“Compassion and Wisdom” – Words of the Dalai Lama

Today I was one of a few thousand who was fortunate enough to hear the Dalai Lama speak. He visited the University of Washington to receive an honorary doctorate degree and graced the audience, mostly composed of students and faculty, with advise and wisdom.

Applaud started right as the marshal welcomed His Holiness into the arena. Everyone was clapping and happy. Then suddenly when he finished climbing the stairs onto the stage, the applaud escalated to a level that I’ve only heard at sports arenas. Students were hooting and yelling, clapping and whistling. It was almost as though the room had been filled by hundreds of thousands of new people, when really only His Holiness and a few apprentices had entered.

My first impression of the Dalai Lama was that of a humble and grateful man. He bowed and smiled as he entered the room and insisted that people sit down, for he was of no importance. He walked slowly with his hands together in the prayer position, smiling all the while. President Emmert and other high educators said a few short words and eventually gave the Dalai Lama a purple graduation gown and a large plaque. Everyone was applauding, but really they were waiting for him to speak.

He began by speaking his native tongue to ensure that his gratitude was accurately communicated. His translator said how grateful he was to be given this degree and to be given the opportunity to speak in front of a crowd of students. After his thanks he told a few jokes about his poor English and his degree for which he didn’t study at all for. He spoke slowly and carefully, and his English was broken but understandable.

He started by explaining that peace does not depend on the sky but instead on ourselves. Violence, hatred, and war are human inventions, and only compassion and wisdom can be the basis for peace. One must be truly at peace with oneself before sharing peace with others, and to be at peace with oneself, you have to be able to use your mind to expel violent and angry thoughts, which come naturally to anyone included His Holiness. Conflict is also natural and unavoidable, and his hope was that dialog would be used to unite conflicting opinions instead of war being used to destroy them.

The talk was absolutely wonderful and enlightening, and though I could put more detail into my story I chose not to. Instead of supplying more detail I want to share one of the stories he told, which touched me the most of anything he said. He was telling a story about enemies and people who do not have compassion or internal peace. One of the students who was elected to ask him a question asked him, “How do you share your compassion with your enemies and with those who do not have compassion?” He answered, and I paraphrase, “I do not know (chuckling). When in the presence of such people I try to smile, tell jokes, and be as happy as possible.” I can’t help but smile and feel totally happy when I envision his kind, loving, welcoming face say these words.

There is more that I’d like to say, but I don’t think my small blog post would do his message any justice at all. I instead plan to try and be good to my neighbors and respect those around me as est I can. I will try to not let anger, greed, or jealousy affect me, and I will try to smile as much as I can. I’m very grateful I was given this opportunity to be in his presence, and I hope that you too will be given an opportunity to see the Dalai Lama speak.

Photo credit: here and Jeff Prouty.

HST Gaper Day

What’s a gaper, you ask? A gaper by definition is someone who dresses for looks. What that means in snowboard speak is someone who dresses strait ’70s, ’80s, and maybe even early ’90s. The colorful Husky Snowboard Team tore through Stevens yesterday, hooting and stretching. We BBQed in the parking lot and celebrated the last weekend of the snow season.

Here’s the team (minus a few people):

I can’t wait for gaper day next season.

Snowboard Down Everest 51 Times in 24 Hours

The Husky Snowboard Team just got back from Hope on the Slopes, a fund raising event for the American Cancer Society and a race for the most vertical in 24 hours at Stevens Pass. We brought back the trophy for having the most combined team vertical. Fifteen of us went down Skyline and Hogsback enough times to total a whopping 1.5 million vertical feet in just 24 hours (I had around 110,000). That means that the combined vertical distance we traveled in 24 hours could have brought one person down Mt. Everest (at 29,000 feet) to sea level 51 times (that’s 284 vertical miles).

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How did we accomplish this feat, you ask? A combination of energy drinks, coffee, no sleep, and teamwork. Here’s the story:

First session: 9:30am – 12:30pm
All 15 of us start on Skyline. We want to try and have some fun during the day, so some of us hit the park and others just bombed down. We were all feeling good by 12:30pm. Aleah is making everyone a sandwich. Chris is firing up his water boiler for a first-class on-hill lunch.

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Second session: 1:15pm – 5:00pm
Same story as first session. Some people hit the park, and others just bomb. By this time we had a good idea of what our competition looked like, and it wasn’t looking good. The Swiss Ski Club had some nasty skiers that we could barely keep up with. It was going to be a long night/morning.

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Third session: 5:30pm – 10:30pm
Pretty much same story. We’re all feeling good. None of us are that tired, but we’re ready for the BBQ. We head in for the BBQ, and some of us prepare for the free wax/edge sharpen going on at 11:00pm.

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Fourth session: 11:30pm – 4:00am
First, keep in mind that 2:00am was totally skipped because of daylight savings. This is where things start to get tough. Eight of the 15 decide to nap, and the other seven start CHARGING. By this time we had the first round of statistics (all results up to 7:00pm), and it looked like we had the lead by a narrow margin. Skyline closes, so we’re forced to run Hogsback over and over again. In fact, we’re forced to head down the same run every time. No matter. Our bomb squad figures out the fastest route and does lap after lap, only turning to avoid other people. I’m not even kidding. For 2.5 hours these 7 dudes and dude-ettes did nothing but point and ride the chairlift up. The run was recently groomed, so the snow was hard and fast.

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Fifth session: 4:30am – 9:30am
We get word that as of 12:00am, we were in first place with 700,000 vertical, leading the second place team by a mere 9,000 vertical. It’s go time. Kelly starts pumping up the team, and all 15 of us ride the entire session. In fact, we don’t just ride it; WE KILL IT. All 15 of us are charging as hard as we can – barely any turning. By this time there wasn’t any room for conversation. We all went at our own pace, rode our own chairs (for the most part), and got in the zone. We would buckle in on the chairlift to avoid wasting time at the top, and we would only speak to say “hi!” to other HST people that we saw along the way or to give a “Yeeehaw!” if we saw someone from the chairlift. This was serious business; we had to win.

We ended up winning by a margin of 100,000 vertical, which isn’t all that much. We each accepted our metals and our $100 gift certificates and tried not to fall asleep on the drive home. We all had an insanely good time.

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Alright, it’s time for me to go to sleep. In summary, HST dominates Hope on the Slopes. Big thanks to Kelly for organizing everything, Paul for raising a GRIP of money, and Aleah, Chris, Alex, Kelsi, Michelle, Josh, Kyle, Kyle, Sena, Corry, Fareed, and Scott for SHREDDING LIKE IT’S NOBODY’S BUSINESS.

Good night.

Mammoth Mountain: Why I Think It’s the Best

I recently returned from a long visit to Mammoth Mountain. I had a few different conversations up there about Mammoth’s awesomeness and its comparison to other mountains such as Whistler, Vail, Alta, and Squaw, so I wanted to share my views on Mammoth.

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I will start by making the claim that Mammoth is the best – the best terrain, the best lifts, and some of the best conditions. I don’t travel to mountains to party, eat good food, or shop; I travel to mountains to shred. I have one goal in mind: snowboard long and hard. I go to sleep early, I eat home-cooked breakfasts and dinners, and I pack my own lunches (if I’m not lazy at the time). My time spent at mountains is centered around snowboarding, and everything I do outside of snowboarding is focused on recovering from a ridiculous day or getting ready for another sick day. Mammoth is definitely not the best place for nightlife, food, and shopping, but I don’t really care about those aspects. Oh, and I don’t spend any time in the park.

Mammoth has the best terrain of any mountain I’ve ever been to. I don’t know what to do with myself at Mammoth. There are so many ski-able acres of insanely steep alpine, insanely steep and gladed trees, huge and fast groomers, and giant hucks. In one day you can get the best turns of your life through the trees and later go faster than you’ve ever gone down an untracked alpine double-black. In that same day you can launch a giant cliff and point a ridiculously narrow chute. The terrain at Mammoth is unbeatable. No other mountain has the variety, the difficult, and the insanity. No other mountain is as accessible either, which leads me into my next point: lifts.

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Mammoth has the best lifts of any mountain I’ve ever been to. If there is a sick run, then there will be a lift going over it. You can make lap after lap on most of the terrain that I just discussed. Chair 22 starts at the bottom of Lincoln mountain and ends at the top. You can make 20 runs down the best tree skiing you’ve ever done in one day on Lincoln mountain. You can also leave Lincoln and 10-15 minutes later be at the steepest alpine you’ve ever done, gondola 2 or chair 23. You can then shred lap after lap on that alpine hill. There are lifts that let you lap the sickest runs, and there are lifts that take you from one sick run to another.

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Mammoth has some of the best conditions of any mountain I’ve ever been to. It’s true that the snow in Mammoth is typically heavier than Colorado and Utah snow, but the dumps that hit Mammoth are legendary. I’ve been at Mammoth when they’ve gotten seven feet of snow in one day. I’ve also been there when they’ve gotten over twelve feet of snow in a three-day weekend. The snow is heavier but insanely plentiful. Mammoth is also good at handling these huge dumps. A lot of resorts will shut down with a three-foot dump, but Mammoth won’t. They’ll bomb the alpine slopes and leave the tree sections alone, and they’ll have the mountain ready to go in the morning. A lot of times I will be woken up at 5:00 or 6:00am the morning after a big dump because of the avalanche control. There’s nothing like the sound of bombs going off in the morning.

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As you can tell, I love Mammoth. I think it’s the best mountain, but I naturally have a bias. I’ve spent my whole life on Mammoth, so I know it like the back of my hand. I know where to go when the snow is good, and I know where to go when the snow is bad. If you haven’t gone to Mammoth yet and you love the snow, then you should get down there. Unfortunately it’s difficult to get to because there are no nearby airports, but the drives to and from give you lots of time to reflect on the nastiest trip of your life. Oh, and don’t forget to dress like a superstar, because the image-driven Los Angeles crowd will be dressed to kill. (this is actually one of the few annoying things about Mammoth – people are dressed like idiots usually)

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Cellarspot: Why It Failed

Some classmates and I launched a social network for wine lovers called Cellarspot, which was my first pseudo-business endeavor. We had about 90 registered users within the first week of launch, and now, about nine months later, we have about 100 registered users. I thought some other young internet entrepreneurs would be interested in hearing why I thought it failed and what I would change if I did it again.

Before diving in I should spend some time describing Cellarspot. The main purpose of the site is to allow people to become friends and share taste notes, bottle collections, and blog posts. There are a few other smaller features as well, but the core of the site focuses on taste notes, collections, friends, and blogs. I worked on Cellarspot in class and also outside of class with a few of my classmates.

Problem 1: UI
The largest problem is the UI. Our original thoughts were that we should focus on a functional site and not on an aesthetic site. We thought that as long as features were discoverable and intuitive that they’d be used and loved. We were wrong. According to Google Analytics, our overall bounce rate is roughly 70%. That is, of all the users that come to our site, 70% of them leave after viewing the first page that they landed on.

This metric implies that either the content being presented on each page isn’t useful, the content isn’t easily discoverable, or the look of the site doesn’t leave people wanting more. I think we got all three of these wrong. First off, the site is very unattractive. In fact, there isn’t a single image on the entire site – just plain text. I questioned some of our preliminary users about why they didn’t like the site, and most of them said that they didn’t enjoy looking at the site. We should have spent more time on an aesthetic UI, which for me means delegating the UI work to someone else. I’m confident in my CSS abilities, but I absolutely cannot make pretty looking layouts with images, design elements, awesome colors, etc. I think we did a good job of making data discoverable and useful, though.

Problem 2: Landing Pages
Landing pages are pages that people land on when they first view the site (in most cases this is the front page). We should have spent more time thinking about how people would access our site. It turns out that people won’t always land on the front page and might instead land on a bottle page. We didn’t even consider this, and it turns out that most of our traffic comes from organic search and lands on a bottle page. I’m sure that most people who land on this page say, “What the hell does this site do and why is it so ugly?” We should have included some descriptive text on the bottle page so people would at least be able to learn more about Cellarspot.

Problem 3: Understand Your Demographic
As much as we thought we understood our demographic, we didn’t; we were too general. For example, we said that our demographic was “wine lovers.” What does that mean? How old are they? Are they computer savvy? What background do the come from? Why are they going to be using our site? These are questions that we should have answered better. If I could do it again, I would build the site for young Web 2.0ers and not so much for older wine lovers. There are a few reasons for this belief. First, young people are less likely to have lots of wine, making their initial commitment to Cellarspot very small (they don’t have to type in lots of bottles and notes). Second, Web 2.0ers are easier to market to in that viral, internet-based marketing would probably do the trick. Generally you have to spend money on various ad mediums to attract less tech-involved people to the internet. Third, Web 2.0ers are more likely to understand design elements such as tabs, drop down arrows, etc. If we targeted young Web 2.0ers from the beginning, we could have catered the UI more, making the probability of it being used and spread higher.

Problem 4: Know Your Use Cases
We should have spent more time thinking about use cases, which go hand-and-hand with understanding your demographic. When a user is on page X, what are they looking for? Why are they on this page? What is the main thing they are trying to accomplish? By truly understanding use cases, you are more likely to create a site or feature that will be used. Don’t try to figure out these use cases on your own either. Ask questions to people that might be using your site at some point. I did tons of research for Cellarspot, where I spoke with young and old wine lovers about how they would use the site. I did a poor job of synthesizing those thoughts and understanding Cellarspot’s use cases.

Problem 5: Make Economic Decisions
I spent a lot of money on a rack-mountable Dell server thinking (knowing) that Cellarspot would be successful. I also spent (and still spend) too much money colocating that server, although now the server is actually being used by lots of other sites, including this blog. Start small with hosting and scale your hosting options as demand rises. Start with a standard web host or Amazon EC2 and buy your own servers later only if you have to. Don’t get me wrong, buying my own monster rack-mount and colocating it in a data center was awesome, but it’s absolutely not economic. Here are some bonus pictures of the server and data center:

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Robert playing with things.

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Tony, our network admin, hanging out in the data center.

It Doesn’t Matter What You Think; It Matters What Your Users Think
While rereading my post before publishing, I realized that I say “I think blah” a lot. This made me remember the words of a former professor of mine, John Castle. You can make claims about what your users will think, but you have no way of validating those claims unless you actually speak to your (potential) users. Prior to making a product, do some research. Talk to some people in your demographic. Ask them what they want in a product and how they would use that product. It doesn’t matter what you think; it matters what your demographic thinks. The best way to know what your demographic thinks is to interview them and find out for yourself.

Cellarspot was a failed business but not a failed experience. I learned an insane amount from pursuing Cellarspot, and to this day most of my interviews involve Cellarspot. I don’t regret anything about it at all, but I wish I had the time and motivation to launch a sweeter, more badass Cellarspot. Try your best to launch an awesome product, and make sure you learn as much as you can from the launch. In my case, the experience gained from launching a product greatly outweighed all other aspects of the product, especially the (negative) cash flow