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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.