Technology Archives

Reddit, Gawker, and Editorial Power

I don’t read sites like Gawker and Reddit. Occasionally, I’ll end up there because they’re both good at being a destination site from social media and they’re very clever with titles and media. As far as I know, Gawker is editorially-controlled whereas Reddit is (obviously) a moderated platform where users generate the content. And, we all know, the past few months of intense global scrutiny have not been kind to either property.

I haven’t followed the details, so from the outside re: Reddit, to me it seems the case that overall the world wants real identities to rule, or at least pseudonyms that are policed. While I do admire that forums like Reddit allow those who cannot be public to participate, and that ideas are judged on the merit without worrying about “who” offered them, and that free speech should be protected, there are rules against libel, bullying, harassment, and sharing sensitive information in the offline world that make online forums dangerous. This time around, time caught up with Reddit, and we all got to see what their crowd and community could turn into. Now, time will tell if the forum can and will remain relevant.

With Gawker, I couldn’t believe someone published that shaming piece even after it went through an editorial process. The subject in question is not a public figure, though I understand siblings of public figures are considered “fair game” by the scum of the media. Based on what was reported in this piece, there was not even corroborated evidence, and now someone’s entire life is exposed for all of us to gawk at.

In each case — Reddit and Gawker — just one a-hole ruins the whole show for everyone. And, if you have a-holes in your community or on your staff, it is your fault, and those sites should have to pay the consequences. As it stands, there is no punishment or recourse. With more Internet-connected devices capturing data and storing it in the cloud, I guess we can work to smear Jennifer Aniston’s brother or someone like that — I don’t know if she has a brother, but you get the idea. These sites will do anything to stay alive, earn ad dollars, drive clicks, and get attention. Information does want to be free, but posting the private business of someone else can and does have really gnarly consequences. Those who live in glass houses should not cast stones, and now we know Gawker and Reddit also live in glass houses.

This topic has been on my mind because for over three years, I was the longest-standing, most frequent contributor to TechCrunch. I wrote over 100 posts and aside from the first 3-4, I had full keys to the TechCrunch WP dashboard, and would write my posts and publish them myself. No editorial oversight. During that time, while working in industry and taking on consulting roles with investment firms, I was given access to all sorts of information that I could’ve blasted off without anyone telling me to “stop.” Sure, a post could’ve been taken down, and I’d have ruined my reputation — and therein lies the point. There was a strong incentive to behave. On Reddit, without identity, where’s the incentive to think about what one’s posting? On Gawker, if you hire a staff of “journalists” who are essentially modern paparazzi, can a drive-by hit-job like that post just be remedied by firing the offender?

I don’t know what the right solution is, and maybe there aren’t any. What I do know is that when crimes are committed offline, those scars and rap sheets often move with those people. I wonder if the same thing will happen online.

Aftershocks From The On-Demand Fault Lines

I wanted to write a brief post on changes founders and current investors can expect in the on-demand sector. I realize that a well-known startup which raised venture capital from prominent firms has shut down. I do not know much about that particular company, and I have never used that particular service, so the following notes below have little to do with a specific company and all to do with general terms founders and early investors should keep in mind:

  1. Worker Classification: On-demand founders will now encounter investor questions around their philosophies and strategies toward classifying workers. I am not a lawyer, but the most rational explanation I’ve heard so far is that in a true marketplace, the service provider can assign a monetary value to their work, whereas in a managed marketplace, the marketplace itself regulates the payment. In the former, those are probably contractors; the latter begins to sound like employees.
  2. Frequency of Use: I’m a broken record here, but aside from managed marketplaces which can have a subscription component, it requires a strong, weekly active use case to justify the upfront costs these things inevitably require. Predictable frequency is a trump card.
  3. Geographic Expansion: My standard line to founders is, a team has be so operationally excellent that it can, at some point in the future, have systems in place that enable them to launch two (2) geographies in the same week. Lately, I’ve met founders with ambitions to open up international cities after the first cut of U.S. cities, and those conversations excite me.
  4. Unit Economics: Looking at top-line revenue without digging into the unit economics will likely kill any investor discussions unless the team makes the case for going into the red for a while. Mastery of unit economics is a must to convince a big VC to take on the risk of models that require more cash to expand city by city.
  5. Soft- vs Hard Landings: Theory would suggest that with huge companies like Google, Amazon, Uber, eBay, Walmart, Costco, Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba, and others who are interested in providing on-demand services, there would be a soft landing for companies that didn’t make it to being an independent company. Well, that hasn’t really happened yet, so people will be skeptical. However, that could happen in the future, and if it’s perceived to be a big/good outcome, that could then re-energize comfort with the sector. Always worth keeping in mind that VCs run exit profiles of potential investments in their diligence and higher valuations in the earlier stage begin to limit exit options. And, with most of these businesses being “tech-enabled” vs pure tech companies, the harder landings could be quite harsh from how M&A departments value existing assets.

As a founder or active early investor in this space helping companies prepare for downstream VC, these issues must be anticipated and addressed. I’d make sure to include 1-2 slides on each issue above. Again, to be clear, I am still looking at this space and more deals will be done in the sector by big VCs. But, issues surrounding these businesses have bubbled up, the gig economy and worker classification, and the lack of real exits in businesses that aren’t wholly defensible in the classic sense of the word. When bits collide with atoms, now we should expect those reactions to ignite more scrutiny.

Guest Curating StrictlyVC This Summer

It’s that time of year again….

For a few weeks, I’ll be guest writing and quarterbacking the content section of StrictlyVC. Last summer, we had a number of great guests, VCs, founders, and even LPs in the Q&A.

This summer will be no different. Starting in a few weeks, we’ll be lining up Q&A’s with the following special guests, in no particular order:

  • Jed Katz, a co-founder of Javelin — where I got my first taste of working inside a VC firm;
  • Jon Soberg, a co-founder of Expansive Ventures;
  • Ryan Hoover, the CEO of Product Hunt — Ryan is an old friend and I remember helping him think through his post-Posthaven plans;
  • Nicholas Chirls, a co-founder of Notation Capital in NYC, a very micro-VC firm;
  • Satya Patel, a co-founder of Homebrew;
  • Leo Polovets, a co-founder of Susa Ventures;
  • Kristen Goldstein, a co-founder of Scalus and Backops, as well as an active angel investor;
  • Jenny Lee, a MD with GGV Capital — the first woman to crack the Top 10 on Forbes’ Midas List; and
  • Startup L Jackson, Twitter personality extraordinaire.

Like last summer, too, I will write my own short column for three (3) Fridays and share some views as to what I think is going on in the seed and VC worlds. I’m excited to have another chance to guest curate and write, so thanks to Connie and her loyal readers for the opportunity!

“So, You Want To Raise Your Series A?”

As a very early and active pre-seed, angel, seed, or whatever-you-want-to-call-it investor, I view my main job is to select companies and founding teams that will eventually go on to raise a proper and priced Series A round from a credible firm, with a partner from that firm joining the board. In some cases, you find a young team who you just know will make it — more often than not, you have to be imaginative and allow for time to help products, markets, and people grow. People can definitely surprise you with their learning pace and drive to succeed.

I often joke that in today’s frenetic seed environment, many founders view “Getting To Series A” as post-college grads may view law school or getting an MBA as the next step along an academic journey. Since I am not a Series A investor — but rather someone who tries to help Haystack seeded companies work toward a Series A — please read the following post with the context that I want to help young companies reach this milestone, but from my conversations this summer with a variety of Series A VCs across the country, I am predicting the seed explosion of the last few years have finally worn down professional VCs to the point where the environment and attitude toward putting together an A round has — in my opinion — changed significantly.

Don’t kill the messenger. I’m writing this so early-stage teams have fair warning. For the record, I am passionately optimistic about the long-term future of and impact of technology on society at large and continue to invest early and often. The following is food for thought for those seeded teams who have true ambitions to partnering with a bigger VC and clearing the Series A hurdle:

(1) Hit the ground running by no later than Labor Day. You may have heard that “deals happen all the time.” Sure, less so for the hotly contested A’s and B’s. Folks pitching want all the big firms to be around and in the flow, and September is a great time. It’s hard to start a new conversation for an A once mid-October rolls around, though of course a deal could start in this window but require many weeks to close. Timing matters. There is a somewhat immutable seasonality to VC investing, despite what others may chatter about.

(2) Be precise with your introductions. Create a spreadsheet with specific VCs. Figure out if they’d be interested in your company and space. Be targeted. Find someone in your network to give you a warm recommendation — not just an intro, but a recommendation — to each target. Run a process.

(3) Clean the notes and caps before talking terms. In a frothy seed market, founders have been able to play all sorts of games with stacked notes, different caps, and deciding to set valuation caps at whatever the seed market would bear. This all could result in a founder finding him/herself in a Series A discussion where the investor, upon discovering the messiness of the notes and the higher caps or even prices could lead to awkward conversations and even drama. Look at this thread with three experienced seed and VC investors. They’d rather pass on the risk of drama or cleaning up a mess with so many fish in the sea.

(4) It’s not all metrics. Metrics open the door, but people close the deal. People get so wound up about metrics and it lulls them into a false sense of security. Linear progress is hard to achieve in any new endeavor, but big VC firms are looking for breakout potential. The metrics help demonstrate that the team cares about them, knows how to record and read them, and proves (a little bit) that the team can get things done. Metrics help ground what may otherwise be an abstract pitch, but personnel and vision help seal the deal. See below.

(5) Executive teams matter a great deal. A big VC wants to know who the CEO can recruit around him/her. Selfishly, the VC may not want to help build the entire executive team and would rather find one intact and what’s working. Having a missing piece among a team is one thing — not having a COO when the business is moving so fast adds a layer of risk in a fragmented talent market that could push a VC to favor an opportunity with a more fully-baked team.

(6) Long-term plans and ambitions matter. I heard a great quote this past week: “Clearly articulating a long-term vision is actually a differentiator.” Big VCs will absolutely evaluate whether the founding team wants to go for a big, big outcome — they cannot afford to have a $200m exit, even though it sounds nice. It will happen more and more, but VCs want to at least protect against it.

(7) Whatever funding habits worked in seed will likely backfire with the pros. Oh man. This is where it gets hairy. In seed, founders can set caps; at Series A, the market sets the price, and oftentimes it’s a real negotiation with an experienced VC. In seed, a round can stay open for ever at the founders’ whim; at Series A, within 2-3 weeks a founding team can see their deal momentum slip away on short notice. In seed, founders can dictate how the round closes; often at Series A, the firm coming in (who will likely have a board seat) has significant control on the close, as well. It all sounds more like a partnership, right?

(8) Expect VCs to be more valuation-sensitive than the recent past. This is my bigger prediction. Depending on who you listen to, people will say entry price at seed doesn’t matter — instead, just invest in things you think will be huge and don’t worry about price. But, in the last few years, seed investing has exploded, and there are now hundreds of seed stage firms (the stage has professionalized). And with professionalization comes new LPs who have funded these vehicles, some looking for access and everyone looking for returns. Now after over two years of meeting and getting to know LPs, each one asks about the “entry price” in seed, and how that may go up and down. In this “dry” environment of elongated private markets without many big tech IPOs or acquisitions, LPs are now starting to ask funds like mine: “When do you expect returns?”

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Angels are a dying breed. Seed is where the early action is, and much of it is professionalized with other peoples’ money. Hence, it has a business model, and more and more folks are starting to realize what the larger VCs have known for years — it’s often 100x harder to get money out of an investment than it is to make the investment in the first place. The lack of liquidity leads to more awkward LP meetings. The summer slump slows things down. Many bigger VCs won’t admit this publicly, but they’re fatigued with all the notes and structures and crowded cap tables, and that fatigue will likely make them approach opportunities more conservatively. Yes, this will cause some folks to miss things, but this isn’t about VCs passing on things that will work out — it’s about how to go and get a Series A in the Fall of 2015 given environmental conditions.

The next Snapchat or company with insane metrics or revenue growth will be a hot deal and get many great term sheets. If you’re Larry Page, you can expect to get term sheets from everyone. But, if you’re not Larry Page, it will be harder, and it may be wise to expect a more sober valuation, or perhaps a valuation that even lower than some of your caps. Unless investors get conviction you’ll IPO or lead to a huge outcome through sheer will & determination and dominate a huge market, they will keep looking for one that will — and keep telling you to come back when you have more to show.

Slack’s Rise Challenges Today’s Conventional Startup Wisdom

Outliers are valuable because they offer us 20/20 hindsight to reevaluate and challenge the assumptions we may have originally held to be true. Lyrically, it’s been a linguistic technique I’ve used in writing this one post about Snapchat and then another one about the Whatsapp acquisition — both posts went viral, in part because of the intense focus of global tech attention on the protagonist companies in question, but largely driven by, I believe, our subconscious, collective desire for and adherence to “convention.” The thought goes — if we do what are supposed to do, and what other elders say, that “convention” will ensure our success.

Yet, the reason these posts fly around the web is because, further down in our subconscious, we know conventions are challenged in deep ways, and especially by the companies listed in this post. It’s worth re-reading the posts above on Snapchat and Whatsapp, both for founders and investors alike. Subconsciously building up convention happens as a stealthy byproduct of being forced to recognize patterns in a fast-moving, dynamic environment. All of a sudden, there are things we are supposed to do, and the echo of social media hardens it into convention.

The latest company to break convention is Slack. You have may noticed me tweeting about it more. I’m trying to understand it. We all know it’s a great product, but I wanted to understand how big it can be, and what they did to make it happen. Below are some things I tweeted out, as well as a response from Anil Dash adding to the fire.

This is how Slack defied convention:

  1. Slack originally HQ’d in SF/Valley — so many blogs and pundits liked to pander that “the next big thing won’t be in the Valley.” But, Uber is. Slack is. Whatsapp is. Snapchat born here, built in LA. For Slack, there was a distributed team with HQ in SF. Those are the facts.
  2. Slack was funded with traditional VC — so many blogs and pundits like to talk about the end of traditional venture capital, even after firms like Greylock, Sequoia, and Benchmark, among others, are sitting on monster portfolios and exits. Maybe traditional VC isn’t all that bad.
  3. Slack was the byproduct of a pivot — in an era where there could be 5-10 startups in a category, there are likely too many teams playing for 2nd place or worst. Why not re-roll the dice and reinvent? That’s what Slack did. Nothing to lose but investor’s money.
  4. Slack was founded by an adult without a CS degreevia Anil. The success of Zuck and Spiegel and the fascination with youthful energy and creation has helped calcify a brand of ageism in the Valley. Add to this the “everyone must code” drumbeat and how could Butterfield have succeeded?
  5. Slack openly embraces diversity via Anil again. This is not to say other companies don’t, but it’s only recently been brought to light as a more systemic issue. Larger companies can be slower to respond. Startups are more nimble to create cultures in real time. This has been a touchy issue across the Bay Area startup ecosystem. Slack has shown leadership in its efforts to diversify and speak its mind beyond tech circles and topics.
  6. Slack respects work/life balanceagain, via Anil. The company sees most employees going home by 6pm. Sure, many work late into the night, but there is balance set into the culture from Day 1. I think that’s hard for very early-stage startups to have this luxury, but once a startup gets some serious funding, and with technology invading family life, companies can now help design structures to keep people out of the office (though still working, if they want) with a bit more ease.
  7. Slack had a revenue model from beginning via Anil. After the pivot, Slack went cross-platform with a paid product right away, possibly marking the end of the “build first, monetize later” mantra in the wake of Zuckerberg’s masterpiece. It reminds me of this great, prescient post by Mark Suster, “Why You Need To Ring The Freaking Cash Register.”

Bitcoin 2.0: Bitcoin’s Back, Back Again

Last summer, while continuing to invest in early-stage seed Bitcoin-related companies, I wrote a post titled “The Bitcoin Crunch.” That post tried to encapsulate and summarize what I saw bubbling up when seeded Bitcoin companies tried to go for their next round of funding. Just like the broadly named Series A Crunch hammered the over-funded seeded companies, the verticalized crunch on Bitcoin companies was brutal but necessary.

Since then, things have stabilized. The price of Bitcoin has steadied, but more importantly, bigger companies building critical infrastructure in the ecosystem were rewarded with larger sums of downstream funding – Coinbase, Chain, BlockCypher, and many others — not to mention 21e6′s mega ambitious round to build mining chips for electronic devices.

About a year ago, I wrote this opening paragraph:

Remember “The Series A Crunch”? Well, I think an offshoot of this will manifest itself across what feels like almost 500 Bitcoin related companies. I, myself – I am a Bitcoin believer and Bitcoin junkie. Yet, despite that optimism, I am continuously floored by just how many Bitcoin startups are out there. I don’t know who is funding them or how they’re making money to survive the typical cycles needed to make Series A investing, which I’ve recently heard defined as “when pros invest and set the terms.”

Here’s a brief snapshot of what Bitcoin 2.0 is shaping up to be:

Valuations Relatively Cheaper - With unicorn hunting distorting all sorts of investor behavior, investment firms with smaller AUM and/or a deeper conviction in this ecosystem can bridge or extend funding for quality teams at very reasonable prices. One could argue it’s a better bet for real venture right now vs paying up into a red ocean category where their may be only 1-2 survivors.

Weekend Hacks Not Getting Funded - The quick-release “me too” Bitcoin companies are fizzling out and not getting funded. It is tough for some, indeed, but unfortunately necessary. I hope the emergent platforms consider some of those former founders for operational roles in their companies. The seed market has rationalized on Bitcoin.

Making It Easier To Build On The Blockchain - We all know the 101 awesome things that theoretically “could” be built on the blockchain, but those aren’t being built just yet to a level where we can openly interact with them. In the meantime, blockchain middleware is emerging as a category — people who build systems that make it easier for developers to build on the blockchain.

Core Platforms Getting Funded - Coinbase is now the leading platform, and no one is close (in my opinion). I’m starting to see experienced entrepreneurs build on top of Coinbase with applications that have real world use cases right off the shelf. In the same way Uber wasn’t possible before the iPhone and maps, a new breed of companies that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible without Coinbase will slowly emerge.

Videos From The On-Demand Conference

It’s been a month since we organized The On-Demand Conference. The folks at TradeCraft were able to capture and upload media from the event, and there’s a great mix of content and knowledge from that day, now accessible to all below. I’ve tried to present the videos in chronological order, the best I could. As an investor in space, I particularly loved the sessions that focused on B2B on-demand (with Managed By Q, and others), the investor panel with Steve, Satya, Simon, and Patricia (which was very lively and touched on some controversial themes), and the panels on customer experience. But, of course, everything was great. Thanks to TradeCraft for organizing and creating this rich media for others to learn from.

My personal favorite was the start of the day — a fireside chat with Shervin. We discuss on-demand stuff, but really it was more of a chance for Shervin to share a rich history and reflection on his move to and time in the Valley. Shervin was one of the very first people I met when I moved here. He made time for me, and it was nice to reconnect and catch up in such a public way.

Finally, I had a chance to end the day with a short presentation on where I see the on-demand space headed. It’s about 10-minutes and has slides, and encapsulates much of my thinking around the topic right now.

On Demand Conference : Fireside Chat with Semil and Shervin Pishevar from Tradecraft on Vimeo.

On Demand Conference : Growth from Tradecraft on Vimeo.

On Demand Conference: City Expansion from Tradecraft on Vimeo.

On Demand Conference : B2B from Tradecraft on Vimeo.

On Demand Conference : New Business Models from Tradecraft on Vimeo.

On Demand Conference: Customer Experience And Brands from Tradecraft on Vimeo.

On Demand Conference : Building Blocks for On Demand from Tradecraft on Vimeo.

On Demand Conference : Below the API Divide from Tradecraft on Vimeo.

On Demand Conference : Investing from Tradecraft on Vimeo.

On Demand Conference : The Future of On Demand from Tradecraft on Vimeo.

A Response To AVC Re: Kozmo

There are a small handful of blogs/newsletters I read daily. The first one of those when I started on this path was AVC. About a week ago, Fred wrote a reflective post about the on-demand economy of today and all the startups who are riding this wave. You can read Fred’s post here, and the picture of Gotham Gal wearing the old Kozmo swag is awesome. (Kozmo was available in NYC right when I moved back after college to start working — I remember ordering from it a lot and how much free stuff they gave away.)

One of the lessons threaded throughout AVC is “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” The implication is the same themes emerge through cycles, even if today’s incarnation looks different from yesterday’s on the surface. In the post, Fred writes:

Kozmo pioneered the idea of same hour delivery in 1998, fifteen years before its time. Kozmo pioneered the idea of raising and spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year long before it became fashionable, even normal to do so. Kozmo nailed the practice of scaling while your unit economics are upside down. They took that practice into almost twenty markets before the capital markets turned on them and there wasn’t money available to incinerate anymore.

As someone who has spent a good portion of the time seeding and helping early-stage companies in the space, I wanted to digest Fred’s post and write out a structured POV on it. Briefly, here goes:

On Unit Economics: There’s a lot of truth to this and the arguments/concerns are sound. Early-stage investors have, in certain cases, given entrepreneurs incredible credit in advance of nailing unit economics. The reason they do so, I believe, is because there is some premium to proving, even in one market, that a team can create and deliver a service which triggers a behavior change. The next venture bet is on spreading out that behavior to other test markets. We will know in a few years if that was too much credit.

On Raising and Burning Hundreds of Millions: Outside of Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and a few others, there are more companies making noise about the on-demand economy than raising gobs of money. Sure, some of it is overfunded, but if you look at the base stickiness of those services, in many cases things can be justified, and many of the firms who are already into those companies have deep enough pockets to stay with them in the event of a turn in the market. Speaking of which…

What if Capital Markets Turn Suddenly? Many arguments here, but if it’s a general turn, and people have less disposable income, they may be more sensitive to overpaying for convenience and speed, and that could depress demand while also putting pressure on companies to raise prices, to price dynamically, and to bundle other services on top of the core. For those who are funded, while opening a city is a serious operational cost, most of these teams are expert in figuring out how much capital and time it takes for a city to become self-sufficient. The ones that can’t do that won’t survive.

Despite the froth in the category and acknowledging there will be some ups and down for companies to withstand, two things make me optimistic about the on-demand concept overall, moving forward:

Today’s Overall Competitive Structure: When Kozmo launched, people weren’t used to web-enabled inventory and delivery triggers. Now, we are, and huge companies like Google, eBay, Amazon, Walmart, and even Uber are all actively thinking about offering on-demand or scheduled services to increase the bond with their customers. These companies will certainly be acquisitive in the category (in this arms race) and provide a soft landing for many startups, assuming they haven’t been over-valued and assuming the core mobile and data teams come along for the ride.

Spreading the Concept to Business, Healthcare, etc: I am shifting my focus in this area to on-demand concepts that serve businesses as their customer (like Boomtown, and others), as well as spaces like healthcare and heavy industry. I am already seeing lots of activity, and there are more opportunities for founders to layer in SaaS+marketplace models into these startups given the customer base. Just like the sharing economy has spread to other industries like construction (Asseta, Cohealo, etc.), I suspect on-demand will as well. It’s just a matter of time.

FaceTime Elmo

In the absence of living near family or having “help” with our toddler, we have consciously succumbed to, at times, letting her enjoy an old iPhone here, the iPad there. On the one hand, I wanted her to get comfortable with the OS, and it’s been fun to watch her learn so quickly — one of the first things she learned, of course, was how to turn off the Airplane Mode setting her dad would enable. She can consciously take pictures and scroll through photos, but there’s also a cost — try getting any kid to put the device away, and may the force be with you.

Like many kids living away from family and grandparents, our kid loves using FaceTime. She’s more than familiar now with the user interface for FaceTime, the large screen devoted to the other person, with a picture-in-picture for her face. In her mind, I think, she feels that person is real. She’s met them before, but the full screen bleed on an iPad Mini makes their face come alive.

Now, hold on for a minute while I write a paragraph about Elmo. I know, I know. Very cliche, but I was amazed at just how fast our kid heard about Elmo, started asking for him, and then got attached — a stuffed animal Elmo, coloring books, the music, songs. You name it. She’s all in.

Then, a few months later, was with a friend in line waiting to get coffee, talking about our kids (and their affection for iPhones), and he talks about how the “Elmo Calls” app is a lifesaver. Brilliant idea. I downloaded the app for my daughter a few hours later, and it was fun to see her reaction. She immediately recognized the interface of FaceTime, and she immediately knew Elmo, so in her mind, she was just FaceTiming with Elmo. She was so happy, it was a very natural high. To her, Elmo was just another real person to talk to. The software just faded away and she thought she was speaking to a friend.

I tweeted about this a few months ago and had been meaning to write this post. Here’s the thread, which you can open up to reveal the comments. Turns out “Elmo Calls” was a project born out of IDEO, where they originally were designing the app to help toddlers get potty trained, but in their user-testing, they discovered the kids only wanted to talk to Elmo. And, thus, “Elmo Calls” was born ;-)

 

 

Who Let The Conch Out?

One of the great stories of our time is the multiple “Arab Springs” that networked-devices and social media enable in big and small forms. One way to think about that shift is: Distributing computing power across citizenries can create a stronger force than concentrated authorities. As centralized authorities lose power with tech distributing among citizens, we may also expect a less orderly transition to what is next — the next order. That “less orderly transition” will be a test for how we all collectively behave when no one is watching yet everyone is watching.

Over four years ago, before I even worked at a real web/mobile tech startup, I wrote a guest column on TechCrunch titled, “The Next Mass Consumer Social Wave: Political Expression.” It’s worth re-reading today as so much has happened since then (click here for link). I wrote this a few weeks after the Arab Spring protests in Egypt. That was a crazy time. As a student of history, I couldn’t believe what was happening in real-time. The future arrived very quickly. I am still in shock this is only four years ago, especially when I see lines like this:

Most citizens in the Middle East do not have these luxuries we take for granted. For them, nations like GMail, Facebook, and Twitter provide that place, a common platform which helps them tap, refine, and express an assortment of pent-up desires, and as we have seen, generate tremendous kinetic energy most levees cannot withstand.

In the old days, centralized or local (or surveillance) teams would gather footage, but then decide editorially whether or not to broadcast that information; today, with ubiquitous data and pocket-based computing, with broadcast television powers in our pockets via Periscope and Meerkat, with social networks like Facebook and Twitter to host and route information, we see a lot more of our world. Capturing, uploading, and sharing 1st-hand citizen accounts is the new voting.

Are we decaying as a society, or just seeing more of what had always been happening under our noses? There’s so much to say, but I wanted to keep this apolitical and brief. I’ll close with two (2) thoughts:

One, so much of today’s discourse reminds me of Golding’s “Lord Of The Flies.” Who has The Conch? We can’t talk about (dis)order without revisiting the symbolism of The Conch. It used to be central authorities or networks — now the conch is distributed, so things sound noisier, and things feel disorderly. because we have to listen to 1,000 conches — not just one. Things may get worst before they get better.

Two, in an optimistic sense, I try to draw personal inspiration from this change, however bumpy and unsavory it is. Back in high school, my focus and ambition was to enter the world of politics in some way. That evolved and refined over time. I wanted to have an international life, to be a diplomat, to serve in foreign areas. I was dealt a setback in the college admissions process, and then turned to (almost) studying law as a means to exercise that desire. Luckily, a former boss stopped me from going to law school. Yet, the dream of international diplomacy still pulled at me, taking me to graduate school and a course of study focused on this — yet again. And, again, I was passed over, repeatedly. The worst experience was having an official from a not-to-be-named central authority request an interview, only to have the civil service employee arrive late, unprepared, and in sweat pants.

I couldn’t have imagined a career investing in technology. I do not know much about investing or technology. But, it is the path I’m on, and the best part is that some of the change I hoped to be a part of via diplomacy may not just also happen via technology, I may in fact be in a stronger position to advocate for it. Specifically, that could mean studying and investing in technologies that (1) increase and democratize web/app access for more and more people; (2) provide alternative, ad-hoc, and mesh networks for people and machines to communicate within; (3) foster new payment mechanisms which lower costs, provide different types proof (time, payment, justice, etc.), and empower the powerless; (4) create new employment opportunities that increase both take-home wages and flexibility around scheduling; and (5) change and improve how we live, work, and get around our physical environments.

An LP I know well pulled me aside recently to point out that investors who raise funds also, like entrepreneurs, have to go through a test — Who are you? What do you believe in? What do you stand for? Not too different from how The Joker described himself in The Dark Knight, sometimes in the pace of work, some investors can just revert to “dogs chasing cars.” I have felt that, for sure. But, after a while, that’s not good enough, according to that LP — and I think he’s right. Being able to invest, even small amounts like I do, is a sort of “Conch.” Diplomacy and statecraft are also Conches, in their own way. Now, everyone has one, and more people are using it — some of the sound encounters deconstructive interference, killing the signal; some, if we’re lucky, will eventually and constructively break through the noise to create bigger and louder waves.

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2015 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus