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Earlier last month, I was talking to one of my good friends who had recently been on a trip to South America. He loved his experience volunteering on a farm in Chile through WWOOF (Worldwide opportunities on Organic farm), and highly recommended it to me. WWOOF is a network that matches volunteers with organic farms around the world. The host farm provides food, accommodation (usually with the farmer’s family), and learning opportunities, in return for assistance with farm related activities (varies depending on the farm) for the duration of the stay (ranging from couple weeks to months). 

Having never been to Chile before, WWOOFing seemed like a great way to learn about its people, culture, and organic farming (as well as pick up some Spanish). With work being flexible on my return date, I decided to extend my trip until mid-November with the first stop being the farm in central Chile, followed by a few other South American countries. Two of my friends decided to join me on the farm as well.

After some terrible luck with flights (one cancellation, one delayed and lost baggage), I arrived in Santiago, Chile a couple weeks ago. Not being close to a big city, the journey to get to the farm was long. After leaving Santiago at 10 in the morning, and riding three buses, we arrived at the farm in the evening at 6 to be greeted by the farmer and their family with some tea and homemade bread.  getting a quick tour of the farm, we were shown their communal lodge. Since this farm receives a lot of WWOOFers during summer, they built a communal lodge with a kitchen, common area, a computer and few beds. Temperatures often drop below 40 degrees Farenheit; with no heating at the lodge, we have to use sleeping bags to stay warm. 

Our daily routine starts with breakfast – coffee, oatmeal, and bread – with the farmer’s family around 8:30, followed by work on the farm. We’ve had various kinds of work – trellising the blackberry vines, cutting out thorny weeds and creating soil beds to grow vegetables. When my friend visited the farm over summer, his work consisted solely of harvesting blackberries; hence, the work varies depending on the time of the year. We work until lunch time, after which we have time to enjoy the scenery and tranquility of the area. I have been spending my time reading, learning Spanish, watching TV, exploring nearby farms or just laying down on the hammock. The only bus that goes to the nearest city leaves at 7 in the morning during weekdays, so I haven’t had the chance to leave the farm except on Sundays. One of the Sundays, the farmer’s friend took us hiking in the Reserva Nacional Radal Siete Tazas, consisting of some stunning views and gorgeous waterfalls.

The food here has surprised me. All our meals, delicious and filling, are cooked with vegetables grown in the farm, and meat is only served for a few meals each week. I am in love with the bread that the farmer bakes – will be getting the recipe before I leave. Over the past two weeks, I have also learned to cook a few Chilean dishes!

Dinner conversations have included exchanging stories and learning about culture, politics, family and farming. After dinner, we usually watch TV together. We were surprised how popular Minecraft song parody videos were among the kids here, they would sometimes play it on repeat! Coming across public Wifi in one of the rural towns and streaming Netflix at the farm both caught my attention. Later, I found that Chile is actually the first Latin American country to be considered a developed country joining the OECD in 2010. One can definitely sense the American influence on Chilean culture, a result of the influence the United States has had on Chilean politics and economy.

It has been phenomenal seeing how self-sustainable the farmer’s family is and the simplicity with which they live their daily lives. The highlight of my time here has been a birthday party for a family member of the farmer. We all had a blast with their friends over, and had a delicious BBQ feast complete with cake, wine, and an Indian side dish that one of my friends cooked. I have also been making an effort to talk to the family members to learn Spanish. Google translate has been a savior in these situations. Duolingo has been helpful in learning basic words, but with phone service being spotty, I haven’t been able to use it much on my phone (aka Duolingo needs an offline feature).

I have loved travelling internationally for a variety of reasons – adventure, culture, food, people, language, landmarks. However, beyond those aspects of travel, I have recently been realizing that sometimes the experiences I have had through the places I have been represents a story of sorts; this only makes travelling more entertaining.     

What’s next:

Both my friends left today, and I am planning on staying at the farm for a week or two. After that, I am thinking of going to Argentina for a couple weeks and take some Spanish classes followed by Peru in early October. 

Robinhood's disruption in online stock trading

One in four U.S. adults with access to the Internet are trading online, and this penetration is accelerating, especially for millennials [1]. While online brokerage firms such as Scottrade, Interactive Brokers and OptionsHouse  enable online trading, they come with strings attached: high commission, account minimums, clumsy user interface and surprise fees. Robinhood stands out from the competition by disrupting stock market trading with no minimum account balance, and zero-dollar commission. Robinhood provides a secure and intuitive mobile-first interface for anyone to grow their wealth in the stock market.

The past two years have seen an influx of apps that cater to solo investors. Apps like Acorns and Digit allow individuals to passively manage their finances by connecting to personal bank accounts and recommending a portfolio. However, a fair share of millennials prefer trading stocks on their own. Robinhood is currently filling that niche. With the potential to expand to professional traders, Robinhood also poses a clear threat to brokerage firms. All of these traits combine to form an app with a sleek user interface, state-of-the-art technology, and a transparent fee structure with one purpose - facilitating hassle-free investing for anyone with a smartphone and a bank account.

User Interface

Robinhood’s gorgeous user interface is one of the main reasons I love using the app. The onboarding process is straightforward and follows with a content-centric design that makes the learning curve nonexistent. When you open the app, you can instantly see the results of the rigorous collaboration that went in designing it -- a clean and meticulous design with consistent branding and typography. The minimal and flat design couples well with a color scheme that is easy on the eyes and follows iOS design conventions. It comes to no surprise that Robinhood won the Apple Design Award as well as Product Hunt’s Sexiest App of the year in 2015.

The home screen shows the total value of a user’s portfolio with a chart of performance over the time, as well as a list of stocks in the portfolio. It recently added a cards feature that displays financial news related to the portfolio and updates regarding a user’s account. Making a trade is intuitive. Search for the company name, click the buy/sell button followed by an order type (market orders, limit orders, stop limit orders, and stop loss orders), and provide the quantity. 

One of my favorite features is the notification center widget that allows users to quickly glance at their portfolio without needing to open the app. A convenient feature for users that don’t trade frequently.

Technology Platform & Security

Andreessen Horowitz partner Benedict Evans claims that, “the mobile ecosystem, now, is heading towards perhaps 10x the scale of the PC industry” [2]. With that in mind, Robinhood requires users to trade on an iPhone or Android device, offering no web/desktop app as of yet. This mobile-first approach matches perfectly with Robinhood’s targeted demographic and the mentioned smartphone penetration. Most brokerage firms now offer a mobile app, but Robinhood has a very tangible advantage with its mobile-first approach. The creators claim to use a low latency trading system, allowing trades to execute quickly and remain resilient to volatility.

Robinhood also wisely provides access to its API to select partners. With the intent to continue its community reach, Robinhood announced last year plans to integrate with Openfolio, Quantopia and StockTwits, allowing users to view their portfolio information and even execute trades using some of the integrations. This is a great strategy that support its broader business strategy and objectives, as it allows Robinhood to become a platform with an ecosystem for developers, inevitably drawing in more attention and revenue.

With the negative stigma associated with mobile security, Robinhood guarantees to hedge any concern with a robust application planned for security from the ground up. Robinhood uses “bank level” SSL and 256-bit AES encryption to secure data transport and to provide end-to-end encryption of any personal and financial information stored remotely. Also being a member of the FINRA and SIPC, Robinhood’s customers are protected up to $500,000 against the loss of cash and securities in the rare case of Robinhood facing financial troubles. This protection gives the majority of users guaranteed protection against insolvency.

Fee Structure:


Most brokerage firms charge a per trade commission of $5-$10. On Robinhood, traders don’t pay any commission, and the app doesn’t have a minimum balance requirement. Zero dollar commision allows casual investors like me to make low volume trades as well as experiment with day trading.

While some online brokerage firms charge users to get real time stock quotes, Robinhood offers real time quotes at no charge.  In order to make it easy for users to understand the fee structure, they provide a single page listing out all the fees. Having used Interactive Brokers and Trade Monster in the past, Robinhood’s fee structure is more transparent, and caters towards individual investors.

Robinhood was built with efficiency in mind and eliminates overhead costs such as brick-and-mortar stores and advertising. Currently, they make money by keeping the interest earned from customer’s cash balances as well as by charging an interest on margin accounts.  In the future, Robinhood plans to support joint, custodial and IRA account types, entering the competitive landscape with brokerage firms. Robinhood’s partner API also offers an interesting and vast expansion of the business model.

Room for improvement:

Targeting individual investments with little to no investing experience follows with disappointment in the absence of built-in research tools. Having a simple pop-up that shows a fundamental analysis would benefit casual traders. Below is a sketch of a potential analysis feature that can function as opt-in for traders wanting competitive information.

According to a report by Oliver Wyman, “the online brokerage market in the US is highly fragmented” [3]. Fragmentation offers room for both innovation and experimentation to create a highly adaptive business. By lowering the inherent barrier to investing and providing a concise and minimal interface, Robinhood has positioned itself to be an innovative leader and a staple in the space of personal finance. More young investors are signing up for the app, and if Robinhood continues to add advanced trading features, even experienced investors could migrate over. Given its current trajectory, Robinhood is poised to become a dominant player in the online brokerage space within the next 10 years.