, from music, to sports, to surgery, aircraft piloting.

So without further ado, here is my conversation with Professor Ericsson, edited for clarity (though I’ll be sharing the entire conversation eventually on Record Breaking Podcast)

Practice vs Talent

Jason: It feels like a major thesis behind Peak is: if you’ve ever met someone who’s good at something, there’s almost no way that they haven’t spent a bunch of time deliberately practicing this thing to become as good as they are. Would you say that that’s something you would agree with?

Ericsson: Over the last 30 years, I’ve been sort of looking for people who exhibit abilities for which there’s no explanation in terms of prior training, or experience. It would be basically something like somebody suddenly starts speaking Chinese without basically having any background. In all of these cases, I’ve found that there’s a plausible alternative explanation that really focuses in on the kind of training and experience that people would have had, that would allow them to then exhibit this performance that is vastly superior to other people.

The only thing that I would point to as an exception would be body size and height. Somebody who is good at basketball and is like 7’2″ or something, that is basically explained by the genes that influence height, because people have been trying to centuries to try to change their height, and it’s really not possible to do that with training.

Jason: Having trained as a gymnast for many years, I naturally feel like, and I think many people would agree, that while working hard and practicing is clearly important, there’s some kind of multiplier that exists. This is what you might call “talent”. You’re sort of saying that talent in any particular field is really just someone having gotten their practice in a little earlier.

Ericsson: I think what I want to say is, as a scientist, I can’t prove that there aren’t such genetic factors. I think what I feel like I can confidently argue is, I’ve not seen the evidence that compels me to believe that there must be these factors. Given all this work that’s been done on DNA for the last 20 years, the fact is, people have still not found those genes that basically seem to be necessary for success in long-distance running or other kinds of activities. I think this raises an interesting question here about whether that [genetics] ultimately will be an important part of our explanation of very high levels of performance.

Gymnasts and Mental Representation

Jason: Can you recall any particular studies you did with gymnasts? Do you remember what you were studying there specifically, or do you have any anecdotes from some of that research that you could share?

Ericsson: I collaborated with a professor at the Beijing Sports University who was a rhythmic gymnast when she was younger and had been part of the Chinese system. We did a study where we actually try to map out, basically the practices of gymnasts in different countries. An interesting question is that, you don’t find any elite gymnasts who don’t have very extensive practice history.

What we’re seeing here is that the really accomplished gymnasts, they have almost developed these, as we talked about in the book, mental representations that will help them to monitor what they’re doing and also monitoring what they need to change as they’re trying to improve their performance which isn’t really visible. It’s almost like you’re acquiring something that gives a superior way of learning.

Jason: I remember, there was a guy on my gymnastics team, David Sender who was on the US senior national team and competed internationally for the United States. He would sometimes struggle to figure out how perform a particular skill, but then he would watch someone do it either in real life or on videotape and he would just get it.

He has this mental representation of, “Now, having watched this person do it, I understand the forces involved, where my body needs to be, how I need to act.” Things where I’d watch and go, “Okay, I saw that, but that doesn’t mean I exactly have a sense of how it would work.” It seemed like it was so  clear to him what needed to happen.

Ericsson: I think that’s a great illustration. I would say that when you’re talking to gymnasts or ballet dancers or divers, what I find interesting is, they can watch a video and they translate it into what they would be doing if they were to actually duplicate it.

Recommended Article: What Gymnastics Taught Me About Acquiring and Mastering Skills

Performance and Age

Jason: One thing I want to touch on is age. We understand that children’s brains are different from adult brains, and language is one of those examples of things that children can learn far better than adults. What have you learned about age and how that plays a role since many people learning about this material now are adults — are there certain things that they can’t really act on directly?

Ericsson: There are numerous examples in the book here of individuals who really start training something when they’re adults, at which point, people almost fought knowing that the brain had already matured, and then basically you pretty much started your downhill, aging decline. When you look at, for example, these college students that were trained to improve their memory (Note: One of Ericsson’s first studies into expert performance was around training short-term memory as measured by reciting a long string of digits. The college and graduate students he trained could hear a 80+ digit number and repeat it back instantly, which at the time, was greater than what the world’s best mnemonists could achieve) and I think there’s a very large number of individuals who have attained remarkable abilities when it comes to memorizing things quickly. They pretty much have done that when they were in college, or even beyond college.

I think there’s all sorts of evidence showing that people reach sort of the highest level of productivity or performance when they’re in their 30s and 40s. And the there are the cab drivers in London who, in order to get a license to be a cab driver, actually have to memorize all the possible routes through a city, including 25,000 street names and 20,000 landmarks. Again, implying here that the brain keeps improving well beyond the time when you reach adulthood.

However, when it comes to that ability of having perfect pitch, for instance,  where you can actually listen to a tone in isolation and then name which tone was playing. That ability seems something that any child can learn between the age of 3 and 5, but as you get older than 6, it seems that now the brain has already been entrenched in certain directions where learning that ability becomes almost impossible or at least very difficult.

Expert Performance in Families

Jason: You had an interesting point in the book about how the youngest child often does the best in a family, if the family has a particular hobby. You mentioned a family of chess playing daughters. We saw that in one of interviews on Record Breaking, with Gihan Amarasiriwardena, who ran the fastest half marathon in a full suit, and he comes from a family of runners and he’s the youngest sibling.

Ericsson: This example here of teaching your daughters to play chess is historically, I think really interesting. At the time when Dr. Polgár was actually deciding to start this experiment, people believed that no woman could ever be competitive in chess. He started training his daughters and developing some really interesting methods for training and then as the daughters got very good, he was then asking other more advanced chess players to work with them. These three daughters, in 2001, they were all three of them in the top 10 of female chess players in the world. The youngest daughter Judith, she was among the top 10 male players and people seriously speculated about the possibility that she would be able to become world champion herself. I think there are several benefits of being the youngest:

One is that the parents and the teachers learn lessons over time that they can then apply for the child that comes next. If you’re the last one, that would then provide you with the best environment. Also, older siblings often can help out and serve to challenge the younger child. That provides a good opportunity, under the assumption here that everyone is committed here as a team to try to help everyone improve, there should be a benefit of being the youngest. That certainly was the case here with the Polegar family.

Why it’s Important to be Challenged During Training

Jason: What you’re saying made me think about the point of being challenged. You talked about how deliberate practice is two things. It’s practice at the edge of your comfort zone and it’s purposeful, meaning you’re trying to achieve a very specific, particular outcome with any given attempt. What do you think it is about this being at the edge of your comfort zone, and really challenging yourself. Presumably, if taking a simplistic view of neural training, if you just run through something over and over again and it sort of enhances somehow, you should just get better. Why is it that you need to really push yourself every time to really make it count?

Ericsson: Let’s take the example of playing tennis with friends — you’re trying to play your best possible tennis, which in some ways, is just doing the same kind of things. I guess the arduous way in which you could improve would be to pinpoint things where you are actually making mistakes or you lose points that people would argue here that you could have basically had one here if you would have played it a certain way and hit the ball a little bit differently. Basically, you need to find something that you want to target for change.

I often take that example of a backhand volley where, if you miss it, next time you encounter a similar situation, you’re probably not going to do a lot better. But imagine now that you had a teacher approach, who could actually allow you to stand by the net and now actually deliver your backhand volley when you’re prepared for it and slowly force you to move further away from the net and eventually you would have to run up to the net to basically do the backhand volley, integrating it in regular play.

I would argue that a couple of hours with a tennis coach is going to improve your backhand volley so much more than playing maybe even for several years with your friends. That attitude of actually pinpointing something and then figuring out, “What are the best conditions under which you would be able to improve it?” and then basically work under those conditions until you’ve actually changed it and only then do you actually start using it and embedding it in the normal activity.

Motivations Behind the Book

Jason: You’ve written a lot of other books that are more academic, why this book? Why now?

I had some conversations with my coauthor Robert Pool that got me excited about working with him to explain how some of these findings on developing expertise might actually be relevant for everyday people. Most of the research that I do is actually looking at very high levels of performers. I believe that what they are learning about effective learning, is actually something that’s very useful for people who just want to reach the point of mastery such that they can independently produce or play an instrument and engage in drawing, or writing letters or speeches.

All of these activities, I think there are these general principles that would allow somebody to actually reach a higher level of performance and hopefully would really enjoy that sense here of being able to do a better job, and actually have other people surrounding them really enjoying their contributions more than the current level.

At the end of the day, this interview only scratches the surface of what Ericsson and Pool have to offer. I highly recommend checking out the book:  Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. It’s highly readable, with memorable stories and will help you develop a better understanding of how you can get better any skill.


Photo by Martin Reisch on Unsplash

About a week ago I celebrated a major milestone and turned *gasp* 30. Over the last few years, I’ve kept very careful track of how much time I had left until thirty, which was the age I thought I needed to have “made it”. In retrospect, the anxiety was unwarranted and thankfully in my old(er) age, I’ve gained the wisdom to see that.

Yes, in getting older, I’ve lost some naïveté, I look a bit more before I leap, and I get hangovers. But I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for building new things, and my body has held up surprisingly well. With age, I now have a series of rich mental models to run ideas through and long-standing friendships and professional relationships to draw on.

Perhaps most unexpectedly, I also have an awesome platform and community to share ideas and launch projects — which is this blog.

So for my birthday, I just want to thank anyone who’s read, shared, commented, or tried something different because of The Art of Ass-Kicking. I write for me, but I write for you, too.

The New Napster

How Sci-Hub is Blowing Up the Academic Publishing Industry

There has been an explosive new development in how scientific research is read and distributed. It’s name is Sci-Hub.

Founded in 2011 by Alexandra Elbakyan (who was, at the time, a 22 year-old graduate student based in Kazakhstan), the site has seen a major uptick in the last year. In February 2016, 6M+ scientific papers were downloaded from Sci-Hub, including articles from major journals like Nature and Science, to more niche titles across many fields, by hundreds of thousands of researchers all across the globe [1]. Simply by punching in a paper title or a DOI (document object identifier), which is a kind of ID number for scientific papers, researchers can get immediate, free access to 50M+ articles on the site.

Map of Sci-Hub IP requests (grouped by nearest major city)

Pissing Off the Big Guys

This is obviously piracy. And Elsevier, one of the largest academic journal publishers, is furious. In 2015, the company earned $1.1 billion in profits on $2.9 billion in revenue [2] and Sci-hub directly attacks their primary business model: subscription service it sells to academic organizations who pay to get access to its journal articles. Elsevier filed a lawsuit against Sci-Hub in 2015, claiming Sci-hub is causing irreparable injury to the organization and its publishing partners.

But while Elsevier sees Sci-Hub as a major threat, for many scientists and researchers, the site is a gift from the heavens, because they feel unfairly gouged by the pricing of academic publishing. Elsevier is able to boast a lucrative 37% profit margin because of the unusual (and many might call exploitative) business model of academic publishing:

  • Scientists and academics submit their research findings to the most prestigious journal they can hope to land in, without getting any pay.
  • The journal asks leading experts in that field to review papers for quality (this is called peer-review and these experts usually aren’t paid)
  • Finally, the journal turns around and sells access to these articles back to scientists/academics via the organization-wide subscriptions at the academic institution where they work or study

Why Academics Are So Fed Up

Bigger institutions spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to subscribe to a broad range of important journals — all the University of California campuses combined spend $8.7M on Elsevier subscriptions annually — but smaller organizations or independent researchers must pick and choose and typically have major gaps. Individual articles might cost around $30, which adds up very quickly when a typical research paper might include citations to 50-200 articles.

For many academics, paying exorbitant costs for information they submitted and reviewed for free is simply too much to pay. And in fact over 16,000 researchers have signed The Cost of Knowledge boycott [3], which means they will not submit to or referee an Elsevier journal, signalling the immense frustration many researchers feel about the issue.

Why This is a Pivotal Moment

The academic journal Science recently published a survey of ten thousand readers, many of whom are presumably scientists or other people interested in this issue [4]. While clearly not objective data, the results show that a majority of survey takers having used Sci-Hub, with a quarter indicating they use it weekly or daily.

What’s also interesting is that while the #1 reason for using Sci-Hub is not having access to the papers (50%), convenience was also an important factor. Not only does Sci-Hub grant access to nearly every paper on the planet, many find it easier to use than legitimate methods.

Despite being faced with a lawsuit, and having some of their domains taken down (.org and .io), the site continues to operate under other domains like Sci-Hub.cc, via the Dark Net via Tor, and is even sending PDF’s via the messaging app Telegram.

Elbakyan is obviously very smart and very motivated. To operate a site at this scale in a non-US/EU nation and keep a low enough profile not to get caught for five years and counting requires extreme skill, discretion, and persistence. Her blog makes it clear that she’s not even an activist in the general sense that she’s using Sci-Hub to “push the industry to change”. She literally just wants to make sure Sci-Hub or something like it exists forever.

”On the Internet, we obviously need websites like Sci-Hub where people can access and read research literature. The problem is, such websites oftenly cannot operate without interruptions, because current system does not allow it.

The system has to be changed so that websites like Sci-Hub can work without running into problems. Sci-Hub is a goal, changing the system is one of the methods to achieve it.”

Damn. I don’t know if I’m totally behind that message, but her stance is very clear and she is a force to be reckoned with.

The bottom line is that Sci-Hub is here to stay. The genie is out of the bottle and the more Elsevier and other publishers attack the site and Elbakayan, the more they are going to look like Big Oil, Big Tobacco or RIAA/MPAA — evil corporations just trying to suck every dollar out of the system. And beyond the public relations nightmare this creates, it’s also just a technological battle that is almost impossible to win.

What Happens Now

Look, I’m by-and-large a capitalist. Elsevier and other publishers are within their legal right to run their business the way they have been. And I’m not someone who subscribes to the idea that knowledge inherently should be free. I pay for Spotify, The New York Times (digital edition), Esquire magazine (print edition), Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video, and dozens of books both digital and print every year.

But the key thing is that these entities made it easier to buy those items than to pirate them.

Total revenue reported by the Record Industry Association of America

Record companies faced enormous challenges when Napster and other file-sharing systems came along to break up the mountains of cash reaped from CD’s during the 90’s and 2000’s. And the truth is, the revenue never came back in terms of digital downloads or streaming (the industry’s total revenue has fallen 66% since 1999).

But guess what — welcome to Schumpter’s creative destruction [5]. The world changes and you have to evolve or die. For decades, many have railed against the business model of the academic publishers and finally, the disruption has arrived. Yes, pirating papers is illegal. But it will be very very difficult to completely shut down Sci-Hub or one of its mirrors. This is the new reality and academic publishers are going to have to live with it.

The music industry adapted by making concerts and licensing a bigger focus. Newspapers like The Economist and The New York Times have sharpened their coverage and created content people were willing to pay for. HBO launched HBO GO. Netflix has a market cap of $42B.

In 1995, Forbes (back when it was a print magazine), wondered if Elsevier and academic publishing would be one of the first industries to be disrupted by the Internet. “Is the party over?” they asked, “it may be nearing its end. The Internet is closing in.” While their timing was off, their assessment of the underlying economics and individual incentives of the industry have not changed, and the technology has only made sharing easier.

Like for most newspapers, it might be time for academic publishers to face the music, cut back and realize that the era of massive revenues and amazing margins is over, and that leaner times are ahead. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t know what the answer is. But if the publishers willing to innovate and actually serve their customers and find new ways of creating value, there’s still hope. Crying “piracy is wrong” and trying to shut down the pirates however, is fruitless, wasteful effort.

There are going to be tough times ahead for academic publishers thanks to Sci-Hub. And that might actually be a great thing for scientists, researchers, and anyone who cares about the future of knowledge.


[1] “But in increasing numbers, researchers around the world are turning to Sci-Hub, which hosts 50 million papers and counting. Over the 6 months leading up to March, Sci-Hub served up 28 million documents. More than 2.6 million download requests came from Iran, 3.4 million from India, and 4.4 million from China.” via Science

[2] According to the RELX group’s annual report, Elsevier, which is represented by the Scientific, Technical & Medical market segment, earned 760M pounds in profit on 2.07B pounds of revenue. via RELX Group 2015 Annual Report

[3] A portion of the stated purpose of the boycott: “Elsevier, Springer, and a number of other commercial publishers (many of them large companies but less significant for their mathematics publishing, e.g., Wiley) all exploit our volunteer labor to extract very large profits from the academic community. They supply some value in the process, but nothing like enough to justify their prices” via The Cost of Knowledge

[4] “Whereas more than 50% of respondents said a lack of journal access was the primary reason for turning to Sci-Hub, about 17% picked simple convenience as their top motive and 23% reported doing so mainly because they objected to the profits publishers make—suggesting that many respondents in those two categories do have institutional journal access. Indeed, on a separate question, about 37% of those who had obtained a pirated journal article through Sci-Hub or other means said they did have traditional forms of access.” also via Science

[5] Creative destruction is a term coined by Joseph Schumpeter in his work entitled “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy” (1942) to denote a “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” via Investopedia 

What Makes Effective Problem-Solving Teams

What Research from MIT, CMU, and Google Found on Making Smarter Teams

We all want to work in teams that exhibit high performance and solve problems effectively. But while it’s often easier to understand what drives individual performance, team performance is a more complex activity.

There is some great research done by folks at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Google that shows how we can make smarter teams, and the answers are not what you might think.

Building Smarter Teams

In a paper published in Science, researchers split a few hundred participants into randomly assigned 2-5 person teams and spent upwards of 4 hours on a diverse set of activities, including solving visual puzzles, brainstorming, negotiating over limited resources, and playing checkers (as a group) against a computer.

Each participant had previously undergone an IQ test as well as a test called “Reading the Mind Through the Eyes” which gets at people’s emotional/social intelligence. The test takes about 15 mins and is free to take, so I encourage you all to check it out.

After analyzing the activity and performance of the 192 teams, the research team noted a couple things:

  1. Groups can be smart: Groups that could successfully tackle one type of problem were more likely to also successfully tackle other problems. This suggests that groups can exhibit a general intelligence similar to how an intelligent person is be good at solving a variety of cognitive tasks
  2. Individual genius does not translate to group intelligence: Average and maximum IQ of the individuals of the group were NOT significantly related to the group’s ability to solve problems as a group

So that sets the stage. What were the factors that contributed to this group intelligence?

  1. Social intelligence: Teams that had a higher average score on the “Reading the mind between the eyes” test performed better
  2. Equality: Teams where the conversation was not dominated by one or two individuals did better
  3. Women: Teams that had more women did better. This effect is due in part because women score higher on the social intelligence metric.

Interestingly, they looked at a couple other factors including group cohesion, motivation, and satisfaction — none of which were significant predictors of group intelligence. This doesn’t mean it’s fine for teams to be discordant and dissatisfied – but that at least in these studies on problem solving, they were not directly linked with performance.

In a followup study published in PLOS, later repeated this experiment, but included both in-person and virtual teams that only participated via chat. They found that the in-person and virtual teams achieved similar levels of performance and that the three attributes of social intelligence, equality, and women on the team held similar.

The one additional finding they uncovered was that teams that total communication between group members also related to team performance. So while email and meeting overload are serious workplace issues, the answer is not necessarily to decrease the amount of communication as that could decrease performance as well.

Outside of the Lab

While all of this sounds good, the findings still come out of an unnatural setting of the lab. What about the real world?

Well, Google recently published the findings of a two-year effort to understand what makes effective teams. They looked at 180 active teams at Google, conducted over 200 interviews, and analyzed 250 attributes of those teams. And what they found was that it was not who was on their teams, but how those teams worked together.

Specifically, the teams that had the highest performance, had higher levels of what’s known as psychological safety: the willingness to take risks, ask “dumb” questions, and admit mistakes.

Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.

The full list of findings:

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  3. Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

While all of these sounds really good, note that the answers did not include: everyone likes each other, years of experience, advanced degrees, in-person vs remote teams. While these attributes probably contribute to a high functioning team, they were not the critical factors for success.

These findings help underscore the fact that at their core, great teams have a great deal of trust, openness and equality, and where personal feelings matter a lot. Individual superstars don’t seem to matter as much, and domineering personalities will likely make things much worse. Keep these things in mind next time you’re forming a team or trying to improve an existing team’s performance.