Clara

Clara was the first girl I worked up enough courage to ask out on a date in high-school. We went to see Titanic, ate at a chain restaurant in a suburban strip mall and at the end of it all, both our moms picked us up in their respective minivans. Pure swagger.

Incidentally, my latest crush is also a Clara and she's the most reliable assistant I've ever had.

When I hired her, I told I told her my default meeting preferences in 30 seconds: For calls, always have the other person call me on my mobile. For coffee meetings, let’s do them at Flyjin Café preferably in the afternoon. For lunches, let’s do them at Holder at 12:30pm. Unless I tell her otherwise, of course.

Whenever I want to meet someone, I simply cc Clara and ask her to take care of it. She then emails my interlocutor directly and gives them my availabilities. They negotiate back and forth until they find a mutually convenient time and she sends us both a calendar invite with all the info we need. This sometimes saves me over 20 emails. 

One thing that really amazed me is how she kept following up with an unresponsive contact. He asked me for a meeting, I responded cc’ing Clara and he went MIA. She would nudge him very nicely every few days with a slightly different message until he responded a month later. It was like magic. This is ideal for biz dev folks who have trouble nailing down times to talk to prospective clients.

What is truly incredible is that Clara works 24/7 and always responds within a couple of hours (but often in less 10 minutes). She never made a mistake. Was never late. Never took a day off and only costs $120/month. 

This is only possible because Clara is not human. Here is how her creators describe her:

Clara is the first intelligent, natural language interface that feels human: a virtual employee you can depend on. Powered by machine intelligence and trained by executive assistants 24/7, Clara is highly responsive, empathetic, and learning more everyday.

My only small gripe with the service is that the emails were sent from a Clara Lovelace (clara.lovelace@claralabs.com). The surname was a bit too sultry for my industry and domain was a giveaway that I am using an outsourced service. I brought this up with the team and we renamed her to Clara Roberts (clara@emcision.com). She's even more perfect now.

I don't know much about the company but it was founded by a Maran Nelson, clearly an absolute genius. It went through YC and is apparently backed by Sequoia. I can't wait until we find out more about the company.

I brought Clara up in a few conversations and a word that often comes up is "scary". To me, there is nothing scary about this. On the contrary, Clara gives me so much hope about our future. The Singularity is truly Near, my friends.

When I signed up, the site was open to the public but they seem to be back in private beta. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend adding yourself to the waiting list and giving it a try when they open it up to more users: claralabs.com

Carless in Montreal: Owning vs Car-sharing

I am now officially carless for the first time in a long while. My lease expired recently and I decided to experiment to see how long I can go without. I am committing to at least 60 days and we’ll see how things go after that.

tl;dr There are many factors to consider but I think I will save the equivalent of ~$7k/year or ~$580/month by going carless. But it’s not all about money and your mileage WILL vary.

Rationale & Particulars

First, let me revisit why I am doing this. In order of importance, the four reasons are:

  1. A desire to simplify. Parking, maintenance, insurance, etc, consume some level of mental overhead and I think I would be better off not thinking about these things.
  2. A desire to reduce my personal burn-rate. I will write more about this in an upcoming post but the general gist is that I have recently started taking delight in finding ways to spend less money.
  3. A desire to move more. I am trying to incorporate more movement and activity in my lifestyle. Letting go of my car might encourage me to walk / bike more.
  4. A desire to reduce my ecological footprint. I find it wasteful to have a car sitting unused 90% of the time if I can avoid it.

Before we get into this, it’s important to note that everyone’s case is different. Here are the particulars of my situation:

  • My “commute” is a 2 km / 20 min walk from home to work
  • The closes metro station is a 1.5km / 15 min walk from home
  • I like to visit my parents once a week in a suburbs 30 km / 35 min drive from home (8 month a year when they are in town)
  • I like to go sailing once or twice a week at a marina 22 km / 30 min drive from home (3 months a year, weather permitting)
  • I go on an average of 5 weekend trips per year (400 km / 3 days each)
  • I live in a city where the average temperature is below 0°C (32 °F) for 5 months per year

Car Expenses

In the last 12 months, my car cost me about $12.8k between the lease, insurance, fuel, maintenance, winter tires, parking and parking tickets. 

In addition I spent about $1k on local Ubers. I use Uber when I go to the airport for trips longer than 3 days, when I want to go out without worrying about drinking and when I go downtown and don’t want to deal with expensive / annoying parking.

No-Car Expenses

Now that I don’t have a car, I will split my transport expense between Uber, Car2Go and traditional car rentals. 

As a side note, one of the hardest things about not having a car in Montreal is that we don’t have ZipCar. I was an avid user of the service when I lived in Geneva and Philadelphia and loved it. We do have Car2Go, which is an imperfect alternative (only 1 type of car, extremely expensive when a trip goes over a couple of hours, etc). We also have Communauto but they seem stuck in 2005 so I don’t think I’ll incorporate them in my transportation mix.

Based on my history and a pretty detailed forecasting exercise, I think I will spend about $6k/year.

Caveats

The major caveats in all of the above are that a) it’ not all about money and b) your mileage WILL vary depending on the circumstances. 

I suspect that I am trading dollars for some major annoyances like renting a car for weekend trip vs driving out of my garage. Also, I am not comparing apples to apples since I was driving a relatively nice car (hence the high lease payments) and now I will be spending most of my time in lower-end UberX or Car2Go Smart cars. Finally, I don’t have kids and I suspect that once they come all of the below goes in the air and that owning/leasing a car will become inevitable.

I’ll post an update when appropriate. In the meantime, I am enjoying this experiment and encourage you to quickly run through the numbers for yourself, even if just for fun. You never know, the math could surprise you.

Why I can’t (yet) commit 100% to Medium

My current blogging workflow looks like this:

  1. Write a story on Medium’s editor because it has by far the best writing environment I know of.
  2. Copy what I wrote to my other blog (hosted on Posthaven), do some light formatting edits and publish it there first.
  3. Come back to Medium, Import Story, format again and Publish.

This process is cumbersome and I wish I could just publish everything on Medium and call it a day. The platform has by far the best writing and reading experience but a few elements make me jump through these hoops, namely:

  • URL’s: I don’t like how URL’s look on Medium and I love how they do on Posthaven (http://blog.cherif.ca/b2c-relationship-building vs https://medium.com/@cherif/b2c-relationship-building-d0ba81e2bd0) This is not just an aesthetic preference but a very practical one. With simple persistent URL’s, I am not tied to a platform forever. I can change platform any day, choose the same URL taxonomy and my content will stay accessible through the same links. I have been around the internet long enough to know that platforms and publications come and go and I want to hedge myself around this in the long-term.
  • Custom domains: I prefer to host my stuff on my own domain and Medium does not currently allow that (other than for a few selected publications at the moment).
  • SEO: This might be related to the two points above and is entirely anecdotal (n=3) but I think that my Posthaven blog has better SEO that my Medium posts. For example, if I search for “Withings Activité review Cherif”, my Posthaven review shows up first but my Medium review is nowhere to be found. 
  • Emails: I have a small number of friends and strangers who subscribed on my Posthaven and receive my posts by email. They can reply to these emails to comment. For my readers who are not, this mechanism is invaluable for distribution. Medium allows Publication owners to write “letters” to their audience but this process is not as elegant as on Posthaven.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Posthaven is far from being the perfect platform. Some long-awaited features are taking forever to be implemented (Garry Tan writes about this here) and their feature-set is pretty minimal. But in the end, I really trust the team. You can read their pledge here and I am sure it will give you the same warm and fuzzy feeling. They did the right thing when they shut down Posterours and I trust that they will do the same thing if they ever decide to shut down Posthaven. Actually, I don’t even really need to trust them with anything since I can just take my content and leave any day.

To be clear, I am NOT delusional about the value of my writing. I don’t have any philosophical qualms about “someone else getting richer on the back of my content” and I am not obsessive about “controlling my online brand”. I just want a blog that will stand the test of time and makes it easy for people to find me. I love Medium and I will continue to be an active participant on this platform but can’t yet commit to it 100% until the above is fixed.

B2C relationship-building

One of the nice things about B2B sales is that you can make a list of potential customers and go after them one by one, relentlessly. That list can be large and it will change with time but at least it is possible to make one. 

For example, At EMcision we sell our products directly to specialized surgeons in the US and through distributors everywhere else in the world. In both cases we are able to build a list of leads that grows over time and we proactively reach out to each lead and push them along our sales funnel, hoping for a conversion . Since this list is finite, we are also able to do hyper-targeted content marketing and invite them to activities that help us strengthen our relationships with actual and prospective clients. We also build increasingly complete profiles for each of our clients. It is far from easy and my sales team works extremely hard but the process has the beautiful advantage of being predictable and repeatable.

In contrast, I have always found it much more challenging to do the same with B2C sales. Especially with a business like FreshMint where everyone is a potential customer. We can’t simply create a list of everyone in Montreal and start calling them. That would be difficult and spammy. 

Last night we ran an experiment, which I think worked really well. We hosted a taco-themed cocktail party for our top customers. What made this party special is that there was no agenda, no speech and no real objective other than getting to know our customers personally. The whole thing was a breeze to plan and execute and we got a lot out of it.

In a nutshell, here is how we did it:

  • Ranked all our customers by RFM score and invited our top 50 customers.
  • Created a simple contest on KickoffLabs for customers who are not necessarily in the top 50 and still wanted to come to the party. We picked 20 entries with an online random number generator.

About 40 people showed up and we had a great time. More specifically, this is what we got out of it:

  • Put faces to names we see almost on a daily basis in our order list. This creates an emotional bond that goes beyond a transaction. There is nothing like a doing a few tequila shots with customers to start a friendship. As a sidenote: it’s incredible how off we can be when we picture a customer or make assumptions about them vs how they are in reality.
  • Got feedback about things they liked / loved / hated about our service. Clearly this is skewed because top customers obviously think we are doing something right but still got a lot of constructive suggestions.
  • Generated new opportunities and ideas in completely new areas for us.

I realize that it might not be easy or doable to do this with every business (e.g., e-commerce company with mostly out of town customers). But I strongly encourage every business owner, especially those who are mostly online, to organize events to meet their customers face to face in a casual environment on a regular basis. The benefits are just immense. I know that we will be now running these events a few times a year.

Withings Activité Review

Activity trackers conceptually appeal to me but I have never found one I liked. Unfortunately, every tracker I tried had a fatal flaw that prevented me for lasting more than a couple of weeks with it.

To me everything I tested had a combination of three major flaws:

  1. No external feedback. The twoJawbone versions I tried drove me nuts because I had to sync with my iPhone just to know how many steps I took. The Misfit kind of gave some kind of indication but, let’s be honest, that systems sucks.
  2. Ridiculously short battery power. It happened to me regularly that I was out on a long activity (e.g., hike or ride) and the tracker died. Also, I noticed that my biggest drop-off point was when I took it off to charge it then never bothered again.
  3. Bad design. They are all cheaply made plastic/rubber contraptions that range from barely ok (Jawbone) to awful (Misfit). The worst part is that I have to wear/carry yet another device with me. And no, I will never use a FitBit as my main watch.
When Withings announced their Activité, I was curious but not immediately sold.

Was it a desperate attempt to just put out something on the market before the Apple Watch came out?

Who came up with that pricing — are they nuts?

Is it really nice enough to wear as my main watch?

I can’t answer the first two questions but the third is a resounding YES. Let’s break things down:

Pros:

  • Great design. This is purely subjective, but I just love how the Activité looks. It is elegant and uncluttered. I have received a lot of compliments on my watch from people who had no idea that it’s also an activity tracker. In fact, they thought I was pulling their leg when I told them that the second sub-dial showed my steps for the day.
  • Build quality. While other trackers are flimsy, this watch is made exceptionally well. I don’t think the Swiss Made stamp means anything for a non-mechanical watch but, regardless, the build quality is irreproachable.
  • Battery. The included battery is supposed to last eight months and there is a spare one included in the package. I am pretty happy with 16 months. Sure beats in the three-seven days in the other trackers I tried.
  • Simplicity. The Activité tracks two things visually: time and steps (% of daily goal). I don’t have to cycle through multiple screens to find. The information on the analog display couldn’t be clearer. It also tracks sleep and swimming but I don’t really use those features.
  • Alarm. You can set an alarm (via the phone) and the watch will vibrate when it’s time. Simple but useful.
  • Easy setup. The initial setup took less than three minutes and it was dead simple.
  • Timezones. The first time I travelled with this watch, this feature blew my mind. I landed in Frankfurt and the watch automatically adjusted to the right timezone by syncing with my phone. The hands just swiftly ticked into the right position. Very cool.
  • Bands. The Activité comes with two bands: leather and silicone. The leather one is beautiful, very comfortable and has tasteful stitching. Haven’t tried the silicone band but I imagine it can be useful if I plan on getting the watch yet.

Cons:

  • No cycling tracking. As of today, the watch does not recognize cycling activity. Chatter on the Withings support forum suggests that it is something they might bring down the line via an over the air update. I really hope they do that soon. Please Withings, hook a brother up.
  • Small. The Activité only comes in one unisex size measuring 36.3mm. The small size is not a dealbreaker but I would have preferred something over 38mm.
  • Price. The price on this product (USD 450) is bordering on outrageous. It doesn’t make sense that I can buy an Apple Watch or Swiss Made fully automatic Tissot for less than that. I hope Withings revise this decision.

Conclusion:

I consider the Activité the only acceptable activity tracker for me, despite its price. In the end, it is the only wearable that I stuck to and that’s what counts the most for me.

Weekend Digest

Here are my favourite stories from the last couple of weeks:

  • Who was Charles Ponzi? An excerpt from a book about the history of the two great financial crises of the last 100 years focusing on the mythical man behind the Ponzi scheme. The money quote: "That Ponzi’s promise to double his investors’ money in ninety days had not raised red flags says something about the readiness of investors to suspend disbelief in the intoxicating financial atmosphere of the 1920s". That's a clear warning to me.
  • Buy-and-hold fund prospers with no new bets in 80 years A fund placed a bunch of bets on the equity market in 1935 and haven't bough a single new stock since then. The fund has performed fairly well over the years and is a clear indictment of the active "investment management" racket.
  • House of Strength Sometimes you read something that delights you because it's so unexpected. French photographer Jeremy Suyker's photo essay was exactly that for me. A fascinating look into an esoteric spiritual / fitness Persian tradition.
  • 50 Years of Berkshire Annual Letters: Here are Some Highlights It is one of my goals to one day read all of the Berkshire Hathaway annual letters. This will probably required 2-3 days of full concentration, preferably on a Mediterranean vacation. Since that is not likely to happen any time soon, I have to settle for this WSJ's pithy summary of each year's highlight.

Apple Watch Work Edition

I am often asked what I think of the Apple Watch and the truth is that I am torn. As a mechanical watch enthusiast, I am fearful that the minority of us who care about these marvels of craftsmanship will further shrink. However, as a technologist, I am excited by the endless possibilities that the Apple Watch will unleash, especially in healthcare/fitness applications. I have tried and been strongly disappointed by the last few generations of wearable and I believe that Apple will finally do it right. They always do. And that’s why I will definitely buy the Sport Edition when it becomes available.
I have no doubt that the Apple Watch will do spectacularly well. But I think the Apple Watch will truly shine brightest at work. 

I can imagine a multitude of settings where not having access to a smartphone is a hinderance to productivity. Two categories that immediately pop in to my mind:

  • On the move: The growing armies of on-demand/delivery workers who need information on the move. Smartphones have largely replaced walkie-talkies as the primary dispatching device and it is common for 1099 workers to bring their own data-enabled devices. Recruitment ads often even specify “iPhone with iOS 6+ or recent Android phone”. It is difficult and dangerous for a courier to glance at their phones while riding on two wheels. I know that at FreshMint we often have an issue where the dispatcher sends a courier a change of plan while the courier is between points A and B and the message doesn’t get seen until they get to B. An Apple Watch will solve that.

  • Clean/dirty hands: There are many situations where you need to keep your hands clean or wear gloves. I can think of healthcare professionals in non-sterile environments (nurses, dentists, etc), cleanroom, lab or kitchen workers. With notifications correctly setup to avoid unnecessary distractions, I can see how the Apple Watch could be very useful in these environments. No more awkward “please reach into my pocket and answer the phone” situations.

So how is this solely relevant to the Apple Watch and not Android wearables? It’s not. I think the above applies to smartwatches in general. But I have absolutely no doubt that the Apple implementation will be more elegant and therefore used more broadly. Apple will bring an impossibly geeky product to the mainstream. They always do.

Weekend Digest

This past week was choke-full of great reading material. Here are the top stories I recommend:

  • The Shape of Things to Come. Ian Parker's wide-ranging profile of Jony Ive is an exceptional read. It is a rare view into Apple's product development philosophy and Jony's ascent within the organization. His passion for the products he creates and his compassion for the people using them are contagious. I am guilty of often reading things diagonally, trying to scan for the important tidbits. Not this article. I read it slowly, chewed on the words and savoured them. I was almost sad that my hour inside Jony's world was coming to an end in the last few paragraphs.

  • Me and My Girls. I am almost embarrassed to say that I didn't know David Carr's personal story until he passed away 10 days ago. A flurry of tributes from people that he touched emerged following his death. But none was as poignant as his own account of how he emerged from an infernal crack cocaine addiction to become a responsible single father for his infant twin daughters. A deeply moving must-read.

  • Warning: too much finance is bad for the economy. This Economist article summarizes studies showing the inverse correlation between growth in the finance sector and growth of the economy. In short, it argues that a) finance attracting too much talent away from science and technology and b) finance sector's preference for low-risk collateralized investments are both bad for the economy. Even the comments on this article are thoughtful, something exceedingly rare on the internet these days

  • Startup Advice, Briefly. Sam Altman, YC's president, does a great job at digesting all of YC's advice in one, easy to read summary. It is remarkable that you can fit so much excellent content in one short blog post.

  • The Calm Before the Storm. Nassim Taleb and his co-author use the concept of Antifragility to argue that decentralized, volatile-looking governments (such as Lebanon) are in fact more robust as they provide no single point of failure. They then go on to evaluate the stability of several other countries. A fascinating read.

Paris Jan 20-22, 2015

A few weeks ago I got to spend a quick 48 hrs in Paris. Jotting down some notes to remember my trip.

Tuesday:

  • Landed at CDG around 11am. I am fan of this Air Transat route as the late departure (10pm) maximizes my day back home and late landing minimizes delay until most hotels will let you check-in. It’s also easier to sleep when the plane doesn’t take off at 6:30pm. Worth noting the price difference between carriers for this trip: Air Transat $675, BA $1900, Air Canada $2900. WTF.
  • Took an UberX to the hotel. UberX in Paris beyond impressive. I consistently got high-end, spacious cars and the service was always immaculate. Drivers opening doors, free bottle of water, mints, iPhone charger available to the back seat, etc.
  • Checked-in at the Hyatt Regency. Not my first choice but everyone was staying there. “Would Monsieur like a high room with a view on the Sacré Coeur?”. You bet I would! I get to the 28th floor and the room is simply appalling. It looked like it wasn’t refreshed in 20 years and as you see below, the paint was peeling off the walls. I went back to the lobby, showed the picture to the manager and he switched my room without saying a word. Much better.
  • Put my stuff down and started thinking about lunch. I was starving as I have a strict no plane food policy. A quick Foursquare check to see what’s good and close to the hotel wasn’t fruitful. I didn’t have much time so I decided to just UberX it to St-Germain to hit up a familiar brasserie before settling in for work.
  • Hesitated a bit between the classics (if not cliché) Deux Magots, Brasserie Lipp and Café de Flore. They are all old faves and I was torn. In the end, the choice was easy as only Lipp had a front-row terrasse seat. There is no way I am going to any of these places to sit inside.
  • Wanted coffee nearby and since I couldn’t find anything decent on Foursquare (again) I just walked 2 blocks to Ladurée. Again, very cliché and I was hoping to try something new but in the end I was happy to be in familiar territory with such great memories.
  • Got back to the hotel for a super quick nap, worked out and worked for a few hours.
  • By the time, I got my work done it was almost 11pm and I was starving. The Hyatt’s concierge was not very helpful so I just decided to keep things simple and head to a nearby Relais de Venise. I love how the only choice you have is how you want your steak cooked. The steak frites was impeccable and comforting in its familiarity.

Wednesday:

  • Started the day with another FitStar workout and worked for a few hours.
  • Met with my cousin Rob for lunch. We just got out of the hotel, hit up the first brasserie we saw and ordered a raw seafood patter with a côte de boeuf to share. Before we even got the main course, we got a call from my uncle to meet in hotel lobby in 15 mins. Needless to say the cote was devoured in record time and we were a few mins late.
  • We all headed to the Faculty of Medicine at Université Paris Descartes for the National Academy of Medicine award ceremony (the reason of this trip). My uncle was honoured for his numerous contributions in his field of liver surgery. The ceremony itself was long but I couldn’t be prouder of my uncle for this incredible achievement. The academy only welcomes less than 50 foreigners (non-French nationals) to its ranks so this is a pretty big deal. His childhood friend (also a physician) flew in from Cairo for the ceremony.
  • Following the ceremony, a cocktail was given in the Faculty Museum. I was mesmerized by all the old surgery tools, some of them dating from the 18th century. Most of these tools looked like torture devices but the craftsmanship was just magnificent. Some of these instruments were over 200 years old and looked brand new. Famous surgeons of the time would order custom made kits from famous "couteliers"[1]. Each kit was tailored to the surgeon's handedness, size, etc and often had the user's initials carved on a handle made of a noble material.
  • Dinner was at Le Doyen (***). The restaurant was first opened in 1779 and changed name and owners throughout the years. We had a private room for 12 of us. It was elegant without being stuffy. I wish I kept a copy of the menu because unfortunately I don't remember the details now of what I ate. What I do remember is that every bite was flawless and I was almost nostalgic after each one as I knew I wouldn't taste something like this anytime soon. Also, they had the best olive bread I've ever had. I must've inhaled at least 8 small buns. I don't have a particularly sweet tooth but I can say that it was also probably the best dessert I ever had.
  • As everyone headed home, Rob and I split from the group to get a nightcap at the Ritz' Hemingway Bar. We got to Place Vendôme and realized that the Ritz was still closed for renovation. We then set out for the Georges V's bar where we each drank a couple of old-fashioneds, compared notes on our jobs and generally caught up. It was obvious that the staff was tired and ready to close up so we didn't want to overstay our welcome, knocked back our drinks and went home.

Thursday:

  • UberX’ed it to airport, flew home and went straight to work exhausted but feeling blessed for those great 48 hours.

--

[1] Google Translate tells me that coutelier is cutler in English, which is "a person who makes, sells, or repairs knives and other cutting instruments".

2 interesting charts about the Canadian housing market

I am constantly thinking about the local housing market to a) help me figure out my personal investment strategy and b) because I am trying to understand the general market dynamics. These 2 charts, both from the IMF's Global Housing Watch, are quite interesting:

1) House Price-to-Income Ratio deviation from historical

Housing prices are not as affordable as they used to be. Either they were too low and just correcting now or they're getting unaffordable. Need more data points to get to a conclusion here.

2) House Price-to-Rent Ratio

Renting is not as bad as it is made to be in Canada. And owning a rental property is maybe not as attractive as it is also made to be.

A few caveats on these charts:

  • Any view on the Canadian market as a whole are distorted by the Vancouver and Toronto realities that are much frothier than Montreal's, which is the market most relevant to me
  • This data is at least 6 months old
  • This in one data point, I've seen others who don't paint as bleak of a picture

The recent Bank of Canada rate cut is going to add further fuel to the fire and I am curious to see where all this leads.

    Thoughts?

    UPDATE: Corrected my interpretation of first chart based on a Redditor's comment.