A place to put random occurrences in my life...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

An Outside Jog

I've been running at the gym for some time now, off and on. And truthfully, over the past year, it's been more off than on. That said, I've actually been pretty good at going for the last month or so - probably at least two to three times a week - with an occasional four times a week thrown in there. I've been doing it to get back in shape - and also with a more grandiose goal of one day participating in a marathon - not for any other reason but to say that I actually did.

I don't know if I'll ever get myself really ready for that marathon experience, but for the first time since adulthood, I took a real jog outside. I've been hanging out with my parents at their Port Jefferson home this week, and yesterday just happened to be a beautiful mid-November day in NY. After putting on a sweatshirt, Thien and I followed my dad outside. He proceeded to lead us on an almost 3 mile jog, which we completed in under 30 minutes.

I felt the cool wind on my cheeks as a I moved one foot after the other, stepping on rustling leaves that were strewn all over the windy road. We ran up hills, down hills, through a golf course and past some incredible houses. In the end, I enjoyed this run and I'm hoping that Thien will be able to motivate me for some more of these back in Santa Monica.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Thoughts on the closing of 600 Starbucks

I recently saw that Starbucks is closing 600 of their stores.  At first, I couldn't get my head around it.  After all, Starbucks has been opening stores across the street from their own existing stores for years - and yet they all seemed to be full of people willing to shell out over 4 bucks for a latte.  But it must be true as there's even this Google mashup maintained by the Seattle Times, which is tracking rumors of suspected stores that are going to be affected.

I continued to be a bit perplexed by the announcement.  I know that there are fears of a recession, the stock market is plunging day after day, a presidential election is underway - but people still need their coffee, right?  My best theory around this centered around the price of gas - when people are faced with either fueling themselves or their cars, maybe their cars were just winning out.

Since I'm fortunate enough to not have to drive much, given my one mile bike ride to work, I found myself in my usual spot inline at the Third Street Promenade Starbucks this morning.  In my defense, I skip the expensive espresso drinks and go straight to the drip of the day.  In any case, while waiting to order, I saw a barrista (is it proper to call a guy a barrista?) talking rather heatedly with a customer.  It turns out he was writing down the name of his manager so that the customer could lodge a complaint.

As I continued to eavesdrop on the conversation, I understood that the customer was ticked off.  It seems that the barrista had thrown out the customer's coffee, which had been placed on the area where folks add in their sugar, etc., right next to the tables.  Clearly the barrista had assumed that the coffee was left there by a customer who was no longer interested in it, and so he hastily threw it out.  All of that makes sense to me.  What doesn't make sense is the fact that the customer was visibly agitated after having just had his $4 drink thrown away, and the barrista was continuing to argue with him, saying that the coffee was not on a "table", and he was justified in his actions.  So now you've got 20 or so people looking at this situation thinking "that could have been my coffee that was just thrown out".  Why not give the customer a new coffee and apologize for the inconvenience?

Are the barrista's not empowered in this way?  I thought one of the magic bits of goodness behind Starbucks was their ability to give there employees a sense of ownership.  If you were an owner of this store, wouldn't you give away a free cup of coffee to avoid a lot of bad will (never mind that you would probably have gained goodwill instead)?  Perhaps it's the decrease in the level of customer service interactions that's causing the closing of these 600 stores...  if that's the case, it would seem like such an easy thing to fix...

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Getting my bike tuned...

So it's been a while since I've been out on my mountain bike - I think the last time I road it was with Sonya & Dan, so it must have been before Sonya was pregnant with Jack...  Let's call it about a year...

Since that last time, my bike has been sitting in Sonya's garage, gathering dust - and rust.  We got rained on a bit during that last ride, and I neglected to clean my bike off, thinking I'd be back up at Sonya's house and riding it just like I used to, maybe something like once or twice a month - clearly that didn't happen.

On my way up to Santa Monica, I stopped by the Nornam house to pick up the bike...  let's just say that I was surprised to see the condition the bike was in since I had long forgotten that last ride.  Putting the bike into the back seat of the Audi, I felt like I was just handling a large piece of mud. 

Anyway, long story short, I got the bike to Santa Monica, rode it to work, and decided that it needed a tuneup in a major way.  I just dropped it off at the bike store at lunch, and if all goes well, I should expect to see the bike again towards the end of next week - and all I have to do is hand over somewhere between three and four hundred bucks!  Looks like in addition to the "advanced tuneup" ($125), I also need new front and back gears, brake pads, and one or two other items that I missed... 

And I thought riding my bike to work would be the cheaper option!

Update: Thien talked me out of getting my bike fixed, so I got a new "city" bike for $400...  I'll keep the old one around and maybe Stern can fix it up for me at some point... ;)

Sunday, February 3, 2008

AOL Acquires Goowy!

Alex, Jeremy, Sashi and I embarked on an adventure a few years ago.  We came together as a unit, with a simple goal - build a much better web based email system than anything in existence, with a major focus on the graphical user interface aspects (GUI - hence the company's name). 

We started designing in October of 2004.  At that point, we didn't even have an office, so we collaborated at each other's apartments, in coffee shops, and wherever we happened to be.  When we finally found a "nice" office space which we could afford (meaning it was cheap), we jumped at the opportunity - it was a second floor walkup, above a porno store (adult videos and novelties) and right next door to a psychic - fun, fun, fun!  Nonetheless, working nights and weekends, we cranked out code and had a "friends and family" release in March of 2005.

The initial product was called Goowy Mail.  It was written with Flash as the front end.  This meant that we could offer desktop-like functionality - right-click context sensitive menus, drag and drop, keyboard shortcuts, etc. - all while delivering the experience in a browser without the need for any downloads.  This was just at the time that the term AJAX was just coined - making our product fairly revolutionary. 

We started gaining some traction, with a few nice reviews from all of the top blogs including Techcrunch, but we quickly discovered it was tough to convert users to a new email system, no matter how good it was.  As Alex used to say, it's like giving someone an incredible phone (now that the iPhone is out, I'm sure he would have plugged that right in), but insisting that the person had to have a new phone number to go along with it - as great as the utility is, the inconvenience of informing all of your friends of your new contact information is sometimes a bit too overwhelming.  In addition, Yahoo (with their purchase of OddPost), Hotmail (with an internally created app call Kahuna), AOL (with their purchase of Mailblocks) and GMail all began releasing compelling versions of email products.

With that in mind, we added in more functionality which we believed would help in solidifying the experience and enhancing the offering - calendaring and then a start page-like interface, complete with widgets.  All of this contributed to our continued user growth and to our believe that we were onto something.  It even helped with our fundraising, and we were fortunate enough to partner up with the ultimate maverick - Mark Cuban, towards the end of 2005. 

We continued to innovate and add in more components into the overall solution.  We added in file storage with a partnership with our friends at box.net and also layered in integrated instant messaging - both in March of 2006.  We had what I consider to be the first, application rich, webtop.  Essentially, everything (other than a virtual Office) that a user would need to manage their digital lifestyle, all available in an awesome interface, and accessible through the cloud.  And that's when we began to think that maybe we had built too much - that the webtop had become a bit overpowering for people.

In the summer of 2006, we did some deep soul searching - trying to figure out the best foot forward.  Maybe we hadn't yet reached out to the perfect demographic?  Maybe we needed to build in yet another killer feature to put us over the edge?  Maybe we needed to invest in some outside expertise (buzz creation, marketing, PR, etc.) to get to the next level?  In the end, we decided that we had the internal expertise to push forward - and that we needed a simpler product to bring to market.

yourminis.com was launched in November of 2006 as a completely Flash based start page.  We knew that we would have to iterate, while keeping the environment and the product as simple as possible.  Rather than focusing on building applications with complex infrastructure requirements (email and IM are two of the biggest), we concentrated on widgetizing content by creating small, vibrant, interactive "minis" that would run inside of our start page.  We built a ton of these widgets for various web services including Digg, Craigslist, Amazon, Flickr, etc. - and our users loved them.

The next step was to "release" the minis from our own start page, and to turn them into true widgets.  Widgets that can run everywhere - and behave appropriately in each environment!  Initially our widgets worked in environments such as MySpace, blogs and personal sites.  Shortly thereafter, we developed hooks to third party start page environments such as Netvibes and iGoogle.  And as demand for our widgets increased, we quickly deployed onto the desktop, initially with Adobe's Apollo product (now called AIR - Adobe Integrated Runtime) and expanded to Vista Sidebar, Mac Dashboard and the Yahoo Widget Engine.  Our widgets really do run everywhere.

Along the way, we started selling the widget platform to media companies, large and small.  The thought was that we could build some great widgets better and faster than anyone else leveraging our API and then we would provide the hosting of the widgets, which would allow us to provide for syndication and detailed analytics.  We quickly realized that customers will willing to pay an hourly development fee and a monthly hosting/syndication/analtyics/maintenance fee - this revenue helped us to maintain an incredibly low burn throughout - and we even turned in a few months straight of profitability!  Many thanks to our friends at MTV who were among the first to validate this model and who became a showcase customer for us.

Alex and I have worked together for virtually our entire professional careers (other than the first three months post college) and we've worked with Jeremy since January of 1997.  Even Sashi, the newest member of this foursome, has been with us for over eight years at this point.  There's nothing like working with your closest friends to make your dreams come true.  As an added bonus, the four of us have picked up a couple of new friends - our star employees, Hart and Gavan Woolery, without whom I think we would have had a very different product and company.  The twins have played a major role in the Goowy story and I know that our friendship will continue on.

In the end, this was a very long road, one filled with more ups and downs than I can possibly recount - thankfully the ups were always much higher than the downs.  This was an incredible experience which I will cherish forever.  I look forward to continuing the adventure as a part of AOL, hopefully impacting a much larger audience, while contributing to the growth of AOL.

Further reading, courtesy of Techcrunch.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A long customer service interaction, finally concluded...

For the past year or so, I've had an interesting problem.  Although I'm pretty good at remembering my online passwords, I had somehow managed to forget my password for My T-Mobile.  Naturally, I tried to reset my password with the forgot password functionality, and that's where the fun began. 

Instead of receiving my new password, via text to my RIM, I got a not so friendly, red, error message that said something to the effect of:

An error has occurred in resetting your password.  This is a temporary error.  Please try again later.

As may be expected, I decided to try again later, in a couple of hours.  I received the same message and thought that there may be something wrong with the website, so I decided to wait for a few days.  Unfortunately, after clicking 'Next' I was seeing the all to familiar red, once again. 

I decided that there couldn't possibly be something wrong with the site for such a long period of time - other customers must be complaining, right?  Maybe it was something with my browser?  I cleared my cookies (for TMobile.com) and my cache and I gave Firefox another shot - still no good.  Just to be sure, I launched IE - and was greeted with yet more red.

I finally had enough and placed a call to customer care.  After explaining the issue, I was told that there was in fact a problem with the site at that time.  I must have been especially fortunate.  That first call was made roughly 12-18 months ago.  Since then, I've probably called into customer care an average of two to three times a month, constantly re-telling my story and listening to excuses, waiting for escalations to different departments, and wondering if the promised call backs would ever come.

I generally consider myself to be a fairly busy chap, so spending all of this time on the phone with customer care didn't particularly appeal to me - but I needed access to my account.  Although I would have enjoyed having access to my billing information and all the other niceties that make My TMobile such a special place, I especially needed access to the Blackberry configuration screen.  This is the screen in which I had configured my email signature, with a tag line for my company.  As time went on, we had stopped using this particular tag line, but I had no way of removing it from my Blackberry signature, giving me constant consternation.

Last week I saw a blog post discussing a Verizon customer care horror story.  Although my particular issue didn't involve the sharing of personal information, I was definitely feeling like I was being given the run around, and that this was ultimately because the folks that I was speaking to just didn't care enough to solve my problem.  I thought that if I detailed the pain I was going through, I would at the very least show Andru that he's not the only one going through customer care hell.

So last Friday I picked up the phone and dialed customer care.  After all this time, I've become fairly acclimated to their phone system and I could reach an operator pretty quickly.  I began by saying "English" as soon as the IVR kicked in.  After entering my phone number (I was calling from a different phone as the TMobile folks have a habit of making me call back on another line for troubleshooting purposes, even though the issue had nothing to do with my actual phone), I immediately said "Agent". 

Judy answered the phone and very quickly realized that she was not going to solve my issue, which had been opened for an eternity.  She transferred my to Raquel, that promised to manage the case for me on an ongoing basis and escalated me to third level support.  She also gave me a trouble ticket number, which would finally allow me to get directly to the third tier without going through the same monotonous process.  I finally felt like I was getting somewhere.  And then I was finally transferred to Risa, who spent a few minutes with me, told me that my issue was "simple" and that it would be resolved shortly.  After having heard this multiple times, I expressed my doubts - and Risa followed up by telling me that she felt highly confident that the problem would be resolved by Monday.  I had never been given such a tight ETA, so I was feeling lucky.

Lo and behold, I got a text message sometime on Saturday with my new temporary password.  I logged in, changed my password and also changed my signature - hurrah!  Judy, Raquel & Risa - thank you so much for actually solving my problem.  Andru - thank you for blogging about your customer service challenge - it inspired me to make this last call that led to a resolution.

In the end, I can't imagine that I was the only one having this problem, but I think it probably was some kind of unexpected use case that got my account into a funk.  This issue should have been resolved within days, but there is a lack of accountability in a call center such as the one run by TMobile.  I would guess that agents aren't promoted for closing cases and aren't penalized for letting cases stay open for over a year.  Just a little bit more caring on the part of customer care would have likely gone a long way.  In any case, I'm thrilled that the Judy/Raquel/Risa trio managed to get this issue of my plate...  Thanks again to all three of you...

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Going under the knife... err, laser...

Earlier this week, Thien went in for surgery, to correct her vision.  Thien's had terrible vision for most of her life, necessitating thick, bottle cap glasses, which brought out her inner nerd:

nerd_glasses_eye_wear_glass

Thien did what she could to avoid being a nerd, which generally meant wearing her glasses as infrequently as possibly and resorting to contact lenses instead.  For the most part, she was fine with contacts, but as anyone whose every worn them knows, there are times when they dry out or otherwise irritate your eyes. 

In short, Thien had determined that she wanted to have better vision.  With that, the task was to find a surgeon that she felt comfortable with to perform the procedure. Now that the procedure has been successfully completed, and I get to look back on this with 20/20, I can take the credit for the first step in finding that right doctor.  I was running on the treadmill in our gym downstairs, and I saw a commercial for the Alpha Center, starring Dr. Motwani himself.  I came back upstairs and told Thien to call 877-SEE-ALPHA.

After doing some more research and visiting the center, Thien decided to go forward with the procedure.  On Monday, she went in for some pre-op testing and procedures.  And on Tuesday, it was time for the actual procedure.  Prior to leaving the condo, I got this picture of Thien, wearing her glasses, hopefully for the last time:

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At the center, with her surgical cap donned prior to the procedure, Thien was definitely getting nervous.  I think part of it was the anticipation caused by sitting in the waiting room, but luckily that didn't last too long.

IMG_0842 

Finally, Thien was moved into the procedure room.  I got to sit right outside on a comfortable couch, and watch the procedure through a large glass window.  Unfortunately, I couldn't hear the dialog inside, so it was sort of like watching one of those old black and white movies that had some music overlay, but without any actual voices - except this was obviously in color... ;)  Anyway, they sat Thien in a chair and gave her a tiny stuffed bear to hold onto during the procedure.  In talking after, Thien and I both agreed that they need a much larger stuffed toy to give patients something a bit more substantial to grab onto.

It's hard to tell from this photo, but Thien is already anxiously clutching onto the toy, even before she's positioned for the procedure:

IMG00005

From what I could see, the surgery seemed to be going very nicely.  Unfortunately, there wasn't much for me to see, other than Dr. Motwani's skillful operation of a joystick, which I assumed guided the laser.  15-20 minutes after starting, the doctor came out and told me that "She did great - she barely moved".

After the surgery, Thien went in for some post-op testing.  Although she no longer had to wear glasses, I managed to catch her in a shot wearing "protective lenses".

IMG_0843

It's now been about 5 days after the procedure, and although Thien still has to wear the protective lenses at night and use various eye drops multiple times during the day, she no longer has any discomfort.  Thien's vision certainly isn't 20/20 at this point, but she can read a book without any help from corrective lenses of any kind.   We're looking forward to the continuing follow up over the next week or so, and we're excited to see how good her vision ends up...

Sunday, January 6, 2008

What an unforgettable start to our Thailand trip...

After a couple of months of trying to plan our wedding remotely, Thien and I realized that we had to visit Thailand - and more specifically Koh Samui - to really understand what we were dealing with. We figured that we could make a bit of a vacation out of it, and celebrate the New Year in Bangkok as well. To make things even better, Alex and Shari decided to go with us to help us with our decision.

Unfortunately, all of this thinking came about really late in the game and we had to scramble to get airline tickets as most routes were sold out. We eventually settled for a ticket that took us from San Diego to Los Angeles, onto Tokyo and finally to Bangkok. Actually, once we reached Bangkok, we had to take one more flight to Koh Samui. Total travel time, including waiting for our connections was approximately 33 hours!

After submitting to such a hellish flight schedule, we thought the toughest part of the trip would be sitting on our butts for such a long time. Ultimately, that was the easiest part of the trip...

Our first flight was scheduled to leave at 10:15 from San Diego. Since we were leaving from the Commuter Terminal, we thought that if we got there at 9:30, we would have more than enough time to check in. But we wanted to be prudent, so we agreed to leave our condo at 8:30 - and we only live 15 minutes from the airport. At around 8:15, Alex got a call from American Airlines telling him that our 10:15 flight was canceled - and that we should get to the airport ASAP as they couldn't provide us with any more information over the phone.

We ran outside and grabbed a cab on the street by 8:28, abandoning the cab that we had scheduled for 8:30. After struggling to get our luggage into the cab (mostly due to the size of Shari's bag), we were on our way. Unfortunately, the taxi driver was determined to go right on 10th - the wrong way on a one way street! All of us shouted at him, and he realized his mistake. He then tried to drive forward - right through a red light! Some more yelling, and he realized his second mistake.

On our way to the airport, I kept thinking of what we would do if we couldn't get to LA in time for our 12:00 connection. When booking the flights, we were told that all of the flights from Tokyo to Bangkok were full. And more importantly, I had taken the only available seats for any flights from Bangkok to Koh Samui - I was incredibly nervous thinking that if we somehow missed our connection in LA, we would have no way of making it to Koh Samui for this trip.

We finally made it to the airport, and while Alex and I paid the driver and got our luggage, the girls went inside to try to figure out our situation. When Alex and I entered the ticketing area a couple of minutes later, we were relieved to see that the girls were already at the counter, and were being helped. We were quickly told that there was a 9:30 flight and that there was plenty of room on it for us. That's when it became obvious to us that our flight was canceled due to a lack of people - they figured they could consolidate the two flights at the last minute. Only airlines can get away with canceling a flight during the holidays without a good "consumer" reason - something really needs to be done with the industry.

In any case, the boarding cards were printing and we were all feeling good. And then the lady behind the counter said, "Who's Shari Bard?". We were all a bit confused, but Shari quickly responded with, "That's me!". After some back and forth, we understood the issue - Shari's ticket was bought for Shari Bard but she had never changed her password and it still referenced her maiden name - Shari Wolf. Even though Shari had her license which showed her as Shari Wolf Bard, she was told that this was insufficient and that she needed to either get her marriage license or to get a notarized document showing the name change. As our flight was leaving in less than 30 minutes, this was more than just a bit nerve wracking.

Shari rushed home to grab her marriage license. Only problem was that she couldn't find it! Meanwhile we were back at the airport, being told to board. I was yelling at the gate agent telling her that there is no way she could close the flight out or give Shari's ticket away - while Alex was working his magic with the ticketing agent. I don't know how Alex made it happen, but somehow he managed to get Shari a boarding pass for the flight to LA, and it was now up to Shari to make it back to the airport. Finally, after much nail biting, Shari's taxi finally pulled up to the curb and Shari jumped out and ran with Alex to security. Of course, as luck would have it, she was selected for additional inspection, costing us another couple of minutes.

As we walked to the plane, Thien was leaving a voicemail for her mobile notary - we would still have to deal with the issue of Shari traveling internationally once we got to LA. Once we landed, Thien checked her voicemail and found that there was actually a notary at the airport. We called the number for the next 90 minutes straight - and no one ever answered - maybe it had something to do with the fact that we were calling on Christmas Eve. While Thien manned the phone, the rest of us were dealing with the gate agents, who had the same stance as the agents in San Diego - that Shari wouldn't be able to travel. And, to boot, they were extra peeved at the San Diego agents for allowing us to get this far - apparently it screwed up their systems even more.

After a while, we found that the issue was that our flights were on a code share with Japan Airlines. The flight to Tokyo was operated by American, but the flight from Tokyo to Bangkok was operated by Japan. If the American agent made the name change (which is what we needed to do), the reservation for the flight from Tokyo would get dropped in the Japan system - something having to do with the fact that it was within 24 hours of travel time. Shari and Alex raced over to the Japan Airlines desk in the neighboring terminal, while I continued to deal with the agent at our gate.

Alex and Shari did their thing and eventually came back to our gate, thinking that they had made the necessary changes. But it wasn't to be - according to our gate agent, Helen, the change made by the Japan Airlines staff didn't help and she still couldn't let Shari board. Helen was cursing us and saying that we had given her the biggest headache ever, but at the same time, she was feverishly working the keyboard, almost setting it on fire, trying to sort the issue out. We kept pleading with her, encouraging her, begging her, and she kept on cursing us - but her fingers never stopped moving along the keys.

Cutting the very long story short, Helen - in true miracle worker fashion - made the necessary changes and got Shari a boarding pass. The four of us were the very last people to board as the plane's door closed behind us. What an emotional start to the trip!

After 12 hours of flight, we landed in Tokyo and departed the plane. As we were walking out, we saw a printed sign for "Shari Bard". Our nerves tightened up, and all we could think was "Not again!". Shari made herself known to an agent, and he explained to her that everything was alright, except that she was booked on the wrong flight back from Bangkok! The good news is that they were aware of this issue and quickly made the necessary changes to get us on our way. Phew!

Another 7 plus hours, and we finally landed in Bangkok at just before midnight, the night of Christmas. We cleared customs quickly and made our way to baggage check. Given the stress of the day, it's easy to guess what happened at this point - that's right, all four of our bags were misplaced! We talked with the baggage agents and were informed that our bags had been left behind in Japan. They would show up on the same flight as we had taken, one day later.

Clearly this was a problem as we were heading on to Koh Samui and would not be able to pick up our bags in Bangkok the next day. We were told that our bags would follow us to Koh Samui, and that they would even be delivered to our hotel. As disappointing as the temporary loss of our bags was, the 12,000 Baht ($400) we were given as compensation, helped to generate some decent goodwill towards the airlines.

With another six hours to go before our flight to Koh Samui, and devoid of luggage, what else were we to do but go and get a foot massage - I highly recommend it:

We made it to Koh Samui, were we had to parade around in our sweat pants (or whatever we happened to wear on the flight), while dealing with quite a bit of rain. Luckily, the girls got their luggage the next morning, the guys got their luggage the next night, and the rain didn't return for the rest of our trip...

The really good news is that I have absolutely nothing to say about our return trip - that's just how pleasantly uneventful it was...