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James Hong

Friday, September 28, 2007

A lesson on life...

This post is being written more for myself than for anyone who reads this blog.

Work has been pretty stressful lately as we had to make the unfortunate decision to undo going free. There are a bunch of other massive changes that have happened to compound the stress, but i won't go into that here.

What I do want to write about is the story of a trip i took 3 years ago with my friend Camilla. What I learned from that trip is something I don't ever want to forget, and at stressful times like these, it's good for me to remind myself of it.

Camilla and I both pride ourselves on being impromptu adventure travelers. Three years ago, Camilla said she was going to have 4 days off and wanted to know if i was up for a quick trip somewhere. We quickly honed in on Cuba as the destination of choice, bought our lonely planet guide books, and got housing arranged. All was good to go, the plan was for me to meet up with Camilla in Toronto and fly together to Cuba on Air Canada (you can't fly directly from the US to Cuba).

When we got to the Air Canada counter, they had bad news for us. The flight was oversold, and presumably because we had really cheap fares, we were being bumped. The conversation went like this:

"We have another flight available tomorrow that you can go on. In exchange for the inconvenience, we are prepared to give you a $300 Flight Voucher"

"Tomorrow!?!? Tomorrow is no good! We don't want a voucher, we want to get on this plane. It's not our fault that you oversold the flight, and why didn't you OFFER this voucher to other people instead of just forcing it on us???"

"Sir, it's $300! That's a lot of money!"

"I don't care if it's $30,000, we only have 4 days of vacation time, and you are going to make it 3! That's not worth any amount of money to us!"

"Well I'm sorry, but we can't get you on this plane."

"Ok, what other planes do you have going out to that region today?"

"The last one is a flight leaving for the Bahamas, but it leaves in 20 minutes, you won't make it"

"We'll make it, just do it!!"

In reality, the conversation was much more difficult than that. Getting the Air Canada people to do ANYTHING was a nightmare, and every step of the way they were rude and antagonistic. (I have a lot of canadian friends who are really cool so i'm not going to make blanket statements about an entire country.. but i will say that i got an eerie feeling the Toronto Airport does NOT like Asian people. When I returned later, I was forced to go through a higher level of immigration security, and i noticed that everyone else in there was Asian too. But that's another story)

Anyway, out of breath, we got to the plane just as they were closing the door.. we were off to the Bahamas! No plans. No arrangements. Not even a guidebook. Once we were on the plane, Camilla and I agreed that even though things were not going as planned, we would maintain a positive outlook and try to make lemons out of lemonade. We decided at that point that the theme of our trip would be "Go with the flow", having no idea how many more times on the trip we'd have to repeat that mantra.

Once on the plane, we borrowed someone else's guidebook and found that the city we were landing at, Nassau, was NOT where we wanted to be. We wanted to go somewhere with more culture, and less strip malls and resorts catering to tourists. So we decided that as soon as we got off the plane, we would try to fly to a different island.

We ran to the ticketing counters only to find that all the flights were full, and we were like #20 on the waiting list for an already TINY plane.

Unwavering in our resolve to maintain a positive attitude, we talked to the nice lady at the ticket counter and made friends with her. What should we do instead, we asked her? We told her about our situation of not having any plans because we were supposed to be in Cuba but got screwed by Air Canada. We made a lot of small talk with her.

After at least an hour of just standing around, not quite sure what we would do, the ticket counter lady called us over and whispered, "hey, you know what, i am going to get you on this plane. I think some people are not showing up, and i am going to get you there!" This was amazing, this complete stranger basically decided to scrap the waiting list entirely and just give the seats to us. "Go with the flow!" Everything was working out.

So we end up on a flight that landed roughly around dusk. When we landed we started calling every hotel on the island.. everyone was sold out, as it was a holiday weekend. crap.

finally we found one that said they had room. we rushed over in a cab and tried to check in.

"I am sorry, but we do not have any rooms."

"What!??! we just called though!!"

"I do not know.. who did you talk to? they were mistaken because we don't have any rooms available.. but if you would like to use our phone to call other hotels, you are welcome to do so."

It wasn't a huge island, and we quickly came to the conclusion after 15 minutes of calling that we were screwed. By this time, it was like 9pm. We were tired, a bit exasperated from all the changes, but again... we kept telling ourselves that this was part of the adventure. Maybe it might be fun to camp out on the beach or something?

All the roadblocks we'd been hitting all day were becoming almost comical to us at this point, like we were the protagonists of a bad movie where everything goes wrong. The fact that we were somehow stranded on some random island we'd never heard of instead of drinking mojitos at a specific hotel in Havana was a bit surreal.

Then the hotel manager came back.

"It appears that some people did not make their flight here, so we DO have a room available."

Amazing. By good fortune, we had happened to go to the same hotel that was booked by the people that missed the plane, which opened their seats up for us. We were essentially living out their vacation.

In the end, there were a few other things that happened over the trip that did not go as planned, and just like magic, things always ended up working out really well. If we hadn't been so determined to keep our spirits high, I'm pretty certain that trip could have become one of my worst vacations ever.. but instead, it became one of the best ever.

So just remember.. when life is not going as you planned, don't stress out too much over the unexpected. No matter what happens make a conscious decision to go with the flow and have fun, because life may not always go as planned... but that is precisely what makes it such a great adventure.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

On going (NOT) Free...

I've been meaning to write a blog post about HOTorNOT's recent action to undo going Free, and i think this blog comment i just got says a lot about why:

"I like what you have set out for hot or not. I am also wanting to thank you and Jim for making it. I meet my soul-mate on hot or not and we want to get married in 2 years and were wanting to know if you two would like to attend?! THank you soo much. sincerely" -Jacqueline Nelson

Our hope was that by going free, we would get more letters like this because more people would be meeting new friends on our site. Instead, we got hit hard by scammers, and we instead started getting more complaints about how the site wasn't working as well anymore.

We tried to fight the scammers, but it's hard to use automation to model and fight scammers when they are not using bots, but have actual people working all day. Its amazing, but i guess in countries where wages are low, it is worth their time to spend all day looking for targets.

The level of sophistication of some of these outfits is astounding. It is not a few amateurs here and there doing it as individuals, they are organized outfits that operate like call centers. We found that there were people whose job it is specifically to get IM addresses out of people, at which point the target is passed along (like a call center escalation) to someone who speaks better english to work on chatting the person up and eventually extracting money. In a nutshell, they train specialists on each step of the scam! Because these are actual human beings doing it, they can pretty much get around automated detection systems, and they usually do the dirty work once they are off our system and on IM (where we can't model them anymore).

We know that fakes are becoming a bigger and bigger problem at other sites as well, and for the time being we would rather go back to a model that works (and reduces economic incentive for the scammers) than be a free but decreasingly useful service. I'm told this is the reason eBay was successful charging (to this day) listing fees... it basically kept the crap out, which made the marketplace work. Apparently the same thing happens in dating.

Every dating site i know and talk to tells me they are dealing with the same issue. Markus at plentyoffish seems to be doing a good job of fighting it, but tells me it gets harder and harder every month to maintain. I agree with him that combating scammers is a competitive advantage in the dating game.

So that is why we are going back to a paid model for the time being. Despite our explanations, only time will tell if people are not super pissed at us for giving them something, then having to take it back. Hopefully they will understand we did it for the right reasons. Our goal was not to make more money, but to make HOTorNOT bigger and hence more useful as a dating service (if were were profit minded, we would have never gone free at all)

Humorously, we've gotten supportive emails from women saying they wouldn't want to date a guy too cheap to spend $6 anyway, lol

In the meantime, I guess we'll have to figure out a different way to reinvent HOTorNOT!

If I could go back in time and change my major..

One of my friends from business school is a fellow named oren tversky. Oren is low key and modest to the extreme, and he is also in my estimation one of the most intelligent people i know. he thinks about (and worries about) things that most people don't.. which i'm not sure is a blessing or curse, to be honest.

I later found out that Oren's dad was a famous professor named Amos Tversky, who pioneered a lot of research in the decision sciences and would have won the nobel prize had he not unforunately passed away. His partner in crime on the groundbreaking research, Daniel Kahneman (who did receive the nobel prize for their work), spoke at an EDGE conference recently, and they have some transcripts of parts of his talk here. I enjoy reading this stuff so much, i had to link it.

If I could go back in time and change my major, I would absolutely join their field. Understanding their research is probably one of the best ways I can think of becoming a better innovator of products. I also recommend a book called Influence. and The Game (interestingly, pick up artists use a lot of technique based on academic theory.. i recall the author of the game even cites the influence book a couple of times.)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Cute video listing a bunch of funny things on the web

Did I just miss it, or did they forget to include Hamster Dance?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Go Zero G!!!

Last year, my close friend S invited me and a bunch of other friends to join him on Zero G, an airplane that simulates the weightless of space by following a parabolic flight path. (15 times in a row, it nosedives for 10,000 feet then pulls back up just as fast) It was easily one of the best experiences of my life. This past weekend I was lucky to go a second time for my buddy G's bday party.

For an experience that lasts about 15 minutes the price is steep (but makes sense it would be expensive considering it is basically you and 30 other people renting out a specially modified Boeing 727 for 2 hours). That being said, it is definitely worth the price to experience zero-g some point in your lifetime. It is UNREAL.

In other words, DO IT!!!!!!! It is awesome!!!!!!

The Zero G people are smart, apparently they are now going to be flying the plane mostly out of Las Vegas.. sounds like every bachelor party now has something cool to add to the agenda! VC/Private Equity shops should probably start doing this as a team bonding thing too.

You can learn more about it on the zero-g website here.