Looking back at 2009, looking forward to 2010

In many ways 2009 was the continuation of 2008.

I had the privilege to be surrounded by my amazing friends for my 35th birthday party.

OLX continued to grow slowly but surely:

  • The company raised an extra $5 million in May 2009 bringing the total raised to $29 million.
  • We now have 140 employees and are present in 90 countries and 40 languages with over 100 million unique visitors per month.
  • OLX started to emerge from under the radar with a feature in Business Week.

I was given the chance to interact with a great many fantastic entrepreneurs at LeWeb where I had a fun fireside chat with my friend Loic Lemeur.

My New Year’s resolution of traveling less came to naught as I continued to travel far and wide for OLX and expect more of the same for 2010. On the personal side, I continued to be hampered by a recurring left knee injury which prevented me from skiing, playing tennis and doing extreme travel most of the year. We are trying a new treatment in January. Hopefully it will yield better results!

I did manage to go on a safari in Tanzania and to kite board in Prea.

The best books I read in 2009:

My best blog posts of 2009 were:

I continued to be a prolific angel investor making 9 investments in 2009, bringing the total to 27:

On the bright side only one of my portfolio companies went under in 2009 though a few are teetering on the brink. I expect a few will fail in 2010.

Predictions for 2010:

  • OLX will continue to grow slowly but surely, but it will be too early to tell how successful the company will ultimately be. It will probably take another 3-5 years to be able to assess where we stand.
  • OECD countries will have sub-par growth in 2010 given the weakness in commercial real estate, continued weakness in residential real estate, high unemployment, and ineffective and unsustainable government policies.
  • There is also a real risk of a second downturn should some of the bubbles that are seemingly forming in China burst. Alternatively, a second downturn could come if bond markets take fright of looming deficits and push bond yields up or if governments increase taxes and decrease spending to rein in their deficits. Either of those is bound to happen at some point, the question is when – I am betting on July 2010 but it could happen earlier if Q1 growth is disappointing.
  • 2010 will be a great year to become an entrepreneur: new entrepreneurs will face low competition, low expectations, low opportunity cost and low startup costs given the increased availability of labor.

Given my predictions, I intend to be financially careful in 2010. I already returned the Aston Martin I was leasing and renegotiated the lease on my house. I intend to significantly downsize my apartment when the lease ends on June 30, 2010 – at the very least halving my monthly rent. I will invest the money thus saved in more startups hopefully playing a marginally positive part in relaunching productivity growth – the ultimate driver of economic growth.

Happy New Year!

Prea is THE place to kite surf!

After a few disappointing trips to Cabarete over Thanksgiving and late December where I was cursed with only 1 day of wind out of a combined 10 days there (granted it’s not the windy season there), I was looking forward to a change of kiting scenery.

As my fantastic baby brother Olivier lives in Sao Paulo where he runs marketing for BrandsClub, the Gilt equivalent of Brazil and was loth to travel, I searched for kiting options in Brazil. I chanced upon an article on Prea online and decided to take the plunge. We booked a trip from December 24 to January 1 at Vila Prea.

I was extremely apprehensive upon arrival. Prea is hard to get to. You fly into Fortaleza airport (FOR) and drive for 4 hours seemingly to the middle of nowhere. In the process you cross extremely poor towns and neighborhoods. The arrival in Prea was barely more reassuring as it was only marginally better than the towns we crossed on the way. Fortunately in the last 5 minutes of the ride, you reach a beautiful sand beach with amazing bungalows: Vila Prea.

The place exceeded all my expectations. They have not had a single day without wind since the beginning of the windy season in July (the season lasts from July to January). There was constant wind every single day from 11 am to 6 pm! The managers and staff are extremely friendly and helpful. The bungalows are great and have free wifi. The nearby town of Jeri is also extremely cute. The upside of how difficult it was to reach the place was that there was almost no one there! I never saw more than 10 kites simultaneously on the water. By comparison, on Cabarete I often felt I was stuck in traffic at rush hour!

I had a blast! I learned to jump and did my first back loop. My ardors were only tempered by my left knee and an upset stomach which seemingly did not appreciate all the sea water ingested in the process of learning to do a back loop.

Given how far Prea is, Cabarete will remain my first port of call for a long week-end of kiting given its direct 4 hour flight from New York, but for extended kite trips, Prea cannot be beat!

I will be back!

I loved Dear Undercover Economist

I was already a fan of Tim Hartford’s previous books The Undercover Economist and The Logic of Life. It should not surprise you to hear that I loved Dear Undercover Economist – a collection of Tim Hartford’s Financial Times popular column where readers ask him questions on anything and he answers them through the lens of economics.

Most of his essays cover recent behavioral economics and game theory research. His quoting of Avinash Dixit fondly reminded me of his game theory class at Princeton while his recent mentions of Gary Becker and many Chicago school behavioral economists reminded me of my recent behavioral economics appreciation binge including my recent loving review of SuperFreakonomics.

If you love the genre, read the book, it’s caustic, witty, well written and supremely funny!

OLX featured in Business Week

Over the past few years OLX has largely been under the radar in the press given our small presence in the US leading me to coin OLX the largest website no one’s ever heard of! This article is the first real public mention of the company in a reasonably mass market publication (we appeared a few times on TechCrunch in the past).

You can find it at:
http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/dec2009/tc2009126_680884.htm

Tanzania was memorable!

Ever since I read about Tanzania in National Geographic Adventure, I had wanted to go, especially as I had never been on a safari. I originally considered a 10 day walking safari in the Serengeti with Mark Thornton Safaris followed by a climb of the Kilimanjaro (not on the “Coca Cola route”). Mark Thornton Safaris provides an amazing experience as the walks are lead by a team of Maasai warriors, but ultimately, as my dad decided to join so much walking and climbing was inappropriate. As we considered our options, we were lucky that Mark Harrison, the CEO of Abraham Harrison, OLX’s fantastic PR agency had lived in Tanzania for a few years. He introduced us to Tanzania Odyssey and helped structure the trip for us.

We ended up selecting a mixed itinerary flying from Amsterdam to Dar es Salaam through Kilimanjaro. After one night in Dar, we flew to the Mwagusi safari lodge in Ruaha for a 4 day safari. From there we flew to Mahale on Lake Tanganyika where we stayed for 3 days chimping at Greystoke Mahale. Finally, we went on a 3 day walking safari organized by the Sand Rivers lodge in the Selous Game Reserve. All three areas had fundamentally different climates and provided very different experiences.

Ruaha
Ruaha National Park is in the middle of the country in an arid region whose landscape reminded me of Arizona and Nevada with desert like temperature variations: smoldering heat during the day to seemingly freezing cold at night.

We stayed in beautiful individual lodges. There was no cell phone reception, Internet or electricity, but the experience was all the better for it. The rooms had individual bathrooms, hot water in the morning and battery powered lamps at night. Meals were communal with the other guests. Dinners were truly exceptional as they were eaten in the open at a different location every night. For the game drives, we had our own car, driver and guide. The game drives would start at around 6 am. We would return for lunch at 11 am and start again in the afternoon from 4 pm to 6:30 pm. We read and relaxed during the breaks – you can’t see the animals from 11 am to 4 pm anyway as they stay hidden to protect themselves from the heat.

I had never been on a safari and was truly impressed by how close you could get to animals in open off-road vehicles. Wild animals are seemingly afraid of the strange bipedal beings we are, but unconcerned by the large mechanized vehicles we were traveling around in.

We were hopeful we would see many animals because the trip took place in late August during the dry season which provides the best opportunity for game watching. We were not disappointed! On our very first day, we chanced upon a beautiful 18 month old female leopard which was hunting dik-diks (very small antelopes). We had the privilege of being able to observe her patiently stake out her prey and discreetly crawl its way into hunting position. After observing her for 90 minutes we let her be to give her a better chance of reaching her objective.

On the second day we encountered a large 500 animal strong herd of buffalo. As we soon learned, wherever there are buffalo, there are lions! A pride of lions is often found following buffalo herds preying on the weak, old and young. Again, we had the privilege of seeing lions prepare an attack while male buffalo prepared a defensive barrier to protect the herd. Another group saw the buffalo actively chase away the lions which were forced to retreat into the trees.

During the game drives we saw countless yellow baboons, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, vultures, zebras and elephants. I loved watching the fish eagle royally stand on a branch observing the world around him before majestically flying and catching a fish.

One of the cutest moments of the trip took place on the third day. While driving along a dry river bed we encountered a large elephant herd. We learned that elephants can find water tens of kilometers away. They apparently knew there was water running below the river bed and used their front legs to dig a hole one to two feet deep. As the water seeped into the hole, they used their trunks to drink it. We saw two of the cutest baby elephants first trying to imitate their elders by attempting to dig a hole, then lying on their side for their short trunks to reach the water in the hole their elders had made.

The Ruaha trip part of the trip was the one where we saw the most diversity of animals, but after 4 days of sitting in open air vehicles we were looking forward to a more active lifestyle. It was time to leave the arid landscape of Ruaha for the lush tropical climate of Mahale.

Mahale

The Mahale Mountains National Park is on the West Coast of Tanzania towering above Lake Tanganyika. Lake Tanganyika is one of the largest freshwater lakes by volume in the world: 670 km in length, 50 km in width with a depth of up to 1,470 meters! On the 90 minute boat ride to the Greystoke Mahale lodge it felt like we were navigating on an ocean. The ocean just happened to be made of freshwater and full of hippos and crocs!

After the arid climate of Ruaha with its drastic temperature contrasts, we welcomed the moist tropical climate of Mahale. We had individual bungalows which blended well into the forest. Mahale Mountains National Park houses some of Africa’s last remaining wild chimpanzees with a population of around 800 and the main attraction of Greystoke was the ability to go “chimping”. Every morning the guides would report where the troop of 60 nearby chimps were located and we would hike to them. Once we got close we had to wear masks to prevent potentially infecting them with the flu.

We would spend one hour observing them play, fight, eat and mate. It’s incredible how indifferent they were to us. They would pass by us oblivious to our presence only acting with other members of their group based on their position in the social hierarchy. We were also shocked by the similarity between their facial expressions and human facial expressions.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing on the beach, reading, hiking, playing Frisbee and kayaking before observing beautiful sunsets and dining on the beach with the other guests. It was the perfect way to relax after months of intense work. After three exquisitely relaxing days we took our leave and headed for the Selous Game Reserve.

Selous Game Reserve

The Selous Game Reserve is one of the largest fauna reserves in the world and is located to the south of Tanzania. It took the entire day of flying in the propeller plane to get there with 3 stops along the way, but it was well worth it. The walking (or “fly camping”) safari turned out to be the highlight of the trip.

Every morning we would get up at 5:30 am, walk from 6 am to 11 am. We would rest for a few hours before hiking again from 4 pm to 6:30 pm. After a long day of walking in the sun, we would relax and eat a fireside dinner with our guide before sleeping in our tents. The experience was as authentic as it gets – the restrooms were essentially a shovel and showers were provided by gravity (an elevated bucket with a drip below it) – but safe and luxurious.

There was four support staff for the two of us: a cook, someone to assemble the tents and drive them to the next night’s location and two guides with guns. We each had our own guide as my dad was not up for hiking 7-8 hours per day. Our guides had guns to protect us. Interestingly enough lions and hyenas pose little threat as they are afraid of us. Buffalos, hippos and to a lesser extent elephants are the real danger as they sometimes charge humans.

Even though we did not get nearly as close as we did in the off-road vehicle in Ruaha, we saw all the same animals: prides of lions, giraffes, zebras, wild beasts, buffalo, hippos, elephants and dozens of birds of all types! Probably because of our diminished relative size, it was more impressive and humbling to see them while on foot. Our humility was reinforced by our frequently chancing upon skeletons and remains which reminded us of the fragility of life. The awe inspiring power of nature was further strengthened by the beauty of the star filled nights which reminded us of our relative insignificance and made us all the more grateful for our ability to experience such magical moments.


Just as importantly, the trip, the long marches and the mid day pauses also allowed me to bond and connect with my dad in a way I had not in a long time. At the end of the trip, I felt closer to him than I had felt in years.


After three nights, we were happy to be taken to a lodge for a hot shower before flying back to Amsterdam, but already felt a tinge of the coming nostalgia for leaving behind such a beautiful wild environment. We had been touched in a unique way. I left knowing I would return to Africa: I long to see Victoria Falls, climb the Kilimanjaro and discover hidden wonders I am not yet aware of.

One thing is for sure: I will be back!