Heidi’s New Venture: SkinnySongs

A year ago I went for a walk with Heidi Roizen around her house in Atherton. I was gearing up to head out to Colorado to hang with her Mobius partners, and she was pondering her next career move. She had various new business ideas, all fairly eccentric. A few months later I was back at her house because she was helping me with some stuff involving my book. When I asked her if she’d pursued any of her ideas — or joined another venture capital firm or done something else — she said she hadn’t, but wanted to update me on her ideas over a workout. So we went down to her exercise room. I’ll never forget the image: she, in workout clothes; me, in nice clothes (by my casual standards) sweating through it all trying to keep up both my heart rate and the conversation.

Fast forward to December, 2007 and I now see why we were chatting while working out: Heidi has taken action on her idea and launched a new company called SkinnySongs which will produce great pump-up music for women who want to lose weight. Heidi has partnered with some of the leading figures in the music industry to create professional, good natured music to listen to while exercising. Check out this fantastic Forbes profile on Heidi and SkinnySongs. This could be a great Christmas gift for a woman friend who’s trying to lose weight. Available on Amazon.com (ignore the “only 1 left” message). It’ll be on iTunes by Dec 15.

I’ve learned a lot from Heidi over the past few years and respect her a great deal, which is why I asked her to contribute a “Brain Trust” essay to My Start-Up Life (it’s on page 11 for those following along at home). Succeed or fail financially, Heidi’s new venture is a wonderful example to entrepreneurs of someone who’s pursuing a genuine passion (music and exercise). You can feel the passion on the web site and in the songs. As the Forbes piece shows, it’s also a good example of an entrepreneur scratching her own itch to understand a market and problem — the bet is that others have the same itch and are willing to pay for it.

Congrats and good luck, Heidi!

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I love pump-up music. Here’s a list of the 10 Most Terrifyingly Inspirational 80’s Songs. I agree with their picks. Excerpt:

Nearly everything is unbelievably dangerous while listening to “Eye of the Tiger.” Here’s a little exercise that illustrates perfectly what this song is capable of. Think of the weakest, most pedestrian chore you can do, for example, doing laundry. Now play “Eye of the Tiger” in the background. If, by the end of that spin cycle you haven’t managed to somehow kill a grizzly bear with fabric sheets or make sweet love to every woman within 40 yards, then you need to see a coroner because you apparently died the night before.

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Harvard Business School did a case study about Heidi awhile back. Some Berkeley researchers recently presented the case study to students but changed “Heidi” to “Howard” to see how a gender difference would change one’s perceptions of her assertive style. Slate has a brief write-up halfway down the article.

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I worked with Heidi on the Heroes project of the National Center for Women and Information Technology. We sought out some of the most interesting and successful women doing work in IT. Lucy Sanders and Larry Nelson interviewed them as podcasts. Check them out here — loads of inspiration for any woman (or man) looking to have an impact in the field of computing.

Ramit: Part Frat Boy, Part Silicon Valley Geek

Today’s San Francisco Chronicle did a great profile of my good friend and superstar in the making Ramit Sethi. Money graf:

Sethi’s style is part frat boy and part Silicon Valley geek, with a little bit of San Francisco hipster thrown in. At times, he can be downright juvenile, as when he titled a blog anthology "Ramit’s 2007 Guide to Kicking Ass."

It’s about Ramit’s popular blog I Will Teach You To Be Rich.

A few years ago I made a conscious effort to meet more young people involved in business, writing, or politics. I wanted to have more friends closer to my age who were on a similar professional trajectory.

Ramit has been one of the people I’ve gotten to know well. We have a lot of overlap: we’re close in age (25 and 19), we’ve both founded tech companies, we’ve both written books and endured the publishing industry, we both write blogs, we both do paid speaking, and we both are social, have fun and think about "life stuff" like relationships. Our exchanges are almost 100% bi-directional in value — we help each other in all sorts of ways. This is a rare thing in a friendship but almost certainly the most rewarding state. Peer mentoring, of sorts.

Starting out in the professional world, I spent time almost exclusively with more experienced adult entrepreneurs. Their mentoring and guidance proved invaluable. But now I find myself growing more by spitballing with guys like Ramit and other age-similar peers who don’t have the "wise answers" of a conventional mentor, but at least are wrestling with the same questions in real time.

Congrats, Ramit, on the well-deserved coverage.

When Your Passion Becomes Your Livelihood and Other Ideas from Tim Ferriss

Last night, after an enjoyable dinner at the Rio with some of the Mobius crew, I chatted on the phone for an hour with Tim Ferriss. Tim, 29, is a Bay Area-based, remarkably down-to-earth serial lifestyle entrepreneur:

  • Princeton University Guest Lecturer in Electrical Engineering and High-Tech Entrepreneurship
  • No-Holds-Barred Cage Fighter, Vanquisher of Four World Champions
  • Speaker of Six Foreign Languages: Japanese (learned in three months), Chinese (learned in one month), German, Spanish, Italian, and Korean
  • First American in History to hold a Guinness World Record in Tango
  • Trainer and Advisor to more than 30 World Record Holders in Professional and Olympic Sports
  • Nutriceutical Designer and Glycemic Index Researcher
  • National Chinese Kickboxing Champion
  • Political Asylum Researcher and Activist
  • Knight and Ordained Minister
  • MTV Breakdancer in Taiwan
  • Speedo Model in the Hamptons
  • Actor on Hit TV Series in China and Hong Kong

Jesus, can you get any more average and boring than that?!

Among other delightful topics of conversation, Tim made the point about the risk of turning your passion or hobby into your primary income-generating activity. Just like you’re less likely to enjoy a book that is assigned to you in school, you’re less likely enjoy the work you’re doing if it’s livelihood. John Amaechi, the ex-NBA athlete who came out of the closet, noted that many NBA stars don’t even enjoy basketball by the time they’re in the pros. As career advice, this is counterintuitive ("Find your passion and then get paid for it!"), and I don’t know if I agree, but it made me think, which is most important.

Tim’s book, The Four Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, comes out April 24. I’ll be checking it out. Here’s his blog.

I continue to be in awe and totally humbled by some of the folks who are part of my life, even in the smallest ways. Some of it the result of effort — I work hard on my "people flow", some of it sheer luck. Either way, a good reminder for me that the world is full of interesting and amazing people — the key is to be open to finding them.

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

I was standing at the urinal on Saturday at Keystone Snow Resort in Colorado and the Beatles song, "With a Little Help From My Friends" started playing on the speaker. I thought to myself, "How appropriate."

After all, were it not for my surrogate parents here in Boulder, Brad Feld and Amy Batchelor, I wouldn’t have been in Keystone to begin with, let alone embark on my very first ski lesson!

With Amy’s expert guidance I visited a ski mountain for the first time in my life, joined a group lesson, and had a blast. I made it to "level 3" which meant I could ski downhill and go side-to-side. I was, I confess, the best newbie in the group. Chalk up another new life experience!

My weekend in Keystone, skiing and all, reminded me of a principle that never seems to fail: people first, the rest takes care of itself. I’m fortunate to be hanging with an awesome group of people. Whether it’s being given an all-day tour of Boulder on day 3 by the de facto mayor, Brad, or enduring the intellectually humbling experience that is extended time in a car, living room, and dining room table with Chris Wand (who, in addition to being 10x smarter than me, is also hilarious), every day provides its share of new people who are each living life their own way.

Yes, I get by with a little help from my friends. So thanks, friends.

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Friends of Ben: Kai Chang

Name: Kai Chang

Network: Ben Casnocha –> Cold call to me — > Kai Chang

Google Search: "Kai Peter Chang"

See other Friends of Ben profiles

Within two minutes of talking to Kai Chang on the phone I picked up on how sharp he was.

For one, his listening skills blew me away. He asked terrific questions, responded thoughtfully, and engaged in a real two-way conversation. I was really impressed. I think good listeners are few and far between. We set up a time to have lunch the following week and I then got to witness Kai’s tremendous in-person charisma and energy.

Kai is a financial advisor here in the Bay Area. But calling him a financial advisor sells him short. He’s a life entrepreneur in the truest sense of the world. He’s an insatiable reader. Excellent impersonator (and humorist — see his Apple Switch Ad spoof). Thoughtful businessperson. Our conversation yesterday flowed smoothly from technology to relationships, from psychology to personal finance. Not only was I in the flow — an hour and a half felt like a couple minutes — I also had scribbled so many notes in my pad that later that night I thought to myself, "I could write 10 blog posts on all this stuff."

What can we learn from Kai? First, energy matters. In his about page he says, "I have…the energy of a nine-year-old on Christmas morning wired up on two liters of Coca-Cola and a box of Chocolate-Frosted Sugar Bombs." Second, being a good listener pays. In his own words again, "[I’m a] freakishly effective listener/interviewer: people are unnerved at how easy it is to tell me secrets within days (or sometimes hours) of meeting me that they’ve kept from loved ones for years." Third, remember the T — go deep in one thing, but have broad knowledge. Kai’s deep point is financial advice — and nobody minds a good tip on how to manage their money — but his reading has made him an able conversationlist on many topics.

My relationship with Kai started from a simple cold call he made to me. Just goes to show that randomness can produce excellent connections. Extraordinary people are everywhere. Be open to finding them.

Friends of Ben: Maria Pacana

Name: Maria Pacana

Network: Ben Casnocha — > This Blog –> Maria Pacana

Google Search: Maria Pacana

See other Friends of Ben profiles

One of my favorite things to do when traveling overseas is to talk with American ex-pats who are fully integrated into the local culture. I recommend this tactic for all Americans traveling internationally. I can usually do this via my blog, since I have readers in many countries and they may be ex-pats or know ex-pats.

In Tokyo I had dinner with blog reader Maria and her friend Jake. Maria is a recent college grad from U.S. now living in Tokyo. She picked up Japan in a year (pretty incredible) and now works in-house at a law firm translating patent applications from English to Japanese. She studied electrical engineering at Yale but is now pursuing a part-time MBA from McGill while doing her translation work.

Maria knew of my interest in journalism and invited her friend Jake to dinner. Jake is a muckraking journalist who’s lived in Tokyo for 15+ years. An exchange program with a Tokyo university opened Jake up to the world of Japan, he loved it, and has since developed an awesome track record of covering Tokyo’s vice / police blotter for a newspaper here. Jake has a book coming out next year on what it’s like being an American living overseas covering Tokyo vice.

Maria is a super impressive person. In our two hour dinner I was struck: She’s ambitious yet humble, engages seriously with the world yet seems to enjoy it, and…it happens to the best of us…tries to find the willpower to blog. Jackie Danicki once told me she’s genuinely surprised when she meets someone interesting who doesn’t have a blog. So I’m glad Maria is working on her blog 100k by 25, a quasi personal finance / quasi living-in-Japan blog. All in all, Maria is an example of the kind of personal growth someone who’s achieved a lot of success at home can have with an international adventure.

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In reflecting on our dinner which I so enjoyed I realized that not once has a meeting with a blog reader let me down. I’m humbled and astonished at the caliber of the readers of this blog who reach out to me.

Maria — thanks for a great dinner — please stay in touch!

Tyler Cowen on My College Process

One of my intellectual heroes, Tyler Cowen, a professor and "Economic Scene" columnist in the New York Times, has some kind words and observations on my college admissions experiences on his must-read blog. Thanks, Tyler.

Tyler’s breadth of interests makes him one of the most provocative public intellectuals. Here’s my review of his book Creative Destruction, here’s a long debate I hosted on independent book stores based on one of Tyler’s articles, here are my notes from Tyler’s talk in Zurich this past summer.

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Friend of Ben: Bernadette Balla

Last week I got an email from a blog reader who said she was 24 years old and had recently moved to San Francisco from Malaysia to pursue an MBA. In her email she said Malaysia is not friendly to ambitious women, nor is it friendly to entrepreneurial thinking. Moreover, there was an expectation that she should either become a prostitute or "find a man and become a wife." She started reading this blog from Malaysia and, hearing about my own adventures as a young entrepreneur, found inspiration in the possibilities that can await people who go off the beaten track. She wrote about me in her business school application, was accepted to Golden Gate University, and as of two days ago, is now taking night classes at GGU and interning at a technology company by day.

I asked Bernadette if she wanted to have lunch at my favorite crepe place down the street. We talked about the challenges of adjusting to a Western culture that’s more individualistic, confrontational, and brash than the East. We talked about what it’s like to live in a place where you don’t have roots — forming deep relationships is tough. We talked about the lack of a "guidebook" for aspiring young entrepreneurs.

I’m extremely impressed with what Bernadette has already done. She escaped an oppressive culture, defied expectations of what a young woman can or should be, found a place to live and place to study in a foreign country (Silicon Valley no less), developed fluency in English (along with Malaysian, Indonesian, and Cantonese), and most important, is being proactive in reaching out to people who can help.

I’m certain there are many Bernadettes scattered across the globe…But they do not have the good fortune of growing up in the most entrepreneurial region in the world (like me), or perhaps the resourcefulness to leave family and friends (like Bernadette). How can we help those equally deserving people?

When I got home I introduced Bernadette to some people I thought she would like knowing, sent her some book recommendations, and promised to help in any way I can. I expect we’ll hear a lot more from her in the coming years…

Bernadette — Go for it!

A Blog Chronicling the Fight to Survive Ovarian Cancer

My friend Carl Johnston, a successful angel investor and another person in my life who’s been so kind with his encouragement and advice to me, recently told me his close companion Suzanne Robles is fighting ovarian cancer.

Suzanne set up a blog to chronicle her journey fighting the cancer. She had some issues with the blog, so Carl asked me to help her. I did, and I suggested she dump WordPress and move to Blogger.

Now she’s up and running and her posts are honest, emotional, and gripping. She just posted about a devastating visit to the doctor. She received a frank assessment from the doctor followed by this:

She STRESSED…you must only have JOY in your life. If you wanted to travel do it now. What ever it is do not wait. You are feeling good now, but later on you wont be. This is going to be a difficult battle.
It made me realize that I was thinking, ok about 6 months of chemo and then Ill start doing things I want to do. She stressed over and over-do it now.

I am humbled by Suzanne’s bravery to be so public about such an enormous fight and private matter. Her relentless positive outlook will be an inspiration to others, cancer survivors or not.

London Party to Celebrate the End of My Travels

My friend Jackie Danicki pulled off quite a feat Saturday night, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised given the generosity of all my blog readers this trip, especially Jackie.

About 20 people filed into the Chelsea / London home of blogging gurus Adriana Lukas and Perry de Havilland for a long night of drinks, food, and conversation in party timed to celebrate the conclusion of my seven week Europe tour. Though not a lot of diversity in political views, there were fun and interesting personalities. Josh Hanna, an American now in London running the UK operation of Ancestry.com, and I had a great time watching the impressive Damian Counsell debate the personal expense account of Sherry Blair. I have a video clip, but I don’t think the language therein is appropriate for this G-rated blog ("rubbish" this and "rubbish" that). Page Sands reminded me that a master’s in e-business still exists and can be useful, and Antoine Clark confirmed and disputed some of my impressions of France. Other good chats abound.

Jackie posted a funny spread of photos from the night which ends in a digitally altered image to highlight the greedy, blood-sucking, 3rd-world-exploiting capitalist bastards we are. Other photos at Flickr. Thank you Jackie for organizing the great party and to Perry and Adriana for hosting!

(Me in foreground below. Notice upright posture, combed hair, and stylish business shoes. Yeah, I try.)
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Bar Outside