Sunday, March 27, 2016

On diversity and biases

Looking at the Donald Trump circus playing out right now, it’s abundantly clear that biases are alive and well in our society.
Trump is not creating these feelings in people, he’s simply harnessing them.
I see this as a wake up call to double down on working to eliminate biases in our society, if anything.
Trump is blatant and in your face. What most people usually do, though, is keep their biases well-hidden below the surface, suppressed by political correctness and other social norms. But that doesn’t get rid of them. And it’s not much better than what Trump is doing if you ask me, to put it bluntly.
I personally see Trump’s affronts as an opportunity to publicly acknowledge that biases still exist and to recognize that they should be worked on so as to be eventually eliminated.
It takes real work to do this.
Take me as an example, I’ve been raised in a borderline rural, predominantly white, area outside of Quebec city; and when I grew up, biases and racist comments were not uncommon. They were a way of life, sadly.
They consequently were ingrained deeply in my upbringing and I’ve been fighting them all my life and I still uncover some of them at times. I didn’t put them there. They were seeded by my environment. But it’s up to me to rid myself of them.
But what I’ve come to realize is not to try to pretend that they’re not there — that’s easy to do — but to me, the right thing is to tackle them head-on when they come up and confront them. And to not let them get by me "unscathed".
One of the problems is that often people aren’t even aware that they have gender, religious or ethnic biases.
A few Saturdays ago, I went downhill skiing and went relaxing in the resort’s outdoor spa afterwards, soaking in the hot water with my head exposed to the winter temperatures — lovely.
Anyway there was also a couple in the spa and I couldn’t help but hear what they were saying. They were discussing plans to add more living quarters for the mother of one of them and were contemplating how this would be a subsequent source of income when they would eventually rent the space to the “ideal tenant”: a single white female.
That’s two biases in a four-word phrase, but the lady was very-matter-of-fact about uttering those words.
Once casually discussing the career of a woman that both my father and I know, he said to me, “She’s making pretty good money for a woman.” There’s actually a good amount of baggage that goes with this one. The world was very different when my father grew up in the 50’s. When he got married in the 60’s, there were values to take pride in in supporting a wife and a child, and having the woman under the man’s wing. You were a good man if you did those things. And so I know that if I try to bring up this bias with him, I’m in for a long conversation that might lead to nowhere, as it’s below his awareness level to even consider. You’d have to peel the onion slowly one layer at a time. And you’d be in for several bottles of hard liquor — or beers, in his case!
In many ways, it comes down to one’s comfort zone and stepping outside one’s bubble. Stepping out of the zone can be hard — more for some than others, I suppose. It’s a conscious effort that may require an initial effort.
Throwing myself in intimate relationships with women at the other end of the religious / ethnic spectrum has gone a long way to help me embrace diversity.
I was once engaged with an African-Arabic Canadian woman. Her parents were Muslims. I met them once as they lived far away. We were eating buffet-style, and they would repeatedly slap her on the wrist during the meal if she had failed to serve my food (and I therefore had to reach for it myself). Then they absolutely insisted that she put my boots on for me before we left. Normal for them, way out there for me. I wanted her skinny, they gave her shit for letting herself getting so thin. She said it was what I wanted. They looked at me with disbelief and even contempt. Normal for me, way out there for them. But we could have worked it out. 
By the way, racism goes both ways. When I would drop her off at home after a date in the early days, before we moved in together, black guys would often approach her after I had left and ask her why she bothered going out with a “white trash”.
Or, when we would walk down a public street holding hands, we quite often had “Jungle fever” thrown at us as we would walk by a couple of black dudes.
That relationship didn’t ultimately work out and I ended up marrying a Chinese-Vietnamese girl instead. We’ve been together 17 years, as of a week ago today.
Getting married is hard enough in its own right, but with someone who is very culturally different and with different religious views, it can be a much wilder ride, as I have found out.
We also live in a profoundly diversified neighborhood: as a white guy, I’m the minority. There are no majorities in fact. There are Cambodians, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Latinos, Indians, East Europeans, you name it.
What I have discovered is that it takes real work to break down the barriers of ethnicity and religion if you make the effort to step outside of your bubble and really bust those walls and truly connect; but it’s worth it.
Having gone through it in our marriage has given me a lot of experience.
The same thing goes for the gender issue to a large degree, IMO.
You have to be willing to work at it, you have to communicate it out and develop enough empathy to understand what’s it’s like to be the other person.
That’ll be too much work for some to consider pursuing, but it’s up to the rest of us to get the ball rolling in earnest.
Being blunt, politically incorrect and “in your face”, as Donald Trump would have you believe, is not what is going to make “America great again”, but having become bias-free through collective soul searching is what can make the world at large great at last.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Reflecting on how things are going so far

Startups can be brutal even for experienced serial entrepreneurs, and some of them at times feel as though they are banging their heads against a brick wall and getting nowhere.
I‘ve been banging my head too.
Content, it turns out, is especially hard. There is so much of it to compete for the attention of users.
And the world of social media and messaging apps is largely where their heads are at these days.
Over the course of the winter, I tried various approaches to get the proverbial needle moving in trying to get some semblance of traction for PreAcquaint.
Nothing has really worked so far.
Mind you, I’m alone and I didn’t pursue investment capital — I put in several dozens of thousands of dollars of my own money, but that’s it — and so I didn’t have the appearance of going somewhere by having hired an editorial staff, renting office space and having a marketing budget. You can create a buzzing of activity for a while, but if there is no business at the end of the day, then the singing has to stop at some point. So being alone and “trying this and that” with zero budget whatsoever left at this point, there is nothing fake about my lack of traction: it’s in stark view. Plus I leave the page view count for each story on the home page with no trickery for all to see.
It doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to do with it; and I certainly now have a better appreciation for what is not working.
If I had raised money from investors, the time would have long come to shut down the company for sure, even with some "artificial" traction.
But I didn’t raise any money and so I can keep going if I want to; and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Why?
Because I don’t have a better idea that I’m qualified to execute on at this point. I’ve written here a few days ago about another idea, but that’s outside of my league. What’s wild though, as a side note, is that I wrote this on Feb 23, 2016, and two days later, this article came out announcing that someone else (who is substantially more qualified and happens to be well-suported by Tim Draper) is coming out with the very idea I was describing. And if you had some serious time on your end to spend lavishly and read this blog all the way back to the very first post, you would find out that their ambition to create a social network that connects people who share common interests (on top of their AI offering) is precisely what I had set out to do back in 2010. Anyway, back to the topic…
Now, it’s time for me to start working on my seasonal business — brickwork restoration — for the year, starting next week, which means I’ll have even less time to devote to the project until next November, when the season ends once again.
One valuable thing that this attempt has taught me so far is modesty. Seriously, I’ve been referred to as a good restorer of old brick and stone buildings, and when I was stuck in my little bubble, I let it go to my head and believe that I was the best thing since sliced bread. I was even quite arrogant at one point. Well, trying to do a startup as a non-technical solo founder and competing globally with the best minds in the field has busted my bubble, I’ll tell you that much. Even though I’ve tested higher-than-average on IQ tests, I don’t feel that smart anymore. There are people out there that are so way smarter than I am that it blows my fucking mind just to think about it. I’m not putting myself down, that’s just a fact, and I’m OK with it.
And so in addition to keeping abreast of everything that is going on in the Tech sector and educating myself — as luck is preparation meeting opportunity — I’ll keep tweaking my little zombie side project, as I’m able to, during the upcoming months and also next winter — although I should probably refer to it more as a hobby than anything else at this point. Until I see an opportunity that I should definitely jump on, I still think it's better to keep the ball rolling somehow than to quit altogether.
Just don’t expect it to join the unicorn list anytime soon ;-)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Probably the most important piece of advice I’ve seen so far

I’m finding out that — at least sometimes — you can “feel it” when an inflection point is coming.
It’s as if things are starting to fall into place.
Around the time I wrote this blog post, I had already started to formulate a new strategy. Immediately things felt better, although the wheels are only slowly getting into motion.
Without clearly identifying what it was at the time, I could nonetheless sense that it would, from that point on, be easier to execute on my objective — (although I’ve got a shitload of work ahead of me).
Coincidentally, or in a rather uncannily timely manner I’d say, Fred Wilson wrote a seminal blog post two days ago, titled “Get the Strategy Right and the Execution is Easy.
It could not have been more à-propos!
And so when I read the post, something clicked for me regarding the importance of strategy; and that's an understatement.
I find it puts the old adage, “Work smarter, not harder” into proper context.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Equality doesn’t mean being the same

Joanne Wilson wrote a blog post yesterday, titled “Women look at things differently", in which she points out the differences in the genders’ way of making decisions.
The first thing that popped into my head when reading it was:
Equality doesn’t mean being the same — it means equal rights and opportunities.
I’m obviously not the first one to have said it, as a Google search will quickly confirm, but the thought hit me very clearly.
And it doesn't just apply to the gender issue.
People are different in many ways, and you can’t expect them to be the same.
But they all deserve to have equal rights and opportunities.
In every area of human interactions where equality is sought, whether it is gender, sex, ethnicity, health, etc., the mistake can commonly be made of saying, well, “They claim to be the same as us so we don’t need to give them any special treatment”.
That would be like saying that a handicapped player in a sport would have to play by the same rules if she wishes to be a part of the group … but she’s missing a arm and two legs, and so the considerate (and obvious) thing to do is to make concessions on the rules and allow her to play in a wheelchair with a prosthetic arm.
That logic might seem less obvious, however, in more abstract situations, but I would offer that the right thing to do is to focus on ensuring equal rights and opportunity while embracing the inherent differences that are present.
So following this formula, if I am a teacher for example, and I have a student that stutters very badly, I won’t have that kid stand in front of the class and be subject to embarrassment, ridicule and the resulting low-self-esteem that is sure to follow. He or she will have the exclusive right to present their presentation in writing and have another volunteering student read it out loud for them; as the goal is to give them an equal opportunity to present their ideas (which is the point) while working around what is different about them. But if they chose on their own accord to present it verbally, that would be up to them.
I obviously took the concept into another direction than what was essentially Joanne’s point; but that’s where her post has lead me to; and I think it’s touching on something real about Human Rights.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The power of the side project

There’s definitely the archetype of the super-founder: she’s graduated from MIT or Stanford, has top expertise in a particular field, has acquired the skill of differentiating between going after a hard problem versus an unattainable ideal and has the evangelical persona with which to enthrall both investors and potential teammates.
And even she will have a difficult time of it.
Startups are hard.
I haven’t experienced it personally, as I haven’t raised any money, but everything I’ve been reading and listening to in the last six years tells me so in no uncertain terms.
Doing a full-fledged startup is a major undertaking which deserves serious consideration prior to taking the plunge.
And now imagine the non-technical solo founder trying to become a tech entrepreneur. The odds are stacked so high against a positive outcome that it’s nearly ludicrous to consider (although, believe it or not, that too is slowly starting to gain acceptance with some early-stage accelerator programs such as Forward Partners in the UK and Science in Santa Monica, CA).
But there is a way out — or rather, a way *in*:
Work on it as a side project.
In other words, it’s something you’re not trying to scale, but you are tinkering with.
Duck Duck Go started out as such, and while other search engines have raised a ton of money and have since disappeared, it is still among us.
This approach may not work for some, as it requires some cash outlay in getting the prototype(s) made; but it might just “be the ticket” for someone who has earmarked some money for the purpose of investing it (or should I say gambling it?) on trying to create something new in the world.
This is assuming you can’t code. If you can, then common sense dictates that the requisite would be to put in time initially — rather than money — for a software startup (hardware reportedly being a different ballgame).