Volvo Ocean Race stop-over in The Hague

With my dad and sister at the Volvo Ocean Race

Over the past 9 months I have been following the Volvo Ocean Race on an almost daily basis. I love sailing and this is the biggest ocean sailing race in the world. The race organizers designed a great mobile app and have a good website, so you can follow the participating boats continously. All boats have their own on-boat reporters who file daily articles and videos for the site. There is a live race tracker where you can see in real time where the boats are, with among others their speed and the distance to the race leader, making you feel like you’re part of the race.

Scott and Elaine also love the race and each have their team that they support: The Chinese Dongfeng team for Elaine (just like Grace) and the Dutch Team Brunel for Scott (just like me). On many days the first thing Scott would do after getting dressed in the morning was to check the Volvo Ocean Race app on his iPad for the standings. If there were any overnight changes he would immediately let me know.

Volvo Ocean Race stopover in The Hague

I had planned to visit one of the stops of the Volvo Ocean Race with the kids, but none of them fit my and their schedule. But then I realized that there would be a stop-over (not a real stop, just a one day pause during the last leg) in The Hague right when I would be in The Netherlands. Unfortunately I could not take Scott and Elaine because they still had their last week of school, but I decided to go with my sister and my dad instead.

On Friday morning I drove from Amsterdam to The Hague in Vincent Everts’ Tesla. Vincent, who is a well known Dutch trendwatcher, wanted to interview me about the latest developments in Bitcoin and blockchain land. He offered to take me to The Hague in his car so he could ask the questions while driving. That was of course fine with me, because in that way I could avoid taking a train. Vincent did 2 video interviews, this one and this one (sorry, both are in Dutch).

Trains are not too bad in Holland, but for some reason I often seem to have trouble with them. For example, over the past week in Holland my public transport card stopped working, causing me to miss a connection. The next train that I could take was a slow train and eventually had a big delay, meaning that I was 10 minutes late for my meeting instead of 40 minutes early (if I had waited 30 minutes for the next fast train I would have still been on time).

Entrance of the Volvo Ocean Race

Vincent had never been to the Volvo Ocean Race and didn’t know much about it, but I guess he liked how enthusiast I was about it, so he decided to join as well. After picking up my dad and Sonja we drove to Schevingen harbour where the boats had arrived a few hours earlier. It was great to see the racing yachts in real life. They are 65 feet, so considerably longer than my 48 foot yacht, but if you see them there they actually look relatively small. Racing all over the world’s oceans in these boats looks easy on a video on your laptop, but in reality it may be quite scary.

Marc and Vincent Everts at the Volvo Ocean Race

The boats have a very spartan interior, there is almost nothing inside the hull in order to make them faster. In one of the exhibition tents you could walk/crawl through a model of one of the boats. I didn’t want to wait in line for that, but if you watched the people doing that you realize there is hardly any living space inside. And they live on these boats for 9 months in all kinds of weather, from hot tropical (no air conditioning!) to almost Antarctic cold in the Southern Pacific Ocean, while going super fast through huge waves. Quite amazing actually, I never realized this until I saw the boats in front of me.

Bouwe Bekking, skipper of Team Brunel at the Volvo Ocean Race

I bought a couple of t-shirts and caps for the kids and looked at some of the team’s tents (mainly selling team products). Coincidentally Bouwe Bekking, the captain of my favorite Team Brunel, was there giving a speech right when I was in their tent. I have come to respect him a lot over the past 9 months, he is a very professional sailor who keeps his cool in difficult situations. He has become a minor celebrity because of the huge media exposure of the race (the race even made the Dutch evening news a couple of times) and it must have been strange for him that people suddenly ask for his signature.

Team Brunel at the Volvo Ocean Race stopover in The Hague

After a good lunch (all kinds of fresh fish, Scheveningen is a Dutch fishing fleet harbour) we decided to drive home before the regular Dutch traffic jams would start. Although I did not get to go onto any of the boats and although I did not see any of them in action, I am glad I went over to The Hague for this. I now respect the sailors even more and I have a new item for my bucket list: one day I want to sail on one of these ocean racing machines!

The 24 hours of Le Mans

In the Rebellion garage at Le Mans

Last weekend I traveled to France with my parents to watch the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the oldest and possibly the most difficult endurance race for both racers and their cars. We arrived in Le Mans on Friday afternoon to pick up our tickets and to check out the race track. It was my first time at the 24 Hours and it had been on my to do list for a couple of years already.

Two of my friends were racing this year, Alexandre Imperatori in the LMP1 class and Ho-Pin Tung in the LMP2 category. I have been following Ho-Pin since 2003 when Grace and I produced a program for Chinese TV about him in London and at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. He has had an impressive career since then, among others winning the Formula BMW Asia, the German F3 and the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia.

Ho-Pin Tung & his Le Mans LMP2 car

Alex I got to know a few years later in Shanghai, and his wife Karen is now actually a venture partner in our venture capital firm CrossPacific Capital. Alex is also a very accomplished race car driver, who among others won the A1 Grand Prix championship and the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia. This year he focuses on the World Endurance Championship and the VLN Endurance Racing Championship Nürburgring.

It was quite warm on the drive over to the circuit, but once we were there it suddenly started to rain hard! Luckily we brought umbrellas, but my shoes still got quite wet. Because there were not many people yet on Friday (the race starts Saturday at 3 PM) we used the time to get a feel for the place. We visited the village and went to take a look at both Ho-Pin and Alex’ pit lane garages. Behind the pit lane we coincidentally met Karen, who was on her way to see Alex in the driver parade in downtown Le Mans.

In the Rebellion garage at Le Mans

The next morning we arrived at the track by 10 AM, so we would avoid most of the traffic jams. That turned out to be a good idea, because it only took us an extra 20 minutes to park our car. We walked around a bit and then met Alex at the hospitality area. His racing team, the Swiss watch brand Rebellion, had 2 hospitality lounges and they were great. We spent quite some time in these locations over the next 36 hours.

Champagne with my dad in Le Mans

The food in the lounges was excellent, with many different hot dishes being served all throughout the day and night, plus tons of desserts, many different cheeses and lots of snacks. Of course the wines and Champagnes on offer were great as well (this is France!). I think I had about 6 meals per day while watching the race in the lounge, so when I’m back in Vancouver I will need to run a bit more.

We had a quick lunch with Alex around 1 PM, I was surprised to see how relaxed he was 2 hours before the start of the race. He would be the starting driver for his car (the #13 in the LMP1 class) so soon after he had to leave. Then Karen came over and I talked with her about some business deals that we had looked at over the past days.

Le Mans pit lane

 Pit lane before the start

Half an hour before the start we went over to the Rebellion pit lane garage to watch the start of the 24 Hours from there. That was quite exciting, the atmosphere is obviously very different from when you’re outside on the grandstands. After spending the first few rounds on the ground floor we went up into the main grandstand ourselves to watch the race from above.

Watching the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans from the Rebellion garage

Watching the start of the race in the Rebellion team garage with the other drivers

While there we saw on the screens that a car caught fire and leaked oil and that another car crashed into it from behind. When the cameras zoomed in we realized that the car that had crashed was Alex’ car! It soon became clear that it was not a major accident and that he hadn’t been hurt, but the car had to be get back to the pitlane to be repaired.

Rebellion pit lane garage

Alex’ car gets repaired

We went back there as well to watch the repair process from the back of the garage. The atmosphere was quite stressful, but I was surprised to see how well organized the mechanics were. Because of the accident the safety car went out, so the team did not lose too many rounds to the competition, but having this happen to you early in the race is bad luck of course. The crew managed to repair the car in a couple of minutes and we left to have a drink in the lounge and watch the race unfold from there.

With Ho-Pin Tung during the race

With H-Pin Tung behind the pit lane

Then I got a WeChat message from Ho-Pin, whose pitlane garage was just next to that of the Rebellion team. He had not driven yet, but when we met up he was also quite relaxed. I guess that’s what sets the professional drivers apart from the rest. I had not seen him in a while (he lives in China and Holland, and I am now mainly in North America) and it was good to catch up.

With Alex during the race

Alex during a break in the race

Back in the lounge Alex had changed to jeans and a t-shirt for a meal with Karen (pasta again for him). Despite his accident (which wasn’t his fault) he was in good spirits, he just felt unhappy that his car had the bad luck to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Pretty cool, I guess for him it’s kind of normal that these things happen.

After that I went for a walk to one of the curves with my parents. It’s pretty cool to see the cars braking from 300 km/h to below 100 km/h in a split second and then accelerate again. If you see the cars coming up to the curve you think there is no way they can brake on time. Super spectacular!

View from the grandstand in Le Mans

The LMP1 class had mainly hybrid vehicles and they are faster than the normal LMP1’s like the one Alex was driving in. They are also much more silent, and you can especially hear the difference when you are at one of the curves where they accelerate out of it. Not sure if I really like it though, the raw sound of Alex’ and Ho-Pin’s machines sounds much better to me and fits better to car racing.

Alex' LMP1 car at Le Mans

Alex’ LMP1 car

Just before it got dark Karen and I took a helicopter ride over the Le Mans circuit. When you’re only in the main grandstand area you see just a tiny part of the 13-km track, so taking a helicopter is excellent to get a better view of the circuit. The helicopter was quite fast, but the race cars easily outaccelerated us on the track below. Very cool to experience this, especially during sunset. We made one full round over the circuit and then did another half lap over the woods at a lower altitude over the circuit.

Helicopter ride over the Le Mans circuit

After that it became dark and the cars put on their big headlights to drive through the night. At night Le Mans looks very different from during daytime, more spectacular but also more dangerous. Alex took over as the driver of his team’s car around sunset and so he would be the first one to drive at night. When I asked him about that half an hour before was going to drive he said he actually liked it. You feel like you’re going much faster, he said, because you don’t see as much. Race car drivers are different from other drivers I guess!

Late at night we went back to the hotel for some sleep and the first thing I did when I woke up the next morning was to check how all the cars had been doing during the night. Luckily both Rebellion cars and Ho-Pin’s car were all still in the race, but they all lost some places during the night. On our way back to the circuit I checked all the news about what had happened during the night so I was well-informed by the time we got out of our car and heard the sounds of the engines again.

Back at the track I immediately noticed how tired most people looked. Many had probably stayed overnight and others had spent the night drinking and partying. That’s the nice thing about Le Mans, there are concerts at night and everybody is having a great time both during the day and at night. But of course in the morning it may be a bit harder to get adjusted to daylight.

View of the pit lane from the Rebellion lounge

We started with some coffees and a second breakfast in the lounge, before walking over to the pit lane garage. There had been a problem with Alex’ car and the mechanics were repairing it. When also the other Rebellion car came in we left, there is not enough space for the mechanics to work with visitors disturbing them. We decided to walk over to the main grandstand opposite the garage boxes and watch the repair process from there. It took quite some time but eventually they managed to get both cars back on the road again.

We walked for an hour along the track watching the race cars and then went to the lounge for lunch. We joined Karen and Nick Heidfeld for lunch, although I was still full from breakfast. Nick, who used the be a Formula One driver for many years, now drives the other Rebellion car. He still looked quite fresh 21 hours into the race. Nick told us he would drive the last stint of the race in the Rebellion #12 car, and Alex would be the last driver in the Rebellion #13 car.

View of the pit lane from the Rebellion lounge

I did a few emails (I had hardly done any work since arriving in France) while watching the screens and then about 30 minutes before the end of the race we walked over to the team lounge above the pit lane. That’s probably the best place to watch the race.

View from the Rebellion team lounge at Le Mans during the finish

Watching the finish of Le Mans 2015

You are literally rigth above the pit lane, so you see all the action below you, and just a few meters from the track. We watched the last laps from there and saw the Porsche team win the LMP1 one race. I was happy for Porsche, they hadn’t had a win in years (and of course the fact that my main car is a Porsche also helps!).

Selfie with the crowd on the pitlane

Selfie before the winner’s ceremony

Then we went down to the pit lane to watch the award ceremony. A huge crowd had formed, not sure how all these people suddenly got onto the track, but it was great to be cheering with them for the winners. Alex team finished 18th overall but they were best non-hybrid LMP1 one team, so they got trophies and bottles of Champagne on the podium as well.

Alex' view from the podium

View from the podium (taken by Alex!)

Then we walked over to the Pegasus garage box to congratulate Ho-Pin with finishing the race. He said it had been a tough race and he was obviously not too happy because of all the bad luck his team had had (last year he had a much better result), but I guess that’s life in endurance racing. At least his car made it to the finish line, but for a pro that’s not enough.

Marc and Alex with his trophy

After the race with Alex and his Le Mans trophy

We didn’t want to leave at the same time as the crowds, so we had an early dinner in the lounge with Karen. There we waited for Alex, who was still busy with a briefing and interviews. When he came out the team was just starting a celebration party on the terrace of the Rebellion lounge. I took a picture with Alex and his trophy and then we left the Le Mans circuit around 5 pm. Most people had left already so we had no traffic jams at all.

I look back at an amazing weekend in Le Mans. This was a truly great experience, actually much better than any Formula One race I have been to. Of course it was extra special because we had access to many areas that the general public can’t visit and because my friends were driving, but even without that I think it would have been a great event. But being able to get away from the crowds and have nice drinks while watching the race made amazing instead of just great. I am very happy I had the chance to experience this and I hope to be back one day for another race!

Richard Branson’s Necker Island And The Blockchain Summit (Part 2)

Blockchain summit on Necker Island

(See here for Part 1)

The vision of the blockchain summit was “We are gathering top thinkers in the world of blockchain, digital currency and bitcoin to help define the future”, and the organizers indeed put a very interesting group of people together. A combination of entrepreneurs, investors, journalists, regulation experts, scholars, laywers and academics. See here for a full list. The sessions were moderated by 3 people: First of all well-known economist, advisor to many heads of state, and author of The Mystery of Capital, Hernando de Soto. Next to that Michael Casey from the Wall Street Journal, and author of The Age of Cryptocurrency. And finally Matthew Bisshop, the US Business editor of The Economist magazine. Three very different persons, who did a great job moderating the event.

Preparing for a Blockchain Summit group photo on Necker Island

 

Preparing for a group picture

It was not a summit about bitcoin, but about the blockchain. That is the underlying ledger of bitcoin that is put together by the miners and that can be used for a lot more things than just keeping track of all transactions. This doesn’t have to be the bitcoin blockchain, it could be the blockchain of another cryptocurrency as well. For now that seems unlikely because of bitcoin’s network effect. But because of bitcoin’s bad name (mainly its association with Silk Road, Mt. Gox and the fact that people still seem to think it’s criminal money) another cryptocurrency could still appear and beat bitcoin. Or there could be different blockchains based on different cryptocurrencies. But in the end every blockchain is similar: it is a ledger and once you put something on it you can never take it off anymore. So to stay in Necker Island spirit: what happens on the blockchain stays on the block chain!

Blockchain summit at Necker Island

Most things that were discussed during the summit could be tweeted or put on social media. There were just a few topics that we agreed not to talk about (Chatham rules), so I won’t mention these here (mainly government related or related to specific confidential projects). Generally everybody was very open with sharing their information. All sessions were recorded, so you should be able to see most of the content online in the next couple of days.

Looking back, there were 4 main themes that came back regularly and that we discussed in detail. These are (in random order): identity, property rights, elections and the Internet of Things. A summary of the main ideas for each theme:

Identity: We discussed that the identity stack is a core application for the blockchain, it’s a critical piece for further development and needed for a trusted information economy system. This can be achieved by putting verified personal data on the blockchain. One project in this space is the Open Mustard Seed project, Patrick Deegan gave us a presentation about this. One of the other participants, Marshall Turber, is working on a similar idea. He is creating an integrity index using Ethereum, his project is called the Bucky Integrity Index.

Lucy Liu skype interview

 

Actress Lucy Liu joined via Skype

Property rights: Hernando de Soto wrote in his book The Mystery of Capital that many assets in developing countries can’t be capitalized because there are no titles for them. Having property deeds could make a lot of dead assets into assets that can be capitalized, meaning that they can more easily be sold to outsiders or that they can be used as collateral for a loan.

Having a system for property rights can make a poor country grow, and can help the lower classes to start businesses and grow more prosperous. So far that was quite hard to do, however, but the blockchain suddenly gives us a tool to easily put these rights in a database and to (for example) build smart contracts on top of them. The company Factom is doing this for Honduras already, where all property deeds will be put on the blockchain. The potential of this is huge!

Blockchain summit on Necker Island

 

Hernando shows us the documents needed to get property rights in Peru

Elections: The blockchain can be used for voting, making elections complete transparant. You could watch the voting in real time, but you would not know who voted for whom. Someone mentioned that it can bring democracy to the world (I’m not a fan of democracy in every situation, for the simple reason that it leads to slower decision making, so that argument is not very strong IMHO), but if it can replace existing voting systems I’m all in favour of it. I would not be surprised if a lot of democratic countries would strongly resist this, and if that’s the case it is clear there is a need for blockchain elections. On a smaller level it can get people to participate in decison making, even for example for a parent teacher association.

Blockchain summit on Necker Island

The Internet of Thing (IoT): IoT will connect all electronic devices, it will do with the physical world what the Internet did for the digital world. All devices could be put on the blockchain and they could communicate with each other and even pay each other with smart contracts. The killer app for this will be the Economy of Things, meaning that exisiting ‘things’ can be used more efficiently. For example, at the moment cars are only in use about 4% of the time. If they can communicate with each other people can car share more easily, especially when autonomous vehicles will hit the market over the next years. Another example is that currently 20% of all trucks on the roads are empty, the IoT could reduce that number.

A list of some other things that we discussed during the past 3 days and things that stood out for me:

– It turns out that wallets may be one of the main hurdles for bitcoin adoption. Last year MIT gave all of its new students $100 in bitcoin and we talked a bit about what the effects of that. Soon a report about this will come out, but one of the important findings is that even MIT students (who are young and smart) struggled with wallets. Students that have easier-to-use wallets adopted bitcoin more than people who used ‘difficult’ wallets. Good news for Circle.com investors but not so much for Blockchain.info.
Corporates worry that competitors can hack their blockchain and that’s holding them back from looking at blockchain solutions. Education will be needed.
– Although it should be well known for most people in the bitcoin community, we should keep on spreading the word about the fact that bitcoin is not an anonymous currency. One of the speakers remarked: despite media saying the contrary, any criminal that uses the Blockchain is a moron.
– Organizations like Western Union and payday loan companies are almost criminal. What they charge is ridiculous and we should find a solution for the poor people that now rely on their services. Oliver Luckett of theAudience made a documentary for American Express last year and learned that the average payback of a $400 payday loan in Mississippi is $1400, after on average 2 years! These people just don’t have access to other sources of capital. They often can’t get a bank account and therefore need to use check cashing services ($7 per check) and to pay bills ($7 per bill). That adds up after a while. These are the people that should be interested in bitcoin accounts, because it can solve some big problems for them and will save them a lot of money.
– Although most people at the summit talk online about bitcoin on a daily basis only 300,000-400,000 people engaged in online conversations about BTC so far (since BTC was introduced to the world in 2009). We tend to think that it’s much bigger because we live in an echo chamber, but it also means that there is a huge opportunity out there that we need to grab.
– A blockchain idea that came out of smaller group discussions is something that we called the sensor chain. This is a low cost sensor to measure weather data all over the world (e.g. temperature, air pollution, water quality) and which data is automatically stored on the blockchain as part of the Internet of Things. In this way we can help to save the planet and get independent data on what is really happening in the world. The data can’t be hacked or manipulated (once it’s in the blockchain it stays in the blockchain). A very interesting idea that hopefully can become reality.
– Related to this are personal carbon credits on the blockchain, e.g. you get these credits if you have solar panels on your roof. There is enough solar power to deliver energy to the whole world, but there is no decentralized grid yet.
– A fun part of the summit was when Bitfury introduced a mining lightbulb with an iPhone app. The idea was born last year (coincidentally on Necker island as well) when a few people were trying to get a Raspberry Pi to mine bitcoins. It was so hard to set it up (it took them 4 hours) that Bill Tai made the remark that mining should be as easy as screwing in a lightbulb. Well, one year later the lightbulb is there. The Bitfury guys hooked it up to a wind power generator that they rigged on the rooftop of the Great House and managed to mine some bits using just windpower.

Bitfury lightbulbs at the Blockchain Summit on Necker Island

It was a fun side project for them, not something that is core to the business. When I posted it on Twitter it got retweeted hundreds of times and I got tons of questions about it, it seems people did not realize it’s not a serious product. The chip is super efficient, but given today’s hashrate and the low bitcoin price you should not expect to make more than your electricity cost. However, it’s a good way to start mining and it may inspire others to build other easy-to-use miners. The gadget (because that’s basically what it is) also has an interesting feature: there is some kind of random lucky draw for users, meaning that if you mine you may suddenly get the ‘petasplash’: suddenly all the hashing power of Bitfury’s network is redirected to your lighbulb, meaning that you can suddenly earn a good number of bits. A cool project, especially when you should hook it up to solar power or to a Tesla battery, so that you don’t pay cash for the electricity.

Richard Branson and Hernando de Soto

 

Hernando de Soto and Richard Branson

What’s next?

If you made it until here you will realize that we discussed a lot of things and that we have a lot of ideas. However, what really counts is the follow-up. What might happen over the next weeks and months? We talked about writing a white paper for congress, because it’s important that the politicians have a better understanding of the blockchain and what can be done with it. Spreading the word on social media is also important, I guess this blog post is part of that strategy. We also discussed that academia should be more involved, as the link between entrepreneurs and the government (MIT now already pays some of the core developers, they took over this role from the Bitcoin Foundation). For that reason a textbook for students (Michael Casey joked that his book might be a good fit) and a PhD course are needed. The group will stay in touch through email (this morning we already received all email addresses) and through Facebook group to try to achieve these objectives.

The blockchain summit is now over and looking back I think it was totally worth my time. It was not cheap to attend and it took me almost 2 full days of traveling, but the value I got out of it was much higher than the real monetary cost and the opportunity cost of the event. First of all I learned a lot and we came up with many new ideas. Next to that I met tons of interesting people whom I often only knew from the Internet. As an added extra I even found 2 interesting companies that I may invest in. I am glad I took the time out of my schedule to attend.

Valery, George, Bill and Richard, thanks for hosting this fantastic event!

Leaving Necker Island

 

All pictures of the Blockchain summit are here in a set on Flickr.

Richard Branson’s Necker Island and the Blockchain Summit (part 1)

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The past 3 days I spent on Necker Island, Richard Branson’s private island in the British Virgin Island, with about 30 other people who are active in the bitcoin and blockchain world. It was an amazing experience, not only because the island comes very close to what I think paradise would look like, but also because the summit was very productive and gave me lots of things to think about. If I would not be a venture capitalist and if I would not be involved in Uvamo I might consider to work on blockchain themes full-time. It is clear to me now that the blockchain is the future and is already starting to change the world.

This blog post consists of 2 parts, this is part 1 in which I will talk about how I experienced spending time at Necker Island. Tomorrow I will post the second part, which is about the blockchain summit itself.

Despite the fact that most of the companies that I was involved in in China were incorporated in the British Virgin Islands I had actually never been there. The group of islands, located about 150 km west of Puerto Rico, is more unspoiled than I had imagined. Road Town on Tortola (the place where most BVI companies seem to have their P.O. Boxes) is a small town, likely with a ratio of at least 10,000 companies per inhabitant. It’s a great tourist destination, although a bit off the beaten path (something I like).

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Getting there is not easy. From Vancouver I took the redeye to New York, then I flew to San Juan in Puerto Rico and from there I took a very small plane to Beef Island (which is connected by bridge to Tortola). At San Juan airport I already met several of the participants in the lounge and later a few others at the gate. Not all of us took the same plane, because each plane only fits about 8 people, but there are air services at least once an hour. On my plane there were 2 other participants, Mike, a bitcoin trader from Chicago and Danny who runs a fund that invests the money of the founders of Alibaba.

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After arrival at the BVI airport one of Necker’s staff picked us up and we took a minivan taxi to the marina (next to the airport terminal, we could probably have walked it in 5 minutes). I quickly understood that on Necker you don’t have to do anything, so even for a short walk transportation is always arranged. We arrived at the jetty where one of Richard’s 600 horsepower speed boat was waiting for us. We stepped on board and were immediately offered a drink. The bottle of champagne looked inviting, but because it was hot and we were thirsty from the long trip we opted to start with a cold local beer.

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Then we took off. First slowly because of all the anchored sailboats in the bay (which immediately inspired me to go sailing here one day), and then full power onto the sea. The guy who drove our boat told us that the boats go up to 90 km/h. Not sure how fast we went, but it was faster than I had ever gone on a boat. We jumped over the waves and it was actually hard to drink the beer from the bottle! I took a few pictures but had to watch out not to lose my camera because of the wind.

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About 20 minutes later Necker appeared on the horizon. When we got closer to the island a drone circled above the boat so the participants on shore could see who was arriving.

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Necker is a beautiful island, with white beaches, tropical vegetation, tons of wild life (including 7-8 feet long iguanas and a large flamingo colony) and of course 5-star accommodations.

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Danny and I shared a Balinese villa and after a short stop at the Great House (the main house on the island with a large lounge and great views), we got a electric golf cart to drive to our villa. Our place overlooked one of the beaches and a lake full of flamingos (they can be quite loud in the morning!). We quickly freshened up (our luggage was already in the room) and then went back to the Great House for cocktails with the rest of the group and for the official opening of the blockchain summit.

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Necker Island is about 300,000 m2, so it’s not a very large island (I sailed around it on a Hobie Cat in less than 30 minutes). Only about half of the island is cultivated, the other half still looks like most of the other islands (quite dry with not a lot of vegetation). The part where the 6 villas and the Great House (with 8 additional bedrooms) are located has undergone a complete metamorphosis, the vegatation is lush and Richard built decent roads. The beaches on this side are beautiful and there are several swimming pools and hot tubs. The best hot tub is on top of the Great House, the highest point on the island. There you feel literally on top of the world!

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You can actually rent the island, with prices started at $65,000 per day. That may seem expensive, but the island can house up to 30 people, so it’s actually quite reasonable for such a place. Of course you can’t just rent it for one night (the minimum seems to be 5 nights), so you’ll always be looking at at least a few hundred thousand dollars, similar to what you would pay for a super yacht.

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Many of the world’s celebrities have stayed at Necker over the years, although the staff don’t talk too much about who they have met. I understood that Google co-founder Larry Page got married on the island. He liked it so much that he bought the island opposite Richard’s. I sailed there to take a look, it seemed like a nice place to live as well.

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For $65,000 per day you get everything you can imagine. All food and drinks are included and the island has a total of 120 staff, so you don’t have to do anything yourself. The service is extremely good. Not only do you immediately get everything you want, but the staff also anticipated your needs.

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Most of the staff are in their 20s and clearly chosen because they love to party and because of their looks (especially many of the girls were stunning). Richard likes blond girls, that was clear! But they also work hard and seem to be very happy to work in one of the nicest places in the world. The manager of the island is a cool guy as well, my impression was that he runs the island very well.

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Virtually everything is possible on Necker and some parties go on through the night. When I left this morning at 6 AM the last people had just left the beach party (I wisely left the beach before midnight, I can guarantee you that spending almost a full day on planes with a hangover is an experience you do not want to have more than once in your life).

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At 6 AM we saw a staff member walking along the road with a big wound on his forehead. When we asked him what happened he said that while dancing a tree suddenly popped up in front of him! It’s all part of life on Necker. The previous manager on Necker did not allow the staff to drink or to (fill in the blanks yourself) with the guests, but that did not fit well with Necker’s culture so he only lasted for about a week! Anyway, what happens on Necker stays on Necker, but you probably catch my drift.

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The villas are very nice as well, on par with the best accommodations in other parts of the world. You have total privacy in the villa even when the island is ‘crowded’. The bathrooms are partially outside but they are built in such a way that you can see the island but nobody can see you. Of course that may change now that drones are on the island!

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The mini bar was well stocked with nice bottles of wine and champagne (all included in the price of course), but there was no opportunity to drink any of it. The only thing I drank in the room was espresso, all rooms have a very good espresso machines.

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Having your own private island seems like a nice thing, but after staying on Necker for 3 days I am not so sure if it’s really something I would like to have (assuming I could even afford it). I actually subscribe to a private island newsletter so I paid a lot of attention to the details of what it takes to live here. I think Richard made a smart choice to build small luxurious villas on the island and rent these out. Not only does it make living a lot more affordable (I am sure he makes decent money with the prices he charges, even with 120 staff on the payroll), but it’s also nice to meet interesting people all the time (most visitors seem to be celebrities or business people). Living on an island on your own will likely be quite boring after a few days already. Good to know that I can take one that off my bucket list.

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Richard Branson was the host, but he was not very much involved in the event. He showed up at some sessions and at some of the meals, but most of the time he was doing other things. Part of the reason was that he has recently become a grandfather for the first time (actually 3 times in the past 6 months, one of his kids had twins, and another had a daughter), and the grandkids were on the island as well during the event. Richard even took his 3-month old granddaughter to breakfast one day.

Richard is very charismatic and I think that’s one of the reasons of his success. He is always laughing and interested to talk to everyone. Interestingly he also seems very knowledgeable about the companies that he runs: during one breakfast I happened to sit next to him and he was talking to the lady opposite me. She is a bitcoin miner in her free time, but her day job is at Virgin Galactic designing the pressured spacecraft cabin and training astronauts (so she actually works for Richard). He seemed to know a lot about the details of the spacecraft when others asked questions about it and he wanted to see the latest pictures.

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Richard seems like a great guy to work for. He is also very sportive, I was told he runs and kitesurfs in the morning and in the afternoon I saw him playing tennis with his personal trainer.

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Anyway, back to the reason why we were at Necker. Although it may seem we only drank and partied that was certainly not the case, the main focus during the 3 days was on bitcoin and its underlying ledger, the blockchain. Tomorrow I will talk about the main themes we discussed, our findings and our plans for the future.

You can find part 2 of this post here.

A set of all pictures that I took during the Blockchain Summit is here.

I had my full genome sequenced

Understand Your Genome (Illumina)

In late 2013 I heard from our medical entrepreneur-in-residence (thanks Bojana!) that Illumina would offer its Understand Your Genome program in Canada for the first time: a whole-genome sequencing including a personal analysis. I had read a lot about genome sequencing and had considered doing a 23andme test before, but of course doing a full genome sequencing is much more interesting.

In February I had an appointment with a doctor at a private clinic to discuss the pros and cons of doing a complete DNA sequence. For me it was clear that I wanted to do it, but it’s good to have a chat with a medical doctor to understand the consequences: when you sequence your genome you might learn things you may not want to know. There could be some diseases that will kill you and for which there is no cure yet (e.g. Huntington’s disease), so if you find out that you have one of them it may deteriorate your quality of life significantly. The doctor agreed with me that it’s better to know in advance that you will get a certain disease so that you can be prepared for it, instead of suddenly getting it.

Illumina conference & full genome sequencing event in Vancouver

After that a blood sample was taken and used as the basis for the sequencing at Illumina in San Diego. A couple of weeks later my doctor called me and told me my results were in. For a moment I wasn’t sure whether it was good or bad news that he called me, but luckily he immediately told me that I was not at risk for any uncurable disease like Huntington’s or Alzheimer. I made an appointment with him to go through my test results, which turned out to be one of the most interesting meetings I ever had, because of the things that I learned about myself.

There are a couple of things that I am at higher risk for, but none is very serious and all of them can be prevented by small lifestyles changes (if needed). What I found interesting to hear and important to know, is that some kinds of medicine don’t work for me. For example, one of the most frequently used chemotherapies has no effect on me. Knowing that is extremely important in case I should ever get cancer. You may lose valuable time by doing a chemo that doesn’t work. Next to that I learned that my body metabolizes other chemo medicines much faster than other people, meaning that I would need 2-3 times the normal amount in order for it to be effective.

Understand Your Genome conference in Vancouver

Today Illumina organized an event in Vancouver for all people in Canada that had their genome sequenced. In total only 19 people had participated in the program, much less than I had expected. I think the price may have been one reason. Despite the fact that we got a lower rate than usual it was still not very cheap: US$ 5000 for the full sequencing incl. analysis, normally this is about $10,000 per person. Especially the analysis is very labour intensive we were told, the sequencing itself now costs less than $1000. In 2000 a full genome sequencing still took 10 (!) years and cost a stunning $3 billion. Technology changes very fast.

It was an interesting group of participants, all of them seemed to be quite successful in the business or in the medical world (incl. several people from universities) and all were of course very interested in genomics. I was one of the youngest in the group, something that doesn’t happen very often anymore.

Illumina is the leading genome sequencing company in the world and so far 482 people have gone through their Understand Your Genome program. I didn’t realize that so few people had done this, but it’s a good feeling to be among the first people in the world that got their genes sequenced. By the end of the year they expect more than 1000 participants already and after that it will likely increase exponentially.

Today’s event was partly to teach all of us about genomics and about what you can do with your results. But it was also the moment that all participants received their full DNA on an iPad. I can tell you that that was a special moment, from now on I can literally carry my DNA with me. Illumina developed a chromosome browser in which you can compare the reference genome with your sequenced genome. Variation from the reference means that something has changed, which means that you can have a higher risk for a certain disease, or that you will have certain characteristics/traits (they can be good or bad) that others don’t have.

Chromosome browser

 

Chromosome browser

For example, during the event I looked at DNA variations that cause red hair, that lead to a craving for alcohol, to obesity, to lactose intolerance and to whether you have Cherokees in your family. Luckily none of these genes had a variance for me, not surprising considering that I don’t have red hair, am not addicted to alcohol and am not obese. For me this was a highlight of the day and it is something that I will probably spend quite some time on over the next months. I want to understand myself better and it’s a lot of fun to surf the chromosome data and learn more about myself. If you’re interested to learn more, take a look at SNPedia.com, it has a list of many DNA variances and what their effects are.

After today I strongly believe that DNA sequencing will change medicine completely, and fairly soon already. It will revolutionize the way medicine will be practiced. No longer a doctor will need to look at symptoms, but he or she can look at your DNA for the cause of a disease.

Test for Down syndrome with amniotic fluid won't be necessary anymore with DNA sequencing

A prenatal test for Down syndrome with amniotic fluid won’t be necessary anymore with DNA

Medicine will change from treatment to prevention of illnesses. When you know that you will get lung cancer at 50 if you would smoke regularly (this is a variance I have actually, so I am extremely happy that I don’t smoke – and that I don’t live in smoggy China anymore!), you are very likely to give up smoking right away before it’s too late. If you know your body does’t metabolize certain things well, you can prevent eating them regularly. Or the opposite, if your body metabolizes them too quickly, you can take extra vitamins for that. It means we will stay healthy much longer and may avoid diseases we could not avoid without knowing our full genome.

Because costs go down so fast the expectation is that all babies in the US may get a full genome sequence upon birth by 2023-2024. Insurance companies may even pay for that because they will save a ton of money when doctors can see right away what disease a baby may have or may develop. It may seem science fiction to most people, but today’s event has opened my eyes: I have seen the future.

Awareness of what is possible is needed, most people have no idea what can be done with sequencing, so education is necessary. I expect people to be afraid of this, so they need to learn that having their full DNA available will have huge advantages for them. Think for example about personalized medicine: most medicines that you get in the pharmacy actually do not work for you, or at least do not work optimal. They are made for the average patient, a person that doesn’t exist in reality. Based on your DNA a pharmacy can make medicine just for you, using chemicals that your body can absorb and in the right amount.

Too bad I did not have this variance

And the more people get their genome sequenced, the more we’ll learn about what variances mean. Although I now have my complete DNA mapped out and could theoretically clone myself, the results of many of the variances that I have are still unknown. When new findings about gene variances come out I can immediately check if they have an impact on me. For example, a couple of months ago there was a study that found that wine may have a positive impact on your heart. That’s what newspapers reported without mentioning that it depends on a certain DNA variances. We looked the variance up today and unfortunately I did not have the it, meaning that I still love to drink wine but that it doesn’t make me more healthy.

Marc Andreessen famously said that ‘software is eating the world’, today one of the speakers changed that to ‘genomics is eating the world’. I agree with him. This is a truly disruptive industry that will make the world that we live in a more healthy and happy place. I am glad to be part of this pioneering group and will actively spread the word and get people to sequence their DNA as well.

If you can afford it, do it. It will change your life!

Busy month

Daily life is incredibly busy once again, I constantly feel that I need more than 24 hours in a day. I normally write my blog posts late at night, but now when I close my laptop around 11:30 PM I am often just too tired to spend time another hour on an article.

Lots of work and non-work related things happened this month, and many of these topics I would have written about if I would have had a bit more time. Therefore now a post with pictures of some of the highlights of the past 3 weeks.

Early May we went to the Mulgrave Gala Dinner, a fundraising event for our kids school with good food, wines, an auction, gambling and dancing. Last year I didn’t go because the Vancouver Marathon was the next day, but when I found out that this year’s marathon would again be the day after the gala I decided to go anyway. This year the theme was Bollywood, so many people dressed up in Indian dress and the food was Indian as well. We had a fun time and it was good to catch up with some of the other parents that we don’t see every day.

Grace and her girlfriends

Grace and some of her girlfriends at the gala dinner.

Mulgrave Gala 2015

Selfie during the evening

Some of the wines that I won in the auction

I won an auction for 70 nice bottles of wine, among others a 1997 Opus One and several even older high-end French and Italian wines. Enough to drink for the next couple of months!

Casino games at the Mulgrave gala

Black Jack at Mulgrave (given the strict gambling laws in Canada you couldn’t play for real money)

With Scott and Elaine in the start corral of the Vancouver Marathon

The morning after the gala (basically just a few hours later) I joined the  Vancouver Marathon. The weather was very nice this year, much better than last year!

Vancouver marathon course

The Vancouver Marathon course is beautiful, but the hills in the first part are killing. Luckily the last 10 km is flat, except for the last 500 meter to the finish line.

Walking into the start corral

The marathon itself did not go very well. I got an injury while running in New York in mid-April and that prevented me from training during the last weeks. It seemed the injury was gone, but it came back during the race. I did not want to give up, so I managed to finish but for the first time ever I ‘ran’ the marathon in over 4 hours (4:15 to be precise). Not something to be proud of, but quitting would have been even worse.

First Grouse Grind of the year (May 8, 2015)

The Grouse Grind opened the week after the Vancouver marathon and because I couldn’t run anymore because of my injury I decided to give the Grind a try 5 days after the marathon.

First Grouse Grind of the year (May 8, 2015)

The Grouse Grind had a lot of renovations during the winter, it’s now easier and less dangerous to do the climb to the top of Grouse Mountain. It’s also a bit less exciting to be honest, there are no real difficult part anymore.

First Grouse Grind of the year (May 8, 2015)

My legs were still quite tired from the marathon, but luckily I still managed to do the Grouse Grind in less than an hour (58 min). The week after I did another Grind in 57 min. Not great, but given how busy I am I’m fine with these times.

Swimming with Scott & Elaine

It was quite warm this May so the kids have been swimming a lot. I decided to teach Elaine how to swim, and she picked it up fairly quickly. In the picture above she is still wearing two inflatable arm bands, but she can now basically swim without them.

Pool time!

When she plays with Scott in the pool I want her to keep wearing one armband, just in case. She doesn’t see the risks of swimming yet and is overconfident in her abilities, so that may lead to accidents.

Skiing in Whistler (May 9, 2015)

Warm weather means great skiing weather in Whistler, so I took advantage of it during a weekend. Grace and the kids had brunch on a terrace in Whistler and I went up into the mountains for 2 hours of skiing. Whistler is just a one hour drive from our house, so it’s not too far for just a morning or afternoon in the snow.

Skiing in Whistler (May 9, 2015)

Most people don’t ski anymore in May so it was very quiet on most of the slopes. Of course many lifts are closed, but the snow was quite decent.

Skiing in Whistler (May 9, 2015)

The ski resort will be open until June 7 this year and over the summer months the glacier will be open for skiing. I may do some glacier skiing in July, especially because I have a ski pass that’s valid for summer skiing as well. I’ve never done that and it seems like a nice thing to do in the morning, while spending the afternoon on the water.

Opening concert of the U2 iNNOCENCe & eXPERIENCe Tour in Vancouver

The highlight of May was probably the opening of U2’s new world tour iNNOCENCe & eXPERIENCe 2015. We’re not huge U2 fans, but because Bono rented a house in our street we decided to get tickets anyway. We didn’t regret that, the tour was fantastic, one of the best concerts I have ever been to.

Opening concert of the U2 iNNOCENCe & eXPERIENCe Tour in Vancouver

The stage design was very different from other concerts. There was one main stage at one end of the arena, a smaller one at the other side, and a walkway stage in the middle, connecting both stages. A huge video wall in the middle of the arena could be lowered and the band played inside that video wall as well. Pretty cool!

45 year old port wine!

Business friends from Holland that I had not seen for years had flown in for the U2 concert and the next day we had some nice wines at our place. I tried some of the wines that I had won at the auction, among others a very nice 45 year old vintage port wine. It was nice catching up and among others discussing my favorite topic (Bitcoin!).

Coyote in West Vancouver

Sometimes we are reminded that we are very close to nature. Last weekend was such a moment, when we saw a coyote crossing the road in front of my car. I immediately stopped and followed the coyote onto a parking lot. The animal was not afraid of all, but I was glad I was inside my car.

Biz trip to Calgary

This week I went to Calgary for a due diligence meeting. I have been to many places, but so far I never made it to Calgary, so it was nice to take a look at the place (mainly from the air). The due diligence meeting went well, so it was worth the short trip.

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The past 2 days I spent at the Canadian Venture Capital Association annual conference. It’s a good way to meet everybody from the industry in just 2 days and to hear news about new deals and new funds. And of course to have good food and drinks! Last night the keynote was given by Joshua Foer (see picture), a journalist who wrote about memory championships and became so fascinated by them that the decided to join them a year later. And guess what, he won the US championship! He taught the audience some tricks on how to memorize long sequences of words (on the picture he has a list of 100 words that people need to memorize at championships) or how to remember people’s names. We also received a copy of his book (Moonwalking with Einstein), and I’m planning to read that on the plane next week. Fascinating!

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And finally, today Elaine had her 6th birthday. She was very excited about it and got lots of presents (mainly books that she wanted to have, but also some games and a Lego Friends set). She could choose what to eat for dinner on her birthday. I had expected french fries or something like that, but she opted for salmon pasta with a side of creamed spinach (an unexpected choice and an unusual combination).  Elaine is growing up so fast, I still clearly remember the day she was born. Sometimes I wish she would remain a toddler, but I actually also enjoy seeing her grow and learn new skills every day. Elaine, in case you ever read this, I love you!

The Bitcoin banks are coming!

Circle $10

Yesterday I was excited to see that Goldman Sachs and IDG (Tudou’s first investor) invested in Circle.com’s $50 million round. Having Goldman on board is a major milestone, they are the smartest kids on the block and when they invest in Circle it means they start to believe in Bitcoin and the blockchain. IDG is also an important company to have as an investor, because with their Chinese connections they should be able to open a lot of doors in China for Circle.

Circle wrote a blog post about the investment and from that article it becomes clear what they are planning to do. They are not just a bitcoin exchange and wallet anymore, but they are slowly becoming a bank. So far you could only hold Bitcoin on their platform, but now you can also hold your money in USD, just like on a normal bank account. And you can transfer this money to other Circle accounts (in USD or in BTC) much faster and cheaper than you could do it through a normal bank.

And because Circle plans to enter China, it means that you will eventually be able to put Chinese RMB on your Circle account and transfer that in seconds to a USD account in the US (or any other country where Circle will be active). This is a major step in the disruption of the remittance industry. I am surprised that the Western Union stock only went down 0.5%, after this announcement, I would be very worried as a WU stockholder.

But also banks should watch out because an important part of their business can be gone in a matter of 2-3 years. And it won’t be just the remittances: if people transfer money they normally leave part of it on their accounts, which is then used to lend out to other bank customers and to create new money by fractional reserve banking.

OKCoinVisiting the OKCoin office in June 2014

The superwallet that Circle created is actually not the first in the world. China’s leading exchange OKCoin launched a similar product a couple of days ago, but it did not get as much press as the Circle announcement (full disclosure: my wife is an advisor to OKCoin). OKcoin also lets you do cheap and fast international transfers and allows you to hold USD, RMB or BTC in your wallet. So in the Chinese market they are far ahead of Circle, because Circle can’t offer RMB yet.

The blockchain is an excellent mechanism to replace the old way of transferring money, and soon there will be a lot of other companies doing international remittances using Bitcoin technology (e.g. Melotic is already doing this, and Abra and ZipZap will launch in the near future). How many of these companies will also allow you to hold multi-currencies in wallets remains to be seen, but it’s clear that Circle and OKcoin are the first Bitcoin companies that are evolving into bank-like institutions with bank accounts and remittances.

OKCoin is actually a lot closer to a traditional bank already, in the sense that you can do more than just hold and send money. OKCoin now already offers futures, margin trading and even P2P lending. They still operate a bit under the radar for most people outside China, but I think they are quietly growing into a financial giant. The Bitcoin banks are coming!

Initial impressions of the Apple Watch

My Apple Watch

For the past 2 days I have been wearing my new Apple watch, the 42mm sports model. I decided to buy just the basic model because, except for sports, I didn’t think I would wear it a lot. The main reason for buying it was to understand the device and its capabilities, so I can better spot potential business and investment opportunities.

My Apple Watch arrived

My initial impression upon opening the Apple watch box was that the watch looked okay, but that it was nothing special. Before I could use it I first had to install the latest iOS on my phone (I hate that) and then I had to sync my phone with my watch. Syncing took quite some time, but finally about 30 minutes after opening the Apple Watch package I could start using the phone.

As usual I don’t read manuals but try to figure out how the watch works myself. With just a crown and one other button that should be easy, right? Wrong… If you start using the Apple Watch better view some of the short videos on the Apple site first, that will save you a lot of time and frustration. I figured out most of the things eventually, but it was painful. Unintentionally, I almost called my parents in Holland in the middle of the night because their home number is stored under favorites (the menu where you get to when you press the 2nd button), but luckily I could stop it before it would have woken them up at 3:30 AM…

My Apple Watch arrived

My opinion after 2 days: it’s a fun watch that can do a lot, but it won’t replace my other watches any time soon. It very much feels like a first generation device, there are just so many things that need to be improved. It’s like going from an iPhone 6 to a first generation iPhone but with a much smaller screen.

I figured out quickly that the watch can’t do much without your phone. If you turn off your phone or your phone is too far from the watch most apps won’t run. You can still see the time and you can change all the settings, but that’s about it. I want to use it for running, so I hope it has a built-in GPS because I don’t want to bring my phone on all my runs as well (I didn’t check this yet, but after I turned off my phone just now the maps function didn’t work anymore, so I have my doubts).

I try to like the watch, but there are just too many things that don’t feel right. The screen turns itself off way too quickly, and I have not figured out how to change this (probably you need to do this on your phone, the settings menu on the watch does not seem to allow you to change this). Luckily the watch does not ask you for your passcode each time the screen is off, at least as long as you wear the watch. Tip: if you play around with your watch, wear it while you do so, otherwise you’ll keep on putting your passcode in.

Apple Watch

The watch is also very slow, especially when you compare it to an  iPhone. It’s like being used to broadband Internet and then being forced to go back to dial-up. Maybe this is because the apps are not optimized for the watch yet, but if this doesn’t improve I won’t use a lot of apps on my watch.

For example, my favorite chat & communications app is WeChat. Just launching it takes ages. Going from the home screen to moments (the WeChat ‘timeline’) took exactly 15 seconds just now. That’s just not acceptable in 2015 and I can’t believe Apple accepts this.

On Saturday I tried to pay for my coffee with the Starbucks app on my phone, but after waiting for 20 seconds to load the app I got my phone out and just paid with the Starbucks app on my phone. I was almost embarrassed, because there was a line of people waiting behind me. Later I figured out that the current Starbucks watch app may not even let you pay yet (I could not find how to do it after it loaded). Very strange.

Dianrong.com app on my Apple Watch

Also standard Apple apps like the weather app are slow. Not as slow as some external apps, but to load the local weather forecast takes 3-4 seconds. We’re probably all spoiled, but when you’re Apple and offer premium products at premium prices the user experience should be premium as well.

I don’t dislike the watch, but I have my doubts whether I’ll use it a lot. It just doesn’t look as good as my other watches and the usability is not as good as expected. If you get constant updates on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram you should make sure to turn off notifications, otherwise the constant pings and vibration will drive you nuts. But on the other hand, what’s the added value if you don’t get notified, you might as well get your phone out every 10 minutes or so to check on the latest updates.

Tudou app on my Apple Watch

What I like about the watch is that the battery life is not as bad as I had expected. After wearing the watch for at least 13 hours today I still have over 50% of battery power remaining. So at least it’s unlikely that I would need to recharge it during the day, as I often have to do with my iPhone. But then again, I didn’t watch any videos on my watch, I only made one or two phone calls on the watch and I didn’t play any games, so maybe the battery will drain a lot quicker if I start using it differently.

I also like that it’s at least partially waterproof. I went for a swim tonight while wearing the watch, and only while swimming I realized the watch may not be waterproof (you also don’t jump in the pool with your phone). But while swimming I immediately checked it and it worked fine – and it still works fine a few hours later.

For me the watch is not more than an extension of my phone. Most calculations are done on the phone, the watch only has 8GB of storage, and many watch apps just tell you to go to your phone to see or read more. I was aware of this, but you don’t really realize it until you start using the phone. It’s a pity, but I am sure in future generations of the watch Apple will solve this, giving us all reasons to buy every single update of the watch. I’ll wear the watch for a few more days, but I’ll likely switch back to my normal watches again after that. My verdict so far: 6 points out of 10.

The state of the P2P marketplace lending industry

New York, view from hotel

I just got back from a week in New York City for meetings with the Uvamo team and for the Lendit 2015 conference. Lendit is a conference focused on the P2P lending industry (nowadays called marketplace lending), and this was the third year the conference was organized.

I had been to the inaugural conference in NYC 2 years ago, at a time when marketplace lending was still something that was relatively small and unknown. I had been investing in LendingClub loans for quite some time already by then, but most traditional bankers I met during that time told me that it was impossible to make consist good returns on a loan portfolio (I was, and am, making a net return of about 8.5% per year). It’s always when things are new that people don’t understand it or don’t want to understand it, so I didn’t argue too much – but I did blog about it a couple of times.

During the first conference the organizers had expected about 200 participants, but the final tally was 375 people. I thought that was quite a lot, but the year after the Lendit Conference in San Francisco had almost 1000 particpants. Suddenly it had become a big event, although marketplace lending was still not mainstream.

But the successful LendingClub IPO in December last year changed things significantly. Suddenly the skeptics realized that marketplace lending is here to stay and that it’s a real alternative to borrowing from banks. I had expected about 1500 people at this conference, but when we had dinner with the organizer the night before the conference he told us almost 2400 people signed up and they had to close the registration.

The conference itself was great. Because I am on the board of Chinese marketplace lender Dianrong.com I follow the space closely and I got to know quite a few people in the industry over the past 2 years. The industry has matured a lot obviously and the start-ups from 2 years ago are now big companies. LendingClub is a $8 billion dollar company and competitor Prosper just closed a private round at a $1.9 billion valuation. They are not banks yet, but they may one day become something like a bank is now.

Lendit 2015 New York City

Banks now even want to partner with marketplace lenders. LendingClub CEO Renaud Laplanche for example announced on stage that they started a $150 million cooperation with Citi. Two years ago this would have been unimaginable. And Larry Summers (who is even on the board of LendingClub!) explained in his keynote that the future of finance consists of online marketplaces. He believes that 10 years from now 40-50% of all current bank lending will go through online marketplaces. That means that there is still a huge upside.

Larry Summer's speech

As part of the Lendit conference there was a special China track and there were a lot of Chinese participants. It was probably a good wake up call for many people in North-America to see that US market leader LendingClub is much smaller than some of the top Chinese players. In China the market is booming, it’s incredible. I mentioned this already in another blog post last week where I talked about Dianrong, but growth rates that people in the US can only dream of are normal in China.

Lendit 2015 New York City

China’s P2P market is many times bigger than the US market, it’s even bigger than all other P2P markets outside China combined. Hard to believe? When I see the monthly Dianrong figures I believe it, I have seen the company grow from its first loan 2 years ago until where it is now, that is simply not possible outside China.

Soul Htite at Lendit USA 2015

One big difference with the US is that Chinese P2P lending companies not just do loans, but they build whole new product categories around it. For example Dianrong, also has a fast growing banking solutions division, that works with some large banks to help them with their technology. Many Chinese lending companies also have a wealth management division, something you don’t see in the US. As Dianrong CEO Soul Htite explained on the main stage at the conference, this is a normal thing for Chinese companies, not just in the P2P lending space. One reason is that you start from scratch in China, there are not many existing tools that you can integrate. E.g. when Alibaba started they had to figure out logistics and payments themselves, Amazon could use existing services for that.

Soul Htite in the China panel at Lendit USA 2015

The extreme competition is another reason that Chinese companies have to innovate faster than their US counterparts. Competition in the US certainly has increased, and CEOs of the leading companies don’t freely exchange information anymore (during a CEO dinner on Monday night the CEOs of Prosper and On Deck did not even mention their partnership to the other participants, even though it was announced pre-market the next morning!). This reminds me of my time in China when I learned the hard way that Chinese companies would not even consider sharing any information with the competition.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if Chinese marketplace lending companies would become active in the US. It’s not happening yet, but I think they could make life very difficult for the leading players. For now they have no real reason yet to move overseas, the opportunity in China is still huge. In China loans are not a replacement for bank loans, but many people or SMEs have no other source to get credit capital. There is still a huge untapped market there, especially now that a large portion of lending and investing in China is now happening on mobile devices.

What’s next? There is a lot of innovation in the financial marketplaces and many niches have been covered over the past 2 years (e.g. student loans, real estate, car loans). But many are relatively small opportunities because they are niche. I think some of the leading players will start acquiring niche players and I think a lot more will go public soon. I think they may turn out to be good long term investments, although they have to show consistent high growth for years to come in order to live up to their multiples. I see more internationalization, meaning US companies moving overseas, or non-US companies expanding to the US. This is already happening, but at a small scale. As for Chinese companies, I don’t see them expanding to the US soon, but don’t be surprised if they suddenly turn up in other Asian countries that are closer to their home base. Exciting times!

Job opening: 2 analyst positions at CrossPacific Capital in Vancouver

View from the CrossPacific Capital office in VancouverView from the CrossPacific Capital office

Our fund CrossPacific Capital (www.xpcp.ca) in Vancouver is expanding rapidly and we are now looking to hire 2 analysts for our Vancouver office. You will work directly with the managing partners, Frank Christiaens and myself.

We are different from other venture capital funds in that we work closely with Chinese strategic investors, limited partners and VC funds, and that we are mainly looking for exits for our portfolio companies in Asia (especially in China). Therefore it’s a prerequisite for candidates to have lived and worked in Asia for at least 3 years. Because there is a lot of communication with China, our analysts have to be fluent in Mandarin Chinese (spoken and written).

You will need to be able to work independently and be able to determine your own work priorities. If you can handle it you’ll get a lot of responsibility (we’ll coach you of course), more than at this level in most other VC firms.

CrossPacific Capital (XPCP.ca) Christmas party 2014CrossPacific Capital office in Vancouver

If you plan to make the switch to venture capital this may be the right job to get into the industry. You will join pitches by companies, do due diligence on them and help us in the valuation and decision making process. We are a small organization, so there are no layers between you and the managing partners, meaning that you have a lot of direct exposure to what happens in and around the firm.  Frank and I tend to be quite direct (we’re both originally Dutch…), but you’ll probably get used to that quickly. Occasional travel may be required, depending on projects and clients that you work with.

Our office is in the the middle of Gastown in Vancouver, surrounded by bars and restaurants, on the top floor of a heritage building with great views over Vancouver harbour and the North shore mountains. Several of our portfolio companies are in our office, and because of our open office environment you’ll have a lot of contact with them.

Our analyst Ms. Bing Dai, who plans to do a start-up as the next step in her career, said on her Facebook about her current job: “I learned more about entrepreneurship, technology and human interactions during the past two years at CrossPacific than any period before. A great environment to hang out with amazing people around the world and experience what starting/investing in tech companies is actually like.” Hope you don’t mind me copy/pasting your text Bing :)

The official job ad as posted on our website:

Company

  • CrossPacific is an asset management and advisory firm, strategically headquartered in Vancouver, BC Canada, North America’s Gateway to Asia.
  • CrossPacific invests in Canadian and select US technology companies and creates value through cross-border business expansion into China. CrossPacific also invests in companies that would be investment targets for Chinese companies looking to expand their presence in North America.
  • CrossPacific is managed by 2 Managing Partners and 1 CFO. The team is strenghtened by 2 Venture Partners, Enterepreneurs-in-Residence, and Advisors.

 

Responsibilities

  • Market Research
  • Financial Analysis
  • Due Diligence Support
  • Business Developmemt Support

 

Required Expertise

  • Having worked in Asia for a minimum of 3 years
  • Strong analytical and quantitative skills
  • Excellent Excel skills
  • Eager interest in technology
  • Deep knowledge of certain technologies
  • Prior start-up experience a plus – not a requirement

 

Education Level

  • University level Master degree from recognized university, preferably with an undergraduate degree in engineering or science
  • Native Mandarin
  • Fluent English
  • Other languages a plus

 

Compensation & Perks

  • Base salary negotiable
  • Bonus as a function of value created for the Fund
  • MSP
  • Medical and dental insurance
  • Awesome Gastown office with waterfront views, accessible by Canada Line, Expo Line, Millenium Line, and many downtown buses

 

CONTACT: Ms Rui Habib, rui@xpcp.ca

A Few Days In China: Some Thoughts And Observations (Part 2)

XintiandiShanghai, view over Xintiandi

After some impressions about life in general in my post yesterday, today some more business related topics that I noticed during my trip to China last week.

Valuations
Company valuations are going through the roof, especially private company valuations. When Tudou raised its first round in late 2005 valuations were probably 10% of what they are now. At one time Tudou raised the largest round ever for a Chinese company, which was $57 million at that time. Now that number is just peanuts and many companies have raised hundreds of millions in later stage rounds.

Although in Silicon Valley valuations are also extremely high (e.g. Uber @ $40 billion and Snapchat @ $19 billion), I have the feeling that Chinese tech companies tend to get ever higher valuations based on the same numbers. I have no data on this, but that’s just what I hear when talking to local VCs. One reason may be that the Chinese market is potentially much bigger than the US market, although most Chinese have a lot less earning power. And for Chinese companies it may be easier to go abroad (with the right management teams) than it is for US companies to enter China.

Buying R&D
A relatively new trend is that Chinese companies are now actively buying R&D from outside China. With growth rates going down to about 7% this year they need to find other ways to grow faster, and foreign intellectual property is a good investment for that. We see it a lot at CrossPacific Capital and several of our portfolio companies are in discussions with Chinese buyers. Chinese companies are especially looking for companies that can deliver revenue right away, so products that can immediately be integrated or sold in China.

The valuation of these companies mainly depends on the current product portfolio and less on the value of the IP for future products. Chinese business men want to see results now, nobody knows what will happen in 4-5 years so that’s less important. Generally valuations for these companies are a lot higher in China than in North America, meaning that if you can identify the right products or technology you can make a good return on your investment. However, valuations are not as high as Chinese Internet and tech companies.

Marc, Soul & Scott at the Dianrong officeMarc, Soul and Scott at Dianrong’s Shanghai HQ

Dianrong
One important reason why I was in China was for a Dianrong board of directors meeting. Dianrong is a Shanghai-based P2P lending company, comparable to LendingClub or Prosper, but only focused on China (for now) and therefore with Chinese characteristics (shorter loan duration, higher interest rate etc.). The company is also active in banking solutions for traditional banks.

When I first met Soul Htite, the founder and CEO of Dianrong, a few months before I left China in 2013 he was so convincing about his plans that I fairly quickly decided to invest. That was a good decision because Dianrong turned out to be one of the fastest growing companies I have ever been involved in. It’s unbelievable how innovative the company is and how it manages to handle its growth. The company is obviously still privately held, so I am not able to share any data here, but trust me that the figures are extremely impressive.

In my opinion, one major strength Dianrong has is the management team that Soul put together. Many of the executives are graduates of top US schools like Harvard, MIT, Stanford or Wharton, or from Chinese top universities (or both). The team understands both the Western and the Chinese financial and Internet world and that makes them stand out from many of the other Chinese P2P lending companies.

Dianrong is the type of company that could conquer the world from China. Not just South-east Asia like some ‘traditional’ Chinese Internet companies are doing already, but possibly also the Western world. Yes, I am biased of course, but keep an eye out for them!

WeChat
While many people in North-America have never heard of it, WeChat (微信) is now the only app you need to do business in China. Originally a messenger app comparable to WhatsApp, it has grown into a mobile-first combination of the Facebook timeline (with built-in privacy!), Messenger, Skype, a business sales & marketing platform, and a group communication tool like Slack. Companies like Dianrong rely on WeChat for communication, and in many instances it has replaced email. You can run a company on WeChat these days.

I use WeChat a lot in Canada as well, but it’s not really taking off yet among people that don’t have a lot of connections with China. I hope that will happen though, because it’s extremely useful and a great way to stay connected to people that you meet. Next to exchanging business cards you now just scan each others QR codes to get connected. If you want to do business in China make sure you have WeChat installed on your phone.

The future of retail
If you want to understand how retail in the West will change, come to China first. Already a couple of years ago people were ordering everything online and that has only increased. Real time delivery for (almost) free is the norm and I believe that China might be the first country where large supermarkets and other stores may disappear. There are still a lot of shopping malls, but if this trend continuous they will be mainly for high-end brands (where the retail experience is important) or just for window shopping.

It’s hard to imagine how fast online retail has grown. In March 2013 when I left China McKinsey estimated that by 2020 Chinese online retail would be between $420-$650 billion. Guess what, in 2014, so just one year later, online retail was already at $450 billion in China. I don’t want to criticize McKinsey too much, but they clearly should do their homework a bit better and learn about exponential instead of linear growth (their models worked with 15-20% growth per year and were likely based on 2011-2012 data, but real growth in 2013-2014 was over 50% per year).

The fast growth is partly because of convenience, because urban Chinese work longer hours than people in Europe or the US and therefore have less free time for shopping, but also because of traffic jams, lower car ownership and pollution. If you know it will take you a long time get to a large supermarket, you don’t have a car or if it’s very smoggy outside you might as well order everything online. And don’t forget the secondary and tertiary cities where people also have a lot more disposable income nowadays, but where lots of products are not for sale in offline stores.

The next big business opportunity: Senior care
If you want to catch the next big wave in China (outside of tech), look at opportunities in senior care. There are many reasons why this is such a huge growth market and I could probably write a complete blog post about it, but I’ll just list the main ones here:
– Most Chinese below 40 don’t have brothers or sister because of the one child policy. Traditionally Chinese take care of their parents, but if 2 people have to take care of their aging parents next to their jobs and kid(s) that can be a major burden.
– Urban Chinese don’t have large apartments, so taking care of their parents is not always possible
– Younger Chinese are more affluent and can (and are willing to) pay for senior care
– Sending your parents to a senior home is not a taboo anymore
– It’s difficult to find good senior homes, at some of them wait lists can be decades

My friend Ninie Wang saw this opportunity already back in 2003, right after graduating from INSEAD. She was one of the very first but the sector is now growing fast, but there are still a huge opportunities for anything related to Chinese senior care.

A few days in China: some thoughts and observations (part 1)

Shanghai by night

Shanghai by night

Last week I spent a couple of days in Shanghai and Beijing for among others a Dianrong board meeting, for meetings with other VCs and investors, and of course to catch up with friends. It was a busy week where I did not sleep a lot, but a trip that was totally worth my time.

I am now back in Vancouver and my mind is so full of thoughts and observations about the trip that I decided to put some of them on virtual paper and post them on my blog. We have now been away from China for over 2 years and that gives me some much needed distance to see the country in a more objective way than when we were living here or when we had just left. I will put my thoughts online in 2 separate blog posts, because there is way too much information for just one article. The first one is more about life in general, the second one will be more about business and investment related topics.

Pollution
The bad air was probably the main reason why we left China. I got sick (literally!) of not being able to run outside and I felt really bad for the kids when they could not play outside most of the time. Waking up to a grey world in the morning while the sun was supposed to shine made me feel angry while living in Shanghai. But interestingly, during this trip it did not bother me as much. Why? I guess because it’s just for 5-6 days and after that I would be back in the clean Vancouver air. Although I started to cough again and felt my throat while running, I just shrugged it off.

Smog at the approach to Pudong airport

 

Smog during approach to Shanghai Pudong airport

The smog was not too bad as well, most of the time between 150-200 PM2.5 (which is merely unhealthy, although in Vancouver probably nobody would be allowed to go outside anymore at these levels), which means that it was normallyhazy but that you could easily see a few hundred meters. I couldn’t run outside though, which was a bit of a nuisance, especially during my early morning 25 km run on Sunday. Generally I did not feel that the pollution was much worse than 2 years ago, but this was just a 6 day sample – and the day before I arrived Beijing had a hazardous 800+ pollution reading – so this is in no way a scientific observation.

Taxis
While living in China I had a car and a driver, so I did not use taxis much. However, when I needed them I could normally easily hail one on the street. That has changed quite a bit in 2 years because of taxi apps. If you don’t have these installed it’s very hard to find a taxi, even outside of rush hour. The reason is that the taxi apps subsidize their drivers, they get a few extra RMB on top of the taxi fare to lure them to work with the taxi app company. The downside is that they are not very interested in picking up passengers on the street or at hotels anymore.

The problem for most non-Chinese is that the taxi apps are in Chinese, so they are difficult to navigate. Uber works in China as well (it’s called People’s Uber here), but it’s not as good as in the US. The drivers seems to be new and often have no clue about directions, but at least many of them speak some English (that hardly ever happens with normal cab drivers). I tried to add my Chinese phone number to the regular Uber app but could not input the verification code, so the app was suddenly useless.

The few normal cabs that I used suddenly relied on their taxi app GPS system to get to the destination, instead of just thinking themselves about how to drive there. In the past drivers often had no clue about where to go and I had to guide them, but now they first take minutes to input the address, then they follow the directions exactly (instead of thinking about taking a faster side street like in the past) and one still drove past my destination (I had to point it out to him). One small difference is that many now seem to accept tips, so I could round up to the next 10 RMB and didn’t get tons of coins or bills back.

Internet
My biggest headache in China was the slow and censored Internet, it drove me totally nuts at times. In Canada I am so used to using my smartphone for everything, it’s like my second memory. But in China that second memory was suddenly extremely slow or did not work at all. I did have a VPN but it did not always work or it got blocked for a while after visiting ‘harmful’ sites like Google.com. Even with VPN I could not load Facebook on my laptop, although I managed to get an occasional connection on my mobile phone. Most of my business is done through a Gmail account, but half of the time I could not access it, not even with my VPN running.

The non-Chinese Internet seems to be much slower and stricter than 2 years ago. This was my biggest frustration during the trip, much bigger than the traffic or the pollution. If I should ever try to live in China again this should be solved first, I guess I am too spoiled after using normal Internet in Vancouver. Maybe a better VPN and a faster mobile Internet connection may help, not sure.

Cultural changes
I feel China, especially Shanghai, has become a lot more Western over the past 2 years. Shanghai was already the most Westernized city, but the way people dress and behave in places like Xintiandi is virtually the same as in higher end places in North-America. While having breakfast in Xintiandi on the weekend I noted several fathers with their young sons having (Western) breakfasts as well, just like I would with my son Scott. There are a lot more outside terraces (esp. on the street outside Xintiandi Style) where people are having coffees while chatting with friends, much more than before I left.

The number of high-end shopping malls seems to continue to go up, despite the fact that many are quite empty. I suppose brands need to be visible, so people know what to buy during their trips outside China. The shopping malls are world class, better than anything you find in North America, and comparable to Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. I don’t like shopping at all, but I did not mind strolling around some of the malls looking at the high-end products for sale.

People keep on dressing better as well. Especially in the business districts of cities like Shanghai or Beijing people seem to dress better than in the US or Europe. Less casual and with higher quality clothes than just a few years ago. I dress quite casual myself (high end jeans, dress shirt & jacket) and found myself underdressed on at least 2 occasions…

View from the Park Hyatt on a clear spring day

 

Traffic at the Guomao intersection of the 3rd ring road, there are traffic jams all day.

Traffic
Not much change, although it seems to be even more busy now than it was when I left. It’s virtually impossible to do more than 2-3 meetings a day in Beijing, unless they are in the same area or unless you are willing to take the metro. People still drive like they did before, not caring for others and using the horn constantly. On the first day I almost got hit by a car while on a zebra crossing with a green pedestian light. I guess I have become too North-American and forgot that that does not give you any additional rights as a pedestrian.

What I noticed that cars seem to be much nicer than before. There are not many old cars on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai anymore, likely because of the license plate taxes and because of environmental requirements. The number of super high-end cars is not as high as in Vancouver yet, but seeing a Lamborghini, a Ferrari or a Bentley is quite common.

Hotels
The top hotels in Shanghai and Beijing are so much better than in North-America, it’s almost incomparable. In Shanghai I stayed at the Langham in Xintiandi and in Beijing at the Park Hyatt close to Guomao, and both hotels were amazing. The service is impeccable and very fast, and staff has been trained well (often a problem in Chinese hotels and restaurants). The rooms are very well designed and much nicer than for example those of Langham hotels where I recently stayed in North America (in Pasadena and in Manhattan). Especially the Park Hyatt room was beautiful and very modern, with a huge bath tub (that I didn’t use) and sliding doors to divide the room into a bedroom and a bathroom. Small things like a power plug in the safe to recharge your gadgets, or boutique toiletries and high-end linen on the beds make the difference between a good hotel and a great hotel. The only bad thing was the slow Internet in both hotels, but I guess that’s not something you can blame the hotel for.

My second blog post with some observations about business in China is here.

Coyote in Stanley Park

Yesterday I wanted to do run in the evening, but because I had a board call with China at 6:30 PM I decided to do a 12 km run to and around Stanley Park during lunch.

While running on the path around Lost Lagoon I saw a greyish unleashed dog in the distance. I did not see the owner, which was a bit strange. I slowed down a bit and when I got closer I noticed that the dog didn’t wear a collar and looked scruffy. The closer I got the more I realized it actually didn’t look like a real dog and that it might be a coyote…

It seemed to look at me for a short time but then just ignored me. I walked as close to the lagoon as possible, trying not to startle or provoke the animal, and was happy when I passed it (the coyote was probably just 10 meters away from me at one point).

Unfortunately I did not bring my iPhone while running, so I could not take a picture – I probably would not have dared to take a photo anyway. But a quick search online turned up several other sightings of coyotes in Stanley Park over the past weeks, so I am now pretty sure it really was a coyote.

Coyote sightings in Stanley Park (March 2015)

Coyote sightings in and around Stanley Park over the past 2 weeks

When I got back to the office after my 55 minute run – normally I run the 12 km a few minutes slower, I guess the adrenaline rush because of the coyote helped – I went to Google and found out I made some serious mistakes.

First of all you should never approach a coyote if you see one, but slowly back off. In my own defense, I didn’t realize it was a coyote until I was quite close already.

But worse, I then passed the coyote walking as close to the water as possible. My thinking was that in case it would attack I would just jump in the cold water. Well, online I found that coyotes are excellent swimmers and actually follow their prey into the water!

Of course nothing happened because coyotes don’t generally attack humans, especially not when they are on their own (if you see a pack of coyotes it may be more dangerous). It was an interesting experience though and a reminder of how close we are to real nature in downtown Vancouver.

Update (March 19, 2015): I just received an email from the Stanley Park Ecology Society with some interesting information that I partially copy/paste her.

We’ve been keeping a close eye on two coyotes in the West End area as we know that for a time last summer a nearby resident was leaving food out for it at the foot of Nelson Street where it enters Stanley Park. It’s habituated behaviour subsided after the feeding situation was resolved, but the past couple of months the behaviour has been returning likely due to food scarcity and some success in getting food from people. This is most often the explanation for a change in behaviour like this.

 The mangy coyote had been traveling to meet a mate in Olympic village but they appear to have returned together to den down near Burnaby and Bute Street. Based on reports I have received, they have yet to show any aggression towards people or pets, but they are also very comfortable so we do not want their behavior escalating to the point where it approaches people. We are encouraging people to scare the coyotes if they linger in public spaces (mainly for the coyote’s safety) – we are also asking residents to keep an eye out and report any instances of people feeding it or if it shows any aggression. Feeding coyotes is illegal under the provincial wildlife act, and is a ticketable offense, so if we are able to gather enough details on anyone feeding we may be able to act on it.

 

The sudden rise of Meerkat

Meerkat - the future of live video streaming?

Two weeks ago nobody had heard of Meerkat and now suddenly everyone is talking about it (well, at least all the super-early adopters that I surround myself with). It’s quite amazing how quickly this video streaming app has gained traction, despite the fact that it’s actually nothing new. It reminds me of how Twitter’s exponential growth started at SXSW in 2007, and Foursquare at the same show in 2009 (coincidentally this week SXSW takes place again!). Why is Meerkat growing so fast?

For those of you who have not used Meerkat yet, it’s basicaly just a live video streaming app. There are many of these apps but none have really taken off like Meerkat has. Already back in 2008 I was using live streaming app Qik at the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. I still remember that because it only worked on Nokia phones and I just had my first iPhone, so the team came to my hotel a few hours before the Olympics started to give me a Nokia phone! Qik was too early, the mobile Internet speeds were too slow and the data still too expensive (or you could not connect to the Internet at all, like happened to me at the Olympics), so they did not take off. Eventually Skype bought them and that’s the last I heard of them.

There were many other live streaming apps, but I didn’t really use any of them until I found Meerkat a few days ago. Suddenly I saw the light, Meerkat did 3 things better than other players. The most important one is that it was built on top of Twitter. When you go to Meerkat and you start streaming, automatically all your Twitter followers will get a message that they can click on to immediately see what you are viewing. This leads to a viral effect, because people retweet the tweet.

The second is the user interface, it is so simple to use it. You can give your stream a title or you just click start, that’s all you need to do. Nothing to set up, nothing to link, it just works. And you can see who is watching your stream and these people can interact with you. Excellent!

The third one is the fact that the stream can only be viewed live, it is not recorded so you can’t watch it again. You can record your own streams and publish them if you want, but that’s not the aim of the app. This may actually lead to a lot more video being streamed, because if something awkward happens only the people who watch it live have seen it. Theoretically they could record their screens, but that’s unlikely, and Meerkat obviously does not allow them to record the stream. This is one reason why Snapchat took off, people seem to want this.

My first Meerkat stream had 10 users!

This morning I decided to try out Meerkat while driving from a meeting to the office. It was a super boring stream, just showing me driving while listening to some Latin music on Sirius XM. I did not say anything and I did not show much of the surroundings. The stream was only about 10 minutes, but during those 10 minutes I had 10 people live watching me drive! If I can generate 10 viewers during such a short time for such a boring video, while most people did not even hear of Meerkat yet, it means this thing has legs.

Suddenly I realized that this could be huge. At any time I can now stream live what I do and the whole world could theoretically watch me. And I have control of the stream, nobody else can post it somewhere for others to watch. I never thought that was important, but I probably would not have recorded myself driving if I knew the stream could easily end up on YouTube.

Is this sustainable? Nobody knows, sometimes apps have huge growth and then they suddenly fade away, see for example Chatroulette in early 2010. But to me Meerkat is more than just a fun app like Chatroulette. It may have found a video solution for the basic Internet need of sharing and showing off. It’s easy to copy and because it’s built on top of another service they depend on them, but if they manage to keep the current traction they have a good chance to become huge. Because of Twitter the service can grow virally, which is a very smart. For sure the timing seems right, mobile Internet is much faster and cheaper than a few years ago and Twitter has almost 300 million active users that can view and share Meerkat’s streams. In my opinion Meerkat may have nailed it.

Twitter just bought Periscope that seems to do something very similar to Meerkat, but if I were Twitter I would offer Meerkat $100-150 million and integrate it into Twitter. Meerkat needs Twitter to grow, so I think they might take the offer. Or they may want a multiple of that, live video is at a tipping point and there are clear business models for this, meaning that this could be worth a lot more than “just” $150 million. An acquisition might lead to huge new growth for Twitter itself, because so far you can only use Meerkat with Twitter. Interesting times ahead, looking forward to following (and using) this app!

Getting rich can be easy

Jet.com

If you want to become a multi-millionaire there is normally no real short cut. As an entrepreneur you have to be smart and willing to take big risks. You’ll have to work extremely hard for many years, with tons of stress, failing relationships, and sometimes even health problems as a result. For entrepreneurs the result is never guaranteed, so you could still end up with nothing. Is it worth it? Of course, because most people don’t do it for the money, but because they like the thrill and the feeling of winning. But if there would be an easier way to earn your first millions that would certainly be nice.

It turns out that a few weeks ago there was a huge opportunity to become a multi-millionaire in a short time without too much hard work. Business Insider, a site I actually used to write for a couple of years ago, posted an article about a stealth start-up that offered non-employees up to 100,000 shares in the company. Like most people I dismissed the article as a scam, but I probably should have read it a bit better.

The stealth start-up turned out to be Jet, a company that has not launched yet but already closed a second round of funding at a rumored $600 million valuation. The 100,000 shares are the same amount given to very early top management employees, meaning probably somewhere in the 2-5% range. That would put the value of the 100,000 shares at a staggering $12-30 million right now! To be fair, these are stock options and I don’t know the strike price, but assuming that they are based on the first round which was probably done at about $200 million post-money they would still be worth $8-20 million right now. And the company has not even started operations yet!

What did you have to do to get these shares? Very simple, you just had to get other people to sign up for the site. In January an IT guy at a funeral insurance company in a small town in Pennsylvania, Eric Martin, read about the contest and decided to check it out. He went online and saw that 10 contestants who would manage to sign up the most people would get 10,000 shares and that the number 1 would get 100,000 shares. The funeral insurance guy asked 3 of his family members to sign up and was suprised to see that while he had rank 232,582 when he signed up, he went to 13,767 with one sign up and to 5232 with just 3 sign-ups. So what do you do in such a situation?

Eric was smart and realized that if your rank goes up so quickly most people were not really competing for the big prize. He downloaded a statistics app, plugged in the numbers, and was surprised to find out that he should be in the top 10 with just 2000 sign-ups. If you know a bit about the Internet you probably realize that that’s actually not so hard to do if you have enough time or if you are willing to spend a few thousand dollars. Time was not on Eric’s side, however, because he only joined the contest a few weeks before the end and most people had been competing for over 6 weeks already, but he was willing to spend some money.

There are a lot of websites where people (often mothers sitting at home) go to earn some money by filling out forms or surveys. Eric knew of these sites and decided to spend a total of $3000 on Swagbucks.com to get people to sign up using his referral link. The result was that within a few days Eric had 2000 sign-ups and was in the top 10 already! At that moment he probably smelled that he may be able to win this contest if he would continue this strategy, especially after he received an email from Jet that had the total numbers of sign-ups of all the contestants in the top 10 in it. It turned out that the number 1 only had 4000 sign-ups so far!

So Eric decided to double down and started to spend serious money on his campaigns, making him the #1 with just 3 days to go before the competition ended. Of course the other competitors also did not sit still and bought ad campaigns as well, but by putting up a big Facebook campaign on the last day of the contest Eric managed to win. He spent a total of $18,000 on this, but that may turn out to be one of the best investments ever if Jet gets an exit.

I love this story, it shows that if you are smart and willing to put some money at risk you can have a chance to earn a life-changing amount of money. It’s a bit like angel investing, only in this case the pay-off is significantly higher than the average angel investment. I hope for Eric that Jet will make it!

Apple doesn’t know the time in Cancun

Westin Lagunamar, Cancun

Last weekend I was in Cancun for the wedding of one of the co-founders of Uvamo.com, a new P2P insurance company that I am involved in. It was my first time in Cancun and I had a good time there: the resorts are top class and the Caribbean sea beach is amazing (see for some of the pictures of the trip this set on my Flickr page). It’s not the real Mexico of course, but that’s probably an important reason why many tourists come to this place. They look for a safe and relatively cheap place for their beach holidays, and that’s what Cancun provides them. Most never seem to leave their hotels or resorts and when you travel to local markets in Cancun city you hardly see any tourists.

Time change Cancun

Cancun is so focused on tourism that the place decided to change its timezone during the time we were there (not just Cancun, but the whole state of Quintana Roo): in order to make it more convenient for tourists from the US east coast they changed from CST to EST, meaning that the clock was set one hour forward. This time change happened in the night from Saturday to Sunday, the night we had the wedding party.

The next morning I woke up, looked at my phone and then my watch and realized they were showing the same time. I had not changed my watch yet, however, so that should have shown a different time (my iPhone always changes time zones automatically). I checked with some friends and it turned out that all iPhones had the same problem, and that Apple’s timezone database did not include the Cancun time change. When I turned on my laptop it also still showed the old time in Cancun, meaning that it was actually an hour later than the time on my laptop. I manually set the time on all my devices to New York, so at least I would not make any mistakes.

JW Marriott, Cancun

This can cause a lot of problems though, because people rely on their mobile devices for the time. As long time readers of this blog may remember, the same happened to all iOS devices when Russia changed its time in 2011. Because of that I actually missed a flight from Moscow to Cyprus and because I did not have a visa for Russia I ended up in a hotel room jail for a night…

It surprises me that Apple doesn’t have access to a reliable time zone database that updates the times on its devices if countries decide to change time zones. Actually, I just realize that even Google gets it wrong when you Google the time in Cancun, it still thinks that the tourist place is based in the Central time zone. Is there is still no service or company that can provide reliable time information in 2015?

Coinbase $75 million round is a game changer

Bitcoin

Today Bitcoin exchange/wallet/service provider Coinbase announced that it closed a $75 million round. Among all the major funding announcement of other tech companies $75M may not seem like a lot of money, but it’s actually quite significant. Not only is this a record funding for a Bitcoin company (one that puts total funding for Coinbase at $106 million), but even more important are the investors that put their money into Coinbase. They are not just venture capital funds, but for the first time also top financial institutions.

Among the investors in this round are the New York Stock Exchange, Spanish banking giant BBVA, US military insurance company USAA and Japanese telecom operator DoCoMo. Also the former CEOs of Citi and Thomson Reuters both invested privately in this round. I think this is a game changer for Bitcoin that shows that the crypto currency is no longer dismissed in the board rooms of the largest financial institutions in the world. Now that the first banks are on board the rest will have to take Bitcoin more serious as well.

Why would the NYSE invest in a Bitcoin exchange? I believe they want to better understand how the blockchain works and how they could potentially integrate it into their own systems. Investing in Coinbase will give them access to doing this with the market leader. NASDAQ was for a long time seen as more innovative by tech start-ups that wanted to list (that changed a bit after the Facebook IPO), but with this investment NYSE shows that they are not as traditional as many people used to think.

Having a mega bank like BBVA invest is also significant, because this is the first time that such a bank invests in a Bitcoin company. Banks actually have a lot to lose if they invest in Bitcoin technology: they make their money mainly through fractional reserve banking (basically creating new money) which is not possible on the blockchain, because you can see exactly where each Bitcoin is. The blockchain is the ledger that banks provide for their customers and many of the bank functions are not needed anymore if Bitcoin would start to take over the financial industry. I am aware that you can of course circumvent this by creating money through off-blockchain transactions, and that might happen eventually, but I don’t think that’s why they would invest.

Probably BBVA’s thinking is that it’s better to be the first to embrace Bitcoin banking than to be a follower. Now they are able to buy a share in the leading Bitcoin company in the world for what may turn out to be a low valuation. Normally a $75M round implies an approximate $400M valuation of the company, but if Coinbase would really become the first Bitcoin bank that’s peanuts (BBVA itself already has a $50+ billion valuation, 125 times that of Coinbase).

Many might not know this, but BBVA is a very innovative bank. Last year they bought Simple, a debit card ‘bank’ that was on its way to disrupt the banking industry. I loved Simple and was a bit disappointed that they sold out, but at least BBVA seems to be a good parent company (Simple is still around, but I have no idea how they are doing).

Having former Wall Street CEOs on board as investors may not seem to be a big thing. However, even though these guys don’t have the power anymore that they used to have, but they are still extremely well connected and will spread the word about Bitcoin in the right circles. The fact that they see Coinbase as an investment opportunity means they understand that the financial world is going to change.

I don’t think this is the last big Bitcoin funding announcement that we’ll see, it may actually open the floodgates for even bigger investments in companies like Circle, Bitpay or Blockchain. Or we may see more M&A activity in this field, with $75 million in the bank you can do some interesting acquisitions. Good times in Bitcoinland!

Bitcoin Quo Vadis?

Bitcoin crash

The falling Bitcoin price gives many people the impression that Bitcoin is dying, but actually the opposite is true. Yes, the price has been on a downward spiral for a long time and right now there is massive panic selling going, but for me that does not mean that the currency or the blockchain have failed. After record VC investments last year I expect a lot of companies to release Bitcoin related products over the next couple of months, and I think that once the price reaches a bottom a lot more people will start using it, either directly or indirectly. I am now sitting on an airplane, so I finally have some quiet time to put my thoughts in a post.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room, what is happening with the price? I am regularly asked by people what is going on, some are just curious, others are annoyed that their investment is not doing well and some are panicking because they put too many savings into Bitcoin. To be honest, nobody really knows for sure what determines Bitcoin prices on a daily basis, but I have some thoughts on this. I am a member of several private Bitcoin message roups on WeChat and on Telegram and the price is a regular topic of debate there (but certainly not the only topic).

Everybody has different opinions, but the consensus seems to be that the huge volatility and price drop we are seeing right now was not expected among the people who spend most of their time in the Bitcoin world, but that it’s also not unusual for such a young and hyped currency, and that Bitcoin has seen this kind of drops before.

Most people were not part of Bitcoin yet in 2011, but in early June that year the price reached $32 only to fall to $10 a few days later. The bottom of the following bear market was at $2 in November 2011! So if history repeats itself the price could fall a lot more than it has done so far, and maybe that would be a good thing.

I still spend a lot of time on Bitcoin and am surprised that Bitcoin would fall so much. The main reason that the price has been on a downward trajectory is actually partly because of its success: more companies accept Bitcoin (among others Microsoft, Paypal and Dell now take the crypto currency) so more people are using Bitcoin that they already own to pay for goods. The problem is that merchants change these bitcoin for fiat currency right away, leading to an increased supply of coins. Only when they would hold on to them (e.g. when they could use BTC to pay their suppliers or pay their staff, or if they would believe that the value would go up) the markets will stabilize, and that is just not happening yet. And in a downward market there is less incentive to buy new Bitcoin for people who spend it, because people expect the price to be lower in the near future.

To make matters worse, the Bitcoin miners that used to hold on to most of their Bitcoin are now spending them to pay for electricity. The lower the Bitcoin price the more coins they need to sell to pay for their costs. At current prices it’s almost impossible to make money with mining and some companies even stopped their mining operations (see for example http://www.coindesk.com/cex-io-halts-cloud-mining-service-due-low-bitcoin-price/)

What we are seeing now is that people who bought coins in the uptrend are panicking. Many of these must have bought coins when prices were far higher than today and they may now worry that the value of Bitcoin may eventually go to zero, and so they cut their losses and sell. Smart? If you need the money it may be a wise decision, but if you bought the coins with money that you were prepared to lose I would hold on to it.

This is typical behavior of small investors and it normally indicates that the bottom is near. Soon bulls will come back into the market and start buying coins on the cheap. The question is of course when this will happen, and that is something nobody knows. I personally have not sold a Bitcoin over the past months and I am not planning to do so now either (many people are like me it seems, 70% of all Bitcoin have not moved in the past 6 months). But I am also not buying yet, mainly because I feel I have enough exposure to Bitcoin in my portfolio. If I would not have Bitcoin yet, however, I would probably put some orders in soon. Don’t take this as investment advice of course, and keep in mind that most people are a lot more risk averse than I am.

Bitcoin transactions per day

Actually, Bitcoin usage was at an all-time high a few days ago, with several days of over 100,000 Bitcoin transactions per day. Still tiny compared to other financial transactions, but there is a clear uptrend despite prices going down. And take into account that so far there are hardly any good use cases for Bitcoin for the average consumer.

I am probably one of the bigger Bitcoin users in the world right now (in terms of number of transactions), because I have a Bitcoin debit card. This card was issued by Blade Financial, a company that CrossPacific Capital invested in and where I am on the advisory board. I use the Bitcoin debit card on an almost daily basis. All over Vancouver I pay in Bitcoin, but none of the merchants know that of course, and they don’t have to know it either (they only see dollars, not BTC). It works great and I believe that once this card launches officially (this is just a test card) a lot more people may be exposed for the first time to Bitcoin.

VC investments in Bitcoin companies are still on the rise and I hear about new Bitcoin companies on an almost daily basis. Bitcoin is far from over and maybe the shake-out that will be caused by the low price is a good thing. Of course the low price will lead a lot of people to be even more skeptical about Bitcoin, but that can change quickly if the price stabilizes and will start increasing again.

Like I said earlier, nobody really knows what determines Bitcoin prices. I am just pointing to some trends that I observe in the market and that play a role in Bitcoin prices. One thing I did not mention yet in this post, but that I talked about in the past, is that institutional money can still not invest in Bitcoin because there are no ETFs on the market. I had expected that the first ETF would have been launched much earlier already, but the SEC is taking its time to approve these funds. The first one will likely be the Winklevoss fund and that could well lead to an unexpected rally when suddenly demand goes up much higher than supply.

I find the Bitcoin world fascinating and I am still very happy to be part of it. The low price leads to completely new dynamics in the market and because of that I keep on learning new things (sometimes the hard way!). Changes go much more slowly than I had expected, but I see that changes are taking place, both with blockchain applications and with Bitcoin as a currency. I look forward to the next year in Bitcoinland and being part of it as a participants, an investor and as an evangelist. The best is yet to come!

Christmas shopping in Vegas

Las Vegas boulevard

Grace and I just got back from a 3-day trip to Las Vegas. It’s an easy destination to get to from Vancouver, both Air Canada and Westjet have direct flights that bring you to Sin City in less than 3 hours.

Leaving rainy Vancouver for Las Vegas

Leaving dark & rainy Vancouver

The past weeks had been extremely busy so about 10 days ago we booked a flight and a hotel for the days before Christmas. Unfortunately work and private issues messed up our schedules a bit, so in the end we almost decided not to go. Because of that we both had to do phone calls and many emails while on vacation. Not the best way to relax, but we couldn’t change it and the only alternative would have been to stay home.

Las Vegas boulevard

Because I’m not a big fan of casino’s (I hate gambling and have trouble understanding how people can sit at slot machines or casino tables for hours) we booked one of the few hotels that does not have its own casino or slot machines, the Mandarin Oriental. I love the chain, it’s one of the hotels that I prefer to stay at in Asia as well. Their Las Vegas hotel was excellent with very friendly staff, a great room and good services. Almost comparable to 5-star hotels in Asia, which is something special in North America.

Las Vegas boulevard

We had decided to go to Las Vegas because we wanted to be away from the dark and rainy Vancouver winter days, and Vegas normally has dry and sunny weather (it’s in the middle of the desert). We were lucky because we had temperatures up to 23 Celcius while there (which is much warmer than usual), so I could walk around in a t-shirt during the day.

View from the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas

View from the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas

Grace’ main activity was to go shopping, while I was sitting in the hotel room behind my laptop, although I joined her a few times as well. A bit of a sacrifice, because I’m not a fan of physical shopping, I prefer to buy my things online.

What I like about Las Vegas is of course the nightlife, although we did not go out a lot. I was so tired from work that I slept 9-10 hours per night during the trip, just to recover. We did have some excellent dinners though. The first night we went to Picasso in the Bellagio, a French restaurant with a classical feel to it. I was glad I wore a jacket, otherwise I would have felt underdressed. We decided to go for the Menu Degustation, a multicourse tasting meal that featured the best creations of the chef. A great choice, but quite a large meal if you also take the wine pairings.

Steak at Jean Georges Las Vegas

Filet Mignon at Jean Georges Steakhouse in Las Vegas

We found out that Jean Georges also has an establishment in Las Vegas, in the Aria Resort. We had dinner there quite late on the second night, after we first had a foot massage in a Chinese spa on the outskirts of the city. Jean Georges did not disappoint, but it was not as high end as the one in Shanghai. Many of the other top restaurants that were on my shortlist (e.g. Hakkassan and Twist by Pierre Gagnaire) turned out to be closed during the week before Christmas, so that’s something to check out in advance before a future trip.

Michael Jackson ONE

On the last night we had dinner with friends from Vancouver that were coincidentally also in Las Vegas (the husband is actually a successful entrepreneur who lives mainly in Beijing, his wife and kids live full-time in Canada). Good for me to practice my Chinese a bit. We went to the Cirque du Soleil show Michael Jackson ONE with them in the Mandalay. There are always so many shows in Vegas that it’s hard to decide which one to go to, but after some research this seemed the best one. It was indeed a good choice, it was a combination of acrobatics, performance and dancing on the music of all famous Michael Jackson hits. Micheal himself also played a role with his 3D hologram dancing on stage, pretty cool!

View over Las Vegas from Mix Lounge (43rd floor of Delano)

View from Mix Lounge at Delano over Las Vegas’ skyline

We’re now back in Vancouver where I’ll work one more day on Wednesday before trying to take a few days off. It was a fun trip to end the year but next time I’ll try to plan it during a time when we are less busy.

The world’s best audio storytelling: Serial

Logo of the world's #1 podcast: Serial

Do you like to read detective books or watch detective movies? Do you enjoy a reality show? Then how about a combination of the 2 in the form of an audio podcast?

About 2 weeks ago I wrote a post about the Startup podcast that I liked a lot, and after that I decided to give the Serial podcast a try. I had heard about it a few weeks before already but did not think it would be interesting to listen to. Well, I was completely wrong. When more and more friends wrote about it on Facebook and Twitter, when even the mainstream press started to write about the podcast, and especially when the podcast hit #1 in iTunes I knew I was missing out on something.

It took me less than one episode of this weekly program to become addicted to the podcast. I ‘binge listened’ the first 7 shows in just 2 days (episodes are 30-50 min each). I lost sleep over it, listening to “just one more” episode at 2 AM and I drove home slowly from work so I could listen to a few minutes extra of the podcast. The experience reminded me of some of the top TV series that I binge watched, such as the early seasons of Lost and more recently Downton Abbey, where I could not wait to finish my work late at night so I could watch an episode.

My favorite podcast: Serial

Serial is the story about the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore high school senior. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was arrested a few weeks after the murder and was later convicted. He is still in prison. The thing is, he says he is innocent. Of course many criminals say they are innocent, but the longer you listen to Serial the more you realize that some strange things have happened in the investigation.

Did Adnan do it? I don’t know yet. One moment I am totally convinced that he is not innocent, but 10 minutes later I feel certain that he was framed and someone else was the murderer. I change my mind continously while listening to the podcast and when thinking about the facts afterward.

One reason why the show is so successful is because it slowly releases new evidence. The storytelling is amazing, with an important role for Adnan who is interviewed by phone in almost every episode. You hear him speak to you about the crime and what happened on the day of the murder (was she really murdered that day?) on your headphones or over he speakers of your car. That is so powerful, especially because his story is mixed with insightful comments by host Sarah Koenig.

Interestingly, nobody knows how the podcast will end. There will likely be another 3 episodes, but even Sarah says she does not know what her final verdict will be. The Internet is full of theories about Adnan and what might have happened on January 13, 1999. There are tens of thousands of comments on Reddit, people write blogs about it and there are even podcasts about this podcast. Many (or likely most) of the major newspapers have written about Serial and keep writing about it. I have never seen this before for a podcast. Serial is taking the medium to a completely different level.

One takeaway from Serial is how sloppy murder cases are investigated in the US. The police wants to find and convict someone and seems to just put aside evidence in favor of the accused. Adnan’s lawyer may not have had the best for her client in mind (unfortunately she died a few years ago, so she could not be interviewed) and it’s clear she made some major mistakes during the trial. Racial profiling is a big issue, my impression is that had Adnan been a white guy he may not have been convicted. And the scariest thing is that a former police detective who was paid by the program to look at the evidence, said that this case was actually investigated better than average…

If you want to give Serial a try you can listen here to the podcast on iTunes and here on Soundcloud (embedded below). Or just go the website of the Serial podcast where you can read about and stream all episodes. And if you like it as much as I do, make sure to send a donation to the production team so they can keep on doing the world’s best storytelling. I can’t wait until Thursday when the next episode comes out at 6 AM EST!

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