Many startups have this strategy: “Let’s get as many users as possible, and worry about monetizing later.” And, some startups have the opposite problem where their monetization strategy is sound but cannot build enough user traction. I use an analogy of building a campfire to describe these problems. Square, for instance, was able to build user traction very quickly because their card reader was revolutionary. They struck the fire-starter rod once, and the tinder (shaved pieces of wood or pieces of paper) caught on fire immediately. It started spreading quickly to the kindling (small pieces of wood, twigs, or branches), but they had no fuel wood (large blocks of wood). It looks like they didn’t even think about where to get the fuel wood from when they launched the company. Other financial firms like Chase and Citibank have introduced their own mobile card readers. They have plenty of fuel wood as traditional banks. Now Square’s kindling is burning out, and their flames are getting smaller. If they don’t find the fuel wood soon, their campfire will go out completely. Read »

In the old days, if you tried to sell baskets that you weaved, the main criteria by which your potential customers made their purchasing decisions was how useful they were and how nice they looked. Today, the main criteria is how cheaply they can buy the same thing elsewhere. I would call this “arbitrage economy” because it’s about gaining from market discrepancies/inaccuracies. Read »

When I came to New York from Japan to attend art school in the late 80s, my English was quite poor. Now that I’m fluent, I can understand how awkward and cumbersome it must have been to talk to me then. These days, when I talk for a long time to someone whose English is poor, talking to someone who is fluent afterwards makes me feel relieved. So, it’s understandable that most people did not want to talk to me in college. After all, why volunteer to be an unpaid English teacher? But I had several friends in college who went out of their way to get to know me. I’m not sure what motivated them but I suspect they were generally curious of foreign and unusual things. I didn’t approach them; they approached me. I’m forever grateful of them. They not only taught me English but the culture and the various subcultures of this country too. Read »

At work, we were just talking about how it may not be worth our while to put our time and money into Facebook. Their recent change ruined the whole idea of Facebook Page. It basically turned Facebook Page into an advertising delivery mechanism. If you don’t “promote” your posts by paying, you can’t reach anyone, which means every “post” is nothing more than an ad. If so, why would anyone “Like” any Page? By Liking any Facebook Page, you would essentially be asking for ads to be inserted into your News Feed. It’s silly. People will now stop Liking Pages. Read »

Someone should start a prenuptial camp where couples who are considering getting married would be stress-tested. This camp should be completely neutral in their opinion of whether the couples should get married or not. That is, they shouldn't try to design the camp to strengthen the bond, or offer any kind of advice, coaching, or counseling. All they should do is to create a situation that puts a significant amount of stress in their relationships. Read »

In an episode of “This American Life”, I came across a discussion on how to talk to people with dementia or alzheimer’s. The conclusion was that things go pretty smoothly if you would just go along with their reality. So, if someone starts talking about flying monkeys outside the window, you would just say it’s still early in the season for flying monkeys. Read »

In our lives, we earn and accumulate different forms of wealth or “capital”. We think of “wealth” as mostly consisting of money, or “financial capital”, but other forms are just as valuable. And, it is possible to exchange one form with another. There are many industries that serve as exchanges. The primary function of fine arts is to exchange financial capital with cultural capital. Those who have excess financial capital and little to no cultural capital (like Wall Street bankers) need a way to exchange some of their financial capital with cultural capital. Fine arts is a perfect medium for this exchange because the quantity of each artwork is fixed (usually just one) and they resist counterfeiting, like gold as a medium of exchange. Galleries handle the exchange at the individual level whereas museums handle it at the corporate level. Read »

"Read, read, read" is a common piece of advice for becoming a better writer, but does reading more really make you a better writer? Does seeing more photographs make you a better photographer? Does watching more movies make you a better filmmaker? Does listening to more songs make you a better singer? Does watching more cooking shows make you a better cook? Read »

Some years ago, a doctor asked me what I did for a living. I replied, "graphic design". He said: "Then you must love what you do." His response made me realize that we culturally associate certain careers with the idea of Doing What You Love (DWYL), and that doing what you love can become a coveted status. For those who pursue these cliches of DWYL, actually doing what they love becomes secondary to the societal perception that they are doing what they love. Read »

Recently there has been a lot of talk about “skills gap”. Although there are 4 million unfilled jobs, 11 million people remain unemployed in the US. The most common solution suggested by many, including President Obama, is to attract more people to “STEM” fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). I believe this is misguided, or too short-sighted. By the time our kids in high school graduate from college, STEM fields may already be crowded. The key to closing the skills gap isn’t to choose a field with higher demand, but to increase the speed at which we learn any skills. The main problem in skills gap is that the world is evolving much faster than we can learn. The “half-life” of any professional skill is becoming increasingly shorter. To thrive in today’s technological society, we have to be able to learn fast, and on our own. Read »

When we think about the word “debate”, we commonly think of political debates, like presidential debates on TV. But oral debates in person and in front of an audience (even a few people) is a very rare situation for most of us. The conventional debating skills taught at schools or by executive coaches are not necessarily effective in real life debates. And the form/medium of debate is changing because the means of communication have changed dramatically since the advent of the Internet. Most of us do not engage in formal debates but throughout our day, we are actually debating with many different people over many different matters. We just don’t think about them as “debates”; but they are. The purpose of this essay is to discuss how to effectively debate in real life and in today’s digital world. Read »

Is it still true that "cooler heads prevail"? The reason why cooler heads prevailed in the past is because they were more productive, efficient, predictable, and consistent. These are valuable qualities especially for assembly-line type of jobs. And, this is why, I believe, our society frown upon public display for emotions. We are deemed "unprofessional" if we cry or yell at work. But now that most of the work that give advantages to cooler heads have been replaced by robots, we should rethink the roles of our emotions in business. Read »

To commoditize everyone else's job. Let me explain what I mean by that. is a good example. Let's say, you need a logo designed for your business. You describe what you want, post it on, and a bunch of designers from around the world would design a logo and present it to you. You only pay the winner. It's a great service. It takes advantage of the fact that somewhere in the world there are always some people who are willing to design a logo for free because it's fun. But if you are a professional designer, this is bad news. Now your career has been commoditized by There is less demand for your service, and your fee will come down. Even if you are a high-end designer, this will still affect your business because many other designers will try to climb up the ladder to compete and survive. It brings down the entire market because graphic design as a whole has been commoditized by services like Read »

I've been hearing a lot about Lena Dunham recently but I hadn’t seen any of her work before. I watched Tiny Furniture on Netflix this weekend. What makes this film immediately unique is that the main character is authentically unattractive. She is not ugly but just unattractive and ordinary. Most movies are about human struggles but it’s almost always beautiful people who are struggling over money, love, illness, crimes, injustice, conflicts, wars, careers, friendship, disasters, etc.. Since lead characters have to always be beautiful, movies rarely deal with struggles that arise from being unattractive. Tiny Furniture deals with a topic that concerns many people but is rarely dealt with in films. Read »

As entertaining as Facebook is, it can also be very stressful. Some people even commit Facebook suicide and delete their accounts entirely because the dilemma of temptation and fear drives them insane. Facebook looks harmless on the facade but the danger is quite real. (The minimum age requirement for Facebook is 13, but perhaps it should be 21.) It's not just on Facebook; social interaction in general is dangerous, messy, and stressful because we've been hard-coded to feel that way through evolution. Read »

Just as we cannot objectively measure greatness of love, we cannot objectively measure effectiveness of communication either. Nobody can be a great lover to everyone, and nobody can be a great communicator to everyone. On a résumé or a help wanted ad, it is useless to list "communication skills". Everyone is a good communicator to the people they surround themselves with. Nobody thinks they lack "communication skills". In fact, if someone claims he has "great communication skills", it is a pretty good sign that he has a poor understanding of what communication is. If you need someone to manage communication, you should look for someone who understands the fundamentally nebulous nature of communication, not someone who thinks he knows what he is doing. Read »

I recently attended a gathering of philosophers organized through a website. Although they were all interested in philosophy, I felt like each of them came from a different planet. They spent most of the two-hour meeting defining their own terms, and no real debate or discussion took place. I don't think it was just me who felt this way; one of them described it as "going around in circles". Despite the fact that they all proved their own intelligence and depth of knowledge in the field, nothing meaningful or relevant came out of the meeting. In fact, it was so painful that I started to wonder how a meeting about my favorite subject could be so boring. Read »

In the past 10 years, digital photography has disrupted the market of photographers so much that many of them are now struggling to survive. There are many reasons but one of the most significant factors is the accessibility of the medium. Digital cameras allow us to take as many photos as we want at no cost. In the days of film, the cost of film and processing was a significant barrier to entry; once photographers crossed the barrier, they were in good shape. The barrier protected them from a flood of wannabe photographers. Another barrier to entry was technical competence. Photography used to be a lot more technical, and being able to master the physics of light and to operate complex equipment protected photographers from potential competitors who couldn't. Digital photography destroyed these barriers, and now the market is flooded with self-proclaimed "photographers". And, all of us will become increasingly better at photography as we now carry high quality cameras in our pockets everywhere we go, and can easily share them online to get feedback. Read »

If you Google "Twitter is stupid", you will find many people asking what Twitter is good for and why some people love it so much. They have tried and found it utterly useless. I did too. Since Twitter was founded in 2006, I've tried at least three different times in the past, dedicating a significant amount of time learning about Twitter and using it, and every time, I failed to understand the point of it. Sure, we all have things we don't enjoy that others passionately love. I have no interest in watching sports, but I can at least understand why many people love it. What bothers me about Twitter is that I do not understand it even theoretically. But now I think I've finally solved this big mystery. Read »

A Western mind habitually seeks an essence in everything it sees. It keeps peeling away layers of an onion, hoping to find the essence hidden at the core. It hones in and digs deeper. Specialization, therefore, is how we gain credibility and authority in the West. If we do not specialize, our opinions on any subject would not be taken seriously. We "earn" the qualification to express our opinions by specializing. But specialization blinds us from seeing how things relate to one another. Western doctors, for instance, are so highly specialized (divided by individual organs) that they can only see illness with a microscope as if the essence of each illness is to be found deep within each organ. They are largely unaware of how different parts of our bodies affect one another. Read »

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