A honey bee landing on a flower

Muhammad Ali’s “…sting like a bee” strategy is metaphorically flawed. It certainly worked well for Ali, but the real world isn’t a boxing ring. Here, it rarely makes sense to sting like a bee.

Yes, bee stings are painful, but unless you’re allergic to them, a bee sting is nothing more than a brief annoyance. But it’s much worse for the bee. Let’s assume that we’re talking about a honey bee: these bees have barbed stingers that tear off and become lodged in the victim’s skin, causing the bee to die. 1

If stinging someone kills you, why would you ever do it? For a bee, stinging is a natural instinct: a bee stings when it feels threatened, releasing pheromones that will alert other bees to the impending danger. I think humans unconsciously behave much in the same way, but instead of dying when we “sting back,” we face unwanted consequences that could have been avoided with clearer thinking. We’re almost always better off not being too reactive when provoked. It’s better to take time to calm down, think things through, and then make the next decision instead of instinctively lashing out and striking back.

We often run into moments that test us mentally and physically, but the best thing to do is to persevere and to push through. Human nature is surprisingly flexible and adaptable: when presented with a barrier, we tend to find an ingenious way around it. Doing anything other than trying to make forward progress would be counterintuitive and counterproductive. Rather than instinctively blowing up, be it at ourselves, at someone else, or at a particular situation, we’re better when we transcend, when we accept what we’re given, and take things in stride.

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama described this sentiment well:

My first duty as Commander-in-Chief is to defend the United States of America. In doing so, the question is not whether America leads in the world, but how. When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military — then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do.

I propose this same framework for managing a business: when provoked, don’t sting back. In a free market, one of the only guarantees is that there will be competition. If a new competitor enters your market or if an existing player unveils something that looks remarkably like something on your roadmap or something from your existing feature set, it doesn’t make sense to freak out and panic. It also doesn’t make sense to reactively change your game plan and become extremely defensive or aggressive. Don’t let someone else dictate your strategy!

Instead, it’s better to take a moment to sit back, evaluate the situation clearly and level-headedly, and then decide what to do. If a change in your product roadmap makes sense, then by all means make that change. But don’t change everything just because you feel threatened. Don’t sting like a bee. Be smarter, play by your own playbook, and keep going. That’s how you’ll eventually win, by being better, not by being the fastest to respond to conflict. 2

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be spontaneous, it just means that you shouldn’t be rash. There’s a minor distinction between the two. Be spontaneous on a day-to-day basis by experimenting with and trying new ideas. Surprise and delight your customers when they aren’t expecting it. This is all fine. But when it comes to dealing with conflict and competition, don’t be too rash in your decision making.

This also doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be confrontational, it just means that you should pick your fights wisely. There’s a time and place for “wartime” and “gathering the troops” in the “war room.” Most of the time, I’d argue that it’s not your battle to fight. 3

So sure, float like a butterfly, but don’t sting like a bee.

  1. The stinger only falls off when the victim’s skin is thick enough. So bees can actually sting other things (like non-mammals) without dying.

  2. Paul Graham writes, “Startups don’t win by attacking. They win by transcending. There are exceptions of course, but usually the way to win is to race ahead, not to stop and fight.”

  3. For the most part, I agree with this tweet from Joel Spolsky where he writes, “can we stop with the ‘war’ metaphor? It’s a job. programming computers. That’s not what wars are.”


"Two roads diverge in a yellow wood..."

"Two roads diverge in a yellow wood..."

What you do is important and can define who you are and what you stand for, but what you don’t do is perhaps even more important.

When the norm is to do something a certain way, choosing not to do it becomes glaringly obvious. And often times, not doing something that everyone else does can be one of the best things that you can do.

When everyone is raising huge rounds and making headlines, the companies that succeed quietly like WhatsApp earn our respect. When the popular Silicon Valley motif is “college kid drops out to start an internet company,” the ones who don’t command our attention. When other websites are focused on increasing time spent on their sites, the search engine that decides to decrease it becomes the most viewed website in the world.

Not doing something that everyone else does can also be one of the worst things that you can do.

Perhaps one of the best examples is how the majority of VCs tweet and blog actively. Not tweeting makes a VC seem inaccessible or untrustworthy. In a field based on trust, communication, and positive relationships, not tweeting can be detrimental to a VC’s ability to source great investments. And that’s without considering how many potential deals they might not be hearing about by not being active on Twitter.

It’s necessary then to think hard about what you do, what you don’t do, and why. Sometimes, you’re forced to do things not because you want to do them, but because you fear the consequences of not doing them. But there are things that you can consciously choose not to do that will become a key, positive part of who you are or what your company represents.

If you’re willing to take that risk and bear the consequences, you might find a huge opportunity to differentiate yourself from the pack.

Let’s consider taxis. Taxi drivers are generally pretty serious and professional about what they do: after all, it’s their job. Uber prides itself on a similar sense of seriousness and professionalism, but promises a much better user experience. Now consider Lyft, a company that actively chooses not to be serious with quirky, pink mustaches and drivers that are forced to fistbump you and engage in conversation. It’s ultimately subjective, but a lot of people love Lyft! And it’s all because they choose not to be serious: that’s their competitive advantage.

Yo is also a great example. It’s unclear how successful (or unsuccessful) it will ultimately become, but Yo has carved itself a niche with contextless push notifications, something so radically different (or useless, depending on who you ask) that it has everyone buzzing.

We’re always in search of outliers, but it’s not about being nonconformist for the sake of being nonconformist. It’s about thinking hard about the defaults and questioning them. Certain things you can’t choose not to do, like customer service or making something your customers actually want. But other things, like not being serious in a serious industry, can make all the difference.

At Aflume, we’re trying to shape the future of music by changing how artists and fans interact, but we aren’t trying to be the next website that everyone goes to for music. Everyone these days says, check out my videos on Youtube, stream my music on SoundCloud, buy my stuff on iTunes, support me on Bandcamp, fund my Kickstarter, follow me on Twitter and Facebook. And on each site, musicians are forced to build a new profile, rediscover their fans, and then find a way to integrate that into their artistic identity.

You’ve probably never heard of us, and that’s not because we work with a lot of independent artists. It’s because we’re not trying to build a platform where you find artists to support. We’re consumer facing, but we’re letting artists take full creative and artistic control of our product: we power artists’ websites and want to be the backend of the music industry. And for the first time online, artists can promote themselves instead of yet another platform that they have a profile on.

Hopefully, we’re not doing the right thing.

If you’re a musician and think what we’re doing sounds interesting, please reach out. We’d love to help you succeed.


Oculus Rift

Yesterday, I watched my friend flip out over Dreadhalls, a horror dungeon game for the Oculus Rift where the goal is to sneak out of a dimly lit dungeon. Despite the technical limitations of the Rift (640×800 per eye in the developer kit) and the fact that Dreadhalls is still under development, Dreadhalls manages to be an intensely terrifying experience. 1

This brings up a serious question about the implications of VR innovation. As VR software and hardware improve, the experience inevitably will too. So whereas Titans of Space will become an even more awe-inspiring trip through space, a higher-quality version of Dreadhalls would only become more intense and more scary.

What, then, does this mean about a first-person shooter like Call of Duty? With high quality graphics and sound, a VR game like Call of Duty would put you right into the middle of the battlefield, complete with guns, bullets, grenades, and, most importantly, death. With guns aimed at your head and bullets whizzing by, do you panic? When you’re looking down a sniper scope, with your target in sight, do you pull the trigger? When you see the body in front of you fall from the blast of your shotgun, do things get, perhaps, a bit too intense for comfort?

My hunch is that this sort of experience won’t be universally enjoyed. The brutality of World War I led to shell shock, a physical and emotional reaction to the intensity of the war that has since become ingrained in our memory of the war. Nowadays, we talk a lot about PTSD, particularly in the context of war veterans after returning home from war. It seems plausible that we’ll see some resemblance of PTSD or shell shock appear due to increased intensity and immersion in VR games. At the very least, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about panic or heart attacks induced by VR, particular through something like Dreadhalls or a FPS.

So here’s my question: where and how do we draw the line on what experiences are appropriate for VR? Or will something like the uncanny valley appear and solve this problem naturally? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  1. This Reddit thread and this Youtube video can give you an idea of exactly how people react to the game. Warning: strong language.


I recently led a workshop on basic HTML and CSS at Google Cambridge for MIT’s Blueprint, a 14-hour event for high school students interested in software development and computer science. My talk assumes no prior knowledge and walks you through a simple HTML and CSS website, teaching fundamentals like the box model, classes vs. ids, and more.

Slides

HTML (index.html)

<html>
    <head>
      <title>My Website</title>
      <link rel="stylesheet" href="styles.css" />
    </head>
    <body>
      <div class="wrapper">
        <div class="top">
          <h1>Blueprint is awesome!</h1>
          <p>Hi! Welcome, I'm learning HTML and CSS. Built by Frank at <a href="http://blueprint.hackmit.org/">Blueprint 2014.</a></p>
        </div>
        <div class="about">
          <div class="column" id="column1">
            <h2>Feature 1</h2>
            <img src="1.png"><br /><br />
            Why we are the best.
          </div>
          <div class="column" id="column2">
            <h2>Feature 2</h2>
            <img src="2.png"><br /><br />
            Why we are the most fun.
          </div>
          <div class="column" id="column3">
            <h2>Feature 3</h2>
            <img src="3.png"><br /><br />
            Why we are the most awesome.
          </div>
        </div>
        <div class="bottom">
          <h2>You'll love our awesome features.</h2>
        </div>
      </div>
    </body>
  </html>

CSS (styles.css)

body {
    background: #d9d9d9;
    font-family: "Helvetica Neue", Helvetica, Arial, Sans-serif;
    text-align: center;
  }

  h1 {
    font-size: 50px;
  }

  a {
    color: #D7E0E6;
  }

  .wrapper {
    margin: 0 auto;
    width: 900px;
  }

  .top {
    color: #D7E0E6;
    background-color: #0099F8;
    padding: 50px;
    margin: 30px 0 0 0;
  }

  .about {
    display: inline-block;
    margin: 15px 0 0 0;
  }

  .column {
    background-color: #CE4D4F;
    color: #263039;
    height: 210px;
    width: 260px;
    float: left;
    padding: 20px 15px;
    text-align: center;
  }

  #column1 {
    margin-right: 15px;
  }

  #column2 {
    margin-right: 15px;
  }

  .bottom {
    color: #D7E0E6;
    background-color: #092F4B;
    padding: 50px;
    text-align: center;
    margin: 15px 0 30px 0;
  }


WeChat

My parents currently live in China and they, like pretty much all of China nowadays, actively use WeChat. The last year, I’ve used WeChat more and more to communicate with them, but I could never understand why they and so many others were so drawn to WeChat over alternative messaging apps like iMessage. Despite a clunky interface, slow load times, and a design language that feels more 2008 than 2013, WeChat’s Chinese adoption numbers have been off the charts, with over 400 million worldwide users and no signs of slowing in Asia.

I’m currently home in China for the holidays and I’ve had some time to observe how my parents are using WeChat, how my sister is using it, and how strangers on the street and on the subway are using it. What I’ve seen has definitely surprised me.

Most importantly, I’ve noticed that WeChat isn’t a messaging app. I had originally thought that messaging was the main focus of WeChat. Instead, it performs a role best described as an interesting blend between messaging, social gaming, Twitter, and Facebook.

For a lot of people, WeChat is the start and end of their phone usage. Need to talk to someone? Send them a text message or leave them a voice message. Want to see what your friends are up to? Go to “Moments”, where you can view a stream of their activity and post an update of your own. Want to play games? Play from within WeChat.

“Moments” is probably the most used feature of the app. It’s basically a social network that lies adjacent to the app’s basic messaging features, where users have profiles where they can post photos and statuses and change their profile pictures and cover photos. Like Facebook, you can publicly like and comment on posts. However, the “Moments” feature is buried two levels deep, much like how Twitter’s direct messaging functionality was before the most recent update (version 6). To get to it, you have to first enter the Discover tab and before seeing others use it, I had personally never visited it.

The reason why WeChat is doing so well, though, is because its other features are definitely not ignored. WeChat, as an app, is very versatile, leading to insanely high user retention. Its chatting and messaging features, complete with chat backgrounds and stickers, have found popularity amongst the QQ crowd that provided the initial traction for WeChat (it’s interesting to note that QQ and WeChat are both owned by the same company, Tencent, and that they successfully leveraged this existing userbase to launch WeChat). The messaging features serve as a replacement for email, texting, and IM. Like WhatsApp, a lot of people are opting to replace their traditional SMS plans with more data and using WeChat to fill in the gap. Throw in the network effect, and even those that don’t choose to forego SMS find themselves on WeChat more and more as well in order to interact with their friends.

Hold to talk on WeChat

Screenshot from WeChat's website

But it isn’t just text messaging that is helping to drive WeChat’s user retention. I was pretty surprised by how popular the walkie talkie (push-to-talk) feature is for communication, which I believe stems from how difficult it is to enter Chinese characters on a phone. It’s not uncommon to see people walking down the street or on the subway, speaking in quick 2 to 3 second bursts on their WeChat accounts. Instead of calling one another, a lot of Chinese people choose to use these walkie talkie conversations, giving them the benefits of asynchronous communication coupled with the power of voice. I’m also suspecting that more and more people are starting to substitute their phone service with WeChat’s walkie talkie feature as well, making an average Chinese user’s phone plan pretty heavily focused on 3G data.

So… what?

WeChat has grown so quickly because of its versatility and all-encompassing nature. I’d guess that the only app a lot of people in China use is, in fact, WeChat. My cousins and my family agree. Tencent would probably agree as well.

Tencent is hedging its bets that WeChat can and will own the entire Chinese Internet market. Just yesterday, they’ve launched Weixin TV, a smart TV completely integrated into WeChat, yet another expansion of the WeChat feature base. Instead of focusing on any one particular product and making it better, they’ve decided to throw literally everything under the WeChat umbrella.

This, precisely, is why I believe WeChat will not find the same success in the American market. What Chinese consumers are looking for is an all-inclusive piece of software that does everything they could ever want, whereas American consumers would rather split time between multiple apps in order to get the best possible user experience. In China, where it really is a winner-take-all situation, this isn’t a bad development strategy, but the Western market is entirely different, where I don’t see WeChat gaining mass adoption, at least in its current state. WeChat is part-Facebook, part-Twitter, part-Instagram, part-Tumblr, part-WhatsApp, part-Skype — it does a lot, but it doesn’t do anything exceptionally well. If WeChat wants to seriously compete in the American market, it will have to not only beat pure messaging apps like WhatsApp and iMessage, but also (and most importantly!) everything else that has been thrown into the mix.