Category Archives: Notes


  1. Be proactive. Don’t sit around and wait for things to happen to you, because then you’re going to be mired in crap every day. Anticipate what’s going to happen and do things before they need doing. Skate to where the puck is going, not where it’s been. This makes you a clairvoyant who mysteriously seems perfectly prepared.
  2. Begin with the end in mind. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to get there. The clearer you are about where want to go, the easier it is to make decisions about what to do and what not to do. When you do this, you waste less time with irrelevant crap, and become a heat-seeking missile.
  3. Put first things first. In a single word, prioritize. The most important thing is usually the scariest or hardest thing, so we tend to avoid it altogether and invent reasons as to why the 2nd or 3rd thing should be done first. But do the first thing first. Use the urgent/important matrix.
  4. Think win-win. The best way to get what you want is to deserve it. Put yourself in the shoes of the other person– why should they help you? What’s in it for them? Nobody achieves great things by themselves.
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. It’s always tempting to explain why you’re right. But nobody cares about you, they care about themselves. So understand where they’re coming from, what their worries and concerns are, what they want. And you’ll be better positioned to achieve #4, and get what you want.
  6. Synergize. This has become a dirty buzzword, but the simple original meaning was simply “create outcomes where the wholes exceeds the sum of their parts”. Do things together that you couldn’t have done independently.
  7. Sharpen the saw. Take care of yourself. You gotta be sustainable. Eat, exercise, sleep, rest. Read, learn new things. Take care of your relationships.

The future of “social shopping”

Wat is the real meaning of social in this day and age? things are picking up new names, just as how a phone is no longer a phone but a supercomputer communications device…

similarly the future of social is different from the past of social. it’s interesting that nobody has completely figured it out yet, probably because it’s hard. Amazon, Google and Facebook are all working on this problem from different angles.

It’s very, very interesting to me to see how “social shopping” and “social commerce” have emerged as ideas over the past few years. In both cases, the term “social” is obtained directly from social media.

A simplistic way of thinking about it, which I’m not a fan of, is the idea that social shopping is the attempt to recreate the offline shopping experience online. So people can shop online with their friends. According to Wikipedia, ” Social shopping attempts to use technology to mimic the social interactions found in physical malls and stores.”

I actually disagree with this. I anticipate that the social interactions found online are going to be quite different from the social interactions found in physical malls and stores. There may be some skeumorphic mimickry- perhaps an app or bot that helps you to suss out a product might be called a “personal shopper”.

In reality, I think social shopping is going to be something fundamentally different, the way a commercial airplane is fundamentally different from a bird, and the way Facebook is different from an address book. TBC

Where marketing is headed

What people will want to read is things like tools and kits. Zoom out and talk about how even jobs are things that are marketed. Lifestyles are marketed. How we spend our time. We live in this massive sort of panopticon and the watchers are us. Reality is a sort of black mirror episode.

When researching a blogpost I wrote a while back “is marketing evil”, I came to the uncomfortable conclusion that consumers are hopelessly outgunned by marketers.

Not every consumer is equal, and not every marketer is equal either, but the system of incentives is structured in a manner that rewards the best marketers for the ability to manipulate the masses or some subset of consumers.

Marketers come up with all sorts of defensive arguments- explored in great detail by Tom Albrighton- but centrally, marketing works. It manipulates consumers. Manufactures consent, purchase. If it didn’t work, nobody would do it. Why would anybody spend money on marketing if it didn’t ultimately yield results? (It gets complex- some marketers make a living through deception, claiming to make a difference but not really).

But the point is- there are people, there is an industry that’s spearheaded by people who are highly competent at manipulating others, and they’re rewarded for it. This doesn’t look good for the consumer. A cynical view might be that we’re all living in a complex human farm, and we are each other’s captors, we manufacture the products that we want each other to buy, and we work hard at exploiting one another so we can afford to be exploited ourselves.

A rather depressing view. On the flip side, it’s also quite clear that consumers have more power than we’ve ever had before. This is mostly a consequence of access to information. A lot of exploitative marketing and sales and capitalism comes is rooted in information asymmetry- the media shows you a nice picture, the Marlboro man, actors smoking, doctors recommend it. Our forefathers had much less access to alternate sources of information.

Today we know that cigarettes are bad for us, that excessive sugar is bad for us, fast food, processed snacks… designed to exploit human weaknesses- the parts of our brains that light up when we eat a bag of chips. If you take a really macro view, a lot of large organizations are built around keeping humans locked in those predictable patterns of consumption, in chasing those stimuli-driven hits. In that sense, fast food and soda and chips don’t look very different from cigarettes, and opium before it. (Opium and tea, supplied by the East India company.) I can’t help but see some slight parallels between that and linkbait headlines. Create demand, who cares if it’s vacuous.

What really helps, what really matters, creates real value? Lasting contributions? The Internet. The ipod, iPhone, hardware. Laptops. Mobile. Asana. Trello. Google calendar.

Consumers have never had access to information the way they do now.

In the past it was homogeneous signals coming from those who controlled the means of distribution- the media. (Before that it was those who controlled the means of production). Both production and distribution have never been easier then today. Authority is earned rather than bought. But money is still powerful. Money can buy you the best talent- or can it? What are the motivations of the best talent? Who is the best marketer in the world, and what does she want? I turn to people like Paul Graham, Seth Godin, Mark Andreesen, Gary Vaynerchuk… (apparently Mark Cuban did b2b work before doing what he’s doing now?). Paul said that the best engineers get to work wherever they like so they pick whatever is most interesting. Whatever feels most meaningful. Google, Apple. Seth seems to be spending his time influencing other marketers- so he’s doing meta-marketing, trying to inspire others to inspire others.

Singapore Startup Marketing Consulting

Last week, my NS buddy John told me that he was launching his first proper startup – and he asked me if he could buy me dinner and have me go over his marketing plan with him.

I said yes, of course. He let me choose; I suggested that we go to Morganfield’s at Star Vista for some hickory BBQ ribs. There’s something about the view there that I really like. I joked that I wasn’t sure if my advice was worth such good ribs.

We reminisced about army days, talked about our experiences getting older, learning more about ourselves and all that good stuff… and then we dived into his plan.

His plan was generally sound – he’s a smart guy with a good appreciation for business fundamentals – but I immediately spotted a few weaknesses. His content strategy was under-optimized for his context. A few of his brainstorm ideas were duds that weren’t going to work for his particular industry. He was looking to hire someone full-time way too soon, without having yet developed a sense of the precise tasks he needed them to perform.

John had really done his homework and done all the preparation he could – it really showed in his plan. It was really comprehensive. He had a really good sense for how to create a good user experience for his product – he cared about it, and he was going to make it work.

By the time we polished off the ribs, I realized that I had actually saved him months of wasted time and energy. It wouldn’t have been an exaggeration to say that he saved several thousands of dollars by buying me that plate of ribs.

Would you like a startup marketer with 4+ years of experience to look through your plans, give you feedback, and so on? Hit me up: visakanv at gmail dotcom

Notes from talk by Baidu pioneer Eric Xu

Baidu – Eric Xu

Introduction / Story

  • I was trained as a scientist before I decided to do business in 1996
  • First part of my learning process – SV – 98 to 99, co-produced TV documentary called Journey to SV.
  • Robin and I – Shared value to do something
  • Started operation in Beijing, Jan 2000
  • Learning as we grow
  • None of us had management roles in the past. Hadn’t managed people before. Learning process. We figure out what things work, what things don’t.
  • IPO 2005 on NASDAQ. US$40m revenue. Broke records. Single IPO day gain in terms of stock price, 350% gain on the first day. By 2007 Baidu was included as first CHI firm in NASDAQ 100 Index.
  • Revenue grew to US$468M. Company has been doing fantastic financially.
  • What did we do right? Reflection process.
  • Disclaimer: Baidu is a public company, whatever I say is my personal view. Baidu is an Internet tech company based in China. What I share may or may not work elsewhere. But I believe in these fundamentals.

Defining a successful startup

  • From financial performance, investment POV. Market valuation.
  • Baidu– 2 persons to multi-billion-dollar co. $9.5B market cap. We’re offering our investors huge return. SG govt invested in two separate VC funds which invested in Baidu in the early stages. Offering 100x to 800x return, depending on when they exited.
  • How to increase market value, from VC standpoint and startup standpoint? Increase chance?
  • There’s no guarantee.
  • Long term competitive sustainable advantages. And of course there are outside factors. These are inside things. Things you can control.
  • I believe you have to be striving to become the best in a combination of areas. Huge business success. One area of superiority is not enough.
    • Several variables working together consistently over time.
    • Successful companies are rarely the first ones to do what they do. No first mover advantage. They figure out a way to do better. (Amazon, Google, Ebay…)

Equity structure

  • How the shares are distributed– founders, investors, stock options. These are more relevant to high-tech companies. Very critical.

Founders and Culture

  • Founders are critical. They’re responsible for 3 things:
    • Ultimately responsible for company culture
    • Strategic vision
      • The direction of the company. You can change, but eventually you have to pick the right way. That’s the key. Founders are responsible for that.
    • Building the right founding team – not the smart team.
      • Always a question– Baidu at the time– all the way to IPO and all the way to the current status– I don’t think we are having more talented people than our competitors, than Google in China, than Yahoo. Those bigger companies have better resources, they can hire even more talented people. They can offer better packages. We have many local companies, some the founders are super smart. In terms of IQ, I don’t think we are better. A lot of people are better than us. This is true for many companies which are successful.
        • Why?
          • Startups always have a chance to succeed – because the bigger companies can make mistakes, big mistakes. Yahoo at one time was trying to buy Google. Google offered a price, Yahoo didn’t buy, Yahoo said it was too high. We can do the same thing as Google.
  • Independent thinking + open-mindedness is very important.
    • Shared values are very important. Attract people who have agree with the same culture.
    • EQ.
  • Candor – learned from Jack Welsh, talking about how he manages GE, in his book Winning. 3 things.
    • Frankness + Constructive confrontation
    • Confront the brutal truth/facts of the situation. We’re facing so much competition. What are the competitors doing better than us? Be very, very frank. At any level of company meetings. Discuss why we did poorly in certain areas compared to our competitors. How can we do better?
    • Best idea wins, doesn’t matter where it comes from. So everyone can make a difference.
    • “Any organization that brings more people and their minds into conversation has an advantage” – Welsh
    • One of the key reasons startups can defeat bigger companies is that they build a mechanism/environment where they can attract the proper talents and build long term sustainable competitive advantages– more minds.
  • Execution – mentioned many times in MBA courses and talks. It’s really about people. You want to find the people who can execute and are accountable. Take full responsibilities.
    • When someone is not doing his job, project is not done properly, those people do not blame and do not come up with excuses. It’s my fault. Fire people who give us excuses for not getting things done. Those people are gone, period.
    • Strongly result oriented and never give up mentality.
    • John Doerr – Kleiner Perkins – ideas are important but execution is everything. John started in Bay Area in Intel, then joined Kleiner Perkins. Top tech VC firms in the world, in the US at least.

As a startup you want to do one thing better than anyone else– you want to choose the right thing – the core business.

  • In order to do that, you need to identify the drivers for your business. Getting to more details– usually we’re talking about operation drivers like how you’re going to evaluate your market share. What’s your driver for the top line– Your revenue/output? What’s the driver for your bottom line? Constantly evaluate this. Have a high predictability in terms of your future, in terms of your financial performance. As a founder, you should start getting these ideas from the very beginning.
  • Throughout the course of this startup– you have to stay focused. Say no to big opportunities. Eg– in Baidu’s case, we were at one time (2002-3), building up market share, have a lot of search traffic. At the time there were different models evolving. You can do SP business, Social Network, other things with all that traffic.
  • Our board asked us to try. We actually turned down many businesses. We even shut down one search-related business, which is enterprise search. Baidu is a consumer brand. But once upon of a time, we had a business that provided internal enterprise search. But we shut it down in order to really have the focus. In our mind, Search is so critical to the Internet, that given China’s market growth, if we maintain and grow our search market share, given our keyword based advertising model, it’s growing faster than any potential acquisition or any other business. It turned out to be true.
  • James Collins – Good to Great. Focus on what you can potentially do better than any other organization. ONLY path to greatness. Collins was talking about Enterprises evolving. He did some systematic studies. Key conclusion, also applies to startups.

Capital is kind of simple, but critical for startup success.

  • In Baidu’s case, we closed our Series B right before the tech bubble burst. That $10M really carried us running through different business models and eventually we found the one that really work.
  • My suggestion would be never run out of cash, raise money wisely.
  • I believe in conservative spending. No matter how much you raise– in 2000 when we raised $10m– we didn’t want to mention it in public. There are many companies raising $20m, $30m, etc. $10m is really nothing. But eventually we found many of those companies with big fundraising successes just vanished.
  • The size of a CEO’s office in a startup is inversely proportional to the success of the startup.
  • When we started- me and Robin were in the States for 10 years before moving to China. We were trying to rent all these offices– asked my friends, my father to look for office buildings. We picked one next to a University, we really liked it. The rental is okay, so we move in. Then I realized– the number of the office is 14-14. Inauspicious. The other is 14-17. Then I realized, that’s why those two offices are always empty.
    • As long as you do something fundamentally well, you still get a chance.

Independent growth

  • Never count on others for your success. You can and should collaborate, but in the bottom of your heart, you have to tell yourself that you are responsible for the long-term and bigger success of the company. This is so true. I cannot really elaborate.
  • Organic growth vs M&A. I personally believe that as a startup, you should go for organic growth. There are M&A opportunities– if you look at Baidu, we have never done any official announcement for any major M&A. It’s not that we’re not looking for opportunities for acquisition… there are many many issues, the integration, the culture, many things. If you go into MBA courses and management books, you’ll find out. I personally believe there are more failures than successes.

Summary – to build a sustainable long term competitive advantage

  • Mentality of competency in multiple areas, very important
  • effective company culture
  • focus and achieve market leadership
  • handling financing and money intelligently
  • grow independently