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Life and Personal Tech and Culture

Communication in Startups

I read the other day that what separates great teams and relationships is not avoiding disagreements, but rather the quality of bringing up even the smallest disputes for discussion immediately and with an open mind.

It makes so much sense.

Humans are fundamentally opinionated and driven by past experiences. We have also evolved with the genetic machinery to look out for our own personal well-being. We are also resentful. When things don’t go our way or if we are impacted by something, we will often hold a grudge or be generally distracted. This creates long term, and often, permanent fissures.

Startups epitomize the need for great communication and open-mindedness. Especially when the foundation is being laid, everyone is on edge — people don’t know each other so well, there is uncertainty about the product-market fit, and there is just so much going on that essence is often lost in communications, even if you create a framework for daily meetings and catch-ups.

I was recently involved with a startup working in a very interesting and prospective space. The team was not very experienced in that space, but they seemed to have the grit to move through difficulties and find opportunities in tight spaces, so to say. The only issue was that the communication was terrible. I would send an email or a message and it would most often go unanswered. I would bring up this issue, and it would be minimized. We would all promise to be more responsive, but the elephant still comfortably sat in the room, day in and day out.

This was a wonderful lesson in communication — even if you are very smart and capable, communication is what makes or breaks a team. It is easier to find skilled professionals than it is to find professionals that are great at being accountable and communicative. Things have a propensity to boil over.

Especially in small teams and startups, the assumption should always be that the smallest of ideas have the potential for major impact. If a team deprioritizes internal communications, it sends out a negative signal to external partners and investors, too.

So, what do you do if you find yourself in a situation where the team doesn’t communicate well (or at all)? The best plan of action is to bring it up early and often. Humans are also mostly wonderful with good intentions. Most probably, they have different priorities and were of the belief that they were doing their best for the team. However, if the situation doesn’t improve in a reasonable time-frame, your best bet is to just bail out.

As for me, I sent them an email about a prospective investment opportunity, but received no reply! πŸ™ƒ

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Life and Personal

The Second Lockdown

I can’t believe how quickly this year seems to be going by. This is when almost everything has slowed down — people aren’t traveling, working has moved to in-home setups, there are hardly any live performances, limited entertainment, and so on.

Netherlands has just re-entered the second lockdown. They’re calling it a ‘partial lockdown’, but things are direr than they were when the first ‘intelligent lockdown’ hit us. While the numbers are relatively steadier, albeit with record-breaking infection and positivity rates, what’s problematic now is the extent to which the people distrust the government.

It is quite disturbing.

Even yesterday, just as the parliament was debating the new lockdown, there were multiple parties going on at various locations in the country to countdown the lockdown.

Whereas back in April, people had suddenly changed their behavior to avoid proximity to others and were prudent about maintaining distance and sanitation, carelessness has creeped back with a vengeance. No one cares. Those that do are the oddballs.

This is no way to bide time until the virus disappears or is conquered.

It’s not just the Netherlands; entire Europe is in a crisis (Archive) right now. Total re-lockdowns are inevitable. The choice between a stronger economy and a lower death rate is no longer on the menu.

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Life and Personal Tech and Culture

E-Newspapers

I was reading an online commentary about newspapers and their business models the other day. Basically, the opinion was that newspapers are slowly letting themselves die by sticking with user-antagonistic business models that prioritize tracking over efficiency, cancellation-friction over customer friendliness and so on.

That is all so true.

This reminded me of being a college student. I wasn’t subscribed to any single newspaper (this was before the Internet was a ‘serious’ thing). Every evening, I would walk over to the kiosk and browse through different newspapers before deciding to buy one. Often, I would end up picking more than one, especially on weekends.

In a lot of countries, the quintessential newspaper kiosk was also a way to bring society together and to discuss events and debate them. Sadly, most of these are on their way out. Even in Amsterdam, which didn’t really have much of a kiosk culture, there are only 2 booksellers I know that sell any non-Dutch periodicals. Newspapers are hard to procure unless you commit to a long-term at-home delivery subscription.

This brings me to my main point — just like we were able to buy newspapers just this once, why can’t we subscribe to electronic versions of the same media outlets for just a day? I can understand that part of this is because of higher transaction costs online where cash just doesn’t work. Even then, I am sure that a lot of customers would not mind a little markup given the flexibility to not have to commit to a yearly subscription.

A few companies have tried to come out with per-article or monthly all-you-can-consume subscriptions to a catalog of newspapers and magazines, but they are hardly profitable. Just like music services, there really is no way to make a profitable business renting out content unless the producers/owners are on board and price it as such, fit for rental consumption.

Now, more than ever in our lifetimes, we need reliable sources of news and current affairs. If you could afford it, do subscribe to a newspaper and keep them alive, and while you’re signing up, make sure to tell your favorite news source to provide a day-subscription. It’s the only way to keep us sane.

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Life and Personal

On Short Vacations

Europe, at large, entered the Coronavirus lockdowns in the middle of April. While a sizable number of well-read people knew that it would be a long road ahead, full of uncertainties and challenges, for policymakers, that was the time to expedite short-term action to sustain the livelihoods of vulnerable sections of society. As a result, tourism was completely shut down. Anything that involved the coming together of people face to face was deemed necessary to be shutdown in order to stop the virus’ spread.

Now that the numbers are starting to decrease and the caseload becoming manageable, countries are in a hurry to kickstart business as usual. This is driven by the need to get the situation back to normalcy, both in economic as well as social terms. Humans are social animals, after all. Just like we crave food for sustenance, we also long for social contact and cultural experiences for our well-being.

So, as restaurants and cafes are starting to reopen, albeit with distancing measures, travel is also beginning to slowly come up to speed. Airlines have been operating within European borders. People are starting to drive to and from neighboring countries. Combined with distancing measures, this influx of neighbors has actually led to crowding that’s very difficult to manage.

While a lot could be said about why tourism these days is not the same as back in the day when people took longer vacations and when travel was more expensive, this is not the post for that.

I am more curious about how the current technological state-of-the-art could be used to make short-term/weekend tourism unnecessary. After all, what is tourism that only lasts a long weekend? Is a vacation away in a different continent any better than staying home if most of it is spent traveling and sleeping? Is there a way to do away with this kind of tourism and leverage technology instead?

VR rings a bell. Surely, it would be great if we could live the moment in another city while not really going there. I think this would work for virtual travel to places that are otherwise bereft of experiences that trigger senses related to smell, taste, atmospheric changes, and other feelings that technology still cannot affect.

But, VR works great for creating entirely new kinds of experiences. It’s like video games. A holiday experience does not have to really replicate the real world — it is a kind of escape. It just so happens that traditionally a vacation involves secondary experiences related to lodging at a hotel, not having to cook, driving on new roads, etc. Instead of just changing a few hours of your daily life, a vacation is about making you live all your waking hours differently. And, since we are so busy, any respite from daily repetition is a good change.

Perhaps the answer is not in technology. Perhaps, it is about reconnecting with our cities and learning something new about it. Maybe, we ought to redefine a holiday getaway as more about the mind than physical presence. Instead of effecting a change in routine by forcing a physical movement, we should investigate the power of relaxation or indulging in exploration in our own vicinities.

This is something that has worked for me. Whereas previously we would often go on weekend getaways, the virus situation has forced us to spend more time in our city and nearby. Guess what! Even after having lived here for 10 years, we are still discovering nature so close to Amsterdam that we never knew existed. I often find myself exclaiming that this place looks like it belonged in a different continent.

Cycling has been wonderful, too. Weekends are now spent cycling to nearby nature parks rather than walking around in the city with other people at close proximity. Along with the health benefits, this helps in getting away from crowds, provides meditative effects, and also saves the planet from pollution that otherwise would have been released into the atmosphere. It’s a win-win.

So much of our holiday travel starts with anxiety around planning and delays and ends as such. Wouldn’t it be great if we focused more on well-being than checking off places to make it a vacation?

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Life and Personal

Shopping for Produce in Corona-Times

I was just reading an editorial about how shopping preferences for nearly everything have shifted to online, and yet, it is not profitable for companies to deliver purchases, even if they add a hefty surcharge on top of the final bill.

For a lot of cutting-edge technophiles, this trend has been a long time coming. We’re used to finding wonderful deals, especially on technology gadgets online. The fact that physical retail was great for immediate gratification, while online brought you the best prices and selection has been long established.

This has not held true for perishable grocery purchases, though. While almost all chains in the country offer home delivery, it is often not free or has a terribly long delivery time. Some busy people have used these services to save time or even as much as a motivator to get healthy by buying less food.

Things changed when the Coronavirus struck. Suddenly, everyone was being told to minimize contact as much as possible, and so online ordering really took off. A lot of startups even came up to address this new market to deliver groceries. What was a non-revenue generating experimental business for a lot of grocery chains was now driving a lot of business.

It is an odd situation, though — people have much more time to do their shopping and yet here they are sitting at home ordering produce to be delivered.

Fortunately, in most of Europe, weekly markets are a very prominent feature of most cities and even villages. In Amsterdam, where we live, there is a weekly organic food market every Wednesday and a much bigger market that brings in all kinds of entrepreneurs on Saturdays. When the pandemic first took hold, the city had to put in place various measures that meant that only very few stalls selling produce and flowers were allowed.

This has eased quite a bit now and business seems to be back to normal, except better. It appears that a lot more people are now actually interested in buying farm fresh produce and understanding where their food is coming from.

I love buying nuts, flowers, fruits, and produce at these markets. And now with the pandemic, our visits to the grocery store is limited to things like sparkling water or chocolates. A few entrepreneurs have even become friendly enough to exchange pleasantries while there is a long line of customers waiting for their turn. Before the pandemic, there were hardly any lines to buy produce at these markets as they generally tend to be more expensive than chains.

What started as an exercise in helping small entrepreneurs and becoming healthy has actually also led to people now understanding more about their food supply chain. Turns out that some vegetables and fruits don’t grow year-round!

If you’re close to one of these markets, support them, and make sure to pay in cash πŸ™‚

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Life and Personal

My Regular Cycling Rides

I have always had a bicycle. Well, always except my time in college and when I lived in the US. Now that I live in The Netherlands, a country renowned for its cycling infrastructure, it is something that I enjoy not just for short commutes, but also as a way to spend leisure time.

While I have mostly rented or used the popular OV-Fiets bike share program to go on weekend trips around the country, I decided to get my own bicycle this past April. I figured that it would be nice to have a better quality bicycle at my disposal than the ones that are available through bike-share or rental programs. For a brief while, I even thought about getting one of the more in-vogue electric bicycles — wouldn’t it be fun to spend the same amount of effort to travel even faster — so I thought. Well, it isn’t, because the bicycles I explored either had really bad range or suffered from quality issues. I thought — if I only get a range of 50-60kms per charge, I could pedal that much on my own without an electrical assist. And so, I got a cheap(er) Dutch ‘transport’ bicycle with 3 gears and a pedal brake.

Now, while everyone is deciding to buy a bicycle to eschew public transportation, it also means that I could no longer take a bicycle on the train every weekend and ride somewhere new. I am now literally confined to a radius around home, unless I want to buy a mask and risk getting a Coronavirus infection. Luckily, Amsterdam is surrounded by nature in every direction. And so, over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to find a regular rhythm, more so because summers are especially tragic when it comes to maintaining a healthy diet πŸ™‚

It’s almost become therapeutic now. Also amazing is that I could take multiple different routes to get to the same spot. I don’t even need a map anymore. Often times, I run into the same people cycling after work or just exercising. It has become a nice new habit.

There are two expansive golf courses near where I ride. There is also a great amount of flora and fauna — I speed past wild berries and lots of birds. Being summer, the grounds are often full of families grilling and just having a grand time.

These wind-turbines are massive structures!

The thing about cycling in The Netherlands is that the whole country is a natural park. Even along cycle paths, you would find benches and rest areas with amazing views of waterways, nature, or just other cyclists merrily enjoying the planet. Even industrial areas have features.

One of the highlights of my routine has been the occasional chocolate aroma that blows from the nearby chocolate factory when the timing and the wind-direction is just right. Talk about adding flavor to life!

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Life and Personal Tech and Culture

I Miss Emails

Every now and then I search my email for an obscure keyword or phrase that was at one time relevant to my interests — ‘AIIM’ when I worked as a records management consultant, or ‘dinner’ to look back at when we planned for such things by email. I even have chains going back 15 years where people are discussing something forwarded by someone and that resulted in a never-ending sequence of Reply-All’s.

In a way, I miss that.

These days, people send quick instant messages through one of the dozens of ‘social media’ apps that nearly everyone is assumed to be a member of. Can’t remember the contact details of that colleague from 10 years ago? Search on LinkedIn. What about that classmate in grad school? Chances are that they’re on Facebook.

On the other hand, it is almost foolhardy to assume that the person you used to email years ago is still using that same email address — their job might have changed, or they could’ve switched to that awesome new email service that has better spam detection, or perhaps they just wanted to build a new identity as ‘cool_ece_95@yahoo.com’ is just not cool anymore. Foolhardy because composing emails takes a bit of effort and time. You don’t want to waste that effort on thoughtfully writing something when you’re not even sure if it would land in the right inbox. Sending a quick, and abrupt, ‘hey’ in an instant message has no baggage.

Some of my earliest emails with family members are full of pictures, address changes, various forwards, and even videos and recipes. Almost all emails are more than a couple sentences long. They have nice salutations. On the contrary, instant messages are spread around various apps — iMessages for some, WhatsApp for others, LinkedIn for a few friends and even family, and so on.

Whereas my emails are easily searchable, finding the right message or the context it was sent in is terribly hard on almost every messaging app. Searching messages is consistently a terrible experience. It’s like the services were designed to be ephemeral and impersonal. Whereas emails are blocks of conversation, messages are just blocks of sentences punctuated by an image or two, or by a totally different context with its own punctuations.

Emails are fun to read; instant messages are just blobs of stuff.

In other words, most of my instant message conversations are a bad example of object oriented programming. The conversations are just a set of base classes, then subclassed, then extended, sometimes composited. What was supposed to be quick and convenient has turned into something unwieldy and, as a result, not worth archiving and preserving.

My old emails, though, are wonderful memories.

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Life and Personal

57 Days of Lockdown

The Netherlands entered its first ‘intelligent lockdown’ late in the afternoon on Sunday, 15th March of this year. I say first because as of this writing it’s becoming clear to me that the worst is yet to come. I am not hoping for it, but looking at everything happening — political inaction to civil protests around these lockdowns — it’s becoming clear that a lot of things are happening when they shouldn’t and at a speed that’s best described as hasty.

Intelligent lockdown for Netherlands has essentially meant life as normal. There have been about 8,000 fines handed out for violating the 1.5 meter rule or for organizing hangouts in public (or even hidden inside homes in some cases). Restaurants have been closed for the most part, some catering to takeaway and delivery customers, although, from all I have seen, it’s mostly been an exercise in survival, not profiting. Schools and ‘contact professions’ have been closed for about 2 months; the latter has been a huge point of contention as people could skip out on meals, but a haircut is worth protesting over.

Today, the contact professions were allowed to reopen their businesses. This led to people getting haircuts at midnight! Daycares also opened up although attendance wasn’t at 100%. Even then, a surprisingly large number of families were obviously waiting for them to reopen as only about 15-20% of children missed out on day 1.

So, what changed for me over these weeks? In short, not much. I did start making coffee at home. We have had a Moka Pot for a very long time and only used it a few times up until March. What used to be a daily routine of going to my favorite cafe for a couple coffees and newspaper reading has converted into a long walk with podcasts playing, followed by coffee at home. We have been going on twice-daily walks, and although V had the initial bout of daily cooking (for some sort of competition with friends online), cooking is back to normal levels.

What has changed a lot, though, has been our immense appreciation towards Amsterdam. While it was always special to us, the lack of crowds has made the city ever more wonderful. Where we would fight crowds every weekend to get to our favorite spot for banana bread (interestingly, lockdown’s favorite recipe globally has been banana bread; I guess we had it coming), these days it’s a calm and peaceful walk through the center of the city. The bakery is not crowded inside (since only takeouts are allowed) and the owners even spend minutes chatting with us. It’s all very ‘quaint’ in a way.

Cycling through the city is a lot more pleasurable now. Indeed, whereas previously my idea of a warm Saturday was to take the train to somewhere to cycle in the nature, this time around we’ve been undertaking a lot of cycling trips straight from home. I even got a brand new bicycle, for the second time in 10 years, a couple weeks ago.

It turns out that less tourism makes cities more livable.

In the long term, I am not sure what changes we’ll see, but already a lot of governments are talking about changing their approach to tourism and inviting the ‘right’ kind of tourists; those that appreciate the city and try to go beyond the obvious sights and flavors. This could potentially also mean new kinds of travel businesses that connect travelers with the locals.

One thing is for sure — we’re not going to be back to normal anytime soon, not without a magical intervention.

And that’s good. Time is exactly what we need to mindfully appreciate what we’ve given up over the years and to be thankful about getting the chance to bring it back in our lives. We’re spending more time with family, reading more, writing more, and even learning more.

Sure, life hasn’t been all rosy for a lot of people impacted by job losses or financial difficulties, but it could have been far worse. We’re quite fortunate.

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Life and Personal Tech and Culture

Unpopular Opinions

We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. There’s no shortage of news about what’s going well and what isn’t. Even then, every now and then, something pops up on the various news channels that makes you stop and think. One of these things is how Amazon recently fired 2 employees for speaking out against the company — and I have seen one of the Tweets that, apparently, “broke the camel’s back” — it was a proclamation that the employee was making a contribution towards the well-being of the various warehouse employees on Amazon’s roster that, allegedly, aren’t being taken care of and are being forced to work in life-threatening conditions.

This is not something that all of us are unaware of — just this week, France compelled Amazon to only deliver/process orders for essential items as investigations revealed that a lot of warehouse employees were having to break social-distancing rules for the sake of shipping bottles of wine or other luxurious items like Nintendo Switches. In what sounds like verbal retaliation, Amazon has responded with a threat that it would completely stop its operations in France.

This kind of corporate behavior has become so normal and acceptable over the last 2 decades that the unpopular opinion now is to actually take a personal stand over issues that don’t align with personal values. When governments force better citizenship, they’re maligned. When private individuals do as much as voice their opinions outside of work in their private time, they’re found guilty of violating social media rules in the workplace.

While most people don’t go beyond the short-term impact of such punitive action against upholding a person’s identity and values, the long term impact is tremendous. People, evolutionally, have an urge to spread and validate their inherent values. While financial compensation and social acceptance is a way to successful limit these urges, these feelings have a way of boiling over and causing more harm than necessary.

In this hyper-connected world where all of our communications, down to where we are moving and which web pages we’re clicking on is traceable back to us, and is ultimately consequential to our work place and social acceptance, it becomes that much important to separate our humanity from our workplace obligations. To that end, we need to go back to how we expressed our opinions in the early days of the Internet, and where what we said or expressed was countered in a non-personal, reasonable manner.

This was especially true at universities and schools. We all had a webpage or two, where we expressed our thoughts, our plans, and ultimately, journaled our life and experiences. There were no repercussions for questioning politics or expressing an unpopular opinion that went against the University administration. At most, you would be referred to an independent ombudsman (person?) whose goal was to help both the parties.

Contrast that to now — people, especially those with good jobs at multinational organizations, seldom find the time or build a place to express themselves using their true identity. There have been countless instances of those that did so not recovering from the repercussions for a very long time. In fact, the bigger the company, the higher the chances of never being accepted anywhere else, and the greater the risk.

This is not how it’s supposed to be.

The more people avoid free expression, the more they flock to echo chambers that have the ‘other person with nothing to lose’ voicing their opinions that they could only look at for re-affirmation, but have no way to refine or to dilute towards the less radical. The algorithms at work tend to make this echo chamber ever bigger, and the same companies that ‘enable’ this ‘free expression’ build internal mono-cultures that dampen real expression by their own employees.

Those that continue to operate free blogs and voicing free opinion do so under the pretense of having nothing to lose, which is often a result of opting not to work for these companies or to de-prioritize career advancement in the traditional sense. After all, shouldn’t the top executive at Amazon be, in fact, supporting their warehouse workers and thanking the blogger instead of ignoring any punitive action taken against them by the company?

There is glimmer of hope that the world after this latest pandemic would be the world that uses the forced pause to reflect upon the values that make us human. Already, governments are stepping up efforts to better calibrate compensation for the delivery and healthcare workers according to their real contribution to the society. The world could certainly do with more equity and equality.

And more than anything, we need to make space for the unpopular opinion, for more often than not, the opinion is a result of having spent time pondering over things that no one else deemed necessary, or because someone had the courage to go against the grain.

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Economy Featured Headline Life and Personal

Coronavirus Disease

It’s being said that this is the most challenging time in the history of the world since the second world war. Never before, in the lifetime of most of us, has the world collectively faced such a steep challenge that is impacting us from all sides.

This is the world after one of our worst fears — that of a global pandemic — is finally upon us.

And, boy, was the world unprepared.

The outbreak has been in the news since at least the beginning of 2020, at least, as far as my memory serves. It started with a closed phenomenon in a very specific part of China. within a couple weeks it was being classified as a global health emergency, and after weeks of news about travel bans in country after country, it was suddenly, one day, a global pandemic.

As I type this post, The Netherlands went from one lone case to more than 11,000 at last count. The health department can still not keep up with testing demands, and although it tries its best to supply daily updates, at this point the numbers mean nothing. After people largely ignored the potential of the outbreak to disrupt their lives, the government initially imposed a 3 week ‘soft’ shutdown of all cafes, restaurants, schools, and other P2P services like hair salons. Earlier this week, this was extended by another month, and things don’t look like they’ll be a whole lot different at that point. We’re in this for the long haul.

Whereas we blamed technology for creating distances between us, now we can blame a virus. There has been a lot of positives as well — people are helping each other out. Friends and families that never talked to each other, or seldom did, now invite each other for video calls, people are cooking more often at home – there’s not much to do when you can’t go out and socialize or work, there has been a sales uptick in board games, and companies are finally waking up to the fact that remote work doesn’t make anyone any less productive than being in an office (unpredictability and powerlessness does).

We have a family chat group where I very frequently share thoughts on politics as well as current affairs. My first message goes back to January 25th when I shared that there were 3 cases of infections in France. Three days later it was found in Germany. The Netherlands got its first positive case on the 27th of February. Over days and weeks, the messages gradually went from me sharing supposedly hyped up news to how we could keep each other safe and more aware about the virus’s spread. Knowledge is power.

Today, we are inundated with news and political discourse. Seek and ye shall find opinions about anything. The same is true of COVID-19, as it is now called. Up until a couple weeks ago, there were countries where this epidemic was being considered a hoax. This when thousands had already died and many were being hospitalized. You only get empathy for what you can see or experience, and this is why people did not understand the gravity of the situation. Even here in Amsterdam, people were casually watching movies, filling up cafes, and partying it up right up to the moment where everything was shut down. Only now, after 3 weeks, do you see people actively distancing themselves from others out in the public.

Every day brings some kind of dire news — ICUs falling short, healthcare staff running out of protective gear, working overtime, people losing jobs. While there have been instances of people banding together to thank the healthcare professionals, all the cheerleading can’t make up for the fact that they’re exasperated. They can’t isolate themselves, and while the rest of the privileged world could debate whether shutdowns are better or not compared to just letting people die, these professionals know that they’re up against a challenge that puts them front and center in the enemy’s crosshairs.

And yet, some countries and people have found this to be a good time to further divide others along religious or patriotic lines. The financial news is full of reports of one country strong-arming the other in exchange of humanitarian supplies, or any one leader sowing sectarian division and hence fortifying their voter base. Clearly, not everyone has risen to the challenge to leave this world better than how we found it.

So, what’s next? I don’t know. A huge part of me is optimistic that humanity would come out stronger and more cohesive after we’re done with this. People would get back to basics, care more about the planet — after all, the climate emergency is none any lesser important than this current crisis — yet, we didn’t stop polluting the planet until now. While the virus is killing the frail and the unfortunate, cities are seeing unprecedented levels of clean air and tranquil, empty city centers. Tourism has made a full-stop. The other part of me doesn’t have much faith in our collective memories. This too shall pass and we shall slowly ramp back up to our old ways — to flying to a new city for a ‘quick weekend break’, to sitting next to people and yet being distant, to not voting for policies that seek to empower everyone with wonderful health care and employment benefits.

Time will tell what’s next.

The best we could do is to stay positive and keep caring.