Monthly Archives: May 2009

book conversations and the imposition of the Kindle

Today I was reading a real live book at a café. Normally I only read books available on the kindle but I was reading the “Evolution of God” by Robert Wright (because the book itself does not come out officially until next week). Great book.

But the point is that two random people came up to me in the café and asked me about the book and we had a conversation about religion, good books, and more. Now I frequently get people asking me about the kindle … but that is a more common technology conversation. Here we had a real conversation about real ideas.

I did that the other day when I saw someone reading Atlas Shrugged on an airplane. But as we all move to reading books on our devices, we wont know what people in our proximity are reading anymore and conversations between strangers will go down. (maybe this is happening anyway as you’re much less likely to talk to someone with headphones in their ear).

stockpicking and wine experts — the Emporer still has few cloths

squarely in the Nassim Taleb camp (sometimes known as the Emperor-has-no-cloths camp) is an article forwarded to me from Fabrice Grinda and written by my friend Ramit Sethi about wine tasters and stock pickers.   excerpt:

I invited you to a blind taste test of a $12 wine versus a $1,200 wine, could
you tell the difference? I bet you $20 you couldn’t. In 2001, Frederic Brochet,
a researcher at the University of Bordeaux, ran a study that sent shock waves
through the wine industry. Determined to understand how wine drinkers decided
which wines they liked, he invited fifty-seven recognized experts to evaluate
two wines: one red, one white.

tasting the two wines, the experts described the red wine as intense, deep, and
spicy—words commonly used to describe red wines. The white was described in
equally standard terms: lively, fresh, and floral. But what none of these
experts picked up on was that the two wines were exactly the same wine. Even
more damning, the wines  were actually both white wine—the “red wine” had been
colored with food coloring.

about that for a second. Fifty-seven wine experts couldn’t even tell they were
drinking two identical wines.

making a decision on what job offer to take

If I was an engineer deciding what company to go to, I would optimize on the following five things (in no particular order):

– how smart my coworkers are

– how enjoyable my coworkers are

– the potential of the company

– the opportunity to work on really hard and interesting problems

– having the responsibility to execute on solving these problems

BusinessWeek article on value of friends (and Rapleaf)

0922covdx One of my favorite authors, Stephen Baker (he wrote Numerati), just penned the cover story for the June 1 edition of BusinessWeek:    Learning, and Profiting, from Online Friendships

This is a really interesting article on the value of friends and how marketers and others can effective use this information to better serve their consumers.   I like how Baker tackles this issue.   And here he mentions Rapleaf:

In an industry where the majority of ads go unclicked, even a small
boost can make a big difference. One San Francisco advertising company,
Rapleaf, carried out a friend-based campaign for a credit-card company
that wanted to sell bank products to existing customers. Tailoring
offers based on friends' responses helped lift the average click rate
from 0.9% to 2.7%. Although 97.3% of the people surfed past the ads,
the click rate still tripled.

Rapleaf, which has harvested data from blogs, online forums, and
social networks, says it follows the network behavior of 480 million
people. It furnishes friendship data to help customers fine-tune their
promotions. Its studies indicate borrowers are a better bet if their
friends have higher credit ratings. This might mean a home buyer with a
middling credit risk score of 550 should be treated as closer to 600 if
most of his or her friends are in that range, says Rapleaf CEO Auren

when to trust your gut

As readers of this blog may know, I think most people think their gut is better than it is. I were to guess, I’d say 30% of people have a good gut but 95% of people think they have a good gut.

But that is a big generalization.

In my observation, a gut feeling is better in the negative than in the affirmative. Translation: your gut is better at telling you what NOT to do than at telling you what to do.

If your gut tells you to hire someone … you might not want to heed it. But if your gut tells you to NOT hire someone, it is probably good advice.

Your gut might tell you to do, or not to do, lots of things from hiring to dating to doing a business deal to ordering something at a restaurant.

So I used to be controversial and tell people that I did not trust my gut … but I was wrong. My gut has been right more often than not when it tells me to stay away.

probability is really important for computer science

The average software engineer graduating Stanford University cannot solve a simple probability problem. That seems like there is an issue in education. Understanding probabilistic models is increasingly important. Algorithms for search results, matching, and more rely on probability.

When we interview engineers at Rapleaf, I have found that many top schools, such as Stanford, produce graduates that have little knowledge about statistics and probability. And while not knowing probability isn’t a disqualifier from getting an engineering job, it does show that the person has a lot to learn.

Does anyone out there know what percentage of computer science students take a course on probability??

your job description

From Eric Reis: That every person in the company has this job description: in any situation it is your responsibility, using your best judgment, to do what you think is in the best interests of the company. That’s it. Everything else is only marketing.

lessons from business failure

i tend to like to talk to people who failed.   some of them have analyzed why they failed and how they failed.   these are often good lessons for the future.  

a lot of people who succeeded were very lucky and usually don't draw the right conclusions from their success.  from my own past failures, my main take-away is that hiring (and, if
you have to, firing) is the most important thing a company can do. 

Fabrice Grinda / Jordan Cooper have a great post today about the Lessons from a Startup Failure where they dissect a recent failure.  i think this should be read by all current and aspiring entrepreneurs.

FW: Hi from spacemom

Readers of my twitter page ( will know that I recently wrote a much
re-tweeted tweet about my mom

mom today told me she wants to join "myface" and

that was from a comment she made on Mother's Day.

My mom heard about the comment and retaliated today by sending me the following email:


Sent: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 10:37 AM

Auren Hoffman

Subject: Hi from spacemom


Hi Auren,

Was great
seeing you on Mother's Day- what a pleasant surprise!!!

As to
"twitting" (I mean writing about me on Twitter….) Well, now that
everybody knows that there's also my-face & spacebook… maybe I should
also post a picture of you NAKED at age two, so that everybody can see the
Michelin – tire body you had…now that will make them really laugh!!!


Love you




So yes, to out myself, i was a really fat baby.   And from the email above, you can see where i might get my sense of humor.

My advice to job seekers

I’m getting a lot of emails from people that are looking for a job and want advice. Here is the simple advice.

– contact 50-100 companies per week. (if you cannot do that, you’re not the go-getter that companies want)

– before contacting each company — research each company thoroughly. Will take you 30-60 minutes per company.

– contact the exact person at the company that you want to talk to. if it is a small company, email the CEO. A large company, email the right person. email them directly, do not ask for an intro. And you should be smart enough to figure out someone’s email address

– tell that person in two sentences who you are. Tell the person in two sentences some great ideas you have for the company. Attach you resume.

– at least 2% (and probably 10% if you are really impressive) of the companies you contact will be interested in talking with you … even if they are not hiring.

Good luck!!

you can buy time

Never use the phrase “I just don’t have time to do that.”

We have time. We just choose not prioritize that item over another item. Everyone has TIME to read – but most people don’t prioritize reading over all the other things they need to do.

Most people think time is finite … and it is … but you can still increase your time by spending the resources (usually your hard earned money).

Buying time is the probably the most important thing you can do to leverage yourself to do more of what you want to do. Some people buy time so they can do more work, or more exercise, or more spending time with their kids, or more travel. Whatever you want to do more of … you can buy time.

It is easy to think of ways to but another 100 or so hours a year. You can get a driver when you are headed to meetings in Palo Alto. You can hire a part-time or full-time assistant. You can outsource your laundry. You can pay for parking rather than circulating the block.