One magical way to figure out your next robot-proof career

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I came across a book called Design Your Life. Design thinking is extremely influential in the Silicon Valley. Authors of the book, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, are both professors of the famous Stanford They asked this question:

How to apply design thinking to build a joyful, fulfilled life?

What is Design Thinking? If you have heard about iterating, prototyping, failing fast and failing often, then you got a fairly good idea of what design thinking means. Startups use this methodology to make sure they design products that customers want to buy in real life. They talk to potential customers to understand their needs; quickly redesigning products and getting customers’ feedback. They keep going until they hit on a version that resonates with their potential customers.

This is all great, but I can’t help thinking. How can Design Thinking help us robot-proof our career?

There are many junctions in our life where we have to figure out what kind of career we want to be in. It happens when we graduate from college, but it doesn’t stop there. We get laid off. We want to do something we are passionate about. We want time with our family.

While we know our talent and passion, we are not exactly sure who will be interested in us. The result? We keep doing what we did in the past, even though it doesn’t feel exactly right.

That is where Design Thinking can help.

Design Thinking helps you visualize various possibilities for your life and career.

Design Thinking gives you guidance on how to take small and meaningful steps to test out your career idea by talking to people in the real world.

Design Thinking helps us dream big AND 100% grounded in reality.

Design Thinking is about changing our mindset and the way we view our career as a journey. Here are a few ideas for us to get started today!


1. Stop believing there is one perfect career for our whole life

My father and my uncle both quitted their high paying jobs to start new careers in their 40s.

Aren’t we suppose to choose and stay in one career for our whole life? I thought my family was weird.

Bill Burnett points out a (depressing) point in this book. As we live longer, we also work longer. In our 40-50 year career span, we will have at least 2-3 radically different careers.

President Reagan was a famous actor before he became President of the United States. Bill Gates was a CEO before he ran the largest Foundation to give back to the community. Martha Stewart was a stockbroker before she started her beauty-home media empire.

My family history turned out to be the norm, not the exception.


2. Not all your dreams can come true. And it’s ok.

Happiness Expert Dan Gilbert, who also happens to be a Professor of Psychology at Harvard, found a surprising result on our ability to predict what makes us happy.

The result? We are fairly lousy, and our assumptions about what will make us happy in the future are often wrong. It seems counter-intuitive, especially in our culture where we encourage everyone to dream big and conquer the world.

What he found out is that we always misjudge how we will feel in the future because we forget that the “us” in 2022 is different from the “us” in 2017. If there’s no one perfect career, that also means not all our dreams could or should come true.

A couple of weeks ago, I somehow got the idea that eating three croissants in a row will make me very happy, and I went ahead and did that. Needless to say, I felt sick on the train ride home that evening.

Dan is right. I am terrible in predicting what makes me happy.


3. Think big and take small steps

Positive thinking has been huge in the past few years. We were told that by visualizing our success – getting that dream job, dating that dream girl – will motivate us to move closer to our goal.

Professor Gabriela Oettingen at the NYU took this idea for a test, and her research was surprising.

She found out that dreaming about the awesome future often makes us paralyzed with fear and unable to move. Luckily, she has an antidote: we should WOOP our life.


To put it simply, on top of dreaming big, we should also plan some concrete steps that we can take within the next 2-3 weeks to move us closer to the dream. We should also continue to learn, change and plan every 2-3 weeks. That sounds like iterating our life to me!


Lesson 3: While I cannot predict how to compete with robots of the future, yet, I can use design thinking and WOOP my career continuously to get ahead of the curve.


3 Founder’s Secrets to robot-proof your career

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Chris Zook and his colleagues at Bain took 5-years to uncover the secret of companies that maintain high growth rates over a 10-year period. These companies share the same attitude – The Founder’s Mentality – that direct them to be energetic and innovative over the long term.

I want “sustainable growth” in my life too! How to apply the secrets behind “Founder’s Mentality” to our career? I took the liberty of translating Chris’s points to a personal context. I hope he doesn’t mind!

Research: Only 10% of the companies sustained growth over a 10-year period.

Translation: If we don’t define what growth means in our lives, we will fail.

In 2010, I was in a lecture hall with Professor Clayton Christensen. Professional Christensen was famous for the coining the terms “Disruptive innovation.” He went on stage, and asked this question:

How do you measure your life?

I was stunned. I never thought about it.

As much as I pride myself on maintaining a good work/life balance in my career, there were moments I have doubts. A few years ago, I was looking out at the gorgeous view of Manhattan from the 34th floor of a luxurious condo in Williamsburg, the home of my Wall Street friends.

But I was not happy. I felt a pull in my heart. What have I done? Why can’t I afford a house like this?

I realized my ego was making me unhappy for things that I do not even want.

I realized I will always feel like a failure I measure my success with my mental default – money.

I realized articulating my life goal correctly will bring me half way to success.


Research: Failure to grow is due to internal, controllable factors.

Translation: We are the one who inflicted harm to our career. Don’t blame others.

Chris and his team found out that a stunning 85% of a company’s failure to maintain sustainable growth was due to internal problems. Not competitions or technological disruptions.

Kodak is a great example. They patented digital photography technology in 1978, but internal forces suppressed it because the profit from film sales was great. Until it was not.

Lately, I’m surprised by how many of my friends are unhappy with their well-paid jobs. They told me, “I have to take a deep breath just to step out of the house each morning.” “I’m just doing it for the money.”

I realized our fear and complacency is the main obstacle in moving us towards the robot-proof career path of learning and taking risks.


Research: Companies that maintain Frontline’s Obsession generate 3x return.

Translation: In touch with people and their daily reality helps us adapt to new career realities.

I was a buyer early on in my career. At that time, suppliers were real people who endured triumphs and tribulations in the daily supply chain life. As I moved up the organization, suppliers became abstract categories like “strategic suppliers”.

One day, I was sitting through one of those “How to capture millennial consumers” presentations and saw this stock-photo.

I realized: seriously, do our millennial customers really look like this? Have I talked to them and really get to know who they are and what they want?

Have you?

I realized we are all very in tune with our customers, suppliers, partners and team members early on in their career. Our ability to keep doing that instead of solely rely on data and presentations will give us an edge.

Robots cannot empathize with people yet. Maybe an opportunity for us human?


Lesson 2: Adopting Founder’s Mentality can help us keep our career evergreen.

How to improve your Body Language to robot-proof your career

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Social media has a curious impact on our relationship. We gain the skill to make friends online, but at the same time, we are losing the art of building relationships in real life. We all judge others by their body language. Research showed that we could predict how likely a doctor will get sued by watching a 30-second video of their bedside manner.

What about us? Do we judge ourselves by our own body language? Can we improve the way we feel about ourselves and robot-proof our career in the process?

Amy Cuddy, a Harvard Business School Professional, said that we do. She sent out a challenge to all of us: Adopt power poses for 2 minutes, and we can fool our brain and boost our confidence.


I tried these power poses for 2 minutes. It feels great, but the effect eventually fades throughout the day. I want to feel great all day, and it’s not possible to hide in the bathroom and do this every couple of hours.

The search to robot-proof my career by improving my body language was on. A few months ago, I found myself sitting on a special chair in the studio of my very patient Alexander Technique Teacher Leah as one of her few non-actor clients.

Leah moved my head a bit and asked, “You have neck pain?”
Me: Totally.
Leah: Well, your head is tilting upwards on your left side, compressing your neck.
Me: Oh……people probably think that I’m an insufferable know-it-all…

I spent a few months with Leah and I relearned how to sit, walk and go down the stairs. I feel myself changing slowly — calmer, happier, more confident, and friends who haven’t seen me for a while notice that I am friendlier and more alive. As an introvert, I have mastered the art of pretending to be comfortable in a networking event, and to my surprise, now I am trying to feel easy in my own skin standing there with a cocktail glass.

The challenge of power poses is that they convey a sense of aggression that doesn’t sit well when they are used by women on a regular basis. Research has shown that women need to balance warmth and power in the professional environment, and those who displayed an excessive amount of power are not well liked by others.

These are the few tips I have learned along the way.

  1. Breathe

When you’re in an intense discussion today, take one second to check on yourself: are you breathing?

When Leah gave me this homework, I thought she was crazy. Days went by, and I was surprised by how much I held my breath when I’m in a situation that requires full attention – working on a powerpoint deck towards a 15 min deadline, being grilled at a meeting.

Just remind yourself to breathe and keep breathing, and you will be ok.

2. Pose for Power, not Dominance

Many power poses make us look like an Alpha Gorilla, who is trying to scare others to step back into line. There is a time and place for “taking up as much space as possible” power postures, but if we use it regularly, I’m fairly sure people will think that we are arrogant jerks.

Pose for Power is taking up the space that is yours, not less, and not more.



3. Pull back your shoulder, relax your arms, hands and legs

Try this: how do you feel when you cross your arm? Subconsciously, you are probably feeling unsafe, and want to protect yourself.

What if you pull your shoulder forward and let your own body collapse? I feel like I’m hunkering down for a nuclear holocaust.

There is one trick that makes me feel — and look — all the time, and you can do it anywhere. Pull your shoulders back and relax. It is as simple as that.


4. Power poses re-wire my brain for good

I was never someone who come across as lacking confidence, but I always notice that outward exuberance is partly overcompensating a level of insecurity in me.

So did the power poses make me feel authentically confident? Have I faked it until I become it? I find it so much easier to connect with new friends, as I’m not too pre-occupied checking to see if my shoulder is pulled back and relax than judging myself in the interaction.

The answer is a resound yes. Thanks, Amy!


Robot-Proof My Career Lesson 1: Improve my body language makes me feel confident, powerful, and connected to others. 

Have you tried the 2-minute exercise to notice your posture and make yourself more open? How do you feel?

Robot-proof your job with this New Year Resolution.

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A Stop-Do List.

The future looks cloudy. Will robot eat our jobs? I have to admit that I’m a bit scared. What will all this mean for our children and our society?

I am curious. I’ve been spending quite some time figuring out what we can do to secure our future. It is my sincere hope that by sharing my adventure, we can figure a path forward together.

Starting next week, I will publish a weekly blog series “Robot-Proof My Job.” I am really excited about it, but before I step forward, I realize I need to step back to make space for this new venture.

When I started to put together my usual new year goals, I felt my shoulders getting tighter and my breathing shallower. My brain was yelling: NO MORE NEW GOALS !! I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!

I pushed myself back from the computer and stared at it for a long time. I am already overwhelmed, exhausted and tired. Then I heard the voice of my Ikebana teacher, “More, Less is.”

Ah sorry, she’s not Yoda, but I got the point. My first step to robot proofing my career is to do less. A Stop-Do List is born.

1. A Stop-Do List makes space for a To-Do List

Camilla (not her real name) is a rising star in an entertainment company with boys under the age of 5. She told me she has focused her energy at work and got to where she wanted to be career-wise, but there is a problem. Her memory of how her kids were growing up was blurry. It bothers her.

Most of us will expect a guilty mom to say “I’ll spend more time with my kids from now on”, and then really struggle to make it happen. Instead, she did something different and very smart.

She ran a little experiment at work. She decided to focus on two critical programs only, and move all other “Hey can you do this?” to her stop-do list. The perfectionist streak in her was afraid that sky is going to fall, but with the smile of her boys in her mind, she held her nose and dived in.

The result? Nothing. Nothing blew up, no one notice. And then something magical happened. She is no longer exhausted after work and can be fully present for her kids.

She said, “I have to remind myself, at the end of the day, it is just a cartoon.”

2. Believe that we will stop doing something without writing it down is a pipe dream

When was the last time your CEO celebrated “saving $100M by not going headlong into a bad M&A deal”?

Like, never?

Let’s face it. Research showed that the act of doing something feels great. The sense of accomplishment gave us a momentary high (double chocolate chip cookie? Spending 30 minutes that you don’t have on Facebook) before it dawned on us that it is something we really shouldn’t do. Not explicitly committing to writing something you will not do and think that you will do it?

3. Steve Job did it. So did Howard Schultz.

When Steve Job returned to Apple in 1997, he made it a mantra that what Apple removed from products was just as important as what it added. Floppy disk drives, computer mice with two buttons – they were all gone in the new iMac.

When Howard Schultz returned to run Starbucks in 2008, he removed heated breakfast sandwiches to accentuate the aroma of coffee and closed and scaled back the CDs and books that were crowding the store.

So, here is my To-Stop List. Any advice on how to help me stick to my new year resolution?

A To-Stop List is the best New Year Resolution Idea that I have heard of

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I have to give up having yet another To-Do List. I simply run out of time to pile on more things into my life.

So I decided to try something different this year – a To-Stop List. Research shows that we are more likely to stick to our goals when we share them publicly. So, I’m putting myself to the test the theory.


Grace’s 2017 To-Stop List


1. Stop checking Facebook between 10 p.m.  and 7 a.m.  Stop checking hourly weather information. You live in LA for God’s sake.

2. Stop read-and-eat. Just eat.

3. Stop skipping daily yoga. No, walking 10,000 steps that day doesn’t count.

4. Stop eating more than a bakery item a day. This includes croissants and pineapple buns.

5. Stop saying “I already know” or “It won’t work” when people give me advice. Just say “Thank You”.

6. Stop the impulsive need to “add value” to every conversation. Listen, and open your mouth only when other people ask for my opinions.

7. Stop masking the feeling of anger, jealousy or anxiety when they arise by diverting my attention to feeling pity and sad for others. Acknowledge these emotions and let them go.

8. Stop for 5 seconds when I found myself sweating uncontrollably, jaw locked or my steps are wobbly. My body is trying to tell me something and I got to listen.

9. Stop at the 30-minute mark for every Ikebana arrangement session. It will never be perfect, and always beautiful enough. And the bottom line is, it is just flowers.


“Stand Out”: The Ultimate Form of Career Insurance with Dorie Clark

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Dorie Clark
Dorie Clark

I have read many personal branding books, and none of them resonates as much to me as Dorie Clark’s Reinventing you. I’m so excited to get a chance to speak to Dorie on her new book Stand Out, a “how-to” guide to become a thought leader in your field.

Grace : I love Reinventing You, an instant classics in personal branding. Why did you decide to write Stand Out as a follow-up?

Dorie: The reason is because once you have successfully reinvented yourself and transition to a career that you are excited about, the next logical question is how do you become recognized as being competent, and even excellence, in your new field. Many people may be skeptical, and it is important to show that you have something different and meaningful to offer.

I want to write Stand out because I want to understand what make someone a recognized expert in his or her field: what do their ideas look like, how did they get recognized, and I then reverse-engineered it so that regular professionals can apply the same technique and have their true talent recognized.

Grace: In ‘Stand Out’, you interviewed a numbers of people to understand how they become thought leaders in their field – from business, technology to bicycle advocacy. How do you select these experts?

Dorie: Some of them are experts in their field that I’m eager to learn from and want to connect directly with and learn from, like David Allen, a productivity expert. Others are people that I met in the normal course of life that I thought are doing something very interesting. I found it important to create a diverse network and have acquaintances from a diverse set of fields to learn from.

Grace: Any “ah-ha” moment during the interview process?

Dorie: I was really struck with Seth Godin, a marketing expert. He’s clearly not driven by money. He could make a lot of money consulting, but chose not to because he doesn’t like it. People would pay a lot of money to be him, but he pays interns to spend time with him instead. I was really impressed. It’s less about maximizing revenue, and more about doing something interesting and meaningful. Ultimately that’s the condition that you can create your best work.

Grace: There are critics out there who said that there’s nothing a regular person – let’s say a clerk at Walmart, can learn from this book. What do you think?

Dorie: Stand Out seeks to help people to become global thought leaders. Certainly only a small number of people will be. What is important is that you can, and you should, become a thought leader locally – in your company, in your community. Even for our clerk in Walmart, if he or she can demonstrate that they have ideas worth listening to – new ways to improve customer service – they will be recognized as someone who adds greater value. If there are layoffs, they are going to be protected far more than those who are doing the bare minimal. Your brand as a thoughtful professional is the ultimate form of career insurance.

Grace: Many young people asked me if they should go to graduate school. What’s your advice?

Dorie: No one should go to graduate school because you are out of ideas. It’s far too expensive. It can saddle you with debt and force you to take jobs that you won’t want to pay the debt — hardly a recipe for happiness. There are cheaper ways to educate yourself: internship, MOOC, read a book.

Grace: Should they try to be a thought leader?

Dorie: We don’t want to oversell ourselves and claim to be experts in things that we don’t know. But you can establish yourself as a thought leader throughout the learning process itself. This is an example: George Kauffman didn’t want to spend money on an MBA, and he decided to read all the classics MBA literature. His blog The Personal MBA was so popular that he turned that into a book.

Grace: The other comment that I hear a lot is from people who are close to retirement but not quite there yet. They feel that it’s too late for them to reinvent themselves. What do you think?

Dorie: I got ask this question a lot too. One of my most popular HBR blog is How to reinvent yourself after 50. I just released a short online course with the Economist on How to reinventing yourself mid-career. You can reinvent yourself at all the time and at all stages. It’s easier for people to hold back because of self-image. I know someone who got his Ph.D. at age 66 — he wanted to do it, he did it, and he moved on to a new chapter that is interesting for him.

4 Questions to Consider Before You Go To Graduate School

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Graduation November Ceremonies. 19/1114
Photo Credit: Nottingham Trent University @Creative Common

“Grace, I’ve worked for a few years and ready to take my career to next level”, a voice filled with equal part of anxiety and anticipation on the other end of the line. “Should I go to graduate school?”

Over the years, I have had the honor to connect with many women who’ve asked me this question. I’m the beneficiary of various graduate programs and they expect my ringing endorsement. Not so fast.

I want to propose something bold here: if you want to have a fulfilling, successful career, you need to be a trailblazer. Create your own career path.

I’ve put together 4 questions for anyone who’s thinking about going to graduate school to think through:

1. Why do you want to graduate school?
“I don’t know, it just seems like the next logical thing to do.” That’s the typical answer. If that your reason, I can guarantee that it’s the most expensive and wasteful way to spend two years of your life.

Many of us believe that a graduate degree can help you rise above your competitors, and give you a bit more assurance to life-long career success. Unfortunately, we don’t live in China in the 5th century anymore. I have seen many graduates from top MBA school settled into so-so careers.

I asked an award-winning movie producer – who never went to graduate school – the secret of her success. She joined the movie industry at the dawn of the computer-generated special effects, when digital technology created new creative possibilities. The most logical career progression for a Creative-Writing major like her was to join the Story Department. However, she noticed she had a unique talent: she can get creative and technical types to work together and create critically-acclaimed and commercially successful movies. She moved into the role of a producer and quickly got promoted.

The secret of her success is having a deep understanding on how her unique talent fit in the shifting industry landscape. Technological changes create opportunities for prepared minds.

2. Is there something you are passionate about?
I’m not a huge fan of telling pre-college kids to follow their dream. We need maturity and experience to discover that sweet spot where our passion and career opportunity collides. If you have worked for a few years and you find it extremely hard to roll out of bed to go to work every day because your job has zero redeeming quality, it’s time to think about your passion.

Nina has been working as a computer programmer at a government agency for several years, and she was itching to make a move — going to a startup seemed like a logical next step. After spending 6 months talking to friends and her network family, she told me: “I really want to bring new technology into government agencies to improve efficiency. That’s what I want to do”.

Bureaucracy and Innovation? They shouldn’t exist in the same sentence!

She explained that Obama’s Open Data initiatives is changing the culture at work, and she senses a small opening to new ideas. She worked hard in the past 6 months. She immersed herself in the local Open Data community movement in the weekends. She rallies other software developers in her agency around her Open Data vision. She successfully petitioned her chain of command and gained approval to create a volunteer hacker group for Open Data pilot projects.

The secret of her success was spending the time to figure out where her passion met new work opportunities and brought everyone around her along the path she created for herself..

3. Do you find yourself looking at joining the “tech” sector?
Everyone whom I’ve talked to regrets that they didn’t go into “tech” while in college. Silicon Valley is just so hot these days. Being tech savvy will be important for any of us to thrive in the future of work – but it can be done in a very different way.

Helen reluctantly becomes a stay-at-home mom after a brief stint in the financial industry. I visited her back in 2010, and was sad to find her visibly depressed and easily irritated. She felt isolated, and her only solace was making ornamented hair clips when the kids were asleep. I encouraged her to turn it into a business – the next logical step for someone in her situation who was doing absolutely nothing.

To my surprise, she went right to work. She used Facebook and Pinterest to get product design feedback, to sell products, and was even featured in the Christmas Fair of a local school. Her business rebuilt her own sense of worth, and I was thrilled to see her smiling again after 5 years.

Helen will never be a featured in Forbes magazine, but she finds her balance of work, family and self through the help of technology. For me, Helen is extremely successful in her own way.

4. Have you talked to your friends about this decision
We value expert opinions on the all-important graduate school decision, and I would argue that you should first speak to your friends who know you well. Your elementary school best friend may know nothing about your industry and your work style, but they know your strengths and weaknesses.

You need to know who you are and how others perceive you before you think about passion, career opportunities, and whether graduate school is the right choice for you. It’s your first step if you want to blaze your own trail.

Do this. Ask 10 friends and family members to list your top 3 strengths and weakness. I did this exercise a few years back, and was shocked to discover a consistent pattern of my strength and weakness emerging from these interviews.

Get to know your strengths and weakness. Find your passion. See where these intersect with the changing environment. Test, learn, and blaze a uniquely yours career path.

8 Lessons I learnt from my Asian Trip – Business and Technology Edition

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photo (8)

What is the impact of technology on business in Asia? Is it more dynamic than what we experience in the US? Mainstream business and technology news reporting rarely touches this topic, and I conducted a mini-research on this topic while I was in China and South East Asia in the past three weeks. I’m surprised to conclude that US is still the leader in innovation globally as scale matters. Here are the 8 lessons that I learned:

1. US is 2-3 years ahead in the application of technology to business
“You are working on Big Data? I thought you are working in a food company? That’s so strange! What has data got to do with businesses anyway?”

That’s the response I got when I told my friends and professional contacts – many US educated – what I’m doing at work. With the exception of e-commerce, many of the emerging technologies that we are leveraging in US business environment are relatively unheard of out there.

2. Uber is taking over the world
China is set to be Uber’s largest market. Chengdu in China has a higher daily Uber ridership than New York City by a factor of 500. While Uber faces fierce regional competitors such as Didi Kuaidi in China and GrubTaxi in South East Asia, it’s the only app other than Facebook that is used in most Asian markets.

3. Fate of other Social and Sharing apps are less certain.
We may be tempted to presume that Twitter, Instacart and Airbnb will follow Uber’s footsteps and gain traction in Asia – that was simply not the case. Many of them are crowded out by regional clones that are designed to thrive in local markets: instead of Twitter, Weixin, Whatsapp and Line are all the rage. Others are addressing problems that simply do not exist: instead of Instacart, many well-off Asian households continue to send their maids to grocery shop in wet markets and local convenience stores.

4. Newspapers and bookstores are still well and alive.
I’m amazed by the number of people reading newspaper in public spaces and the popularity of bookstores. Disruptions we experienced in US are coming at a much slower pace in Asia. My friend, who is a senior executive at Bangkok Post, explained the mystery. While readership has been in slow decline, advertising dollars are holding strong for local newspapers as digital marketing infrastructure is less mature.

5. Women fare better in Asian workplaces
According to a 2015 survey by Grant Thorton, women make up of 32% of Corporate China’s leadership role.

Wonder what the percentage is for US and UK? 20%.

Asia has a strong childcare infrastructure through a combination of help from family members and domestic helpers. In fact, I was shocked by the lack of help that most U.S. parents faced when I moved to the US 15 years ago – how could anyone put in hours at work, be a good parent, and still keep their sanity? I’m still baffled after all these years.

6. However, it’s still not easier to be a woman entrepreneur
Only 14 out of the 100 Hong Kong based startups surveyed has a woman co-founder. Leona Wong, the Executive Director of an industry group that conducted the survey, was equally dismayed and surprised to find out this reality is not too different from what we observed in the US startup scene. If you can read Chinese, this is an article that captured our conversation on the state of women in the workplace and startups on both sides of the Pacific.

7. US is still admired and copied by business leaders
In US, people are concerned that China is taking over our dominance in the business and technology world. In Asia, China is more feared than admired. While cell phone makers like Xiao Mi is gaining traction in Asia, many considered Chinese technology firms as imitators of American ingenuity. US, especially Silicon Valley, is still revered as the global engine of innovation.

8. Scale Matters
Scale Matters – this is the big ah-ha moment of my trip. I take scale for granted — in the US, the biggest question that all startups faces is how to scale up quickly to capture the market of 300 million people. In smaller markets like Hong Kong or Singapore with populations under 10 million, startups have to curtail their ambition as the size of their native market is inherently small and regional expansion is challenging due to vast differences in language and business practices. From the perspective of a venture capitalist, it’s safer to put bold bets in US, China and India than in smaller markets.

3 lessons on how consumer product startups are disrupting industry giants

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Coolest Cooler @Coolest_cooer.png

Hello from China! I’m spending the week in Wuhan, and I’m fighting over the last piece of toast at the hotel breakfast buffet with representatives of Toyota, General Motors, and Citroen. There’s no question that China is the reigning champion of manufacturing in the world, but U.S. is seeing the rise of a new generation of innovators who are dedicated in the making of actual physical stuff — not codes and apps. If you are in the business of making consumer products, the Maker’s Movement and crowdfunding options are bringing in a new wave of competitions and innovations into the marketplace.

Maker’s Movement + New Financing Option = Renaissance of industries that make physical products for consumers

Even Obama and G.E. will agree with that. The White House has declared June 12-18 as the “Week of Makers” to celebrate the folks who are tinkerers in their garages. G.E. just sold their finance arm, GE Capital, so that they can focus on advanced manufacturing.

Still not convinced? Introducing the Coolest Cooler & Just Mayo. Makers Movement and new financing options such as crowdfunding and venture capital are making it easier for entrepreneurs to deal a blow to manufacturing behemoths from the middle of nowhere.

Lesson 1: Kickstarter sent $13M of love to Coolest Cooler

Have no idea who is a “maker”? Meet Ryan Grepper. Ryan has been frustrated with the chest coolers that keep our food and drink cool while we on the road. The coolers we all have in our garages have barely changed since the 1950s.

Most of us will wish in secret that our coolers can be cooler, but Ryan is not like most of us. He spent 14 years designing and prototyping a new cooler in his garage while we are watching TV or surfing the internet.

Why can’t a cooler have separate compartments so that beverages stay cold, and food stays dry? Why is it so clumsy to drag the cooler on the road? Why can’t a cooler have a blender to make iced tea on the fly? Why can’t a cooler blast our favorite tunes from our iPhone? Why?

Last year, Ryan took to final design Coolest Cooler to Kickstarter, and got a whopping $13M of pre-orders to turn his idea into a real business.

Lesson Two: Unilever sued Just Mayo as their best defense to arrest declining sales

In 2013, I went to Bay Area’s Maker’s Faire. For those of you not in the DIY culture, Maker’s Faire is a place where thousands showed up to check out the latest drones, 3D printers, and home-made R2D2.

I wandered into the Food Pavilion — it was was filled with hipster chicken coops, artisanal pickles, two goats, and a small table where you can taste-test Just Mayo, a mayonnaise that was made with no eggs. Cool, I thought, and I moved on to see the fire-breathing metal octopus.

Eighteen months later, Unilever sued Hampton Creek, the maker of Just Mayo because “Just Mayo already is stealing market share from Hellmann’s,” and that, “Unilever will continue to suffer irreparable harm in the marketplace.” Just Mayo is not just gaining consumers’ heart by being all natural and tasty; with the $120M venture money raised in their 3 years of existence, and a lower price point than traditional mayonnaise, they are on the shelve of Whole Foods, Costco and 99 cents store. .

Lesson Three: Startup can grow 10x faster than the time when I was in one

Back in the day when I was in a food startup, we grew very slowly as it was damned hard to raised money. I still remembered the time when I pressed the controller to get overdue invoices paid, and he said, either the supplier or you got paid this Friday. Your choice, no pressure. There was no Kickstarter, and VCs was not interested in the food business. Large companies had plenty of time to compete or acquire smaller brands before they became a real threat.

Once upon a time, you are pretty safe if you are in the manufacturing business. It’s difficult and risky for startups to borrow money to produce your prototype in a real factory, and wondering if anyone will buy one of the 1 million units you just ordered to meet the factory’s minimum rum. But that fairy-tale is starting to fade.

No matter you are an entrepreneurs or executives of a manufacturing company, the Makers Movement and new fundraising options is already unleashing a wave of innovation, disruption and change. It has never been a better time to be a consumer.

Will robot eat your job?

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Will robots one day eat us? Maybe, in the next blockbuster movie. Will robots one day eat our jobs? Possible, in real life. I’ve been fascinated by the latter for quite some time. As of late, fascinations have morphed into fear: Watson, the IBM supercomputer that won Jeopardy in 2012, [is going to Medical School]!(http://

How could a computer practice medicine? While a machine can certainly act ‘brainy,’ the idea of having a robot perform a triple bypass seems to me like something out of a horror movie.

None of us are surprised that robots are replacing simple, repetitive tasks. Robotic arms in automobile manufacturing and self-check out machines in supermarkets have been replacing low-skill blue and white collar jobs for the past 20 years. However, most of us continue to believe is that complex decision making, a skill that is polished through years of education and on-the-job experience, is safe and irreplaceable.

Our friend Watson would respectfully disagree. [Watson has been proved to be more adept than humans at diagnosing cancer]. (

Understand how we measure up to the machines as a first step

We can raise against or race with the machines, the choice is ours to make. No matter which route you decide to take, it is useful to understand where you stand compared to them. Daron Acemoglu and David Autor of MIT have come up with a useful frameworkto help us figure this out. It’s a matrix, dividing cognitive work versus manual work, and routine versus non-routine… ok, let’s try something more fun. Let us apply this framework in the context of a restaurant.

a. If you are the chef…

Chef: Chopping. Sauteing. Plating. If you are a famous chef, imaging new dishes that create desires and demands is also part of the skill set. Besides the occasional mono-tasking, noodle-making robot, robots have poor eye-hand coordination skill and cannot compete with humans. And while our friend Watson has been dreaming up new recipes with the Culinary Institue of American, I’ll definitely want a human chef to do a test-drive before it’s served.

Verdict: Chefs, you are safe. Also, a robot chef will be much less entertaining than Gordon Ramsey at Kitchen Nightmares.

*b. If you are a *maître d’ **
Once upon a time, if you wanted to make a restaurant reservation, you called the maître d’ to reserve a table; if you wanted to buy take-out, you call. Nowadays, we make reservations through Yelp or Opentable; we order take-out food by Grubhub. The routine job of registering information can be easily replaced by a computer program.

Verdict: Sorry maître d’, robot is already half way through your job

c. If you are an Accountant
Training, CPA exam – that is the ticket to a solid white collar job called the accountant. Let me ask you a question: Who use Turbo Tax to file tax? I see many hands in this imaginary room. While accountants need to be smart, arcane tax rules can easily be codified into a computer program.

Accountants, you want to make a career transition into the field of financial planning? There are robot financial advisors too. Sorry.

Verdict: Sorry, robot is already and well on its way

d. If you are graphic designer
A graphic designer creates great logos and websites that fit with the mood and style of the restaurants that enhance the dining experience. Design is part art, part science, reading all the design rule books will not make you, or a computer, come up with the logo of Apple Computer.

Verdict: You are safe. Robots cannot yet dream of something with no rules to guide them. Not yet. You may be replaced by an awesome designer from Eastern Europe, but that’s another story.

Whether robot will eat its way to your job has little to do with whether you use muscle power or brain power at work. Any task that can be easily described as a set of rules has the potential to be replaced. With the advancement of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence, computers can soon be better in complex decision-making, in everything from medicine, supply chain, loan approval, and marketing. Figuring out how you can be a complement to the machine will be the key to success in the future workplace.

*Do you think robots will eat your job? *