Creating viral content

I met with a friend this week who's in the process of launching a fascinating new art/political campaign. It's still stealth right now but they're trying to lay the groundwork for viral growth once the story goes live. I followed up with some feedback/suggestions and I'll share some the take-aways from that email here.

Virality is impossible to engineer. Many have tried, indeed, the best PR firms try every day, but only a very lucky few succeed. If you think about some of the most popular Youtube videos (Gangam Style, Charlie bit my finger, etc.) or books (Harry Potter, Malcolm Gladwell, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc.) it's very difficult to identify what specifically made them successful. Some are home videos, some are vampire fan fiction, some are thoughtful academic analyses, etc. One thing is clear: the creators didn't know whether they were releasing a hit or a flop.

If you want to create a viral movement around your story, the best you can do is create the best darn story possible. It needs to be good enough that people who have no relationship with you will engage with it so deeply that they feel compelled to share it of their own accord. At the end of the day, this is really the only thing that matters.

Orchestrating and executing a stellar launch plan is the best way to seed the world with your idea. This is how you get the initial word out. If your story is good enough, timely enough and lucky enough then those seeds can grow into a viral movement around your message.

Achieving virality in 'one big push' is particularly difficult. This is why so many popular authors release series of books. If you are releasing successive tranches of amazingly good content then (1) you have more at-bats to get lucky and go viral and (2) you develop a core fan base that become your evangelists to help you achieve said success.

Monetizing virality is equally subtle. It's easy to monetize a movement after it goes viral. You have endless opportunities to up-sell people on something they care deeply about (look how much money George Lucas made with Star Wars merchandise). But it's very difficult to build monetization into the movement early on. That's why Facebook is still free for users. Charging a lot for things reduces rate of uptake and if you truly want a message to go viral, rate of uptake is what it's all about. That's not to say you can't charge at all. Obviously people paid for Harry Potter. But it leads to sometimes counterintuitive approaches: if you give away 20 thousand ebooks (and ~0 marginal cost to you), would that help you achieve an additional 50 thousand in sales? Maybe (bestselling authors such as Guy Kawasaki have used this approach to great effect).

All this goes to show that it's impossible to orchestrate popularity. The best approach is to create a product that's as amazing as it can possibly be and to think outside the box about how to get the word out.

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Beer + Coffee = Success.

Come up with great ideas!
I was sipping on a latte at Turquoise Coffee in San Diego today chatting with a friend who's an Australian serial entrepreneur. We were discussing the cultural differences between the startup scenes of San Diego and Silicon Valley and the cultural similarities of artists and entrepreneurs. Then we realized something awesome: beer + coffee = success.

Beer loosens up your mental muscles and lowers you inhibitions to thinking outside the box. It's the perfect beverage to pair with brainstorming. Beer fuels your creativity.

Execute them!
Coffee gets you in the zone and helps you brush away distractions. It's the perfect beverage to pair with execution. Coffee fuels your productivity.

If you combine coffee, beer and smart, action-oriented people, there's nothing that can stand in your way. A guy at the adjacent table in the cafe overheard our conversation. He interrupted to say, "Write a book about that! I'll be your first customer."

A book might take a while but for the meantime, hopefully this post can suffice. 

How to raise money from VCs? Romance.

I was up in Silicon Valley last month at the IBM SmartCamp finals. The finalist companies ranged from neurologic diagnostics, to agricultural data analytics, to office space optimization software (you can read about all six finalists here).

The event included a panel on startup financing and the moderator asked Bill Reichert from Garage Ventures a question that every aspiring entrepreneur in the room was thinking: how do they decide which startups to invest in?

Practice those pick-up lines
Bill's a great guy, a VC thought leader, and he gave a fantastic answer: you've got to make the investor fall in love with you. The dirty secret of early stage tech investing is that there's so little data to base your investment decision on. If you're investing in later stage private companies or public companies you have years of financial performance, market indicators, competitive analysis and historical trends that can inform your bet. That's why later stage investors employ so many algorithms and analysts.

But what if you invest in brand new companies building brand new products based on brand new technologies that create brand new markets? Suddenly all those metrics go out the window. How do you evaluate 'promise' or 'potential' in a quantitative, replicable way? The short answer is "you don't." Early stage VCs make their decisions almost exclusively based on people. They need to trust in their gut that you're smart, scrappy and dedicated enough that you're gong to go to the wall for the opportunity. Good VCs have built up enough intuitive pattern recognition from working with fantastic entrepreneurs that they have a chance at spotting that kind of talent early on.

But more than anything else you need to make your VC fall in love. They need to fall in love with you, your team, your product and your market. They need to fall for you so hard that there isn't even a true investment decision to make, they should feel like there's no choice in the matter. You need to woo them so effectively that they will go the extra mile to bring their partners into the fold. You need to intrigue them to the point that they're dreaming about you in their off time.

The beauty here is that you'll need that same skill with romance in every other aspect of your business. If you want to be a great CEO you need to make your team, your partners and, most of all, your customers fall in love with you. So start stringing your bow and channelling Cupid, because you need the world to be your valentine.

Kevin Spacey on the future of storytelling

Technology continues to shift the tectonic plates underlying the music/book/movie/TV/content industries. I've been learning a lot about the publishing side as I prepare to release my new book. Although the book and TV business may look very different from the outside, the fundamental dynamics of technological change are driving them all in the same direction. At the end of the day people want good stories. If you haven't yet seen House of Cards, it's a great example. But nobody can say it better than the man himself:

Gourmet desert camping in Nevada

Desert camping isn't for everyone. Conditions can be harsh, especially for peak heat times in the middle of summer. Without natural sources of water and shade, dehydration and sun poisoning could easily happen. Extreme self-reliance is the best way to survive and lack of preparation could have devastating consequences.

A very fancy desert (Dubai)
Good thing we're not everyone and we love extremes! For our first week back in the United States of America, we decided to go desert camping for a week, in the middle of the northern Nevada desert. We had actually planned on going there before we left on our 6-month sabbatical and paid $380 each to secure our spot for our tent. Usually, camping is never that expensive. However, this type of camping is as unique as it gets so we had to commit eight months in advance to it.

We're talking, of course, about Burning Man: absolutely, 100%, one of the most epic events we have ever attended in our lives. Burning Man is very hard to explain so it is best to just go see for yourself. The reason it's so hard is because the event becomes what you want it to be. Many people bring their children for a family experience, many people come to do ultramarathons and others, like us, come as foodies, not knowing what to expect but excited about everything.

Our two good friends spent all summer planning for Burning Man. One of them, in particular, planned everything in insane detail and we had everything from 1,000 baby wipes to superglued seals on every single car window to keep the majority of the playa dust out.

All four of us are total foodies so we went on very fun food shopping sprees and prepared meals in advance. We packed the 'obvious' camping food such as canned beans, corn, rice and curries in pouches, but we also packed exciting foodie treats. We were thrilled to find bacon jerky and purchased the Costco size bags of that amazing treasure. We brought two huge logs of goat cheese, a large wedge of Manchego cheese, an entire wooden box stuffed with smoked salmon from Seattle, garlic and jalapeƱo stuffed olives, a case of V-8 fruit and veggie juices and our home mix of hemp and almond granola with raisins.
Preparing the lasagna sauce

Eliot made a gallon of home-made cold brew coffee and Drea made cinnamon tea soda syrup. We also made two pans of home made lasagna with beef and de-cased Italian sausages (Drea did this by hand), an entire head of garlic and a dash of nutmeg to give it a Bologna twist. Our friends made an amazing summer gazpacho with tons of parsley, lemon, Tunisian olive oil and refreshing cucumbers plus at least two dozen juicy home-made meatballs in an amazing home-made tomato sauce (peeled AND seeded tomatoes!). Oh and let's not forget their tasty garbanzo, parsley, parmesan cheese salad.

We showed up at Burning Man and were in awe for at least 144 hours. The dry heat suppressed our appetites a bit but we still found time to indulge in decadent meals. Thanks to our extremely detail-oriented friend who planned 99% of our journey to the desert, we were able to keep our pre-made meals frozen solid with the 50 pounds of dry ice we stuffed in three coolers.

The Man
De-frosting was super easy: we took out the containers in the morning and by dinner time, they had naturally thawed. We ate the gazpacho and garbanzo salad cold and then heated up the lasagna and the meatballs on the propane camp stove. Our other campmates brought a healthy kale and broccoli salad and we destroyed it our first night. We also indulged in the best home-made grilled cheese sandwiches we've ever had! Part of the secret was toasting the bread on both sides and using three layers of cheese (we're getting hungry just writing this!).

Fire cyclones as the Man burns on Saturday
Burning Man thrives on a gift economy and we were lucky to have delicious treats along the way. At Burning Man, you give. The gifts we received were absolutely fabulous. As far as food goes, we had Montreal-style smoked meat sandwiches (think gourmet smoked/corned beef and spicy mustard) served by our Canadian neighbors, fresh ground coffee used to make legit Vietnamese iced coffee (ice is a highly coveted item at Burning Man), emperor's tea from China prepared in front of us at a formal tea ceremony (the tea had to be smuggled into the US because it is worth more than gold by weight!) and cheese fondue straight from a fondue pot!

We will try to make this a yearly event for us and we look forward to the foodie events we missed: bacon bloodys, morning hash browns, home-made pickles, massive barbecues and whatever else we are bound to walk or bike into.

Co-posted on

Robot Heart Party

Awesome Playa Sunset

Biking around, checking out art exhibitions everywhere

Mango sticky rice in a climbers' paradise

Approaching Tonsai
“For the stone from the top for geologists, the knowledge of the limits of endurance for the doctors, but above all for the spirit of adventure to keep alive the soul of man.” --George Mallory, British mountaineer 

We were really tired of spending Ramadan in Muslim countries. It turned into a real hassle in Maldives and Indonesia so we made a game time decision to seek out the Buddha instead. Luckily Thailand isn't too far from Sumatra so we jumped on a quick flight to Krabi via Kuala Lumpur (KL). This, of course, wasn't part of our budget plan but we decided it would be worth it nonetheless.

Our evening spent in KL was surprisingly fun. We stayed in the budget friendly Chinatown area and explored the local night market for street eats and cheap gear for Burning Man later that month. Then we zipped back to the airport and hopped over to Krabi. 

We stayed in Tonsai, part of a series of three beaches on an isolated peninsula on the Andaman Sea that doesn't have road access. Visitors have to take the traditional long-tail boats from Krabi beach to get out there. We wandered around for a while in the jungle up behind the beach searching out places to stay. Tonsai is the cheapest of the three beaches on the peninsula but we were still surprised at the costs. 

Our guide only climbed barefoot
Lucky for us, the week turned out to be indeed well worth it. We signed up for a three day lead climbing course with Basecamp Tonsai, the most reputable climbing operator in the area (German-managed). Before starting our sabbatical we had spent a year climbing three to four days a week in a climbing gym in San Diego. Climbing in Tonsai blew all of that away.

The rocks in Tonsai are absolutely epic. Spires of limestone jut thousands of feet up from sparkling tropical ocean and verdant jungle. We were there in the 'wet' season and it rained for about three hours total for the whole week were there. There are a lot of overhangs so even if it rains a lot of the rock stays dry. There are tons of bolted routes for sport climbing and literally thousands for trad, which attracts some very serious climbers. Even during this low season, most of the decent places were pretty full and the majority of the best climbers we saw were from Spain, Australia and England. 

Eliot leads a beach route
We had a blast learning how to lead climb. For the uninitiated, lead climbing is when you set up your own safety ropes as you make your way up the rock. It means you often take longer falls than you otherwise which alters the psychology of your climb: you tend to be more risk averse. We climbed all day every day and even tried deep water soloing, climbing without safety but jumping off into the ocean. Unfortunately on the last day of our class Drea took a dangerous fall and hurt her ankle. It could have been a lot worse so we racked that up as a win.

The other rockin' thing about Tonsai is that once you're done scaling rocks, you get to gorge on delicious Thai food and wash it down with Eliot's favorite: Thai iced tea! We gobbled up mountains of mango sticky rice to fuel our climbing adventures and look forward to returning to Tonsai to sharpen our skills some more!

But we had a flight back to California via Singapore scheduled for the next week. Some might say it was the end of our trip but we thought it was just the beginning. We were headed to Burning Man.

Co-posted on

Drea's about to fall
Drea's awesome belay attitude!

Eliot fends off local mozzies

Not bad, not bad at all

Deep water solo territory

At last, Thai iced tea...

Book Review: Nexus

Ramez Nam spent 13 years building cutting edge communication and artificial intelligence software at Microsoft. He founded Apex NanoTechnologies, which built software for molecular design. He's also a huge adventure fan, climbing mountains, diving reefs, etc.

Along the way he must have learned a thing or two about storytelling because his debut novel, Nexus, is simply awesome. It's an international cocktail of nanotechnology, neuroscience, geopolitics and Buddhism. It touches on everything from the Silicon Valley tech world, to San Francisco rave culture and Thai mountain temples.

Ramez recently released the sequel, Crux, which I can't wait to dive into. If you're into technology, adventure and imagination then don't miss 'em.

Unstoppable appetites in our 48 hour stay on the Little Red Dot

Isn't it amazing that there's such a place on earth that's only about 270 square miles in size (yes, this includes all the reclaimed land), can't really grow much of anything because the whole island is a rock, is home to about 5 million people and has more than 3,000 restaurants? That's approximately 11 restaurants per square mile!
A mighty and flavorful little city

With so many places offering so much food, it's the perfect destination for non-stop eating, drinking, savoring, sampling and tasting. Plus, every type of palate and wallet will find a suitable place: from the lavishly expensive at over $400++ for dinner for one (plus, plus, of course is for all the extra taxes on top of the restaurant price) according to a local blogger, to the deliciously cheap at just a buck fifty for one of the most famous local delicacies.

Ever since Drea first visited this foreign land back in 2005, it has always remained the best hub in the world for food and every time we visit, it never disappoints. Singapore offers just about every type of food and is the foodie's Shangri-La. Which is exactly why, if we can help it, we always try to make Singapore one of our long connections or short-term destinations when traveling throughout Asia.

So, what's the big deal with food in Singapore? Well, let us count the [eight] ways:
  1. Thirsty much? Singapore has an amazing selection of tropical fruits so you can grab any type of exotic fruit juice no matter where you are: soursop, lime, mango or kumquat are extremely refreshing. Tea and coffee are great alternatives if you crave a little energy: grab yourself a kopi-o (black coffee), kopi-c (coffee with milk, "c" was originally for Carnation milk in a can) or Eliot's favorite, tea tarik (pulled tea). On a budget? pop into any 7-eleven and grab an iced milo or an unsweetened green tea.
    Tea Tarik with mushroom and cheese roti paratha and fish curry sauce: Breakfast!

  2. Love fruit? So do we. In Singapore you can find the most amazing selection of tropical fruits including: the local favorite durian, which we still find repulsive and don't even recommend you try unless you're feeling very, very adventurous, the queen of all fruit, mangosteen, juicy rambutans, lychees and longan (or lamyai), jackfruit (tastes like Starbursts!), jambu which looks like an apple but tastes more like a pear, green guava with powdered plum or the magenta dragon fruit among dozens and dozens of others.
  3. Breakfast time? Grab yourself a roti paratha stuffed with cheese, potatoes, mushrooms or bananas and dip it in your pick of chicken or fish curry sauce. Or go local and grab a kaya toast set. Kaya is a coconut based jam and you can eat it on seriously buttered toast and dip it in soft boiled eggs with a drop or two of dark soy sauce.
    Kaya toast with chunks of butter
  4. On a budget? Two words: chicken rice. For less than $5 dollars, you can snack, lunch or dine on a plate of chicken rice: it's just roasted chicken on top of rice cooked in chicken broth. This national dish is sold at nearly every food court and its simplicity (similar to Italian food!) is what makes it so damn irresistible. Make sure you get it with the special spicy sauce!
    Chicken Rice! Don't forget the sauce!
  5. Ready to have your mind blown? Grab yourself a pepper crab! Pepper crab is another national dish: whole crabs are served smothered in an insanely peppery, dark thick sauce that infiltrates every little crevice of the claws, legs and body making the crab meat insanely juicy and flavorful.
    Peppery pepper crab
  6. Ready to have your mind blown again? Three words: Xiao Long Bao (XLB)! Although not a national dish, we were just ecstatic that Singapore hosts Taiwan's famous Din Tai Fung at several locations. For those of you poor souls who have never gone through the XLB experience, make it one of your life's priorities. These dumplings are delicately stuffed with pork and soup. Yes, soup, so that once you bite into them, you experience an explosion of flavor and delight. XLB isn't unique to Singapore by any means but we just really wanted to write about it!
    The XLB experience
  7. In the mood for soup? Grab a Laksa! This one is definitely Singaporean (and Malay) and it consists of a thick coconut broth typically served with shrimp, sliced fish cakes, boiled eggs, thick rice noodles and fresh sprouts. This is a heavy one so it's fun to share if you want to keep on eating.
  8. Want to grab a light snack? Try popiah! This insanely crunchy but non-greasy spring roll is stuffed with fresh veggies, shrimp and dipped in peanut sauce. For a meatier snack, grab some satay. These meat skewers are originally Indonesian but are found everywhere. Enjoy with rice cakes, cucumbers, onions and dip it in spiced peanut sauce. For a more traditional Chinese snack, grab a simple rice bun stuffed with braised, tender juicy pork belly and a lettuce leaf (gotta make it healthy somehow!).
    Pork belly bun

Believe it or not, we ate every single thing on our list above (and then some more!) during our 48 hour visit to Singapore. Next time you look at a world map, just remember that there is indeed a small country underneath that red dot capital marker where multitudes of lucky visitors and residents experience some of the best variety of quality food the world has to offer.

Co-posted on

And then some....

So lucky our visit coincided with Singapore's food festival!

Kwai Tiao - delicious noodles w/oysters

Feasting at Din Tai Fung in addition to our 30 XLB order!

Did we mention Singaporeans are really friendly?

Boiled, soft peanuts

Fancy chicken rice with crispy tofu and braised greens