tag:blog.cherif.ca,2013:/posts 2016-05-07T15:12:02Z tag:blog.cherif.ca,2013:Post/904367 2015-09-12T16:51:58Z 2016-04-29T15:45:26Z 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
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tag:blog.cherif.ca,2013:Post/897981 2015-08-26T19:09:30Z 2015-08-26T22:44:27Z 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.

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tag:blog.cherif.ca,2013:Post/894723 2015-08-17T18:39:20Z 2016-05-07T15:10:57Z 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.

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tag:blog.cherif.ca,2013:Post/893725 2015-08-14T18:00:20Z 2015-08-14T18:00:20Z 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.

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tag:blog.cherif.ca,2013:Post/878833 2015-07-08T21:53:00Z 2015-08-13T15:29:58Z 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.

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tag:blog.cherif.ca,2013:Post/815974 2015-03-21T15:00:00Z 2015-03-21T14:59:27Z 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.
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tag:blog.cherif.ca,2013:Post/827537 2015-03-20T14:32:27Z 2015-03-20T19:47:30Z 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.

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tag:blog.cherif.ca,2013:Post/812048 2015-02-21T14:29:44Z 2015-02-22T13:24:08Z 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.
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tag:blog.cherif.ca,2013:Post/811541 2015-02-14T15:26:09Z 2015-02-14T15:31:15Z 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.

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[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".

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tag:blog.cherif.ca,2013:Post/806240 2015-02-03T10:03:04Z 2015-02-03T16:35:52Z 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.

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    tag:blog.cherif.ca,2013:Post/804682 2015-01-30T00:35:30Z 2015-01-30T14:00:05Z Is Amazon a legit company?

    I was recently reminded that the truths we hold as self-evident as technophiles are not universal (sorry, American friends). Specifically, even a company as old, big and ubiquitous as Amazon still has room to grow and skeptics to convince.

    2 recent anecdotes illustrate this:

    1) I was having dinner with friends at their home when their teenage daughter came back from a day out and asked her parents for help. Let's call her Maria.  Maria wasn't able to find a book required by her school at the local bookstore so she wasn't sure what to do. Her mother suggested that Maria should call a few other stores and she offered to drive her in the following days if required.

    I asked Maria whether she was going through all that trouble because Amazon didn't carry that particular title or she needed it right away to do last minute homework. She answered that she had heard of Amazon but wasn't sure how exactly "it" worked. Her mother followed on by asking "Is Amazon a big company? Is it safe to order from them? Where is their warehouse?"

    Candidly, I was stunned. I thought that Amazon had long ago crossed the chasm into the mainstream. I honestly never thought that a 40-year old, educated, iPad-carrying professional city dweller would not know enough about Amazon to trust ordering from there.

    2) I sent a link to a bike trainer to a cycling friend asking him for his advice. His response? Something along the lines of "Yeah, this is the model I recommend and the price is great. But you'll really order it from Amazon? How do you know it'll be in good condition?". I thought that his second question was a simple confusion with eBay/CraigsList. When I asked him to clarify, he told me that he didn't understand how someone could sell a "legit" new product for 20% less than what it was advertised at the local bike shop. He was not aware of the scale and efficiencies that allowed Amazon to be so competitive [1].

    Again, I was surprised by this conversation. Amazon has been consistently featured in the mainstream/mass media in the past few years and here you have a 34-year old who didn't really trust them. Not because he had a bad experience with them but simply because he was wary of the economics.

    The 2 examples above just show how hard it is to create an enduring, pervasive brand. No matter how big you are, there are still people who never heard of you. The great news is that opportunities for growth are just endless.

    --

    [1] There are definitely many good reasons to support your local bike shop, but that's a topic for another time.

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    tag:blog.cherif.ca,2013:Post/804469 2015-01-29T18:05:00Z 2015-01-30T21:28:18Z FitStar

    One of my biggest fitness challenges is how travel throws off any workout routine I manage to get into. It takes me weeks to get into a comfortable groove, then I travel a few days and it sometimes feels like I am back at square one when I get back. I've found that the obvious solutions of going for runs or using hotel gyms when away rarely work for me unless I am on vacation. It becomes an additional overhead on the trip.

    About a month ago, I came across FitStar. It's an app with guided workouts. They have 4 programs: Daily Dose, Get Moving, Get Lean and Get Strong.

    I started with Get Lean but found the workouts a bit too repetitive. I switched to Get Strong and I much prefer this program. 

    FitStar is innovative because the workouts are adaptive. After every segment (e.g., 20 pushups), it asks you how it went (easy, ok or brutal) and the next workout will be tailored to that feedback. This means that it slows down the progression of segments you can't complete and it ramps up pretty quickly in areas that are too easy. This is an obvious improvement on video-based programs that are the same for everyone.

    The workouts I've tried last ~30 minutes and burn ~300 calories. I am not too hung up on the number of calories but I find that working out in the morning drastically improves my day. 

    On my last trip to Paris I just propped up the iPad on the hotel desk and did my workouts every day. I think it helped with jetlag but, most importantly, I didn't get derailed from my daily workout routine and was able to jump right back in when I got back home.

    This morning I woke a bit late and didn't have time for the gym. I fired up FitStar, streamed it to my TV via AppleTV and I was done in 40 mins including getting changed and setting up. It doesn't get more efficient.

    It's now on sale for 29.99/year, down from 49.99/year. Check it out, I think you'll like it.

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    tag:blog.cherif.ca,2013:Post/802491 2015-01-25T23:20:38Z 2015-01-30T01:07:10Z #Eatergate: Harrison vs Antonopoulos

    Ian Harrison’s takedown of the #HappeningGourmand marketing campaign caused a mini controversy in the Montreal foodie/social media community. Even Dan Delmar and Lesley Chesterman got involved so this must be serious business.

    I am traveling so a bit late to the party but wanted to weigh-in nonetheless to add some nuance to the conversation. If you are not up to speed, here are the specific posts I am referring to:

    First, let me start with my own disclosures:

    1. I am friendly with a few members of the younger generation of the Antonopoulos clan. We are not close friends but I went to CEGEP with a couple of the guys and we sporadically bump into each other at events. Great people. 
    2. I am friendly with Na’eem Adam, who works at 1Milk2Sugars and apparently orchestrated this event. Again, we are not close friends but we worked on a project in the context of PoutineWeek and we see each other at events. Na’eem’s a cool cat and his passion for food is contagious.
    3. I’ve dealt with PR firms and lifestyle/food bloggers extensively in the past 6 years. I’ve had PR firms on retainer, I hired PR consultants for specific consulting gigs and, yes, I have even given freebies to bloggers in hope of getting exposure to their readership (big gasp!). I am eternally grateful to the benefits I received from such exposure but I can still call a spade a spade.

    Alright, now with this out of the way, let’s directly address Ian’s issues with what happened. If I understand correctly, he has two main gripes with how things went down:

    1. Ian does not like the fact that the Antonopoulos Group paid local influencers to host dinners at their restaurants. He goes so far as to call it payola.
    2. Ian does not like the fact that these guests were all over social media praising the restaurants without a single mention that they were invited.

    Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

    • Ian is absolutely right that if you accept money or freebies you should disclose it. Look, you don’t need to hire Stikeman to write you a disclosure notice but it is lazy and deceitful to not even mention that there was a quid pro quo, no matter how small the quid. 
    • There is a big difference between doing a comprehensive restaurant review and attending a PR event. #HappeningGourmand was a PR event and the bloggers were there to cover that event. Just like when a car company launches a new model, hires a PR company to put together an event and invites journalists to cover said event. Most of the attendees treated it correctly as a PR event so no harm done (see below).
    • Neither the Antonopolus Group nor 1Milk2Sugars asked their guests to say anything positive about the events. They simply invited the guests and encouraged them to share on social media. I know it’s a fine line but the “payola” email was in fact pretty benign. 
    • I don’t understand Dan Delmar’s argument that bloggers shouldn’t be held to the same high standard of journalism as “serious” food critics. Again, I am not saying that bloggers should remain anonymous, invent elaborate disguises and adopt a star system. But a simple phrase stating a potential conflict of interest is appreciated by all. 
    • Ian’s accusation that Dan is somehow involved in all this drama was mind-boggling and I am glad he updated his post.

    I took the time to go through all the social media mentions I could find and they fall in three camps:

    1. Bloggers who went to the media event and simply reported the fact that there is a food festival at the Antonopolous restaurants during the month of January. Good examples are EnRouteVitaminDaily and Zurbaines. Absolutely no editorializing or reviews of the restaurants. I cannot find anything objectionable in this.
    2. Bloggers who went to the event, disclosed that they were invited and offered light opinions on what they saw. Good examples are Montreal Food Divas and EatingOut. Again, I cannot find anything objectionable in this since there is disclosure and it’s up to the readers to decide whether they trust the . 
    3. Bloggers who went to the event, didn’t disclose the fact that it was a media event or that they were guests and generously commented on the merits of the restaurant they visited. I am not going to throw anyone under bus here because I want to keep things positive but, come on guys, it’s not hard to preface whatever you are going to say with “I was invited to the lauch event for this year’s Happening Gourmand and here are my thoughts….”. This last group mostly consisted of bloggers with smaller followers suggesting that either it’s simply a rookie mistake or that the market is indeed efficient and rewards those who are more serious about their craft.

    Since most of the coverage I found was not offensive in any way, I cannot support Ian’s condemnation of the #HappeningGourmand as an elaborate grand scheme by the Antonopolulos Group to fool the public and an example of corruption in the food bloggers’ circle. His arguments about disclosure are perfectly valid but he picked the wrong example to prove his point.

    Finally, and most importantly, singling out the Antonopoulos Group like Ian did is disingenuous and sensationalist. First, they are hardly the only restaurant group who hosts blogger/media events. Second, they are being proactive to drum up business in a notoriously slow month for restaurants instead of using the usual “Montreal has too many restaurants” or “Montrealers don’t like to spend money like they people do in Toronto and New York” complaints. Third, this family is instrumental to our city and particularly the revitalization of Old Montreal. They bet on this neighbourhood when it was a deserted. Sure they profited handsomely from their prescience but so did all Montrealers. Anyone living, working, dining or going out in the Old Port owes them a huge debt of gratitude. I cannot think of another group who embodies Montreal hospitality more than the Antonopoulos’. They also personify the entrepreneurial gritty ethos of our city and their meteoric rise from operators of the Casse-Croute du Vieux Port in the late 1960’s to what they are today is nothing short of breathtaking. I estimate that they employed over 20,000 people throughout the years and the indirect economic benefits of their activities are innumerable. And that is beside what they have done to preserve the city’s patrimony and architectural heritage. Of course they should not be given a free pass on ethics but making them the scapegoat of a wild goose chase is ridiculous. They surely don’t need my defence but it’s important for me to state the above because they are simply too classy to get involved in the mudslinging.

    Peace.

    PS: In Setting the Table, Danny Meyer talks candidly about the symbiotic relationship between restaurateurs and critics. Both groups need each other to thrive and learning how to manage this relationship is primordial for both sides. If you love the food business, I strongly recommend that book.

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    tag:blog.cherif.ca,2013:Post/804690 2014-03-01T17:00:00Z 2015-01-30T13:03:03Z Marvin Malton 160 M117 review

    I bought my first “nice” watch in 2006 with the first bonus I received after 6 months at McK. It was a Panerai Luminor Marina 40mm (PAM00048) that I picked after two or three months of research and seeking opinions. I found a pre-owned version of the exact model I wanted and authenticated it with Chateau d’Ivoire, a reputable Montreal-based jeweler. After receiving the watch, I immediately got rid of the stock leather bracelet to replace it with a black diver-style rubber band. I started with an original Panerai diver band but when that was worn out, I’ve had a series of generic bands mostly purchased on Panatime.

    The original plan was that would be my “sporty” watch and that I would buy a “dressy” watch later. However, I was so happy with the Marina that I never ended up buying the other watch. Anyone who knows me will tell you that this watch essentially never left my wrist for over seven years. I am still deeply in love with my Marina as I find it to be the perfect every day watch that fits well with my lifestyle. I went to school and work with it. I sailed, cycled, skied and bummed around on the beach with it. I wore it at weddings and black-tie shindigs. It worked so well for me because it isn’t too bulky (remember I have the less popular 40mm), the rubber strap is supremely comfortable and it’s rugged (I’ve banged it on more door frames that I care to admit). Most importantly, it’s relatively discreet for Montreal, where Panerai is not really a trendy brand. It’s not nearly as conspicuous as walking around with a Submariner or bulky Navitimer.

    But as much as I loved my trusty Panerai, my eyes starting wandering. I started longing for a simple white-faced dressier watch that I can wear occasionally. Since I don’t have the same kind of extra cash lying around as I did when working for my corporate overlords, I decided that I didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg on my new purchase. This budget constraint obviously eliminated a few of the usual suspects (IWC, JLC, etc) right off the bat.

    My criteria were:

    • Provenance: Real Swiss-made watch with Swiss parts and Swiss craftsmanship. Not one that was made in HK and assembled in Switzerland just to get the “Swiss Made” stamp.
    • History: A manufacture with an interesting history. This eliminates a few of the newer brands.
    • Movement: Solid automatic movement with at least a date
    • Design: Simple white face, preferably with blue hands
    • Band: Leather
    • Glass: Saphire
    • Case diameter: 40-42mm
    • Budget: Under $1k

    After looking around for a while, I settled on the automatic Marvin M117 in the Malton 160 family with white face and blue hands (exact modelM117.13.22.68). It was slightly above my budget at $1,220 but exactly fit all my other criteria.

    I have been now wearing the new M117 almost daily for over two months and I am thrilled with my purchase. Let’s see why:

    Strengths:
    • Discreet. I have received very few comments from strangers since I got the Malton. To me this is a feature, not a bug. One of my pet peeves is when people make assumptions about others based on the watch they are wearing. Yes, I like nice watches. And yes, I will also negotiate my lease agreement to the last detail. They are not mutually exclusive.
    • Beautiful. Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder but I find the M117 absolutely stunning. To me, the proportions of the face are perfect even if the case could use a slight haircut as I explain below.
    • Interesting history. Marvin was founded in 1860, went through some tough times in the middle of the last century and had an interesting story of rebirth. I sent some questions to the new owners and I will post the answers in a new post when I receive them.
    • Attention to detail. Marvin watches all have some details that are fun to discover: a red marker dot at the 8 o’clock position, a stamp with the founders’ initials on the left side of the case, the Marvin crown on the stem and bracelet clasp and a red lining inside of the leather band.
    • Push-button straps. The push button mechanism allows you to change the straps very easily with no tools necessary. I bought an additional black leather strap to supplement the dark brown one that comes with the watch and it is I had heard of this feature before but never seen it in action. I like it!
    • Solid movement. The Sellita SW200 powering the M117 is a standard, if not boring, movement. It is essentially a clone of the ETA2824 workhorse and there is really not much to add here. It does the job, does it well and without fanfare. Expecting anything better at this price range is just not realistic.
    • Great value for money. When you take into account the history and craftsmanship of this watch, I think that you are definitely getting superb value. Of course it’s all relative and I am fully aware that spending $1.2k on a watch is kind of frivolous but we all have our sins.
    • Service. Last but not least, the customer service was spectacular. I emailed the general mailbox with some questions and got an answer in less than an hour. For the following two weeks, Francisco in customer service answered my follow-up questions with speed, first-class competence and empathy. I ordered the watch on a Friday and it arrived on Monday. An impressive feat for a Neuchâtel-Montréal shipment.
    What I would have done differently:
    • Leather band. The leather band is slightly uncomfortable because the edges are too thin and not well rounded. I would have personally chosen a broader, more supple band with a better edge finish.
    • Case. The case is ever slightly bulkier that I would have liked. Of course this is pure subjective but I would have preferred to shave a millimetre or two from the diameter and depth of the case. I am not sure if that is technically feasible with the size of the movement but it would have given the watch an even more refined look.
    • Hands. Again this is subjective but I think feuille style hands would work better than the lancette ones currently on the Malton 160.

    Verdict:

    I am very satisfied with the Marvin Malton 160 M117 and would recommend this watch without reservations. If you are looking for a well-built, well-designed watch with an interesting heritage but without breaking the bank, you should seriously consider the M117.

    I must say that now that I have a taste of the Marvin brand, I am lusting over the M115 regulator (exact model M115.13.24.68). She is a beauty powered by a Dubois-Dépraz regulator movement and I will try to get my hands on one for a review.

    Feel free to ask if I have left a detail you’re interested in. Thanks for reading!

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    tag:blog.cherif.ca,2013:Post/804876 2012-12-14T17:00:00Z 2016-05-07T15:12:02Z Working alone sucks

    I am the CEO of a small healthcare tech company. My biggest source of job-related dissatisfaction is the fact that I work alone most of the time. I’ve always disliked the “It’s lonely at the top” arrogant cliche but now I must say I am feeling it.

    My team of about 20 is distributed around the world. We have sales reps in the US and in Europe, all working from home to be closer to their markets and travel to see their clients. Due to legacy reasons, we have engineers working out of one European facility and a clinical team working from another European facility. I am sitting in an office in Montreal with two colleagues. I don’t have a CFO, COO or other peers with the same overall picture of the company and incentive structure that I have. I send progress reports to my Board of Directors once a quarter who nicely acknowledge receipt and ask some questions but don’t challenge me in a meaningful way.

    Because my team is mostly remote and we don’t have any local customers yet, I spend the vast majority of my time dealing with emails and talking on the phone. Just thinking about my daily office routine reminds me of a Hemingway quote:

    There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

    Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am (hyper?)active, extraverted and social. Sitting in front of the computer alone all day is as sub-optimal as it gets for my character.

    In the first company I started, I had 2 co-founders who were also best-friends. We all sat in close proximity and had a weekly “Partners’ Dinner”. These dinners were a great time to share the ups and downs of the week and jointly steer the vision of the company. Later, when I worked in a management consulting firm, I mostly sat with my team around a large table in the client’s office. We traveled together, worked together, ate together and went out together. We also had frequent client interactions during the day. Overall, the sometimes annoying loss of privacy from Monday to Thursday were outweighed by the friendship, camaraderie and strong professional ties that we formed during that time.

    I have only started realizing the negative effects of working alone on my mood and performance. As a result, I started getting involved in many activities outside of work to try to solve this problem. Some activities were helpful, while others further exacerbated my feeling of aloneness.

    As example of a not so helpful activity, I went yesterday to a lunch event were I was told we would discuss the main issues affecting Canada/US trade for SMB’s. As about 50% of our business is with the US, I figured that would be an event worth attending. As it happens, we were probably only 3 entrepreneurs (out of 50) participants . Everyone else there was from some kind of government organization pushing their “program” or a service provider who was there to network. The lunch lasted 2.5 hrs and was filled with non-practical macro generalities (US exports represent 67% of Quebec foreign trade) and needless ceremony (“we are so honoured to have with us today Mr X, he is Honorary Chairman of Y committee”). It is impossible thatanyone gained something practical and valuable from the lunch. Driving back to my office, I felt even more isolated. I felt like I wasted time without any benefit whatsoever.

    Of course this is only one failed example in a series of more successful attempts to find a solution to my situation. This post is getting longer than I intended it to be so I will stop here and write again soon about some of the things I am doing to improve my solitary working environment.

    Update: This post has generated an interesting discussion on HN (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4921047). I should emphasize that it is not physically being alone (i.e., not enough contact with other people) that bothers me, it is the lack of peer-level teamwork towards a common goal that I lack. 

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    tag:blog.cherif.ca,2013:Post/804878 2012-03-17T16:00:00Z 2015-01-30T13:29:53Z Please stay classy and stop copying Birchbox

    I just got off a transatlantic flight and I am writing this on my iPhone so please excuse the rambling.

    I met BirchBox’ Hayley and Katia in the summer of 2010. They had just graduated from HBS, had a few hundred monthly customers on their service and weren’t sure whether they would be able to raise a seed round.

    They were two lovely ladies trying to make it as first time entrepreneurs.

    Fast forward 2 years and the story is completely different. They are darlings of the NY startup scene. They are poster childs of the tech+fashion trend. They raised more money than I’ll ever see in my life. They are signing up paying and recurring users by the boatload. They are apparently very profitable.

    And they are still two lovely ladies. They haven’t become too cool for school.

    I went to an event where they spoke about the experience last year. After their talk, a couple of guys I knew went up to them and asked them for all kind of operational metrics. Hayley and Katia were gracious enough to indulge them with as much info as possible.

    A week later, these guys wanted to have coffee with me to get my thoughts about a new startup they are launching. You want to guess what it was? Yup, a BirchBox for guys. “Imagine every month you get a tightly curated box of shaving cream, hair gel, condoms, etc”. I

    don’t know about you, but I really don’t need a tightly curated selection of condoms every month. I am also quite satisfied with my Kiehl’s shaving cream I have been using for 10 years. Would I consider switching? Absolutely. Would I pay $10/month to two clueless frat boys to “curate” my grooming products? Absolutely not.

    BirchBox is successful because the girls are passionate about their product. Katia worked for Estée Lauder and has an intimate knowledge of how the beauty industry works.

    That first clone launch an folded a few month later. Nice lesson for the founders, no harm done. My problem is that people are still copying them every day. I received 5 BirchBox clone plans in the last 6 months. One of them is a legit twist on the subscription model by people who know something about their market. The other 4 are just plain rip offs with either a different geographic focus (“Europe is completely greenfield for this”) or a different gender focus (“curated condoms”).

    Please stay classy and stop copying BirchBox. You will not succeed unless you somehow innovate on their model or know something extra special about the market you are entering.

    Update: BirchBox Man launched a few weeks after I wrote this. I hope this taught everyone who ripped off the original BirchBox that you can’t just blatantly copy someone’s else idea without having a secret sauce or a unique differentiator. 

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