32 Books I Read in 2017, and the Book of the Year Goes to…

For me, 2017 marked another year of exponential personal and professional growth, both through running a fast-growing start-up and through keeping up the habit of voracious reading. I shall do a separate post to reflect on my lessons learned as a CEO, but this one is about books.

At the beginning of 2017, I set the intention of cutting down the number of books vs 2016 (28 books), with the goal to be more selective and to allow ample time for knowledge digestion. Despite the intention and a much busier schedule than 2016, and to my surprise, I finished the year at 32 books (one important caveat, with much help from audile books from Audible). First, I think reading has been ingrained in my brain as a habit, once I finish a book, my mind naturally hungers for the next great one. Second, I used reading/listening to fill up most of my fragmented idle time, such as in transportation or in the gym. As long as I have a good book in hand, I feel that I am productive and getting better mentally.

Similar to 2016, my reading list encompassed a wide range of topics in English and Chinese, but one category that dropped out completely is finance & investments books. I don’t think this is a one-year anomaly but a natural cognitive progression for me, where behavior economics/psychology and philosophy are more additive to my mental models at this time. Some books, such as those on consumer internet operations, design, and big data, were essential for my current industry and trade.

One category that popped on to my list and will remain there going forward is fiction & literature, and this gets to my book of the year recommendation…my book of the year for 2016 went to Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind”, with Ray Dalio’s “Principles” up there as a very close second. The crown of 2017 goes to: Continue reading “32 Books I Read in 2017, and the Book of the Year Goes to…”


28-Day Solo Motorbike Trip across Vietnam

“When life gives you a unique time window, take advantage of it to forge new life experiences,  learn and grow, or just mint some beautiful memories ”

For me, such an opportunity arose again in the second half of 2017, the last time being in 2015, when I spent two months in Fiji Islands, Australia, and New Zealand. Having since acquired the soul of a wandering backpacker, it took me no time to embark on a serendipitous adventure that I had fantasized for some time – a solo motorbike trip across Vietnam. Starting in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and ending in Hanoi, after 28 days and more than 2000 kilometers on the road, that fantasy became a reality.

Bing Maps Directions trip planning traffic cameras more

Continue reading “28-Day Solo Motorbike Trip across Vietnam”

Saying Yes: from “Indefinite Optimist” to “Definite Optimist”

Saying “No” vs. Saying “Yes”

In September 2016, I left a seemingly stable corporate America job and took the opportunity to embark on a journey to search for my next life adventure. However, for someone who had just sunk $200K into an MBA, I knew that I had some of that “indefinite optimist”  syndrome (according to Peter Tiel) left in me – “an indefinite optimist thinks the future will be better but does not know exactly how, so he expects to profit from the future but does not see any reason to design it concretely.” One product of “indefinite optimism” is a lack of ability to make clear decisions in the face of too many choices, a situation that often mires our MBA types. The only antidote is to know what one wants exactly and how to get it. In practice, it means having the courage and the fortitude to say No to many things. It’s not easy but life has few shortcuts – I want to build (or help build) a great company in the driver’s seat! Continue reading “Saying Yes: from “Indefinite Optimist” to “Definite Optimist””

Book Review: Hard Things vs. Leading

Good books come in pairs or bundles to enhance understanding of one or more interdisciplinary domains.

“The Hard Thing about Hard Things” (HTAHT) by Ben Horowitz (Co-Founder of VC Firm a16z) was the first book that I read in 2016. A week ago, I finished “Leading” by Sir. Alex Ferguson and Michael Moritz, former Manager of Manchester United and Chairman of Sequoia Capital respectively. Both books are about leadership/management and written by manager/investors, but their perspective and context to the topic are different. As a result, one gets different takeaways from reading both. If “HTAHT” is about growing a company from scratch that is constantly tittering on the brink of extinction, “Leading” is about inheriting a club and building a high-performance organization competing at the very upper echelon of professional soccer – the entrepreneur vs. professional manager perspective, though there are common threads. Continue reading “Book Review: Hard Things vs. Leading”

Select Readings (Week 7/2017)

Just another article illuminating the slow-moving train wreck that is the Retirement Crisis in the U.S.: Two-Thirds of Americans Aren’t Putting Money in Their 401(k) (Putting this at the top of the reading list to call attention to the crisis. The U.S. 401K savings scheme is a classic example of good policy intentions meet a complex system – financial and societal – that changes over time and cause unintended consequences years down the road. Many FinTech start-ups are working on the savings and retirement problems from different angles, but we need both industrial and policy solutions to succeed)

2016 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholder Letter is finally here (Again Warren tore into the hedge fund industry for its collective under-performance and fee structure, and praised Jack Bogle as his business hero for bringing ultra-low-cost index fund products to the average Americans and in the process amassed only a tiny fraction of wealth vs. a typical money manager. In the end, Warren did offer an olive branch to Wall Street, Berkshire loves to pay fees as long as it is commensurate with the value it gets)

Full notes of Professor Bruce Greenwald’s Value Investing Class at Columbia Business School (Enjoyed this class while at CBS, the same class that Todd Combs took. Great intro course to the value investing framework that Professor Greenwald developed, which is a lot different from what you learn from classic textbooks or other schools)

Full notes of Professor Joel Greenblatt’s Special Situations Class at Columbia Business School (Joel Greenblatt has one of the best investing track records – 40%+ for more than a decade. This class is only available to students in the Value Investing program, but much of Greenblatt’s teachings are in his two books)

The Value and Opportunity Blog just started an interesting series on Travel stocks (OTAs)

Turning away from good old-fashioned stock picking, Numerai, a San Francisco-based start-up launched in 2016, is using open-source to run a new kind of hedge fund by combining cryptography, data science, bitcoin, and crowdsourcing. This week they just issued their own crypto-currency to further incentivize data scientists to work together, white-paper here and you could join their Slack Channel here (So far in finance, stock exchanges and payment processing are the only few areas where strong network effects exist. Can Numerai turn our traditional ‘zero-sum-game’ notion of asset management on its head and create network effects in capital allocation? My initial intuition is maybe…on a smaller scale. In essence, they are still running a hedge fund, where investment research is outsourced to freelance data scientists, whether such a model could create sustainable alpha and how much AUM could it handle need to be proven. Also, what’s to prevent other hedge funds copy the business model? I do like the spirit of open-source innovation and this is still a very early-stage experiment, so we should see it as an experiment. If anything, it is certainly on the bleeding edge of FinTech, and Union Square Ventures and Renaissance Technology have thrown their money behind it)

As for other U.S. based FinTech start-ups who have been trying to upend traditional finance? The road to disruption is a long grind and co-operation is the new path. This New York Times article provides a good story of the realities facing U.S. FinTech start-ups and their shifting strategies (Entrenched legacy infrastructure, regulatory constraints, well-engrained consumer behavior, lack of steady flow of capital, and formidable moats of incumbents make life particularly hard for FinTech start-ups in the U.S.)

On the other hand, in a parallel FinTech universe, China shows the way, an excellent article by The Economist discussing the unique circumstances that allowed FinTech innovation to flourish and have a bigger impact in China vs. U.S. and offered some good lessons learned (Not to pay too much lip service to Chinese FinTech innovation, where much of the success has been on the consumer payment front and in sales & distribution of financial products, where cooperation with financial incumbents is also important. In terms of market structure/infrastructure and asset manufacturing, China still trails far behind in maturity, and increasingly, the ‘license to innovate’ in certain areas are held by few powerful players. That said, I remain absolutely optimistic about China’s FinTech future, net-net the barriers are still lower vs. the U.S.)

Matt Turck at First Mark  Debunking the “No Human” Myth in AI




Select Readings (week 6/2017)

Becoming Warren Buffet HBO Documentary (Focus, principle, persistence. Simple but not easy)

Charlie Munger  – Full Notes from Daily Journal Co. Annual Meeting and Full Video here (As always many quotables and nuggets of wisdom)

Charlie Munger said during the DJCO meeting that “India has taken the worst aspects of democracy.” Popular narrative likes saying India is the next China, here is a factual argument for Why India is not the Next China. (As an honorary brown person, I love my Indian friends will certainly re-visit the country)

John Hempton at Bronte Capital admits that He does not Understand the Indian Outsourcing Company Syntel (Saying I don’t know is a virtue, saying why I don’t know, and here is how unsure I am requires thinking)

While India was grappling with its rupee bill debacle, here is a fast and furious tour to The Lastest Tech Trends and Fads in China (Went back to China from Nov – Dec last year, met many start-up and VC friends. China is truly a parallel universe and counter-factual to the U.S.)

Y Combinator’s 2017 Annual Letter (Since 2005, has funded 1,470 companies with total valuation of $100B, less than half of Apple’s cash balance if that puts it into perspective. Letter touched upon the era of hyper-scale tech companies powered by network-effect like the FANG, where their advantages are still underappreciated by founders and investors alike, and they will get more powerful without antitrust actions, I will be a happy shareholder for now)

Speaking of FANG, rumor has it that Amazon is looking to buy Capital One, and how have they fared in financial services(I think the author’s analysis need to be more rigorous. Using Tencent and Alibaba’s success in China to speculate or extrapolate U.S. Tech firm’s ambition and achievable scale in finance to me is naive. No, it’s unlikely they will play an important role in the financial ecosystem anytime soon in the same way that Alibaba has done in China. The fundamental market structures, regulations, and consumer behaviors are miles apart.) 

Micah Rosenbloom of Founder Collective chats with Harry Stebbings of Atomico about why $100 million is a good exit and why capital efficiency is key to returns and investment success in “20 VC: Micah Rosenbloom”

Last mention of Snap before its IPO: Mark Suster on Why He did not Invest in Snap and How He Feels Now, Professor Damodaran Valuing Snap before its IPO, Evan Benedict at A16Z and Ben Thompson at Stratechery each trying to frame Snap’s strategy (Mark did it with good grace and showed how hard it is to get out of your own narrative. While not a fan of DCF, it did provide a quick-and-dirty yardstick to judge value against. No, I am not buying Snap on the IPO, though funds in my 401K may)

Growth Hacker Andrew Chen on The Bad Product Fallacy

Back to Basics: Reality, Uncertainty, and Human Stupidity

What causes human misjudgment? Why do supposedly well-informed and intelligent people get things so massively wrong and repeat the same mistakes? 2016 delivered two painful slaps in the face (Brexit and Trump) to political pundits and pop media, and the financial markets served more to those who turned pessimistic on the stock market immediately before or after. From the grandest stage of the political and financial arena to the mundane aspects of everyday life, uncertainty and mistakes are what we have to live with. After all, nobody bats a thousand. As human beings, we are prone to making mistakes in our decisions – or human stupidity as I’d like to ascribe to myself. Even the all-wise Charlie Munger says “my life is a litany of mistakes.” In the very long run, our results in life would be the result of our effort + luck minus the sum of our misjudgments, as at the poker table where “your winning will approach all your opponents’ mistakes, less the sum of your mistakes” (though life is certainly not a zero-sum game).

Continue reading “Back to Basics: Reality, Uncertainty, and Human Stupidity”