Subscribe to my blog

James Hong

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Return of FREE!

Messaging other users on HOTorNOT is now FREE! (but sorry, you still have to double match them first! :) )

Six years ago, Jim and I decided we had to start charging for the "Meet Me" section of HOTorNOT. Despite charging, the site became the largest paid dating site that focuses on the 25 and under demographic that we know of...Even though the point of the site is NOT to facilitate serious relationships specifically (we want to enable meetings of ANY kind), we estimate about 5-10 marriages per day are generated through the site!

We started charging because we needed to make ends meet, but we did so reluctantly. The site converts over 15% of free Meet Me members into paid members, a conversion rate we are told is nothing short of phenomenal. But to us, we don't think 15% is great. We just see the 85% who wanted to meet people, but did not.. simply because they could not pay.

Well, we say No more!! Although common belief in the early 2000's was that sites HAD to charge (for instance, wrote an article talking about how Free would never work), times have since changed. A REAL advertising model has come back (backed by actual commerce, not by VC money), and the day Jim and I talked about 6 years ago, the day when we might actually be able to make the site free again, has arrived.

It is now free for users on HOTorNOT to send messages to each other without paying. One interesting side effect of this is that it allows us to enable users to post more user generated content without threatening our business model. We think that is going to be a very, very big deal.

Doing this is financially very risky. HOTorNOT does well over $5MM a year in subscription revenue right now, and we are throwing that away. From here on out, we are commited to developing advertising and our virtual goods engine. At present, those make roughly enough for us to break even, but we think we can improve that situation over time... more importantly, HOTorNOT will hopefully begin to faciliate relationships at an order of magnitude larger scale.

Wish us luck, and if you know someone looking for hotties to meet, please let them know they can once again do it on HOTorNOT... for FREE!

PS. It's interesting to note that even Evan's "The End of Free" blog, where he tracked sites that started charging for stuff, appears to be offline now.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

A question to ponder: should big companies even try to innovate internally?

I just read an article on interviewing Caterina, talking about her quest to create an innovation incubator within Yahoo.

Now let me first say that I know Caterina and Stewart, not as well as I'd like to, but what I do know is that they are both awesome people. The job Caterina has been tasked with is an incredibly hard one. For some reason or another, the larger a company gets, the harder it tends to be for innovation to happen there.

Certainly, I have no doubt that there are talented people at Yahoo who, given the right environment, have the ability to be extremely innovative. Despite Yahoo's reputation, I've met a lot of people there like Bradley Horowitz that I have been impressed by, people that do seem to "get it". However, my question is this: Should a company the size of Yahoo even be trying to innovate internally, or would it be better off taking the strategy of aggressively acquiring innovative companies early?

My thinking is this... most ideas fail. Rather than investing time and money into 100 failing ideas just to find 10 that work, isn't it better for Yahoo to let entrepreneurs start 10,000 startups, and just buy the 10 that work? Sure they will be more expensive than if they built them in house, but they'd also save money from not building the 9,990 failed ideas. Also, my guess is that an employee of a large company is not as likely to go through the same levels of pain and hard work that an entrepreneur would be. Most people just don't want to work as hard for someone else, and who can blame them?

Even though Yahoo has grown into the entity it is today by virtue of building innovative products, perhaps its future growth path should be driven by its ability to SPOT innovation, not create it. I'm not quite sure what my answer to this question is, it was just a passing thought and I'd need to think some more about it. Would be interested to hear what other's think.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I never thought I'd see the day I could watch C-Span and be interested

I was flipping channels the other day and landed on C-span, where they were showing some heated testimonial from some subcommittee talking about global warming. The person on the committee was trying to somewhat undermine the credibility of the scientist who was testifying, trying to essentially label him as a wacky liberal democrat.. so it was awesome when they guy said something to the effect of "I'm actually not a democrat, in fact I usually vote republican."

As we see ice caps melting and every year being hotter than all previous years on record, the issue of global warming is starting to sink in on both sides of the political spectrum. Lots of people argue that "hey, this is part of the natural cycle of the earth, it happens and it's natural."

My position is that I don't really care if it's natural or unnatural. Extinction happens too.. just ask the dinosaurs. The world is getting hotter, and it's in my interest to try and make it not get hotter because it will affect my future quality of life, whether we are the cause or not.

The first thing we have to do is get rid of (or at least apply pressure to) politicians who put their own objectives (and financial supporters) above the real issues, and care more about deflecting blame than fixing the problem. I was annoyed but not surprised to read this quote:

"I said, 'John, I can't do that'. He said, 'Come on. Do me a favor. I want to help you here.'"

-- Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), to House Republican Leader John Boehner, who had said Gilchrest could only be appointed to the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming if he would say that humans are not causing climate change (in addition to Gilchrest, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a research scientist from Maryland, and Rep. Vern Ehlers, the first research physicist to serve in Congress, were not selected)

So yea... let's do something about it.

I also got an email from Laurie David today, where I learned that Kleenex is being unresponsible as well. I plan to vote on that with my consumer spending dollars, and in case kleenex marketers happen to be reading this: yes I AM willing to spend more to help the environment.

Kimberly-Clark, parent company to Kleenex and Scott brands, refuses to stop using virgin paper fiber from the endangered North American Boreal forests, which represent one quarter of the world's remaining intact ancient forests, vital to fighting global warming. More than 700 businesses have pledged not to use Kimberly-Clark products, and we encourage you to do the same.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

TED Delivers, as always.

Me, Darryl Hannah (doing the asian pose), Chafic, and Max

Me, Gwen, Jeff, and Max having a blast at TED 2007

Just got back yesterday from another year of the TED conference, and man was it awesome.

I'm not sure if this year was better for me because I was substantially more sober than in years past, or because the content level has risen.. I suspect based on feedback from others that it was a little bit of both!

A lot of people have asked me why I get so excited about TED, and why I think it is better than other conferences that are out there. I try not to go to too many conferences (the only other one i was a regular at until it ended last year was PC Forum), so I can't really compare it to others, but I can say why TED matters to me.

It's not a conference, it's an experience.

Besides sounding cliche, what does that mean?

TED is awesome because the content is from all sorts of fields. It's not an industry conference where everyone is talking about the same thing. You have amazing artists. You have amazing scientists. You have amazing businesspeople. All advancing art and knowledge, and all giving us snippets of their lives and their work, explaining their motivations and telling their stories. Not only do you get to learn about stuff that you know absolutely nothing about from people at the top of their fields, you get to learn about the people themselves.

One of the highlights for me of this year's TED was hearing JJ Abrams, creator of the tv shows Alias and Lost, talk about what motivates him to create good mysteries.. It involved an unopened box labeled "Tannen's mystery box" that his grandfather bought him for $15 when he was a kid, which he never opened and to this day still refuses to open. we learned why this box was important to him, and in describing the art of storytelling, "Mystery is more important than knowledge," he said. So true.

I also enjoyed hearing Jeff Skoll talk about his motivations and philosophies. I've known Jeff socially for a while, but i'd never actually talked to him or seen him talk about his work with Participant Productions. My respect for him, which was already high, just went up a notch or two.

Another reason I like TED is because it's a place where people are all at the tops of their fields, yet because everyone is awesome at something, people can let their guard down and are comfortable to talk with others. People are not as nervous about being pinned down into an unwanted conversation by some annoying weirdo. I had a conversation with meg ryan for at least 5 minutes before i saw her name badge and realized who i was talking to, and even after i realized, it didn't really matter. What mattered was our conversation. I imagine in LA, JJ Abrams gets swarmed by people wanting to talk to him about his work, so how awesome was it for my buddy Philip Kaplan to have JJ come up to him and tell him excitedly how awesome it was to meet him and how he was the biggest Fucked Company fan ever! Or for me to talk to Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons, and come to the realization that he had not only heard of HOTorNOT but that he actually used the site and knew it well.

I came up with this saying, which is extremely cheesy and sounds like marketing material, but even so I still think it is to some degree true: Ted is a gathering where heroes meet their heroes.

Most of all, what I get out of TED is inspiration. The speakers selected are always top notch innovators, many of whom take huge risks. For instance take Bill Stone, who wants to explore the moon and says the ideal party would only take enough fuel to get there and would have to find fuel there to ever return (and then volunteered to lead that mission!)... or Raul Midon, an AMAZING musician (seriously, check him out) who had a quote that stuck in my head throughout the conference and was still in my head all day today.. he said: "Feel the fear, but do it anyway."

This is an amazing quote to me. So often I've let fear paralyze me because I confused it as an indicator to quit my efforts rather than something to simply recognize and accept as you boldly move forward.

More than anything, what I get out of TED is the realization that what I work on is small, and that there are so many interesting people out there working on more important problems than I am.. and that should I ever fail with my efforts on rebuilding HOTorNOT (which quite honestly scares the hell out of me, but I will do it anyway), there are a myriad of other interesting projects for me to spend my time working on.

I'm not joking about this.. if i ever decide to change what i am working on, i may ask myself the question, "would this ever make a decent ted talk" and use that as a filter.. because it seems to me that anything that ever makes the stage is meaningful to people and meaningful to the world.

Anyhow, sorry for this post being so unorganized and incoherent. The TED conference is just that mindboggling, and it leaves me with 10 million things to say and little energy left to express it clearly. Next year, I think I will blog through each session so i can have a better diary of my thoughts about each one.

Until then, I am counting the days to TED 2008.

Be sure to check out the TEDtalks website, where they frequently put out videos of the sessions. They will inspire you.

Monday, March 05, 2007


I had the great fortune of being invited by my good friend S to go to Larry Page's X-Prize fundraiser event on Saturday.

What they are doing is INCREDIBLE. Following on the footsteps of their first success, the Ansari X-prize to develop competition to promote space travel development, they are now launching a ton of xprizes in all sorts of fields..starting with one in the automotive and genomic sectors.

Unlike most silicon valley events, there were actually a bunch of "real" celebrities there including Richard Branson and Robin Williams.. and even someone from Metallica?!?!

It was a good night, they raised over $2MM from dinner seats and auctioning off stuff like this car, made by some company called Fisker, for $330k, if i recall correctly!! I've never been to a charity auction where stuff went for so much, it's great to see people opening up their wallets at such high amounts for a good cause.

The Xprize concept is a great one, and I am sure it will lead to some pretty major advances in technology in the future that will change the world and make things better for all people. I'm super excited that I got to go to this event, it was easily the most "mainstream cool" event i've ever been to in the Valley. (that's not saying much though ;) )

Friday, March 02, 2007

People have too much time on their hands...

... they should consider spend it doing cool stuff like this ;)

and this: (funny thing, Jim and I had dinner with my friend Max and 2 VCs from a top tier fund 4 years ago, and we spent at least 1/4 of the conversation talking about this exact idea. Who knew someone would actually build it?!!) I'm not ashamed to say that I want them, only I don't think they would fit my Prius.

UPDATE: My friend Jonathan Lassof sent me a link to Spoke POV, an opensource (much cheaper) implementation.. for bikes.