What gets measured matters

One of the main products that my company offers is credit cards. The question we constantly have to ask is: do we evaluate ourselves by the number of credit card signups or how much revenue/profit we generate from the cards? If the objective is to increase the number of credit card users, there will be some unintended issues. There will be gamers who sign up for credit cards to take advantage of incentives or bonuses and leave the cards unused. Since we are legally required by the laws to set aside funds to cover for credit cards’ limits on the books, that will be money uninvested and financial losses. Also, bonuses may lead to net financial losses for our company as the revenue generated from revolving balance or interest isn’t enough to cover for the bonuses. Nonetheless, as a business, we are not in operations to lose money. Hence, the objective should be geared towards profits. As a result, our strategy, plans and actions should reflect that objective.

I used to work for the advertising industry in Vietnam. Back then, there was a time when brands raced to accumulate likes on Facebook. There was even an index to show which fanpage received the most likes. However, that metric was misleading. If the goal is to get likes, the marketing team or advertising agency will do whatever it takes to get likes, regardless of where the likes come from. If your brand is in Vietnam, yet the likes come from outside the country, will those likes matter? Plus, if users like the page and have no consequent interaction and later unlike the page, does the initial like matter in the first place?

In Vietnam, a lot of brands prioritize publicity. Being on the most popular newspapers every week or month is more important than the reason for such presence. Brands pour a lot of money to be featured with no meaningful or helpful content. Take Cocobay as an example. The company tries to sell luxury condotels in Danang and usually shows up on the most popular newspapers in Vietnam. They even managed to have Cristiano Ronaldo advertise for them and host high-profile events. Yet, the company recently announced failure to honor financial commitments to investors.

Publicity is great. But it should come with authenticity, credibility and good will. Enron is famous in the business world, but I doubt you want to be associated with it. Hitler is a well-known name, but would any brand want to be associated with it?

The recent backlash against unprofitable businesses is another example. A plethora of startups received a high valuation which, to be fair, is more about an agreement between founders and private investors, despite no path to profitability. The high valuation is largely based on a prospect of future growth on revenue. But if the revenue comes at the expense of cash and without any profits ever, is the company a good investment? Uber, Lyft and Slack have seen their valuation drop significantly after their respective IPOs. WeWork even had to shelve its own plan to go public. The market suddenly realized what matters more and it’s profits and free cash flow, not revenue growth.

Some random observations in Vietnam

I am in the middle of a visit to Vietnam. Here are a few casual and randome observations I have had so far

Service fees

In addition to VAT, there is a new, at least to me, item on each bill: service fees. Based on my experience, it’s about 5% of the original bill. I hadn’t seen anything similar before.

Grab drivers in Hanoi don’t shift gears

A lot of Vietnamese people use manual scooters to commute. To be an effective and efficient driver, you need to shift gears so that you have more power after a stop and more speed when you are already moving stably. Effective gear shifting makes a ride more pleasant and protects the engine better. However, I noticed from a few Grab rides in Hanoi that drivers don’t shift gears. A few shifted gears, but it’s nowhere near enough to be effective

Grab drivers double charge customers the airport fees

At Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon), there is a toll that automobile drivers need to pay only once when they are getting out of the airport. On my way home from the airport, I was asked by the driver to cover that fee, which amounts to 10,000 VND (roughly $0.4). I was fine with that because I saw him pay the toll. However, when I was in a car entering the airport, the driver never had to pay anything. Yet, he still charged me the same amount. I am sure that he would ask the next passenger to pay as well.

Traffic jam at the airport

Knowing the ridiculous amount of traffic overflow that Tan Son Nhat has to handle, I booked the second earliest flight to Hanoi and got to the airport around 4am, thinking that the check-in would be short and quick. Boy, was I wrong! It was super crowded. It took me 75 minutes in total to complete check-in and security checks! At 4AM! Imagine the normal or peak hours!

Difficulty in exchanging currencies

Before I left the US for Vietnam, I withdrew some cash to cover my expenses. The ATM gave me only $20 bills; which I had no problem with since I didn’t think there would be any issues. On the first day in Vietnam, I tried to convert it into the local currency and it was not the smoothest thing in the world.

Firstly, you are charged a lower exchange rate with $20 bills than with $100 bills. Secondly, if your bills have small tears, some ink – no matter how small, or the print blurried a bit by time and excessive contact with human hands, the bills won’t be accepted by banks in Vietnam. You either have to go to local jewelry stores to do the exchanging or keep your dollars.

Grab – On its way to become a Super app

Gab entered Vietnam as a competitor of Uber. It proceeded to buy out Uber. Now, every person I know uses Grab for commute. I am sure other ride-hailing apps have customers, but Grab is by far the dominant player. Plus, you can do a lot of things with your Grab account including ordering food, paying bills, booking hotels and paying subscriptions

Smaller government or smarter governing?

One of the conservative ideologies in governing is that we need a smaller government and freer enterprise. The premise behind that thinking, I suspect, is that we trust companies to do well by doing good. The problem is they don’t often do so.

Here is the new initiative by AT&T

Enjoy more data. Starting with your October 2019 bill, you’ll get an additional 15GB of data on your Mobile Share plan. This bonus data comes with a $10 price increase. AT&T confirmed to The Verge that there’s no way to opt out of this “bonus.” Here’s the company’s statement:

“We are communicating with some customers regarding changes to their mobile plans. Customers have the choice to change their plan at any time and can always contact us with questions or to understand their options.”

This probably won’t surprise AT&T customers one iota, of course — this is the company that was just finally slapped on the wrist with a $60 million fine for throttling what were supposedly “unlimited” plans back in 2011, and the company that’s now pocketing an extra $800 million in “admin fees” every year after more than doubling that inexplicable surcharge last June. This is the company that’s now making you pay its property taxes on your business internet bill, while it repeatedly jacks up the rates of its few remaining grandfathered unlimited cellular plans.

Source: The Verge

The predatory practice is so disturbing that I don’t have the word to describe it.

Another example is Boeing with their 737 Max woe.

“The culture was very cost centered, incredibly pressurized,” Adam Dickson, who worked for Boeing for 30 years and led a team of engineers that worked on the 737 Max, told BBC Panorama in a program airing Monday night.

“Engineers were given targets to get certain amount of cost out of the airplane,” he added.” Certainly what I saw was a lack of sufficient resources to do the job in its entirety.”

Source: Business Insider

The cost-cutting goal at Boeing led to the company using $9/hour engineers on the planes that sell for millions of dollars and can decide the fate of thousands of passengers. This is a company that enjoys a duopoly of the sky, along with Airbus.

There are certainly a lot more examples of how companies do not volutarily act in the interest of consumers. You will find out more by watching a few episodes of either Patriot Act or Last Week Tonight.

My point is that companies care more about bottom line than consumer interest. Sometimes, those two issues align and be sure that they will advertise the hell out of what they do “for you”. Unless there is a party that can help keep the companies in check, consumers will be at their mercy. There are a few cases in which consumers can threaten the existence of companies such as the #DeleteUber movement a while ago, which suddenly kept Lyft from administration. However, those cases are not common or not common enough.

That’s why we need rules and governments to enforce those rules. It is understandable that red tape and unnecessary regulations are a pain and should be removed (trust me, as an immigrant dealing with all these immigration policies, I already had a bit of American bureaucracy). But that means we need to be smarter in governance , not less governance. By removing all regulations, we help companies reduce compliance costs and be legally less responsible.

As citizens, we don’t have the time and resources to understand all these regulations and conduct studies on how they affect business. The job is left to people who are dedicated to making laws: lawmakers. Hence, whenever somebody mentions that we ought to remove regulations, be sure to ask who and what will protect us citizens from the excessive corporate greed?

Free Speech – When You Pray For Rain, You Have To Deal With The Mud Too

The debate on free speech between tech companies, specifically Facebook and Twitter, and politicians such as Elizabeth Warren is heating up and getting hotter than ever. Facebook refused to take down political ads from the right wing that the left consider fake news. Politicians led by Elizabeth Warren vehemently criticized the decision by Facebook arguing that it is helping the President win an election again.

Coming from the background that I have, I appreciate the freedom of speech in America which is enshrined in the Constitution. There is nothing better to ensure that everybody is free to voice his or her own opinion. The right in and of itself is great and good. The problem; however, lies in how people execute the right and how it is perceived by others.

When a right-winged party runs a political ads with controversial information, the party is within its right to do so. Facebook, as it claims to preserve the right to expression on its platform, chooses to honor it. There is nothing inherently wrong with that.

The problem is that when you exercise your right to free speech and spread out false information on others, you rob others of the right to be perceived truthfully. In that sense, is it still acceptable? Also, it then falls onto Facebook to be the guardian of truth, the entity that decides whether a piece of information is right or false. And it’s not an easy task. Whatever Facebook does will please one part of the population and piss off the rest. Whatever is truth to one party of an ideology will be considered fake news by the opposing party.

I fear that there is no definitive answers to this debate. The Internet and Facebook enable friction-less communication of information and, as a consequence, false information around the globe. That’s the byproduct of it. I don’t see how Facebook can do one without harming the other aspect of their operation. And as explained above, I don’t see how it can please anybody in its endeavor to preserve the First Amendment, but also to police the content.

When we pray for rain, we have to deal with the mud too. That’s my mentality in a lot of issues. In this case, I think we pray hard for the rain, but we are not ready to deal with the mud

The right to speak and not to

There has been quite a story about the issue between China and the NBA. An executive from Houston Rockets tweeted his support for Hong Kong and it resulted in backlash from China. Steve Kerr, the head coach of Golden State Warriors and a regular critic of the current President and Administration, didn’t have much to say about China. Critics blast him for his selective speaking out.

I find it bizarre to see Kerr criticized. Freedom of Speech is sacred in America. As far as I am concerned, it involves the right to voice your opinion freely. Not saying anything is also a form of voicing one’s opinion. Kerr has every right to publicly talk about any issue he wants and to not say anything at all as he is well pleased.

I understand that celebrities have a platform and following that can and should be used to affect social changes. But at the end of the day, celebrities are only humans and as humans, they have rights. They reserve the right to their opinion and how they voice it, as stated in the Constitution. There is no guarantee that anything material would have happened if Kerr had spoke out. And I am not sure that basing your own opinion on that of others, especially strangers, is a good idea.

If the right to say something is sacred in America, as enshrined in the Constitution, then so is the right to not have to say anything against your will. If you were in Kerr’s place, would you appreciate being blasted for only exercising your right?

Humans as story tellers

Per one of my favorite books: Sapiens: Brief History of Humankind, human-beings have an extraordinary ability to tell stories and that’s essentially how we built civilization after civilization. Each of us, including individuals, governments or corporations, tries to tell a story every day and get everybody to buy into the story.

Startups such as WeWork tried to convince everybody that it is worth $60 billion. But the public doesn’t believe it and the story crumbled, sending the valuation downward to as low as $15 billion.

Companies such as Facebook, Google or Amazon try to convince lawmakers and consumers that they care about privacy and security. There are pieces of evidence that may back up the story, but there are also incidents which undermine the narrative.

Luxury brands such as Nike or Apple succeed in getting us to pay more for their products than the alternatives which surely deliver the same functions. It is because they are better storytellers and their stories are more convincing.

Some governments have a better reputation and track record than others due to the consistency in churning out evidence to back up their stories.

A guy has to conjure up a story about himself to convince a girl into a romantic relationship and vice versa.

Of course, the storyteller can only try so much to tell a story with all the corroborating evidence in the world and audience still won’t buy it. That’s why we have non-believers in science or in general different reactions and opinions.

I am fascinated by it.

The end of Suits, that show about loyalty

Suits is a series that I have been following for a few years. Though the show doesn’t appeal to audience as much as it did (partly because of other shows and partly because of the writing itself), Suits still holds a place in my heart.

The chemistry between Harvey and Mike or Harvey and Donna is one to dream of. The way Harvey managed Mike is a true example of leadership. There are quite many different definitions of leadership, but what Harvey did for Mike is what I consider actions of a true leader: allow subordinates to grow, take blame when things go south and make sure employees get the credit when due. But it’s not the biggest reason why I love the show. One of the dominant themes in Suits is loyalty to people through thicks and thins, and nothing demonstrates it more than this scene, in my opinion:

The older I get, the more I appreciate the trust others lay in me and the close relationships I have, albeit with a small number of folks only. Loyalty is a two way street that is sacred, beautiful and hard to come by. If you have it, try to keep it.

For all the good memories and life lessons, I’ll miss Suits.