Monthly Archive for July, 2011

The backstory on Silicon Beach and an Aussie Entourage

When a newspaper a year ago interviewed me, I matter-of-factly talk about an “Aussie Mafia” in Silicon Valley and how we regularly talk to our friends in Australia. More recently The Next Web rather cheekily said I regarded myself as part of an “Aussie mafia” in the commentary to the video interview. The interview caused a bit of a stir with emails and additional blog posts about the project.

Voyeur : July 2011, Page 114

But it wasn’t until this last week when an article surfaced from the  July 2011 Virgin Australia inflight magazine “Voyeur” that some noise really affected me. Back in April 2011,  the journalist asked for my help on people to speak to and to give him insight in tech which he readily admitted was not his normal beat; but as a consequence of that discussion, I think the article made some presumptions which make it look like I created the Australian tech community and this “Aussie Mafia”.

Well, not quite. Given both the drinks mentioned in that article, the brand “Silicon Beach” and the “Aussie Mafia” are mentioned, it was suggested by someone I clear up the real history. So here it goes.

“Silicon Beach”
The Australian newspaper media popularised the term “Silicon Beach” from a front page article in January 2007 to describe Sydney in Australia that had a growing tech scene. Six month’s later, I wrote a post saying we should call all of Australia “Silicon Beach” as “we’re one island continent anyway”. A year later, I registered the domain name siliconbeachaustralia.org (and later, negotiated siliconbeach.org) with a placeholder website and launched a mailing list which set the brand on fire. I then went onto build the brand further by launching a podcast series with Bronwen Clune, writing a letter to the Australian Senate on behalf the community that had formed around the mailing list (and a subsequent proposal on request of some Australian senators that formally had them refer to the industry as “Silicon Beach”).

Now those infamous drinks.

Back in May 2008 along with Mick Liubinskas and Lachlan Hardy we made a decision by the Shelbourne  Hotel‘s Pool table to do a weekly drinks that was ‘same time same place’ to avoid confusion — the goal was this consistency would build community in Sydney’s fragmented technology industry. That afternoon Bart Jellema, Kim Chen, Mike Cannon-Brookes and others in attendance agreed — with Bart and Kim being instrumental in making them what its become (they would often be the only people there!). The drinks initially were called “FITSBAD” based off a public Twitter discussion Mick and I subsequently had, which stood for “Friday Information Technology Silicon Beach Drinks” and separately over alcohol at one of the drinks with Bart we called it “Official Friday” because, well, it gave it more status (Bart pushed passionately, I kept drinking). Months later, I convened Mick and Bart and asked them to call it one or the other as they started competing with each other, and so “Official Friday” it became. But then, it slowly turned into “Silicon Beach drinks” (no doubt influenced by Mick and Bart who are the biggest supporters of the brand, but also because Melbourne hosted a monthly drinks under that brand). These drinks further entrenched the brand I didn’t invent but made and now unfairly get credit for doing everything.

Silicon Beach is a brand that I built but so has everyone else in Australia. Just because I first popularised the term though doesn’t mean I did anything special.

“Aussie Mafia”
I first heard about this term from drunk Facebook posts by my Aussie friends in Silicon Valley when I lived in Sydney (people like Martin Wells, Chris Saad, Mike Cannon-Brookes). It would later turn out my future room mate Marty Wells actually invented the brand and replicated in Silicon Valley what he did in Sydney, which was organise the tech entrepreneurs socially. Which is ironic, because the “Silicon Beach” drinks filled the void when Marty left Australia with the events he ran like the semi-exclusive Dinner2.0 (where I met Marty) and Stirr. Dean McEvoy (an Aussie that formally lived in Silicon Valley and that went on to do something amazing in Australia) even registered aussiemafia.com. Kind of funny, as it was a jovial term to describe Aussie entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. No one took it seriously, until other people did.

In the months I lived with Marty between September 2009 and January 2010 (I moved to America in August 2009), we called our wifi network “Aussie Mafia HQ” and I tapped into a semi-regular catchup Marty would have with his friends Alisdair FaulknerStephen Weir (a Kiwi), Chris Saad and Bardia Housman. It actually started when Stephen and his girlfriend would eat once a week at a venue, and invited other couples like Alisdair, and sometimes Bardia  (who was in the near end of an exhaustive year long process in selling his company to Adobe and starting to come up for air again) and their partners hanging out — but when the talk of the boys constantly turned to business the girls decided to let them do their own thing. I arrived in America around the time these drinks became a boys catchup driven by Steve, Marty and Al.

Over the next few months, it became a routine and then a ritual. And when visiting Australian’s wanted to meet us individually (as individually everyone in the group had a profile), we’d often invite them, which in turn built this brand as the “Aussie Mafia” catchup. People would get upset they weren’t invited as it was perceived as some industry event. I’ve actually had several confrontations with women on why they weren’t invited! It got to the point where it felt like work and not friends catching up anymore. This practically killed it, as some personalities just ruined the discussions and defeated the purpose of why us time-limited friends would catch up.

And then?
There is no real “Aussie Mafia”: we pay our taxes, we have work visa’s, and we don’t kill anyone that doesn’t pay us protection racket. And I am not the reason why Australia has a tech community — I simply innovated because I identified early on we needed a brand to rally around in Australia, which turned out to be so successful that these journalists credited me for creating the industry!

But there is something in this extended group that’s special, that American entrepreneur friends of ours profess jealousy of. Both Bardia and Stephen bought the building that I gave a tour of in The Next Web  — these two drinking buddies are now business partners. And there are more business arrangements to be announced in the coming months that have been developed along with discussions against trips to Mexico, Vegas and Miami.

There are a bunch of other Aussies and Kiwi’s I haven’t mentioned in this post and they know who they are. It’s an interesting time though because these social friendships (I’ve had some of the funnest nights in my life with the people in the above sketched image) are now becoming commercial relationships. A story of success will come out of this and I guess you could say we’re rewriting our history in this city.

UPDATE: 14 July 2011: Delighted to find out today that Kim Chen was a secret influence behind the Melbourne Silicon Beach drinks. There had been two previous attempts at getting Melbourne to have regular drinks, but it was Kim’s discussion with Roy Hui, Kate Kendall and Stuart Richardson that led to this being a huge success.

Veokami is an awesome new concert video curating service

I’ve been in America now two years (wow!) and one of the best things that’s happened to me since moving here is being involved in the Aussie community of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley (which actually is filled with New Zealander’s as well!). I don’t know all the Aussies, but the ones I do know have entirely justified the life-changing decision I made to move to America: the combined economic impact this group have had and will have in the next decade on the Australian, Kiwi and US economy really is amazing.

So it’s exciting to see one of my good friends and upcoming entrepreneur’s in the group Brett Welch strike it out on his own with his startup Veokami. Chris Hartley and Brett have built this funky piece of technology that aggregates all the video taken from a concert. For example, hundreds of people will record a show with their camera phones now and some upload it to youtube. Veokami synthesises all these videos and puts them in a timeline, so that it not only will organise the songs in a timeseries order, but will put them parallel to the timeline with videos shown from a different perspective. It’s like watching a TV recording of the concert, with you being able to switch camera angles…except the difference is, all this video is automatically organised and the video comes from hundreds of amateur footage shared by the Internet.

Check the video below for a sneak peak. And please vote for them on the hacklolla challenge as I’d love to see this service get integrated into concerts around the world, which further enables the power of the Internet and computing to transform our lives. It’s tools like this that put more power in the hands of the consumer and that alone is a reason why we should be supporting startups like this.

The potential of this technology really is interesting when you consider any public organisation of people — from political rallies to conferences to parties — the ubiquity of mobile camera’s now is unleashing a new collective intelligence in our world and Veokami helps stitch that intelligence together in a curated way.

There’s something about you turntable.fm

Three weeks ago, Turntable.fm became the hype in the echo chamber. Like I do with everything, I’m been observing and reflecting on how it’s being used by other people and myself. In short, I like it. It’s such a simple idea that could further disrupt the traditional radio business.

What it is
For the uninitiated, it’s an an Internet radio station, with a quirky web page that people interact in. People either sit in the room bopping their heads (approving the music) or people put themselves in the DJ chair and compete against another 4 DJ’s for the best tunes according to the room theme.

Turntable: room

My first observation: Spotify will kill it. Or not.
While they appear to be completely different, I keep thinking about my Spotify experience a year ago when I was in Europe: I was hooked. And it was for the same reason — I could subscribe to a friends playlist (turntable I can follow a friend and hear when they play). The benefit is that I can get filtered serendipity and discovery, like how radio has done for decades. (For example, you may love a particular kind of music but have no idea what the latest tracks are or the time to curate playlists — but you have friends who do so would rather follow their enthusiasm.)

Turntable’s cool, but I keep thinking it’s Myspace and Spotify is Facebook. When Spotify launches in the US (rumoured to finally be this month), then turntable’s core value in providing this discovery will be replaced as Spotify is just an amazing service. But I’m not so sure about that now, as actually it might be away where playlists in Spotify get generated so it’s completely complementary.

My second observation: it’s competitive curation
In this explosion of social media, people are starting to appreciate the role editors played in the traditional media. Curated content is a skill that algorithms still can’t beat humans at (and actually, the best kinds are based off existing human preferences).

With Turntable, you select a room and sit there listening to the music. People compete for the “DJ” spot at the table (of which there are a maximum of 5). A chat room allows people in the room to chat like the old days of IRC and give direct feedback to the DJ’s or discuss music. The vote meter helps regulate the quality of music as high votes not only impact the DJ’s rating but down votes can cut the song being played and move onto the next DJ’s track.

This motivation to please the crowd means there is an active effort to curate the playlists into something worthwhile. That’s an interesting concept to consider, as playlists in past have tended to be done by people along without real consideration of others listening to it (or at least, real time feedback to consider it).

My third observation: it’s social, like the Athenian assembly social
Turntable: chatroom

I don’t fully understand why yet, but the chat room aspect is the most powerful component of the experience despite being the most subtle. While the voting mentioned in my second observation creates a motivation to enhance their DJ reputation by playing good music, the chatroom makes this curation directly in touch with the audience.

It’s like a democracy, where those representing and controlling the room’s music are actually completely dependent on the goodwill of the audience. The voting is the main way this is enforced, but the chatroom is where people will negotiate. Games will be determined where certain patterns in music will be played; feedback of bad songs will be given to DJ’s; and requests will be sent. It’s like a radio station completely accountable to its audience.

Like Twitter, the service will evolve based on these discussions. Some of Twitter’s most useful features like @ replying (which turned it into a communications tool) and hashtags (which turned into into a information resource) were invented and popularised by their most passionate users. Turntable.fm offers a similar utility around music and I think will evolve in a similar way. Like any startup, it’s hard to know where turntable.fm will be in six months time, but one things for sure: it’s sticky and it’s only going to get better.