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Panda, panda, panda, panda, panda.

Walking the streets of Brooklyn I passed a group of kids playing a song through a portable speaker.

It was catchy and the beat sounded great. I caught some of the lyrics and googled "panda song". That's when I realized that I had come across a hit.

"Panda", by 19 year old Brooklyn native Desiigner was released as an iTunes single on December 15, 2015. As of this writing, the music video on YouTube has 80 million views (published May 17, 2016) and the audio only version has 242 million views (published December 20, 2015).

Let's put these numbers in perspective. Taylor Swift's Bad blood has 919 million views (published May 17, 2015) and Drake's Hotline Bling has 843 million views (published October 26, 2015). Taylor is getting about 65 million views a month and Drake 93 million. These are megastar numbers for two megastar artists. Desiigner getting about 40 million views a month on his video. This almost puts him into the same league of attention (for a single) as two of the biggest stars in the music business.

With such rapid ascension I became curious on the backstory to Panda. How did the song come about?

The story is a modern day example that shows how anyone with talent, drive, persistence, a bit of luck, and a computer with an internet connection can make it in the music business.

Panda's story begins with a 22-year old aspiring record producer from Manchester England. Adnan Khan, aka Menace, was working at a mobile repair center by day and producing beats by night.


His Instagram features clips of his work and his studio setup. Here is the earliest clip I could find.

Perusing the 3 year history of clips I was impressed by his talent and professional quality of all his beats. But I was even more impressed by his persistence. He consistently put out new beats (just browse his Instagram posts). And he built a business out of it:


About a  year ago he posts this beat. Sound familiar? It should, it's the Panda beat.

Shortly after Menace released the beat, a 19 year old from Brooklyn New York purchased it for $200. Sidney Royel Selby III, aka Desiigner, had a vision for the beat, and he turned it into Panda.

In a period of a year, two kids from humble beginnings jumped to the top of the music charts. Panda hit Platinum and number 1 on US  Billboard:


And to top it off, the beat was sampled by Kanye West on his latest album, "The Life of Pablo".

Desiigner has since signed a record deal with G.O.O.D music and a publishing deal with SONGS Music Publishing.

Menace inked a publishing deal with Stellar Songs and you can see that his Instagram feed now includes an upgraded studio setup and a new ride.

You can say these guys got lucky but it's not that simple. Menace set himself up for success by showing up for 3+ years. He consistently put out new beats and promoted his tracks. He worked on his craft and persisted. Desiigner on an interview with Genius talks about his past musical endeavors and being the guy in the neighborhood that people came to for music. He put out original tracks  and collaborated with other artists. Both guys built a portfolio of work and Panda became the break out track.

The music industry has changed. Like starting a tech startup anyone with drive, talent, and resilience can achieve great levels of success. The secret is to create something people want. A hit song is elusive. There is no secret formula. But Panda has proven that you don't need to be famous. You don't need a label. And you don't need expensive studio equipment to make something big.

Today's music business is driven by streaming culture. And streaming culture doesn't care about albums. It cares about tracks. Bite size and shareable tracks. As a listener, why listen to a 10 track album when I want to stream a playlist of singles? As an artist, why record 10 tracks if my listeners only want to listen to a few?

The new music business  is about collaboration. A kid from Manchester can unite with a kid from Brooklyn to create a Platinum track. If there is a startup opportunity, it's here. What will be the platform to foster more collaborations like the one between Desiigner and Menace? Was their collaboration a byproduct of chance? Or are there elements that can be pulled out, automated, and put into a product that strategically unites people to collaborate and create.

A low barrier to entry has resulted in a proliferation of new music. Anyone can setup a home studio and record a track. But it takes a certain combination (timing, production, hitting a cultural zeitgeist) to make something special like Panda. The success of Panda has provided Desiigner and Menace with something even more coveted than financial success, attention. In today's world attention is the gold standard, it's invaluable.

These guys have an audience now, and we eagerly await to hear what they put out next.

Mobile apps have become so ubiquitous that their seems to be an app for anything you can imagine. A select few have disrupted industries (Instagram, Uber). They have become platforms and their global reach is paramount.

Facebook Messenger is an app that particularly stands out. It began as a tool inside of Facebook for users to private message each other. Then several years ago Facebook took a drastic action. It decoupled Messenger from the Facebook mobile app and made it a stand-alone app. At the time the move was viewed as risky/odd/stupid. Users would supposedly be confused (I have to install a different app to see my messages?!).

For me the shift was seamless. I loved how fast the app was. I could see who was online, and whether my message was delivered or read. It was faster than text messaging, and it was free. I didn't realize it then, but Messenger was Facebook disrupting SMS.

Today Messenger goes way beyond text messaging. I can voice or video call my contacts, send them money, pictures, videos, gifs, and even order an Uber. In Messenger I've chatted with customer service representatives (who helped me process a return), and received order confirmation and tracking updates for online orders.

The utility of the app is incredible. With an open platform more and more services are going to "hook up" to messenger. Here are some possibilities:

  • Reserve a table at restaurant XYZ through a message, and receive a message back when your table is ready
  • Apply for a job, do your interview over video, and sign your offer letter all through Messenger
  • Sore left-knee? Tax question? Hungry? Instantly chat with a specialist.
  • Receive real-time message updates for any event (news, sports)

There is an interesting piece by Chris Messina where he coins the idea of an era of Conversational Commerce. Facebook Messenger is a prime example of us getting there.

The features and tools that get added into Messenger will have a compounding effect. I'll refer to them as "Compounding technologies". They remove frictions that are byproducts of antiquated systems or technologies so that it's easier for people to adopt disruptive technologies. An example would be having a key in Facebook messenger that you use to unlock the door to your Airbnb reservation. The friction of key logistics between guest and host is eliminated. Now a weary host has one less pain point that may prevent them from adopting Airbnb.

Facebook Messenger has a lot of opportunity for compounding technologies. I predict that within two years it will be used more frequently than text messaging. Text me will be replaced with message me. And many more companies, services, and bots will manager their communication with users through Messenger.

Cognition is the knowledge we obtain when our brain processes our environment. Cognitive skills are defined as the brain-based skills we need to function in the world. Skills like language and reading. And the ability to think, focus, remember, and make decisions. Grade school's specialty is to develop student's cognitive skills. But should more time be spent developing non-cognitive skills?

Non-cognitive skills are difficult to identify because they are difficult to measure and quantify. They are believed to underpin our success at school, work, or life in general. The meaning of success is objective (for example financial vs. emotional success). However you measure success, research is showing that non-cognitive skills will get you on the road to success. Examples of non-cognitive skills includes: creativity, critical thinking, motivation, perseverance, self-control, work ethic, resilience, and coping.

In sports, non-cognitive skills are often referred to as the "intangibles" (aka intangible skills). So in basketball, your cognitive skills are your ability to dribble the ball, shoot, and make passes. The intangibles are how well you perform under pressure, how you react to taunting from opposing players, and your motivation to improve. Often times it's the intangibles that separate a good player, from a great player.

Jason Calacanis, entrepreneur and tech investor, lists 10 qualities that signal a successful entrepreneur he would invest in:

    1. Resiliency
    2. Relentlessness
    3. Debatable
    4. Intractable
    5. Curiosity
    6. Networkability
    7. Product vision
    8. Fearlessness
    9. Resourcefulness
    10. Charisma

Notice that all of these skills are non-cognitive. If non-cognitive skills are the keys to success in school/sports/life, why do K-12 schools focus on cognitive skills?

One reason is that cognitive skills are measurable. Schools need to measure students in order to evaluate student and teacher performance. We can standardize measuring how well Sally can read. But standardizing how relentless or creative she is is much more difficult.

This leads to some big questions. Should K-12 curriculums be 50% cognitive and 50% non-cognitive skills based? How do schools measure the effectiveness of teaching non-cognitive skills? Is school the right environment for teaching non-cognitive skills? Can these skills be taught? How do you teach a child resilience?

Non-cognitive skills cannot be taught the same way cognitive skills are taught. I can give you a workbook that will teach you how to add and subtract fractions. I can't give you a workbook to teach you resilience. Non-cognitive skills need to be instilled. And that requires a different approach to lecture/workbook based instruction.

High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego California, approaches the challenge through the statement: "it's your decision". Empowering kids to think for themselves and make decisions is a way for them to develop non-cognitive skills at school. Kids need an environment where they can dream, build, question, fail, and explore. It gives the dual benefit of making school more interesting, and conducive to honing non-cognitive skills.

Standardizing a non-cognitive skill based curriculum would be a big blocker to getting mass adoption. Knowing which skills to teach would also be a challenge. We develop non-cognitive skills in different ways and from various sources. Whether from hobbies, mentors, parents, friends, values, school, or other sources, we amass our skills as a byproduct of our environment.

These skills are valued highly across the world. The jobs of the future will depend on workers that have these skills. And therefore we may be moving toward a future where learning non-cognitive skills becomes a large component of a child's environment.

I was reading through Tim Ferriss's 5-Bullet Friday email the other day and came across and interesting link.

The link is for Tim's profile on kit.com. The site is a:

community to discover, discuss and get interesting products – grouped into kits – for activities like traveling, DJing, cooking, cycling and more.

I'm really impressed that they not only have a 3 letter .com domain, but it's a great name! Easy-to-remember, elegant (not getkitapp.com) , and well-suited for the product. Jason Calacanis (entrepreneur, angel investor, host of This Week in Startups podcast) constantly talks about the importance of a good .com domain. It signifies you are serious about the company, and also have good taste. I estimate this domain being worth over $100k. It sends a signal that this team is resourceful and serious about their product.

The reason kit.com caught my attention was because I've played around with a similar idea (and here). They are trying to solve two problems:

  1. Discover new physical products to get
  2. Discover how to get started with ______ (insert hobby here)

The second problem is very interesting. Tim for example has a kit for creating the perfect cup of coffee.

Drew Shirley, lead guitarist for the rock band Switchfoot has three kits:

Viewing each kit presents Drew's summary of the piece of gear, and a big link to purchase it from an online retailer.

If you are a beginner, you have a immediate starting point for electric guitar gear. If you are a Drew super fan, you have a list of his gear so you can emulate his sound. For beginners, a typical process involves googling "what is the best electric guitars for beginners", reading Amazon reviews, and making a decision that you hope will have limited buyers remorse. Compare that to having a respected source who recommends exactly what you should get. If a friend tells me I should buy XYZ coffee beans, I'll buy them. If a famous guitarist I like recommends a piece of gear I need, I'm much more likely to take their recommendation instead of a random review.

A few months ago I decided to purchase a turntable stereo system for my apartment. I've never owned a turntable, so this was foreign territory. I had three challenges:

  1. What gear do I need?
  2. What brand/model should I buy?
  3. Where should I buy them?

The process of finding the answer to each question took about three hours. For the first challenge, I knew I needed a turntable and speakers. But then I started reading about needing a preamp and receiver. But some turntables have a preamp built in so maybe I didn't need it. And some speakers have amplifiers built in, which would negate the need for a receiver. Things started getting complicated fast. Once I figured out the gear I needed, I spent a long time reading reviews. Learning the pros and cons of each piece. And once I had that figured out, I needed to figure out where to purchase the gear.

Compare that process to visiting the Kit page I just created. A simple list of gear, short comments as to why I picked that gear, and a link to buy.

But isn't the Kit page a simplified version of a blog post? What I like about Kit is the information is presented in a "what you see is what you get" manner. Looking at my turntable stereo page, if you buy all that gear, you have everything you need. If you trust the creator of the kit, the risk of missing something, or buyers remorse, is significantly lowered. This may be Kit's biggest challenge. Attracting enough "influencers" to create various Kits, and share them with their followers.

As mentioned it's a product idea I've been thinking about for a while, and I'm happy that someone decided to go for it! I'm looking forward to seeing what they do with the product in the future.

My kits:

Yesterday I visited AICAD NY Studio for Open Studio evening. It's an event where artists (aka residents) show off what they have been working on. An artist residency is a program where artists are given workspaces, and over the span of X months (4 months for this program) work on their art. They may receive mentorship, housing, and other benefits that vary across residency programs.


One piece stood out at the exhibition. It's by resident Michael Fraley:


At first glance it seems convoluted and overwhelming. And yet the symmetry and typography invites you to look closer and read. You have a polarity of it appearing busy while being uniform. At it's core it's just a minified list. It's quite common in web-based application code:


The above jQuery code has been minified (by removing all white space). Here is an example of a non-minified version:


Notice all the whitespace? It's purpose is to make the code "human readable". But your internet browser (which loads the code when you visit the webpage that uses that code, is content with the minified version). The lack of whitespace serves a purpose. If you have a large file that your web browser has to load every time you visit the website, the site will take longer to load. And thus most sites will use a minified version of the code because every second you can remove from the page load time results in a better user experience.

Coming back to the art piece. I talked to Michael about his vision for the piece. The text describes activities, time spent, and things he has eaten over a span of several days. It's in chronological order and is meant to be read like book (starting from the top left corner). I see it as a binary, minified visual representation of a couple days of Michael's life. In a painting or photograph our eyes are typically drawn to a focal point. No such point exists in this piece and yet it doesn't feel unnerving. You just need to start reading.

My science fiction infused brain started churning after I saw Michael's  piece. I can  envision a society where every activity we partake in, every piece of food we consume, is logged in a minified list like Michael has created. The next step would be to parse the data and pull out insights. We spent X minutes reading this week, X minutes exercising, X minutes talking, X minutes silent, etc.

JSON is popular data-interchange format (a type of file where data is formatted in a way that it can be sent over the web). A  minified JSON file  can look just like the minified jQuery example I showed earlier. Writing  basic scripts can allow anyone to parse the file and gather insights from the data. This may become commonplace in the future.

Imagine you have a raw JSON file that tracks all of your life's activities. Why should a company (like Facebook or Google) control how that data is presented to you. Sure they may have some generic reports/views that will satisfy the general populous, but would we trust these companies with accessing that much of our data?

By the time we have such data available to us, kids are going to be graduating high school with serious computer science chops. The state of  NY has set the goal that within the next 10 years they will teach every student in the public school system computer science.

With more and more kids graduating with computer science knowledge, parsing this "life data" minified file will come naturally. The challenge for the kids will  be to know what questions to ask. What to look for in the data. Will it be valuable to know what our ratio of time spent talking over being silent is? Or if the weeks we spend reading over 60 minutes resulted in lower calories consumed versus the weeks we spent over 180 minutes on YouTube?

I should have  asked Michael about his takeaways from the things he wrote on the canvas. What kind of insights did he gather? He created a piece of art, but he also may have unintentionally given us a glimpse into the future.