Great Discussion with Ron Chernow on George Washington

Ron Chernow is one of my favorite authors. He wrote amazing epic biographies on Alexander Hamilton and Rockefeller amongst others. He recently released a biography on George Washington called Washington: A Life. He spoke with Jon Meacham at the New York Public Library last September about his new book.

My good friend Joyce Pustilnik recently pointed me to the fascinating podcast of that discussion which I am attaching for your listening pleasure.

I have not bought his new book yet, but it’s definitely on my to-read list!

Top 10 Holiday Gadgets Buying Guide

The wives and girlfriends of my friends have been asking me for recommendations so I decided to share the analysis for all gadget lovers of the world to be happy this holiday season 🙂

Video Game: Call of Duty: Black Ops

There are lots of great games out in the market right now: Red Dead Redemption, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Vanquish and Civilization V in particular come to mind for single player fun. However in terms of pure unadulterated multiplayer fun nothing trumps Call of Duty: Black Ops. The game mechanics are very similar to Modern Warfare 2 and that’s a great thing. It’s the game to get this holiday season.

It’s fantastic on all platforms, but I am partial to the Xbox 360 versionbecause more of my friends are on the Xbox, and I only play this game with friends. The multiplayer experience is also more competitive on the Xbox than on the PS3. The PC version is fantastic as well, but you need a super powerful computer. Besides more of my friends play it on consoles than on PC and I actually prefer playing first person shooters on consoles.

Digital Camera: Panasonic Lumix ZS7 or LX5

I am very sensitive to weight when it comes to digital cameras. I want something that fits in my pocket in all circumstances which is why I am not recommending any of the SLR cameras because experience suggests you end up not taking them with you all the time. This is why I am recommending high-end compact cameras. In this category the Lumix ZS7 and the Lumix LX5 are the best by far.

The one you should get depends on your specific use case. They both have 3” screens and HD movie recording. The ZS7 costs $250, is fully automated and has an amazing 16x optical zoom. If you take a lot of sports shots from far away, your kids playing soccer for instance (or in my case kite surfing or skiing pictures and videos), it’s the one to get.

The LX5 costs $400, has a 3.8x optical zoom and comes with an impressive array of customization options. What sets it apart is its amazing picture quality, especially in low light. If you take a lot of pictures indoors, dinner parties for instance, it’s the one to get!

Note that in many circumstances an iPhone 4 can do the trick as well. There is no zoom and a weak flash, but it’s fantastic for taking impromptu pictures and sharing them on Facebook. It even has good low light quality.

Phone: iPhone 4

I have predicted that Android will ultimately beat out iOS to be the dominant smartphone platform. Android phones are already outselling iPhones 2 to 1 and the AT&T network famously sucks in New York and San Francisco. That said, no Android phone on the market currently matches the slickness of the iPhone 4 interface, the quality of its applications and the quality of its screen and digital camera. Several phones get close and my recommendation might change with LTE Gingerbread (Android 2.3) phones on Verizon in 2011, but for now the iPhone 4 is the phone to get!

Computer: Sony Vaio Z (with the new 13” Macbook Air as a runner up)

If you are ready to splurge, the Sony Vaio Z is hands down the fastest compact notebook on the market right now. Its specs and speed are second to none: 3 pounds, a 13” 1080p (1920*1080) screen, a Core i7 processor, a 1Gb Nvidia GT 330M graphic card, a superfast 256Gb Raid 0 SSD hard drive (with a 512Gb option), 8Gb of memory, an internal DVD player (or optional internal Blu-ray player and burner) and a 5 hour removable battery. Buy it directly on Sony.com to get the options you want.

If you are a Mac lover, the new 13” Macbook Air is the computer to get. It has the best design of any notebook on the market. Unfortunately, it only has a Core 2 Duo processor, a 1440*900 resolution screen, you can only install up to 4Gb of memory, its 256Gb SSD drive is superfast but slower than the Sony’s Raid 0 256Gb SSD drive, it has a much slower 256Gb Nvidia Geforce 320M graphic card, no internal DVD player, and a non-removable battery. It’s not nearly as good as the Sony, but if you are wedded to Mac OS, this is the notebook to get.

Game Console: Xbox 360 – with Kinect if you have kids

A few years ago my recommendation would have been different. The Wii was definitely the console to get for kids and families. For hardcore gamers the decision between the Xbox 360 and the PS3 mostly came down to which exclusive franchise games you preferred (Gears of War or Halo vs. Drake Unchartered). For the most part the Xbox had the edge: it had more and better exclusive games, a better multiplayer experience and better graphics despite worse specs because it was easier for developers to make games for the Xbox. Many hard core gamers actually got both the Xbox and the PS3, both to use the latter as a Blu-ray player and for its exclusive games.

In the past year, with the introduction of the the Kinect and the Playstation Move, the Wii’s advantage with kids and casual games has fallen by the way side, especially considering its increasingly dated graphics. The PS3 has also closed the gap with the Xbox. Its online experience has improved, the roster of exclusive games has increased (Gran Turismo 5, Heavy Rain), and developers are finally figuring out how to make use of its processing power and games now have equivalent graphic quality to those of the Xbox 360 and in some cases surpass them.

However, for Xbox 360 remains the console of choice. It has still has by far the best online experience both for multiplayer gaming and watching movies – be it on Zune or Netflix, the controller fits better in your hand and it’s a better deal. If you don’t have kids, you don’t need to buy the Kinect unless you want to do great video conference calls from your living room. Just get the Xbox 360 with Call of Duty: Black Ops, Red Dead Redemption, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Vanquish and Gears of War 2. If you have kids, definitely get a Kinect with Dance Central.

eReader: The Kindle

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The new Kindle is great. If you are an avid book reader, ereaders are fantastic and the Kindle is the best of the bunch. I got tired of lugging books with me and switched to the Kindle and have not looked back! It’s light, easy to read in all environments and has amazing battery life. You could get away with reading a few books on the iPad, but your eyes and arm eventually tire out so if you read a lot the Kindle is the ereader to get.

You should probably buy the 3G version. Even if you don’t anticipate using it, it’s useful on the off chance you get caught somewhere with nothing to read and no wifi coverage. The extra $50 is well worth the price of having the world’s largest library at your fingertips anytime, anywhere.

Tablet PC: iPad

If you have kids definitely get an iPad. They find it intuitive and love the games! If not, it depends on your use case. A few people use it as a notebook replacement in meetings or when traveling, but I don’t like typing with it and its support for Office files is not great (many PPT graphs don’t show up for instance). It’s effective as a bedside or living room web browser or to use as a video player at the gym. If you have a use case, definitely get one. If you are considering a netbook, get an iPad instead.

Webcam: Microsoft LifeCam Studio

This $99 webcam is amazing! It has a 1080p widescreen sensor, great low light quality and a fantastic microphone. If you do many Skype calls, it’s the webcam to get!

Remote Controlled Car: Traxxas E-Revo Brushless (5608)

Given noise complaints from my neighbors I switched all my remote controlled vehicles to electric. The Traxxas E-Revo Brushless truck is a monster! It’s huge – 23 inches long, 9 inches and basically unbreakable! Get it with Lipo batteries (buy two Tenergy 11.1V 5000 mAH 25C Lipo batteries with a Venom Pro Lipo Charger with Power Supply) and it goes 65 mph!

The car is ready to run out of the box so even if you have never assembled RC products before you should be set. Note that you need a very big space to make it run – 65 mph is superfast!

You can buy everything at ehobbies.com and on Amazon. If you break anything just type the part number on ehobbies and it shows up directly. The Traxxas folks are also very friendly and provide great support.

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Remote Controlled Plane: E-Flite Apprentice 15e RTF

The Apprentice is a great first plane. It costs $299. It comes almost fully assembled (you essentially just need to glue the wings together) with everything you need out of the box. It’s super stable and amazingly durable. It can handle many crashes and most parts are cheap to replace (a new set of wings is less than $40). The plane can also do basic acrobatics once you are up for it (loops, inverted flying). If you have a place to fly it, it’s tons of fun!

The Big Downgrade

No, no, Apple’s stock has not been downgraded yet! I am referring to the fact that I divided my monthly expenditures by four starting in July.

It’s not that I am hurting financially, quite the contrary. This year is shaping out to be my second best year ever. I sold 5 of my portfolio companies so far (with 3 more in the process of selling) and I invested in 21 companies so far this year (with many more in the pipeline). Only 2004, the year I sold Zingy, dwarfs this year.

The increase in my monthly expenditures had been gradual. In May 2004, when I sold Zingy, I changed nothing to my lifestyle. I kept renting the same small apartment I had been living in since 2002. I still flew coach. I didn’t buy anything to celebrate – mostly because there was nothing I really felt I needed that was lacking in my life. I already had a fast computer, a plasma TV, an Xbox, a tennis racquet and ski boots. What else could I possibly need or want? 🙂

I grew up with an amazing yellow lab named Ucla. He was my most loyal companion and confidante and constant provider of unconditional love. As a result, I always loved big dogs and longed for the day I could have a dog again. That said, I felt it would be inappropriate to have a big dog in New York as it would be torture for both the dog and for me. In 2005, I decided to get a week-end house. The specs were that it would be less than 40 minutes from the city by train, less than 10 minutes from the train station by car, on at least 2 acres of land, and close to a great tennis academy. I found a beautiful house in Sands Point Village near Port Washington. It had 3.7 acres of land, was right on the beach, 35 minutes from the city on the express train, and 5 minutes away from Port Washington Tennis Academy. The time had come to get the dog I always wanted. I obviously wanted a male yellow lab like Ucla and my girlfriend at the time wanted a female Rottweiler. We compromised and got both: Harvard, a white ball of spastic craziness, and Bagheera, the smartest, cutest and sweetest dog in the world (in my completely unbiased opinion of course :)!

The house provided an amazing island of respite from the insanity of the urban jungle of New York and became a regular playground. I threw tons of barbeques, poker games, played tennis several times a week until my knee injury a few years ago and setup a permanent paintball field with games almost every Saturday from May until September. We played with the doggies daily and also used the house as a base for my remote controlled car and plane.


Beyond the house, not much changed. I stayed in the same apartment in the city and still flew coach. I also made sure to take a few weeks a year to adventure travel, but those experiences are reasonably inexpensive and did not impact my budget much (e.g.; my most recent 6-day stay in Kalalau cost $144!).

2008 is the year my personal burn rate really increased. In early 2008, the building I was living in (30 West 63rd street), decided to stop being a rental building and started selling condos. As I was unable to renew my lease, I started looking for a new apartment. My CFO had chanced upon a gorgeous new building at 240 Park Avenue South (19th & Park) and I moved in July into a beautiful ultra-modern, 2,300 square foot, 3 bedroom, 3.5 bathroom apartment with a 1,000 square foot wrap around terrace and amazing floor to ceiling windows with 13 foot ceilings.


Almost concurrently (a few months earlier), I took a 2-year lease on a gorgeous Aston Martin V8 Vantage. I had always loved fast cars and used both to drive fast and go race on tracks in France. I even got to race Formula 3s and drive Formula 1s a few times. I grew up longing for Porsches, Ferraris and Lamborghinis. In fact, when I sold Zingy, I went to the Lamborghini dealer ready to buy a yellow Gallardo. Unfortunately, at 6’3” with a very long torso, I don’t fit in many sports cars which severely restricted the shopping list. Besides by the time I sold Zingy (when I was 29), I had lost my childhood affection for Porsche 911s and found Ferraris ostentatious and tacky (though the gorgeous Ferrari 458 Italia is making me revisit this value judgment). I only found true love once I set my eyes on the V8 Vantage with its gorgeous lines.

Unfortunately both the car and the apartment proved to be disappointments. The V8 Vantage is the most beautiful car in the world (again in my totally unbiased opinion :). If the rest of the car matched its looks I would have happily kept it. In fact, the car is so pretty that despite its shortcomings, I almost did! However, despite its allure and acceleration (0-60 in 4.8 seconds), it’s not a driver’s car. It handles terribly on windy roads, especially with gravel or leaves on the ground. The car does not feel comfortable on track and is prone to wild over-steering at high speeds. Moreover, the car can’t handle snow at all. I could not go up a 7-8 degree hill with a few inches on the ground despite having snow tires! Combine those shortcomings with the closing of the race track in Long Island, leaving the nearest race track several hours away, low speed limits in Sands Point with cops who have nothing better to do than to hand out speeding tickets if you go 5 mph over the speed limit or who stop you if you don’t put a front license plate on (which I was loth to do because it took away from the beautiful lines of the car) and I reluctantly decided to return the car. Instead I have a more practical (at least for taking the doggies around) Audi Q5 on a 2-year lease.

The idea behind such a nice apartment was to use it to entertain. In a way it served its purpose. I threw charity events, intellectual salons, recurring poker games, intimate events and dinners with friends and larger parties. Given the quality and relatively low cost of catering in New York, I also came to realize how easy it is to throw big events in the city. Unfortunately, I had not foreseen all the negative consequences of socializing in my private apartment.

My first housewarming / white party proved so successful with around 150 beautiful attendees that the word of mouth led to an unmanageable 400 people showing up for the next party. With that many people, the event was less enjoyable as you could not move around or talk with anyone. For the next party, I setup a guest list and gave some tips to the doorman in the building to enforce it. Within a week the building passed a “no hiring the doorman to do roles beyond their building roles” policy. For the next party, I hired my own doormen who screened people in the lobby. The downside was that it created a bit of a queue in front of the building and within days the building passed a “no external hires working in the lobby” policy. I then moved the doormen to inside my apartment. For the next party, I hired a live band, which obviously led to a “no live band” policy. The next Halloween party was epic. It was co-hosted by a friend who invited all the Macy’s models, it had a great DJ and lasted until 6 am. As you can imagine, within days the building passed a no DJ and no music after 11 pm policy.

I had no better luck with my intellectual and charity endeavors. I wired the apartment with microphones and speakers for one of the salons where we had Matthew Bishop, the editor in chief of The Economist in the US, Shelly Palmer, and a few others as guest speakers. Within days the building passed a “no karaoke law”. I then threw a few charity events with a few hundred attendees who paid to raise money for the charity. The building then passed a “no commercial activity in private units” policy. They essentially passed a “no Fabrice in the building” rule. The entire point of renting this beautiful place was to entertain, but they made it impossible to do so (despite the fact I invited the entire building to every event). By the end it got so bad that they would call the cops with noise complaints if I was watching Lost at 10 pm on TV!

This was all the more annoying given how little time I actually spent in the apartment. It’s not as though I threw events that regularly. I spend more than 6 months per year on the road, mostly at the various OLX offices in Argentina, Brazil, China, India and Russia, but also meeting our investors in South Africa or at conferences around the world. In fact this year, I spent 8 of the first 10 months on the road. Worse, even when I am in NY, I actually spend 4 days per week in Sands Point and 3 days per week in the city. As a result, I don’t think I ever threw more than 2 events per month. Last year, I spent less than 60 days in the apartment and this year less than 30 days.

I also endured all the pains of moving in a new building when I first moved in. For the first few months, the heat and hot water did not work. There was an air leak in the windows and a water leak in the wall. The electronic system repeatedly failed. After 7 months, all the glitches were fixed, but it was a pain in the neck to deal with everything. Once everything was set, I actually very much enjoyed the apartment (except for the annoying neighbors), but I was no happier in the new place than I had been in the old place (my mean level of happiness is 8.5 out of 10). Moreover, while I liked throwing events, I would have been just as happy only throwing smaller events with my close friends. After all, I can always go to my friends’ parties and salons, or even rent a large party space if I am desperate to host my own!

I obviously did not renew my lease when it ended this June. Because of all the traveling, I have decided not to get a place in the city for now. I just commute or stay in hotels when I am in the city. Between the rent of the 240 Park Avenue South apartment, the monthly costs associated with the apartment (cable, Internet, electricity, cleaning), the cost of the parties and the cost of the Aston Martin all of which I have now foregone, and taking in consideration the decrease in the Sands Point rent I negotiated, my monthly expenditure level has divided by 4 since June.

Interestingly enough through hedonistic adaptation, the process by which we adapt to changes in our life circumstances whether good or bad, my happiness level has not been affected at all. It did decrease at first as my socializing decreased because of the the pain of commuting. Several times I just miss the train at night and it took 2 hours to get home between the waiting and the trip back on the non-express train. However, my happiness reached its earlier peak when I started staying in hotels in the city during the week or taking cars back to the house late at night instead of waiting for the train.

Funnily enough, I also have to move out of my house in Sands Point. The neighbors here are just as annoying as the neighbors in the city. They passed a “no air gun” law in the village of Sands Point last year. After that, the cops started shutting down our paintball games within a few minutes of them starting. The neighbors also call the cops every time I walk the dogs on the beach without a leash (which is apparently against the law) and when I throw large BBQs (noise complaints). They also refused to let me build a tennis court on the property. The court would have been hidden from sight by trees, but despite that, the Sands Point Village requires written authorization by the neighbors. They were obviously overjoyed not to give it to me.

As a result I will be moving to Bedford in Westchester in January to a beautiful house with 20 acres of land, surrounded by natural parks. I also convinced the owner to get a permit to build a tennis court. We should now have plenty of room for all the fun and games! Hopefully the slightly longer commute (50 minutes to Grand Central instead of 35 minutes to Penn Station) won’t be too much of an issue. If it is, I will just spend a bit more time in hotels or might get a nice 1 or 2 bedroom apartment in the city.

All this will increase my monthly burn again, but it will remain 25-50% lower than it used to be. As always, I still fly coach, but I have so many miles, I now get upgraded all the time 🙂 I also found a good use for all the monthly savings: invest in more startups! I realized this year how much I truly love angel investing: I get to meet tons of young new entrepreneurs, I get to see and hear the newest developments in the market and I get to participate in the growth of amazing companies!

The best financial philosophy thus seems to be “penny foolish, but pound wise”. Don’t sweat the small expenditures which won’t affect your financial wellbeing and make your life simpler, but be careful with the larger purchases. Moreover, it’s best to focus on buying “experiences” rather than actual goods.

That slight non-sequitur aside, what I have learned the most through this entire experience is how little my personal happiness is impacted by my expenditure level. It is much more driven by my personal relationships, the love of my dogs, my personal sense of accomplishment and all the fun activities I get to do – be they through adventure travel or closer to home the simple joys of blogging, tennis, video games, ping pong, foosball, air hockey, movies, poker, theater and the like! In fact even when I have to give up some activities (like I had to with tennis and skiing after my knee injury), there are always other fun things to do!

Emerce eDay Keynote Speech

I had the pleasure of being invited to give a keynote at Emerce eDay last September. I already posted the video of the fun interview which took place after the keynote, but it took me a while to get the video of the speech (thanks Diego and Chris for extracting it from Flash). I also had to split it into two parts given Phanfare’s 20 minute video restriction.

The first part will be familiar to those of you who saw my discussion with Loic Lemeur last year at LeWeb or my TEDx Paris speech. The second part is new content and covers the story of OLX, some thoughts on running a global company and questions from the audience.

I hope you enjoy it!

Part 1:

Part 2:

Megamind is tons of fun!

This year’s slate of animated movies has been great with How to Train your Dragon and Toy Story 3. Megamind is a worthy addition to the genre. As far as superhero movie goes, it does not reach the soaring heights of The Incredibles but holds its own with its fun twist on the superhero genre by being written from the villain’s perspective.

It’s one of the few movies alongside How to Train your Dragon where I felt that the 3D really worked. I really had tons of fun. Will Ferrell, whom I am traditionally not very fond of, has a winning vocal performance and I hope he plays in many more animated movies in the future. I also loved Brad Pitt’s MetroMan going all “Joaquin Phoenix”. Even his beard reminded me of Joaquin Phoenix’s “rapper phase”. Overall, the movie is tons of fun, witty, smart and touching, all at the same time!

I have to admit, I have not seen Despicable Me yet which also seems to be written from the villain’s perspective. My review might not have been as glowing if I had seen that movie first as I might have felt that Megamind was a rehash. Then again, the stories are probably very different and knowing me, I am sure I will love both movies! I will definitely check out Despicable Me the second it comes out on DVD.

In the meantime, go see Megamind (preferably in 3D)!

Kalalau: Valley of the Lost Mangos (and Hidden Paradise)

Between my new girlfriend Laura’s repeated ravings about Kalalau and National Geographic’s beautiful pictures, I had no choice but to go and check out this “hidden paradise” for myself.

All I knew going in to this was that Kalalau was a remote valley located on the uninhabited Na Pali Coast of the Hawaiian island, Kaua’i. You reach it through an incredibly arduous 11-mile hike starting at Ke’e Beach and once there you are immersed in nature without electricity, running water, food, or toilets.

We obtained camping permits, prepared our camping essentials, and packed for our 6-day stay in Kalalau. Given the hike and Laura’s repeated warnings about its difficulty we took immense care to minimize our pack weight. We took a tent, two sleeping bags, two sleeping mats, a tarp, a cooking set, a water filtration system, a small plastic shovel, two portable flashlights, a lighter, heavy duty matches, a backpack water system and two water bottles (5 liters total), biodegradable paper, 16 power bars, beef and turkey jerky, a bag of trail mix, two small bags of tuna, two bags of macaroni and cheese, mosquito repellent, sunscreen, 8 extra duty large garbage bags (to protect the gear while swimming to the boat for the return boat ride), cordage (to fix the tarp), a camera, a swimsuit, one pair of hiking socks, two pairs of ankle socks, a sun hat, toiletries, one hiking short, a pair hiking shoes, a pair of hiking sandals, two hooded sweatshirts, a poncho, a first aid kit, extra batteries and a small fanny pack. That was it!

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Despite our best efforts, my pack still weighed in at 55 pounds (when all the water containers were full) and Laura’s at over 30 pounds! We decided to camp on Ke’e Beach on Sunday night right before the trail head to get an early start for the hike. I would advise those attempting to copy us not to make their first attempt at building a tent they have never used before at midnight with limited light. We finally figured out how to assemble the tent and promptly went to bed. Unfortunately, we barely slept that night as the local roosters mistimed sunrise and started crowing at 3 a.m. in a cacophony of noise that made it impossible to sleep. By 5 a.m. we gave up trying to sleep and packed for the hike. Most people do the hike in two days stopping at the 6-mile campsite in Hanakoa, but we were determined to make the entire hike in one day to avoid the nasty mosquitoes in this area and maximize our time in Kalalau.

The first quarter mile is on a relatively steep and narrow trail, which made for a good warm-up. There is a beautiful beach at mile 2. We refilled our water bottles and frolicked on the beach for a while before heading back on the trail. The trail is actually hard to ascertain in certain areas and we briefly walked in the direction of the local waterfall for by mistake. I also managed to drop my brand new Ray-Ban sunglasses. Despite searching for them for almost an hour, we failed to find them and moved on. The next four miles felt as though they went on for 100 miles. I kept thinking, “are we there yet?”! It took over 3 hours to get to the 6 mile site where most people stop for the night. We rested for a while and were lucky to run into some of Laura’s friends who had done a boat drop that morning in Kalalau and were hiking the trail back. They had delicious fruits and trail mix which they generously shared with us.

The remaining 5 miles did not feel nearly as exhausting, or maybe we were so tired we could not feel anything anymore. There was however an extremely hairy part at mile 7. The trail around the cliffs was completely eroded. To go through we had to hug the mountain, essentially dangling above a several hundred-foot drop into the ocean below. It was all the more harder to accomplish while buffeted by 50 mile-per-hour wind, carrying a 50+ pound pack, and having walked up and down a narrow trail for 6 hours! Fortunately we made it through unscathed! Kalalau Valley was a site for sore eyes with its gorgeous colors and amazing white sand beach. I was excited that we had finally reached it, but my happiness was tempered when I realized we had another mile to walk to get to the river, and another mile to the actual camp site. Funnily enough the official permitted camping grounds are located after many, “Area Closed, Do Not Go Further” and “Falling Rocks”, “Stop or You Will Die” signs!

When we finally crawled into the campsite at 4 p.m., we were exhausted, but happy that the ordeal was over. It has been said, many people experience a spiritual awakening upon reaching Kalalau. I can understand why, as the place exudes beauty and positive energy. Then again, as dehydrated, hungry, and tired as we were after an insane 10-hour hike, I think many would feel a spiritual awakening entering into a McDonalds or lying down on their couch 🙂

The valley had just been completely cleared for the annual goat hunt and we were one of the first groups to make it in, so we selected a nice camping spot with beach access. We set up camp, ate a light dinner, and promptly fell asleep by 7 p.m. The sun sets at 7 and with no electricity there is not much to do at night. We slept 11 hours and were up at 6 a.m. the next day with the sunrise. While we were rested, we ached everywhere and decided to take it easy that day. We read, walked on the beach, went for a swim and showered in the nearby (freezing) waterfall. Laura also went to meditate on “Sacred Hilltop”. Even a relaxing day involves a fair amount of activity as the river we pumped our drinking water from was 1 mile away and we had to get water twice a day – which entails at least 4 miles a day of walking for water. That said, after the grueling 11-mile hike up and down many mountains with a 55 pound backpack, 4 miles on a wide road on flat terrain with a light pack felt like child’s play!

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We spent the next few days exploring the valley. Usually, the valley is home to a number of local hippie types who call themselves “outlaws”. They squat illegally and spend their days avoiding the park rangers. They had left the valley for the goat hunt and we were mostly left to our own devices. Fortunately Laura, who had been to Kalalau before and had become close to the outlaws remembered most of the private spots, secret gardens, and scenic views. We witnessed, and drank from some of the last known virgin water sources on earth, bathed in waterfalls, and explored such valley hang outs (for those in the “know”) as: The Bluff, Big Pool, Outlaw Falls, Smoke Rock, Sacred Hilltop, Ginger Pools, and Mike’s Garden just to name a few.

After two nights, we decided to setup camp on “The Bluff” away from the campers. The lack of natural light made for wonderful star gazing! We even saw a “UFO” flying in bizarre air patterns (probably a military plane from the nearby air force base). We fell asleep on the bluff and had a restful night until right at the crack of dawn a helicopter flew into Kalalau, and started hovering right over us. We thought it was the park rangers who would land at the ranger station a mile away giving us plenty of time to pack up and leave. We stayed cozily in out sleeping bags, and to our surprise, the helicopter landed right next to us! The ranger came out and asked if we had our permits. (Most of the days in August were sold out of permits far in advance so we had only bought tickets for the day we hiked in, taking a chance we would be able to avoid getting caught for the rest of time by the local park rangers, who fly in to the valley by helicopter every now and then). It looked like our luck had run out only 3 days in to our trip! Somehow I looked trustworthy and when I assured him we did, he did not question us further. He just told us he was accompanying a film crew and needed us to leave. He also informed us that Kalalau was closing for the rest of the year for restorations in a few days (which we already knew). I am one of the last people to see Kalalau in its natural state. This winter Kalalau beach will receive a man made face lift and will never be the same. We set up our new camp near the mouth of the river and stayed there until our last day.

Despite not having internet, email, or Xbox, and being isolated for over 5 days with notionally nothing to do, I was never bored and only managed to read one and a half books. The reality is that surviving is a full time job! As you might recall, we had only brought 16 power bars, beef and turkey jerky, a bag of trail mix, two small bags of tuna, two bags of macaroni and cheese to eat. We actually ate 10 of the 16 power bars on the trail. After two days they were all gone and I vowed not to eat any more power bars for the rest of my life. By day 4 however, we had eaten all the food, and I would have happily eaten a power bar again 🙂

We had originally planned to live off the mangos that grow in season on the abundant mango trees in the valley. I had been assured, they were so good I would never eat a mango outside of Kalalau again and I was looking forward to gorging on mangos for a week! To my utter disappointment mango season had recently ended and most of the mangos were rotting on the ground. We scoured the valley looking for food and luckily found a hidden community garden planted by the outlaws. We found delicious super ripe figs, which we picked right from the tree. We also chanced upon a squash, which we decided to have as our entrée with some lilikoi (a local fruit) for dessert. Creating and sustaining a fire strong enough to boil water and cook a squash is a non-trivial affair. You have to forage for the right dried wood, branches, logs and leaves to make the fire. After many hours of getting water, stoking the fire, and preparing the food, relaxing to enjoy your meal, as meager as it may be, is an utterly satisfying experience!

I actually had difficulty documenting the trip. On the way in, I realized that my trusty Panasonic ZS3 with its 12x optical zoom’s lens cover had not closed properly and the lense was scratched (I have since bought a ZS7 with a 16x zoom as replacement). The camera could no longer zoom and the pictures were a bit fuzzy where the scratch was. I started using my iPhone 4 as the main camera. I have to say I was impressed by its photo and video quality. Even low light photos were amazing. It unfortunately met an untimely end when I dropped it in the ocean while taking a picture.

After six days it was time to go. I was ecstatic that Laura had organized a boat pick-up as I don’t think I could have survived the 11-mile hike back with no food! We packed all our gear in garbage bags, braved the “strong current, dangerous shore break, and high surf” which many signs on the beach warn you of and jumped in the water to swim to the boat. The ride back was actually gorgeous as we marveled at the beauty of the coast, its inlet caves, and cliff side waterfalls.

valley44 (1)

The first thing we did when we got off the boat was head straight to Ono Burger (“ono” means good in Hawaiian) for an epic meal! I ordered two cheeseburgers, fries, and coke! I then promptly booked us a room at the St. Regis Princeville and treated us to in-room massages before spending the rest of the day relaxing by the pool. Funnily enough our one night at the St. Regis cost more than the entire week in Kalalau which only cost $44 in camping permits and around $100 in food and supplies! The next day our stay in Kauai came to an end. It was time to go kite surfing for a 5 days in Maui, the next exciting leg to our trip 🙂

I left refreshed, happy, and ever more grateful that capitalism’s invisible hand provides the answer to all of our needs; especially tap water, electricity, ovens, and food in supermarkets and restaurants 🙂

Overall, it was definitely a unique and amazing experience. I cannot recommend it enough!

What are some tips for people moving to San Francisco from New York City?

Courtesy of my friend Linda Kang who moved from NY to SF a few years ago.

  • Everything is earlier here. Most bars close at 2. People eat dinner early. They get up early and do their workouts. By 9 or 10pm many places will be raucous.
  • Almost no one smokes.
  • Hobbies and sports are a big deal: running, cycling, softball, hiking, dodgeball. They are also how young folks meet each other. Instead of spending weeknights in bars, you’ll spend them in the park in softball league or doing your Team in Training workouts.
  • You’ll feel some pressure to have “interesting” hobbies (cooking, endurance sports, surfing, etc) since everyone else does.
  • Often people here who have money here often go incognito about it…they drive a prius, wear a hoodie, etc.
  • No one pays attention to where you spend your summer…SF is nice enough, and there are enough nice places close by, that there is no need to escape the city all summer.
  • You can almost wear almost the same clothes year round. And you don’t need summery stuff since it rarely cracks 75.
  • Everyone is a Democrat. (OK, that is an exaggeration. I met someone last year who isn’t.)
  • You will be blown away by the homeless problem. SF is 10 years behind NYC with this problem (we haven’t had our Giuliani yet). Also our Board of Supervisors is somewhat of a joke.
  • If someone asks where you work, you can give them a nonsense name of a company they have never heard of, and they will be impressed since they will think it must be some kind of “hot” startup.
  • Be nice. Polite. Listen. That New York abrasiveness doesn’t work here.
  • You’ll be tempted for the first year to tell people all about how things were back in New York (often, how they were better)…resist!

Now someone needs to prepare tips for people moving from SF to NY 🙂

Haunting suspense in Let Me In

Let me in is the best vampire movie I ever saw alongside Interview with a Vampire. There is no sexy, brooding vampire in this movie. The movie is very dark and sad for all the characters – from Abby’s constant need for blood, to Owen’s harassment by cruel bullies, to his mother’s ignorance and alcoholism, to the fate of Abby’s caretaker, there is seemingly no hope in the movie, especially as it sees itself as a fantastic modern day retelling of Romeo and Juliet.

Despite (or maybe because of the tragic element), the movie is fantastic. It is truly anchored by the relationship between Abby and Owen which is completely believable. The movie works on all levels – a love story, a vampire horror movie, a coming of age story and a suspenseful drama. Chloe Moretz’s performance as Abby is amazing and she ends up living up to the high expectations she set for herself after playing Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass.

See it!

The Town is gritty and entertaining

After Ben Affleck’s fantastic directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone, I was looking forward to his next movie. The Town did not disappoint! In many ways I was reminded of Heat, but on a smaller scale in a style more reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s directing.

Overall the movie was tense, gritty and well-acted. Along with Hollywoodland, this movie shows Ben Affleck can not only act, but act very well!

Go see it!

Should you raise money from VCs? If so, how should you pick your VC?

It has become part of the conventional entrepreneur wisdom that you should raise an angel round, then a first VC round followed by a few more before taking the company public, selling to a strategic or a private equity company. Most of the well-known Internet companies have followed this path: Yahoo, eBay, Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc.

However, it may not be the most logical path for most entrepreneurs. The vast majority of exits are below $100 million and most of those are below $30 million. You can’t raise a $5 million series A at $10 million pre to sell for less than $30 million. Not only will you disappoint your investors (most VCs are shooting for a 10x on their investment), but the liquidation preferences might eat up most of your return. If you have made money before and are looking to build something big for fun, then by all means raise as much money as you can at the highest possible valuation in order to maximize the probability of building a $1 billion company. You significantly increase the risk of making nothing, but in this context it’s worth it to increase the probability of building something big.

If you are a first time entrepreneur or have not made much money before, you need to be careful not to price yourself out of potential exits. There is a lot of temptation to raise money at a high price if it’s available. However, often you might just be better off just doing an angel round or a small VC round – say $2 million at $4 pre, to actually maximize your risk adjusted returns. Likewise, you might be better off trading off price for terms. A clean 1x liquidation preference at a lower price might be better for you than a participating preferred, especially if the company ends up taking 5-7 years to exit which is by no means atypical.

Having less cash might not make much difference to your outcome. Startups are much more capital efficient these days. You have companies that service your every need, eliminating most potential capital expenditures. Even ecommerce startups are relatively cheap to build these days as there are companies that will handle logistics for you and you can avoid taking inventory by drop shipping.

Just as importantly as figuring out how much money you need at what valuation, you need to pick the right investor to raise the money from. Let’s start by setting expectations: VCs are not going to help you execute. That’s your job! They may make a few introductions and might help you hire a few good candidates, but the reality is that you probably could have found a way to get introduced to whomever you wanted to meet and would have met good candidates to hire without them. This does not mean that VC selection is unimportant and that you should just pick whoever offers the highest valuation and the best terms.

Quite the contrary, VC selection is essential to your success. By sitting on your board, the VC will play an essential role in discussing and setting the strategic direction of your company. In fact, it’s probably the most important role they will play. By pulling you away from the day to day to focus on the strategic issue of what maximizes value creation they will hone your strategic thinking and steer the direction of the company. They will also play a crucial role in the exit discussions as they will play bad cop to your good cop (if you don’t have a VC investment bankers can also play this role).

Given the importance of the role and the fact that whomever you pick will likely be on your board for years, picking a VC is like getting married. It’s absolutely essential that you get along well with them and that you trust them. This means that the name of the firm is irrelevant. What matters is your relationship with the partner you are going to work with on a day to day basis.

Strategic investors are probably also best avoided. Not only could they have conflicts of interests as they may not want you to get too expensive for them to buy, but even when they have the best of intentions they have proven to be fair weather VCs – jumping in when the market is hot and retrenching when conditions are tough. They are least likely to be helpful and supportive in a downturn. (To be fair, Intel Capital and Naspers may be exceptions to that rule as they have shown staying power and have seemingly been fair to their portfolio companies.)

Now it’s your turn: go start a great company and raise the capital you need from the best partner possible for you!

Things to do in Buenos Aires and Argentina

Buenos Aires:
Hotel to stay at: Tailor Made Hotel. It’s relatively inexpensive, only 5 rooms and everything is free – food, Internet, drinks, laundry, calls to the US, etc. I stay there every time I go.

Things to do:
• Markets of San Telmo
• Cemetary in Recoletta
• Visit the Malba museum
• Walk in Puerto Madero
• Go to Tigre (1 hour by train). Walk around and take a boat
• Boat to Colonia (Uruguay) for the day – make sure you take the express boat – 1 hour vs 3 or 4.
• Walk around Palermo

Places to eat and drink:
• Grilled filet mignon (lomo) at El Mirasol next to the Four Seasons
• Peruvian/Japanese at Osaka
• Italian food at Sottovoce
• Frozen mojitos at Milion

If you go clubbing, don’t go before 3 am. Everything is empty and dead before then – definitely not before 2 am.

Rest of the country:
You could go to Iguazu Falls to see the waterfalls for a 2 or 3 days (it’s in the north of the country). Don’t go for more, there is not much to see or do. You can see a few pictures from my week-end there at: http://fabrice.phanfare.com/4336778.

For Patagonia, the Bariloche/Cumelen region and the Calafate region are great. You can find more information and suggestions at: http://www.fabricegrinda.com/travels/patagonia/

You may also want to add a trip to Ushuaia to go see penguins.

RED (Retired, Extremely Dangerous) is extremely entertaining!

The movie is campy and tons of fun. It was a true pleasure seeing Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman exchange witty banter while kicking butt. With such a great cast we are rewarded with great acting mixed with a fun completely over the top storyline! I am glad Helen Mirren and John Malkovitch, otherwise known for their more serious roles, both accepted to do the movie and went with it!

I had not seen Ernest Borgnine since watching Airwolf as a kid and his presence brought back memories from the 1980s. This is definitely an action movie for the boomer crowd yet enjoyable by all.

Go see it!

Unpopular Science

I just came across this amazing post by Christoph Niemann on the NY Times site at:
http://niemann.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/25/unpopular-science/

I reproduce it here for your viewing pleasure:

Whether we like it or not, human life is subject to the universal laws of physics.

My day, for example, starts with a demonstration of Newton’s First Law of Motion.

It states, “Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line…”

“…unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.”

Based on supercomplicated physical observations, Einstein concluded that two objects may perceive time differently.
Based on simple life experience, I have concluded that this is true.

Newton?s Cradle shows how energy travels through a series of objects.
In our particular arrangement, kinetic energy is ultimately converted into a compression of the forehead.

The forehead can be uncrumpled by a downward movement of the jaw.

Excessive mechanical strain will compromise the elasticity of most materials, though.

The human body functions like a combustion engine. To produce energy, we need two things:
Oxygen, supplied through the nostrils (once the toy car is removed, that is).
– Carbohydrates, which come in various forms (vanilla, chocolate, dulce de leche).

By the by: I had an idea for a carb-neutral ice cream.
All you need is to freeze a pint of ice cream to -3706 F.
The energy it will take your system to bring the ice cream up to a digestible temperature is roughly 1,000 calories, neatly burning away all those carbohydrates from the fat and sugar.
The only snag is the Third Law of Thermodynamics, which says it’s impossible to go below -459 F.
Bummer.

But back to Newton: he discovered that any two objects in the universe attract each other, and that this force is proportional to their mass.
The Earth is heavier than the Moon, and therefore attracts our bodies with a much greater force.

This explains why an empty refrigerator administrates a much smaller gravitational pull than, say, one that?s stacked with 50 pounds of delicious leftovers. Great: that means we can blame the leftovers.

(Fig. A): Let?s examine the behavior of particles in a closed container.
(Fig. B): The more particles we squeeze into the container, the testier they will become, especially if the container happens to be a rush-hour downtown local at 86th and Lex.
(Fig. C): Usually the particles will distribute evenly, unless there is a weird-looking puddle on the floor.

The probability of finding a seat on the subway is inversely proportional to the number of people on the platform.
Even worse, the utter absence of people is 100 percent proportional to just having missed the train.

To describe different phenomena, physicists use various units.
PASCALS, for example, measure the pressure applied to a certain area.
COULOMBS measure electric charge (that can occur if said area is a synthetic carpet)
DECIBELS measure the intensity of the trouble the physicist gets into because he didn?t take off his shoes first.

Often those units are named after people to recognize historic contributions to their field of expertise. One NEWTON, for example, describes the force that is necessary to accelerate 1 kilogram of mass by one meter per second squared.
This is not to be confused with one NIEMANN, which describes the force necessary to make a three-year-old put on his shoes and jacket when we?re already late for kindergarten.

Once the child is ready to go, I search for my keys. I start spinning around to scan my surroundings. This rotation exposes my head and all its contents to centrifugal forces, resulting in loss of hair and elongated eyeballs. That’s why I need to wear prescription glasses, which are yet another thing I constantly misplace.

Obviously, the hair loss theory I just presented is bogus. Hair can?t be “lost.” Since Antoine Lavoisier, we all know that “matter can be neither created nor destroyed, though it can be rearranged,” which, sadly, it eventually will.

Not everything can be explained through physics, though. I’ve spent years searching for a rational explanation for the weight of my wife?s luggage. There is none. It is just a cruel joke of nature

The Garden of Betrayal is a thrilling read!

I had not come across a great fun thriller since The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons a few years ago. The Garden of Betrayal was a welcome surprise. I had read the review in The Economist and was intrigued.

Lee Vance, the author, is a former trader at Goldman Sachs. His insider’s perspective felt real and compelling. I was all the more engrossed as the material Mark Wallace, the protagonist, enters in possession of on Saudi oil reserves was very reminiscent of a Peak Oil article published by Clarium Capital that I had recently come across.

The multi-layered story with Mark’s investigation into the disappearance of his child, his family difficulties and the complicated geopolitical machinations all happening simultaneously had me engrossed and struggling to keep up. I got so into the story that I ended reading the book in one go on my Kindle, finishing it at 4:30 am this morning!

If you are up for a fun autumn read, definitely check this book out!

The new Kindle is great!

For a self-avowed tech geek, it took me a long time to transition to ereaders. I have an iPhone 4, an iPad, a Lumix ZS7, lots of plasma TVs, Xbox 360s, PS3s, a Traxxas remote control car, an E-flite remote control plane and tons of other gadgets. You would think I would be the perfect candidate for reading on an ereader. Yet, somehow I was addicted to the feel of the book in my hands. I could not conceive of using an ereader. Maybe this anachronism was the legacy of all the reading I had done at Princeton in a most traditional setting, but somehow I could not shed it and risked being left behind by the times.

I had tried a Kindle in the past but had never committed to it. I bought most books in both print and Kindle editions and read the print whenever possible. I found the Kindle slow and awkward to hold. It also met a premature death when I inadvertently dropped it in my bathtub. As a result until yesterday, I had not read a book cover to cover on the Kindle.

During the last few years as the amount of business travel I do has increased significantly I have tried to shed weight wherever I could. I switched from an 8 pound Dell 17” notebook, to a 6 pound 17” Macbook Pro, then to a 5 pound 15.4” Macbook Pro. This year has been even worse. I have already been on the road over 6 months so far and will be traveling all of December, so I took the weight loss up another notch. I switched to a 3 pound Sony Vaio Z and even downsized my backpack with the 2.9 pound Booq Boa Squeeze. I started using the laundry service in hotels more aggressively and now can definitely say I travel light. On a recent 3 week trip, I managed to take just a carry-on suitcase and my backpack.

On said trip, I was shocked to realize that over half the weight in my backpack was accounted for by the books I was carrying with me. The time had come to give the Kindle another try. Conveniently, Amazon had just released the new Kindle. On my current two week trip I only took 1 book in addition to the Kindle. I started reading The Garden of Betrayal by Lee Vance on the Kindle and could not put it down. I read it cover to cover as I would have a printed book. I found the new Kindle easier to read and faster than the last iteration. I did notice the page transitions and generally loved the experience. I am now hooked! From now on it’s going to be all Kindle all the time!

Slight non sequitur: I bought the 3G version despite not anticipating using it on the off chance I get caught somewhere with nothing to read and no wifi coverage. The extra $50 is well worth the price of having the world’s largest library at my fingertips anytime, anywhere.

Monsters is well worth seeing!

I rented the movie on iTunes which somehow had it available to rent 1 month before it came to the theaters. I had seen the trailer, but unlike other reviewers, I knew this was a low budget movie and did not expect a special effects extravaganza. I have Skyline and Super8 to look forward to for that. In this movie, as expected, the monsters mostly stay off screen and provide the backdrop for the story. As a result Monsters feels like it could have been shot by an earlier, low-budget era Spielberg.

I did not find the love story convincing and the ending was too abrupt, but I did like the general mood and the unexpected storyline. By unexpected, I don’t mean that the story is not predictable. I started suspecting the direction the movie would take when they reached the quarantine zone border, but it was definitely fully unexpected when I started the movie and untraditional for an alien invasion movie.

It’s well worth seeing, but don’t go in expecting to see Independence Day.

The Social Network is a must watch, especially for entrepreneurs!

The movie is one of the best movies of the year. The acting is fantastic and the movie has by far the best dialogue of any movie this year. More importantly for entrepreneurs, the story will resonate! From Zuck’s interaction with his girlfriend at the beginning of the movie, to his lack of social skills, to his condescending attitude towards those who “don’t get it”, to being on his notebook during boring legal meetings or all alone at night in at the office working on the product, it all felt familiar.

In the movie, Mark is supposed to be the arrogant, backstabbing evil genius, but I only felt empathy and respect and smiled knowingly at the challenges he faced.

Whether you are an entrepreneur or not, go watch the movie!

Angelgate is overblown!

I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy and some of the Hitler Angelgate parodies are really funny, but the alleged attempted collusion is a nonissue if only because even if the super angels tried to collude they would be bound to fail.

One of the main allegations is that the colluders would agree to keep valuations low on deals they want to invest in in order to maximize returns. Collusion can work in a number of circumstances. The biggest incentive to collude is in oligopolistic markets with high barriers to entry where few players control the market. They can collude to restrict supply to keep prices high and earn outsized returns. The reality is that even in oligopolistic and even duopolistic markets collusion rarely works because there is always an incentive to cheat. By increasing supply a little bit and selling more, the cheater earns more money. All parties involved have an incentive to do that until the excess return is competed away. In most markets it takes as little as two players to keep the market competitive as we can witness in the fight between Boeing and Airbus.

For collusion to work, they need to prevent cheaters. This typically happens in one of two ways:

  1. One of the players is so large that by not cheating the supply remains restricted enough that prices remain high even if others cheat. This is the case of Saudi Arabia in oil with OPEC. OPEC is a collusion of oil producers to restrict supply and keep prices high. Saudi Arabia represents such a large portion of oil production that by not cheating, they can keep prices high even if Russia, Nigeria and others sell more than their quota.
  2. Cheaters can be detected and strong penalties are imposed on the cheaters. Let’s take the example of drug distribution in a major city split between a few rival gangs. If they restrict supply and keep prices high, they can earn outsized returns. The issue is that they both have a strong incentive to sell more by invading each other territories and the profits create incentives for new criminals to get in the drug distribution business. To enforce the collusion they can monitor the market directly (did the other guys sell in my street corner?) and indirectly (what is the direction of drug prices?) and enforce strong penalties for cheats and new entrants by killing them.

Oligopolies typically form in businesses with large barriers to entry and increasing returns to scale making it hard for new entrants to come in or in markets where the supply is restricted be it by luck (there just happens to be lots of oil in Saudi Arabia) or laws (it’s illegal to sell drugs).

Let’s see if any of this applies to the angel investing business. When seeking angel investments entrepreneurs are after a number of things, but mostly money, thoughtful advice and introduction to partners. None of these have the characteristics of oligopolistic markets. Anyone with money can become an angel. In fact if you look at the assets under management of the super angels at that lunch, they probably represent less than 10% of the assets under management of all angels (and probably much less than that). Imagine some entrepreneur went to some of them with a fantastic idea. They could not collude to keep the valuation low: they themselves have incentives to offer more to get more of the deal until the market price is reached. What could they do to enforce the collusion? Do you think Jeff Clavier will run around breaking other super angels’ legs if they offer “too much” for the company?

Moreover, money is the ultimate commodity, even if the super angels somehow agreed not to compete against each other, there are tons of other people with money who would! Other angels would offer more to get in the deal and the potential for outsized returns would attract others with money: early stage VC funds, etc. There is no monopoly on money, intelligence and relationships!

That’s not to say that some angels (and VCs) are not going to get higher returns than others. Private equity is one of the few asset classes where past returns are correlated with future returns because their past success means they are better known and have easier time raising money for their funds and ultimately get better deal flow. As an entrepreneur I often take the VC I like to work best with even if it’s not the best valuation (as I did with OLX), but there is a limit to that price insensitivity and it’s my decision, not the VC’s decision!

Moreover, there are plenty of good reasons for large angels to meet and cooperate on deals. Given that no one has the ultimate deal flow sharing deals is a good way of diversifying each other’s portfolio. Moreover, the more angels you have in the deal the more smart people you have around the table to help with the due diligence before the deal closes, and the more smart people you have to think through strategic issues and make introductions to potential partners and VCs once the deal is done.

All that to say that Angelgate is completely overblown and a nonissue!

Disclaimer: I am both an entrepreneur and an angel investor with over 30 angel investments. I was not at the lunch in question and have no information on what went on at the lunch even though I know most of the alleged participants.