Thoughts on Entrepreneurship & Life by Sam Huleatt

Amazon Credit As Global Currency

I’ve worked with a developer based in Ukraine for close to 10 years on both personal and business projects. I used to send him payments via PayPal, but PayPal no longer works in Ukraine. Two years ago we moved to Western Union. I’m pretty sure Western Union is about the worst service out there – I have never had a payment go through without some issue. However, this last payment took five calls and 25 days before they told me my payment was canceled. I’d had enough. The developer (also completely frustrated) suggested I send him an Amazon “e” gift card. It had never occurred to me that even in Ukraine Amazon is ubiquitous.

The transfer went through in about 30 seconds.

Hats off Amazon, and perhaps a new global currency.

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Building a Virtual Hotel Brand

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I prefer hotels over Airbnb, especially when traveling for business — but this could change…

I posit that I (and many other mid to high-end business travelers) could be swayed to choose an Airbnb over a hotel with the advent of a “virtual hotel brand” built on top of the Airbnb platform.

Several recent trips to San Francisco and Austin have left me sticker shocked by hotel prices. A nice hotel in either city, can be $400+ mid-week. It seems sort of crazy and yet I have still paid the hotel rates. Why? I prefer hotels because: I know what I’m going to get, logistic simplicity and amenities. For me, Airbnb also still has a bit of an image problem: I tend to think of it as a “budget option” where I need to sacrifice all the aforementioned. This is where a virtual hotel comes into play — provide curation/standardization, logistics and amenities surpassing old-school hotels while leveraging Airbnb.

When you’re on a tight travel schedule, knowing what you will get is super important. People will pay sky high prices at say, the Four Seasons, because they know the property, experience and service will consistently be first-class. To help standardize business travel on Airbnb, I could see someone effectively curating a number of properties in different cities with great locations, near areas people typically conduct business. I’d come to trust this new hotel brand to book me a property sight unseen, without my needing to look at maps and read reviews and go back and fourth with the owner. This new hotel would make getting the key a breeze — perhaps they would have an Uber pick me up at the airport, and the driver would hand me the key prior to dropping me off at the front door.

Next, the virtual hotel would layer on value added services mimicking (or exceeding) a hotel. Rather than the host’s potentially crappy towels, the virtual hotel would have arrived in advance, checked out the apartment and equipped it with high-end towels, soaps, etc, and maybe added a few local beers to the fridge. It would also provide a daily maid service (optional) and contract with great neighborhood gyms and / or yoga studios, baking these amenities into the price or charging me on demand through an app. The virtual chain might even move beyond typical hotel perks to offer say booking meeting spaces (WeWork or Breather), or potentially providing a curated dinning experience I’d otherwise not be able to find on my own. Some of these demand amenities, I can obviously already book on my own, but making the experience simple, curated and frictionless on the payment side would be great.

A virtual hotel chain like this could easily win my business travel loyalty. I think at scale, the margins would still back out with lower price points than a typical higher-end hotel.


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Seeking Whitespace in Technology


As an early adopter of new technologies, now and again I discover some “whitespace”; a web or app that seems to provide a disproportionate ROI for my use. Tripit is a great example: I travel frequently and rely on my calendar to stay on schedule. With virtually no additional overhead, Tripit grabs all my travel bookings from Gmail, aggregates it in one place, with all the details, and allows me to easily share with family or co-workers. That’s a huge ROI in the form of time savings for only $40 a year. Since Tripit mines Gmail and knows my preferences, I also don’t have what Sam Lessin recently referred to as “hidden costs” in terms of mental overhead, i.e., manual setup and needing to make corrections all the time.

Software solutions that save me time, like Tripit, are awesome but an even more interesting whitespace dynamic is with “network” models. A network model is that where the software or community benefits from each new user added. In these types of models the earliest adopters can reap huge rewards in terms of ROI. While saving time is extremely valuable, ROI from network models could also be in the form of monetary compensation, career advancement or other.

Quora is a great example of huge ROI from early adoption of a network model. In the early days Quora was a small group of silicon valley insiders. It was not uncommon for anyone on the network to be able to ask a question and receive an answer from a well know startup executive or venture capitalist. Further, early on you could message anyone directly, creating an amazing networking opportunity. Answering many “80/20” type questions early led several of my answers to become “Quora Top Answers” giving me at least the appearance of subject matter expertise. It wasn’t so much that my answers were amazing, but rather, I benefited from being early, and then rose the social proof and compounding effects of others up-voting responses.

Another great example of finding whitespace was an app called Ohours. Ohours provided a way to offer “office hours,” essentially opening yourself up to 20-minute coffee sessions with anyone who wanted to sign-up to chat with you. Since it was originally a small group of like-minded NYC techies who knew of it, the early meetings were phenomenal. I’ve stayed in touch with many great entrepreneurs and investors I met through it including @werdelin. Unfortunately, over time and arguably as it grew “more popular”, the quality of folks dwindled and ultimately the project was tabled.

Finding ROI Today.

It’s been a while since I’ve found a great network whitespace opportunity. Angellist and cryptocurrenices are two I have been experimenting with. In terms of point solutions, especially those that allow you to leverage software to save time, I would highly recommend Clara. My company works extensively with folks overseas (Israel, Dubai, Brazil, etc) and thus daily I am scheduling meetings across time zones. Googling time zone conversions, waiting for responses, last minute reschedules, coordinating dial-ins/screen shares, talk about a pain in the ass. Enter Clara. For a little over $100 a month, Clara has completely automated this process for me (check it out for more details).

What software or services do use that offer whitespace opportunity?

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Low Friction and Invisible Spending

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Apple Pay will be a game changer. It was by far the most interesting thing IMO to emerge from the recent Apple announcement. Recall that great hardware is often simply a loss leader for the transactions it enables. Adoption may come slowly, but it will come.

I love removing friction from transactions. I bought a Coin (probably already extinct) and love using apps live Cover and Uber to ‘invisibly’ make payments. However — there is no doubt in my mind that the decreased friction increases the frequency (and possibly size) of my transactions. I’ve found myself on Amazon buying things I don’t really need simply because Amazon and Prime make it so easy. I’m extremely fortunate that I can afford to make some needless purchases here and there but I’m also lucky that I grew up understanding the value of money and thus have decent self-control as to how I spend my earnings.

My concern with new technologies like Apple Pay is that while the financially fortunate relish making their lives easier (often by spending more to save more time) — many folks can’t afford to spend more. Period. People love to say ‘time is our most precious resource’ – but I believe that’s only true to an extent before there are diminishing returns.

Impulsive purchasing is a real problem for many and there’s no question it is exacerbated by making spending fun, easy and invisible. Bored? A $2.99 game or new song is a click away. Hungry? Seamless web is so much easier than cooking. Just the ease with which we can evaluate and buy items on Amazon means we don’t need to wait for the annual shopping trip to the big city. Impulse buying and not bothering to return is like a new ‘breakage’ model. While many middle to lower income folks cannot currently afford an iPhone, frictionless, invisible payments will no doubt be eventually be pervasive across most phones. I think this could be a real issue for younger generations who begin to spend money that they never really see and who get sucked into the cool new app that provides some marginal benefit (slight time savings or slightly elevated level of service) for only a few dollars. Those dollars add up quickly.

It also all makes you wonder: who ultimately bears the responsibility?

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Why Cards Matter

Google Maps Card Design

I’ve been struggling to really understand the significance of “cards” as a new unit of interaction. Fred Wilson and Benedict Evans have both discussed the significance of cards, but I feel like neither has been able to provide a concrete example that really highlights why a card isn’t simply just another design trend.

Extrapolating a bit, here are my thoughts on where this could go.

Several years ago Facebook released Open Graph Protocol. The idea was in part that any noun (person, place or thing) on Facebook could have its own Facebook Page, and thus, all the corresponding meta data that accompanied that Page. To me, the notion of cards takes this one step further.

Imagine a time, a few years from now, where you text a friend on WhatsApp to ask if they’ve yet seen James Bond Movie #34. WhatsApp would recognize that James Bond 24 is a noun — specifically a noun, specifically, a movie, and thus the text would automagically appear as a hyperlink. When clicked on, you would see the movie’s card — allowing you to interact with the movie in any number of ways: purchase tickets, watch a trailer, send to a friend, etc — all without needing to go to another app. In some ways it would mimic the options one currently has by clicking on a place in Google Maps (see image above). Cards basically replace websites or native apps. Apps within apps. Google has likewise purchase streaming technology that should allow for mobile apps to start being streamed so that you could interact with the app without ever needing to install it. Again, I see this as potentially being enabled via card.

If the card thus becomes the standard way that I actionably interact with any noun on my mobile device, that becomes a huge deal. It’s much bigger than simply a design fad. The message becomes the medium and functions more like an OS for interacting on mobile. So yeah, cards could be a big deal.

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