The Role of Product Marketing in a Startup

I get this question a lot, mostly from engineers: what does product marketing actually do? I've been doing this thing called product marketing for over two years now, at two high-flying Silicon Valley tech companies, so you would think I'd be able to give an articulate answer off the top of my head.

The truth is, it took quite some time to write it in only one sentence. Here's one definition:

The essential role of product marketing is to deeply understand both the dynamics of the target market and the motivations of the target buyer in order to speak to and for the market in a compelling manner.

Excellent product marketers tend to be obsessed with positioning - placing their product in the target customer's mind in such a way that they become predisposed to buy it. They triangulate competition, the relative strengths and differentiators of their product, the history of their target market, and at least a dozen other indicators to distill simple, clear, and compelling messages.

Positioning is the crux of the problem that product marketing solves.

Positioning is the crux of the problem that product marketing solves, and it's why many product marketers by way ofbackground come from outside of marketing. They tend to come from customer-facing roles, product management, and occasionally from sales.

With their positioning articulated, product marketers who work with sales teams usually translate the positioning into sales-ready materials. This might be website messaging, sales training playbooks, presentations, brochures, and so on.

Tip for product marketers : involve salespeople early in creating your sales enablement materials. You'll catch non-sticky things early and get the buy-in you're looking for.

Finally, in most organizations, product marketers will be an important input to the product development process. Because they know the market and the buyer better than almost anyone, product marketers can be an excellent smell check for engineers and product managers building new features.

If you can't get a product marketer excited about a new feature, chances are the market be lukewarm as well.

Oh, and one more thing: product marketing typically manages go-to-market strategy and execution for new products and features. Teams with tightly coupled product marketing and product management groups will almost co-develop new products and features, telling a compelling story from before a single line of code is written about why a feature is necessary, who it will benefit, how it will be positioned, and how much it should cost.

The outbound marketing component of product and feature launches is a major part of the product marketer's day. It's where the product marketer delves into the tactical details of what communication strategies and tools to use, how to promote the product, and so on. It's the area where the product marketer does most of their "traditional" marketing.

All told, that's probably about 70-80% of what product marketing does. The other 20-30% varies widely by organization. If you're a product marketer, leave a comment and tell me how this jives with your experience. I'd love to hear about it.

A version of this post was originally published on LinkedIn.

A Skier's Guide to Niseko, Japan

Niseko, located on the island of Hokkaido, is without a doubt one of the best places in the world to ski if you like deep powder and dislike crowds. It is also not a terribly easy place to figure out in terms of travel, logistics, and such. This guide should help you to circumvent our approach of figuring things out as we went along, usually the hard way. 

How to get to Niseko

By far the easiest way to get to Niseko is by air. If you’re traveling from outside the country, you’ll most likely find the cheapest flights into Tokyo Narita airport, though Haneda might work too. In either case - and this is super important - you’ll need a domestic flight from Tokyo to Sapporo (New Chitose) airport. While it is *possible* to take trains from Tokyo to Sapporo, my research indicated this took 12+ hours of straight travel and multiple transfers AND is more expensive than flying. 

You might be able to do this all on the same itinerary - Japan Airlines (JAL) is a OneWorld airline and can therefore be booked on a single itinerary with airlines like American Airlines. Japan Airlines is considered a premium airline within Japan, however, and their prices are often more expensive than some of Japan’s cheaper discount airlines.

For discount tickets (which carry the typical harsh cancellation/missed flight policies, fees for baggage, etc) you’ll want to check out Vanilla Airlines and Jetstar Airlines. Those were the two we found to have the best flight times and good flight frequency. Others can be found at google.com/flights, but be aware that some of these websites are only in Japanese and don’t have an English option. 

 

Now that you know that, you can start to look for flights. My advice is to bias heavily toward flights that get you into Tokyo as early in the day as possible, preferably by 2:00 or 3:00 PM. Schedule your domestic flight *at least* 3 hours after your international flight arrives. I’d go for 4+ hours if I were taking a budget airline.

Here’s why: you’ll have to clear customs, change terminals, and re-check your bag(s) in Tokyo, and the bag check-in deadline (strictly enforced) is at least 30 minutes before departure time. Even if you don’t check a bag, I would abide by this scheduling rule. Having some extra time to get cash from the ATM (the 7-11 ATMs were reliable for American debit cards) and a bite to eat is not a bad thing. 

If all goes according to plan, this will put you into Sapporo (New Chitose Airport) sometime around 8 or 9pm.

Your next step is to take a shuttle/bus to Hirafu or whichever town you're staying in (more on that in a second). This takes about 2 hours, sometimes longer if the weather is poor. Importantly, you cannot get a spot on the bus just by walking up to the counter at the airport. You have to reserve it ahead of time. The only bus we found with online reservations is here, but it doesn’t run late enough to get you from the airport to Niseko. If you are planning at least a few weeks ahead of time, you should contact the good folks at SkiJapan or PowderHounds to help you out with the reservation, or if you have a contact from your accommodation booking, they can probably help you out. See below for some helpful links.

 

Where to stay in Niseko

The ideal way to get a place to stay in Niseko is to contact rental homes/apartments in the late summer (August or September) before you want to go. Christmas through the week of New Years is by far the busiest time, and accommodations fill up fast. In fact, I would suggest booking your accommodation before committing to travel dates and plane flights. This is backwards of how I normally plan trips, and it nearly killed our whole trip when basically every nook and cranny was reserved - and we only found this out once we had booked flights. 

I’m normally super averse to booking things through a travel agency because I just assume they’re taking a big cut and I could do it cheaper myself. Niseko is one area where, when (not if) I go back, I will strongly consider using a service as an intermediary. A lot of the accommodations don’t seem to be available for booking online, implying that you need feet on the ground or a Japanese speaker at the very least to make it happen. This is just a consequence of the fact that Niseko is still pretty under-developed as a ski area. Don’t worry - you’ll reap the benefits with short lift lines and fresh tracks once you’re there. 

In terms of price, expect to pay at least $30 per day for a single bed in a hostel, $50-75 for a private room, and on up into the stratosphere from there. The hotels like The Vale Niseko go for pretty astronomical prices, but seem to mostly live up to the prices (at least as far as I could see). They’re very, very nice. There's a great way to get the best parts without paying a ton of cash though, and I'll get to that in a minute.

Outside of that advice, you can just do what we did - google the utter shit out of "where to stay in Niseko" or "Niseko accommodations" and try to get Airbnbs. This approach was stressful but (mostly) worked out in the end.

Niseko Geography & Skiing

Niseko is actually 4 different ski areas on the same mountain:

- An'nupuri - furthest looker's left. I had a friend who stayed in An'nupuri and liked it. It's sleepier than Hirafu to be sure, but has good restaurants and enough accommodation.

- Niseko Village - second from the looker's left. We spent basically no time here as it's centered around the big Hilton hotel and there didn't appear to be a whole lot else.

- Hirafu - third from the looker's left, and split into Upper Hirafu and Lower Hirafu. Upper Hirafu refers to the area closer to the ski resort. Lower Hirafu refers to the area

- Hanazono - furthest looker's right with relatively few accommodations, restaurants, etc. Very good skiing in this area.

All 4 "resorts" are linked at the very top of the mountain by chairlifts that allow you to traverse to the other resorts, and at the bottom by a shuttle bus. The Japanese resort operators seem to be pretty cautions about opening the top of the mountain, so on some days it's not really possible to get from one area to the others. The traverses are pretty easy, but be careful because the whole resort is a lot smaller than an American ski area like Vail, Squaw, or Breckenridge, and you can easily over-shoot. One day, we overshot by two resorts by accident.

Ski passes can be purchased at the base of the mountain, and we weren't able to find any discounts by going to local shops, looking online, etc. Your mileage may vary, so definitely give it a try. In any case, the tickets are quite cheap - much cheaper than US resorts.

IMPORTANT: Buy the pass for the whole mountain. Don't debate, just do it. It's trivially more expensive and gives you the ability to explore each of the 4 ski areas. It's a real bummer to accidentally traverse too far and have to take the bus back to your home mountain.

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The real rewards of skiing in Niseko come from exiting the official skied areas and entering the side country. The resorts open gates to these areas when they deem conditions appropriate. That is to say - when it's pretty much 0% chance of avalanche. However, advanced skiers are, ahem, known to sneak off and get the goods early. If you do this, it's definitely best to carry avalanche gear and know your way around avalanche terrain. Most of it is less steep than super dangerous avalanche terrain, but there is *a lot* of snow, so unstable layers will definitely be magnified andheavily loaded. Be smart, people.

There is also definitely a lot of backcountry skiing to be done in and around Niseko. Unless you are lucky enough to know a local who can take you out, it seems best to use a guide service to drive you around and bring you to the deepest powder available. We didn't have time to try it on this trip, but it will definitely be on the agenda next time around. I'd suggest bringing your own touring setup if you intend to ski the backcountry.

PRO TIP: The vending machines near most of the on-mountain restaurants serve hot coffee in a 12oz can. You can choose between black coffee and coffee with cream and sugar. This may be the greatest invention in the history of man.

Rental gear in Niseko

Rather than carry our gear all the way to Japan, we opted to rent skis and poles in Hirafu. I walked around to a few of the shops and was able to find one that had demo gear for ~$40 USD per day. This turned out to be a great way to go because I was able to get a fatter ski that was more appropriate for the ridiculous Niseko powder. I'm 5'11" and went with a 186cm ski with 115cm under foot. 100cm under foot would be the minimum I'd recommend for just about anyone.

One thing that will be fairly obvious to you once you arrive but wouldn't necessarily be obvious beforehand is that there isn't that strong of a "base village" concept at Niseko. If you're expecting a lot of facilities like rental shops, restaurants, porches with beer drinking, etc. at the base of any of the lifts, you'll be disappointed. Most of them have a restaurant, but that's about it. Rent gear in town instead.

What to do in Niseko

The attraction of Niseko is powder, obviously, and it's a place you would not likely end up if not for the unbridled pursuit of pow. So it should go without saying that you should spend 8:30am when lifts open until your legs give out (or the upper lifts close) shredding the gnar. That much is obvious.

What is less obvious is that there are essentially 3 other things to do in Niseko

Onsen - There are dozens of Onsen (Onsens?) in Hirafu, and I'm sure there are some in other areas as well. We went 3 of the 4 nights we were in Niseko, and our only regret was not going every single night. For (at most) $10 per person, you get unlimited time soaking in piping hot, naturally fed but not overly sulfur-y hot springs with really nice facilities built around them.

Many of the nicer Onsen have saunas and cold pools as well. Bathing is nude and gender separated. There is a whole procedure for how to properly go to an Onsen, which you can read about here. However, don't get too caught up with procedure - we observed Japanese folks breaking these "rules" as often as they followed them. Basically, do what others are doing and don't be obnoxious.

PRO TIP: The Onsen at most/all of the fanciest hotels are open to the public at totally reasonable rates - pretty much the same as the standalone Onsens. The Vale in Upper Hirafu had a super nice one, if kind of small. This is a great way to get a bit of the luxury without paying much for it.

Eat all the food - Japan has incredible food, and you can find a great sampling of most types in Niseko. I can only speak for Hirafu, but we found most restaurants to have relatively short waits if any at all - contrary to what we read beforehand indicating that reservations are necessary weeks or months in advance. Most meals were $10-$30 per person, depending on how nice the place was.

PRO TIP: Try the cheese tarts on the road that leads directly to the Hirafu base lift. They're in a small cart on the left hand side of the street as you're walking uphill. They were ridiculous. I would almost go back just for the cheese tart, and that's not a joke.

Party / drink beer - If you are looking for a party, you can definitely find it in Hirafu. There are quite a few bars that stay out late and cater to the party crowd - mostly Australians and some Americans. Ask around to find out where the cool places are and where to go out.

Niseko Resources

PowderHounds

SkiJapan

List of Niseko Onsens

Other Niseko Questions?

Leave a comment and I'll reply with an answer. Or if you have resources to share, let me know and I'll add them.

 

 

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim [trip report]

A few months ago, Mike and I started planning this year's brutal wilderness adventure to follow on last year's Point Reyes to San Francisco 50+ mile single-push hike. Early on, we landed on doing Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon in under 24 hours. Quick Google searches revealed that this was indeed possible, and that there was a small fraternity of ultra runners and regular crazies like ourselves who had done this before. We put out the message and over 60 of our friends expressed interest in a trip of this variety. For the final count of 38 attendees doing a mix of 24-hour, 2-day, and one-way Rim to Rim [to Rim] trips, we rented 3 black E-350 vans from Bandago and headed out on the morning of May 24th.

 On the road

On the road

We headed out from the South Rim campgrounds at about 4:40 AM on the 25th. Temps were cold but manageable, and we didn't need insulating layers except long sleeves and a hat. We blew the parking beta and parked at the Visitor's Center about 2 miles from the South Kaibab trailhead. We quickly made our way along the paved path to the trailhead and started heading down.

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2014-05-26 14.25.54

The South Kaibab trail is steep and switchbacked, and I was glad to have a pair of trekking poles along to ease the stress on my knees. The sun was already lighting up the sky and as it crested the horizon, we stripped off layers as the temperature began rising. The miles passed quickly, and we made good time getting down to the Colorado River.

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2014-05-26 00.47.32-1

I guess it takes a certain type of person to think that hiking/running 45+ miles with 11,000+ feet of elevation gain in a single under-24 hour push is a good idea.

Anyway, before it felt like we had really even gotten started, we were into the flats and making good time across the bottom of the canyon. Sometime after we passed through Phantom Ranch, we met up with my mom, who was on her return leg of a 2-day R2R2R trip of her own. I hope I'm badass enough to be doing that when I'm her age.

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2014-05-25 10.00.45

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2014-05-25 06.40.50

Our morning timing worked as planned and kept us out of the heat of the day, for the most part. We had maybe 5-7 miles of walking in direct sunlight, and we were all pretty happy to have brought along our dork hats to keep the sun off. At each water stop, many of the group drenched their hats.

After our stretch in the sun, we started up the biggest climb of the day to gain the north rim of the canyon. The climb is unrelenting and felt steeper than the south rim, but all things considered, the grade isn't that bad and the trail quality is good except for the occasional lake of donkey piss. Side note: people ride donkeys down to the bottom, and you have to get out of the way when they pass, which slows the pace considerably. Also, the donkeys smell exactly how you think donkeys will smell.

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At the top of the north rim, we stopped and ate lunch, drank lots of water, and elevated our legs. Temps were quite cool, which felt nice after a long and taxing climb. Our total rest time on the north rim was about an hour and a half - longer than we had planned by about half an hour.

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IMG_3013

While our moving pace had been good during the first half of the day, we knew the second half was really our chance to make good time. Using our poles to mind the footing and leap over the aforementioned lakes of donkey piss, we jogged and ran at a good pace to the bottom of the canyon, then adopted a walk/jog pace through the bottom of the canyon and through the slot canyon, arriving at Phantom Ranch quite tired but making solid time.

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IMG_2991

Phantom Ranch was a much-needed water fill-up and bathroom break. It also marked the end our our running. We clicked on our headlamps shortly after Phantom Ranch, and paused for a minute to turn them off and admire the stars as we crossed the bridge spanning the Colorado River and marking the beginning of our climb out of the canyon along Bright Angel trail.

That's when shit started to get weird. We walked as a group, making good time up the mild but sustained climb. Along the way, a few people bonked to varying degrees and required either rest and nutrition or a helping hand to make sure they didn't pitch off the edge in their stumbly state.

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2014-05-25 13.26.41

But that's relatively normal - what was weird were the other people we encountered along the way. First, we passed a family of 3 or 4 with enormous backpacks and cheap sandals for footwear. One of them had a vintage steel Coleman lantern lashed to the outside of his backpack. Their shuffling, delirious pace *might* have gotten them to the top by sunrise. It couldn't have been more than 1 mile per hour, and that's being generous. After assuring us that they were fine, we had no real option but to continue on our way. As Phantom Ranch was only a couple miles back, and they would have descended Bright Angel to reach wherever they had been camping, it's hard to imagine how they ended up in that predicament.

That wasn't even the weirdest. That prize goes to the 65+ year old father and 30+ year old daughter pair whom we met with a few miles to go. The father was struggling seriously, and we were worried whether he'd be able to finish at all. His daughter insisted they were fine, and they would rest as needed but continue plodding toward the top. Again, lacking any real recourse to help them in a meaningful way, we continued to the top. Mike led the group and I took the rear to make sure we were all together and keep an eye on everyone

As he retrieved the van from the campsite, the last of our core group topped out, and I ran into the daughter of the struggling senior citizen as she topped out - without her dad. Concerned, I asked her where he was, and she indicated that he was seeking shelter from the dropping temperatures in a tiny emergency shed we had passed alongside the trail, and that he would top out by himself in the morning.

What?? How is that even remotely acceptable behavior for not just an adventure partner, but someone's own daughter? I was floored and tried to convince her to go back down to be with him, and nearly went myself. It was really only when she told me that they had been in touch with NPS rangers that I let her find her way back to her hotel room.

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After a needless-to-say-great night's sleep, we returned to welcome our 2-day R2R2R hikers up the Bright Angel trail. They had an arguably harder hike, since they had to hike the whole climb in the 90+ degree heat and full sun exposure. All around, it as an awesome trip.

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For those planning their own R2R2R

Here are a few stream-of-consciousness tips from our experience:

  • Make sure you go after they turn the North Rim water pump on, usually around the weekend before we went. It's the last water fill-up before the north rim climb, and it's pretty critical to doing a single day R2R2R.
  • Hiking poles really help take stress off the knees during the long downhills, and they speed your pace on the uphill. Not a must-have, but we were really happy to have them. Anecdotally, they seem to have reduced next-day soreness quite a bit.
  • Hiking boots are definitely not required. You'll move much faster in trail runners. Wear an ankle brace if you have bad ankles.
  • Headlamps are a must-carry item.
  • No need for any water purification - there are plenty of fill-up points along the way.
  • You can park right at the South Kaibab trailhead - don't do what we did and park at the visitor's center then walk an extra ~2 miles.
  • An early start really helps. Getting on the trail by 4:30 or 5:00 AM would be ideal
  • Big, dorky hats are great. Wear one and love it.
  • Probably you won't need any warm gear beyond a thin long-sleeve shirt like a Patagonia Capilene 1. As long as you're moving, temps didn't get cold for any of us to want more than that. Of course, weather varies every year, so make prudent decisions for your forecast.
  • Campground reservations at the canyon fill up fast, so get them early. There are also some doable options outside the park by a few miles.
  • The drive from San Francisco is doable, but definitely not the most scenic. If you're crunched for time, consider flying to Vegas and driving from there.
  • It should go without saying, but carry very little. Nobody in our group had a pack larger than about 16L, and most people carried 2-3L of water at a time.

Take the flight

Turns out, living your life is a lot more important than writing about it. For the last year, I've had a rule, and that was if I really wanted to take a trip, I'd buy the tickets. This is something I let myself spend money on because the value from travel is inevitably more than the price you paid for the plane tickets. From London to Kampala, from Venice to Munich, I haven't regretted it once.

Now that I'm back in the Bay Area, my focus this year will be on trad climbing, skiing, and learning alpine skills. The rule this year is if I want to go, I get in the car and go, and if there is gear I don't have that I need to do it, just get the gear.

Those rules have removed one of my biggest barriers to fun and adventure. I'm interested to hear what rules others have along these lines. Leave a comment if you're so inclined.

The What's Next Attitude

In one of my favorite episodes of The West Wing (which is the greatest television show that ever was or will be), President Bartlett explains that when he asks his staff "What's next?", it means he has understood the point and is ready to move on to the next thing. I think the What's Next attitude is hugely important for long-term success: it involves not only a mastery of the subject at hand but a desire to go beyond it. Most people do neither of those things. Map it over to, say, learning a new coding language or a new sport and the implications are obvious. We must take the time to understand and master the subject at hand but also seek out new areas for improvement. Nothing particularly earth-shattering there.

The problem is that it's easier said than done.

Too often, those who ask What's Next find the deck stacked against them. They fit a particular role at their company and too much growth too quickly would shake things up. Or maybe nobody has time or is capable of teaching What's Next. Maybe nobody knows What's Next and is avoids the question to maintain an air of expertise. This is mediocrity in full bloom.

All of those scenarios and a hundred more have ways forward if we keep the growth mindset and keep asking What's Next.

I'll share one of my favorite strategies. When you have a certain degree of mastery in some topic - cycling, gardening, whatever - eventually people who are just starting out are going to come to you with questions. You'll know most of them, but you probably won't have all the answers. You'll want to play the expert, and maybe you'll be tempted to dodge a question or make up something you think might be right.

Don't do that.

If you have the growth mindset, saying "I don't know" is not a judgment of your intellect or ability, but an invitation for more learning. In my opinion, there are two acceptable responses:

"I don't know, but when you find out, will you tell me about it?"

or

"I don't know - let's find out together."

Do you see how the What's Next attitude is implicit in both of those? If you're stuck, ask What's Next. Stay hungry, keep pushing.

Summer is Half Over

The summer of 2013 is more than half over - what have you been doing during this, the most glorious season of the year? It's been quite a while since I last wrote an update on what I've been doing, and I guess the only real reason it's been so long is that I've been pretty busy. Since my last post about the Venice Carnevale, I've been back to California and Phoenix, to the island of Mallorca, Paris, Edinburgh, Florence, Brussels, and Leuven. I've also found a flat for myself in London and thrown down for tickets to visit Jen in Uganda. Whew.

Here's a brief rundown of each trip, with photos because duh!

California

As with most of the time I have spent in California, my March-April trip back to the bay area consisted of getting outdoors, climbing some rocks, hanging out with friends, and having some serious type 2 fun. Two of the highlights were climbing at a secluded stretch of overhanging rock on the way to Yosemite, and completing a non-stop 50 mile hike. This crag offers some of the most pristine sport climbing within shouting distance of the Bay Area:

Beautiful overhanging sport climbingMy last weekend in town, we also planned a non-stop 50 mile hike to be completed in 24 hours. The route took us from Point Reyes, down past Mt. Tamalpais, over the Golden Gate Bridge, and finished with us passing out on Crissy Field. We got started around noon on Saturday and finished as the fog cleared Sunday morning to reveal a pristine San Francisco spring day, stopping only to chow down on some glorious 2:00 AM chilli provided by Caryn, Allison, and Sara. I didn't walk right for about a week after that sufferfest, but damn if that wasn't the best chilli any of us had ever eaten.

Crossing the Golden Gate

Mallorca, Spain

Earlier this year, Mike and I started talking about doing a climbing trip somewhere in Europe. We gathered interest and eventually decided on the island of Mallorca, one of Europe's sport climbing meccas, famous in particular for its deep water soloing made famous by Chris Sharma in the film King Lines (trailer). Our crew was Mike, me, Mark Frichtl, Nicole, Mina, and Mark Canada (a last-minute Canadian addition whose partner bailed on their trip).

Mark and Mike sendingWe set up base in Porto de Pollenca, a town of mostly retired German tourists in northern Mallorca, and Mike drove us from crag to crag each day. Each day seemed more spectacular than the last, and we felt confident leading some of our most difficult routes ever. We also fully embraced the Spanish lifestyle, drinking wine at night, waking up around 11:00 AM and climbing until dusk around 8:00 PM.

Mike, Mark Canada, and I finished off the last day with a wild 7-pitch climb that ended with a fourth class scramble to the summit of one of the island's highest points. It was the perfect end to a total Type 1 fun trip.

Type 1 fun

Paris

My family was able to all make time to come visit at the beginning of June, and we headed to Paris to start the trip. We hit most of the "first time to Paris" sights - Arc de Triomphe, Louvre, Orsay, Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysees, Notre Dame, and Versailles - and interspersed them with delicious meals and plenty of French wine.

Eiffel Tower light showRiverside shops Notre Dame

London, Bath, Frome, Stonehenge

After Paris, my family stayed for most of a week in London, touristing around and enjoying a spell of really nice weather. They saw much more of London in four days than I had in nearly three months! Feeling adventurous, I rented a car the following weekend and we headed out to Bath, Frome, and Stonehenge. Driving on the wrong side of the road wasn't too bad since I bike around London most of the time, but I did curb check a few times.

StonehengeStonehenge is, as reported, a circle of mysterious large rocks on the side of a highway. Frome, England, is a really cool place as well, with a quaint feel and a surprising number of cool shops and restaurants. We were only able to spend a few hours in our namesake town, but we made sure to get a picture with a large Frome sign (and major thanks to Ben for risking life and limb to get the photo!).

Fromes in Frome!

Edinburgh

Lauren and Ben left us before Edinburgh, so my parents and I took a beautiful train ride up north to the Scottish city of Edinburgh. We were once again met with unseasonably mild weather and small-ish crowds, which made this lovely city even more enjoyable. The unexpected highlight was the Scottish Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Military Museum inside Edinburgh Castle - they were a moving tribute to the fallen sons and daughters Scotland's proud military tradition.

Beautiful Edinburgh

Florence

When you live and Europe and your friends come to do a trip, you kind of inevitably end up flying somewhere to meet them. This is one of the best perks about living here - it seems like people are constantly coming and wanting to meet up.

Florence DuomoI met Caitlin and James in Florence during their two week roadtrip through western Europe. As seems to be my M.O. these days, I flew in a day early and stayed at a hostel before meeting up with them. We had an absolute blast walking around a very hot Florence and enjoying some of the best meals I've had in my life.

On Sunday, we had the privilege to watch the Calico Fiorentino, a kind of medieval no-holds-barred handball match replete with colorful pageantry and a heavy dose of ass kicking. I do not exaggerate at all when I say that there were around 10 ambulances parked just outside the gates, and injuries were so common that they didn't even stop play to scrape these guys off the pitch.

Calico Fiorentino

Brussels & Leuven

To cap off a pretty hectic two months of travel, I booked a last minute trip to Brussels and Leuven to visit Chris, my sophomore year roommate from Stanford. He had just finished the first year of a two-year Master's, and was hanging around Leuven one last weekend before heading out for the summer.

I arrived by train in Brussels, and we went straight to the Delirium Cafe for some of Belgium's finest beers. For the rest of the weekend, we hung around in Leuven, an idyllic Belgian town with a massive town square lined with innumerable cafes and pubs. Chris and I sat outdoors enjoying the beautiful weather for most of the weekend - it was gloriously relaxing.

Less than half of Leuven's huge city square

Since then..

Over the last 3-4 weeks, I've stayed in London and occasionally been a tourist in my own city. Chris came to visit the weekend after we were in Leuven, and we got out to see Westminster Abbey and several of the other marquee London sights. I've also settled into a flat with 4 other flatmates in the Southwark neighborhood (Borough, more specifically) of south London. My flat is pretty much equidistant from Crossfit Central London and The Arch Climbing Wall, and a 10 minute bike ride away from Medallia's UK office.

With these essentials sorted out, I've turned my sights to what travel adventures will fill the second half of my summer and on into the fall and winter. What is on your list for the rest of the summer? Any suggestions for adventures I should have? Leave a comment!

Venice Carnevale

Venice waterfront at sunsetIt's been some time since I traveled solely for the purpose of seeing a new place. Over the past few years, nearly all of my non-work trips have been to play in ultimate frisbee tournaments in admittedly spectacular places like Waimanalo, Sarasota, Washington, D.C., and Seattle.

My trip to Venice was something else entirely - travel for the sake of having the privilege of simply being in a new place for a while and seeing the best it has to offer. I wasn't supposed to spend a whole 11 days there, but sometimes you book your return flight for the wrong Monday and find yourself scrambling to find accommodation just a week before departure. Luckily, my college roommate Chris was on spring break the same week and decided to join me.

Venetian sunsetI touched down Euro-less at Venice Marco Polo airport and after wrangling some cash from an ATM that spoke only Italian, made my way to the boat stop. This trudging vessel took its time getting there, but after a little more than an hour, I disembarked at the San Zaccaria stop and attempted to make my way to the hostel where I was staying until Chris arrived. Stepping into a strange place is becoming one of my favorite feelings. It's like taking an evolutionary step backwards, where you run mostly on instincts and senses that modern life too often dulls. This displacement can be mildly terrifying, but it's a jolt we all need more often than we realize.

Venice in the winter is surprisingly cold, and I ended many days with clumsy, numb fingers but plenty of photos of the fantastic costumes and gorgeous city. During my first few days, the Carnevale had not officially started, and although the city was getting its act together for the influx of tourists, the streets were pleasantly empty. After finishing my work for the day, I headed out those nights to wander and discover.

Bridge reflection in a canalTo me, this was the best part of Venice. You might walk through San Marco square or over the Rialto bridge, then minutes later find yourself on an abandoned street lit dimly but for the glow of some charming cafe or pizzeria. Several nights, Chris and I frequented Campo Santa Margherita, where we found a self-styled speakeasy serving classic American cocktails, many with an Italian twist. Despite being the only known place to have a drink after 9:30 PM, Campo Santa Margherita was predominantly Italians, and we found it welcoming and relaxing. Venice is definitely not known for its nightlife.

Per San MarcoThe Carnevale in Venice is less about the till-dawn parties a la Rio de Janeiro as it is about upholding a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. Scores of dedicated participants don elaborate costumes and custom-made masks to roam the streets and pose for photographers and tourists throughout the week and especially on the weekends. I became captivated by the duality of the costume and the person wearing it - with most of the top-notch costumes, the only exposed area to define the creature as human were the eyes. After the streets of London, where passerby do not make eye contact with one another, this was a startling phenomenon.

Carnevale costumesCarnevale costumesCarnevale costumesThe week passed mostly on the inside of cafes or our rented apartment on the far west end of the city. I was working remotely, and Chris was completing work for his master's program and startup. We ventured out some late afternoons or evenings to eat, drink, or take photos, but mostly the weekdays were a chance for immersion in the Venetian culture. The city has a great pride in its history, and just walking around the city, you sense the gravitas of a place that was once the center of the developed world. This sentiment must steel the Venetians and their city against the onslaught of tourists and the accompanying pressures to convert every ground-floor door into a gift shop. For this, I commend the Venetians mightily.

Mosaic on Basilica San MarcoDuring the second weekend, the streets swarmed with a crush of tourists those narrow alleys were clearly were not designed to handle. Moving feet could take minutes at critical choke-points, and if the weather hadn't been pleasantly north of freezing with a crisp, blue sky overhead, I might have abandoned them entirely. I will, however, cop to spending half of Saturday in the original location of Cafe del Dodge, which also happened to be my favorite cafe in downtown Palo Alto while I was at Stanford. A TV in the corner was even showing a homemade documentary about the opening of their shop in Palo Alto.Crowds at Rialto BridgeOn Sunday, Chris left to catch an early flight and I packed my things and found a cheap hotel with a rock-hard bed near the bus station for my last night in town. I then loaded up my small backpack and allowed myself to be swept away with the crowds - there wasn't another option, actually - and drifted from place to place throughout the day snapping photos.

Bridge frames two gondolasOn this final day, I finally bought a mask after making sure that it was made locally, not in China. This is a big deal to Venetians, and rightfully so - the plastic knockoffs have encroached on the craftsmanship of a genuine Venetian Carnevale mask, and they are a cheap imitation at best.

Gondolier at sunsetThe sunset that evening glowed orange and red, and I found a long water taxi dock and photographed a miraculous sunset. It was the perfect way to cap off my first-ever trip to Italy - but you can bet I'll be back just as soon as I can.

For the whole album of photos, click here.

London Town - Touching Down

Landing in a new city is as exhilarating as it is disorienting. You are tired and probably hungry. Your head is buzzing with I'm finally here. The smells and sounds are off, and you're not sure what they are telling you, but hey - at least they speak English here.

My travel to London went off without a hitch, starting at 4:10 PST and ending sometime around 13:30 GMT the next day. Four intermittently wailing babies and an angsty, teenaged seatmate threatened to derail my smooth flight, but I had came prepared with the impenetrable combination of earplugs and noise-canceling headphones and supplemented with a couple drinks and a movie to pass the time.

The Heathrow Express

I arrived at London Heathrow Airport (LHR) and made my way for the Heathrow Express, a direct train to Paddington Station, the inspiration (literal location?) for the magical station in the Harry Potter books. From there, a taxi put me half a block away from my temporary home at 10a James Street, London, right across from the Covent Garden Tube stop. Managing to stay awake for the rest of the day day, I wandered the Covent Garden neighborhood in search of food, coffee, shampoo, a British SIM card, and a few other essentials.

And I got horribly, mind-bogglingly, helplessly lost.

I thought I had a vague sense of direction from the taxi ride in. Out the door, turn right, straight for a while, remember the corner shops to get back. Good plan, poor execution. I passed people handing out soap samples at least four times. I looked down every corner, straining to see the familiar Underground sign that would mark my street. Nothing. After a couple hours wandering within the same 2 square blocks, I finally took the right series of random turns and ended up back at the intersection where I'd been dropped off. Whew.

I would later learn that streets here are not only lacking any meaningful labels or signage - they meet at non-right angles, change direction mid-street without meeting another street, and generally meander drunkenly in non-ordinal directions. Also, I learned if you attempt to trust your sense of direction in a new city after about 4 hours of sleep in the last 48, you're going to have a bad time.

Seven Dials neighborhood

I ate a meat pie for dinner at the pub directly below our flat the first night. It was about as bad as it sounds.

In the days following, I generally settled in nicely, buying a bike, joining a climbing gym in a castle, and (slowly) finding where to purchase things like food and shoes that don't have holes in them. Freezing temperatures plus running shoes was a bad idea, and I take full responsibility.

The Castle

The jetlag was miserable for the first week, but by far the hardest adjustment has been that I now live mostly alone, not with 7+ housemates whose company I enjoyed even more than I realized. These compounded one another, as the hour or two of sleeplessness in the middle of the night left me feeling more alone than I've felt in a very long time. My friends are awesome, and they deserve to be missed greatly.

After that, the logistics of biking on the left side of the street were surprisingly disorienting at first. Although I am now a proud ambi-turner, it took me days to work up the courage to turn right - I would just dismount and go through a crosswalk instead.

And as opposed to avocados the size of mangoes, my experience with British cuisine has been less than inspiring. It tends to be gravy-soaked, bland, fatty, and devoid of anything that grew in the ground or on a tree. Ethnic food is somewhat better, but I think I've been to a grand total of one restaurant that would manage to stay open longer than a couple months in the Bay Area.

A cafe in Covent Garden, empty on a chilly Saturday morning.

Nevertheless, London is starting to win me over. Her people are warm and friendly, and her streets are packed densely with new opportunities and a charm that only the old world can genuinely deliver. Yes - this will be a magnificent place to call home for a year.

Hotel or Airline?

When was the last time you had a great experience flying? It's almost a laughable question, like asking when the last time you had a blast at the dentist. But what about the last time you had a great stay at a hotel? Probably not that long ago, even if you stay at relatively cheap places. Hotels tend to be perceived as welcoming, accommodating, and comfortable. Airlines, on the other hand, are uncaring, unforgiving, and even openly hostile. Why?

You might argue that airlines face a host of challenges - like Federal Aviation Administration requirements, weather delays, and volatile gas prices - and you would be absolutely right. But that's just tough, and I find the our industry is too difficult to not suck at what we do argument to be unpersuasive.

Strip away the excuses and you're left with the fact that airlines focus exclusively on their bottom line while hotels focus on creating champions for their brand and earning their customers' loyalty by delivering a great experience with every visit.

The good news for the airlines is that the bar is set so low that travelers are going to notice any significant improvement in the experience and service they receive. As in any industry, the first step in that process must be to tune in to their customers and listen to what they have to say.

So, is your company a hotel or an airline?

4 Workouts for the Holiday

A lot of folks are traveling for the holidays without access to their regular gym, and with big meals threatening to make us all doughy, we've got to get some work done. Getting your workout in while traveling is actually pretty easy, but we use the "away from my gym, better eat this sticky bun instead" excuse far too easily. Put those excuses back in your suitcase and go spend 30 minutes (or less) on one of these workouts.

For all, run 800m or thereabouts as a warmup. I like to do 3 rounds of 5 pushups, 10 situps, 15 squats also.

Workout # 1

As quickly as possible, broken up however you wish, do these:

100 pushups 200 situps 300 squats

Workout # 2

Go for a run in your neighborhood and do 5 pushups at every intersection on the way out, 5 jump squats at every intersection on the way back. Goal is to get 100 pushups and squat jumps. Bonus points for the looks you get from the neighbors.

Workout # 3

4 rounds for time of:

25 burpees 25 situps

Workout # 4

10 rounds for time of:

Run 1 minute Squats for 30 sec.

And there you have it - simple. Scale as necessary but challenge yourself.

Happiest of holidays to everyone!