The Martian is Robinson Crusoe on Mars

February 23, 2014


Andy Weir’s book gripped me from the start. I typically don’t like books written in the first person, even more so when the entire book is a series log entries without dialogue. Obviously, I was willing to make some allowances given that he’s alone on Mars with no one to talk to. In any case, I need not have worried as his journey was thrilling and the technique surprisingly effective.

The entrepreneur in me really related to his experience. It felt he was running a startup which had taken a wrong turn, leaving him with extremely limited resources and desperate for an exit strategy. I loved how he would take a seemingly insurmountable problem, break it down in pieces to solve each issue one by one using his engineering skills. That’s the entrepreneur way!

The book is very scientific, but easily understandable by lay people. It is also much more humorous than I expected. I loved Mark Watney rants against his fellow astronaut’s music, movie and literary tastes, not to mention Murphy’s Law.

Read The Martian, you won’t regret it!

Command Authority is Tom Clancy’s best book in years

February 22, 2014


It’s also the best book he co-wrote with Mark Greaney. I suppose the bar is not very high given the quality of their latest books, but I really enjoyed this one. The topic is uncannily timely given the current events in Ukraine. The book cleverly integrates Red Storm Rising-style sequences, like the fantastic opening passage of the book, with the Jack Ryan intelligence analyst sections. I wish there were more of the former. However, given the gimmick of having the story unfold in parallel both in the present day and 30 years ago, I was happy to see Jack Ryan Sr. back in action as his younger more active self.

I have to admit I am not sure how objective this review is. I grew up on Clancy books in the 1980s and 1990s and lamented his passing a few months ago. This book managed to hit all the right touches of nostalgia. All the characters I grew up loving make an appearance. Somehow it also felt very relevant and I was entertained throughout.

If you are an old school Clancy-fan, Command Authority is worth checking out.

Brazil is becoming Argentina, Argentina is becoming Venezuela and Venezuela is becoming Zimbabwe :(

February 15, 2014


50 reasons why this is the greatest time ever

February 5, 2014

In The Case for Optimism I outlined both why we are better off than we have ever been in history, especially if we live in the West, and why the future is so promising. USA Today, of all places, just published a lot of the statistics underlying the first part of my argument.

Consider that if you make more than $34,000 per year you are in the richest 1% of people in the world and that you have a standard of living unimaginable by the wealthiest people in the world a hundred years ago.

All 50 reasons are very powerful and warrant reading in their own right, you can find them at:

Fantastic presentation on customer acquisition

January 7, 2014

My good friend Saar Gur who is a general partner at Charles River Ventures just posted a brilliant presentation on customer acquisition. He explains that most startups fail because they don’t acquire customers profitably.

This goes to the heart of how Jose and I invest. As I mentioned in Why we play Moneyball rather than Powerball, we care deeply about unit economics. We want you to show us that even at a small scale your long term value (LTV) per customer is greater than your customer acquisition cost (CAC). In fact, we don’t think a business has great unit economics unless the projected net contribution margin per customer in the first year is 2x the customer acquisition cost.

Saar not only presents how to calculate the CAC and LTV, but presents the various channels and their pros and cons. In our experience, the success of channels varies dramatically from business to business. Google SEM seems to always work for us in businesses with high LTV, but in some cases like fashion where pictures are very powerful, display ads and Facebook can be much more cost effective. We have also been pleasantly surprised by the effectiveness of TV.

Read the presentation.

2013: The Dawn of a New Beginning

January 3, 2014

I spent most of 2013 living with the consequences of the life changing decisions I made in late 2012 (2012: A Transition to New Beginnings!) of leaving OLX (Why I am leaving OLX) and radically simplifying my life (The Very Big Downgrade).

For the first time in 7 years, I was finally able to spend over 30 consecutive days in the same country several times during the year. I ended up spending around half the year in Cabarete in the Dominican Republic which I elected as a base of operations. It allowed me to find a good work / life balance. My typical day involved working from 8 am to 2 pm, kiting from 3 pm to 5 pm and playing tennis from 7 pm to 9 pm, before reading, writing or playing video games.

I was finally able to take the time to invest in my friends and family. Around 45 of them joined me for two weeks in Anguilla at the beginning of the year in late January and 35 of them are visiting me right now in Cabarete. I was pleasantly surprised by the constant stream of friends who came to visit alleviating my fears of social isolation from not spending much time in New York in 2013.


This setting allowed me to finally put aside most of the health issues that had been plaguing me for years and I was finally able to play sports with renewed gusto. The year started with a bang as I joined Richard Branson on Necker Island for kiting and tennis. I then went heliskiing with Mica in Februadry and March, before spending most of the rest of the year in Cabarete kiting and playing tennis. The only snafu came when a beginner kiter crashed into me in August, fracturing one of my ribs and putting me on the sidelines until November.

On the professional side, I did not yet take the plunge and become CEO of a new company as I am still looking for an opportunity big and compelling enough. Instead, I helped incubate two next generation marketplaces which I joined as executive chairman. I built a tech team in Bucharest. I was also given the chance to give the closing keynote at LeWeb in Paris where I shared Read More →

The Case for Optimism

We live in difficult times. Financial crisis, sovereign debt crisis, euro crisis, Syrian conflict, global warming. We are bombarded nonstop with despairing news. In Europe, the mood is morose and the prospects seem dire. The general consensus is that things are going to be bad, the only conversation is around how bad things will get.

Well, I have good news for you for the consensus is dead wrong! We are in fact facing a wonderful future and I want to explain to you why. Let me take you back in time to the late 1970s for they seemed to mark the beginning of the end of Western Civilization. OECD countries were suffering from stagflation with inflation and unemployment above 10%. We had suffered from 2 oil shocks. The US had lost Vietnam. The Shah had fallen in Iran. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. Dictatorships were the norm in Eastern Europe, South East Asia, Latin America and even Southern Europe. The Club of Rome had made dire predictions that the world would run out of oil, coal and many natural resources within 40 years.

No one predicted that over the next 40 years there would be democracies across Latin America, Eastern Europe and Southern Europe; that inflation and unemployment would fall dramatically; that we would see the greatest creation of wealth in the history of humanity as 1 billion people came out of poverty. 650 million came out of poverty in China alone, completely changing urban landscapes across the country as a whole. Despite 40 years of record consumption of oil and natural gas we now have more reserves than we did then. The way we work and live has been profoundly transformed by computers, the Internet and mobile phones.

If we take a further step back, we can see that over the last 100 years economic downturns, be they recessions that occur every few years or bigger crisis such as the great depression, as painful as they are while we live them, barely register in a background of unabated economic growth. In fact over the last 100 years human lifespans have doubled from 40 to 80, average per capita income has tripled and childhood mortality has divided by 10. The cost of food, electricity, transportation and communications have dropped 10 to a 1,000 fold. Global literacy has gone from 25% to over 80% in the last Read More →

Video of my LeWeb Keynote: The Case for Optimism

Last year I finally resolved my internal cognitive dissonance between my profound optimism about humanity and my pessimism about the near term economic outlook in the West. It’s ultimately hard to be pessimistic given the long term secular trend of technology led productivity growth. Moreover, as I mention in The Economy: An Optimistic Thought Experiment, and as I tried to point out to Montebourg, most of the economic problems we are facing are reasonably easily solvable. We are just missing the political will to fix them.

Last June over dinner at Martin Varsavsky’s farm in Menorca we had a discussion where he presented a pessimistic vision of the future, which I vehemently challenged. Two days later, during the tech conference he organizes, he asked me to give an impromptu speech about my optimistic vision of the future.

The subject matter resonated with the audience and I realized that the world, and especially Europe, needed optimism. When Loic asked me to speak at LeWeb, by sheer coincidence the theme was “the next 10 years”, which fit perfectly. I formalized the speech to turn it into a keynote and prepared the supporting slides.

I don’t have a specific “so what” or next step post the keynote. I just wanted so share my optimistic vision with people who needed to hear it. I am also thinking of how to participate in this new wave of innovation either as an investor or entrepreneur.

Enjoy the keynote.

Slides from my LeWeb Keynote: The Case for Optimism

LeWeb 2013 Interview of Arnaud Montebourg


Loic Lemeur asked Jeff Clavier and me to react to Arnaud Montebourg’s presentation at LeWeb and ask him a few questions. I suggested France might adopt some measures that would make the economy more efficient, while preserving the French progressive social model, but I fear he misunderstood the question.

It’s a pity given that France has so much potential: a talented, creative and productive labor force, a reasonably large market, good entrepreneurs and angels. There is a real opportunity for France to take a page from the Nordic countries: capitalizing the retirement system, promoting labor market flexibility by eliminating work contracts “CDI” and moving to at will employment, eliminating the regulatory requirements for companies above 50 employees that push most small companies to want to remain small, indexing the retirement age with life expectancy, and much more. All this can be done while actively helping the needy, which France actually does not do a very good job at, especially for minorities who live in “les banlieues.”

In fact given France’s centralization it’s in a better position than most to even go a step further and take a page from Estonia to introduce online medical records for everyone and online access to homework assignments, grades, attendance records, etc. for all K-12 students.

His suggestion that innovation should only be allowed if it does not disrupt existing industries shows how unaware he is of how innovation actually works. He supports passing a law requiring preventing Uber drivers from picking up passengers less than 15 minutes after they are called. Imagine how ridiculous it would be for a car to show up within 5 minutes, and having to wait another 10 minutes before being allowed to get in. All that to protect a cosseted taxi monopoly. As he made clear, he feels the incumbents have to be protected from the innovators. The worst part is that he is sincere and means well, but as I pointed out to him: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

At least it was fun translating for him at the end. His answer had the merit of being precise and well-constructed. Next time instead of interviewing him, I think I should be given equal time to debate him, in French to avoid misunderstandings.