A day in Porta Norte

Versión en Español

At Ciudad Porta Norte, we strive to facilitate physical activity, connection with nature, and belonging. We do this by preserving natural waterways, building tree-lined trees, parks, and squares with lots of greenery, promoting sports, and more to promote culture.

In this story, I imagine what a father’s day will be like enjoying Porta Norte’s European town lifestyle.


I wake up at 5:30 am on a Tuesday. I open my eyes and see my roof supported by wooden beams from the trees of Porta Norte. My feet are on the bamboo floor and stretch my arms.

I go out onto my terrace, take a deep breath of fresh air and watch the tops of the trees dance in synchrony. It is one of the last summer breezes. But, then, I remember that I have a tennis match at 6:00 am.

I cross an inner courtyard on my way to the kitchen. I make myself a cup of freshly ground coffee beans, grab a plate, a knife, and salt. The mornings in the yard are spectacular. On a typical morning, the sun hits the mango tree, the birds sing, and the weather is chilly while I sip my fresh brew.

I go out into the inner courtyard and am greeted by my dog, Max, wagging his tail as usual. I walk through the grass barefoot until I reach my morning chair under the mango tree. Before I sit down, I stretch out my arm and pluck a ripe mango. I sit listening to the voices in the garden as I scratch Max’s furry neck. The birds sing as they drink water from the little waterfall in the pool.

A lot of little animals come here in the summer when they need water. That’s the beauty of having a courtyard connected to Mariposa Creek —it attracts biodiversity. I breathe in the fresh air before I begin to meditate. I close my eyes and focus on my breath.

In the end, I give thanks for another day and plan my day while I peel the mango and eat it with a bit of salt. Then I ponder, do I go to the Bike Park at midday? Do I bike? To the office? the orchard? the park? the river? a square? For a stroll?

I get ready for tennis and go to the Sports Club to play with a friend from 6:00 am to 7:00 am. Then, I go back to the house, grab the hose, freshen up the floor and my head. When I’m done, I start watering the plants. I love watching the plants grow, especially my tomatoes and cucumbers; it’s eatable art. My garden is pesticide-free because I want the birds, bees, and butterflies to grow as nature commands.

I continue my virtuous morning and go to the sauna for a few minutes. Inside I’m thinking about my new project, a small house overlooking the creek. I’m going to put a small office there.

When I finish, I take a dip in the pool, play with Max for a while and go to change. Then I meet up with the rest of the family. They say they want to go to our usual café in Plaza Fundadores for breakfast. So we grab Max and head out the front door to a pedestrian street.

Render Calle Peatonal en Porta Norte
Pedestrian street

This is my favorite street. It is full of pots with plants and ends with access to Mariposa Creek. We walk a little and see some children running in the community garden and the amphitheater in the park. The laughter of the children running is the music of the neighborhood. My son wants to go and play with them, but I tell him we will join them later.

Render de Calle Secundaria en Porta Norte
Secondary street

We walk along a tree-lined street where the trees form a green roof. The squirrels keep moving from tree to tree. It is nice to see how some rays of light pass through the canopy of the trees. The brightly colored veraneras are overflowing from the balconies.

We walked to the plaza in 3 minutes. On arrival, we greet neighbors and friends. A couple of people are enjoying their hot coffee while reading the news under the tree shade. The elders are in their usual corner chatting.

Plaza Fundadores en Porta Norte
Plaza Fundadores

There is a fountain in the middle of the plaza, and you can hear the water drops falling. Brightly colored mosaics dress up the fountain.

My favorite places in the square are the bookshop and the market where they sell fresh food. In addition, there is a park for children to play in and a dog park—the smell of freshly baked bread permeates the plaza.

Marco, the waiter, smiles at us and asks, “The same as always?” We nod. We enjoy our toast while we do some people and dog watching in the plaza until we finish.

My office is on the second floor of the plaza. I say goodbye with a hug, a kiss and go to work. My office has an antique wooden desk facing my balcony, which overlooks the María Prieta River, is full of plants, and has a hammock with a mola design.

I like to keep the doors open to take advantage of the cross ventilation and to see nature. It’s a great inspiration for writing. Also, the eaves over my balcony keep the rain out.

At lunchtime, I decide to exercise. I am thankful that I have direct access to rivers from my house and office. I walk down to the plaza and cross the pergolas that lead down to the river. Next to the volleyball court, I join the yoga group and then go for a hike.

There is a microclimate; the air is cooler and humid due to the river. The smell of the tropical forest is identical to that of El Valle or Cerro Azul. I walk for several kilometers, seeing howler monkeys, blue butterflies, iguanas, ñeques, small fish, bees, and hummingbirds.

The riverbank has countless species of trees. Some of them are huge centenarians. I enjoy the fruit trees the most because I love to take them home with me. The canopies form a green roof that cuddles me.

Árbol en Porta Norte
Tree Canopy in the Maria Prieta River

Occasionally there are cave-like passages formed by bamboo. I feel like I’m in a movie when I walk through them. The track is made of gravel, and every 2 minutes, there are spaces with benches, picnic tables, and barbecues made of wood, stone, and brick.

Many people love to come down and play. How nice to have that dose of tropical nature just a few steps away on any given Tuesday. It’s food for the spirit. When I finish exercising, I approach the edge of the river where some children bathe and play with frogs. I watch the water flow between the rocks, kneel, dip my hands in the cold water and soak my face.

Río María Prieta en Porta Norte
María Prieta River

I go home, bathe, cook and have a home-cooked lunch with my partner. Lunch includes vegetables from the community garden and free-range chicken eggs that we buy at the market.

Before returning to the office, I have to pick up my son from school. So I go out the front door and grab my bike parked next to the door. On the way, I greet many parents who are walking back with their children. Next, I ride by the Plaza del Amor. When I arrive, I wait a few minutes for the soccer match to finish.

On the way back along the cycle path, my son decides to go and play in the park. So we go for a while. The space we like the most is the vegetable garden. He enjoys pulling up vegetables and seeing the roots.

There we both learn about permaculture. There is a wide variety of flowers, vegetables, fruits, and medicinal plants. Medicinal plants used to be a mystery to me, but I am learning more and more about them. Now I drink anti-inflammatory teas.

I enjoy feeding the fish in the irrigation ponds. When I leave, I take a couple of vegetables with us for dinner. I leave him at home and walk back to the office to work some more.

The bells are ringing in the distance, so it’s 6:00 pm; as usual, I watch the sunset in the hammock on the balcony. A few minutes pass, and I see a couple of friends downstairs having a few beers in the plaza under the trees. I give in to temptation and join them at their table. As I arrive I am grinning from ear to ear, and we all greet each other with a hug. I order myself a glass of wine, an appetizer, and we start telling stories.

I have plans for the evening. First, I’m going to cook on the wood-fired barbecue on my terrace with my family. As dinner time arrives, I say goodbye to the table. Some of them have already started to dance to the guitarist’s songs, so I wave them goodbye from afar.

As I walk back to my house, I get a silly smile on my face when I see so much life on the street. The lighting at night gives me a warm feeling. Finally, I cross my pedestrian street and enter my home, where I am greeted by nephews and nieces who arrived early to play.

I begin preparing the wood-fired barbecue and rinsing the vegetables from the garden. Finally, we end the evening sharing the barbecue, a few dishes that each of us brought, including the fruit from the river, wine, and good conversation at a long, narrow wooden table under the full moon.

Some nephews and nieces decide to dip in the jacuzzi while others water the plants. Finally, at the end of the night, we all say goodbye and go to sleep. I look at my phone and get excited because I surpassed my 10,000 steps a day. Then, I thank this joyous day and go to sleep.

What a great day.


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Hipster Foresight

Curiosity leads to finding new interests. Following your interests makes you interesting. At the same time, doing things out of the ordinary makes you a hipster.

Hipster is a loaded word. However, some qualities of hipsters that come to mind are authenticity, open-mindedness, daringness, and addiction to newness —constantly trying out new things.

Hipster foresight is the abbreviation of the concept that hipsters have a remarkable ability to foresee trends or create them. The key insight is focusing on your genuine interests rather than guessing what people will like.

Jorge Garcia, my friend, coined the term hipster foresight. He explained the concept with his interests in college that have become mainstream later, including meditation, new urbanism, nootropics, crypto, fasting, longboards for micro-mobility, and many more.

Hipster influencers are not only good at judging trends; they kick-start them. They are trendsetters. Tim Ferriss is the leader and embodies the hipster influencer movement. He has summoned an army of hipster influencers with his podcast and books. Tim has influenced me deeply since 2010. Actually, Jorge introduced me to his work. Tim helped me discover interests which helped me refine my judgment on trends.

We have seen our interests become widespread before. For example, in 2012, after coming back from college, one of our favorite trips was to go to the only place that sold craft beer and do a beer tasting with ceviche and yukitas picantitas.

We were very interested in craft beer. Therefore we got together with a group of friends, started brewcrewpanama to brew craft beer in my home. I had to smuggle the grains through the airport to brew the beer —it was a hassle. We ended up brewing about 600 beers for two years. I even pondered starting a brewing company, but I expended my energy starting Porta Norte.

Today you can find craft beer in every restaurant and supermarket. By the way, the same thing will happen with olive oil. I am addicted to it. Therefore, high-quality olive oil, not sold in Panama, will become mainstream.

One recent example of Jorge’s hipster interests is men’s clothing with patterns like those found in women’s clothing. Why? A couple of years ago, he received a beautiful guayabera with colorful mola art as a gift. He loved it and wanted more shirts like them. In addition, he gathered feedback from other people with artful shirts. As a result, he can extrapolate his taste to the rest of society and project probable scenarios. Thus concluding more men will use shirts with art and color.

Sometimes your interests don’t get widely accepted. Maybe it is too niche —for now. But remember, the more interests you explore, the better refined your visioning skills are.

Nowadays, I am interested in nomad capitalism, being a sovereign individual, mountain bikes, solarpunk visions, decentralized autonomous organizations, and progressive technological communities. Let’s see how these play out in the long run.

The biggest hipster foresight I am betting on is walkability, active lifestyle, and lively public spaces –basically, human-centered design.

I ask almost everybody who comes back from Spain to Panama what they thought about Spain. The answer is always a version of how much they loved walkable streets.

I am incorporating in Porta Norte many interests such as trees, cycling lanes, plazas, amphitheaters, parks, hikes, mountain biking, trails, art, and more. I understand cities designed for people will have higher demand.

Traveling is one of the best ways to calibrate your hipster sensor. When traveling to hipster places, pay attention to people, extract their habits and tastes, and try them out. My calibration comes from traveling around the world and living during my college years in Austin, Texas, one epicenter of hipster culture.

Hipster foresight is a skill that probably peaks in your twenties. Afterward, as you acquire more responsibilities and lose free time, your skills dwindle —unless you fight it. Do so by daring to be different, traveling widely, and carving out space to try new things; it will enhance your worldly wisdom and investing capabilities.


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Drones for Real Estate

In my early twenties, I played with drones. Then, some years ago, after founding Porta Norte, I bought a new drone to examine if it was worthwhile for the project — also to play. After tinkering with it, I realized it was beneficial for many purposes.

I thought a lot about the onboarding process and how to delegate drone usage. My strategy was to learn first, then teach. 

The team resisted using it at first because they feared they would break it. So I always reassured the pilot that the company would pay for another drone if something happened.

I decided to start using the drone with the engineering department to improve our engineering analysis capabilities. 

The civil engineer that is physically in the project learned to fly drones. We use drones to investigate areas of the project we cannot reach, analyze water runoff damages, audit our subcontractors, and much more. We take aerial views about every two weeks.

We have expanded our drone usage to our marketing and sales department. The Community Builder in the marketing team also learned to pilot the drone to make good videos and photos for regularly updated marketing material.

I fly drones often to appreciate changes in the project from a bird’s eye point of view, supervise the operation, explain concepts to clients, spy neighbors, study engineering challenges, construction updates, understand topography better, and more.


Quick story: The first time I used my newest drone was on a friend’s birthday. The celebration was in the outskirts of Panama City, on a mountain’s cliff edge in Vacamonte. There was a lot of wind, and I dismissed the notifications. Unfortunately, the battery drained, and the drone fell in the port.

My friend’s parents gave me advice on entering the port without permission: act like the owner — say hi, wave, and don’t stop at the entrance where the guards are. So I did. The guards shouted at me, but I kept on driving.

Finally, I arrived at the area where I lost it and found it after searching for 15 minutes. On the way out, the guards stopped me, told me I violated the rules, but they let me go. Often it is better to ask forgiveness rather than permission.

Drones can also improve parties and rekindle memories. This is a video of the occasion:


We have lost two drones already in the jungle. These are a few best practices:

  1. Pay attention to battery levels; don’t have the drone far away with less than 50% battery.
  2. Avoid flying with strong winds; return the drone and land it with the first notification of strong winds the drone will give you.
  3. Set your height limits; if it loses GPS connection, and the automatic return sets in, and your height limit is too high, then it might lose the battery just going up.

Now the company has acquired drone skills, and we have more data points to make better-informed decisions. Having an in-house drone and learning to use it is an excellent investment. Drone technology is improving fast, and we are excited to keep tinkering with them.

The following are recent drone outputs we use:

Photos

1st Phase of Porta Norte

Videos

Construction Update of the 1st Phase

2D updates

Ortomosaico

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Sustainability Guidelines for Porta Norte

These are the introductory words of Porta Norte’s architecture charrette report by the Master Planners — Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) in 2015.

By DPZ

Introduction

Panama City has experienced unprecedented economic and urban growth in recent years. The urban edges, in particular, have been seeing new development, including shopping centers, malls, office parks, apartment complexes, and single-family developments. Many of these, including those infill sites closer to the historic center, are auto-dependent interventions. By design, they isolate themselves from their surroundings and minimally contribute to the public realm.

The northern region of Panama City is not yet overbuilt. It affords Porte Norte the opportunity and the challenge to create a model of sustainable growth. The following few principles outline how the region should relate to its natural resources, pedestrian-oriented development, and sustainability in the long run.

The Metropolis

The region should consist of multiple urban nodes with identifiable centers and edges. They should be compact, connected, mixed-use, walkable, and diverse.

Development patterns should not blur the edges of the metropolis. Infill development should be encouraged. New, non-contiguous development should be organized as towns and villages with their urban edges and planned to balance jobs and housing, not as dormitory suburbs.

New development should respect historical patterns, precedents, and boundaries. They should incorporate a broad spectrum of public and private uses to support a regional economy that benefits people of all incomes. Affordable housing should be distributed throughout the region to match job opportunities.

A framework of transportation alternatives should support the physical organization of the region. Transit, pedestrian, bicycle, and other viable systems should maximize access and mobility throughout the region, promoting choice while reducing dependence upon the automobile.

Neighborhoods

Human habitats should be compact, pedestrian-friendly, and mixed-use. They are the main structural elements of cities and towns.

Many daily living activities should occur within walking distance, allowing independence to those who do not drive, mostly the young and elderly. We should design interconnected networks of streets to encourage walking, reduce the number and length of automobile trips, and conserve energy.

We should embed a range of civic spaces, buildings in neighborhoods, and green areas (parks, playgrounds, village greens, sports fields, and community gardens). We should define conservation areas to connect to different neighborhoods, districts, and nature.

Blocks, Streets, and Buildings

A primary task of all architecture and landscape design is the physical definition of streets and public spaces as places of shared use, with buildings seamlessly linked to their surroundings. Streets and squares should be safe, comfortable, and enjoyable to the pedestrian.

Architecture and landscape design should grow from local climate, topography, natural traces of the land, history, and building practice.

Civic buildings can be distinctive because their role is different from that of other buildings forming the city’s fabric.

All buildings should provide their inhabitants with a clear sense of location, weather, and time using natural heating and cooling methods.

Porta Norte

Porta Norte will offer a departure from Panama’s current development trends as a sustainable new settlement based on traditional planning principles. Well-connected to the region and respecting the natural and human-made local context, the new town will create new choices for compact, walkable, human-scale environments.

We envision Porta Norte neighborhoods integrating high-quality housing, associated retail and civic facilities, and employment development. Based on the Transect’s urban-to-rural methodology, the final master plan incorporates a range of human habitats, from the most urban and compact choices to larger homes and rural greenways along the rivers’ edges. Each neighborhood will undergo further detailing in such a large site during the next design and construction phases.


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One Operating System

I study startup founders as a hobby. Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Twitter, has explained on youtube and podcasts his way of thinking about philosophy, health, productivity hacks, etc.

One great insight he said is that having one good-enough operating system is better than having many separate great systems. Jack decided to go all-in with apple — which is not only good enough but great.

So did I. I was more than halfway in already. Now I own almost all apple products, and they have made my workflow seamless. I read the manual for my iPhone, and it helped me understand the ecosystem deeper. The learning curve for new products is much lower — things work. I always try out their new software and hardware to see which ones stick. I am writing this on my iPad, on apple notes, with my apple pen.

Jack’s most used app is apple notes. When I heard about it, I did it too for experimenting, and it became my most used app too.

My screen time last week with apple notes on the lead:

<< Copy what’s best of what others have already figured out. >>


First draft of this post in apple notes:

In apple notes, I can copy my handwriting and paste it as text easily.

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Startup City: Panama

Versión en Español

This post responds to Balaji’s post on 1729.com called Miami Tech Week: The Start Of Startup Cities. They selected my response as a contest winner, so I won $100 in Bitcoin.

Panama was born like a startup out of the Panama Canal. Since its inception, Panama has experimented widely with Startup Cities. In this post, I will expand on trends like the increase in remote workers, how cities must adapt to them, the definition of startup cities, Panama’s success with Startup Cities, and Porta Norte — the Startup City I am building.

Geographic Independence Enabled by Remote Work

The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically accelerated the adoption of digital infrastructure worldwide. Lockdowns forced remote work on most companies. Now, as we reach herd immunity, companies have a choice whether they go entirely physical, remote, or something in between. As we all know, many more companies are now remote than before the pandemic.

CEOs who choose to go remote are unlocking new features like attracting more talent from a bigger talent pool and reducing costs by avoiding paying for office space. Remote employees can avoid commute and choose to work from ideal places.

The number of remote workers has spiked worldwide, and it is not going back to how it was before. It will be something in between, but as the digital infrastructure continues to improve, the market of remote workers will continue to expand.

Remote workers can stop thinking about their company’s location and relocate to places that offer them the highest quality of life. They can do arbitrage by earning in the US and spending in Latin America. Newly minted remote workers are weighing options with some of the following questions: 

  • Is it safe?
  • Is there good food?
  • Can I satisfy my hobbies?
  • Can I adapt to the culture?
  • Can I connect with nature?
  • Do they embrace foreigners?
  • Can I find like-minded people?
  • Can I get a resident visa quickly?
  • Should I move closer to my family?
  • Are there good schools and universities?
  • Can I get a direct flight to my hometown?
  • What city gives me the best bang for my buck?

Nowadays, remote workers go online to compare and contrast what cities are best for them to visit and hopefully relocate. They use websites that rank countries like nomadlist and teleport to inform themselves. It is a similar process to how people choose vacations or universities.

Remote workers are essential for cities because they are educated, bring know-how, are tech-savvy by default, and many more reasons. Immigration of talent leads to a higher productivity per capita, increased tax base, and results in a virtuous cycle — great citizens attract great citizens.

City as a Product

Talent is the leading indicator of a great organization. A great company is a group of talented individuals led by a talented CEO; a great city is a group of talented citizens led by talented leaders. To improve any organization, you must improve the individual contributor and recruit more talent. 

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, focused on improving talent as he led Singapore from rags to riches. He often spoke about the importance of education, interbreeding amongst intelligent people, and attracting foreign talent.

Singaporeans, if I can choose an analogy, we are the hard disk of a computer; the foreign talent is the megabytes you add to your storage capacity. So your computer never slows down because you got enormous storage capacity.

— Lee Kuan Yew

Recruiting is more relevant than ever before. It is an effective strategy for elevating the talent pool. Cities must align incentives with remote workers. They must be pro-technology, pro-immigration, pro-capitalism, pro-diversity, and proactive. 

If successful, the concentration of remote workers leads to increased production of startups, which begets a startup ecosystem that leads to a Startup City.

What are Startup Cities? 

Here I am going to expand on Balaji’s definition:

  1. A city where startups happen along with a thriving startup ecosystem like San Francisco and New York. In the pandemic, Austin and Miami have positioned themselves as THE next place.
  2. A city that acts as a startup with a clear vision and competent governance. A great example is Miami, where Mayor Francis Suarez is serving as the CEO of the City. For him, Miami is the product he iterates. He listens to feedback from startup founders, signals the acceptance of bitcoin, recruits through Twitter, etc. A CEO of the City delivers results and positions their city as a great place to move.
  3. Urban development with startup DNA are projects with a defined territory focused on delivering economic growth or a better way of living through an innovative vision. They are public or private enterprises, public-private partnerships, for-profit or non-profit, or a combination. Some examples:
    • Neighborhood Upgrade some examples of upgrades are Panama’s Historic District, through better infrastructure and fiscal incentives, Wynwood through art, and Times Square, through removing cars. Usually, there is a combination of public investment towards infrastructure and private investment towards buildings.
    • Master-Planned communities are mixed-use neighborhoods with a large number of recreational amenities. They tend to have sports centers, lakes, parks, public spaces, playgrounds, swimming pools, stores, restaurants, businesses, schools, universities, cultural centers, medical centers, etc. They are greenfield development — building in undeveloped land. They must push the envelope of what is possible with urbanism and have a strong vision like being car-free, an eco-village, off the grid, etc. Examples: Cayalá, Celebration, Culdesac, Kalu Yala, Las Catalinas, Porta Norte, and Punta Mona. The typical pattern amongst these places is active public spaces and walkability, which, unfortunately, is uncommon.
    • Special Economic Zones are geographically limited places with regulatory, fiscal incentives, and trade laws that differ from the rest of the country to foster economic and/or cultural prosperity. Examples: Prospera and Shenzhen.
    • Seasteading means living on environmentally restorative floating islands with some degree of political autonomy. The term derives from homesteading, which means making a home for oneself in uninhabited places. It generally has associations with self-sufficiency and a frontier lifestyle.
    • Micronations or Microstates are small sovereign countries or colonies. Examples: Liechtenstein, Monaco, and Vatican City.

Panama 

Panama is a country of immigrants with a long history of experimenting with Startup Cities. Many businesses choose to settle here because:

  • It is peaceful.
  • It has good quality of life.
  • Our currency is the dollar.
  • It has open immigration laws.
  • It has a robust financial sector.
  • It has been a politically stable country.
  • It is a tax haven with many fiscal benefits.
  • It has a great relationship with the United States.
  • It has a strong logistics sector with the Panama Canal and a big airport.

The following are some examples of Startup Cities in chronological order.

Panama Canal Zone was an unincorporated territory of the United States surrounding the Panama Canal. The United States enabled Panama’s independence from Colombia to build the Panama Canal in 1903. They kept some land and set up a Microstate that infused Panama with American culture.

Colón Free Trade Zone is the largest free port in the Americas and the second-largest in the world. It started operations in 1948 and occupies 600 acres (242 hectares). It is a Special Economic Zone with fiscal benefits for importing and exporting.

In 2017, the government expanded some of the benefits of the Colon Free Trade Zone to Colon City. It is a Special Economic Zone and a Neighborhood Upgrade called Colón Puerto Libre

City of Knowledge (Ciudad del Saber) was born from the idea of converting some former American military area located in the former Panama Canal Zone into a center for knowledge exchange. It is a Special Economic Zone and Master-Planned Community of 296 acres (120 has.) full of academic organizations, technology companies, and non-governmental organizations run by a non-profit foundation.  

Panamá Pacífico is a former United States Air Force Base in the Panama Canal Zone. The government created a Special Economic Zone and a Master-Planned Community as a public-private partnership covering 3,450 acres (1,400 has.) of land. Many multinational corporations have already located in Panama Pacifico, including Samsung, DELL, FedEx, Pepsico, 3M, and Caterpillar, taking advantage of special tax, labor, and legal incentives.

Panama’s Historic District (Casco Viejo) is a Hispanic colonial town where the elite lived. By the 2000’s it was a run-down and insecure neighborhood full of abandoned buildings. The government decided to do a Neighborhood Upgrade by improving the infrastructure and giving tax breaks for development within Casco Viejo. It is one of the most visited places in Panama, and it has the highest price per square meter in the country. I lived there for six years.

Kalu Yala is an eco-village that targets digital nomads and students who take undergraduate courses for accreditation. They are building a new urbanist Master-Planned Community with their strong community.

Selina is a company that has built a network of hostels/hotels that cater to digital nomads. It was founded in Panama and quickly grew around the world with over 60 destinations. Recently they joined Kalu Yala, and you can now book your stay at Selina Kalu Yala.

Ocean Builders is a company experimenting with Seasteading based in Linton Bay Marina, a Master-Planned Community in Colón. They are pushing forward the Seapod, residential pods in the sea, in collaboration with the Seasteading Institute

The following are essential laws that improve our position as a Startup City:

Law for Multinational Companies (Ley SEM) gives them regulatory benefits, including residence visas to their employees and dependents. Since 2007, it helped attract 175 multinational companies paired with highly educated employees. In 2020 the government added more fiscal incentives to multinationals that did manufacturing.

Law for Free Trade Zones (Ley de Zona Franca) paves the way to create more Special Economic Zones and experimentation with Startup Cities within Panama’s territory. There are 10 active free trade zones and another 10 in development.

Laws to Obtain Residency & Visa:

  • Remote Worker Visa: You have to be a remote worker who earns a minimum monthly salary of $3,000 outside of Panama to receive a Visa for 18 months. The government passed this law in May 2021.
  • Friendly Nations Visa: Fast-track a permanent residency from over 50 friendly nations. You need to own a Panamanian legal entity, “a business,” and temporarily deposit $5,000 into a local bank account. You opt to have Panamanian nationality after 5 years.
  • Economic Solvency Visa: Invest $300,000 in real estate and/or a Certificate of Deposit in a Panama Bank.
  • Business Investor Visa: Invest $160,000 in Panama’s stock market.
  • Reforestation Investor Visa: Invest $80,000 to purchase at least 12 acres (5 has.) of land in a government-certified reforestation project.
  • Retired or Pensioned Program Visa: Permanent visa for those with over $1,000 in pensions.
  • Marry a Panama Citizen.

I was born and raised in Panama. Since 2014, I have been pushing the envelope of Panama’s tradition of experimenting with Startup Cities by leading Porta Norte.

Porta Norte

I am CEO and Town Founder of Porta Norte, a new-urbanist solarpunk master-planned community of 650 acres (262 has.) located in the city’s northern periphery, just 15 minutes away from the airport. Andrés Duany, the founding father of the new urbanist movement, designed the Master Plan.

Porta Norte has human-scaled urbanism integrated with dense nature and adapted for micro-mobility. It has a network of open, public spaces. We believe social interactions in public spaces are essential to fight the loneliness that remote workers often feel. You can get a clearer vision by reading A day in Porta Norte.

Porta Norte bird's eye view
Render of Porta Norta from bird’s eye view

Porta Norte has a unique vision, different from what has been built before in Panama. We are incorporating the best practices from Silicon Valley. My hobby for over a decade is watching interviews and reading blogs from Paul Graham, Elon Musk, Naval Ravikant, Balaji, Sam Altman, and Y-combinator founders.

One example of applying what I have learned is the importance of iterating the product. To increase fidelity and feedback loops, we have a developer in-house whose job to put our construction documents in Virtual Reality. Then we gather feedback from our engineers, architects, clients, etc., to do another iteration. The following is a video of our latest iteration:

Porta Norte in 3D

We build first-world infrastructure with underground utilities, fiber optics, internet in the public areas, cycling lanes, ample sidewalks, tree-lined streets, parks, pedestrian plazas, and much more. It is handicap and pet-friendly. Right now, we are finishing the roads of the first phase.

My most important job is to create a virtuous ecosystem of prosperity by attracting residents, companies, and institutions. We incentivize them with an excellent urban product and private subsidies for anchor tenants like universities, schools, sports centers, hospitals, etc.

After writing this post, I am committed to studying what laws we can use for our advantage as a Startup City and push the idea of making Porta Norte a Free Trade Zone. This is another step towards organizing the economy around remote work.

In Panama, we need to embrace our history of Startup City and continue experimenting towards an optimist and definite future. We must react to worldwide trends like remote work and crypto to position Panama as THE next place.

Please let me know how to do a better job attracting remote workers, companies, and great institutions to Panama and Porta Norte. How can I help?


Read more from the other 9 winners of the contest detailed on 1729.com/miami:


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Leverage

A lever is a tool used to increase power with low effort. When using a physical lever, you can easily lift things that weigh much more than you —like a car— with minimal effort.

Leverage is the use of tools for your maximum advantage. It can multiply the outcomes from your effort, skill, and judgment. Leverage can help you achieve your life goals like financial independence, creating a movement, or a massive business with fewer competitors.

Archimedes, the most famous mathematician and inventor in ancient Greece, once said:

“Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough, and I will move the world.”

Archimedes using a lever to move the world
Archimedes lever, from Mechanics Magazine, published in London in 1824

A bicycle is a form of leverage for movement; you can move much farther and faster with it. In this video of Steve Jobs, he explains a study of the world’s species and their ability to move from one place to another. In the study, humans ended up in the bottom half, but if you gave them a bicycle, they ended up #1 in the world. He uses this example to explain: “For me, computers have always been a bicycle for the mind. Something that takes us far beyond our inherent abilities.” Computers are a form of leverage for the mind.

Now let’s go into detail on the types of business leverages from the oldest to the newest.

Labor: It means other people working for you. Labor is the predominant form of leverage since the dawn of man. 

Arguably labor leverage is the worst form of leverage. Managing other people is incredibly messy because it requires tremendous leadership skills, and it is hugely competed over. 

You want the minimum number of people with the highest output, working with you to use the following forms of leverage that are more powerful and interesting.

Money: It means using money to work for you. It has been around for only thousands of years, so society understands them less well than labor. 

This leverage converts to other types of leverage. It scales very well; if you can manage money well, you can handle more money better than manage more labor. It is an excellent form of leverage, but it is hard to obtain because you need to build up a reputation first.

Money has been the predominant leverage for wealth creation in the last century. Those who control the infrastructure of money have benefitted the most. 

Products with no marginal costs of replication —media and code— are the newest forms of leverage. They got started with the printing press, and then it grew stronger with broadcast media. Now the internet and code had made this leverage explode.

Media: It means using the internet to spread content through social media, books, blogs, podcasts, or videos to gain influence and power.

A couple of hundreds ago, to spread a message by voice, you had to give a lecture at a University, now you can buy a cheap microphone, a computer and reach millions of people through the internet.

Code: It means programming and using computers to create products and services.  

We have an army of robots at our disposal on the internet; we need to learn how to use them. Hence the importance of learning to code to speak their language. 

Media and code help create the new fortunes of the world. They are permissionless; you can do it by yourself without the approval of anyone. They even enable labor and money to be more permissionless with the rise of communities and crowdfunding.

The older the leverage, the more time society has had to learn it, thus higher the competition —which you want to avoid. This is why it is essential to invest in the newer ones —digital leverage.

Jack Butcher Diagram on Digital Leverage
Jack Butcher’s Diagram of Digital Leverage

Pick Business Models with Network Effects

When choosing a business model, you should be aware of leverage that arises from network effects.

A network effect is when each additional user adds value to the existing user base. Network effects come from computer networking. Bob Metcalfe, who created the ethernet, famously coined Metcalfe’s Law: the value of a network is proportional to the square of the system’s number of connected users. If a network of size 10 has a value of 1,000, then a network of 100 would have a value of 10,000.

Metcalfe's Law
Diagram of Metcalfe’s Law

The classic example of network effects is language. Let’s say that there are 100 people in a community. There are 10 languages and 10 speakers per language. Now the community has to incur the cost of translation. If all 100 spoke the same language, it would reduce friction and eliminate the translation cost, thus facilitating value creation.

Let’s say one of those languages is English, and 1 additional person learns English. Now 11 people know English. The next person who wants to learn a new language will probably choose English —the most used language. Then this reason becomes stronger, and eventually, the majority end up speaking English, and the rest of the language will vanish slowly. The network effect is why the whole world will probably speak English or Chinese in the long term —at least as a second language.

The internet is a significant lever, and people who want to communicate on the internet are forced to learn English because it is the most used language. If you don’t know English, you will have a severe disadvantage in your education because there are so many internet resources that have not been translated. On top of that, translations are usually worse than in the original language. If you want to be technically competent in computers, you need to know English because it is the language of the best sources.

In business, network effects often have scale economies: the more you produce something, the cheaper it gets to make it, thus increasing margins, creating barriers to entry and monopolies. An example of scale economics can be Google, which has the biggest market for search and a monopoly.

Technology and media products have zero marginal cost of reproduction: additional consumers add no additional costs. For example, a famous podcaster can have 100 million more listeners without any additional costs.

When thinking about businesses, think about how each additional customer could add value to each other. Pick a business model where you benefit from network effects, scale economies, and low marginal costs. 

From Laborer to Real Estate Tech Startup

Now let’s go concrete. The following are examples of how leverage increases in the real estate industry:

  1. Laborer: Someone orders them around in a construction site to carry things around. A laborer with more leverage uses tools like a bulldozer to gain more power and get paid more.
  2. General Contractor: They hire and coordinate a team of laborers. They are accountable to the results, thus having more risk if things go wrong but a higher reward than laborers if things go right.
  3. Property Developer: This might be a general contractor who did a bunch of remodeling, and now they search for run-down places to fix and sell them. They might even raise money from investors. To do this, they need more skills like understanding markets, neighborhoods, government approvals, and more.
  4. Famous Developer or Architect: They gain a reputation for doing great projects, and that by itself increases the value of a project without much additional effort.
  5. Urban Real Estate Developer: They build entire master-planned communities like Porta Norte. They need to understand, construction, infrastructure, greenfield development, earth movement, urbanism, market dynamics, marketing, politics, financing, management, architecture, and a bunch of other skills.
  6. Real Estate Fund: They invest in property developers, real estate developers, hotels, malls, etc. They understand the financial markets, raising money, corporate governance, and real estate. They may not want to manage workers or operate a project.
  7. Real Estate Technology Startup (aka proptech): They understand real estate, the industry’s inefficiencies, technology, how to recruit developers, write code, build the right product, and raise money from Venture Capitalists. A proptech would combine all types of leverages:
    • Labor of the highest output: computer engineers, product managers, and designers.
    • Money from venture capitalists and their own.
    • Media using the internet for distribution.
    • Code to create software.

This venture is a very high risk, high reward that could end up with hundreds of millions or billions of dollars and an IPO.

Develop Leverage

If you want to be more effective, then you must arm yourself with leverage. Your impact becomes bigger by combining all types of leverages aligned towards a vision.

Ask yourself: Am I skilled in the newer types of leverages? What are my strengths in every kind of leverage? What is my rate in each leverage? Rate them from 1 to 10. Ask the people who know you best how they would rate you in each type of leverage. What came out of my exercise is the following:

It is much easier for me to improve 2 points in code or media rather than 2 points in labor, and it will help me improve my abilities to use newer and less competed types of leverage. I invite you to do this simple exercise.

Reflect on what type of leverage you need in your life. Right now, it is more important for me to learn about media leverage; that is why I have invested in my communication skills by creating my podcast, YouTube channel, and blog. I lead a project that benefits the most from this type of leverage. If I wanted to start a proptech startup or invest in them, I would invest in code leverage.

Make sure you pay attention to the most useful leverage for you right now and create a roadmap.

Learn about leverage to allocate time, money and effort well. It will help you be more effective, recognize trends and how things grow big. As Charlie Munger once said:

What helps everyone is to get in something that’s going up, and it just carries you along without much talent or work.


  1. Some concepts in this blog post came from the extended tweetstorm of Naval Ravikant:

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Book Review: Developing My Life

The book, Developing: My Life is about the life of real estate developer William “Bill” Zeckendorf Jr. He was a pioneer who helped revitalize neighborhoods in New York and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

He developed many New York projects until 1987, when the stock market crashed and left him in a terrible financial situation. After that, he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he continued real estate development. In Santa Fe, he was involved in community affairs with universities, hospitals, performing arts, and more.

Bill’s strength and focus was in structuring the project, which means envisioning a project, buying the land, choosing an architect, securing financing, hiring contractors, and placing a team that would follow through.

This book talks a lot about generations. His father, William Zeckendor Sr. was one of the biggest and most famous developers in the United States. His two sons have a billion-dollar real estate development business. His grandchildren are almost all involved in real estate.

Real estate development is a craft where the most common path to get in is by apprenticeships through family businesses. It is tough to get into the business because you need a lot of capital, expertise, and connections.

Development is slow, and having many projects under your belt might take decades. This book helps you identify some patterns and learn from someone who was once the most active developer in New York—one of the world’s most sophisticated markets. I recommend this book to people who want to improve their judgment on real estate development or better understand how cities get built.

Bill’s life story is full of warning tales. It demonstrates how someone so knowledgeable in real estate can make small fortunes in many projects but lose their shirt when a deal goes sour or when the market dries up. In the last chapter, “Summing Up,” Bill opened up on what happened to him and his father, explaining the concept of “developer’s disease.”

“After suffering with my father through the demise of his company and personal bankruptcy, I was determined never to let that happen to me. Still, many years later, I, too, succumbed to what ultimately took him down. I call it developer’s disease.

Developer’s disease is a rare but highly contagious condition that afflicts certain developers. They hire the best architects. Their projects are the most admired. They’re financially very successful. They start with one project at a time. Then one project grows into another and another until they have many projects—some would say too many—underway. They begin to take on the most difficult projects, not just to put up buildings but remaking whole neighborhoods. Their goal is no longer making money; it’s being a savior. And they are treated royally for their pains. Based on their sterling records, financial institutions rush to provide money, and investors clamor to partner on their projects. And then, just as these developers are riding high, invincible, a deal goes sour or the market turns, and their luck runs out. Developer’s disease mows them down.

That’s pretty much what happened to me. After a cautious start in the 1970s, by the middle of the 1980s, I was the busiest developer in New York City, with a full plate of deals in progress and a full-blown, if undiagnosed, case of developer’s disease…

…Were I to make my career over, I might undertake fewer projects, juggle fewer balls, and steer clear of personal guarantees. But I wouldn’t for a second choose another field. I can’t think of anything more challenging, more satisfying, more frustrating, and more fun than real estate development.”

Favorite quotes:

“Bill would chase a deal, secure financing, and then pore over the plans with the architect. But as soon as the first shovel hit the ground, he moved on to the next deal.”

“One of the challenges in a renovation is something most people don’t think about: you have little control over the construction workers. When a new building goes up, construction proceeds in an orderly fashion, floor by floor. The floors’ sides remain open, so you can readily see who’s doing what, and where and when. But in renovations, workers are hard to track; they are all over the building at any given time. We found that some of them were hiding in rooms, literally sleeping on the job.”

“These things happen: projects that look good on paper for one reason or another don’t pan out.”

“Big is key for turning around a decaying neighborhood. A small building won’t change anything; the infusion of high-quality new apartments must be sufficient to upgrade the available housing stock.”

“As a further amenity—one not offered before in a New York apartment building—the one and two-bedroom units were laid out so they could be combined easily into larger apartments. This provided to be an effective marketing tool, and designing interiors so the apartments could be readily joined became a Zeckendorf trademark.”

“For me, the thrill of developing was not in watching a building go up: I seldom spent any time on job sites, leaving construction supervision to my project managers. My passion was putting together the deal. I loved every aspect of it: finding a property, assembling a site, securing financing, hiring an architect, and working on the plans. Once we broke ground, I was happy to turn over day-to-day supervision, only stepping back in if a problem arose or we needed more financing.”

“Most developers like to hold on to commercial buildings, leasing out the office space as an ongoing source of income. However, I didn’t want to be a landlord any more than I wanted to be a hotelier and preferred the business model of our residential condos: sell off the individual units as quickly as possible and get out.”

“With apartment sizes ranging from studios to two bedrooms, the Vanderbilt was aimed at younger buyers. To attract this market, we put in a state-of-the-art health club with a swimming pool, sauna, and basketball and squash courts.”

“Building apartments near a hospital center is good for business: doctors welcome the convenience, and buyers find it reassuring to have a top-flight medical care close at hand.”

“Big projects take more time and money and involve more parties. All of that ups the ante. In executing the four biggest projects of my career, I discovered the many ways a project could go right—or horribly wrong.”

“The terms were stiff, however, and we had to make personal guarantees on the loan. I always tried to avoid personal guarantees: if you put up personal assets as collateral and the project runs into trouble, you risk losing your assets.”

“Negative opinions come with the territory: developers automatically get a bad rap because what we do inevitably means change.”

“A complicated project can easily take ten or more years to come to fruition, exposing the developer to uncontrollable changes in market conditions.”

“The key to a successful assemblage is to keep your intentions quiet. You don’t want to tip your hand and have other developers swoop in and tie up parcels you’re after. Nor do you want the owners of the lots to jack up the prices, or rent-controlled tenants to stick you up for exorbitant relocation fees.”

“And we were a full-service organization, not merely developing our own properties as a managing partner with equity but also offering our expertise as project managers.”

“Between New York and Santa Fe, I had more than a dozen projects in the works when the stock market crashed in 1987. I was leveraged to the hilt, and it was only a matter of time before I ran aground.”

“Unless a developer has very deep pockets or a large portfolio of properties, leverage is the only way to finance a deal. I seldom financed a project alone. Having multiple partners allowed me to share the risk, but also meant sharing the returns. And often, it meant taking my money out to invest it in my next venture before I could reap the profits.”

“Inevitably, if a project is going to make a big impact on a community, somebody is bound to oppose it.”

“I learned a long time ago not to assume that anything is impossible.”

“And while my father and I usually had half a dozen or more projects underway simultaneously, my sons concentrate on one or two buildings at a time.”


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Meeting Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz (1986 – 2013) was a thinker, writer, programmer, entrepreneur, and hacktivist who helped shape the internet. Check out his accomplishments in Wikipedia. Aaron embodied the hacker mentality—fix everything.

A month ago, Aaron’s mother made this tweet remembering him. Someone replied with one of Aaron’s blog posts called: HOWTO: Be more productive. I was curious, so I read it. It was deep and insightful. I started to learn more, and then I went deep into the rabbit hole.

Since then, I have read over 40 of his blog posts, watched some of his YouTube videos, discovered new books, ideas, and developed new habits.

Next, I will talk about my favorite posts:

What is going on here?

Aaron explains the reason of being of his blog. For him, writing is a tool to shape yourself as an intellectual craftsman and develop your communication skills. His blog is about capturing experience and using them for reflection. It is also an opportunity of developing unconventional thoughts.

“…becoming a scientific thinker requires practice and writing is a powerful aid to reflection. So that’s what this blog is. I write here about thoughts I have, things I’m working on, stuff I’ve read, the experiences I’ve had, and so on…I don’t consider this writing, I consider this thinking… fundamentally, this blog is not for you, it’s for me. I hope that you enjoy it anyway.”

A Non-Programmer’s Apology

He goes into the philosophy of A Mathematician’s Apology, where the basic premise is to do what you are good at. Aaron finds himself in a paradox because he is a great programmer, but he prefers to be a ‘mediocre’ writer.

“And writing code, although it can be enjoyable, is hardly something I want to spend my life doing.
Perhaps, I fear, this decision deprives society of one great programmer in favor of one mediocre writer. And let’s not hide behind the cloak of uncertainty, let’s say we know that it does. Even so, I would make it. The writing is too important, the programming too unenjoyable.”

What It Means To Be An Intellectual

These are my favorite quotes:

“…not simply accept things as they are but to want to think about them, to understand them. To not be content to simply feel sad but to ask what sadness means. To not just get a bus pass but to think about the economic reasons getting a bus pass makes sense. I call this tendency the intellectual.”

“Language is the medium of thought, and so it’s no surprise that someone who spends a lot of time thinking spends a lot of time thinking about how to communicate their thoughts as well. And indeed, all the intellectuals that come to mind write, not because they have to or get paid to, but simply for its own sake. What good is thinking if you can’t share?”

I love to understand how stuff works and share it with people. My internet experiments make it evident I am always trying to communicate better.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine was trying to describe me. He said I was a “cool geek”; because I studied a lot and was good with people. I understood what he was trying to say, and I felt proud. Now, because of this blog post, I can suggest a better description, an intellectual. The funny thing is that word ‘intelectual’ is not used in Spanish. We should dust off that word and make it aspirational.

HOWTO: Be more productive

Some of his tips:

  • Works on important problems.
  • Create lists.
  • Make more high-quality time by not going to school or work.
  • Carry a pocket notebook.
  • Avoid interruptions.
  • Listen to your body.
  • Talk to cheerful people.
  • Simplify problems.
  • Convince yourself your work is fun.

He was friends with Paul Graham. Imagine having PG as a friend; that is a high-leverage friendship.

Believe you can change

He explains Carol Dweck’s study about children with fixed mindset vs. growth mindset and how it can be transformed. This transformation is the essence of his series Raw Nerve. A good habit is to see ourselves objectively and find new areas where we have a fixed mindset so we can transform it.

HOWTO: Read more books

“I’ve read a hundred books a year for the past couple years. Last time I mentioned this, a couple of people asked how I could read so many books. Do I read unusually quickly? Do I spend an unusual amount of time reading? I did a simple calculation: The average person spends 1704 hours a year watching TV. If the average reading rate is 250 words per minute and the average book is 180,000 words, then that’s 142 books a year. To my surprise, I wasn’t reading nearly enough books. So I’ve taken some steps to read more:”

You can find his top recommendations in his Book Reviews. Unfortunately, the reviews are full of broken links. An example of what you will find in his compilation of yearly book reviews:

44. The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey

This book touched me deeply and made me rethink the entire way I approached life; it’s about vastly more than just tennis. I can’t really describe it, but I can recommend this video with Alan Kay and the author that will blow your mind.

It is about hacking the process of learning. Please, do yourself a favor and watch the video in the link above (repeated here). It blew my mind.

I will try to read the books he loved the most so I can Stand on the Shoulder of Giants.

Something I learned from his reviews was to pay attention to the writing skills of the author. I must write more to fine-tune my calibration.


I share many interests with Aaron. But, one that surprised me was his interest in urbanism. He read many books on it. Robert Caro wrote one of his favorite nonfiction book, The Power Broker. It is the biography of Robert Moses, a public official who promoted car-dependent growth in New York. 

Aaron liked walkable urbanism. He said so throughout many essays. One example:

“All the apartments seemed to be on the floor above the normal street life; the two deeply intertwingled; just the way I like it. (See The Death and Life of Great American Cities for more reasons.)”

He is referring to the book of Jane Jacobs. She was one of the most influential people in favor of walkable, mixed-use urbanism in New York.

I also saw his documentary: The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, which you can find free on YouTube. In it, they interview Aaron’s family, his girlfriends, his lawyer, and they show snippets of Aaron’s videos. Late in the documentary, they talk about his “crime” of downloading millions of scientific journals. Jail time was inevitable—the pressure was overwhelming—so he committed suicide. When this subject came on the documentary, the creator of the World Wide Web said:

Aaron is dead.
Wanderers in this crazy world,
we have lost a mentor, a wise elder.
Hackers for right, we are one down,
we have lost one of our own.
Nurturers, carers, listeners,
feeders, parents all,
we have lost a child.
Let us all weep.

– Tim Berners-Lee

When Tim was three sentences in, I shed tears. I got up, went into the bathroom, looked at myself in the mirror, and sobbed for a while. I pulled myself together and went back to the couch. I continued. Two seconds in, Tim finished with let us all weep, I started crying convulsively.

I met Aaron Swartz 7 years after his death, and I feel like I lost a close friend. I am in shock at how I could develop such an emotional connection. That is the power of good, authentic writing.

He makes me want to be a better person. After learning about him I am hopeful and sad. Hopeful because there must be many people like him around. Sad because I have a few relationships with people like him.

His blog and style struck a chord. They are nonfiction, clearly written, few paragraphs, and focused on insights he has learned about life. It is an inspiration for my blog.

How can someone be so wise from such a young age? How can we create more people like that? What else would he have done?

Lawrence Lessing, his friend, and mentor tells us what he valued professionally: a corrupt-free government. The following is a quote from this interview:

Aaron trapped me into giving up my work on internet law and copyright policy to take up work on political corruption. He came to me and said, “I don’t think you’re going to make any real progress on what you’re doing while there is still deep corruption in the way the government works.” At first, I tried to push him off. I said, “Aaron, it’s not my field as an academic.” Then he said, “Is it your field as a citizen?”

Lawrence Lessig

Let us follow his legacy and make the world a better place.

If you are interested in reading more, I recommend reading his blog. Start with The Archives.


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Book Review: Elon Musk’s Biography

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

This book is a chronological story about the life of Elon Musk, one of the greatest businessmen of our generation. The book starts with his grandfather’s adventures. It follows on the family history up to Elon’s birth after the book zooms in every aspect of Elon, his childhood, his environment, his education, his relationships, and the founding of his companies Zip2, PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla.

The author, Ashlee Vance, is an American business columnist focused in the tech world. He is the host of the Bloomberg series Hello Word, where he reports on the tech scene across the globe. For this book, he did many interviews with Elon, his family, friends, employees, ex-employees, investors, etc. The book is full of anecdotes and does not hold back when there is an adverse opinion, which, unsurprisingly, often comes from ex-employees and ex-wife. There are many quotes, stories, and emails straight from Elon too. Ashlee breaks down Elon’s motivations, action and then provides an excellent synthesis about why Elon Musk can do what he does.

This book is excellent for studying patterns of new innovative companies. It focuses on the chaos, drama, and uncertainty of a new venture. It also details Elon’s work ethic, his passion, resourcefulness, and the growth mindset necessary to execute essential things. 

Elon often reflects on past mistakes and explains his philosophies on company building. Some lessons learned are:

Summary

His grandfather, Haldeman, was an eccentric adventurer and a vital businessman who became a model for Elon. Haldeman had an airplane and was the first private pilot to get from Africa to Australia. After creating a fortune in Canada, he sold everything and moved to South Africa, where Elon was born in 1971. Elon says that he got his tolerance for risk from his grandfather. His grandmother was the first chiropractor in Canada. 

When he was young, according to his brother Kimbal, Elon usually read for up to 10 hours a day. Elon programmed and sold a space video game when he was 12 years old. There are some anecdotes of him being a strong advocate of solar energy. He has dedicated his life to the passions he had as a child. 

Science fiction and video games influence how he views himself, he says in the book, “Maybe I read too many comics as a kid. In the comics, it always seems like they are trying to save the world. It seemed like one should try to make the world a better place because the inverse makes no sense.”

At age 14, Musk had a full-on existential crisis, which is common amongst gifted people, but surprising in how young he was. He read a bunch of philosophies, and his conclusion was, “The really tough thing is figuring out what questions to ask. Once you figure out the question, then the answer is relatively easy. I came to the conclusion that really we should aspire to increase the scope and scale of human consciousness in order to better understand what questions to ask. The only thing that makes sense to do is strive for greater collective enlightenment.”

He had a really tough childhood. He was severely bullied in school and at home by his father. He credits his ability to handle the pressure. This resulted in him wanting to leave South Africa as soon as possible. He regarded the United States as the land of opportunity, so he returned to Canada to find a way to go to the US. He arrived in Canada at age 17. He studied there for two years at Queen’s University and then transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated from economics and physics. 

He interned in a startup in San Francisco and then moved there after graduation. He founded a company called Zip2, which was the first type of internet map. Subsequently, Compaq bought Zip2, and he got 22 million from the sale at age 27. With that, he founded X.com, which later merged with PayPal and ultimately took that name. He was fired as CEO while being the largest stakeholder. 

After that, he started to study Space and moved to Los Angeles because there was a mature aerospace industry with lots of talent, thus showing the importance of founding the right company in the right place with the right talent.

In the meanwhile, eBay bought PayPal for 1.5 billion, and Elon received 180 million of it at age 31. After that, he invested almost everything he had to SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity. Around 60% of this book is about the ups and downs of SpaceX and Tesla, where he was CEO and dedicated most of his time.

When Elon started to study the space industry, he was shocked about the low ambitions of NASA because they had no plan to go to Mars and old technology. Elon wanted to reignite their dreams and started to devise a project to send plants to Mars. After organizing many conferences with the top people in the industry, the plan evolved to create a company that reduced the cost of space exploration and eventually colonizes Mars.

SpaceX was founded in 2002. As expressed in their website, “SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.” The book goes into detail on the first four launches, detailing the failure of the first three, the success of the fourth one, and how Elon managed the whole situation and pushed the company forward.

Tesla was founded one year later in 2003 with the mission to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. At the beginning of the company, he got some cofounders, which he later fired, and explains how he got the talent needed to create electric technology, the development of the prototype, the roadster, and the problems that arose from taking the prototype to market. 

He was also Chairman and the largest stakeholder of SolarCity, which became the biggest installer of solar panels in the country. His cousins started it. The book barely talks about SolarCity.

Conclusion

Elon’s life story leaves you reflecting on the impact you are doing with your life. He makes anyone feel small, but that is a good feeling because he inspires you to think bigger, be more ambitious, and excited about the future.

This is one of the fastest books I have ever read. I highly recommend it. If you buy it, it would probably be best to buy it on kindle so you can update it without additional costs. 

Quotes that made me ponder 

“He opened up about the major fear keeping him up at night: namely that Google’s co-founder and CEO Larry Page might well have been building a fleet of artificial-intelligence-enhanced robots capable of destroying mankind. ‘I’m really worried about this,’ Musk said.” — Ashlee Vance

“Each one of his businesses is interconnected in the short term and the long term. Tesla makes battery packs that SolarCity can then sell to end customers. SolarCity supplies Tesla’s charging stations with solar panels, helping Tesla to provide free recharging to its drivers. Newly minted Model S owners regularly opt to begin living the Musk Lifestyle and outfit their homes with solar panels. Tesla and SpaceX help each other as well. They exchange knowledge around materials, manufacturing techniques, and the intricacies of operation factories that build so much stuff from the ground up.” — Ashlee Vance

“One former SpaceX executive described the working atmosphere as a perpetual-motion machine that runs on a weird mix of dissatisfaction and eternal hope. ‘It’s like he has everyone working on this car that is meant to get from Los Angeles to New York on one tank of gas. They will work on the car for a year and test all of its parts. Then, they set off for New York after that year, all of the Vice Presidents think privately the car will be lucky to get to Las Vegas. What ends up happening is that the car gets to New Mexico — twice as far as they expected — and Elon is still mad. He gets twice as much as anyone else out of people.’” — Ashlee Vance

“The way Elon talks about this is that you always need to start with the first principles of a problem. What is the physics of it? How much time will it take? How much will it cost? How much cheaper can I make it? There is this level of engineering and physics that you need to make judgments about what’s possible and interesting. Elon is unusual in that he knows that and he also knows business and organization and leadership and governmental issues.” — Larry Page, Co-founder of Google

“I don’t think we are doing a good job as a society deciding what things are really important to do. I think like we are just not educating people in this kind of general way. You should have a pretty broad engineering and scientific background. You should have some leadership training and a bit of MBA training or knowledge of how to run things and organize stuff and raise money. I don’t think most people are doing that, and it’s a big problem. Engineers are usually trained in a very fixed area. When you are able to think about all of these disciplines together, you kind of think differently and can dream of much crazier things and how they might work. I think that’s a real and important thing for the world. That’s how we make progress.” — Larry Page

“I think there are probably too many smart people pursuing Internet stuff, finance, and law. That is part of the reason why we haven’t seen as much innovation” — Elon Musk

“I would like to die thinking that humanity has a bright future. If we can solve sustainable energy and be well on our way to becoming a multi-planetary species with a self-sustaining civilization on another planter — to cope with a worst-case scenario happening and extinguishing human consciousness — then I think that would be really good.” — Elon Musk

“There is a fundamental problem with regulators. If a regulator agrees to change a rule and something bad happens, they could easily lose their career. Whereas if they change a rule and something good happens, they don’t even get a reward. So, it’s very asymmetric. It’s then very easy to understand why regulators resist changing the rules. It’s because there’s a big punishment on one side and no reward on the other. How would any rational person behave in such a scenario?” — Elon Musk

“The objective of a company should be — what delivers fundamental value. I think it’s important to look at things from a standpoint of what is actually the best thing for the economy.” — Elon Musk

Post-publication

Many things have happened since the publication of this book in 2015:

Additional Links

If you want a deep dive on Elon Musk and his companies, I highly recommend The Elon Musk Post Series on waitbutwhy.com.

I also recommend Joe Rogan’s conversation with Elon Musk in Sept 2018 and May 2020.