2012-12-10

IMD HPL


I've just returned from a transformational week back at IMD for their top-ranked High Performance Leadership program! This time five years ago I was organizing my move to Lausanne, completing pre-work assignments, and preparing for a life changing experience. As I flew across the Atlantic last week, completing preparatory work for this IMD program, I couldn't help but feel a little déjà vu!

After four years of putting into practice the many things I learned during the IMD MBA, I thought it was time for a refresher. The very last session of our MBA was on grief and separation, taught by  George Kohlrieser, a business school professor with a very unique background. As a clinical psychologist and former police hostage negotiator, he has a very different perspective on leadership and communication. After that day I read his books (Check out Hostage at the Table and Care to Dare) but I had always hoped to work directly with him. He leads IMD's week-long High Performance Leadership program so I bit the bullet and signed up!

While I was excited to return to IMD, I was also somewhat anxious. Would I learn anything new? Would this short program meet the high expectations that had been set by my [perhaps somewhat idealized] memory of the MBA? Or would it be a waste of money and, worse, time? And if it were quite beneficial, would it be as painful as those first few weeks of our program? Our leadership stream was full of deep personal reflection and tough feedback from teammates - was I up for that again?

Indeed this program did feel a lot like the first weeks of the MBA. 54 execs from around the world started the course wearing our personas and engaging in superficial conversation. Several of the attendees reminded me a lot of my MBA classmates. Even some of the faces on IMD's side were the same, including two of our leadership coaches. There were fruit baskets outside our auditorium every day and, of course, theIMD restaurant was amazing as always!

There were many differences from the MBA program, though, as well. We were in the Nestle executive education building and there was something quite symbolic about spending the week on the other side of the street. Instead of raiding leftover food from the executive programs, we were the ones leaving those leftovers. And naturally mid-career executives whose companies have paid for one week training don't have the same deep commitment to learning as MBAs who have moved around the world and dedicated an entire year of their lives. Also there were no cases to prepare or homework at night. None of us were sleeping much but that had more to do with late nights at the bar than with group projects or writing papers. So perhaps this was a taste of what it would have been like to attend the Insead MBA!

The week was packed with putting fish on the table, giving and receiving candid feedback, learning in the auditorium and putting that learning into practice in our seven-person coaching groups. I was actually really impressed with how quickly the walls came down for everyone such that we could get down to open, honest work on our leadership skills.

It was a very emotionally charged week as well. George does a lot of work with grief (both personal and professional), which can severely impact leadership performance when bottled up or left unaddressed. Additionally we spent a lot of time analyzing past events and relationships (both good and bad) that shaped who we are as leaders today. I think it was a bit of a shock to most participants, who suddenly found themselves crying and sharing and hugging rather than learning "formulas" for efficient management.

For me it was an incredibly impactful week! I found myself naturally slipping into roles that I had assumed during the MBA: the "professor" trying to help others in my group through keen insights and rational models. My teammates managed to call me out on it such that I refocused those efforts back at myself and discovered some quite significant areas for development. I would call those discoveries more than "significant," actually; "profound" would be a better word. And, if I can follow through on them, hopefully "transformational" for my leadership.

I see now why High Performance Leadership consistently receives the highest ratings of IMD's open programs. It takes what IMD does best (deep, personal development of leadership) and focuses on it in a very personalized way for an entire, intense week. Unlike the MBA program, which balances the leadership stream with finance, accounting, marketing, etc. this was 100% leadership focused. If any of you are also looking for an opportunity for continued learning, I would strongly recommend it. In fact, the next session is in April in the US (San Francisco Bay area), so it would be more convenient travel-wise for my North American friends. Shout out if you'd like to learn more about my particular experience.

After this sabbatical, I feel more motivated and focused than ever to be the world changer that I hope and strive to be. In all areas of my life I aim for constant improvement, working smarter not harder, and this was a tremendous step in that direction. Working with IMD's professors, my team, and our leadership coach, I put together a concrete action plan to take my efforts to the next level. That plan is already in effect and my teammates are holding me accountable. So . . . game on!


2012-12-02

Nutrition for Fat Loss

To follow up my last post on shedding body fat, I promised to share some details of my nutritional plan. I find that I do best when I have a few, simple rules to follow rather than making things too complex, so here they are in descending order of what I believe to be most impactful:

1. No sugar. What I really mean here is no added sugar. Natural sugars occur everywhere but my point is not to eat anything in which sugar has been added as a sweetener - in any form. No sugar. No high fructose corn syrup. No evaporated cane syrup. Nothing. I used to believe that synthetic processed sugars were bad for you because the body didn't know what to do with them so I ate natural, organic, etc. sugar as much as I wanted. Recently, though, I began to see evidence that any kind of sugar was bad for you. It's not something your body needs to function, so I decided just to eliminate it outright.

When you start reading labels and strictly adhere to a no-added-sugar policy, there are three side effects: A. Very quickly your taste buds adjust. We're so used to being inundated with added sugar that our taste buds have become desensitized to the stuff. Kick the habit and, before long, even a tiny bit of sweetness, e.g. that occurring in carrots or peanut butter, tastes wow sweet. B. That eliminates most processed foods which are usually chok full of added sugar. C. It also dramatically reduces your restaurant menu options as many sauces have added sugar. The net result is that you wind up eating more foods that you make yourselves, with fewer, better ingredients. It should come as no surprise, then, that you lose fat.

2. No grains or starches. Speaking of things your body doesn't need, I eliminated grains and starches too. No wheat, no rice, no potatoes. I found many claims that these types of foods could have adverse effects on blood sugar, insulin, and fat storage and even that they left you craving more, so I pulled the plug. This was a big change for me! So much of my diet used to consist of bread and stuff to put on bread. I thought it was fine as I was mostly eating sprouted whole grains. Eliminating bread and its cousins, though, seems to have had a huge effect on my body composition.

How did I do it, though? I get desperate cravings for "bready" things, especially sweet bready things. My world changed when during a visit to The Shop I tasted carrot cake made with almond flour. It tasted bready but instead of wheat it used almonds. It tasted sweet but instead of sugar it used carrots (See above for how my sweetness sensitivity had been reset.). I soon discovered that basically anything sweet and bready that I liked could be baked in this way, without grains, starches, or added sugar. And I could eat as much of it as I wanted because eating the equivalent of lots of almonds is really filling!

Elana's Pantry became a great resource for me, although I cut out the sugar in her recipes. Check out my recipes for banana bread, carrot cake, and peanut butter chocolate chip cupcakes - all delicious and all pretty good for you! Again, I don't know whether to attribute the fat loss to the elimination of grains and starches per se or whether it was more a result of the fact that I was eating more foods that I had baked myself with good ingredients rather than prepared foods but the outcome is the same regardless.

3. Only local, sustainably procured fish and meat. This is for both nutritional and environmental reasons. I won't eat fish if I don't know where it came from (nearby) and how it was caught (or more likely farmed and treated with lots of chemicals) and I won't eat meat if  I don't know where it came from (nearby), what/how it ate (its natural habitat/foods), and whether or not it was pumped full of antibiotics and hormones.

In practice this makes me mostly vegetarian plus some fish (We have plenty of local, sustainably caught fish here in the Gulf Coast.) and even less meat. If a restaurant can't answer the above questions, I'll just assume the worst. So here again, by virtue of the hard rule I set, I wind up eating more nutrition-dense, low-calorie foods like fresh veggies. Fill up on those and you can't not lose fat!

4. Intermittent fasting. I heard about intermittent fasting through The Shop and was intrigued by what I read online. There were all kinds of alleged benefits (increased HGH production, etc.) without much consensus around them but the main point was . . . getting ripped! So I decided to try a 24-hour fast. Yes, for 24 hours I ingested only water. I liked the results so much that I made it a regular part of my routine.

The primary benefit of the fast for me is psychological. I'm the type of person who has traditionally eaten frenetically when hungry - even eating preventatively if I thought I might get hungry later (usually a sure bet!). The fast helped me change my relationship with hunger. I would get hungry, yes, but I wouldn't eat, and yet the world didn't come to an end. In fact my hunger subsided. When I finally broke my fast it wasn't voraciously as a malnourished human on the brink of death but rather as a calm, centered person more aware of his physical needs. This has been really helpful to me in taking control of my eating habits rather than letting them control me.

The other benefit of fasting is creating a caloric deficit. I burn ~3,300 calories per day on average. When I don't ingest any calories to compensate, that creates a caloric deficit that equates to nearly one pound of body fat. The challenge with this approach is that the human body generally adapts quite efficiently to calorie-restrictive diets. Lower your caloric intake and pretty quickly your body lowers its metabolic burn rate accordingly, resulting in plateaued fat loss. Therefore the "best practice" for the intermittent fasting routine I was trying was to conduct the fast at most once a week (to avoid adaptation) and on days with low exercise/energy needs.

Instead of fasting routinely, I've simply adopted a policy of fasting on airplane travel days. These are days when I have low caloric needs and poor access to good food anyway. They're also days that come irregularly and unpredictably such that my body can't adapt to some kind of schedule. That amounts to ~16 fasts conducted this year, on days when I'm burning ~2,600 calories.

Put all this together and you have the main culprits in my recent body composition change. My activity levels and exercise program have remained largely unchanged over the last six months so I really believe the answers are in here. Anyone who has eaten with me will know that there are some exceptions to the above. My wine habit doesn't really fit in, for example, and sometimes an airplane fast might be only 22 hours for scheduling reasons. But by and large I've been sticking with it - and loving the results.

2012-11-16

Getting Ripped

This morning I had a BodPod body composition test that yielded my lowest body fat percentage ever. As someone seeking constant improvement in all areas of my life, both professional and personal, I've often been frustrated by my rate of change in this key health metric. Frustration no longer! After years of making modest progress (and sometimes progress in the wrong direction), my body fat has plummeted in the last five months.

Why? Nutrition. But first some history to show how I came to this conclusion.

I began seriously tracking my body composition more than 10 years ago. Since January 2010 I have measured my weight and body fat % every single morning immediately after waking up using a Tanita scale with bioelectric body fat estimation. This method of body fat can be very inaccurate so is not a good method of determining actual body composition. However, this method is consistent so it is still valid for generating insights into body composition trends.

Since 2007 I have visited a BodPod testing station to measure my true body composition once or twice each year. The BodPod is extremely accurate so it helps me understand how far "off" my scale's measurements are. Following is the complete series of 10.5 years of body composition using measurements from my Tanita scale that have been adjusted to match the more accurate measurements of the BodPod.
As you can see, there are several different "eras" identifiable in this data. Each corresponds to a different approach I was taking to health and fitness.

Pre-September 2004:
When I first began measuring I was 204 lbs (156 lean and 48 fat) with the goal of getting under 200 by reducing fat. After more than two and a half years, I was clearly heading in the wrong direction. As a former football player, all I really knew how to do was gain weight, not lose it. By this point I had beefed up to 218 lbs, gaining 10 lbs of lean weight (good) but also adding 4 lbs of fat (Boo!).

September 2004 - January 2005:
Over the course of the next several months I basically returned to my baseline weight and body composition, dropping 11 lbs of lean weight and 3 lbs of fat. This was probably due to playing more beach volleyball and devoting less time to strength training.

2005-2006:
In early 2005 I had a transformative meeting with Dan Riley, legendary strength coach of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans. He helped me revise my strength training for more effectiveness and efficiency, the result of which was packing on 12 lbs of lean weight over the next two years - but adding 3 lbs of fat again too. In an effort to address this yo-yoing, I began detailed calorie tracking in 2006, estimating my caloric expenditure and calculating my actual caloric intake with a food journal.

2007:
After a year of calorie tracking, it was apparent that my "worst" days, those with the greatest caloric surpluses, were conspicuously associated with heavy drinking. I was attending lots of wine dinners and often bar hopping / clubbing late into the night. When you added up all of those drinks, alcohol accounted for fully 10% (!) of my caloric consumption! In 2007 I made a big change, reducing frequency and volume of alcohol consumption (not giving up wine dinners, though!). Alcohol accounted for < 5% of my caloric consumption in 2007 and the impact on my body composition was significant: while I did lose 4 lbs of lean weight, I also lost 11 lbs of fat! I was back to my 2002 starting weight of 204 lbs but with a much better body composition.

2008 - 2009
I spent the next two years in Switzerland, which made it easy to continue my fat loss trend. I was surrounded by fresh, wholesome foods (especially at the IMD restaurant!) and I had to walk (uphill!) everywhere. My strength training options were more limited than I had had in the US but I had shifted my focus by this point to a new phase in my life: it really wasn't important to me anymore to be able to bench press 400 lbs or squat 600. I dropped 6 lbs of lean weight but lost another 7 lbs of fat. I had finally made it down into the 190s and my lighter weight felt great, especially on the volleyball court where I was jumping higher and playing better than ever before.

2010 - 2011
When I moved back to the US I continued my focus on calories, assuming that all calories were equal and it only mattered how many I consumed, not which type they were. I began running more than I ever had before, both aerobically (long jogs) and anaerobically (interval sprints), but slowly/surely my weight was creeping back up. By the end of 2011 I was getting back up toward 200 lbs again - 159 lean and 37 fat.

2012
As you can see from the graph of my body fat weight below, 2012 has been a tale of two halves:
Motivated by several articles from The SHOP, I began the year with a new focus on what I ate rather than how much I ate. Initially I only adopted some of The SHOP's best nutrition practices and, after some brief improvements in the early part of the year (lost 1 lb lean weight but also 3 lbs fat), I stalled out. I was still eating lots of grains and starches because I couldn't really envision a life without bready foods.

Then, during a summer trip to Switzerland, my life changed when Katie and I tried baking with almond flour. An entirely new world opened up to me of food that adhered to "good" nutritional principles but still tasted delicious and satisfying. I'm now eating as much as I want of a specific subset of foods and the results over the last five months have been pretty convincing: I've gained back that 1 lb of lean weight and shed an additional 10 lbs of fat. This morning's BodPod test measured me at 182 lbs (early high school weight!), 159 lean and 23 fat - 12.8% body fat, my lowest by far since I've been measuring.

So, in almost 11 years I have dropped 30 lbs of body fat - but a very big chunk of that in the last several months. My strength is up, athletic performance is up, and finding clothes that fit is much, much easier than it ever has been before. In my next post, I'll address the specific activities I'm doing and nutritional rules I'm following that I believe have contributed to this recent improvement in body composition.

2012-10-26

Inspiring TJ Football Players

Last weekend was my 15-year high school reunion, which coincided with TJ's Homecoming. I was honored to be asked back by the football coach to talk to the team before the game. I've done this twice before and both times the team has followed up with its first win of the season. I can't claim any responsibility for that but hopefully I at least helped!

This year the TJ football team was in a different situation. They had started off the season very strong but, as the result of several key injuries, had lost their last several games - and lost them very decisively. So I decided to focus my brief time with them on overcoming adversity:

"As Coach said, I was TJ Class of 1997. I played football for four years at TJ, three years as a two-way starter on varsity, and one year as Captain. After TJ I studied computer science and electrical engineering at Rice University, where I played fullback for the Owls. Professionally I have spent my career starting up and leading cleantech companies. I've had some successes and some failures - just as at TJ I had some wins and some losses.

What I recall, though, is that it was losing winnable games that hurt the most. All games are winnable, of course, but some are more winnable than others. For example, my senior year we were beaten pretty badly by a Chantilly team that went on to win the state championship and produced multiple D-IA / NFL players. That loss didn't hurt too much. However, we also lost to a Centreville team that would could have - should have - beaten. That one stung even more because I was injured and had to watch my teammates struggle out there on the field without me. Is anyone here injured? [A scary number of hands shot up into the air when I asked this!] Yeah, you know what I'm talking about.

So help me out, guys, is tonight's opponent / game more or less winnable? [lots of agreement that this was a very winnable game] OK, then we all agree that

We CAN win

Is there anyone here, though, who believes that ability is all it takes to win a football game? [no hands] Good. Then let's talk about what else it takes.

With the benefit of 16 years of hindsight, it's clear to me that you get much more out of TJ football than just playing a fun sport with your friends. I have four degrees from some of the top schools in the world in computer science, electrical engineering, and business, but the skills I rely on most every day didn't come from those academic experiences; they were developed up there on the TJ football field. Skills like leadership, teamwork, discipline, determination, and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to overcome adversity. [brief discussion about what "adversity" means to them]

Life is adversity. Whether you don't get into your top choice for college, you get dumped by your girlfriend, or - something that resonates with me personally - you're running a tech startup and one day Google launches a product that competes directly with you, life is constantly knocking you down. The question is, what do you do about it? There are two types of people: those who roll over and take it and those who bounce back up fighting even harder than before.

The ability to overcome adversity is the most important life skill to develop and it can't be taught in the classroom or learned in a book. There is no AP exam for it. No, the good news is that the best place in the world to develop that skill is up there on the TJ football field. The bad news is that you're running out of time. Seniors, I'm especially talking to you. You have three hours of game time left in your TJ football careers. Three hours to prove to the world - and yourselves - that you have what it takes to overcome adversity.

This team has seen its share of adversity this season. You've lost some key players and come up on the wrong side of some close contests. In the world of corporate strategy we talk about "must-win battles." I believe that tonight's game is a must-win battle for TJ football; tonight's game will define the season for you and even your entire TJ football experience. Out on the field tonight you will show that you're not boys who will lie there and take it but men who will stand up and fight. Can we all agree on that? [murmers of consent]

We MUST win

Is there anyone here, though, who believes that necessity is all it takes to win a football game? [no hands] That's right; it's not the team with the greatest ability or necessity that wins; rather it's the team that executes on the field of play when it counts. So close your eyes; I want you to visualize yourself executing perfectly tonight.

QBs, see yourself making the right read and firing a tight spiral right on target. RBs, see yourself taking the handoff, securing the ball, and making a good cut. Receivers, you're running a tight route, turning around, and looking the ball into your hands as you catch it. Linemen, you're dominating the man across from you, putting him on the ground and moving downfield to pick up a linebacker. Defensive players, you're squaring up on the ball carrier,wrapping up, and driving through him as you take him to the ground. Kickers, you're pointing your toe and seeing the ball splitting the uprights perfectly.

Now fast forward to the end of the game. The seconds on the clock are ticking down. You're looking over at your comrades in arms and smiling. You're beaten and bruised but the euphoria of victory is upon you. You know that tomorrow's Homecoming dance is going to be a lot more fun now - but you're not ready to think about that just yet. Right now you just want to savor the feeling of victory. What does it feel like? How does it smell? How does it taste? [As I had not closed my eyes, I could see smiles creeping onto the faces of all the players - visualization is such a powerful tool!]

OK, open your eyes. You've all just seen the future, so I think we can all agree that

We WILL win

We CAN win
We MUST win
We WILL win
[got them to say it with me a few times]

And why? Because you deserve this. You've worked for this. And tonight in the stands there will be 25 years of those who've come before you, previous TJ football players who've shed blood, sweat, and tears out on that same field and we all believe in you. But you are the ones who have to go out there and get it done tonight. So get out there and make us proud, gentlemen."

This one was pretty long and the visualization exercise might have seemed a little hokey but hopefully it all helped. Long story short: they went down 12-0 quickly but rebounded (overcame adversity!) to win 42-12. It was cold and rainy but there is nowhere I would rather have been!

The rest of the reunion was great, especially introducing Katie to my classmates. The highlight by far for me, though, was the football game. Congrats to those young men; I hope they'll all build on what the accomplished and use it for the rest of their lives!

2012-10-10

What is it like to attend Rice?

I was recently asked to answer the question, "What is it like to attend Rice?" on Quora. My answer:


There is no better word than "magical" to describe my experience as an undergrad at Rice University. Indeed, Rice often invites comparisons with Hogwarts due to its Residential Colleges (much like being sorted into Hogwarts Houses), its students who take pride in being a little different, and perhaps even its campus (complete with a dungeon-like labyrinth of steam tunnels underneath the "castle" grounds). The magic I found there, though, is much deeper.

Having grown up in the Washington DC area, I didn't know what to expect when I first visited Rice: dust, tumbleweeds, and saloons? Cowboys on horseback? I had never really been to Texas before and my impressions were shaped by what I had seen in popular media. Imagine my surprise when I walked through the main entrance for the first time, canopied by beautiful live oaks, and discovered a lush, verdant campus with amazing Byzantine Architecture.

It was a 300-acre oasis right in the heart of a thriving metropolis, just down the street from many of the world's most significant companies and just across the street from the world's largest medical center. Walking distance from Houston's Museum District (Houston neighborhood) and just a few hops on the light rail from the Theater District and all the major sports arenas, there was always so much going on. And yet the hedges around Rice's borders seemed to protect it magically from the frenetic energy that surrounded it. It was a place of tranquility, a place where I could see myself reading a book under a tree in the endless green space of quads, courtyards, and grounds.

When I walked into the Computer Science building without an appointment, one of the faculty invited me into his office and chatted with me for some time about the curriculum, their goals for CS grads, and what life as a CS major would be like (more time in computer labs than reading books under trees!). I was surprised by this openness of faculty to engage with students - or even prospective students in my case - but the CS department wasn't unique. There was a friendliness about Rice that I just didn't find at any of the other schools I visited. I was hooked. After I received my acceptance letter I barely even glanced at the letters from the other schools to which I had applied.

When I arrived on campus as a freshman, I quickly realized that most of the other students had been attracted to Rice for the same reasons - it was elite but not elitist. My classmates were absolutely brilliant in all sorts of ways but everyone was modest, open, and friendly. My residential college quickly became my home away from home as we all worked hard and played hard together.

Academically, I found Rice really challenging. I double majored in computer science and electrical engineering so I was already taking a heavy work load - but then I would have been remiss not to take advantage of the amazing course offerings in the humanities, arts, and literature as well. It was a struggle to keep up with it all but I wasn't alone. Rice's achievement-oriented culture meant that many other students were also pushing the boundaries of what was reasonable. Rice let us do it, though, and we banded together to help each other out.

As I labored through my classes, became involved in student government, started some clubs, and founded my first startup (and slept very little) over the course of my undergrad career, one thing that really stuck out to me was the Rice administration's trust and empowerment of its students. We were really treated like adults. Our classes were taught by faculty, not grad students, we worked on research directly with those faculty, and even dined and socialized together through the residential colleges - some faculty even lived with us on campus (our College Masters, like a Hogwarts Head of House). Students were entrusted to enforce the honor code, which added integrity to our degrees, and numerous times major problems or policy decisions were left to student leadership to solve.

This trust and and responsibility made for a unique experiential development environment. I learned an incredible amount in my classes, of course, but my most valuable development happened outside of the classroom: relationships, leadership, teamwork, communication, organization, prioritization, and general find-a-way-to-make-something-happenness. I don't understand people like Peter Thiel who argue for students to forego a college degree. I think they miss the point of the real value created during one's time at a university and I suspect that they didn't have a magical experience like this one.

Now that it has been 15(!) years since I matriculated as a freshman at Rice, one thing is clear. The bond that was forged between so many smart, different, honest, humble students going through a unique development experience together lasts forever. I have lived around the world and every time I meet another Rice alum there is a warm glow and an instant desire to connect that stems from this bond.

Many others could probably articulate it better (and more concisely) than I have, but I hope you can tell by now that the story of Rice is a love story for me - from falling in love with the campus during that first visit to falling in love with another student who would one day become my spouse, from developing a career in entrepreneurship that I love to being inspired by professors to devote my career to creating social - not just economic - good. So perhaps the comparisons between Rice and Hogwarts aren't that far off - after all, we learn in the Harry Potter books that Love is the most powerful magic of all.


2012-10-04

A Meaningful Award for Smart OES

Yesterday we were honored to receive first place in the Goradia Innovation Prize competition!

When I first announced that I would move back to Houston from Switzerland to launch Smart Office Energy Solutions, people thought I was crazy. "Why Houston?" "They don't have startups there - just big oil companies!"

I assured them - or maybe I was just assuring myself - that Houston was a great place for starting up a venture. There's a talented workforce here, a business-friendly political context, and the cost of living is just so, so, low. Plus, I contended, there is a nascent but growing support ecosystem for startups.

Well this award is proof of that. Smart OES has won many awards in the past but I have often been somewhat cynical of their value. The recognition has been nice but they haven't done anything to advance our venture. Our joke has been that, if our company completely fails, we'll dole out one award to each investor - those would be some expensive plaques!

This award, however, came with a cash prize, making it very helpful in advancing our venture! This shows how Houston is taking entrepreneurship seriously and literally putting its money where its mouth is. As I stated in my presentation, we have grand ambitions to create a massive worldwide market but we need help to achieve our lofty goals. Well, this helps.

So I offer my sincere thanks to the Houston Technology Center, its staff, the Goradia family who funded the prize, and the judges who selected us. You are helping foster entrepreneurship in Houston in very meaningful ways! And I offer my congratulations to the other Goradia Innovation Prize finalists. It is an honor to be counted among you and I hope that we will all become resounding success stories!

Now . . . back to working hard to live up to the hype!

2012-10-01

The First Cleanweb Hackathon in Texas


Last weekend marked the culmination of a special project I've been working on for many months: bringing the Cleanweb Hackathon to Houston!

Cleanweb is a global movement of people developing IT-based "clean" technologies instead of the traditional "cleantech" like solar and wind which require massive investments and decades to commercialize. The purpose of a Cleanweb Hackathon is to bring together talented developers/engineers who don't usually work together, stimulate them with data and APIs that they're not used to working with, and give them a weekend to see what kinds of innovative new cleanweb software they can develop.

There have been some very successful cleanweb hackathons in San Francisco, NYC, and Boston but nothing in Texas. My co-organizers and I thought Houston would be a great location for such an event. Houston boasts world-leading companies in each of the major cleanweb categories (energy, food, water, waste, transportation) so we knew we could bring together people with relevant knowledge and skillsets. Our challenge would be to coax them away from their families or big company jobs for the weekend.

We decided to host the event at Rice University in Duncan Hall, the Computer Science building. Our sponsor, the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (funded by Rice alum and legendary VC, John Doerr), provided us with this space. Through online and word of mouth advertising we attracted 55 participants to sign up. Friday evening everyone gathered at Duncan Hall to kick off. After some brief intro and ice breaker activities, we introduced everyone to the data we were providing. In addition to the publicly available data from government organizations and national sponsors like Genability, we were fortunate to receive contributions from Waste ManagementMETRO, and Rice's own Shell Center for Sustainability. These proprietary data sets presented a unique opportunity for our participants to build very practical solutions to very real problems.

Next we opened up the floor for participants to pitch their ideas: what they they wanted to work on for the next 48 hours. This was followed by mingling, Q&A, and building teams around each idea. Development wouldn't start in earnest until Saturday so we took everyone out to the Gingerman for "team bonding" before all the work began.

Saturday morning people arrived early and got to work. It was amazing to see students, industry professionals, NASA engineers, and public servants working alongside each other. Different backgrounds, experiences, skillsets, problem-solving approaches, etc. all combined together for some very innovative solutions. The teams worked all day, nourished by food donated by MyFitFoods, and well into the night. Many teams actually worked all through the night as well or slept onsite in shifts.

Sunday morning the teams wrapped up their work and in the afternoon we held final demos and presentations, which were live streamed over the Internet. We brought in a crack team of judges from many disciplines to determine which of our seven teams had accomplished the most in such a short span of time.

I was really impressed with all of the teams, but the winners were:

1st: C02 Commuter Contributions, a web app to motivate people to make more sustainable commuting choices by translating their greenhouse gas contributions into "real" terms. One of the reasons this team won was really beautiful design.

2nd: Amazing Houston, a web and mobile app to show public transportation users all the cool places they could visit easily from intermediate stops en route to their destination. This pulled real-time GPS data from METRO's API, so it could tell users who stop off for coffee to pay their bill quickly because the next train is arriving in a few minutes.

3rd: Revolutionary Trashcans, a mobile app that connects to a wireless scale underneath your trashcan and tells you how much food you're throwing away. The hardware was developed last semester by one of the teams in my entrepreneurship class and now, with the mobile app in place, they are ready to begin selling to school cafeterias nationwide!

It was an exhausting weekend and one that reminded me a lot of my collegiate experience. After all, Duncan Hall was where many of my late nights were spent back then! I was incredibly pleased with the results, though. Indeed many of the projects were quite practical as we had hoped. Several groups are continuing to develop theirs with an eye toward commercialization and Waste Management has already approached one of our winners about a partnership. Moreover, we're pleased to have fostered so many connections over the weekend: 55 participants and 20+ volunteers, all motivated to build software for sustainability. The event is over, but the movement is just getting started!

Pictures from the event

2012-09-20

If Climate Change Isn't Happening, Why Is the Arctic Melting?

The following question was asked on LinkedIn:

"After Climate-Gate, skeptics say that man-made climate chaos and global warming are not happening yet the Arctic's melting faster. What are your thoughts, observations and views?"

My response:

"I'm not a an expert in climate change, but I know many such experts. They are professors in environmental science, geology, hydrology, nanotechnology, and geophysics as well as researchers and other professionals in industry. I don't blindly listen to academics, but these are smart, fair people whose opinions I have come to trust over the years. They have all agreed that climate change is happening and that man is causing it for years - since long before it was fashionable.

Our climate is incredibly complex, of course, and perhaps the vast supermajority of such scientists are wrong. At the end of they day, though, if there's even a remote possibility that we are bringing about something as catastrophic as our own destruction, it makes sense to me to do everything within our power to oppose the trend.

This was a major reason that I devoted my entrepreneurial career to cleantech ventures. As a capitalist, I love how many "clean" technologies that help us address climate change simply make good business sense anyway - like energy efficiency, for example."

I also provided a link to a series of articles on How To Talk To Climate Skeptics.

2012-09-14

How Do Entrepreneurs Face Their Fears?

Someone asked the following question on LinkedIn:

"Everyone has a fear of something. Being an entrepreneur there are so many unknowns and big risks that have to be taken in order to grow. How have you been able to take the leep of faith?"

My response:

"Many of the answers so far are quite rational, but fear is an irrational, emotional phenomenon. The best work I've seen on dealing with fear is from Leadership Professor (and former hostage negotiator) George Kohlrieser.

His research shows that, as children, we learn to overcome our fears by relying on Secure Bases. For example, we can take risks while learning to walk because we know that Mom, a Secure Base, will be there to pick us up when we fall. This pattern sticks with us through adulthood.

Therefore one of the best ways to address your own fears is to identify and leverage your secure bases.
They can be people who will still love you even if you fail, places that give you a sense of comfort and solidarity, physical objects, values you have, even pets. When you lean on your secure bases, taking the entrepreneurial plunge seems less risky - or at least the prospect of failure seems less dire.

It goes the other way as well. As you grow your business, it is important for you to lead as a secure base to your employees, giving them confidence to push the envelope and take [calculated] risks."

I've been so impressed with George's work that I'm taking his top-rated High Performance Leadership course, which is available for the first time in the US next year!

2012-09-11

Morning Run in Houston

With the temperature down to 19 C (66 F) for the first time in several months, I took advantage and rose early for a morning jog along Buffalo Bayou in the heart of Houston. When I began, it was still dark and the crescent moon stood guard brilliantly in the cloudless sky. As I ran for an hour and a half, the sun rose and the stars faded, but the moon remained. Brilliant; my love affair with the moon continues. Poised above the downtown Houston skyline, it might not be quite as striking as I remember it over the mountainscapes in Switzerland, but still makes me smile

There were a few takeaways from this morning's run:
* Early exercise is a great way to start the day. Endorphins going, blood flowing, it really kicks the day off right.
* Early exercise is a great way to prepare mentally for the day as well. By the end of my run I felt centered and [after a shower] ready to accomplish everything I had organized in my head during my 90 minutes of running meditation.
* Houston's bayous really are beautiful - lush green banks and smooth streams winding right through the center of our thriving metropolis. I live a short jog away from Buffalo Bayou and my office is right along it downtown; I didn't realize how valuable that proximity would be when I moved in but now I'm extremely grateful for it!
* There is a bond issue up for vote this November 6th to develop the parks along the bayous even further, tremendously enhancing and increasing Houston's green space. I encourage everyone to learn more at Parks By You and to vote for it in November!

2012-08-25

Sales Forecasting For a Mobile Startup

I recently answered a LinkedIn question about sales forecasting for a mobile startup.

The question:
"Mobile Start-ups are not as easy to forecast, at least in my opinion, as some other types of businesses. Obviously VCs and investors understand your projections are essentially fabricated and pure guesses, but how would you go about forecasting sales of a mobile application, especially given the environment of the app store hiding number of downloads for potential competitors?"

My response:
"Actually I'll argue that mobile startups are much easier to forecast than most other types of businesses. When you start a business all you have are guesses/hypotheses about who your target market will be, what they want in a product, how you will reach them, how much they will pay for it, etc. In a mobile startup the barriers to test those hypotheses are much lower than in most other types of businesses. In a few months and for a few thousands-not-millions of dollars you can develop a minimum viable product,and begin experimenting with different techniques to drive conversions/sales. This type of validated sales forecasting is worth infinitely more than made-up numbers (wishes which will be thrown out by any investor anyway) and will put you in much stronger negotiating position if indeed you do seek investment.

If you are desperate for comparables, though, check out the Google Play Store, which does publish download numbers."

What do you think, is this a useful answer or just lean startup soap boxing?

2012-08-21

Entrepreneurship: Full-time or Part-time?

Someone asked the following question on LinkedIn: "Is it possible to successfully start-up a company while working on a full-time job?"

Here's what I said - what do you think?

"Although we have this mythology built up about "all in" startups that raise venture capital and work 20+ hour days, most "successful" startups (that is, those which ultimately become large businesses) actually began as side projects while the founder(s) continued working on something less risky full-time. This allowed the founder(s) to develop the venture to the point of market validation, prototype milestone, or some other inflection point to reduce the risk (or perceived risk) of taking the entrepreneurial plunge.

Even so, I advise potential entrepreneurs to take the plunge immediately if they believe in the opportunity. By "burning the boats behind you," you create a strong motivation (one that can't be procrastinated around or delayed due to higher priorities) to advance the startup and, even if you fail spectacularly, it really isn't hard to return to the safety net of a full-time job."

2012-08-20

Financing Your Big Idea

Someone asked a question on LinkedIn about the best way to finance a new venture. What do you think of my response?

"By far the best way to finance a new venture is by customers paying in advance for your products that may or may not truly exist yet. Each dollar you bring in with this customer-centric finance approach provides more than a dollar of value by also validating your market (In the raise-capital-then-build-product-then-sell-product model there is a much higher risk that you will build something that no one wants to buy.) and creating a group of reference customers to help you sell even more product once you are ready. Recent crowdfunding sites like kickstarter (which is essentially a pre-sales tool) provide this benefit if you are targeting many, smaller customers. If your product is more enterprise in nature, though, you will need to do the selling yourself."

2012-08-19

Recommended Entrepreneurship Books

I made the following Entrepreneurship book recommendations on Quora so thought I'd share them here as well:


I use the following two books as course texts in my entrepreneurship course:

Effectual Entrepreneurship - Real data and evidence-based research on successful entrepreneurs

The Startup Owner's Manual - Steve Blank's step-by-step guide to launching a venture (annoyingly only available in hardback)

Additionally, I recommend the following books for additional reading:

Blue Ocean Strategy - Creating new markets instead of scrounging for shares of existing ones

Crossing the Chasm - Old school, seminal marketing work on moving from early success to sustainable growth

Getting to Yes - The best book I've ever read on negotiating

Do you agree with my recommendations? Do you have any others to contribute?

2012-08-17

Entrepreneurship Advice: Growing a Consumer Web Business

A friend of mine who recently took the entrepreneurial plunge and launched a consumer web business recently asked me for some advice. Aiming to serve more people than just him with what is hopefully useful advice, I am posting my response here.

This was my friend's request:

"I believe the greatest challenge my company will face in the near future is how to manage anticipated rapid growth. We have a marketing strategy that will be capable of producing an extremely fast growth rate in users of our website, leveraging the power of social media and highly targeted and well-categorized content on a site that is designed to serve the everyday reading needs of all segments of the general public. I would like to be able to make management decisions based not on fears of scarce resources but on confidence that additional capital will become available to continue paying existing staff and to hire the new staff we will soon need after our website goes live. I believe it will be necessary to secure a large amount of capital investment soon after launch, from investors who are interested and capable of assisting the company in various ways to navigate the challenges of explosive growth -- both financially and in terms of business experience, advice, and connections -- or else we run the risk of growing ahead of our ability to run the business in practical terms."

My response:


"It is interesting to see you anticipate that your greatest challenge will be keeping up with growth. Historically this is not the challenge of most entrepreneurs. The challenge of most entrepreneurs is to provide a product that people really want. Then their challenge is to provide a product that people want enough to pay for - or that so many people want for free that advertisers will pay to reach them. With one of those two scenarios emphatically proven, then their challenge is to grow the business sustainably. Sometimes this involves raising capital, which is a very unique process/skillset.

It is getting harder and harder to "make it" with this second type of if-you-build-it-the-advertisers-will-come model and, if you seek additional investment, you will need to show traction with advertisers or at least user numbers (especially high-value users) that are so massive as to convince any investor that SURELY some advertisers would want to reach them. Recently some very public flops of advertising-driven consumer web companies (e.g., Facebook's IPO and Digg's acquisition) have made investors in this space particularly wary.

Generally the two metrics that an investor will focus on are your Cost of Customer Acquisition (How many marketing dollars do you have to spend for each new customer to join your site?) and Lifetime Customer Value (How much revenue will that customer make you either through paying you directly or through advertising dollars over the entire time that you expect that customer to continue using your site?). If LCV is significantly higher than CCA, it allows an investor to think, "If I invest X, it will generate a return of more-than-X" with high probability. Do you have convincing data to quantify your CCA and LCV - both today and how you believe these numbers will evolve in the future?

Almost every startup that becomes "successful" - that is, grows into a big company with sustainable profits - looks very different by the time it achieves "success" than it did at the time of founding. The key success attributes for entrepreneurs these days are not "great vision" or even "incredible execution to achieve that vision." Rather the most successful entrepreneurs exhibit outstanding ability to test products with their target markets, rapidly collect feedback, interpret it, and adapt or pivot the company's business model based on that learning and/or based on partnerships or other new means that the entrepreneurs are able to bring to their ventures. This has been the case for a long time but recently it has gained traction under the buzz categorization of "lean startup" principles. My favorite book that espouses these principles and provides a step-by-step guide to implementing them in your startup is The Startup Owner's Manual and I would highly recommend that you read it. It is unfortunately only available as a big, heavy hardback, but the process diagrams and writing inside are very valuable.

Another challenge you might face IF you seek additional investment will be your team. Investors tend to invest in teams before they invest in ideas. There is nothing wrong with you being a first-time entrepreneur but it would be ideal if you could strengthen your team with other experienced entrepreneurs (Previous startup experience - success or failure - of the founding team has the highest correlation with the success rate of entrepreneurial ventures and investors know that.), especially those who would complement your skillsets / fill your skill gaps.

Finally, from a cost perspective, I wanted to check with you on your technology infrastructure. I believe I saw you post on facebook before about costs for servers. Are you familiar with cloud computing options? Amazon Web Services, Rackspace, and many others offer virtual servers with ~infinite scalability to entrepreneurs. This helps you avoid some of the costs/risks/concerns of growing your venture on the technical side such that you can focus on the commercial side."

What do you think? Did I provide some valuable feedback?

2012-08-11

IMD Alumni Event in Boston

Last weekend was a wonderful trip to Boston, reconnecting with friends, classmates, colleagues, and professors!

I flew up Thursday night and spent Friday in business meetings downtown + catching up with a dear friend / former colleague in Somerville. Lacking a car was no problem because Boston has a very robust public transportation system.

Saturday I turned my attention to IMD, preparing and helping to set up for our opening dinner. We chose this particular weekend because it coincided with the opening weekend of the Academy Of Management's annual conference. I came up with the idea of hosting an IMD all-continent event last year when I presented at the AOM's annual conference and realized that ~1/3 of IMD's faculty were there as well. It is not often that we have so many IMD professors together in the US, so it seemed worth capitalizing on!

In all of North America we have the same number of alumni as there are in Switzerland - but we're obviously much more spread out here! We weren't certain how many people we could motivate to travel hundreds or thousands of miles for such an event but it was worth a try.

We were very pleased with the results: 60+ IMD alumni joined us at the opening dinner at The Top of the Hub, coming from the US, Canada, Mexico - and even some from Europe and Asia! Add to that number 12 IMD professors and some other honored guests and we had a nice group!

Dinner was very nice and a great chance to meet other IMD alumni in this part of the world. My class (2008) tied with 1982 for the most alumni in attendance (3) and it was fun reconnecting with my former classmates. Years go by but relationships pick up right where they left off! We shut down the restaurant, stopped in a bar for some Olympics watching, and then turned in way too late.

Sunday morning began very early. We had lined up seven excellent IMD faculty presentations at the Harvard Club of Boston so we needed plenty of time to squeeze them all in:


IMD President Dominique Turpin - Introduction to the day’s program
Professor Margaret Cording – Identifying, Valuing & Capturing Strategic Synergies
Professor Bala Chakravarthy – A New Type of Country Manager for Winning in Emerging Markets
Professor Martha Maznevski – Developing Responsible Leaders Through Action Learning
Professor Michael Watkins - Moving Up: The Seven Seismic Shifts
Professor George Kohlrieser – Care to Dare: Secure Base Leadership in Action
Professor Maury Peiperl – What Makes a Global Leader Global?
Professor Suzanne de Janasz – Beyond Juggling: Achieving a Sustainable Work-Life Balance


It was a long day but so packed full of great discussion and learning. It was like a shot in the arm, a reminder of what it was like to be at IMD, when every day covered so much ground that you felt almost like a completely new person by the end of it. As someone dedicated to constant self improvement I was grateful for such a "dense" opportunity to learn and grow. And besides, exhausted as we were by the end of it, several of us still found the energy reserves to go out for drinks and plenty of seafood afterward!

It was an excellent weekend and I hope we can build on the success to bring more IMD activity to North America.

2012-07-30

Keys for US Job Creation

Last week I was honored to be asked to advise the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness about what we are doing here in Houston that has led to so much job creation while the rest of the country has been so economically stagnant. The meeting was held at Rice and was an informal roundtable discussion rather than a formal, public affair - a format which I found to be much more productive for meaningful discourse. Following is a summary of my recommendations in three key areas (the three "E"s) - what do you think of them?

ENERGY - One of the Council's existing foci is to go "all in" on energy. Awesome. I can envision scenarios in the not-too-distant future when energy will be more strategic for national competitiveness than will be the strength of the military. As Rice's own Nobel laureate Dick Smalley was fond of touting, if you take the top 10 challenges facing the world today and solve energy, most of the rest of them kind of take care of themselves. Rather than make big bets on individual initiatives like Solyndra, though, I think the government's most effective role would be to create a stable energy policy that captures the *true* cost (including the cost to our environment) of energy production, transmission, storage, and use. Create a level playing field, ensure that it will be in place for a long time to encourage long-term investment, and watch innovation happen.

ENTREPRENEURSHIP - I just delivered a keynote Friday in which I showed how entrepreneurship not only creates jobs, but even more specifically it creates the right kinds of jobs. A timely article in The Economist illustrated how the US's entrepreneur-oriented culture helped it evolve from the industrial age to the information age while Europe has largely been left lagging. In short, entrepreneurship is the engine of economic Darwinism. We can't sit on our laurels, though, as Asia and even Africa are developing their own brands of entrepreneurial culture.

The difference between a job "taker" and a job "maker" is often psychological. Someone who is laid off or whose company fails might file for unemployment benefits and complain about the lack of opportunities while someone else in the exact same situation with the exact same means might start a new business, launch a consulting practice, or use the transition as a time for a major career change. What can we do to "empower" the former to feel more like the latter?

One of the greatest barriers to would-be entrepreneurs taking the plunge is not having a "secure base." As children we gain confidence to learn to walk, for example, because we have the secure base of our parents to pick us back up when we fall and this mentality stays with us for life. Secure bases for entrepreneurs can be personal finances, friends and loved-ones, or even missions/values. I proposed that the POTUS could be a secure base for potential and existent entrepreneurs alike, inciting them to take the plunge as part of a US "strategic imperative." In much the same way as JFK inspired engineers in the 60s for the Space Race, the POTUS could inspire entrepreneurs today. I have to imagine that such visible support of entrepreneurship would be embraced by both sides of the aisle.

Thomas Friedman recently posted a piece on how the US should be THE destination for people of any country who want to launch a new venture. In fact, it was after reading Friedman's book, "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," that I left a lucrative job in Switzerland to return to the US and launch my current startup. I don't believe I'm the only one with whom a message of "entrepreneurship as patriotic duty" would resonate.

EDUCATION - I also saw your recommendation to improve education to better prepare today's and tomorrow's workers for jobs. IF you believe me that entrepreneurship is critical to the future of America's economy / competitiveness, then our system of education must be updated, especially K-12. I mentioned in our meeting the difference between convergent thinking ("What are the walls of this building made of?") and divergent thinking ("How many different uses can you think of for a brick?"). The former is the focus of most education but the latter is significantly more useful in entrepreneurship (albeit perhaps harder to test with standardized exams). 

Add to that our changing world of ubiquitous information access (shifting the value from memorizing facts to efficient searching for answers and critical thinking/judgment) and the growing importance of cross-disciplinary . . . everything! Our world is too complex for people to learn in "silo'ed" environments. Reading, writing, and 'rithmetic as separate areas of learning makes no sense in the business, academic, or public sectors anymore. The rate of change is so fast that employees must be able to perform in highly uncertain environments rather than closed, predictable, just-one-right-answer fantasies. In order to develop the new heuristics, mindsets, and skillsets to compete in this new world, we need much more integrated, experiential development rather than silo'ed, academic teaching.

2012-07-28

More Sibling Bonding in Austin

Last weekend Katie and I headed to Austin to spend the weekend with my brother, Nick, and his family. As we were the chauffeurs, there wasn't room for Max in the car, so we left him with friends.

We drove up to Austin Friday evening and crashed with a friend (a friend with a dog to help treat our Max withdrawal!). After a long drive we were pooped so we just went for a late dinner at 24 Diner then called it a night.

Saturday we picked up our three guests and spent the day at Austin's Greenbelt. I'm a little embarrassed that this was my first time at the Greenbelt because it . . . is . . . awesome! Less than 10 minutes from downtown Austin (more like 5, depending on where you enter), it's a huge park (800+ acres - roughly the same size as New York's Central Park), full of woods, trails, eight miles of Barton Creek, swimming spots, and all sorts of flora and fauna. Oh, and it's all off-leash for dogs so we'll have to bring Max the next time we're in town!

We hiked up past one swimming hole and hopped in the water at another: Sculpture Falls. It might have been  a bit generous to call them "falls" - after all, this was a creek, not a raging river. Still, there was lots of room for swimming, from waist deep water to way over your head. In the deepest part there was a rope swing that we could use to launch ourselves out into the creek. Some people were chilling in the shallows, some were actively swimming around, and some were just playing with their dogs. What a blast - we could have stayed forever!

Eventually we left, though, and, after a workout on rings that we hung from one of the trees, we had a great dinner together. After watching the bats come out from underneath Congress Ave Bridge, we crashed and prepared for another busy day.


Sunday I woke up early and ran around Town Lake. The 10-mile trail is quite pretty, very barefoot/minimalist friendly, and packed with other runners - even around sunrise (maybe especially around sunrise, given how hot the day was likely to become!). After an epic breakfast at Kerbey Lane, we went and visited Inner Space Caverns. There we found even more bats, but this time clinging to stalactites instead of the underside of a bridge.


After two fun-filled days, we finally had to drop Nick et al back off at the airport. Once again it was too short but we'll take what we can get when it comes to spending time with those we love!

2012-07-26

Sibling Bonding in Chicago

Katie and I have traveled each of the last two weekends to spend time with her sister in Chicago and my brother in Austin respectively.

It was only my second time in Chicago but the city struck me with some of its similarities to and differences from Houston. The two cities are around the same size in terms of population but have very different profiles. Chicago feels like a much "older" city than Houston, which is both good and bad. Some of the "old" feels dingy/grimy, but some of it is charming - e.g. many of the skyscrapers in downtown Chicago are much more interesting architecturally than are those of similar size in Houston. Chicago's wide availability of public transportation is also a significant differentiator; we traveled all over the metro area and never had need of a car. Chicago and Houston both have huge medical centers, significant academic institutions (both private and public), and major international airports - but very different economies. Perhaps most important for our trip, we were pleased to discover that Chicago, like Houston, has a vibrant, thriving restaurant scene!

The trip was short but we packed in a lot of fun (and a little business too, of course!). We stayed at a hotel downtown - where it turned out that Dan Akroyd was staying as well! Much of Friday was spent dodging torrential downpours as we walked around the Navy Pier or entertained ourselves indoors. Friday night we met up with some of Katie's sister's friends at India House, which provided not only dinner but enough leftovers for breakfast for the rest of the trip!

Saturday we made our way out to Wrigley Field for a Cubs game and, wow, I was really impressed by the team spirit on show! Everyone for miles around was in Cubs gear and the stadium was rocking as everyone cheered or boo'ed for even the smallest events. Fan spirit is clearly another area of differentiation from Houston!

Before the game we brunched at Uncommon Ground, which featured delicious, natural food and inventive drinks. Afterward we bar hopped a little in Wrigleyville, returned downtown, and readied ourselves for another night out. Instead of Indian we opted for Italian at Quartino, which was unfortunately unremarkable. We made up for it afterward, though, at Eno, a wine bar that offered flights of wine, cheese, and chocolate! One of my buddies from Rice football and his wife joined us too, which only enhanced the experience.

Sunday morning we returned to Houston but soon we would be on the road again to Austin!

2012-07-05

IMD: a Global Brand - a Global Bond

With four years now to reflect on the IMD network, I recently had two travel experiences that really cemented its value for me: Buenos Aires and Switzerland. When Katie and I went to Buenos Aires in May we were really helped along by my two IMD classmates there. They and their families met up with us, advised us on how best to experience the local scene, and even helped me make very valuable business connections while I was in town. Last month in Switzerland - where we need no advice on where to stay / what to do - it was the same: classmates came out of the woodwork to spend time with us and some were even incredibly helpful in business networking as well.

Before I discovered IMD I looked down my nose at MBAs, believing them to be people who were essentially paying for a new network of peers/colleagues. As I already had a nice network, this seemed of very little value to me. In my very first blog post ever I laid out my reasons for attending IMD, which happened also to be an MBA program. I joked often during that year that the IMD network would indeed be very valuable: with students from 45 countries we would surely be invited to weddings in fun destinations all over the world!

Indeed it has proven itself in that regard but I've been really impressed by how much more it is as well. In Buenos Aires, in Switzerland, and everywhere else I have encountered my IMD classmates there is a sense of joy at our reunion that is really hard to describe. There were so few of us and we underwent such a very intense experience together that an incredible bond was forged between us. Now, four years and thousands of miles removed from most of these classmates, the bond has only grown stronger.

Whenever we get together we all immediately fall into patterns of catch up about ourselves / our families, updates about our classmates (For such an ambitious, globally mobile group of people, it's almost like a competition to see who knows the the most recent update about each of us!), and earnest offers to help each other succeed in our professional and personal lives.

Having this extended team/family virtually anywhere we might hope to travel in the world is an incredibly comforting feeling. This is a very underanticipated, undermarketed aspect of the IMD MBA program: it's not just a global brand; it's a global bond!

2012-06-21

Why I Donate to Rice Part 2

18 months ago I responded to a Thresher op-ed that advocated for withholding donations. Now I find myself doing the same. The original Thresher article is here. My initial response was as follows:

"As humans we fear change and we always long for our alma mater to remain the [often idealized] snapshot of our own amazing time there. I remain very closely connected to Rice and I view its current state much more positively than does this author. Regardless of differences in opinion, our beloved institution will transcend the roller coaster of yearly trends and successive presidents. The way to foster a better Rice is not to "take your toys and go home." Rather it is to become more involved, make your voice heard, and help Rice grow/evolve in an ever more dynamic world."

After more comments, some of which melodramatically contended that the Rice of today is unrecognizable, I added another response:

"I had the honor to teach at Rice last semester so had some very in depth interaction with 19 students of all disciplines, class years, and colleges. Additionally, as a very active associate at Lovett College, my wife and I have interaction throughout the year with tens of Lovetteers. Using this experience as data, I would not agree that Rice has morphed into anything we don't recognize. When I was at Rice the student-faculty ratio was just over 5:1; it is now just under 6:1 and holding steady. It has gone from being the smallest institution of its kind to being . . . the smallest institution of its kind. Tuition is up - as it is up everywhere - and financial aid is up way up as well. Most importantly, the students with whom I interact are smart, ambitious, humble, diverse, interesting, and often a bit "unique." Rice remains "elite but not elitist." The colleges are still the center of campus life but they are now supported by an amazing recreation center, outstanding food at serveries, and a nice central pavilion, all of which augment the on-campus experience and foster more interaction between students."

Those of you who are Rice Owls, what do you think?

2012-06-18

Selling Your Entrepreneurial Venture


In response to the news of Microsoft's acquisition of Yammer, I was asked for my opinion on whether this kind of "selling out" is good thing. The asker of the question cited concerns that the "big, grey corporation" might stifle the product, slow innovation, or in other ways ruin a good thing. Following is my answer - what do you think?

I think about the pros and cons of selling my current venture to a "big, grey corporation" all the time. This is always a complex issue and even more so because mine is a mission-based startup. Our goals are not just about financial returns but also about positively changing the way people use energy around the world. So the prospect of selling out has not only the risks identified above but also the risk that the acquirer may not have values aligned with ours.

At the same time, acquisition by a "big, grey corporation" is the likeliest scenario by which we will be able to return value to our investors who have empowered us to develop this venture with their capital, expertise, and connections.

So does this mean that selling a venture is necessarily at odds with our values and goals? Not at all. Selling to a "big, grey corporation" with the resources (capital, personnel, distribution networks, partnerships, client relationships, etc.) to accelerate our business's growth may actually be the fastest way for us to achieve the scale of impact that we believe is possible in our space.

If you have a venture worth buying, I think it likely that more than one potential acquirer would be interested. The key is to sell to a company that will help you achieve your goals rather than trade them for cash.

2012-06-15

Rice Centennial Celebration in Istanbul, Turkey


Katie and I spent last weekend in Istanbul, Turkey as part of the Rice Centennial Celebration there. When Edgar Odell Lovett, Rice's first president, traveled the world collecting ideas for the institution he was about to launch, Istanbul was an important stop on his journey. Therefore, as one of many celebrations Rice has organized this year in honor of its hundredth birthday, a weekend of festivities, fellowship, and learning was organized in Istanbul.

Katie and I arrived Friday just in time for the opening dinner, which was held at the Ritz-Carlton. This featured several speakers, including Rice's current president, David Leebron, and several local dignataries and . . . a delicious buffet! Everything in the buffet was labeled as "Turkish" this or "Turkish" that. I have my doubts as to how authentic the "Turkish chocolate mousse" was but it was all delicious.

This dinner was a fun opportunity to catch up with many people I knew from Houston in a very different local setting - something I have always enjoyed. Moreover, it was a great chance to meet several Turkish alumni. I reconnected with one of my classmates (who is Turkish) whom I haven't seen since graduation - what fun! The trip was off to a good start.

Saturday morning began with an amazing breakfast at our own hotel. The buffet was set up on the top floor with 270 degrees of view overlooking the beautiful Bosphorus strait. The Bosphorus surprised me with how much traffic it supported; even early in the morning there were ferries, cargo ships, and huge barges crisscrossing all over the place.

We made our way back over to the Ritz where we were treated to a morning of lectures and panel discussion, including Ambassador Edward Djerejian (also a founder of Rice's Baker Institute of Public Policy) on repercussions of the Arab Spring and David Leebron discussing the future of the university with the president of the American University in Cairo.

As a group we then took a bus to the Old Town where we had lunch and toured two mosques. The first, the Blue Mosque, was really impressive with its very elaborate tile work (the rich colors of which give the mosque its name) and the second, Hagia Sophia, was equally impressive with its huge dome and frescoes and mosaics.

After a sunset cruise along the Bosphorus and Golden Horn, we were received by Ali Koç, a Rice alum whose family is very prominent in Turkey's private sector. He hosted an al fresco gala dinner at his family's industrial museum, which was a wonderful setting aided by continued wonderful weather.

Sunday we took an organized tour with several other weekend participants. We started at Topkapi Palace, home of the Sultan for centuries. It was a fascinating compound with an amazing view. Of particular interest was a collection of incredibly ornate jewelry and arms as well as a collection of relics including a bronzed footprint of the prophet Mohammed and the staff of Moses.

On our way back to the bus we stopped by an artist's shop to see Ebru artwork in action. It was really cool and the artist produced a work specifically in celebration of Rice's 100 years. Given that we had spent the previous 24 hours immersed in locations dating back multiple millenia, Rice's centennial seemed a bit small by comparison! Still, the gesture was very well received and much appreciated.

Lunch was at a restaurant that specialized in traditional Ottoman cuisine. For the first time I felt like we might be dining on something pretty authentic. There was a great deal of cinnamon even on our savory courses, which is something I could REALLY get used to! My favorite dessert of the weekend, pistachio ice cream floating in sesame pudding, was here.

After lunch we visited the Chora Church, which has rich, beautiful frescoes on every wall and ceiling. We then wrapped up the day with my favorite destination by far: the Basilica Cistern. Many hundreds of years ago this huge underground cavern was used to store water (transported by aquaducts for up to 19 km) in the event of water supplies being cut during a siege of the city. There was a network of hundreds of these cisterns but this was the grand daddy of them all. Propped up by row after row of columns that had been repurposed from Greek and Roman temples, this "bat cave" was a truly impressive sight. I want one. As my wine cellar!

For dinner several of us headed to a restaurant with a 360-degree view. We watched the sun set as we drank local wine and dined on local fish. It was an excellent ending to a short, but really wonderful, trip.

When Mom and I traveled to Egypt 17 years ago, some of my biggest take-aways came not from the Pyramids and ancient temples but rather from immersion for the first time in Muslim culture. This trip to Istanbul was my first time really back in a Muslim setting since then and was the first time I ever set foot inside a mosque.

After spending time in several mosques and learning a bit about the teachings of the Quran, I couldn't help but be impressed by just how similar Islam and Christianity - or at least Catholicism - are. Between the big, domed houses of worship, the prayer beads, the artwork on the walls and in stained glass, the relics of significant people, I was just left with such a sense of, "Are we so different, you and I?"

This point was particularly driven home in the church-mosques we visited - former churches that were now in use as mosques. In each mosque there is a mihrab that shows the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca. In Istanbul, this points South-East. It turns out that the churches had been set up to face South-East already to capture the sun's rise and much of its daily journey. So the mihrab in these church-mosques was barely off center from where the original alter had been! Converting a church to a mosque had required very little change at all!

Surely someone much more learned than I might point out all the differences but to me this served as a poignant reminder that ISLAM is not our enemy. EXTREMISTS are the ones who have attacked and terrorized us (and others) and EXTREMISTS exist in Christianity and Judaism (and probably most other faiths - or non-faiths) as well. I've known that distinction rationally, of course, but you really FEEL it when you're on the ground, soaking up the culture.

The trip was too short and we will have to return to spend more time. In the meantime we are in the suspended reality of summertime Switzerland (or "Paradise" as I like to call it) where I have some IMD-related meetings over the next couple of weeks. More on that soon!

2012-05-30

Traveling Recommendations for Geneva and Lausanne, Switzerland

Recently I've had several requests from friends who have been traveling to Geneva on what to see/do. To avoid repeating myself, I've coalesced my responses into the following recommendations:



Geneva
Geneva frankly isn't that much of a destination - it's more of a place to live than it is to visit. While you're there make sure to walk around and see the jet d'eau, some old/important churches, etc. but I think your best bet is to get out of town.

Lausanne
Lausanne is awesome. Check out the Olympic Museum along the lake, the Chateau d'Ouchy nearby, Place St-Francois further up the mountainside, and the cathedral / canton hall (an old castle) even further up.  The train from Geneva to Lausanne is only ~45 minutes. Ouchy, at the shore of the lake, is a former fishing village that is now the summer destination of many of Europe's and the Middle East's rich and famous. Featuring a long promenade, this area is great for strolling and people watching.


For night life the major hub is the Flon district, a filled-in river full of restaurants, bars, and clubs. For good food my absolute favorite is Beau Rivage along the lake - the cafe, not the full restaurant. The full restaurant is Michelin starred and obscenely expensive. The cafe offers the same food and costs 1/3 as much - still not cheap given the damned exchange rate. Further up from Beau Rivage is the Croix d'Ouchy, a little less elegant but just as nice. For authentic Swiss fondue I recommend Cafe Romand near St-Francois or Cafe du Vieil Ouchy on the water. 


Other Ideas
Take the ferry across the lake to Evian.
Take a day trip to Gruyeres and see how cheese and chocolate are made.
Take the train or bus to Lutry and hop on the Lavaux Express, a mini-train that winds through the vineyards and stops for several tastings. Swiss wine is so-so and overpriced, but, when the weather is nice, this makes for a lovely outing.
Nyons and Montreux are particularly scenic with their chateaux right along the lake.  If you go all the way to Montreux (another 15 minutes by train beyond Lausanne), you can see the iconic Freddy Mercury statue near the Jazz Festival location. He, Audrey Hepburn, and some others are buried there.
If you really want to take in many of the towns/chateaux along the lake, take a sunset dinner cruise, which will take you by each one.


What do you think, have I captured it or missed the mark? Any other recommendations to add?

2012-05-10

Buenos Aires Part 2

Katie and I are now wrapping up what has really been an awesome trip. Sunday evening we had dinner at a nice Italian restaurant with a friend of a friend who recently moved back to his native Buenos Aires from Houston. Monday we walked downtown and, after lunch with a local Rice alum, we walked to the "must see" sights in that area: the Casa Rosada, the Obelisco, etc.

Monday evening we went for Italian again - this time to a little place called Guido´s! It was such a trip inside, very kitschy with all kinds of Italian and Italian-American memorabilia. It was a set menu featuring whatever Guido happened to be making that evening, course after course of mostly vegetarian antipasti and pasta while we were there. Add to that a good house red wine and a low, low price and we were quite satisfied!

Tuesday I went back downtown, this time for a meeting that one of my IMD classmates had set up with the energy manager of his company. Doing business in Buenos Aires I felt like quite the little jet setter. :) Katie and I then met back up and had lunch at Buenos Aires Verde, a vegetarian/vegan/organic kind of place which was quite good.

Tuesday evening we had dinner at Leopoldo, a modern Argentinian-Asian fusion restaurant that was rumored to be very popular on Tuesdays - and indeed it was! This time we were meeting another IMD alum who had helped my ICP group via conference call four years ago so it was a pleasure to meet in her finally in person. The food was delicious; I went for the beef and paired it with a big ole Malbec - great combo! My beef came with a ¨perfect egg,¨ soft boiled at 63 degrees C for one hour. And it did indeed have an awesome texture. I think I´ll leave that to the pros, though, and keep frying mine up in just a couple of minutes!

Wednesday was supposed to be rainy so Katie and I spent it in the two big art museums: the MALBA and the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo. The former is more of a classic art museum while the latter is a converted mansion featuring much of its original owners´ private collection.

After a late lunch, siesta, and run, we had dinner with Felipe, Laura, and their toddler, Celeste, for one last hurrah together. They were excellent hosts while we were here and it was fantastic to finish up our trip with a lazy, simple dinner with them.

We checked out of the hotel this morning but had all day to kill before heading to the airport for our overnight flight. We walked around a bit, relaxed in the park watching all the dogs chase balls, sticks, pigeons, and each other. More walking, another lazy lunch, and finally it is nearly time to go.

Final impressions of Argentina are very positive. Some things leave much to be desired. There is always trash in the streets, for example. There is no recycling to speak of. You can´t walk anywhere without inhaling second hand smoke. But the people are very nice. They seem to value fitness and the outdoors (Even late at night there would be groups of boot campers and others doing exercises in the parks.) - and dogs! The wine is good and very inexpensive. The beef is of such high quality that, even when they massively overcook it (to my tastes), it is still tender and delicious. Add to that the perfect weather we had all week and we are sold!

After a week here I speak much more Spanish than I used to, I´m very relaxed, and I´ve had a great time with old friends, new friends, and - most importantly - Katie. This has been a great trip and we will certainly look for excuses to come back again. ¡Adios, Buenos Aires!

2012-05-06

Buenos Aires: Part 1

For our one-year anniversary, Katie and I decided to go somewhere we've never been before: Buenos Aires, Argentina! Thanks to recommendations from many friends who have visited or lived there, we have more on our BA bucket list than we could possibly handle in a week, but we'll certainly make a noble effort.

After an overnight flight direct from Houston (There was another Rice alum in our row on the plane - small world!) we arrived Friday morning to glorious weather. Although it's Autumn here, it felt much more like late summer. We checked into our hotel, which is right off of one of the main throughways: Avenida del Libertador, a wide street (10 lanes one way!) lined with parks for miles and miles. We're in the Palermo neighborhood, which is very walkable and full of shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants on every block.

Our first order of business was to break our fast so we struck out walking. I was stunned by how much green space there is even in the heart of this large urban area. Every few blocks there is another park or monument with lots of grass around it. Combine this with the extreme walkability and A. everyone is out walking all the time and B. it seems that everyone has a dog! This is great . . . except that people don't seem to pick up after their dogs here. Early in the morning the shop keepers hose down the sidewalks but, as the day wears on, you have to be careful of stepping on land mines.

We found a little cafe with no English on their menu, so we figured it was safely not a tourist trap. Katie ordered a pizza while I took the salad bar. Because of Argentina's high Italian immigrant population, it seems that we will never find ourselves more than a block away from pizza or pasta. This is great for Katie, but not so much for me, as I'm rarely eating grains or starchy carbs these days. My salad bar, by contrast, consisted of at least 75% meat options (which Katie, a vegetarian, can't eat)! Yes, we're definitely in Argentina! Between the two of us we can eat just about everything, but rarely the same thing. On a related note, I'm relaxing my grain avoidance rules while here to eat empanadas, which we have had with almost every meal - including breakfast!

We spent much of the afternoon just wandering around and then I went for a run in one of the nearby parks. There are miles and miles of trails; I could probably run a different route each day and still have not covered them all by the end of this vacation.

For dinner we met up with two of my IMD classmates, Felipe and Hernan, and their wives, at Sucre, a modern Argentinian restaurant. The food was fantastic and of course we accompanied it with Mendoza Malbec. From the reviews it seems that this restaurant is considered pricey but, due to the exchange rate with the US dollar, it is actually quite affordable - even by Houston standards, which is already pretty cheap.

Saturday we put together a breakfast from the bakery down the corner and then struck out to La Recoleta, where we visited the craft market and the cemetery. I was blown away by the cemetery; it's like an entire city of mausoleums with different streets and paths and avenues between them. Some of them are more dark and somber; some are more colorful and vivacious, but they're all really impressive with really detailed craftsmanship. Some haven't been terribly well maintained, though, and you can even see the coffins inside. We were there on a sunny day but I have to believe that it would be incredibly creepy to be walking around all those tombs at night!

Saturday evening we did a wine tasting at Anuva, an exporter of boutique Argentinian wines. It was fun not only to taste wines we had never heard of there but also to meet other couples who were interested in wine. Because Argentinians eat dinner very late, we then had some time to kill and had a drink at 868, an old school speakeasy-style cocktail joint. Our drinks were delicious and expertly crafted by a very nice, talkative bartender.

Finally we had dinner at Casa Felix, a small private dining establishment that grows all of its own herbs and seasonings on site and sources everything else locally. Here again it was fun to meet other couples (including another Rice alum!) who value the locavore lifestyle enough to seek it out while traveling. Dinner was delicious: Bolivian peanut soup, salad with homemade burrata and spicy plum marmalade, cocoa-chili crusted Patagonian sand perch, and three different papaya desserts. It was a very, very satisfying way to end the day!

Sunday has been a wonderful ride as well. We spent the day out on Felipe's boat (with Laura, Hernan, and Natalia) getting a tour of the many rivers around Buenos Aires. Eventually we stopped for an outdoor lunch (mostly meat but they managed to find some ravioli for Katie!) and just relaxed along the beach for some time. We followed this up with alfajores, a traditional Argentinian cookie that can be thought of as an oreo but 800x better, and headed back to the city - a fun IMD mini-reunion boat trip!

After nearly three days here, I'm beginning to get the feel for the place. Buenos Aires is widely called the "Paris of the South" due to its very European layout and culture but it seems much more like Rome than Paris to me. It is big and beautiful with all kinds of stuff to do at all hours, but it is just a little bit dirtier (e.g. the dog poop!) and the fiery latin tempers cursing at each other in traffic definitely remind me more of Rome. One of the big monuments here (which we haven't yet visited) is an obelisk, which I much more strongly associate with Rome than with Paris too. We will be here several more days so we will see if my opinion changes!

For the moment, though, we're off to an Italian restaurant with a friend of one of my startup company's investors - hooray for the global network!