November 16, 2013

Batkid, San Francisco and my brother’s experience with the Make-A-Wish foundation

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:19 am
Neptune pool at Hearst Castle

Neptune pool at Hearst Castle

It is so heartwarming to see all the pictures and video from Batkid saving Gotham City (er, San Francisco). For those who missed it, a California kindergartner with leukemia wanted to be Batkid and the Make-A-Wish foundation made it happen. San Franciscans lined up to cheer him on. San Francisco’s police chief and even President Obama got involved to show their support.

I missed the event in person because I was at the ostentatious Hearst Castle in San Simeon. As part of the castle, they have two oversized swimming pools, including an indoor one. The castle is now a California State Park. I asked one of the docents if anyone is allowed to swim in the pools. She said that occasionally the Hearst family uses it and they never say no to the Make-A-Wish foundation. (They also auction off four pool parties a year to help pay for restorations.)

My family had our own experience with the Make-A-Wish foundation. My brother had been sick pretty much since birth. Early on, he had a kidney transplant. In his high school years, that one went bad and he had a simultaneous heart and kidney transplant. The Make-A-Wish foundation sent our family on a trip to Washington, D.C.

That was more than 20 years ago and my brother is now doing fine.

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April 26, 2013

A few thoughts on customer service

Filed under: customer service — Rakesh Agrawal @ 5:22 pm

As a product guy, I’m always looking to improve products and experiences. Much of my thinking is driven based on more than a decade of creating online products and focusing on the integrated product experience. This includes brand, marketing, sales, product and customer service. But some of my thinking is driven by my own experiences using other people’s products. A few from the last two weeks stood out.

Quirkiness and Virgin America

I was flying home from Las Vegas on Wednesday night. After we boarded, the pilots came out and introduced themselves as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The captain even did a Bush accent (including pronouncing America the way W does.) He encouraged everyone to vote Republican. I like Virgin America a lot, but this was just a bizarre experience. (It wasn’t even funny.) If that’s where it was left, I’d chalk it up to quirkiness gone bad.

But our flight was delayed on the ground and the pilot came back in his Bush-like drawl and explained that we were being held on the ground because the guy who beat him out was on Air Force One near SFO, and we had to wait for ATC to give the go-ahead. As far as I can tell, Air Force One wasn’t near SFO. (I check the White House’s published schedule for that day.) That, in my mind, is not acceptable. If the reason for the delay is known, passengers should be told it honestly.

Disclosure: This flight was part of a trip to interview Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. Virgin America covered travel for part of the trip.


I ordered a new iPhone. When I ordered it, I was told that it would be delivered on April 12, the date of the launch. Because I was traveling, I had it sent to where I was staying that day. For whatever reason, it didn’t arrive. I was able to get UPS to re-direct it to my apartment, where I finally received it on April 25. I received my first bill before I received the phone — and the billing began on April 14.

T-Mobile knows when I first used the phone. I couldn’t possibly have used it from April 14-April 24, because I didn’t have it. That’s more than $20 worth of service. They know I didn’t have my phone because 1) they monitor the UPS tracking information and sent me an email when it was finally delivered 2) they know when my phone first connected to the network.

Shouldn’t they be able to automatically start billing when I have the phone? Yes, they can get an extra $20 out of me. But it’s not the right way to start off what could be a multi-thousand dollar relationship. I called customer service and the agent, while friendly and nice, took a long time to understand the issue.

Having worked with wireless carriers in the past, I know that part of the reason is likely that their billing systems are ridiculously complicated. But that doesn’t change my expectation as a consumer to be treated fairly and not to pay for service I didn’t receive.

Update: T-Mobile did post a $20 credit to my account. But they didn’t credit the corresponding taxes. On my most recent bill, the taxes and fees tacked on 27% to my base bill. Such things should be automatic; if you’re refunding monthly billing, you should automatically refund corresponding taxes.

This isn’t to blame the CSRs. It’s about poorly designed systems (best case) or systems designed to maximize revenue (worst case) by skimming undeserved revenue around the edges. If we make it enough of a hassle, people won’t complain about really small dollar amounts and we can boost margins.

My next task with T-Mobile is to get them to unlock my iPhone, which I paid upfront for, so I can use it on my trip to Turkey with a local SIM. The original CSR promised it would be taken care of, but I got a rejection notice from T-Mobile’s SIM Unlock deparment. And every CSR since has refused. As part of T-Mobile’s new “uncarrier” strategy they have claimed that they will immediately unlock phones that have been paid for; somehow that hasn’t percolated through their organization.


I arrived at my hotel in New York and found that the Starwood social media team had left a gift for me. It turned out that it was a guidebook for Kauai — the destination of my next Starwood hotel stay.

That’s using data (my upcoming reservations) to deliver a personalized experience. Well done, Starwood.

There was a fire alarm at 2:30 a.m. during my stay. The next morning, I woke to find an apology letter from management explaining the situation and offering free breakfast. Because I already had breakfast plans, I asked if they could credit my Starwood account with a few bonus points instead. No problem.

American Express

I’m going to be traveling to Europe in a few weeks and I’d heard that AmEx now issues Chip-and-Signature versions of the Platinum Card.

I called them up and asked for a new card with the EMV chip. The CSR knew exactly what I was talking about. Immediately, she asked me when my trip was, just in case they needed to overnight the card. I said to go ahead and send it standard mail.

I immediately received an email saying that a card replacement had been initiated. (Important fraud prevention technique.) The next day, I received an email that my replacement card had been mailed. (No need to call back to check.) Proactive notifications are one way that companies can deliver better customer service and reduce operational expenses.

When I received the card, I was a bit concerned because I didn’t see the EMV chip. (When I previously requested a replacement card from Citi for the same purpose, they sent me another card without a chip.) But I peeled off the activation sticker and sure enough the chip was there. I activated the card online (more convenient for me than a phone call, less cost for AmEx). I received an email confirming the activation as soon as it occurred. (Security.)

My only persistent complaint about AmEx is that they still require cardholders to deal with their annoying IVR — even those who pay $450 a year for the Platinum Card. Chase and Discover have products that are cheaper that allow you to talk to a human immediately. This is especially annoying because I do everything online — e-statements, online bill pay, etc. I even have AmEx connected to my iPhone’s Passbook. If the task were automatable, I wouldn’t be calling.

April 17, 2013

My bet with Ryan Kim on Yahoo!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:25 pm

I have a bet with Ryan Kim on Yahoo’s mobile site, specifically Yahoo! Finance.

I discovered an important flaw in the Yahoo! experience. It’s something that most people would immediately acknowledge is problematic.

It should be a high priority issue and should be relatively easy to resolve.

My bet is that Yahoo! will not resolve this issue in the next six months. If they do, Ryan wins.

Given Marissa’s emphasis on mobile and the importance of Yahoo! Finance to Yahoo!, I should lose this bet.

The loser buys lunch or dinner at a Mexican place next time we’re in the same city.

Disclosure of the specific issue by Ryan means I win by default.

April 5, 2013

Putting my money where my mouth is

Filed under: foursquare — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:26 am

With Mike Dudas: Foursquare will have a Slide-like exit. Winner gets dinner at the place of his choosing. Slide was purchased by Google for $182 million, a come down from the $500 million valuation at the last round. Because we don’t know full cap table with preferences, we’re ignoring those. If Foursquare does worse than Slide, I win. If Foursquare does better than Slide, Mike wins. (No expiration, bet continues until Foursquare has an exit.)

With Alex Lawrence: Foursquare will exit for $1 billion or more by March 23, 2015. If Foursquare hits that target, Alex wins. If Foursquare sells for less, folds before that date or doesn’t exit by that date, I win. Winner gets a donation of $500 to the charity of his choice.

Think I’m wrong about a company? Suggest a bet on Twitter.

March 20, 2013

How I choose what I write about

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:01 am

I’ve done a lot of writing over the last two years and it has spanned quite a few topics. Some of it may seem kind of random; that reflects my diverse interests.

But there are a few themes that I’m trying to focus on:

  • Analysis that can help entrepreneurs build better products.
  • Companies whose business models are largely exploitative. This includes Groupon and Yelp.
  • Companies whose businesses can put consumers at risk.
  • Companies that violate consumer protection laws and regulations. Yes, there are some laws that are outdated and don’t recognize advances in technology. But many laws were put in place to help protect consumers from cheating by merchants. Too often, companies are looking for a free pass around these and gain an unfair competitive advantage.
  • Tech companies that are about to go public.
  • Travel and travel technologies.
  • Technologies that can create a more efficient or environmentally sound world. This includes things like car2go.
  • Technologies connected to the digital living room and connected devices.

I generally avoid writing about criticizing small projects or entrepreneurs who are just getting started. It’s unfair to criticize ideas before they’re reasonably baked. (The exception to this would be if they’re doing something dangerous or illegal.) I will write positive stories about companies that are starting up if the company is worthy of attention. Once a company reaches around $500 million in valuation, I think criticism is fair game.

I also don’t write about vanity metrics. That’s one of the scourges of the tech press. They’re lazy and easy stories to write; they drive page views; they let reporters suck up to PR people and CEOs they want access to. But ultimately, vanity metrics stories do a disservice to entrepreneurs because they de-focus from what really matters.

March 4, 2013

How customer service should be done

Filed under: customer service, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:51 am

Live from St. Regis Deer Valley

Last week I was skiing in Deer Valley when Groupon’s terrible earnings came out. While I was skiing, I got an email from CNBC asking if I could come on air to talk about them. We tried to get me into a studio in nearby Park City, but for logistical reasons, it wouldn’t work.

I knew there was a hotel at the bottom of the hill. I wasn’t staying there, but I thought I gave them a call.

I called the concierge at the St. Regis from the slopes and asked if there was a space where I could do a Skype call for a TV interview. Jeanine said she would have to check with the manager. While I skied down, she checked. By the time I was on the lift back up, she’d called and texted me. She found a quiet space.

When I arrived, she guided me to the location. She volunteered water, note paper and a pen. She also noticed that there was music playing in the background in the room and turned it off.

That’s incredible service, especially for someone who isn’t a paying guest. I never mentioned that I’m a Starwood Lifetime Gold member. I’ll be back in Deer Valley — and next time, I plan to stay at the St. Regis.

You can watch that CNBC segment here.

November 11, 2012

Is quality journalism and analysis doomed?

Filed under: journalism — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:12 pm

I wrote six pieces last week, covering a wider range of topics. If I were to rank them based on their potential for impact, it would go like this:

  1. How our favorite tech services should help us in emergencies - A look at the possible tsunami in Hawaii and Hurricane Sandy and how tech companies could help save lives in emergencies.
  2. Groupon’s one-year anniversary feels more like a funeral. So what’s next for daily deals? - A recap of what went with wrong with Groupon’s IPO and what’s ahead for the daily deals space.
  3. Learning from a failed IPO – A look at the failure of Varsity Books in the first dot com boom and how its co-founder managed through it and started a new company under the new rules for the current startup climate.
  4. Amazon’s advantage in holiday gift giving – Online is about more than price. Convenience plays a part.
  5. Mobile ordering cuts through the lines at Starbucks’ La Boulange – Mobile payments need to deliver more value than just eliminating the onerous task of swiping a plastic card.  (sarcasm intended)
  6. Why I’m returning my iPad mini – The iPad mini is so great that I’m taking back the low-end model I bought for something more powerful.

Several of those pieces required me conducting interviews or made use of my deeper analytical skills. The Groupon piece built on more than a year’s worth of work. One of the pieces required very little effort and no interviews. I bet you can guess which of the six required the least work and yet got the most attention.

Take something that involves Apple, slam a clever headline on it and — viola! traffic. (On the plus side, I now know how to say “linkbait” in many languages.) Social media took over and it went viral. The fact that many people read it meant many more people read it, because it stayed atop the “most popular” section.

That makes me sad.

The story about disaster-preparedness is by far the most important one. I would like every entrepreneur to read it and figure out how his or her company can help in a logical way.

If I were motivated purely by traffic, I’d keep writing stories like the one about the iPad mini. Unfortunately, clickthroughs and ratings (for TV) combined with time pressures influence too much of the coverage we see.

This isn’t just tech. Our political coverage is similarly screwed up. It takes a lot more effort to do an analysis of what Obamacare means or to look at how government is already involved in health care choices. It’s a lot easier to have two partisans shout at each other on screen. (And that will certainly get more ratings.)

It takes me at least six times as long as it does to write quality analysis as it takes to write a piece like the iPad piece. If I were being compensated based on traffic (either directly or indirectly), I know which I’d choose to write.

My motivations for writing are more complicated:

  • I want to make the world a better place. (Story 1)
  • I want to push for the design of better products and help entrepreneurs create better products. (4, 5)
  • I want to help entrepreneurs create more structurally sound companies. (2, 3)

I generally write about what I want, when I want. Still, I can’t help but notice the enormous difference in traffic levels.

I can take some solace in the fact that execs at various Valley companies, VCs and in the broader media read my work. I can hope that even if the stories like the disaster-preparedness story don’t have an immediate impact in terms of traffic, I’m getting some people to think differently about problems. And if you’re thinking about big problems like that and need some help, drop me a note:

September 9, 2012

Mitt Romney’s healthcare comments flunk basic economics

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rakesh Agrawal @ 2:37 pm

I am trying to stay away from politics as much as possible this election cycle, but pandering, economic nonsense and journalistic incompetence get under my skin.

Mitt Romney said today on Meet the Press that he wants to preserve the requirement of the Affordable Care Act that insurers cover pre-existing conditions. From the Reuters story:

“Of course, there are a number of things that I like in healthcare reform that I’m going to put in place,” Romney added. “One is to make sure that those with pre-existing conditions can get coverage. Two is to assure that the marketplace allows for individuals to have policies that cover their family up to whatever age they might like.”

Romney has also said that he would repeal ACA because of the individual mandate. That’s like saying I am going to eat all the cake I want and I won’t get fat. It doesn’t work that way. Economically speaking, the individual mandate and coverage for pre-existing conditions are tied at the hip.

Any sort of universal coverage (and forced coverage of pre-existing conditions is a form of universal coverage) requires that healthy people pay into a system to help offset the cost of treating the sick. Without the individual mandate, insurance companies would go broke paying for sick patients who had pre-existing conditions because there wouldn’t be enough healthy people paying premiums.

In fact, forcing insurers to cover pre-existing conditions in the absence of an individual mandate would make health insurance’s adverse selection problem even worse. Right now, many healthy people purchase individual coverage because they’re worried that if they get sick they won’t be able to buy insurance. When I lived in Malaysia, I bought U.S. health insurance even though I was healthy because I wanted to continue to have the option for coverage in case I did get sick. I paid $110 a month for high deductible, catastrophic coverage and never made one claim on that policy. Take away that deterrent and healthy people would wait until they got sick to buy health insurance. Imagine buying car insurance only after you got into an accident.

The fact that Romney would make such a claim indicates that he’s:

  • A terrible business person who doesn’t understand basic economics.
  • Will say anything to get elected, even if it’s economically impossible.
  • Both.

It’s also ridiculous that David Gregory didn’t challenge Romney on the notion that he could keep the requirement to cover pre-existing conditions while eliminating the individual mandate. Either Gregory didn’t understand that the two are inextricably linked or he didn’t want to appear to be biased. Neither scenario paints a good picture for the state of journalism today.

Too often, journalists let claims like this slide. In this election cycle, more than ever, journalists have off-loaded that work to “fact checkers”. Sorry, but that’s a key part of a journalists job. It’s a sad state of affairs when Jon Stewart is doing more to challenge his guests than the host of Meet the Press.

August 5, 2012

eBay Now offers same-day delivery from local retailers

Filed under: mobile — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:48 pm

[Note: I will be adding screenshots. Check back in about an hour.]

eBay is trying to revolutionize local commerce. eBay’s new product, eBay Now, allows consumers to have same-day delivery of products found at local retailers. It weaves together eBay’s acquisition of and its launch of PayPal Here in a way that makes ordering a hard drive much easier than ordering a pizza. And it arrives just as fast.

I received an invitation to an early beta of eBay Now currently under way in San Francisco. The beta includes “all eBay shoppers who have SF addresses on file and opted to receive emails,” said Lina Shustarovich, an eBay spokeswoman.

I ordered a hard drive and had it within an hour. Although services like TaskRabbit and Postmates offer variations of local delivery services, eBay Now seems focused on chain retailers. With Postmates, I can order from any business. What makes eBay Now particularly interesting (and a stronger competitor to Amazon) is that it incorporates real-time inventory data from eBay’s acquisition. eBay has partnered with marquee local names like Nordstrom, Best Buy, Target, Macy’s and Bloomingdales.

The experience starts off with some use cases; that’s especially important in launching a new concept.

You can search by product or see items at one of the featured retailers. I placed an order for a Toshiba portable hard drive. (I figured out that my hard drive was coming from Best Buy based on the map.) This could either be an omission or it could indicate an intention for eBay to use local retailers as warehouses and own the customer relationship. If there’s substantial demand, eBay could then figure out which products it should warehouse itself and which to source from local retailers. It would make logistical and economic sense to warehouse products like iPhone batteries, condoms and beer and to use local retailers for long-tail items.

“I wouldn’t say we’re trying to use stores as warehouses,” Shustarovich said. “As you know, on, RedLaser, and Milo, we send people from the Web/mobile phones and into stores to buy. eBay Now is our way of making local shopping more convenient and easier than ever before. It gives shoppers choice and another option for local.”

Placing the order was almost too easy; there was substantially less friction than most mobile apps. Within a minute or so, John had accepted my order. I could see the location of John’s car as he drove to Best Buy. The app kept me updated on the fact that he had picked up my order and was on his way. The estimated delivery time moved up and down as he made his trip.

The final leg of the delivery was longer than necessary because John didn’t have my apartment number, despite it being stored in my account. When he arrived, I paid with the PayPal Here app on his iPhone.

I didn’t receive a receipt from Best Buy; my only receipt is from eBay Now. Again, this provides for some interesting speculation on where eBay may be trying to take this.

John said he’s been working with eBay Now for about a week and has made four deliveries. He found out about eBay Now through a friend who encouraged him to apply. He had also been trained to ask me some questions about my eBay Now experience, including how I found out about it (by email) and whether I’d use it again (probably).

In this case, Best Buy’s price turned out to be the same as what Amazon is charging, $54.99. Coincidentally, while I was waiting for my hard drive, I received a shipping notice for an Amazon order I placed last Tuesday. That’s due to arrive tomorrow.

Although not incorporated in the current product, I can imagine that small businesses who use PayPal Here would have their inventory loaded into the same database. That would give small businesses a big reason to choose PayPal Here over Square.

For the beta, eBay is waiving the $5 delivery charge for the first 3 orders and also taking an additional $15 off the first order.

There were a few hiccups along the way, which is to be expected of a product this early:

  • The app didn’t have my apartment number in the correct spot. On my screen it showed up in front of the street address. According to the courier, he didn’t see it at all. Given that high density areas is where eBay Now will work best, having that fixed is critical.
  • The pricing shown in the app didn’t reflect the promotional credit, but it was correct in the final tally.
  • The first credit card I used didn’t work. There’s no reason it shouldn’t have worked.
  • The app doesn’t accept SMS. (But it is smart enough to have an auto responder to that effect.)

One other thing that is unclear: I have no idea how to return the unnecessary hard drive I just ordered. Maybe I can sell it on eBay.

June 11, 2012

New bet with Felix Salmon of Reuters

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:10 pm

I have a new bet with Felix Salmon of Reuters tied to an exit for Square.

I win the bet if:

  • Square is acquired on or before December 31, 2012 by anyone other than PayPal.

Felix wins the bet if:

  • Square is not acquired on or before December 31, 2012.
  • Square is acquired by PayPal.

Stakes: Dinner next time we are in the same city at a place of the winner’s choosing.

“Acquired” means that an agreement has been announced by. The transaction need not have closed.

The outcome of this bet does not cancel out our previous bet related to Groupon and Priceline. (One that I’m currently winning.)

Any disputes will be settled by Naveen Selvadurai.

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