Ode to Startup Life: III. Startup Halloween Costumes

1. Pitch Deck: 10 slides on a big notebook you could flip through on your chest. Thank you on your back.

2. 1 Minute Pitch Video: dress as a singing telegram

3. Startup Incubator: dress as a microwave/toaster with startup logos inside

4. Term Sheet: cover your entire body with fine print, and carry a detonator as an “exploding offer”

5. Angel: obvious

6. Angel Group: walk around with your buddies also dressed as angels

7. AngelList: a religious scroll

8. Unicorn: obvious

9. Wannabe Unicorn: double layered outfit where you dress as a donkey dressing as a unicorn

There are other things I’m itching to write but they’d be too un-PC.


Ode to Startup Life: II. Living on Ramen, Myth or Reality?

Day A:
8 AM: tea and a bagel with advisor
1:30 PM: latte and an omelette with potential investor
7 PM: Life Alive with bacon and a fried egg, defeating the purpose of Life Alive (courtesy of like-minded roommate Monica Tong)

Day B:
1 PM: cereal
7 PM: HMart miso ramen

Day C:
11 AM: Trident gum to tide me over
1 PM: iced latte and a heart attack sausage sandwich and fries
6-8 PM: several glasses of good old fashioned Coca Cola
8 PM: mini sub from the conference table

Day D:
12 PM: Le’s beef noodle soup
7 PM: surprise belated birthday meal by Cynthia Chew, incl: fresh steamed lobster, corn chowder with bacon, roasted cauliflower

Conclusion: 75% chance of no breakfast, 50% chance of bacon, 25% chance of ramen tomorrow

Startup life is better with bacon, as are all things.

Ode to Startup Life: I. Perpetual Canon

Email 1 is on its second paragraph
when Email 2 begins,
because I’ve forgotten to write that person
too many times and then
Google Calendar chimes,
I need to mail a check
but I have no stamps,
so another reminder goes up in a blue box,
then Email 1 finishes
and Emails 3, 4, 5 before 2,
Switch languages in 6,
Save those unsaved docs,
Download those undownloaded tracks,
Sing one quietly, and imagine
how the listener will feel at the demo tomorrow,
how the eight year olds feel with their first notes,
how the team feels with the newest build,
how I feel at
1:00 AM
fueled on coffee from 9.
A well-meaning friend says there is a thing called sleep,
But there is a bigger thing,
That line, that one, that I hear when everything is quiet,
those tied notes over weeks,
years past and future and the world,
2:00 AM.

To run a startup is to play a round
Where everything changes but that line,
Where everything changes but that line,
Where everything changes but that line.

A Tale of Two Headshots: friendship, Facebook polling, and what a CEO should look like

Yesterday I posted a simple question on Facebook:

“Help me friends! Time to pick a professional headshot: 1 or 2?”

Picture Poll.001

I’m amused and embarrassed that this post got so much attention — 134 people answered. I actually had to make a decision quite quickly, and gave my answer to the photographer after receiving the first ~30 responses (the whole point of the shoot was to get materials ready for Sonation’s next PR push). But as people continued to vote and comment, I started looking for patterns. As an inquisitive person and a former consultant, I decided to do some formal analysis.


Most people who commented thought that #1 was more “warm and inviting” while #2 was more “professional.” Here are the exact descriptors:


  • “you look more confident in the first picture because you’re facing the camera head on”
  • “your face is brighter”
  • “looks more natural!”
  • “looks more happy and friendly”
  • “you’re smiling with your eye in the first one, which is a real smile”
  • “Love the first one bc you look so genuinely happy and super approachable!”
  • “1 is a bit more warm and inviting”


  • “2 has a good 3/4 angle”
  • “2 looks little more like a business professional to me”
  • “you’re smiling with your mouth in the second one, which implies that you’re just posing for the camera”
  • “2 has the better angle when it comes to 3/4 lighting as you’re turned more, which slims down the face”
  • “2 is a bit more professoinal and polished”
  • “2 is more sophisticated and more professionally polished”
  • “For business wise, 2 is better”

One of my close friends, Andrew Gonzales, offered more detailed thoughts:

Some commentary on my earlier vote. If more natural and inviting, #1. If more sober and professional, #2, though slight left-eye squint bothers me a little, haha. #1 is the person I interact with at CG and what people will eventually see if they spend enough time with you, even in a business setting. This is why I probably prefer #1. It’s more genuine to the person I know. #2 is more of a “let’s make a good first impression”, “let’s trade business cards” kind of look. Both are appropriate, one more than the other depending on context.

And as an aside, brownie points to everyone who gave the can’t-go-wrong answer when a woman asks you to judge their appearance:

  • “Both great! I would vote for X”
  • “I like both! If I had to choose, probably X”
  • “Both are awesome”
  • “X. Both are great, though”

Another aside: brownie points to Sam Lee for this funny reference when the thread started getting bloated.

this is like the yellow or blue dress 🙂


Now for the fun part.

Overall, 32% voted for #1. 68% voted for #2. As I mentioned before, n = 134.

I wanted to see if there was a correlation between people’s answers and their gender, closeness of friendship with me, whether or not I had a crush on them at some point, whether or not they were “artsy,” and other factors. My statistician friends would do a much better job but here are some rudimentary findings.


  • 58% of respondents were female, 42% were male.
  • Women leaned more heavily toward #2 while men were more even. Only 27% of women chose #1, while 40% of men chose #1.


Almost all respondents were either Asian or Caucasian. No differences in the #1 vs #2 split. I thought there might be different standards on which picture was better, but I guess not.

Closeness of friendship

  • About half of respondents were “distant” friends — people I haven’t talked to in a long time and don’t know very well. A quarter were at a “medium” level of friendship — people I know fairly well and talk to maybe once every few months. 13% were “recent” friends — people I’ve met in the past few months. 8% were “close” friends — people I talk to on a weekly basis, or have shared significant parts of my life with in the past.
  • 77% of “distant” friends chose #2.
  • Both “medium” and “recent” friends were almost evenly split on #1 and #2, leaning slightly toward #2.
  • 64% of “close” friends chose #2.

I thought my close friends would be more likely to choose #1 because as Andrew said, that is the person he sees every week and is more genuine to the person he knows. Interesting to see there’s still a preference for #2, but as some people stated, they thought #2 would better serve the purpose of presenting me professionally. It may not be reflective of which one they actually like better.


I debated whether or not to add this dimension, but I thought it could be pretty funny. Among the guys who responded, there were some who I have been interested in at one point or another. I wondered if there would be any agreement in their responses, if they saw me a certain way. There actually was, but I won’t specify which picture was preferred. 75% of them took a particular side while 25% took the other.


I have a lot of friends who are musical or artistic in some way. I wondered if they would have a different perspective, since artists also have to take headshots and present themselves professionally — but they might have a different idea of what a professional look is.

  • 22% of respondents were “artsy” — meaning they were professional musicians, music students, amateurs who practice a lot, artists, designers, etc.
  • 62% of my artsy friends picked #1, vs. only 24% of my non-artsy friends.

Seems to say that artistic people do have a different idea of what a professional headshot should look like.

High school, college, HBS

I wondered if people who I met at different phases of my life would have different opinions. The number of respondents among my high school, college and HBS circles were roughly the same.

  • My high school friends had a strong preference for #2 (80%).
  • My college friends were almost evenly split between #1 and #2, leaning slightly toward #1.
  • My HBS friends also had a strong preference for #2 (77%).

Not sure how to explain the high school and college difference. But for business school, I presume that most of my friends have a pretty solid idea of what a professional headshot should look like, and #2 fits the bill better.


Following my previous post on “doing things we love within the things we love,” this has been my creative rumination for this week. It was fun to study people’s perceptions across various lines. And to note the tension between gendered descriptors like “warm and inviting” and the supposedly gender-neutral but usually-male position of a CEO or startup founder.

Like Andrew said, I hope people “will eventually see the real me if they spend enough time with me, even in a business setting.” And maybe that begins with a picture.

doing things we love within the things we love

I got into entrepreneurship because of something I love, music. Not because I wanted to be my own boss, explore what startup life is like (duh: it’s hard), or make tons of money.

Creativity drives me. If I don’t get to play piano or write something that’s not a pitch deck for more than a month, I become less of myself. Fortunately, Sonation involves plenty of creative work, even if it’s just listening to other people play music. Every week I tweet about the music I hear in the practice rooms around our office at Jordan Hall. Sometimes I hear students play the same phrase over and over for almost an hour to make it perfect. While that’s all part of normal life at a music school, it moves me.

This past week I got to indulge in another passion of mine within the context of Sonation work. We filmed our iPhone launch video in Symphony Hall last week. We’re thinking part of the video will have spoken word. We had a very talented poet write for us, but the poem unfortunately didn’t fit with the audience we have in mind.

I changed almost all of the words while trying to preserve the feel. Writing is an unpredictable task because it can’t be timed. You can’t predict if you’ll be able to finish a poem within a few minutes or an entire day. Sometimes good words don’t come to you and you are stuck with mediocre synonyms. Writing also morphs as it ages. A day or a week or a month later you’ll wish you could throw away half of what you were happy with when you first put down your pen.

Of course, this is a startup so we don’t have an entire day to do anything. I pulled poetry from the corners of my mind and made it work. It’s not a work of art, but it should be enough to get our message across. And it was my minimum dose of creative work for the month.

It’s great when you’re able to do things you love within other things you love.

the art of

It begins with a hand pressed against the glass,
the subtle weight of goodbye
resting in the curve of the palm.

A week later:
a worn train ticket falls from a pocket
spun in the laundry and overdried.

Morning in the cafe:
Books and misted breaths,
a pen not knowing how to move.

Background noise drifts into music
drifts into noise,
the acoustic rendition you hardly liked
but were beginning to learn.

A dream dragged from the mire
and just as quickly drowned,
tethered to stones with names.

In the late hour:
Whispers of no more, please depart,
return to where you came
take these traces and darken them
into your gravity well.

This is not an artist’s hand
still pressed against the glass,
weighed down but not withdrawing,
still waiting for the last note
without knowing how it would sound.

Seven Years Later – Chun Yu

I realize that most of my friends on Facebook probably don’t know who the little girl in my profile picture is anymore. I have not changed that picture for many years, and don’t have plans to any time soon.

She is someone I consider my second sister, a precious child we would have welcomed into our family if she had not been taken away by terminal illness. Her name was Chun Yu and I met her in 2006 when I was volunteering in a foster home for blind children in China called Bethel. Many of my blog entries from 2007 and 2008 were about her. How much she was loved and how much joy she brought into my life, and her struggle through multiple surgeries and gradual decline as she never woke up from a coma.

Seven years ago today, she passed away peacefully in her sleep. I raced from Haidian District in the east of Beijing to Shunyi, so I could have the privilege of bringing her body to the crematorium. I brought her ashes back to the US to bury in a local cemetery so she could be near my family. I came face to face with a central question of faith that I had never really thought about before: do I really believe in eternity?

She was the focus of my HBS application essays. Also my Portrait Project essay, which began with the same question I read during her memorial service. In fact the first week of RC year, we walked around the Hives looking at past students’ portrait projects and reflections on that question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I was awestruck at how God had brought things full circle.

This week, I am equal amounts energized and crushed by the work I need to do to push Sonation forward. As Pastor Um preached this past Sunday, approaching work as God intended involves a good balance between duty and delight. But it will always be hard. The ground does not produce fruit in response to the amount of toil that we plow into it. Today, however, is a reminder to step back and remember the last seven years and how much they were shaped by this little girl.

Mary Oliver’s poem still captures it best.

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?