China Musings #23: Apple, Dolphin, Water, Vegetable and Beer.

Apple, Dolphin, Water, Vegetable and Beer – what do these things have in common? These are just some of the rather unusual names I heard people introduce themselves in China. 

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When I started working for Ofo in Beijing, I asked for an email address. Annoyingly, the name that was put on my Gmail account was not “Omid Scheybani,” it was “Scheybani Omid.” So every time someone would receive an email from me, especially in the US, they would think that Scheybani was my first name. How do I know? Well, they replied with “Hello Scheybani.” Sigh. 

This was my first lesson in how Chinese names were just different, yet surely not my last.

I soon realized that some of my Chinese colleagues had Chinese names, others had English names. And they would always start with the surname. For example my COO’s name was Zhang Yanqi, Zhang was the surname, Yanqi was the first name by which he was called. On the other hand, one colleague’s name was Zhao Fan, where Fan was the first name, but he went by his full name “Zhao Fan.” It’s like walking around and being called “Smith Jason” or “Goldberg Josh.”

I learned that until the mid-1900s, a person had three names besides their surname: ming, zi, and hao (these are terms, not names). Ming is the name that your parents would give you. Zi is the name granted to a person at the beginning of adulthood, and the Hao is a less formal kind of name chosen by the person themselves. 

Those “Hao”s by the way were pretty sophisticated. It could be something like Dong Po Ju Shi (the man who resides in Dongpo) or Zhe Xian Ren (the banished immortal). 

It wasn’t until China was opening up in the 1970s, with increased exposure to the West, when people started giving themselves English names as well. In some ways, these English names are informal “Hao”s that represent another layer of identity. 

The reason why people give themselves English names is primarily because foreigners struggle pronouncing some of the Chinese syllables. The letter X like in Xi Jinping’s name is pronounced more like a “sh” sound. The letter C is more like a “tz” sound. It’s not easy, and it can get messy with some Chinese names like 诗婷, a girl’s name that means ‘poetic and graceful’ in Chinese, yet is pronounced and written as “shiting.”

Now the challenge is that in a culture like in China, it’s hard to choose English names that “fit.” What do I mean by that? Well, some people name themselves after “things” like Apple, Dolphin, Water, Vegetable and Beer. Trust me, meeting someone new and hearing them introduce themselves as “Vegetable” can cause a lot of awkwardness. 

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An important lesson I learned negotiating deals

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One of the most valuable lessons I learned in negotiating business deals (and more lately in relationships where you equally negotiate for certain outcomes/desires/needs) is that negotiation is not a zero sum game. 

Meaning, that there doesn’t have to be a loser for there to be a winner. In other words, you can negotiate in a way that allows for two winners to emerge. 

Let’s take a hypothetical example of two people negotiating for one orange. Person A and B, they each want the orange that is on the table. They each negotiate adamantly, hoping to get the orange. After digging a little deeper into what their real needs and goals are, it turns out that Person A wants the orange peel, whereas Person B wants the flesh of the orange. They decide to peel the orange and split according to what they each wanted. We got two winners. 

My relationship put me into a similar position recently. I wanted to go out and spend the evening outside of home, whereas my partner wanted to stay in. You would think that this is an “either/or” situation. You can’t be out and about and be spending your evening inside. Well, after peeling off a few layers and trying to understand what our real motivations and needs were, we realized that she wanted to stay in so that we could cook together, whereas I wanted to go out because I wanted to be social. I didn’t oppose cooking at home, and she didn’t oppose socializing in the evening. So our compromise ended up being “cooking at home, and then going out for a drink.” Once again, what looked like a zero-sum game ended up yielding two winners. 

What’s really important here is trying to understand what someone’s motivations are and why they want what they claim to want. More often than not, there are ways to find compromises and ways to allow both players to get what they are looking for. 

Keep that in mind next time you are negotiating. It doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.

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Managing expectations while searching for a job

Here is a piece of advice, a reminder if you want, that I give to friends (and to myself) who are searching for jobs

At least once (yet probably more like 2+ times) you will find a job that you really like, one that looks like a perfect fit, but that you will not get. 

Looking back on my own experience interviewing for jobs, both at Google as well as later in my career, I remember moments when this happened to me. I remember seeing the perfect opportunity and feeling that the job description must have been modeled after my resume. How am I not the perfect candidate for this role? 

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I would apply, but I wouldn’t get the job. Either they preferred another candidate, or I screwed up the process, or their idea of the right candidate changed. I have seen this happen so often – to me and to others – that I remind myself that this is a given, almost a basic truth, about the job searching process: the first few opportunities I see, chances are, I won’t get them. 

Why even talk about something that I’d consider “truth?” Well, because we tend to forget. We sometimes navigate the job searching process with a sense of entitlement, and that’s why we end up feeling disappointed. Because we think we deserved something we didn’t get. 

You might say that’s a very pessimistic way of thinking, but in my opinion this is actually a constructive way of thinking. I am not trying to discourage anyone from applying to those jobs they find and like, but I do hope to help “manage one’s own emotions and expectations” as they do so. Applying for jobs is already a roller coaster ride, so if you can find ways to mitigate the lows, then you are really just making sure that the process doesn’t drain your emotions too much. And that is definitely a good thing. 

Funny enough, in hindsight, those opportunities I considered “perfect matches,” I often conclude that they weren’t as good as I thought they were. Maybe this is just a defense-mechanism and an attempt to rationalize away a rejection, but I do believe that we evolve as we go through the job searching process. That’s why some of the opportunities that we thought were great, are not that great anymore as we move along the process and learn more about own desires and preferences. 

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Didn't get a job? Help your friend get it!

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I recently interviewed for a job that ticked many of the boxes that are important to me: international focus, lots of travel, ability to start a team/office from scratch, and a lot of external relationship management. 

Excited to have passed through the first two stages via videoconference, I suggested I could come up and interview in person in their Berlin headquarters while I was visiting my parents at home in Germany. the cost of flying to Germany was on me, the cost of taking a train up to Berlin was on them. 

I showed up, did the case interview, and felt pretty good about it. I didn’t feel I absolutely killed it, but I still thought it was a solid performance and that combined with my fit for the role, I would advance to the next stage. After all, the next stage was with the CEO and three of our mutual friends had strongly recommended me to him (two of them even before they found out that I was applying for this position). 

A few days after the interview, the recruiter asked to talk. She called me and informed me that I didn’t make it to the next round. Reason: they wanted more detail. 

As I receiving the call, I was disappointed. But the following day I emailed the CEO to thank him for the opportunity and to recommend someone who I thought would be a much better fit for the role.

Wanting to make sure that my recommendation wouldn’t fall through cracks of an overcrowded CEO email, I also emailed the recruiter and the interviewer to let them know as well – with my friend’s resume and a paragraph explaining why I think she’d make a perfect fit. Days later I heard she was in Berlin going through the interview process. 

In a follow-up feedback conversation with one of my interviewers, he thanked me for the recommendation and expressed surprise since this would’t happen very often for someone who got rejected to come back and recommend someone else for the role. 

Given his surprise, I keep wondering why. I had already taken my shot, and I wouldn’t lose anything by recommending a friend. Quite the opposite, I would be helping a friend (which would make me feel good), I would establish a positive relationship with the firm and its individuals (which is helpful for my own future) and I would help a friend get a cool role (who doesn’t want to have friends in cool positions?). 

So next time you don’t make it through an interview process, think about which of your friends might make a better fit and recommend them. 

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From the Outside vs. from the Inside

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A friend and I were recently talking about the upcoming WeWork IPO and some of the more questionable decisions that its CEO Adam Neumann had made – including the decision to trademark the “We” brand and then sell its rights to WeWork for $5.9M. 

Almost collectively we wondered: “what must he have been thinking?” 

But then I remembered something that helped me understand – or at least try to understand – what he must have been thinking: namely not much.

I remembered that many years ago, before my friends and I went to North Korea, I felt very anxious about the trip and that I had sworn myself to be utterly cautious while there. But then, a few days into the trip, all of those worries were gone. We felt at ease, drinking, joking, taking pictures, and just behaving with a comfort that I could have never foreseen. At some point I was even sitting on a barber chair and a woman was shaving my neck with a razor. Ahead of the trip, this idea would have appeared insane to me.

It made me realize what a difference there is between how we see things from the outside versus how things feel from the inside once we are in the moment. 

It was the same story with Otto Warmbier who had presumably stolen a sign in North Korea and was sentenced to prison. While it’s not entirely clear whether it was all staged or not, but after my own experience in North Korea, it was comprehensible to me that after a few days in the country, you might let go of your fears, start to feel comfortable, and do something evidently stupid. Except that in that moment it doesn’t really feel that stupid anymore. 

Once you are in the moment, things just look differently. You start building your own narratives and rationalize away concerns that you might have previously held. You build your own reality. It’s very similar to Elizabeth Holmes’ story of Theranos, or Jho Low’s story of the 1MDB fund. From the outside, WTF. From the inside, a world that makes perfectly sense to you because it runs on your own narrative. 

And I thought that it might have been a very similar story with that “We” trademark deal with WeWork. From the outside this looks stupid. But from the inside, I am sure it didn’t as much. It’s not justification for what he did, but more an attempt to understand what he must have been thinking: namely not much. 

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Thoughts and Reflections on the Book "Becoming"

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Last December, I was in a book store in my hometown in Germany when someone was pointing at Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” and asked the cashier if the book is any good. Standing right next to that woman, I confidently chimed in: “oh yeah, it’s latest rage.” My confidence was a bit of a far fetch considering that I had not read the book. 

Fast forward half a year to today, I just finished listening to “Becoming.” Over 19 hours of material that I consumed this week (again, at 1.75x speed which brings it down to ~11h of content). 

Overall, I thought it was a great read. The book had three larger sections, first her upbringing in Chicago, second her life with Barack, and lastly her life in the White House. For me personally, the second section was the most interesting one. It was nice to hear about her upbringing or hear her perspective on the time she spent in the White House, but learning about Barack Obama through her lens – which was the focus of the second section – I found most interesting. 

In her first section, the focus was on her upbringing in the South Side of Chicago. There were valuable lessons about racism, inequality, and a number of other social justice topics. The one quote from the book that stuck with me was that “failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result.” She said that in context with the way how many blacks are treated and the language that is often used around them. 

The second section, as mentioned, was about how she and Barack met, dated, and ended up getting married. But it also included her perspective on him, his ambitions, his way of thinking and doing, as well as his career progression along the many years they were together. As an Obama fan through and through, I have read a bunch of biographies and memoirs of people who worked with him. But getting to learn about him through his wife was a much deeper and closer point of view. 

In her third section she talked about life in the White House. What it was like to move in, and to live a new life under the scrutiny of media. What it was like to raise two daughters in the eye of the public, and how they adjusted to this new life with all of its limitations, responsibilities, and opportunities that came with it. It was a very candid, always appreciative, but at times also lamenting recount of their eight years in the White House. 

Throughout the entire book, Michelle Obama also talked a lot about what it’s like to be a woman next to a husband who is very driven, and successfully so – what it all meant for her. Princeton and Harvard educated herself, she often had to put her own ambitions behind Barack’s. Not just as the woman that she was, but also as a mother with all of its responsibilities, many of which Barack couldn’t shoulder given his absence and focus on politics. I think she talked about a lot of the issues women face in today’s society: pursuing one’s own career, trying to be a good mother, or getting one’s husband to be an equitable partner.

What I also appreciated a lot was to read about this all from the perspective of a black woman. She raised a lot of race-related sensitivities in the book that helped me develop my own understanding of race in the US. 

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Thoughts and Reflections on the Book "Shoe Dog"

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Finished reading Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, Co-founder and former CEO of Nike. Wanted to share some of my takeaways from the book. 

Phil Knight is probably among the most notable and successful alums from the Stanford GSB. In fact our campus is named after him after he made a whopping $400M donation to Stanford – one of the largest ever to a university by an individual.His name was always present, and of course so was Nike as a brand, but I had never had a chance to learn the story of Nike, his story. 

The book itself I recommend highly. It’s an easy read of 400 pages, or ~13 hours of audio material if you are the Audible-type of person. Once again, given how neatly it was written and narrated, I was able to rush through it at 1.75x speed. Only when the author shares numbers, I need to stop and slow down the speed to catch what’s being said. 

The story of Nike is amazing because it all started with a shoe distribution business. In 1962, at the tender age of 24, Phil had the idea of importing Japanese shoes to the US. He had seen in other industries how Japanese quality had overtaken US product quality, and he was keen on exploring the same for shoes. As an avid runner, he was a shoe dog. So he flew to Japan, found a manufacturer and started importing their shoes. 

The business grew over the years. Surprisingly, he didn’t throw himself at it full-time. He was working for Price Waterhouse Coopers on the side as an accountant, until the business reached a size and workload that he couldn’t ignore anymore. 

Hearing his story, I found it amazing how easygoing he was. Most of his MBA classmates went on to embark on their corporate careers, but he bounced around between his shoe distribution business and an accountant job so he could actually pay the bills. Nowadays entrepreneurship is so highly glorified, but back then people looked down on someone who wasn’t in a stable job. And I don’t think he really cared. 

As the business grew, so did his problems. The manufacturer dropped them at some point, and he had to come up with his own line of shoes. That’s how Nike was born, in 1972, 10 years after starting the shoe distribution company Blue Ribbon. And so he went on, staying on as CEO for a total of 52 years – until he stepped down in 2016. 

What shocked me right from the beginning was that early on – it must have been 1964 or something – he signed his former college track coach as a partner, with 50% of equity. And it’s not that the trainer was equally involved that would justify a 50% share. But over the years that trainer turned out to be indispensable as he helped craft new design and come up with new innovations. Still, it was surprising for me to see how quickly Phil Knight brought on a partner – at a time where the value of such person wasn’t very obvious, at least not to me. 

The one thing I loved about the Nike story is how it all started, and how slowly, incrementally, but also steadily the business grew. A shoe distributor growing into a shoe creator. A shoe creator turning into the Nike brand. The Nike brand turning into this global, cutting-edge fitness apparel company. Step by step a small distributor in Oregon morphed into something that is now worn all around the world. 

It showed once again how far you can get if you work really hard, really dedicatedly on something. If you are a little crazy, a little lucky, but most of all, if you believe in what you do. It was a very inspiring story, one that makes you want to dream about entrepreneurship and building an empire of your own. 

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Thoughts and Reflections on the Book "Bad Blood"

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It took my less than two days to devour the 350 pages of Bad Blood via audible, listening to its 11.5 hours of audio material at 1.75x speed. And boy, what a story! I knew about the company and their rise and fall, but didn’t know all the details. After hearing many friends rave about the book and the investigative journalism done by John Carreyrou, I felt I had to read it. 

One of the things that surprised me right from the beginning was that the Theranos story had started as early as in 2003. I don’t know why, but I thought the entire saga was much more recent. The other thing that surprised me was that while much of their downfall happened during my time at business school, right in the heart of Silicon Valley, it was never discussed – neither by students nor in class. Considering that she (and the media) prided her with being a Stanford drop-out, I’d hope that the school would make it some subject of discussion after all. 

One of the recurring thoughts I had when reading the story was: how could she manage to build a company of 800 people, close nation-wide distribution deals, hit a $9B valuation, and build a board that included names like Kissinger and Matis – all based on lies and a technology that never worked as promised. It’s absolutely mind-boggling. 

I highly recommend the book, but more importantly, I recommend reading and reflecting over the story. The Theranos story is a painful and important reminder of the many things that are wrong with our society, with our media, with the way how we interact with each other, with Silicon Valley and entrepreneurship, etc. 

For one, it showed how much the media loves to glorify stories like hers. A 19-year old Stanford drop-out, a woman no less, starting a biomedical company that “can change the world.” Media is all about selling stories, and hers was one that had all the ingredients. And she only fueled the frenzy: the secrecy around her technology, the similarities with Steve Job/Apple that she nurtured, it was all a show, and the media loved 10x-ing everything that she fed them with. 

What I found terribly shocking was how many people she deceived. Political giants like Kissinger, Shultz or Matis where on her board. Murdoch, among many others, was an investor. She was close with the Clinton’s and started to nurture a good relationship with the Obama White House. Vice President Biden came by to visit her company, and there she was on stage with Bill Clinton and Jack Ma. No one could see through it. Her “empire of lies” was growing bigger and bigger, and no one could resist her charm and allure. 

The sad truth is that I, too, would have fallen for it. As I was reading, I wondered many times if I could have see through it. I am sure I would have been doubtful about some of the stuff that happened at the company (assuming I was working there), but chances are that I would have quelled my doubts by telling myself exactly what everyone else told themselves: how can so many people be wrong about her and the company? She is on all these covers, the company is growing, the money is flowing in, the partners are all lined up. This can’t be all fake, right? 

One thing that helped mask all these lies was the fact that she was building a healthcare company. Give the many regulations and institutions that manage those, in combination with the fact that health tech R&D tends to take longer and often plagued with delays, she was able to go on for so long without being noticed. In other industries, it would have been much harder to mask it for so long. 

The other thing that helped her go on for so long was the fact that she kept the experts away. None of her board directors had any experience in healthcare (in fact they were all white, male, and old… falling for her young charm). And of all the millions she raised, none of that came from experienced health/biotech VCs. And the experts within the company? She made sure they’d either never notice (by keeping the company notoriously compartmentalized) or by terrorizing them into silence once they did notice. 

As I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but see many similarities with the current government. The many lies that you feed yourself with. The fake reality/world you make up in your mind until you believe it yourself. So much of it we can see in the Trump administration. 

The biggest personal takeaway for me was that this story makes you take all these fundraising headlines and glorifications of entrepreneurs and their companies with so much more caution, distance, and skepticism. 

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Thoughts on US/Iran tensions

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Imagine the US response if Iran had parked an aircraft carrier and other warships just off US shores, and loudly announced that they were sending more troops to Iranian military basis in all of its neighboring countries, in this case Canada to the North and Mexico to the South. And now also imagine Iran were to fly surveillance drones over the US airspace – or even just anywhere close to it. Drones that Iran uses to identify potential targets for a “preemptive attack” on the US.

What would the US do? Yeah, exactly.

Why is Iran so hostile towards the US? Let me see... in 1953 the US overthrew a democratically elected president because they didn’t like his plans to nationalize the oil industry. In the early 1980s the CIA helped Saddam Hussein use chemical weapons against Iran, killing 20,000 people (let alone supplying Iraq with weapons for eight years that ended up killing hundreds of thousands). In 1988 the US shot down a passenger airplane, killing 290 civilians (and has never apologized for it). The list of US aggressions against Iran goes on and on.

With that in mind, think about all the targeted provocations of the past few months.

  • Single-handedly pulling out of a functioning nuclear agreement the terms of which Iran was meeting

  • Terrorizing Iranians with crippling sanctions that have caused the currency to drop by 80%, resulting in nothing but suffering among an innocent population 

  • Fabricating incidents like the attack on a Japanese oil tanker. On the day that Shinzo Abe was visiting Iran – really? Let alone that Iran went to rescue one of the tanker crews. 

  • Shabbily accusing Iran of collaborating with the Taliban so that they could justify invoking the post-9/11 authorization of attacking Taliban allies. For starters, the Taliban and Iran are profound enemies, not allies. 

  • Flying a drone in/close to Iranian air space which wasn’t just out there for fun, but to spy on Iran. And then you are surprised they shoot it down?

  • Cancelling an airstrike "with 10 minutes to spare" because he learned people will die? Ridiculous! Trump is trying to spin himself as the hero, proudly holding off the rabid military because of lives on the line.

Are you now adequately distracted from the Mueller report? Yeah, thought so.

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