All posts by Mark Watkins

Havana Bay, by Martin Cruz Smith

Arkady Renko might be my most favorite fictional detective. Equal parts morose, guilt-ridden persistence and quietly brilliant intuition, his disinterested “<bleep> you” attitude towards anyone in his way always seems to land him in trouble — with his superiors, his enemies, and often his lovers. Martin Cruz Smith’s prose has a convincing way of communicating Arkady’s intuition, in a way that you are convinced Arkady is smarter than you are.

Arkady made his first appearance in Gorky Park, first the book and then the movie. During a recent trip to Pinehurst, NC, I recently discovered that I had missed one of the earlier books in the series, Havana Bay, and scooped it up from Given Books.

Havana Bay: A Novel (William Monk)

When the corpse of a Russian is hauled from the oily waters of Havana Bay, Arkady Renko comes to Cuba to identify the body. Looking for the killer, he discovers a city of faded loneliness, unexpected danger, and bewildering contradictions.

Arkady is sent to Cuba to investigate the apparent death of his friend Pribluda, and he’s at the harbor to identify a body, presumably Pribluda’s. This is the era when Russia had stopped funding Cuba, and Russians aren’t so welcome there, especially when they are prying. Detective Ofelio Osorio is the female detective working on the case. “A dead Russian, a live Russian, what’s the difference?”, she spits out, mirroring the attitudes of most Cubans of the time towards Russians. Arkady and his creator Martin Cruz Smith both have that wonderful black humor shared by soldiers and policeman.

Osorio was a small brown woman in PNR Blue; she gave Arkady a studied glare. A Cuban named Rufo was the interpreter from the Russian embassy. “It’s very simple,” he translated the captain’s words. “You see the body, identify the body and then go home.

… The diver stepped in a hole and went under. Gasping, he came up out of the water, grabbed onto first the inner tube and then a foot hanging from it. The foot came off. The inner tube pressed against the spear of a mattress spring, popped and started to deflate. As the foot turned to jelly, Detective Osorio shouted for the officer to toss it to shore: a classic confrontation between authority and vulgar death, Arkady thought. All along the tape, onlookers clapped and laughed.

Rufo, said, “See, usually our level of competence is fairly high, but Russians have this effect. The captain will never forgive you.

The camera went on taping the debacle while another detective jumped in the water. Arkady hoped the lens captured the way the rising sun poured into the windows of the ferry. The inner tube was sinking. An arm disengaged. Shouts flew flew back and forth between Osorio and the police boat. The more desperately the men in the water tried to save the situation the worse it became. Captain Arcos contributed orders to lift the body. As the diver steadied the head, the pressure in his hands liquefied the face and made it slide like a grape skin off the skull, which itself separated cleanly from the neck; it was like trying to lift a man was perversely disrobing part by part, unembarrassed by the stench of advanced decomposition. A pelican sailed overhead, red as a flamingo.

I think identification is going to be a little more complicated than the captain imagined,” Arkady said.

Ofelio is tough as nails, but has a soft spot for her children and the aggressive banter between her and her mother is priceless. After denying she’s attracted to Renko, he kills someone attacking him, and she gets the call.

Her mother maintained an expression of innocence until Ofelia hung up.
What is it?
It’s about the Russian”, Ofelia said. “He’s killed someone.
Ah, you were meant for each other.

Needless to say, Arkady doesn’t have any trouble making enemies quickly. Fidel Castro makes an appearance, and as usual, Arkady tries to figure things out. Havana Bay captures the beauty of Havana, the fading glory of the architecture, the sex for sale, and the curious mix of religions, from Catholicism to Santeria to Voodoo to Abakua. The humor is persistently black.

And what exactly could a neumático (an inner tube riding fisherman) do while his friend was being eaten by a shark?
Erasmo let his eyebrows rise. “Well, we have a lot of religions in Cuba to choose from”.

Havana Bay is relentlessly funny in a mordant way, occasionally poignant, and a very intriguing mystery. Very much worth a read as the landscape in Cuba shifts.

Ghosts of the Desert, by Ryan Ireland


As someone who lived in Utah for many years, I was interested to read Ryan Ireland’s post-apocalyptic sounding Ghosts of the Desert. It’s set (mostly) in the western Utah desert and ghost towns. It was an interesting follow up to another Utah-based novel I recently read, The Never Open Desert Diner, by James Anderson, which is set more to the east in Utah, but also very remote.

Ghosts of the Desert

“Ryan Ireland’s GHOSTS OF THE DESERT is an intensely compelling read full of muscular prose and characters who are, at once, cinematically vivid and entirely, scarily authentic. This book richly deserves and surely will find a wide, enthusiastic audience.”

First things first: this book won’t be for everyone. It is a violent, strange, perverse literary near-horror novel, with a fair bit of philosophizing mixed in. Comparisons to Cormac McCarthy aren’t entirely wrong; if you mix in a little Stephen King you won’t be far off.

But as I read the opening chapter, what really came to mind for me was Jim Harrison’s classic western novella, Revenge. Like Revenge, Ghosts of the Desert opens with a poor soul being physically dismantled by an implacable enemy. Ireland’s prose has kinetic, muscular feel to it.

He lost his footing and toppled to the ground. His shoulder glanced off a rock. His leg twisted. His ankle throbbed from where he sprained it on a low-laying gravemarker. As he skidded to the flat bottom arroyo his ear grated on the hardpacked soil. The force of the final impact thumped the air from his lungs, leaving his jaw yawping at nothing, his neck straining upward and
his teeth opening and shutting, biting at the sky above him. Dust blinded him and he blinked rapidly. Yet, the wound under his arm occupied his mind — it burned as if the wire still dragged long and slow through the skin.

Norman heads out to Utah on a research grant to study ghost towns. He left behind Grace, a wild child semi-archaeologist in Indiana. In what state he left her, we’re not exactly sure. Is he still sleeping with her? Has she run off with someone? Is she still alive? We’re not sure. On his way from Indiana, Norman stops at a truck stop and we’re treated to a wonderful rendition of truck stop culture and the paranoia of every easterner who’s ever wandered into a small joint and drew the unwelcome attention of everyone in the room.

While he’s exploring the desert, he encounters Jacoby, the post-apocalyptic leader of a group of lost souls living in the desert, very much as people might have lived in the 1800s. Jacob is a philosophizer, interested in stripping away the thin veneer of civilization we all carry around with us. He’s also a seller of bodies, a killer of men, an amoral survival of the fittest cult leader. What follows feels very much like Heart of Darkness meets Mad Max. Norman has a variety of experiences, most of them unpleasant, and a variety of philosophical conversations, most of them unsatisfactory for Norman. Events spiral out of control and we learn a great deal about Norman and what he’s willing to do to stay alive.

Ghost of the Desert is an odd novel. Near revolting in places, it’s not entirely clear what Ireland was aiming for. But it’s gripping; it’s scenic, and it’s philosophical. The right reader will absolutely get a kick out of it.

And it’s no spoiler to say that Gollum, or something very much like him, makes an appearance.

(I received a free advance reader copy from Edelweiss in exchange for a review)

It’s all your fault.

sepThis is the second in a series of leadership posts brought on by my latest reading of Shogun. As a reminder, Blackthorne is an English ship navigator marooned in Japan (loosely based on the exploits of the historical figure William Adams, the first Englishman to reach Japan and the first western Samurai). Samurai had a fierce sense of honor and committed ritual suicide if they failed in their duty, hence the tongue in cheek image.


A bold English adventurer. An invincible Japanese warlord. A beautiful woman torn between two ways of life, two ways of love. All brought together in an extraordinary saga of a time and a place aflame with conflict, passion, ambition, lust, and the struggle for power… From the Paperback edition.

There’s a natural tendency amongst first time CEOs (and first time managers) to blame subordinates when something goes wrong. After all, they probably did make a mistake. But, it’s always your fault. You are responsible. If not for doing the task correctly, then for ensuring that it is done correctly. That the mission is clear. That the right resources are available; that there’s no roadblocks; that the right person is leading the activity. If something big goes wrong, it’s your fault.

Shogun contains an interesting illustrative example. Blackthorne is in the process of becoming Samurai, via the Japanese daimyo (lord) Toranaga, his sponsor and protector. Blackthorne has been given possession of a household and servants, and raised to Samurai class. But he’s not quite made the jump to Japanese food, and so he is hanging a pheasant near the house for it to improve in flavor, and the bird is beginning to decompose and attract flies. An old gardener volunteers to remove the bird from the house during Blackthorne’s absence. Samurai have the power of life and death over their subjects and violating an order is punishable by death. So the gardener is put to death by Blackthorne’s Japanese wife, also Samurai. After raging at her for the unnecessary death,

He wept because a good man was dead unnecessary and because he now knew that he had murdered him. “Lord God forgive me. I’m responsible — not Fujiko. I killed him. I ordered that no one was to touch the pheasant but me. I asked her if everyone understood and she said yes. I ordered it with mock gravity but that doesn’t matter now. I gave the orders, knowing their law and knowing their customs. The old man broke my stupid order so what else could Fujiko-san do? I’m to blame.”

If you’re the CEO, it’s your fault. And sometimes you have to fall on your sword for it, metaphorically speaking. But embrace the responsibility and this way of thinking, and you’ll find that things don’t go wrong very often.


Playing the long game


Fred Wilson recently posted a great article entitled Don’t Kick the Can Down the Road. It exhorts entrepreneurs to not avoid making hard decisions. Great advice — and yet, sometimes you need the patience to let things develop, or not make a decision before you need to. (Ironically, many VCs — not necessarily Fred — are past masters at not making a decision, happily telling entrepreneurs “come back when you have more data” vs. just telling them no and getting it over with).

I recently read Shogun, James Clavell’s enormously entertaining and informative novel about set in feudal Japan. It is a master class in how patience is necessary to achieve big goals.


A bold English adventurer. An invincible Japanese warlord. A beautiful woman torn between two ways of life, two ways of love. All brought together in an extraordinary saga of a time and a place aflame with conflict, passion, ambition, lust, and the struggle for power… From the Paperback edition.

Blackthorne is an English ship navigator marooned in Japan (loosely based on the exploits of the real historical figure William Adams, the first Englishman to reach Japan and the first western Samurai). He is made Samurai by lord Toranaga (a fictionalized version of the historical figure Tokugawa Ieyasu). The novel is ostensibly focused on Blackthorne but the true central figure of the book is Toranaga. Toranaga secretly desires to become Shogun, the supreme military commander of Japan, and de facto ruler of the country. But against him are an array of other leaders, with a stronger political position and bigger armies. Toranaga is the master of not making a decision until he has to, or the time is right:

though in reality it was only a cover to gain time, continuing his lifelong pattern of negotiation, delay, and seeming retreat, always waiting patiently until a chink in the armor appeared over a jugular, then stabbing home viciously, without hesitation.


“Doesn’t this explain Toranaga? Doesn’t this intrigue fit him like a skin? Isn’t he doing what he’s always doing, just waiting like always, playing for time like always, a day here a day there and soon a month has passed and again he has an overwhelming force to sweep all opposition aside? He’s gained almost a month since Zataki brought the summons to Yokose.”

In the end, it is all about patience, or as Toranaga says:

Patience means holding back your inclination to the seven emotions: hate, adoration, joy, anxiety, anger, grief, fear. If you don’t give way to the seven you are patient, then you’ll soon understand all manner of things…

If you’re building a business, you don’t have to raise venture capital. The tech press romanticize this path. You can bootstrap, but that requires patience (and resources or a very low burn rate). But if you are patient, passionate, and committed, you can build a very interesting company this way.

This strategy doesn’t lend itself well to fast-developing, winner-take-all markets. Competing with an Uber or a Groupon, you have to scale fast or get run over. In venture-backed companies, you are on the “shot clock” as soon as you take money — investors want a return. Conversely you become addicted to the funding and can’t survive without it, so you have to succeed quickly or you’ll run out of money.

In more slowly developing markets, or markets that are small enough that big money or big companies aren’t a threat, patience can be a virtue, or even a requirement. Books are an interesting example. The market develops slowly. The few major success stories, say Goodreads or Wattpad, were almost a decade in the making. Any number of innovative startups (e.g. discovery engine Small Demons, subscription reading platform Oyster) produced great products but were unable to fund operations long enough to achieve critical mass.

So, with my book discovery engine, The Hawaii Project, I’m playing the long game. I’m not raising funding and going for the big splash, because I know the market will take longer to develop than the shot clock will permit. I’m self funding. Cloud computing and open software have made it possible for a single person to build very interesting products, and let them run for long periods of time at very little cost. I can wait out the competition; most of them will run out of money.

When I meet with young entrepreneurs embarking on something, one of my first questions is, “Do you care enough about this problem to spend 5 or 10 years of your life on it?”. Because that is what it’s going to take.

So you’re thinking about a “things to do” app

AKA “events”, AKA “local discovery”, aka “help me find things to do in my free time”.

TL/DR. Just Don’t. Please, I’m begging you.

As one of the founders (and CEO) of goby, a local “recommendation engine for things to do”, I get approached fairly frequently (seems like every few weeks) by entrepreneurs who want to work on this problem. In the interests of saving both of us time, I decided to write down the high level reasons why this is a really bad idea. Read this first, then we can chat if you still want to try.

Before we get started, a few caveats. This advice assumes you’re trying to doa venture-backed unicorn, need to raise money to pay your salary, and hence need to scale. If you’re doing a bootstrapped personal project where you make a few bucks, much of this may not apply. Second, I don’t really even want to hear about your product. Even if your product is amazing, it doesn’t matter. You won’t make it. The problem in this market isn’t the product, it’s the market.

The challenge here is not to make a great product, it’s to get scale of users. If you’re doing a venture-backed startup, you need MILLIONS of users for this to work. Here’s why you won’t get them:

  1. It’s not a daily use case
  2. Most people don’t actually have free time
  3. You need to scale geographically as well as topically
  4. It’s hard to get good data
  5. Competition (I have a Graveyard of ~200 companies who’ve tried).
  6. No clear path to monetization

If you’re unconvinced, you can read a bit more detail below about these various factors. But trust me, I’m right.

Is this a real problem for people? Yes. Are experiences valuable? Yes. Is this problem worth solving? Yes. It just won’t be a startup.

In a previous generation, this problem was solved by Newspapers. They had a “metro” section that highlighted cool things going on. They already had an audience, they had local knowledge, they just delivered some extra value. The future version of this problem will be solved by a brand that already has an audience. Maybe a platform like Facebook (already the biggest events database on the planet), or a Yahoo/AOL/some other portal, or by a brand working in a bigger associated space (Foursquare? Twitter? AirBnB? Uber?).

OK, so you’re unconvinced. Keep reading.

It’s not a daily use case.

I’ve written about this at length elsewhere, but because of the way people discover, test, and re-use new apps, unless you have a near-daily use case, people just forget about you before they need you. A similar take from Ben Yoskowitz.

Most People don’t actually have free time

Who is your demographic for this? Young urban singles have free time, they like to go out at night. Married people with kids — their weekends are spoken for. Mow the grass. Go to the soccer game. Run errands. Get up Monday morning. It’s tempting to think there’s millions of people sitting around bored, because it happens to all of us at some point. But most of the time, most of the people don’t have this problem. It happens once a month if you’re lucky. And then, many people will just decide to stay in and watch Game of Thrones.

You need to scale geographically as well as topically.

In order to get millions of users, you can’t just do one city. Not enough audience. So, that means you need data for New York, Boston, LA, Raleigh-Durham, Atlanta, Moab, …. and you need to cover different topics for different demographics (nightclubs vs family-friendly events)…unless you have some serious tech (we had semantic web crawling from MIT @ goby and still struggled), you won’t be able to get this data easily. Which leads to:

It’s hard to get good data.

Unfortunately the data is distributed — Facebook events, Wine tastings on location restaurant websites, concerts on Ticketmaster,….it’s all really spread around. There’s no centralized place to get it. Not only do you have to cover lots of geographies, you have to cover lots of topics. Jazz, Hiking Trails, beaches, Comedy, Family Friendly book readings, the list goes on and on and on. If all you do is aggregate some events from Ticketmaster, nobody needs you — they already have Ticketmaster! Which leads to….


You started work on this because you think it’s a problem nobody’s working on or solved. Guess what: I keep a list. I call it The Graveyard. There’s HUNDREDS of startups who’ve tried and failed to solve this problem. Some really great services: goby, Sosh, SCVNGR, Diddit, Hotlist, Banjo, Sonar, Whrrl, Spindle, Schemer by Google, Eventful, Zvents, Upcoming (now returning, believe it or not!!). This runs everything from one person in his/her basement to apps from biggies like Google. Nobody lasts more than a few years. When that happens, it means something’s wrong with the market, not the companies. Can you explain why you’ll succeed when all these other good folks failed?

Now, in some specific big areas there’s players: Ticketmaster for music, EventBrite for professional events, and some others. But they are the exception, and worse, if your app is great at music, then you have to swim upstream against a brand like Ticketmaster.

(and, you’d better have a web site, an IOS app, an Android App, and soon, a chat bot interface :)


Finally, it’s very unclear how to monetize this space. Ads? Forget it. Until you have 2 or 3 million monthly uniques, you’re not getting anywhere with ads. Affiliate revenue? Most of the things that are purchasable are being sold by the Ticketmasters of the world — and people would rather buy from them than you.

A lot of big problems you have to solve.

Here’s some required reading of some post mortems and other folks’ thoughts on this: