travel, marketing & entrepreneurship

Part Two: Switzerland

Published: October 27th, 2013

The following is part two of a three part series of travel updates from August 2013.

Next stop, Switzerland.

One of the world’s greatest countries. I’m not exaggerating.

Snuggled up against the Alps, Switzerland is bordered by Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein. Not only is it one of the richest countries in the world according to GDP, but it also has the highest wealth per adult of any country in the world.

It’s two largest cities, Zürich and Geneva, have been ranked as having the second and eighth highest quality of life in the world.

But Lana and I weren’t there to visit the cities.

We had a specific mountain village in mind, Mürren.

From Zürich, we traveled by way of Berne and Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen. At Lauterbrunnen, we connected to an aerial tramway that quickly climbed its way up the side of  a cliff, presenting a spectacular, storybook view of the Lauterbrunnen Valley.

lauterbrunnen train station

Mürren is a traditional Walser mountain village, unreachable by public road. The village sits atop a jaw-gapingly steep crest of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, offering unparalleled views of the Bernese Oberland. The towering peaks of Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau proudly jut out from the Swiss glaciers, briefly revealing their peaks when the weather is clear.

It’s one of my favorite places on Earth.

And for the few hundred active BASE jumpers in the world, the Lauterbrunnen Valley is a paradise of easy access and multiple exit points. There are sixteen distinct jump spots for BASE jumping, conveniently rated for their tracking and wingsuit difficulties here. Don’t think I’ll need to consult that list anytime soon.

We watched BASE jumpers exit the aerial tramway and jog down a nearby hill. Last year, 13 people died BASE jumping just in the Lauterbrunnen Valley.

base jumpers in lauterbrunnen valley

Later that morning, we took the Jungfraubahn up and around the valley to Kleine Scheidegg, hopping off the train and donning our backpacks.

jungraubahn to kleine scheidegg

From Kleine Schiedegg, we hiked 4-5 hours up to the base of the Eiger’s north face, one of mountaineering’s most iconic climbs and a challenging and sometimes fatal feat even for the world’s best mountaineers. The Eiger’s concave face occasionally punched through the clouds, presenting a stark and imposing landscape.

eiger north face lake

That night we celebrated with one of Switzerland’s heartiest dishes, Raclette.

Raclette cheese is melted in front of an open fire. Someone regularly scrapes off the melting side of the cheese, serving it with small, firm potatoes, gherkins, pickled onions and sometimes dried meat.

raclette

The next day, we hiked what’s known as a via ferrata, Italian for “iron road” and a popular type of protected climbing route found in the Alps and a few other spots around the world.

via ferrata cliff

The essence of a via ferrata involves a steel cable which runs along the route, periodically fixed to the rock every 10 to 30 feet. Using a special via ferrata kit, climbers can secure themselves to the cable, scrambling up and down iron rungs, pegs, carved steps and even ladders and bridges.

This particular via ferrata was rated a K3. It was steep and dropped off 1800 ft. straight down at points.

The suspension bridge was one of my favorite parts.

via ferrata bridge

If you like fresh mountain air, one of the most topographically stunning landscapes on Earth, infinite hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter, BASE jumping and other extreme sports and hearty farmer feasts, then Switzerland is the country for you.

This last photo is a tilt-shift of Gimmelwald, on a final hike back up to Mürren.

gimmelwald tilt shift

Until next time, Switzerland.

 


Part One: Iceland

Published: September 7th, 2013

The following is part one of a three part series of travel updates from August 2013.

Lana and I left on a Thursday night, on Icelandair’s red-eye out of Boston.

We landed in Iceland around 6:00a. It was too early for the bus, so we lounged around Keflavik International Airport for a couple of hours. I fell asleep in a contorted position across two chairs, while Lana made a discovery.

She found Skyr!

skyr

Skyr is a cultured dairy product, similar to strained yogurt, that has been part of Iceland’s culinary history for over 1000 years. It’s yummy, and healthy. Lots of protein, very little fat and sugar. Tastes like Greek yogurt but has a smoother consistency.

At 8:30am, we took a bus to the Blue Lagoon.

Due to its proximity to the airport, the Blue Lagoon is one of the most visited sites in Iceland. It’s marketed as a geothermal spa. Here’s how it works:

The lagoon is a man-made lagoon which is fed by the water output of the nearby geothermal power plant Svartsengi and is renewed every 2 days. Superheated water is vented from the ground near a lava flow and used to run turbines that generate electricity. After going through the turbines, the steam and hot water passes through a heat exchanger to provide heat for a municipal water heating system. Then the water is fed into the lagoon for recreational and medicinal users to bathe in. – Wikipedia

So basically, a large outdoor pool that’s infused with silica and sulphur, heated to around 100 degrees. Good for the skin!

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Later that morning, we took a bus into Reykjavik. Lana had rented us an apartment just off the small capital’s most popular street, Laugavegur. Believe it or not, this small and cozy one-bedroom apartment was cheaper to lease than Reykjavik’s backpacker hostel.

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Later that night, we hopped on a snorkeling tour of Silfra, a tectonic rift caused by the divergence of the North American and Eurasian plates. Silfra runs through a lake, some of whom’s rift fingers offer phenomenal underwater visibility. Silfra is fed by cold, clear glacial water. By the time that water melts off from the glacier and snakes its way down into the lake, it’s between 50 and 100 years old.

Ian, our snorkeling guide, is an Englishman who spent nine years in the military and has since forged a globe-trotting career in scuba diving. He’s been diving all over the world and recently came from a stint in Thailand.

Ian helped us put on our dry suits. He said that the tightness around the neck should feel about as strong as a ficticious dwarf strangling you. Made sense to me. He also encouraged us to periodically take our snorkels off to swig a few gulps. I obliged his request.

Underwater, the Earth cracks open into a rocky abyss, and the algae looks like green Silly String.

The next day, Lana and I explored Reykjavik. It was crowded. Many folks had come in from around the country for Reykjavik Culture Night, an annual celebration with music and beer and hot dogs and all kinds of Icelandic fun.

We walked around the city. We ate hot dogs. We watched part of the Reykjavik Marathon. We walked around a lake and witnessed German bachelor party shenanigans. I photographed a stilted juggler.

Lana and I ate curried lobster soup and walked around the old harbor. We walked into Hallgrímskirkja church.

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Later that night, we met up with a friend of mine who was in Reykjavik for the race. After a series of White Russians at a Big Lebowski-themed bar, the night blurred into a series of hot dogs and beer, fireworks and electronic music. Dare I saw we danced the night away.

The following morning, Lana and I followed a popular tourist route to the national park Þingvellir, the waterfall Gullfoss , and the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur, where we saw the Strokkur geyser intermittently erupt.

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It was an educational trip. We learned, for example, that:

  • The Icelandic horse has a fifth gait, the tölt. Also, once an Icelandic horse leaves the island, it is not allowed to come back. Non-Icelandic horses are not allowed into the country.
  • More than half of Iceland’s population does not deny the existence of elves. In fact, as new roads are lain, en elf expert is summoned to the scene. If the right evidence presents itself, the asphalt road will be rerouted to careen around the elf habitat.
  • At one point it was illegal in Iceland to own a dog.

On our last full day, Lana and I took a glacier and waterfall tour. The waterfalls are wild to approach. Completely isolated from other remarkable geology, they dominate the surrounding landscape, a seemingly endless and brooding blend of grays and greens.

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On the glacier, I chatted with our guide, Otti, about mountaineering and ice climbing opportunities in Iceland. “Winter is a good time for us mountain lovers,” he said.

It wasn’t winter, but I having a pretty good time.

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Giddy up.


The Ambassador, Undercover Gonzo Journalism

Published: July 20th, 2013

I often joke with my girlfriend about our next vacation:

We’d travel to the Central African Republic! A few of my former coworkers have been there. It sounds interesting. Maybe a 5 day trip? I’m sure we could fly through Paris or Frankfurt. Wouldn’t be too difficult. You in?

My last job took me to many countries in Africa–Djibouti, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Angola and Nigeria. That said, I know very little about the Central African Republic. Former coworkers had traveled to Bangui, the country’s capital. Their thoughts were neither overwhelmingly positive or negative. Lively morning markets, a decent Lebanese restaurant, broken sidewalks–a unique location but not the kind of experience you’d share on TripAdvisor as a must-have.

the ambassador gonzo journalism

I recently watched The Ambassador, a darkly comic and gut-wrenching documentary that peels back the curtain of global political corruption and exploitation in Central African Republic. It’s a real-life spy movie, rife with black-market credentials and hidden cameras.

The protagonist is Mads Brügger, a quick-thinking Danish filmmaker and journalist. Brügger goes undercover as an inquisitive, well-spoken and groomed Liberian diplomat and businessman, with a goal to build a match factory in Central African Republic. He wits his way through friendships and negotiations, ultimately revealing blood diamond and diplomatic title brokerage corruption. It’s the kind of story that only a long, hot shower can wash off.

Hunter S. Thompson once said that “absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.” The documentary is gonzo journalism at its finest. It’s told from a first-person, in-the-trenches perspective. To break the story, Brügger became the story.

shane smith vice hbo

Another example of gonzo journalism is Emmy-nominated VICE, an HBO series that seeks to “expose the absurdity of the modern condition. It’s a new kind of reality TV, one that showcases political assassinations in the Philippines, brings Dennis Rodman into North Korea and uncovers underground heroin clinics in Mexico.

If you haven’t seen VICE or The Ambassador, step outside your media comfort zone for a night and see just how absurd our modern condition really is. To those of you that have seen either of these, what did you think?


Email Marketing, a Citi Bike Story

Published: May 22nd, 2013

email png iconOne of the many privileges of working on the HubSpot Academy team is that I get to teach a handful of our inbound marketing training classes. These classes are taught to our customers and administered via GoToTraining. We cover the whyhow and what of HubSpot software. We teach inbound marketing methodology, discuss best practices/tactics and walk through HubSpot software’s various moving parts.

One of my favorite classes to teach is Email.

Email marketing has been on my mind a lot these days. Despite having been cited by marketers as one of the best marketing channels in terms of ROI, many companies continue to fall short in their email marketing efforts.

As an example, I received an email from recently-launched Citi Bike, whom I gave my email address to several months ago via an “I’m interested to hear more information when you launch” landing page.

Let’s walk through the email. I’ll provide honest opinions and suggestions.

This is how the email arrived in my inbox.

citi bike email marketing

There are two things I’m looking for here. Who the email is coming from, and what the subject line is. Citi Bike is relatively clear, but it would be much better if this email was sent from Tom @ Citi Bike or Pamela @ Citi Bike. Research shows that folks are much more inclined to engage with an email that comes from a real person.

I like the subject line, “The Bikes are Coming!” It’s short, clear and compelling. I’m wondering if Citi Bike A/B tested that subject line at all. Granted, open rates aren’t the most reliable metric in the world, but they can still be useful when benchmarking emails sent to similar lists.

top of email

Let’s open the email.

Everything you’re seeing in this screenshot is above the fold, meaning this is what I can see on my laptop screen without having to scroll down. As a best practice, email marketers should place their most important content and call-to-action above the fold.

1. Again, I’d rather see a specific person here. Why can’t the email come from tom@citibikenyc.com or pamela@citibikenyc.com? As a communal organization that targets a very specific buyer persona, Citi Bike could get more personalized here. As email marketers, we need to create emotional connections with reader at every opportunity.

2. Nice! Love to see this. Despite email marketers’ best efforts, it is difficult to design emails that render properly on a growing myriad of email-friendly devices. This option is a nice backup for folks who have formatting troubles.

Here’s where I’m starting to ask myself, OK, what’s the goal of this email?

Every email a company sends needs to a) build or nurture a relationship with the reader, b) offer some kind of value to the reader and c) drive one primary form of engagement via a click. As email marketers, we always want to drive our email recipients to take some kind of action, as it allows us to better measure the effectiveness of an email. How will we know where to improve if we don’t track click-through or conversion rates?

With that said:

3. I wouldn’t feature social media buttons in such prime email template real estate. Is connecting via social media the primary purpose of this email? Probably not. What about letting me know when the bikes are coming? I’m expecting to see a date at this point.

Also, I’d nix “Friend Us,” “Tweet Us” and “Forward Us.” Those actions are implied in the icons themselves and not necessary.

4. Nice fluidity between the email subject and this main title, but I’d still like to see more. Again, this is the only thing I can read without having to scroll down. At this point, I should be able to see a specific link to click, and I should understand why and how clicking that link is going to provide value.

first paragraph

1. They’re asking me to become an annual member? As a reminder, at this point all I’ve done is poked around their website for more information several months ago. I’m early in the buying process. I filled out one form with my name and email. That’s like asking a girl to marry you on the first date!

What should Citi Bike put here, then? What about a link to their station map? Or a reminder as to how things work? I need to be wooed and educated here, folks. I haven’t even seen what their bikes look like!

2. Most effective emails are less than 200 words. This paragraph can be tightened up. That, and I’m still not being provided a clear call-to-action yet. What link am I supposed to click? That link should be in the first few sentences, at the very top of the email.

footer of email

1. There’s the link! Too bad it points directly to their home page. A decent call-to-action, but not nearly as effective as sending me somewhere more specific, like the How It Works page. That’s a more actionable and compelling request.

2. There’s redundancy here between this text and the social media icons above. Not sure this line is necessary.

manage email preferences

3. Ooh, I like what I’m seeing here. The ability to update my subscription preferences? Say I’m interested in receiving their monthly newsletter, but not these annual membership email blasts. Usually, a link like this would point to a page where I can select what type of emails I’d like to receive from Citi Bikes, or at least how often I’d like to receive them.

Unfortunately, I’m not being offered much. I like that Citi Bike is using MailChimp to send emails, but because I know how easy it is to manage multiple email lists in MailChimp, I’m disappointed that I’m not being given more opportunities to engage or tweak my relationship on this page.

What are your thoughts about Citi Bike email marketing? Did I miss anything? Do you disagree with what I’m saying? Have at it, folks!


That One Time I Nearly Died

Published: December 7th, 2012

Just yesterday, I gave a short speech on gut-wrenching adventure.

I spoke in front of my HubSpot peers as part of our company Toastmasters group. It was my first speech in the program, an ice breaker speech, where the goal was to teach the audience a bit about myself.

Over the course of 6-7 minutes, I spoke about adventurous times throughout my life. Careening down our neighborhood hills on scooters and skateboards and mountain bikes. Starting a high school breakdancing club. Climbing Mt. Shasta and Mt. Rainier, getting lost in Alaska’s Talkeetna Mountains. Studying abroad in Nepal and trekking into the Himalaya. Adventure racing. Traveling to 60+ countries as a cost-of-living analyst. It was a fun first speech, and while I undoubtedly fumbled my way through it in some parts, I thought it went relatively well.

There was one story that I left out, and that’s a story that I’d like to share below. I’ll be sharing the story by transcribing a few snippets of an old journal entry I dug up over the Thanksgiving holidays.

A bit of background — it was the summer of 2004, and I was 18 years old. I had flown from Nashville, TN out to Aspen, CO to meet up with an outdoor buddy of mine, Brandon, to visit another outdoor friend of ours, Perry. Perry’s family had a house in Aspen, and we planned to use the house as a base camp of sorts.

It was a two-week trip, and we had planned in advance to hike the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop, a 26-mile jaunt through Colorado’s finest wilderness. We had researched ahead of time and had also planned to follow a more challenging itinerary – sticking to the trail the first day, then the morning of day two, veering off (and up) toward Snowmass Mountain, a 14,092-foot mountain that we had deemed appropriately technical for our own abilities at the time.

That brings us to Friday, July 23rd, 2004. Below is the journal entry from that day.

We awoke at 4:45am to start our ascent of Snowmass Mountain. We packed up in the cold, in a soft pink and white alpine glow, and had bagels and cream cheese for breakfast. We made for the scree field at about 6:00am, slowly hiking up the mountain.

When the sun started to come out, we stopped to apply sunscreen and lip balm. We ventured upwards, playing then “name game” until the scree field became looser and more technical. In the distance and to our right, we saw a man ascending a steep grassy slope. We traversed a small gully and followed the grass up, a much easier path.

Over the next twenty minutes, the mountain opened itself up to us. It was massive. We meandered farther up, stopping to check our map, pointing out cairns and trying our best to navigate the most efficient route. At around 13,000 feet, we hit many patches of snow, and on one I dropped my water bottle. It rolled thirty feet down the slope into some rocks. I felt sluggish and unbalanced. It was about 10:00am. We kept moving toward the ridge. We looked at the map again and picked a line between Hagerman’s Peak and Snowmass Mountain.

We reached the ridge and our jaws dropped. The guides, the book and the Internet all classified this climb at a rank of Class 3, but it looked much more difficult. We knew that the only way to get to Geneva Lake, our intended destination, at this point was to go up and over the mountain, ans considering we were 80% of the way there, we made a group decision to keep going.

We traversed the ridge, scrambling, using rock climbing moves to avoid the occassional cliff-like drop offs to our left. There was no way around them. We reached the summit around 12:00pm, and because we knew the chances that an afternoon storm would roll in soon, we started heading down the other side of the mountain as quickly as possible.

At that point, it was too late. We didn’t have time to look for cairns, or at the map for the right trail. We needed to get down. We stuck to our closest route – loose rocks and boulders. During our precarious descent, the clouds rolled in. We knew how serious the situation was. Lightning kills about 100 people each year in the Rockies, mostly during the summer, in the afternoon, on climbs just like this.

With lightning flashes a half-mile away and thunder crackling and roaring overhead, the three of us descended as quickly as possible.

I slipped.

I slipped, and I fell about eight feet down the gully of small and medium-size boulders. As I tried to stand back up, I slipped again, and this time I began tumbling down the mountain. After fifteen feet and two or three somersaults, my 45 lb pack became wedged between a couple of larger rocks.

Perry shouted at me from above. “Hold on! Hold still!”

I tried to move my limbs.

A broken bone or serious injury at this altitude, around 13,000 feet, would have been bad news. My arms and legs felt OK, as did the rest of my body. My arms and hands were cut up and my legs bruised, blood on both knees, but nothing serious. Deep breath.

Brandon and Perry helped me back up. I tried to maintain composure on the way down, but I was shaken up. I thought about my life, my family, my friends, how I was only 18. As the storm continued to envelop us, I remember Perry yelling, “hand holds..it’s all about the hand holds!”

At 2:00pm, the storm cleared up. Seemingly safe from nature’s wrath, we stopped for a much-needed lunch and recapped the morning. Salami and cheese never tasted so good. At 2:30pm, we began heading down an even steeper slope, and wouldn’t you believe it, another (the same?) storm rolled up and over ridge – this one was even more severe.

A heavy, dense mix of rain and sleet and snow. Brandon slipped and hurt his hand. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck dart up as lightning struck several hundred feet away. The three of us kept each other in check – we stayed close but moved fast, and didn’t stop moving until we hit a river.

We followed the river until it ran into a deep gorge, and that’s when we spotted our trail.

At that point, we followed the path in a zombie-like state toward Geneva Lake. We found a nice, scenic spot, made camp and plopped down in our tent just as it started raining again. It was 7:00pm at the time, and the three of us took a nap until 8:45pm. Hungry but too weary to venture outside, we cooked pesto pasta in the tent’s vestibule. It got cold. We fell back asleep.

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Reflecting back on the situation, I feel…lucky. I feel terrified. I feel alive.

I cried that next day. I thought of all the people I would have left behind.

I still shiver when I see lightning and hear the sharp crackle of thunder.