Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City

I’ve been in a lot of cities with crazy traffic. Boston has no lane markers on the roads and few street signs. I once thought that was bad.

Bangkok has congestion that means traffic jams at any hour of the day or night.

Moscow is still the only city I’ve been where I felt as a pedestrian that the cars were genuinely trying to kill me.

But still, nothing quite prepared me for Ho Chi Minh City. Every road has an endless stream of scooters carrying 1-5 passengers. Nobody stops, ever. Traffic merges and splits in a continuous and chaotic process that feels a lot like a river. Trucks and buses ease out into traffic and the little particles flow smoothly around them. Or sometimes they don’t…

Observe.

Obama on Reagan

Ben Smith’s blog (link courtesy Matt Drudge of all places) has a clip of Obama talking thoughtfully about Ronald Reagan. I find the ability to look across the aisle and see the good in the other side tremendously appealing although I’m not so confident that the democratic rank and file will see it the same way. (Obama previously mentioned Republicans he’d consider in a hypothetical cabinet and it didn’t take long for the Edwards campaign to slam him for it. )

Whenever I’m discussing politics with someone I always ask them if they had to have a president from “the other party” (whichever party that is) who would they pick? To me the answer to this question says a lot about whether you can listen to what the other side is saying or are blindly partisan.

My answer to that question by the way is John McCain.

Update: As suspected, the rivals pounce.

Theme weirdness

I upgraded WordPress to the latest version and my theme seemed to be interacting poorly with the new Schema. So I’ve reverted to the default theme and I’ll find a new one I like at some point soon.

China / Vietnam

I just got back from 2 weeks in China and Vietnam, travelling with 50 awesome folks from b-school. Amazing amazing places. Travelling with 50 people naturally constrains the kind of trip you can have. The school can basically never let you get into a situation with actual danger on a trip they organize. So the parts of travel where you think to yourself, “Man, I’m really not sure what I’m going to do” (and that really turn out to be a ton of fun) basically don’t happen on a trip like this and getting out of the cities in general was pretty limited. On the other hand, we met with government officials, toured a Nike factory, a Mattell factory and a farm and met with a ton of local business people; all things you could not do traveling on your own.

The pace of change in China truly needs to be seen to be believed and honestly is somewhat frightening. Shanghai just added a Manhattan worth of construction in the last 5 years. Pudong (the famous part of Shanghai with all the iconic looking skyscrapers) just wasn’t there 7 years ago. The relationship of the people and their government is very different than we are used to. When a decision is made to develop a particular area, the people living there are summarily moved or compensated with little dissent. We met with a real-estate firm that has a downtown project measured at 3.5 square kilometers. That size of development downtown is unthinkable in the West.

The pollution is pretty unbearable (bad enough in Beijing that I really wouldn’t want to live there) but I sense that it’s something else that the Chinese will get under control before too long. The same sort of autocratic control that lets them move people will let them just announce new pollution standards that are to be followed. The situation today is a conscious choice.

One is left wondering at the wisdom of the level of investment the West has made. The cost advantages of China create a prisoners dilemma of sorts for Western firms. If you assume your competitors are going to take advantage then you need to as well to stay competitive. And of course the allure of a 1.5B strong market is pretty strong. But investing comes at a high price. The weak state of IP laws seem like no accident. There is a very conscious effort to extract IP broadly speaking (know-how, expertise, etc…) and I have no doubt that China will one day have very strong IP laws, except they will flow the other way. They will protect China from the West. Many of the Western firms we spoke to seemed to have an increasing leeriness, that perhaps they hadn’t gotten as good a long-term bargain out of moving operations to China as they’d initially believed.

One of the most interesting things I saw was a local company called Li Ning. If the products, logo and general positioning seem familar, that’s because they are. Everything is virtually cloned from Nike, including the stores which very much resemble Niketown. They’ve even signed Shaquille O’Neal as a spokesperson. This kind of development represents a new and especially frightening kind of IP infringement because their products are not exactly counterfeit. They are “legitimate” clones that resemble Nike products in almost every way except that they cost much less. I expect we will see a lot more of this type of thing in the coming years.

Obviously lots more interesting stuff to talk about, including wonderful Vietnam, but I’ll have to save that post for another day. A bunch of photos from the trip are here and also on Facebook.

Brilliant

There was a blizzard in Boston yesterday and cabs were impossible to find. A friend of mine was trying to get across town to meet me and a few others at a bar, but he couldn’t find a cab. So he walked down the street to a pizza place and ordered a pizza for delivery to the address of the bar. When the pizza was ready, he asked the driver if for a 50% tip, the driver would let him ride with him to where the pizza was going. The driver said no problem and everyone made out happy; even me, who got some pizza out of the deal…

The media landscape

Although School doesn’t necessarily leave you with any more free time than working does, it does leave you with plenty of “mental space” – room to think about new things, how the world might be changing around you and what opportunities that may present.

One thing that’s been on my mind lately is the writers strike and what it means. A couple of articles have leapt out at me:

  • The international herald tribune had an interesting article about the now bleak economics of movie making has become for the major studios.
  • Marc Andreesen’s rather excellent blog had a post about Hollywood reforming in the image of Silicon Valley.
  • Patrick Goldstein picked up the thread with an excellent article in the LA Times that describes the “entrepeneur artist” and cites Spielberg, Jackson, Lasseter, and Lucas as ahead of their time archetypes.

The theme of all this is that falling production costs, proliferating distribution channels and generally crummy economics weaken the grip big studios have traditionally exerted on the movie business. There may be a coming wave of entrepreneur-artists who make modest budget movies outside of the studio system, take greater artistic risks and get paid like owners rather than hired guns.

More powerful artists suggests that the vertical integration of the industry is going to start cracking. Funding, production, promotion and distribution are all separate functions that may not be operated by the same entity.

A few observations:

  • Raising $7M doesn’t seem like a big deal if you think you’ve got the right project. Attaching a known director or actor seems like a good way to convince an investor that you’re on to something. I can imagine funds which invest in a diversified portfolio of projects or “angels” who invest in a single project that appeals to them.
  • Production at a lower budget means that costs that used to be insignificant will suddenly start getting scrutiny. Unionized labor that gets paid at least 8 hours a day regardless of how much they work and have all their meals catered seem like low-hanging fruit.
  • Setting up and ripping down a production company every time you work on a new project seems incredibly inefficient. I can imagine standing companies that know how to work together and move from project to project.
  • The perhaps-apocryphal Disney executive who asked his team to “only make the hits” may have in fact been onto something. In order to keep the machinery of a studio running, it needs to have a pipeline. Rather than funding potential hit movies, studios are really funding the best N projects they can find and perhaps this leads to poor funding choices. The Last Boyscout, The Sixth Sense and The Matrix are all movies that apparently “sold themselves” from the script, suggesting that at least in a few cases a script is so compelling as to suggest that in the right hands it will be a hit.
  • Promotion and Distribution still seem like the core difficulty. “On the net” is still not a great venue for watching visual entertainment longer than 10 min and has the nasty side issue that nobody wants to pay. Certainly creating celluloid prints does not seem cost effective.

Things I am thinking about:

  • How do we connect investors with projects? How do they sort good projects from bad ones? This process already happens through an informal social network, can one be systematized?
  • How does investing in low cost movies work? What financial structures do we use to share the upside without removing incentive? Who has succeeded here before?
  • What is really happening to production costs? What are the real cost drivers? How do we accelerate that drop? Not every movie is the Blair Witch Project.
  • How do we find an audience for these new works and how do we get our work out to them?
  • Many artists enter the business motivated by fame. Some movies really do call out for big budgets and huge promotion. Any re-imagination of the business that eliminates either of these things will not work.

Haavahd

Those of you who haven’t talked to me in a while may not know that I’m currently at business school, going to class, doing homework, eating in a cafeteria and all the other things that students do.

Because I came to business school later than most, I get asked constantly if it is “worth it”. A few thoughts on that:

I don’t want to beat the odds. I want to turn the odds in my favor. Great success always encompasses an element of chance, but when you consider people like VCs and entrepreneurs who have been repeatedly successful across many events normally considered “chancy” you have to consider the idea that there are certain things those people do to change the odds in their favor.

Viewed within the next 3 years, business school undoubtedly leaves me worse off than I would have been without it; but if we’re all going to have 40 year careers, is a 2 years and $200k-ish investment in a key set of skills, a network and a credential a rational investment? I’d argue yes. Am I learning? Absolutely and a lot. Am I meeting interesting people? Interesting does not begin to cover it. Am I having fun? Definitely. Does this degree directly open up new, more lucrative careers than I had access to before? Unclear; But that’s not what I’m looking for.

Subjects like finance, marketing and accounting, are all pretty fascinating to me. (Yes, seriously, accounting! The mechanics of GAAP is not so interesting but the managerial accounting material is really cool.) More importantly, I think having those skills will make the ventures I undertake more likely to succeed. Of course the world is full examples of people who have succeeded without the formal training I’m paying for, but in my mind if success is to be a repeatable event rather than a random land of the dice, deep knowledge of those disciplines is extremely helpful.

Is it ultimately worth it? Time will tell.

Getting back to it

A blog that is 5 months stale is embarrassing. Better not to have a blog than to leave it stale. Despite the best entreaties of my parents I’ve never been a great diary keeper – my old justification was that I was too busy living things to write them down. Somehow that argument gets older as I do. With this, I try again.
In case you’re wondering if I ever made it out of Gili Trawangan, I did. I went on to Malaysia, Malawi, Zambia, Dubai, Russia, Estonia and England before coming back to the US and driving from Seattle to Boston. The photos from my various travels are posted here. Needless to say it was an amazing, life changing experience.

I’ve been asked many times what the highlight of my trip was. This may seem mundane to some but I’d have to say it was the 12 days I spent on the beach in Thailand. My daily itinerary was wake, relax, eat, 2hr yoga, beach, 1 hr massage, nap, dinner, party, sleep. 12x in a row.

There was a great group of 6 of us hanging out together and we rented motorcycles and drove all over the island, finding random beaches, bars and restaurants. Eating barbecue on the beach by flickering candlelight with just your friends and nobody else in sight is something you must experience.

All my other vacations and even the rest of my travels have been about doing stuff – sightseeing, meeting people, perhaps partying. The time in Thailand, the knowledge that I could stay as long as I wanted and thought that I had 4 months of travel still in front of me allowed me to unwind in a way that I’ve never experienced before.

Gili Trawangan

Getting to the Gili Islands is hard. Well, there may be an easy way, but I did not find it. While I have come to believe the Lonely Planet and it’s brethen are a bit of a scourge on the traveller, the minimal info on how to get somewhere is at least helpful.

This is how I went: Fly Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur. Spend the night in Kuala Lumpur. Fly to Bali. Take a taxi to the harbor. Realize that you’re at the wrong harbor and take another taxi (1.5 hours) to another harbor. Take a 5 hour ferry to Lombok. Arrive 11pm. There are no hotels at the port. Hire a private van (for way too much money) to take me to San Giggi. Wake up a hotel owner in the middle of the night to get a room. Wake up and meet the same drivers (at slightly better rates this time) to take me to the port to the Gili Islands. Pay 8000 IDR (About $1!) to take the ferry to Trawang. Arrive 11am or so. Elapsed travel time about 48 hours.

All along deflect (sometimes not so successfully) people trying to “help” me get a good deal, offering me a “special rate” etc… You start to wonder if it’s worth it.

 Then you get here and you realize it is. Gili Trawangan has about 800 inhabitants and I walked clear around it in about 3 hours this afternoon. There are no motor vehicles anywhere on the island and the pace is truly laid back. If you really need to be taken somewhere you get on a horse drawn cart. There are kids around which were nowhere in Phangan although I didn’t notice it at the time. The room I am staying on, a beautiful little bungalow with a clear view of the ocean about 25 meters away is $25 a night. The most expensive place I have seen on the whole Island is about $40 per night and truly gorgeous. There is very little intrusive selling here, at least by standards of the region. Add a yoga class and this place would be perfect. 🙂

Bangkok

Although my time in Bangkok was short, I must admit I am not a huge fan of the city. Look like you are hesitating for about 5 seconds (or walk down the street with a backpack on) and someone will be on you trying to sell you something in a pretty intrusive in your face way. I actually wanted to get a tux made (Harvard has a thing for formal parties apparently) but the feeling of constant pressure and of getting ripped off was so overwhelming that I ended up just abandoning the idea.

It feels like a classic example of the tragedy of the commons: I am sure that if everyone could collectively back off a little bit the “yield” of dollars from each tourist would go up, but nobody can do so individually under the assumption that everyone else will keep pushing as hard.

 

Bangkok is also an interesting example of what really happens in a place where there are no trademark laws. Because every suit maker claims to offer “Armani” or “Prada” suits and none actually do, one becomes very skeptical of any commercial claims at all. At a restautant or hotel you can see what you are getting but any commercial good that requires the assumption of quality (clothes, watches, movies, software, travel, etc…) becomes very difficult to assess and ultimately something to avoid. This doesn’t feel like the best way to run things.

I did have an enjoyable time walking through the shopping district although a shopping mall is a shopping mall pretty much the world over. I went into a “computer mall” that in another life would have been like heaven – if you like to assemble computers out of their constituent parts, you are in a great place, but that is not me anymore.

I went by the Pat Pong night market and I had a hard time imagining that I wanted anything. Aside from the fact that essentially none of the clothes fit me, the feeling of impending rip-off is just to overwhelming to ignore. I left without buying a thing.

Perhaps surprisingly, I didn’t go to any of the “shows” in Pat Pong either. I am not sure if it was just that I was turned off with the whole place but the men with their little lists of physically improbable acts and the ever present sex-tourist farangs with their tiny little Thai “girlfriends” were a real turn off. I ignored them all and went back to Kao Shan (which seemed almost calm at this point) and had a few drinks with the other backpackers. The next day I headed for the Gili Islands.