Sunday, November 09, 2014

Disintermediation - Getting Rid of the Middle Man

The new Internet economy is all about getting rid of the middle man. Part of it is about eliminating information asymmetry, so that all parties in the transactions have equal grounds, like real-estate sales (Zillow) and car sales (TrueCar) eliminating the privileged information withheld by the sales agents. Part of it is about providing an efficient virtual market place where buyers and sellers can mingle with minimal friction (Ebay). And yet other part of it is about new technological innovations enabling novel distribution mechanisms previously unthinkable (BlockChain).

Here are a few more examples that either have happened since the dawn of the Internet age, or emerging as new and powerful disruptive forces. 
  • Newspapers - Middle man that edits and disseminates noteworthy information, now partially eliminated by Twitter and Bloggers (Huffington Post).
  • Book publishers - Middle man that selects and distributes original writing from otherwise unknown authors, now partially replaced by self-publishing houses Lulu and Amazon Kindle.
  • Taxi - Middle man that employs drivers to transport people, now threatened by Uber that connects drivers and passengers directly. 
  • Hotels - Middle man that manages empty rooms to host travelers, now partially replaced by Airbnb that connects unused room owners with travelers directly.
  • Schools - Middle man that employs teachers to educate students, now threatened by online P2P education services like Coursera and MIT Open Course Ware, which connects people desired to learn with teachers and knowledges.
  • Cable TV - Middle man that licenses video entertainment and redistributes to consumers, now threatened by both new distribution technologies (IP streaming) and bundling business models from Netflix, as well as original content owners starting to serve consumers directly as streaming technologies mature, such as HBO, CBS, Univision, NBA Sports and Starz.
  • Banks - Middle man that makes a living by collecting deposits from people that have extra to save and lending it to people who needs cash, now threatened by peer-to-peer lending such as Lending Club, peer-to-peer payment Paypal, and crowd funding Kick Starter.
  • Credit card - Middle man that runs proprietary payment networks and charges on-average 3% transaction fees for the convenience of money transaction between consumers and merchants who want to avoid cash handling, now threatened by decentralized payment network Block Chain, and its virtual currency BitCoin.
  • Notary Service - Middle man who is authorized to perform numerous legal formalities and record keeping, now threatened by distributed Blockchain ledger and services like Proof of Existence.

So if you want ideas for starting up a new company, think about how you can eliminate the middle man, or any middle man.

image credit Ahmad Nawawi

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Note on Berger's Contagious - Why Things Catch On

The biggest insight was, influencers and mavens are not the only means to make an idea catch fire. The idea itself has to be sticky, already alluded to by Malcome Gladwell but never never elaborated in his "Tipping Point". 

Bergers gave six STEPPS approach to make an idea stick, which I think was simple, insightful, actionable. 

Social currency
give people something to brag about;

associate your idea with everyday life, top of mind is tip of tong;

with a strong feeling you can't resist talking;

if it can't be seen, it can't be talked about;

people like to help each other out;

details get left out but a good story survives word of mouth.

Many anecdotes and research results were included in the book. Albeit small inconsistencies, they back up the overall thesis for the most part. Enjoyed the book.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Develop An Idea Into Fundable Business

Every business starts with an idea. Not every idea turns into a business.

The purpose is to filter, refine and develop ideas into a fundable business. Apparently, many people have spent time thinking about this. Evan Williams article "Will it Fly" is a useful one to start. The following is the methodology I will embark for that purpose.

1. Passion

It's going to be a tough journey. You may as well do something that you care deeply about. I believe that education enables and enriches people; thus education changes lives. People change the world; thus education changes the world. I am going to stick to that.

2. Market

The biggest market, or rather the biggest potential impact in education is where the most people are. That is clearly China. Just English language training itself is projected to reach $13.6 Billion dollars in 2014.

3. Making money

Sustained impact comes from sustainable growth. Sustainable growth requires valid, proven business model, where added value per users is larger than average acquisition cost per user. Unless incoming traffic is astronomically high, advertising is not going to be the solution. It needs to be one of transaction, subscription, or lead generation.

4. Validation

The idea needs to be validated, i.e. there is some dude, who you can name and locate, actually willing to reach the wallet to get some version of your product offering. Find the dude and offer him "a solution". A great example, which was used 10 years ago for Zappos was, to just take pictures of shoes from other people's stores and offer them online.

5. Secret sause

Is it possible to build one aspect of the solution exceptionally well so that nobody can compete with. It must be a dimension that real customers actually care about.

6. Scalability

How difficult to scale the operation, hardware cost, salesforce build up, customer support team?

The ideas will be going through this methodology, filtered, refined, and developed. The eventual results will be published in a later post.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Founder Institute Learning: Team Work and life

I was excited to enroll the Founder Institute Silicon Valley Summer semester. Only a couple of days into the program, I already feel learning a ton.

Everyone dies if the team die

Everyone knows the importance of a team, complementary skills and all that, but only when you experience a live or die situation do you realize what it truly means for a team to band together.

I was a few minutes late to show up at the second session, and looking forward to the next few hours of adventures, only to be greeted, "Why do you show up here? You dropped out!". I was stunned, "What the ...?" I realized later that, only 30 minutes earlier, some sophisticated issues triggered an email to Adeo indicating that a member on my founding team is dropping out, and that caused me to drop out as well immediately after. I hassled in the next hour or so trying reach my team with emails, phone calls, whatever communication channel I could get my hands on, and eventually we reached an agreement. This program is important for us and for the company, and we need to do whatever it takes together to stay in.

The environment is brutal out there. Unless everyone holds up, the whole team sinks. You may still die even if you had done everything right yourself.

Paying a price for screwing up

Life is unfair sometimes, but it's brutally fair in business. Whatever you screw up will come back and you have to make up for it. No short cuts. No second chance. Learn from mistakes but never repeat a mistake.

We were hoping to negociate our way back in, but it seems clear that we have to give a one-minute pitch on the spot. If the average score is 2.5 or above, we stay, otherwise, we're out. We'd better put our act together.

Live or die in one minute

You have to deliver under huge pressure. Just one minute, any mistake in execution and you die. That's life.

I delivered. Even nurvous as hell, I managed to cover the essential elements of a good business idea and convinced the three mentors that it's a 3+ pitch. We stay.

It turned out that a little bit of luck does strike, only when you expect it the least. At the Zuckerburg Bar after the session, my team member struck a genius idea, i.e. asking Adeo to credit the 3-score pitch to the team, even though I was not "officially in" the program when I delivered the pitch. Adeo decided to flip a coin, and I called Head, and it was Head. Cheers, team!

Only a beginning. More adventures to come.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Hypothesis of Brain Learning Based on Scale-Free Neural Networks

A simple neural net model I wrote sometime back
I am contemplating a new framework that tries to enhance the understanding of the learning process of human brains.

The basic functioning of the brain is based on Hawkins' memory prediction framework [see book "On Intelligence"]. However, I propose that the neural cells in the neocortex are connected as a scale-free network, rather than a static hierarchical structured outlined by Hawkins. Under this assumption, neural cells are not connected at birth through a "wiring diagram" found in our DNA. Rather, the connections are formed dynamically throughout our human lives, especially during infancy.

Information is stored in the brain as patterns of connections among neuron cells. Some neurons are more capable in attracting new links than others. With these two properties, growth and preferential attachment, I believe that neurons form a scale-free network, i.e. the distribution of links per node follow a power law [see book "Linked"]. Thus the neural network inherits all the fundamental properties of scale-free networks, such as robustness, and vulnerability. (Evidences of scale-free cortical network have been found recently by researchers.)


Memory is stored as relations of sequential pattens. We remember by making associations of pattens that appear together spacially and temporally. When a child first see a triangular object, she is aware that this is an actual object because the pixels of the triangle (or rather pattens of neuron excitations) always move together in our retina each time our eyes samples the world. These pixels are associated with each other. At the same time, the triangle is also associated with the background, the present time, its color, the sound it makes, the lighting, the people around, and everything else that are happening around her at that moment. All these associations become connections between the neurons representing these excitation patterns.

The association mechanism is based on Hebbian learning, which can be simplistically summarized as cells that fire together, wire together.


Going back to the triangle analogy. The child is aware of the triangular object, yet she has no idea what object it is, until someone tells her that this particular triangular-shaped object is called a triangle. That is when the neurons representing the triangle are associated with name "triangle", which is by itself a set of neurons representing the actually symbol of the word. These neurons are also connected to other neurons that represent the sounding of the word "triangle", and any concrete facts associated with it. Learning happens when any new association is made.

Hawkins argues that during learning, some cells "learn" to fire when lower-level memories learn a sequence of patterns. These cells are passed to higher-level as abstract "names" of the detailed pattens. However he did not layout how these cells are selected in the first place. I think the naming is a natural result of association rather than explicit cell selection.

This explains why some cells are able to attract more links than others. The cells that represent abstract shapes, forms and concepts have a much larger probability to be associated with other cells. Whenever something happens, whether an image appears, a melody of music rings, or a train of thought proceeds, the general conceptual cells will fire if these concrete events fall into their category. Whenever this firing occurs, these conceptual cells make new associations.


According to many studies, the brain learns to clasify information into categories. As information is passed from lower to higher levers of the memory hierarchy, more and more details are filtered out, forming abstraction. I think that this classification is a natural result of the threshold logic built into each and every neuronal connection. Each synapse collects electronic signal from all connections along its extension. Whenever the collective strength of the electronic signal become larger than its built-in threshold, it fires. When it fires, it propagates the its own firing power to all connections along its synapses.


This is in some sense similar to the "connectionists" theory of brain learning. However there is a fundamental difference. Rather than dividing the brain into functional modules, or sub-networks, each responsible for one particular domain, such as name networks and image networks, I believe all neurons are able to connect to any other neuron within their physical reach. I believe that neurons make connections, or associations, dynamically according to the information provided by all sensory input.

To be continued, on Hyppocampus.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Digging Into Google Public Data Explorer

Google public data explorer seems to be a very useful tool. I generated this graph below, showing which cities in the Santa Clara county of California has seen increase of Asian population, as sampled from the ethnicity of enrolled students.

No surprise in seeing Asian population increase in "good-school" districts like Cupertino and Fremont, but interesting enough, what is Orchard Elementary, which has shot from 20% to more than 40% and emerge as one of the heavily populated Asian communities in the past 5 years? Guessed right, that's the North Valley, San Jose area, which saw the appearance of a new Costco, Lowes, tons of new town-houses, and a new shopping center currently under construction.

It would be even more interesting to use the google API (Dataset Publishing Language) to upload my various junk data and see how they visualize. :)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Idea 50: On Demand Boolean Satisfiability Cloud Solver

The Boolean satisfiability problem, though barely encountered in every lives, has wide applications in software engineering and mathematical optimizations, in particular the problem of formally verifying the correctness of software and hardware. See the wikipedia page for an introduction, and paper written by Joao Marques-Silva on "Practical applications of boolean satisfiability".

The idea is to provide a web service, such that anyone can input a Boolean expression in terms of conjunctive normal form (CNF), and instantaneousness obtain the result of whether the expression is satisfiable. For example, input the following expression:
(x1 + x5 + ~x3) (~x6 + ~x2) (x2 + x3 + x4) 
where '+' represents Boolean OR, and '~' represents Boolean complement; the result will be a satisfying assignment (one of many) to the 6 variables involved.

In addition to HTML web interface with manual input, a developer's API service will be provided, where software programs can make remote requests to the server and supply an encrypted string of Boolean expressions, while the server respond by solving the problem instance, a satisfying assignment in the satisfiable case and a simple "no" in the unsatisfiable case. In some cases, delay may be encountered if the problem instance is large and requires large computation time.

The business model is to charge based on the bandwidth of API usage, or the amount of CPU cycles involved.

Update: the SAT solver itself could be implemented using current programming language Erlang and deployed on a large set of computer nodes.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Idea 49: Live Web Interactions With Video Chat

The popularity of Chatroulette shows that plenty of people on the Internet are eager and ready for live video interactions with another stranger. Why not? People are social animals.

Emerging technologies not only provide platforms for massive live video interactions right in your web browser, like Tinychat, but also providing API's that enable web developers to easily embed video chat boxes into every page of your website, like Tokbox.

These technologies will, along with upcoming HTML 5, open up a new world of rich, interactive, multimedia web, where the possibilities of applications are only confined by your imagination. For example, is a new web service that enables live video debate, along with a dichotomy of user opinions, on any given subject, from political to scientific. Or, go see a psychiatrist with a virtual therapy session online at Pretty Padded Room

Well, not to mention the most important face-to-face interactions: education. This opens the door to a potentially disruptive force to change the way education is done.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Idea 48: Keyword Group Chat - Real Time Twitter / Quora

Ever had a question about something, could not find it online, then post it in a forum, or Twitter/Quora, and painfully waiting for someone to reply? What if you can have instant communication with a person holding the right piece of information, whenever you wanted it?

The idea is to provide an infinite amount of real-time chat rooms organized by key words.

Type something on your mind, "laptop", "heroku", "health insurance", "games", "Chinese food", the related sentences or key words that other people are typing in real-time will start to show up. Along with the sentences are chat-rooms associated with the sentences. You may choose to join one of them, or create your own, while letting all the people who are interested in similar topics know.

It is not the chat room in traditional sense, where you look into a category and see what are the rooms in there. Here, you type something and find related things that are happening in ALL chat-rooms in real time. On the technology side, this may require some complex real-time reindexing, however, demand is the mother of invention, right?

As the user base grows, businesses can establish real-time customer service reps answering questions, and because the common information is shared among all interested participants, the rep redundancy can be kept at a minimum.

Please let me know if you are interested in implementing such an app.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

North-America Chinese Professional Business Plan Competition

The UCAHP Chinese professional business plan competition was held on Jan. 9th. 20 startup teams, selected among more than 100 submissions, presented their ideas and business plan, in front of judge panel consisting of top-tier VC's and angel investors, such as Northern Light, GSR Ventures, West Summit Capital, NEA, Sierra Ventures, etc. 

Among the contenders, I was particularly impressed by the following teams. (the winning team can be found here at UCAHP).
  • Zebra - multi-media storage and bandwidth optimization
  • PalMap - indoor map for shopping complex and convention centers
  • BCBM - converting low-value coal into natural gas
  • Clean Solar - Titanium dioxide solar power panel
  • HealO - wound care chamber treatment
What I observed and learned was that two types of ventures have higher probability of succeeding, or surviving:
  1. Deep technology accumulation in solving a bottle-neck problem in an established market;
  2. Creative user experience, or business model, that acquires user base rapidly in a fast growing new market;
In both cases, business operation is as important as technology, in terms of sales channel establishment, average cost of per customer acquisition, and brand building. It all depends on the founding team, and a bit of luck.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

China Fast Development Represents Huge Opportunity

After two months in China, the country where I grew up until 12 years ago, I feel anti-culture shock. It has changed so much, the bullet trains, the highways, the constructions of new cities everywhere, high rises, etc., and the way people live and talk, you don't feel it unless you really stay there for extended periods of time. For this time, 10 cities across the country was good enough for me.

1. Tons of people
People everywhere, on the streets, in the department stores, restaurants, hospitals, subways, buses. Anywhere you go, you bump into people. The day we went to the World Expo in Shanghai, there were 700 thousands people visiting on that day. The day before our visit, which happened to be a Sunday, over 1 million people.

The waiting for the Saudi Arabia theme park was more than 8 hours, for Germany, 4 hours. Not sure about the motivation behind all these people waiting in lines, but this is China, if anything gets popular, people will wait in lines to get it. Imagine if each person in line pays you $1 for your product or service, how much would it do to your business.

2. Standard of living matching western world
Most city dwellers have private cars, sometimes more than one per family. Ever since the traffic control by license plate number was enforced in Beijing, i.e. you cannot drive your car one day each week, families started to purchase the second car, and the total car ownership increased at a faster speed. The city of Changsha, capital city of Hunan province, with a population of 3 million, has above 1 millions motor vehicles registered.

Modern kitchens, hot waters, electronic appliances, and fancy toilets, used to be luxurious items, now appears in regular families. Take a visit to the shopping mall in Shanghai Pudong 正大广场, 10 times larger than the Valley Fair in the Silicon Valley, where you will find all of the top U.S. brands in apparels and even Best Buy, only that the prices are higher when converted into dollars. Talking about purchasing power.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Perfect Pitch - Biz Idea In 140 Characters

The business idea competition on Twitter hosted by @perfectbusiness completed. I covered this in an earlier post about what to do with your startup ideas.

Thousands of idea was Twitted in the short period of time, many of which are extraordinarily bright ideas. The final winner was indeed an excellent one, quoted here:
@perfectbusiness #micropitch Power from water: turbines safe for fish, drop-in w/no dams, 1M+ sites, helps 1B+ people

My idea 28 on mobile route sharing and smart calpooling was featured in the top 10 runner up. The full list is here.

Thank you @perfectbusiness! This gives me enough confidence to pursue the idea further and continue this blog with even better ideas.

image credit Sir Richard Branson & PerfectBusiness

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Entrepreneurs: Be An Enabler

Having a brilliant idea is still far from real entrepreneurship; striving to provide real value to real customers is.

One efficient way to do that is to be an enabler, an enabler in technology, relationship management, customer service, supply chain, or whatever area that is critical for your customers to do their business.

1. Develop a process, or as people in academia like to call, methodology.

It's better to know a whole lot about one thing, than a little bit of everything. Any Ph. D. graduate will tell you that a methodology with good theory can save a lot of hard work. Be an expert. Use the expertise to invent new ways of doing things, selling staff, or managing operations, not just a little better, but 10 times or 100 times better than the ordinary.

Sometimes, it requires a few genius minds to work things out. Just check the TED talks for some mind blowing new inventions, like the wireless power transmission; or the processor with order of magnitude less power consumption from PA Semi (accquired by Apple).

Other times, it's just a bag of accumulated tips and tricks. John Chow, like other probloggers, has developed a system of how to make a living through blogging, and enjoys a good life style teaching others doing the same.

2. Develop an algorithm to automate the process.

Don't stop at the methodology. Automate it. Turn it on and forget it, if you can.

Google is a great example of process automation. You hardly need to talk to a real person when dealing with Google services. It uses algorithms to figure out where the hotspots on the web-sphere are; uses algorithms to match buyers and sellers through keywords; uses algorithms to pull and push information to just about every corner of the web.

The electronic design automation (EDA) industry itself is enabling semiconductor design companies to tape out their chips faster, cheaper, with better quality. It emerged from simple drawing tools like magic and zero revenue in the early 80's, to now a $4 billion industry (estimate).

3. Duplicate the process.

With a methodology and automated process, all that's left is to enable everyone to do the same, so the entire world runs more efficiently. There goes your entrepreneurship dream and global impact.

Just some thoughts. If you liked it, good, subscribe the newsletter for more exciting updates; otherwise, let me know and let's start a conversation.

image credit estherase

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Idea 47: Voice Enabled Auto Tweet

I like one thing about human nature that is bringing a lot of motivation for technology innovations -- laziness! Yes, we are lazy, and we invent things to justify being lazy, which is good.

Today's idea is for all those lazy Twitter-holics. You don't have to type anything on the keyboard in order to Tweet your status. Just speak to the application on iPhone, or other mobile devices; the voice recognition software will translate the sentences to text, making sure it's within the 140 character limit, then transmit to Twitter server.

What would make it more interesting is, if it can understand emotions, and transcribe that into Tweets as well. Make a laugh, now you have "HAHAHA", or ":D" in your Tweets. That would be fun.

Or, how about automatically discover URL links? Whenever you say "Guy Kawasaki blog", it finds the URL and brings that link into your Tweet.

Lazy is good; lazy motivates innovation.

image credit Louise Lazell

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

How To Generate New Ideas - Part 1

In this intriguing video presentation at MIT, Prof. Patrick Winston summarizes his recent research work on how to make computer smarter by developing algorithms to learn basic reasoning and associations, which he call "common senses".

The key insight is that creative thinking process of us humans, is not a linear progression of words or ideas, but rather a complex combination of images, languages, symbols, dialogues, and interactive feedbacks.

He summarizes four things to do in order to become smarter, which I agree and think are also the key points in coming up with creative new ideas.

1. Take notes - The act of taking notes forces us to reason about the thought, and use the logic of language to formalize the thought. With an iPhone in my pocket, it is now easier than ever for me to take notes anywhere, any time.

2. Draw pictures - We think with images. Even with things we have never experienced, we use our imagination to picturize sequences of images, no matter how blurry they might be.

3. Talk and imagine - We learn by talking. There are certain logic reasoning skills we acquire in our childhood only after learning how to talk. Talking not just solicits feedback of your ideas from others, but yourself also.

4. Tell stories - Life consists of stories. Ideas are illustrated best with real-life stories.

The video is rather long, but worthwhile to go through. If you're pressed on time, then check out the conclusions section, at around 41 minutes into the presentation.

video source MIT world