#32 | Startup Masterclass, VR, Robot Art, Trips and Upcoming Podcast

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It’s been over 2 months — things piled up!

MENU

  1. MASTERCLASS: 40 speakers talk about startup exits

  2. TALKS & WRITING: IoT Trends, On Asia, On writing

  3. NEW EXPERIENCES: Meeting the future, Budapest, Last straw, Manila, Phuket, Body damage

  4. CULTURE CORNER: Art by robots, BoJack, Rules for Life

  5. THOUGHTS: Why I write a newsletter, Upcoming podcasts

1.
STARTUP EXIT MASTERCLASS

Your Exit SWAT Team:
VCs, CEO (Jump, acq. by Uber), Corp dev (IBM), Banker (HSBC)

Quick recap

HAX made 200 investments in hardware startups and SOSV (the fund behind us), totals over 700. For everyone to get paid (founders, team and investors), they have to ‘exit’ at some point (M&A or IPO, mainly). Being unprepared means founders are missing opportunities and leaving money on the table.

So Cyril (founder of HAX) and I organized four full-day ‘masterclasses’ on startup exits in June with a total of 40 speakers (corp dev, bankers, lawyers, CEOs, etc. —including Cisco, IBM, HSBC…) across SF, NYC, London, and Paris.

Outcomes

  • We took detailed notes for ALL the sessions! (and average videos - still likely the largest selection of exit-related videos out there).

  • I recommend to read the (1) Corp Dev sessions (4 cities - with Cisco, Logitech, IBM), (2) Banker sessions in NYC and SF (CODE Advisors and HSBC) (3) M&A CEO sessions in London (Ubiquisys, who planned very well the exit to Cisco) and NYC (Jump Bikes, sold to Uber).

  • I wrote a first article for Techcrunch on What Every Founder Should Know About Exits (planning on a series) and an earlier blog post Why Founders Need to Prepare Early For Exits.

  • We will organize another event in Q4 focused strategic & PE acquisitions.

2.
TALKS & WRITINGS

IoT Trends

During the RISE conference in Hong Kong, we co-hosted an event on IoT with KPMG. We had an unexpected 320 (!) RSVPs (we were hoping for 100). Here are the transcripts and videos of hardware insights from startups and investors. Our related “Trends” report is coming out soon.

Podcast

I was on the AshleyTalks podcast to talk about ecosystems, Asia, Shenzhen, hardware and a few lessons I learned from (my) life.

Writing about writing

My writing tips for startups. It matters more than you think!

15 (18) years of Asia in 15 minutes

Talk given in Paris (in French) at the La French Touch conference in May 2018. Video, slides. It covers ecosystem differences, and other perspectives.

3.
NEW EXPERIENCES

Meeting the Future

Sophia the robot, Steve Mann and… Netflix on VR

It’s of course a joke since we’re meeting the future every day at HAX already. Still, I had a few interesting encounters:

  • Sophia the robot. It/she’s still in the uncanny valley … also we couldn’t really converse well (she goes into long monologues when she picks up some words she can elaborate on). I still am not sold on humanoid robots (I wrote about Pepper before) and I think this one really confuses people because it mixes up NLP, AI, Voice synthesis and Cybernetics, which don’t work so well together yet ... To me (and as an investor), the least humanoid, the more useful.

  • Steve Mann, father of wearable computing. Fascinating guy, who visited HAX and gave a talk about sousveillance and other concepts (you can find it here).

Aside from that, and after testing several VR devices over the years, I bought an Oculus Go. A friend said he knew someone who had it. I asked him: what does he do with it? ‘He just watches Netflix on his bed’. That was good enough for me: I wanted one too!

I can report that it is *good*. The quality is there, good image, good sound, good memory, no need for phone or computer. The price is very reasonable (only $200-$250). Made by Xiaomi (how it came to be might be a classic case of ‘Cherchez la femme’).

After spending time in the vast open space of VR with headphones on, going back to ‘meat space’ feel… eery. It’s great for planes and airports, though it probably looks weird (but who cares?).

Tried so far:

  1. The living room and ‘movie theatre’ modes for Netflix work great - it feels like you’re watching a huge screen.

  2. The classic 3D immersive dinosaur video and roller-coaster are ok. Good for newcomers.

  3. A ‘3D painting’ app. I wasn’t sure how to enjoy it.

  4. A ‘puzzle’ game called ‘Land’s End’ (very nice). By the guys who did Monument on mobile.

  5. One airplane battle game demo. It made me a bit dizzy - I am yet to try to the full game. I had heard about people getting motion sickness with VR. That’s the closest I got.

  6. The ‘expected’ POV videos for both genders. Some are interesting but I found ‘being in the scene’ sometimes too close for comfort.

  7. Finally, a week ago I tried a Face your fears” app. Its Stranger Things scene was a bit disturbing. On the upside, a friend told me VR helped him face his fear of heights … and in this app you can experience spiders, snakes, an airplane crash, darkness, and a bunch of other things. Maybe the next stop is to address or experiment with social fears like stage fright or ‘approach anxiety’? To make those work we might need a bit of AI, ML and NLP - and maybe an EEG sensor or two :)

Stranger Things on VR will creep you out

Budapest

I visited Budapest for a few days, and it’s worth a visit! Each country has a “brand” but for Hungary I could only remember Rubik’s cube, Bulgarian yogurt, Vlad Tepes (his reputation for cruelty and name inspired Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula) and the Cicciolina (Ilona Staller).

As it turns out, other highlights multiple ruin pubs, the Vlad Tepes underground labyrinth, and a pitch dark “blind experience”: an hour in pitch dark spaces (apartment/street/museum) guided by a blind person. The latter visit was surprising, useful (how to approach/help), and at times terrifying (walking in the chaos of a ‘street’). Last but not least, a museum dedicated to escapologist Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz, and renamed after French magician Jean-Eugene Robert Houdin). Houdini’s tricks were pretty smart — in particular the needle trick, brick wall and milk can.

Looking at a list of Hungarian celebs I also noticed George Soros, John von Neumann (‘the computer and the brain’), Liszt, Bartok, Joseph Pulitzer, Bela Lugosi (Dracula in Hollywood) and… Attila?

Side Note: The Last Straw

In a hip cafe in Budapest, I ordered a fresh mint lemonade. I couldn’t mix it without utensils so I asked for a straw. The waiter guilted me asking ‘you want to kill a dolphin?’ Half-joke but still … I suggested he cleans the straw after I used it, but he wasn’t convinced. Later on, I realized that all the other customers used straws! It became a running joke ... and I started to notice later in my travels all the places with many straws (Thailand), straw warnings, recyclables straws (tend to go soft…) or metal straws (HK). It’s the last straw!

Straws—or lack thereof—in Budapest, Phuket and Hong Kong

Manila

A last minute trip to visit a friend. Learned a lot about the politics and history of the place in a few days (including a great walking tour by local performer/activist @carlosceldran). Last minute update: the tour guide is going to jail! (for mocking the clergy back in 2010). The sentence was announced Monday.

Performer tour, Lechon, Health, Dental and Beauty. More fun in the Philippines!

On the ‘country brand’ side, I knew the ‘More fun in the Philippines’ slogan, their colorful president Duterte, their love of karaoke (and cover bands), Manny Pacquiao, the balut embryo thing (haven’t tried) and … Bruno Mars?

Overall, I did not find Manila to be the fanciest place: traffic is horrific, local food is very greasy, salty and sweet (lechon was delicious, though - h/t Anthony Bourdain ‘Best Pig Ever!’), the city has little visible history and people mostly hang out in malls. For the record, it was a Spanish colony 1521-1898 (province of…Mexico?) then sold to U.S. (for $20M—how much would it be today?), switching Spanish to English. Manila was a top cosmopolitan Asian city and port before WWII, but that ended with the Japanese occupation (10 hours after Pearl Harbor) and the subsequent massive U.S. bombing (100,000 civilians dead). If ‘geography is destiny’, Philippines could have been … Singapore?

Today? Well, it’s a bit of a mess: huge rich/poor divide, corruption (people sometimes paid off in … gasoline, ‘a little corruption makes country move faster', ‘Don't do direct contracts, let professionals handle the corruption.’), political instability (with former president Arroyo back as Speaker of the House—labeled a coup d’etat), a few families controlling most industries, and the overwhelming influence of the Church (pros & cons is open for debate).

My friend suggested we do some health tourism, so I did a full battery of tests at MyHealth Clinic. It involved all kinds of bodily fluids and solids, as well as an ultrasound of the abdomen (note: I’m not expecting). Producing all samples went surprisingly well (despite being offline). Miles Davis distracted me from thinking about the many blood vials being filled. Result: all clear.

I also went for dental at Affinity Health & Wellness (top notch clinic, some are 4 times cheaper), for a facial at Let’s Face It (second in a lifetime), and ordered a massage at home.

The bill:

  • SGPT, Lipid profile, FBS, STD, CHEA, HBAIC, UA, Fertility, Fecalysis, Abdomen ultrasound = $143 (7,580 PHP)

  • CBC, HBSAG, HIV, VRDL, Urinalysis = $47 (2,500 PHP)

  • Dental cleaning + panoramic X-ray = $62 (3,250 PHP)

  • Facial treatment + ‘seaweed’ mask = $16 (845 PHP)

  • 2 hours homecall massage = $13 (700 PHP).

Phuket

I visited my friend competing in muay thai and joined some trainings at his gym (it’s my third trip). Bruises ensued. The spot was next to one of the top beaches in Asia so though I am not much of a sun/beach guy I gave it a shot. Unfortunately it was the day when crocodiles (!) were spotted in the water.

Summer shave, Training & consequences, Nai Harn beach (#3 in Asia)

Bruises, Broken Bones & Twisted Joints

This year was rich in training but also in body damage: a fractured rib at BJJ in Paris (memo: don’t train right off a morning flight), a twisted knee following repeat locks from a Russian sambo guy in Thailand, and many bruises from muay thai training. Oddly, while it made me more careful it didn’t really bother me: I don’t intend to bring a body in mint condition to the grave, and am fine with some damage (ideally with recovery!). Is this a slippery slope?

Taipei

I’m now in Taipei for a few days. First thing I did was to … leave a small bag (with passport and credit card) in a taxi. Of course I didn’t have the receipt, name or number plate. I told the hotel, who sent me to the police station, which showed me the security camera footage on their computer. We were about to identify the taxi when the hotel called to report the driver had brought it back. I had gotten off the taxi at 12:03, I got the call at 12:45 (and the footage a minute later). Not bad!

4.
CULTURE CORNER

[ Rating: *waste of time ****great ]

EXHIBITS

Robot art****

A display of various old and more recent robots making art in Paris. Robots and A.I. might not only replace truck drivers and portfolio managers, but also artists? One interesting robot was observing and drawing objects placed in front of it using a pen. The drawings were on sale for 250 euros a piece.

Graffiti robot from Japan, Still-life drawing robot

Ryoji Ikeda**

The Paris MoMa welcome a visual/acoustic installation by this Japanese artist. The giant wall projection was quite mesmerizing but maybe not fully worth the entrance price.

The Iliad***

Part of a series recounting Homer’s Iliad and the siege of Troye, with actual French convicts as performers (they had strong stage presence, and rugged delivery), as well as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s son, Brontis.

Philippe Katerine**

Booked last minute. A poetry / music performance by a locally famous French musician. Using illustrations. It was… unusual.

TV & MOVIES

Thoughts & Prayers (Netflix)****

Very deadpan and dark humor standup comedy. I hadn’t laughed at comedy so much for a while!

BoJack Horseman (Netflix)****

I just finished this Netflix animation series and enjoyed it. I would call it a hybrid of Californication and Curb your enthusiasm.

The Founder***

The story of Ray Kroc, CEO of McDonald’s, recommended to me by a Parisian Uber driver (who also mentioned a fast-growing French kebab chain called Nabab, which just raised $5M euros). How system and business model innovation changed the landscape of fast food. “A man is what he thinks about all day long - Ralph Waldo Emerson”

Solo: A Star Wars Story***

A pretty decent job covering the early years of Han Solo.

Who is America**

The latest series by Sacha Baron Cohen. I watched the first few episodes but wasn’t blown away. Entertaining but … maybe later ones are better? Or you can relate more if you’re American?

BOOKS

12 Rules For Life****

By Jordan Peterson. I got the audiobook and enjoyed it. He’s encouraging us to take responsibility and be meaningfully productive for ourselves and others. No more excuses!

Some quotes from his book and lectures:

  • “Why should you bother improving yourself? So that you don't suffer more than you have to, and others too.”

  • “Fix what you can particularly things you do every day, within your domain of competence. You don't just start tinkering away when you see a broken helicopter.”

  • “How about your heroic willingness to encounter the unknown, and articulate it, and share it with people? There's no nobler vision than that.”

  • “I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.”—Bertrand Russell

The Contrabass***

A cute short fiction by Patrick Suskind (of The Perfume fame) interviewing a contrabass (double bass) player. “The backbone of the orchestra but at the bottom of the hierarchy.” — the contrabass is a difficult lover: it needs it own room (to practice), takes lots of space, and very few musical pieces have it as a star.

5.
THOUGHTS

Why I am writing a newsletter

It boils down to this:

  1. Keeping in touch with you

  2. Writing is thinking

  3. A practice for transparency & vulnerability

  4. A practice for questioning & dissent

Let me elaborate.

  1. Keeping in touch with people is not easy. This newsletter have caused quite a few people to message me back for work and non-work related topics.

  2. Writing forces me to structure thoughts and do additional research on topics that interest me (note: I only write about my interests). It’s often a first iteration. Also, I try to find ways to keep things engaging.

  3. Transparency & vulnerability: I initially got inspired by a friend who goes into some detail about his thoughts, love life, and bowel movement. I picked a different angle, but I think sharing thoughts and some personal details—including awkward ones— is useful practice to connect with people at a deeper level (1st level: phatic communication; 2nd: facts; 3rd: opinions; 4th: vulnerability).

  4. Questioning & dissent. Every era has its doxa, groupthink, thought police … however you want to call it. If my favorite question is “What do you mean?”,
    my second favorite is “Why do I think I’m right?”. I question popular opinions, but also my own views, which are often simply inherited or passively formatted. To do this it is necessary to give a fair hearing to other perspectives (steel-manning vs. straw-manning). On non-controversial topics it barely matters, but some topics are hot potatoes, causing self-censorship and mob rule. Then, ‘thinking in public’ can be painful for the thinker … Yet: no pain, no gain?

The practice of questioning and dissent is like a muscle. It need training. Social psychologists have warned us against obedience to authority, conformity and the necessity of building character (Milgram, Zimbardo, Asche … — though both the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Marshmallow test have been questioned recently). In my last newsletter I wrote about the possible excesses of #metoo and #toxicmasculinity. The WSJ has written something on the topic.

What I find most problematic is today’s mob rule and lack or clear paths to re-integrate offenders into civil society with amends, rules, or rituals. Accusations are a ‘social death penalty’ with a chilling effect on gender relations and free speech. This situation saddens me.

The doxa doesn’t stop there:

  • I wonder why so few voices are heard against the far-reaching Free Trade Agreement between Japan and EU. Of course “free trade” is yet another “semantic prison which does not permit us to think straight” (Aldous Huxley). Patriot Act, anyone?

  • STEM. I wonder if STEM is becoming the modern ‘vocational training’. I heard recently of a company who hires McDonald’s staff and trains them to do basic web development and support. They go from a $20k/year to $50k. The business is thriving. There needs to be some refinement within STEM to go beyond the current cargo cult, and create higher value skills.

One word: STEMUpcoming: Podcasts

Back in March I was invited to give a talk to a group of EU and Chinese university students. It featured some ideas on how to gain more courage, agency, and turn randomness into serendipity.

In fact, I have been thinking and writing for a while about various ‘things I wish I knew’ and could tell my younger self. I’m making an attempt at turning those into short podcasts. Stay tuned!

PS: Slide 34 has a list of recommended (and increasingly difficult) challenges to get you started on the path to (more) agency!

Cheers from sunny Asia!
—Ben