A 3-week social experiment

If you have been around the Internet lately, high profile sharing-economy type companies like Uber, Lyft, Instacart etc. should sound pretty familiar to you. This post isn’t about how insane their current valuations are, or about their amazing office-designs, but the one thing that actually helps them run – people who are willing to trade their time for money in the “sharing economy”.

In the increasingly “Uber for everything” world, we have seen everything from on-demand oil changes to in-home massages. We have arrived in the “future”. Today, you can turn on your phone, click on an app, and start working for a monetary return. Empowered by technology that basically does a very fundamental thing that helps markets run – connect demand with supply, instantaneously. Out of curiosity, I ran a 3-week social experiment where I signed up to drive for Lyft (giving someone a ride), Postmates (delivering food) and Instacart (delivering groceries) to (i) figure out how much one can actually make (ii) understand the last-mile customer experience in the “sharing economy”.

Everyone loves numbers, so let’s start with numbers:

Charts charts charts

Charts charts charts

Some brief conclusions (Again, these insights are specific to Austin in the month of October, and only represents one possible interpretation of reality):

  • It is difficult to breach the $25/hr barrier that most of these companies tout as an hourly minimum
  • Services that allow for the customers to tip is generally a better option to work for as there is potential for greater upside (note: Uber does not have a tip function)
  • If you consider cost of gas, the actual hourly wage could be 10-15% lower

Random notes: (i) The $44.22 average total hourly wage is the result of a supply acquisition promo which Lyft is currently offering in certain cities across the US. Use this promo code to be eligible for between $500-$1000 bonus(depending on your city) after giving 50 rides in the first 30 days! (ii) Instacartv2 is their latest revision to their payout structure which raises the average hourly wage by about $8

Money aside, the experience of working for these “sharing economy” companies is actually quite interesting. Through the 3-weeks, I got to interact with many customers that use these services. I now understand who they are, why they use these apps and basically how technology has improved lives (… in some cases solved first-world-problems). Here is a brief description of each of them:

Lyft

lyft-ridesharing

By far my favorite of the three, Lyft users are generally super friendly and are looking to interact with you (and not their smartphones) during their ride. It is common belief that Uber users tend to see their drivers as just a cab driver, while Lyft users tend to view the entire ecosystem as more of a community. From my limited experience, I tend to agree! Over the course of the Lyft rides I gave, I managed to learn about a range of topics including how to publish a book (from a novelist), the burlesque scene in Austin (from a, well, Burlesque dancer), how to detect skin cancer (from a dermatologist), how transgenders get their names changed in the eyes of the law (from a UT Law student), things to consider before applying to an MBA program (from a first year MBA student)… Beyond learning about the most random things (did I mention that the Burlesque dancer was specifically educating me about the plus-sized Burlesque scene, which is very, very interesting to say the least), you are also likely to start to discover nook and crannies of your own city – unknown restaurants, hidden bars, new neighborhoods etc…

Most importantly though, it is the use case for ride-sharing. Ride sharing does the critical thing of unlocking supply of available transportation at an affordable rate for others. In the case of a recent Lyft ride I gave to someone with a leg injury, we figured that in the world before Uber/Lyft, his only alternative was to take exorbitant taxi rides to get from work/school-home and vice versa.

Instacart

1200_20x_20630_20Instacart_20Share_20Banner_202

While Instacart sucked at compensating well, the interesting thing was the use-case for having groceries delivered to a customer. I cannot imagine paying money for someone to do my groceries and deliver them to me; I love grocery shopping, and I guess I have time that I can dedicate to this particular activity. However, through interactions with end-users, I guess I figured out that there are clearly others who disagree, and here are the various reasons why:

  1. Too busy – This applies especially to moms who have to take care of their young children, and going to get groceries could be a complete nightmare. Moms represent a sizable portion of the userbase.
  2. Too difficult – This applies to folks with disabilities/mobility challenges. When I delivered a bag of groceries to an old lady in a wheelchair, I had the AH-HA moment that made me believe in the power of technology again
  3. Too far – This generally applies to distance, especially for folks such as college students who do not own cars. The state of public transportation in the US is pretty dismal, and here is the gap that needs to be filled. The other interesting case is where a family who lives three hours away in Houston decided to order groceries for their daughter who goes to college in Austin to make sure that she was eating right. All this empowered by technology.

Of course, there are cases of the wealthy folks who are just too lazy, and can pay anyone to do anything for them. Story – I actually delivered a bag of toilet cleaning materials to a housecleaner for her to clean this huge mansion. So basically the owner on-demanded toilet cleaning materials to his cleaner, to clean his house.

Postmates

postmates

Postmates provides the highest potential for compensation because generally users tip very well based on typical food-delivery type rates. So if they ordered $50 worth of food, they are likely to leave the Postmate with a $5-10 tip, on top of the delivery fee. However, the Postmates service is very much your typical food delivery service, helping to unlock more revenue for restaurants who do not offer delivery. The craziest thing I found out is… COLLEGE STUDENTS forking out $20 for a sandwich ($10 sandwich, $10 delivery) delivered to their door.

Conclusion

What a learning experience! Of course, I got to walk away with some extra $$$ (especially with the Lyft promo which again rewards an additional $500-$1000 bonus after you give 50 rides within the first 30 days using this promo code), which will come in useful towards our next big travel adventure in Cuba. Most importantly though, I came to appreciate a little more of the world around me, learned random factoids and trivia about the people of my city, understood the challenges of hour-wage workers (+ how important tips are) and came to appreciate the helpful side (and in some cases… obnoxious users) of the Uber-for-everything world.

Austin? Boulder? Portland?

If you want a San Francisco vibe (stereotyped: organic food, good coffee, hippie-culture, good music and chill communities) without the baggage of one of the most insane rents in the world, three American cities typically come to mind: Austin, Boulder, and Portland.

Having spent significant time visiting San Francisco and lived in Austin for the past two years, I can confidently say that Austin gives SF a good run for the money (except the year round 70 degree weather which is hard to replicate honestly). Most Austinites will agree, along with the 150 new people who move into Austin every single day.

I have always been curious though – what about the other two? Portland? Boulder? I have heard great things about them both. Portland still remains a mystery until I get to visit, but I finally got to experience Boulder first-hand this past weekend. The verdict? If you want a “perfect” life surrounded by the most gorgeous hiking trails, then yes. Otherwise, Boulder is nowhere close to Austin in terms of a good balance in all areas of the scale.

Here are a couple of reasons why Boulder < Austin, in my humble opinion…

One. Boulder has one of the most homogeneous communities I have ever seen. Ok, put in another way, everyone is white. The lack of diversity in today’s world made Boulder feel like an extremely foreign place. In contrast, both due to Austin’s proximity to the border and the ability to attract internationals, one will find a wider spectrum of diversity in Austin that is represented through food, culture, and people!

Two. Boulder is too perfect. Everything is nice, neatly laid out and generally perfect. That’s the issue – it is too perfect! It felt like a Hollywood set, artificial to a certain degree. If you live in Austin you will under this reference – Boulder represents just Terrytown, period. In contrast, there are parts of Austin which are slightly less-than-perfect, but along with that comes character and “grunginess” that allows one to feel a lot more relaxed, even if you’re wearing pajamas to your favorite grungy dive bar.

I could come up with another ton of reasons why Austin > Boulder, but I also wanted to give Boulder some credit for some pretty amazing things!

UC-Boulder: Yes, my thoughts exactly – why didn’t I go to school here!!!? 

This view, a 30min drive away.

Legal dispensaries: #4/20win

General craft beer, valet bike parking and other #hippiethings

What do you think?

Axé; good energy, life force

I first encountered Capoeira back in winter of 2007, as a freshman at college. Professor Luciano led about 20 of us on a tremendously educational trip to Salvador de Bahia in North East Brazil, where we got to immerse ourselves in Bahian culture, food, beats, and even experience Candomblé and Capoeira. Candomblé deserves an entire post on itself, as a fascinating religion practised by the “povo de santo” (people of the saint) most common among people of African descent. We had the chance to witness a full Candomblé ceremony, which was a fascinating experience. Bahia was unforgettable, and Capoeira was definitely the highlight.

Class of LAS 199 in the Bahia coast, 2007

Class of LAS 199 in the Bahia coast, 2007

As procrastination will have it, I only became serious about Capoeira a whole seven years later after I moved to Austin. I got to meet contra-maestre Esquilo serendipitously while standing in line at SXSW, and some time later I found myself part of the Capoeira Luanda community. Capoeira is beautiful; the history, the sounds, and the art of this ancient dance-fight preserved by generations of Capoeiristas. Many argue about it’s true origins, but in an oversimplified nutshell, think about it as the African slaves masking self-defense into a dance to avoid the suspicion of their Portuguese slavemasters. Along with this comes heritage, beats, song-style (call and response) from the African continent. You can take the people out of Africa, but you can never take Africa out of their soul.

Capoeira Luanda Austin! Come check us out.

Capoeira Luanda Austin! Come check us out.

In class today we learnt a new song “Estrela que brilha no céu da Bahia”, which translates to the star that shines in the sky of Bahia. To provide a little more context, many people trace Capoeira back to Salvador de Bahia, the first port of call for African slaves who arrive in Portuguese Brazil to serve their senhors (masters). Today, if you get the chance to visit Bahia, you will notice a lot more dark-skinned Afro-Brazilians than, well, white Brazilians.

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class scribbles

This song though, was so beautiful. In just four stanzas (two lines each) and a chorus, it captures the essence of Capoeira in a single tune. Many Capoeira songs were written by the Capoeiristas who lived during the early days, and they tell stories of Capoeira Masters, the context of slavery, the beautiful beaches (and women) of Bahia and the soul of Brazil. In Estrela que brilha no céu da Bahia, each stanza recounts certain pieces of Capoeira history, paying respect to Maestre Bimba, describing Maestre Pastinha pointing to the stars on his deathbed saying “I will always be by your side like the shining stars in the Bahia sky”, and the most beautiful of all, depicting how the night stars that used to illuminate the farms (where the slaves worked on), will continue to shine and show the path back home to Bahia for all future generations of Capoeiristas.

The history that is encapsulated in Capoeira songs will continue to cradle the dance-fight, and with each new roda played in every part of the world, the art is given a new lease of life.

and just because.

and just because.

East vs West

east-vs-west-culture

Having spent big chunks of my life in both the East and the West, it is really interesting to witness how both cultures view things very differently. There are some “concepts” that are more dominant in one versus the other. A classic example is the notion of interdependence vs independence. Generally, interdependence sets the foundation for family and society in Eastern (Asian) cultures, while in Western cultures independence is often emphasized…

This past week Lysia and I were trying to understand why we haven’t gotten a sore throat for almost a year since we moved to Austin. Back in Singapore, getting a sore throat was a bi-monthly occurrence for me. We concluded that this had to do with a concept that is part of everyday life in the “East”, but almost does not exist in the “West” (or exists in a completely different form) –  related to the concept of “Yin” and “Yang”, but applied to foods. Chinese people often refer to foods in two categories – “heaty” and “cooling”. If you’re reading this and from the “West”, you may find this concept very intriguing.

Here’s an excerpt from an online source: (by no means a legitimate source but does an adequate job of providing a brief explanation)

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the notion of “heaty” foods is related to the balancing of ‘Yin and ‘Yang. To most people, especially the Chinese, in Asian countries such as China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singaporeans, such concepts are very much part of the indigenous culture and are commonly used as a form of expressing certain set of symptoms or sensations often associated with emotional or physical reactions such as: Feelings of irritability, Short temper, Fever, Constipation, Flushed face or cheeks, Dark yellow urine, Sore throat, Nose bleed, Outbreak of pimples, Rashes, Mouth ulcers, Indigestion. Excessive “cold” energy in the body, on the contrary, will make us feel weak, lethargic, tired and restless.

We asked the Americans around us if they ever came across this concept of “heaty” and “cooling” foods, and almost everyone gave us a very puzzled glare. Fascinating. A ubiquitous concept where we grew up in the East, but a completely foreign concept where we are living right now in the West.

The definition of “heatiness” and “cooling” do not directly refer to the physical state of the food, but it’s effect on our bodies. For example, cucumber is a “cooling” food because it generates cool energy in our body. In contrast, something like mangoes is a “heaty” food which produces hotter energy. Striking a balance in both groups of food provides an “yin-yang” balance in your diet. The interesting thing is, you can actually turn a “cooling” food into a “heaty” food just based on the style of cooking. One of the famous delicacies in Singapore is an amazing dish called Chilli Crab. Now crab is defined to be a “cooling” food, but Chilli crab is considered to be a “heaty” food because of how it gets prepared.

and____cooling____in_TCM_really_mean_Article

One may think that this is indigenous folklore of sorts. In fact, I am not sure if this concept can even be proven with science. However, back to the story I started this piece with – a great reduction in occurrences of “sore throat” – qualitatively I can assert that it makes a lot of sense. When we were living in Singapore, a significant portion of our diet consisted of “heaty” foods such as tropical fruits and (google ‘durian’ and ‘jackfruit’) various spices. In the US, we have adopted very different diets that could have “turned down the heat” in our bodies. Yes, we avoid fast/fried food often. Now, do note that different people have different thresholds to “heat” or “cool” – so it really depends on the individual as well.

Fascinating.

Every darn concept and idea in the world originates from somewhere, and to a large extent, has its own authenticity based on real people who experienced or witnessed it. “heaty” and “cooling” foods are a classic example.

AirBnB 101: 5 simple tips to be a great host!

Ever since I moved into my new apartment, I have been able to host Airbnb guests since I now have a lot more room to accommodate people. I put my guests up in the loft bed, while I sleep in the adjoining room behind a closed door which gives everyone sufficient privacy during the night. Since July, I’ve hosted about 10 different guests (from Europe, North America, Central America) and I thought I would share some ideas to make your place super Airbnb-friendly.

#myAirbnb

#myAirbnb

1. Photos

Don’t make the rookie mistake of uploading random poor quality pictures of your apartment/house. The very reason why Airbnb offers to have photographers come to your place to take professional pictures is because they really do matter. Appealing photos are one of the first things noticed by Airbnb guests when they are browsing through the available options. At this link to my listing, you can see how professional photos make a significant difference.

2. Respond with details

Whenever guests indicate any interest in booking your apartment, respond promptly and provide helpful details. Put yourself in the shoes of the prospective guest – imagine if you are travelling from out of town and it will be your very first time in this new city, what are some of your top concerns? Be proactive and help address them in your communication to your guest.

3. Provide a welcome basket

This is a nice gesture I always do for my guests. I put their fresh towels, toiletries and some snacks in a nice basket which I place on the chair – the first thing they notice as they enter the apartment. Trust me, it changes the entire experience. In our previous Airbnb stay in Albuquerque, our host even provided toothbrushes, toothpaste and mouthwash!

4. Suggest places to eat/things to do

Always offer suggestions to your guests regarding activities they should do around your city. Tell them about places off-the-beaten-track, bespoke bars and hidden dining establishments. I provide my guests with a list of my favorite food trucks around Austin, and a map of places and amenities in my immediate neighborhood. Guests will always appreciate good advice from the locals. In fact, if you have time, go the extra mile to show your guests around town!

5. Cook a meal

For guests that are staying for more than 1-2 nights, it is a wonderful thing to share a meal together. On multiple occasions, I have cooked simple dinners for my guests and we have had great conversations. This allows both the host and guest to really get to know each other, rather than to treat the stay as just an economic exchange.

At the end of the day, hopefully you will have guests leaving behind a lot more than just some extra cash you can use!

Charlie and Elyse from Chicago!

Charlie and Elyse from Chicago!

Here’s a link to get free US$25 credit to use for your next Airbnb reservation!

Bona fide

I learnt a new word yesterday – bona fide; adj. genuine, real

Learning a new word makes me happy. As we grow older, out of the context of schools and formal education, learning seems to slow uncontrollably. I am sure we continue to learn about a ton of things such as “14 cats who think they are sushi” or “17 astute observations from bathroom walls”, but learning to enrich our minds – how much of that do we engage in on a daily basis?

The day you stop learning is the day you stop living – Albert Einstein 

So bona fide for me was a tiny victory yesterday, a bona fide win.

I took some time to reflect today, and thought I’d share about some interesting stuff I learned recently:

1. A family that walks on fours – The real reasons are unknown, but this family in a remote Turkish village literally walks on fours. It is interesting to note CT scans revealed a slight brain damage – a particular part of the brain that is responsible for balance seems to be significantly smaller than normal. Viola! There’s actually a specific part of your brain that helps with sensory balance.

2. A Singaporean who walked through the gates of Harvard and currently writes for a living. As asserted in his introduction, most Singaporeans will question his decision to not “go into banking”, but reading his story gives me hope that one can still choose the unorthodox path in Singapore and pursue his passion of writing.

3. The advancement of photography has allowed us to appreciate what a photon of light actually looks like in this TED talk – Imaging at a Trillion frames a second. A photon? Yes, a photon. #mindblowing

4. Paul’s response to the people of Thessalonica in the book of Thessalonians when being confronted about their struggles – free yourself from being self-absorbed, and instead pray for others and the gospel. It ain’t all about you. Get outside of yourselves and appreciate the bigger picture beyond just you.

5. Hosting the World Cup – a very obvious visual change but what does it really mean for the locals? (o los pobres?) The unequal distribution of the benefits from the World Cup in Brazil. In Portuguese with Spanish subtitles.

 

In other news…

Summer is getting hot hot hot in Austin, Texas. The days are also longer which means you could do an 8pm run and it will be completely bright outside. Also, I continue to meet writers, artists, musicians of all sorts everyday, my preconceived “norm” of a 9-5 salaried job continues to shifts towards a one-life-live-it-do-what-you-love view. Short term target remains –> #RTWbefore30

Hidden gems in the Live Music Capital

Remember that chocolate fondue fountain at the buffet line? The past week at South by Southwest was basically a music fondue experience – amazingly good and continually flowing, seemingly endless good music. It was our first time experiencing the festival, and for SXSW rookies, it can be a pretty stressful experience. At any point of time, there will be 8372837421 events going on – we were told that the best strategy is to find a party with a nice atmosphere and stay throughout. Anyway, we survived. Without passes or wristbands, we still got to see a bunch of amazing stuff including a ton of awesome bands and the grumpy cat (yes the folks at Mashable actually brought the animal over to Austin).

It’s difficult to explain experiencing live, original music at its finest. In fact, just stumbling upon good music because we’ve never heard of many of these bands prior to the festival. Here’s what we’ve learnt – it’s seldom about the famous bands who are scheduled to play, but the rising unknowns that emerge to blow your mind with passion-filled music. Serendipity + music = a beautiful experience.

Here are some of my top picks from the past 2 weeks:

1. The Family Crest (CA) – a band formed through Craigslist, this group has an amazing story with more than 100 members participating in their recordings. Their lead singer has POWERFUL lungs.

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2. Eastern Sea (TX) – they played 6 songs during their set and every song sounded different from the one before.

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3. The Mowgli’s (CA) – apparently they are famous but all I know is that they play such fun music you just want to dance and smile

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4. Mighty Oaks – Berlin-based band with members from all over the world. This is one hidden find since it was their first time ever playing in the US after launching their first ever EP in Europe this year. Great music!

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5. Frances Cone (NY) – Lead singer has a raspy voice which combines beautifully with the harmony of the rest of her group. @Sofarsounds

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6. John Mark Nelson (MN) – I can’t describe this with words; try to put this all together – double bass, guitar, snare, accordion and great harmony @Sofarsounds

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Until the next musical extravaganza!