Category Archives: Podcasts

Did COVID Come from a Lab? A Doctor’s Perspective

In southern China near the border with Laos, there is a mine. To this day, it is heavily guarded by the Chinese government. Any journalist who tries to visit is detained.

Inside the mine: the possible origin of the COVID pandemic.

Scientists identified the animal that first transmitted the original SARS virus (SARS-CoV-1) within 6 months. The culprit was the civet cat. But no animal intermediary for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, has ever been found. Meanwhile, we know that bat guano samples from that mine were taken to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and studied. Is that lab the real source of the pandemic?

In an excellent podcast by the eminent Doctor Peter Attia, he and journalist Katherine Eban dig into the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from the Wuhan lab. There are many precedents for this: SARS-Cov-1 has escaped from labs several times. And the Wuhan Institute was not very secure: some of its labs had biosafety level (BSL)-2 precautions. This is about the same level of security as an American dentist’s office.

There is no longer any scientific consensus on whether the virus came from an animal or a lab. But we may never know for sure where SARS-CoV-2 came from, since China has stonewalled international researchers and the Wuhan Institute’s database of virus info just happened to be taken offline in September 2019, shortly before the pandemic began to rage.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence.

More on China:

IS CHINA USING ITS COVID VACCINES TO CONTROL OTHER COUNTRIES?

CHINA IS CRUSHING ONE OF ITS MOST INNOVATIVE COMPANIES

HOW CHINA’S TECH INDUSTRY DIES

Note: The doctor I’m referring to is Dr. Attia. I have no scientific or medical background.

Photo: “File:Wuhan Institute of Virology main entrance.jpg” by Ureem2805 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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Urban Combat: Lessons from Chechnya

At its widest point, Russia spans nearly 5,000 miles from the Vistula Spit in the west to the Kuril Islands in the east. In 1994, its military numbered 1.4 million. It had a massive air force and heavily armed infantry, along with the latest technologies like guided missiles.

Chechnya is a small, impoverished region about the size of Connecticut. It has been inhabited for over 40,000 years and been a part of many empires, from Persian to Russian to Soviet.

In 1991, Chechnya declared independence from Russia. Reports of mistreatment of the Russian minority inflamed tensions with Russia, and Russia began to bomb the tiny breakaway republic on December 1st, 1994. (This same casus belli was used by Putin against Ukraine.)

For 12 years over two separate wars, this tiny country held off the Russian colossus. How did they do it? As former Navy SEAL Commander Jocko Willink details in his excellent podcast, superior leadership and infantry tactics outweighed Russia’s seeming advantages.

Russian soldiers encountered unexpectedly heavy resistance as the fighting moved to Grozny, the capital. The Russian soldiers had major air power behind them, while the Chechen air force had been quickly destroyed at the beginning of the war.

But the Chechens neutralized Russia’s key advantage with a simple tactic: move closer. The air force couldn’t bomb the Chechens without bombing their own comrades as well. They bombed away anyhow, and many Russian soldiers died of friendly fire.

Their air superiority neutralized, the Russian military’s shortcomings in more basic areas became evident. They didn’t have ladders to get into buildings, an essential urban combat tool. Their leaders micromanaged and worked at cross purposes.

Chechens terrorized the Russians whenever they could. They put the heads of Russian soldiers on pikes for the survivors to see. Booby traps were everywhere (an echo of America’s experience in Vietnam and Iraq). Many Russian soldiers began to suffer mentally, and either became unable to fight or indiscriminate in their aggression, attacking civilians and driving the population to the insurgents.

Maybe it all started when the Russian soldiers stopped shaving. This was the first breakdown in discipline. It was small, but noticeable. Later, soldiers stopped following rules about boiling drinking water, leading to massive outbreaks of illness.

Eventually, Russian food supplies fell short. These tired soldiers, many of them teenagers, faced illness and hunger. The attacks from the Chechen rebels, many seasoned veterans of the USSR’s war against Afghanistan, were relentless.

Facing a grim situation in Chechnya and declining support for the war at home, Russia declared a ceasefire in 1996 and soon signed a peace treaty. Chechnya would ultimately fall after a second, and much longer, war. But this band of ill equipped rebels held off Russia for years, an incredible feat.

What did the Russian military learn from this, and what are the lessons for us? Here are a few key points:

  • Don’t count on airpower. Determined infantry wins wars.
  • Maintain discipline, even in small things.
  • Urban warfare is manpower intensive with high attrition. Be sure to have fresh troops available and an extensive mental health staff to deal with the psychological stresses of urban combat.
  • Get the civilian population on your side. Don’t hurt them. Respect their leaders and give your orders through them.

This is a fascinating history lesson that can inform US policy and even our daily lives. Where are we letting our own discipline slip?

Dig into these posts for more on history and the military:

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Photo: “Chechnya/Чече́нская” by LOreBoNoSi is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Unstoppable Wave Behind Stocks

In the last year, a torrent of money has flooded into Exchange Traded Funds (ETF’s) that track the stock market:

Over the last 12 months, about $650 billion has flowed into stock and bond ETF’s, a flow that’s unusually large versus history and may help explain why markets have been so strong.

Despite the attention to volatile stocks like GameStop, a far bigger firehose of cash is aimed at ETF’s. When investors buy ETF’s, fund managers have to buy the stocks in the index. If I buy an S&P 500 index fund from Vanguard, for example, Vanguard has to buy the 500 stocks in the index in proportion to how much of the index each comprises. This pushes up the stock market.

A big force behind this buying may be increasing personal income, partly due to COVID-related stimulus. With consumer balance sheets looking flush with cash, I expect this trend to support markets for the forseeable future.

Dig into these posts for more on markets:

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Photo: “Huge wave” by bluesbby is licensed under CC BY 2.0

From Anticommunist to Navy SEAL: “I Owe Everything to America”

“I owe everything to America.”

That’s Thomas ‘Drago’ Dzieran, who left Communist Poland in the 1980’s for freedom in America and became a Navy SEAL. His path to the teams is singular.

Drago began to oppose Communism at an early age. He refused to learn Russian in school and was promptly hauled to the principal’s office. The principal explained to him that if he refused again, he could be taken from his family and sent to a foster home.

This did not stop Drago from questioning the Communist system. He listened secretly listened to the BBC on the radio, a highly illegal act. There he learned that the Communist government was killing people in Poland. He covered himself in blankets to dampen the sound as he listened, but his mother scolded him to use even more blankets and pillows lest a neighbor hear. If anyone heard, she could go to prison.

But Drago didn’t need a radio broadcast to tell him things in Poland weren’t right:

“I was always cold in Poland because we didn’t have good clothes.”

Privation was the norm, and he often went to school hungry. He took to assaulting the children of high party members, who were well fed. If you want to eat tomorrow, bring two sandwiches, he told them.

As a young man, Drago found himself in a Polish prison for printing anti-Communist leaflets. When released, he emigrated to the United States, and found himself resettled in Memphis, Tennessee by a refugee program.

The luxury of America amazed him. He had never seen air conditioning before, and found himself particularly mesmerized by American grocery stores. The cereal aisle had so many choices, and the packages were so attractive, he decided to try one. And another, and another. Soon, his cart was full of 50 boxes of cereal! But he couldn’t stop his curiosity:

“I didn’t even know what a cereal was.”

After a stint as an auto mechanic, Drago was looking for a way to serve his adopted home. He settled on being a Navy SEAL, but at 32, he was at least 4-5 years beyond the typical age limit. No matter. He powered through the qualification tests and insisted on being allowed into BUD/S. Drago later distinguished himself as a SEAL during the Iraq war.

Drago’s commitment to freedom continues today, as the founder of a censorship-free social network called Connectzing.

What really struck me in this interview was Drago’s perseverance, along with the stark differences between the United States and where he comes from. On living conditions in Poland under Communism:

“I would trade my life in Poland for prison here.”

After all, they get food and medical attention! That’s better than he got much of his life.

Drago says he owes everything to America, and that’s equally true for those of us who are native born. Let’s seize the opportunity, remembering these words:

“This is America. You can be whatever you’re able to be.”

For more on leadership and service, check out these posts:

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Photo: “Navy SEAL Graduation” by uscgpress is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This Is How Vlad Tenev Built Robinhood

“You can break down Robinhood into a series of small steps, the first one being start Robinhood, and every subsequent one being some variant of don’t stop and keep going, right, and you end up where we are today. “

In his mid-20’s, Vladimir Tenev lived in New York City. His apartment was tiny and spare. All his time went into his high frequency trading startup. Then mom came to visit.

When she saw his shabby surroundings, she began to cry. She told him she had a friend who worked at Macy’s. Maybe, she could get him a job there.

It must’ve taken great fortitude for Tenev to push ahead with his own business, despite few signs of success and the anguish it caused his family. But push ahead he did. Today, the company he built, Robinhood, has over 13 million users and plans to IPO soon at a valuation of around $40 billion. Tenev’s net worth exceeds $1 billion.

Tenev came to the United States as a child from Bulgaria and attended the elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which US News ranks the best public high school in the entire country. What would’ve become of Tenev if he had stayed in Bulgaria? He might have had a very normal life. But giving this smart kid a superb education and access to a great entrepreneurial ecosystem turned him into a billionaire executive.

Tenev didn’t stop learning when he finished school. He taught himself to write iOS apps by watching free Stanford courses online while commuting on the Caltrain. It really shows you what a person can accomplish learning on one’s own for nothing now that knowledge is much more freely available.

Robinhood faced numerous obstacles along the way, but Tenev and co-founder Baiju Bhatt blasted through them. It took two full years of constant work to build their product. Venture capitalists were highly skeptical of their business. How could they make money without charging commissions? How could they beat giant competitors like Etrade and Charles Schwab? And could a couple of math guys make a beautiful consumer product?

But they kept pitching, and ultimately raised $250,000 from Google Ventures. Tenev couldn’t even get a job interview at Google 4 years prior. What if he had let that discourage him from ever approaching Google for an investment?

Just days before a meeting to approve a critical license Robinhood needed to operate, they were still $500,000 short of the required capital. Only the birth of an executive’s baby saved them by providing an excuse to postpone. By the new date, Tenev had raised the money.

A key lesson for startups: Robinhood didn’t worry about monetization until it achieved a large user base. It was confident that, like Instagram, winning enough users would give them all the opportunities for revenue they’d need. And they couldn’t put the cart before the horse.

What sticks out to me most about the Robinhood story is Tenev’s perseverance. At first, his business looked laughable. Later, it gained a bit of traction but faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles in fundraising.

But he just keep pushing, day after day. Now, 11 years after he started his first company, he sits at the helm of one of the hottest startups in the world.

For more on startups, check out these posts:

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Photo: “File:TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2016 – Day 2 (26902081436) (2).jpg” by TechCrunch is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Jocko on Leadership: “Ownership Is the Most Valuable Compensation”

What motivates subordinates? A fat paycheck, stock options, maybe a free trip to Hawaii?

Perhaps. But on Monday’s Debrief podcast, Navy SEAL Commander and author Jocko Willink named another, more powerful inducement:

“Ownership is the most powerful compensation you can give a human being.”

People want control over their lives, including at work. So, rather than have subordinates execute your plan, Jocko favors giving them a goal and letting them figure out how they’ll get there on their own.

When a person gets a chance to come up with a plan themselves, they’ll find increasingly efficient ways to do it. After all, most of us like to think we’re smarter than the boss and should really be running things. This is our chance to prove it, and we’re unlikely to blow that chance.

What’s more, whether in the military or civilian world, subordinates are a lot more familiar with the nitty gritty of a certain job than the boss is. Leaving the details of a plan to them, with the boss just setting overall goals and then approving the plan to reach them, gives them more latitude to bring that experience to bear.

Finally, running things is fun! When it’s your little idea, you’re a lot more invested in it. So give your subordinates a chance to come up with plans themselves, rather than just waiting for instructions. You may be surprised how well they do.

For more on business and leadership, check out these posts:

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“Everybody Thought I Was Crazy”: How Brian Armstrong Built Coinbase

“Everybody thought I was crazy.”

That’s Brian Armstrong, CEO of Coinbase. When he started the company in 2012, it was a small and quirky startup. Bitcoin had only been in use for three years and remained relatively obscure.

But now, it’s safe to say not many people think Armstrong is crazy. His company just went public yesterday and its valuation currently sits at $66 billion. Coinbase holds $200 billion in cryptocurrencies, around 11% of all crypto in existence. So how did Armstrong go from lunatic to visionary?

Armstrong had to build interest in his new product. He settled on a cost effective and attention getting marketing tool: send people free money. But not just any money; bitcoin, of course! He sent tiny amounts of the cryptocurrency to countless people. One of them was angel investor Garry Tan, who became one of Coinbase’s first backers. His $300,000 bet turned into $2.4 billion yesterday.

In an interview with Jason Calacanis on This Week in Startups, Armstrong emphasized the importance of entrepreneurs being scrappy and doing whatever it takes to get the job done. His original approach to investors, repeated countless times, paid off in a major way and Coinbase was accepted to Y Combinator, the most prestigious startup accelerator in Silicon Valley. Armstrong’s resourcefulness and persistence definitely inspire me.

To build a major business, Armstrong had to make sure not to run afoul of regulators. Unlike, for example, a social media app, finance is heavily regulated. Armstrong ditched the anonymity most people expect from cryptocurrencies, abiding by “know your customer laws.” In turn, he offered users a much more secure way to store their cryptocurrencies:

The selling proposition here is security—security conspicuously lacking at some of the exchanges with which Coinbase has competed. The Mt. Gox exchange in Japan went bust in 2014 after hackers spirited away coins worth $480 million. Customers of QuadrigaCX, which was one of Canada’s largest exchanges, have been unable to retrieve $150 million in crypto since the founder supposedly died suddenly in December 2018, holding the only set of keys to unlock their money. They now want the body exhumed.

Armstrong wasn’t afraid to reimagine the crypto business in a way that could grow big, and he doggedly pursued anyone who he thought could help him do it. I find his extraordinary career quite instructive.

For more on Coinbase and crytocurrencies, check out these posts:

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NBA Top Shot: An Overnight Succcess 8 Years in the Making

NBA Top Shot’s popularity is exploding. Users pay to own an iconic basketball image or video clip, such as Lebron James dunking on someone (plenty of those choose from!). Their ownership is recorded on the blockchain in what’s called a Non-Fungible Token (NFT).

NBA Top Shot is a creation of Dapper Labs, a Canadian blockchain company. It started selling NFTs of cats called CryptoKitties. From these humble beginnings, Dapper Labs has grown to a million users on NBA Top Shot alone and recently raised $300 million in venture capital at a $2.4 billion valuation.

In an interview with CEO Roham Gharegozlou, angel investor Jason Calacanis marveled at how far this company has come:

Another 8 year overnight success in the making. It’s so funny how, as a founder, you can go from being like a punchline of a joke to the absolute belle of the ball.

Calacanis noted that video games have already sold digital items for real money for years, so the NFT business model is really not that much of a stretch. What’s more, for the young, owning a digital asset feels much more natural than owning a baseball card.

Dapper Labs plans to branch out to other sports leagues, and ultimately to recording ownership of items beyond video clips and images. If Dapper controlled the ownership records of, for example, cargo, this could be a truly massive company.

I was impressed with Gharegozlou’s perseverance over nearly a decade, going from obscurity to a partnership with a top sports league and a unicorn valuation. I was also impressed by how forward thinking the NBA is. If the creator of CryptoKitties came up to most major businesses with a proposition, they wouldn’t even get a reply. In its work in the crypto industry, as well as its highly successful COVID protocols, the NBA is clearly doing something right.

Give this intriguing interview a listen!

For more on NFTs and crypto, check out these posts:

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Photo: “LeBron James New York City More Than a Game 3 by David Shankbone” by david_shankbone is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Key Metrics for Startups: Consumer vs. Enterprise SaaS

I listened to a fascinating podcast this morning in which Jason Calacanis, an early investor in companies including Uber and Calm, broke down how to measure startup success. The key metrics depend on what kind of company you’re looking at:

Consumer companies:

  • Of the biggest users, how many are retained? For example, if someone used the app 3 times a week on average last month, how likely were they to return this month? Much of your app engagement is driven by the most active users.
  • What is the customer acquisition cost versus the revenue from each customer? Half to two thirds of the spending of fast growing consumer companies is marketing, even outpacing staff salaries! And that makes sense if you’re customer acquisition cost is $50 but you can get $100 from them. You should do that all day. This is also relevant for SaaS startups.
  • For marketplaces, how often do transactions happen? Higher revenue transactions, like booking an Airbnb, can be less frequent. Low revenue transactions, like taking an Uber, need to be more frequent.
  • Also for marketplaces: what is the take rate? How much money do you get from each transaction?

Enterprise Software as a Service (SaaS) companies:

  • How many customers “land and expand”? Since enterprise SaaS tends to have a lower churn rate (customers leaving), how many become customers and then buy more licenses (“seats”) for more of their staff is key. Another way customers can expand is if you start selling more products and they buy those too.
  • Churn rate is less relevant. You don’t see as many customers cancelling because businesses put more consideration into a software purchase and then rely on it for their company’s success. A consumer is much more likely to take a flier on a Hulu membership than a company is to do so on a SaaS product. This means if you keep selling enough licenses and new, adjacent products to existing customers, you don’t even need to increase customer count much. This is less true for consumer startups.

Bonus: Dating apps face some special challenges. Facebook and Instagram sometimes ban them from advertising, and it’s very difficult to get them approved in the Apple app store. This may be because some are used to scam people and companies want to protect their users.

Some great info in this podcast! I’ll definitely be using it to guide my investment decisions. On the whole, SaaS seems a lot easier. Customers are less fickle, have deeper pockets, and are more willing to pay for something than consumers who have been trained that if it’s on the internet, it’s free.

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Photo: CEO of hot startup Clubhouse, “Paul Davison” by jdlasica is licensed under CC BY 2.0

How to Build a Network, from Bumble Founder Whitney Wolfe Herd

The dating app Bumble recently went public, making founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd a billionaire at the ripe old age of 31. I heard an interview with Herd a while back, and her genius at marketing really struck me.

She had just created Bumble…now, how can she get anyone to sign up?

…we ran as fast as we could to the fraternity row, and went into the frat houses and said a different pitch, and said, “Hey guys, I bet you have no other way to access hundreds of sorority girls right now. Download the app, because they’re all waiting for you! They’ve all just downloaded this app and they’re all waiting for you to like them.

This is incredible marketing genius, even if it involves a little white lie. Hurry boys, and you can have all the ladies to yourself! (What man will say no to that?) Quickly girls, the most desirable boys are waiting for you! With 2 meetings, she solved the problem of how to get enough people on the app to make it a real network.

This interview is truly a master class in marketing and worth a listen in its entirety. The quote above is from about the 10:10 mark.

I only wish I had been in on that IPO!

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Photo: “File:TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2018 – day 2 (30647055838).jpg” by TechCrunch is licensed under CC BY 2.0