Monthly Archive for August, 2011

Why ICANN’s changes to TLD matter

ICANN two months ago made an announcement that domain names can now be extended beyond the generic TLD’s set (they also are allowing the use of non-Latin characters such as Cyrillic, Arabic, Chinese, etc). Meaning, instead of everyone competing to get a “.com”, people can buy “.yourbrand” and create websites off that. I think it’s brilliant — Ester Dyson, the founding chairperson of ICANN, doesn’t agree.

As someone that’s developed multiple online properties, organisations (both for-profit and not-for-profit) and had people try to rip-off several brands I’ve created, I’ve experienced enough to welcome this as a huge step forward — and here’s why.

ICANN’s strategy originally wanted to disrupt a market place player, which is why they assigned these generic TLD’s like .org and .net (.com was controlled by a corporation). But what matters now is not the historical reasons but what will benefit the world based on historical experience (and failed strategy). That benefit is better consumer protection and reduced costs of business.

Let’s rethink this
Consider the following:
(1) The purpose of a trademark is to allow customers the ability to distinguish what they are buying. It’s for the customer’s protection first.
(2) A domain name is simply a human-intelligent way to to access ip address. Whether it’s apple.com or apple.eats.microsoft — the point isn’t one of branding, but for humans to be able to identify a resource they seek.
(3) While there are plenty of domain names available, good ones no longer exist. There is a bias to having a “.com” and it’s why many companies from the web2.0 era had to resort to creative domains like del.icio.us and missing vowels like flickr.com

What the historical DNS system has done is create an unnecessary scarcity where domain name registrars and brokers of ‘premium’ domain names benefit. Having a company own the name space like “.IBM” makes perfect sense because “.com”, “.org”, and “.net” have lost their original meaning of distinguishing “commercial” businesses over “non-profits” and the like.

What matters more is that when a consumer wants the comfort of the company they seek, they can do it with the assurance it’s correct. “.paypal” for example could have huge implications for fraud detection for consumers (some fraud is done due to misspelled domains similar to the target or switching .com with another TLD). Better still, it actually decreases the cost of businesses for companies because they no longer need to chase the unlimited TLD variations of their name to protect their brand — which they only did so, so they wouldn’t lose customers confused by confusing branding.

ICANN’s changes are a radical change, but they are perfectly in line with the original intent of trademark law. Sorry Ester, but you’re wrong on this one.

Snake oil role models and silicon valley’s ponzi scheme

Several years ago, I considered someone “successful” because he had sold a business to a brand name technology company. Recently, I discovered he practically made no money from it. He’s still successful in my eyes, but when it comes to giving people advice on building a successful business I hold his opinion just as high as any other reasonably intelligent person — but no more.

????????  elevator floor illusion

This is a common issue for people living in Silicon Valley that they can relate to: Smart people that “sell” their company and become celebrated entrepreneurs. As a case in point Facebook has quite openly said they only acquire companies for the talent and not for the business itself. What this means is that the products the startup built isn’t the reason they exited; instead the value of the people in the business are what was acquired. If I was to start a solar company and buy expensive furniture — only to be “acquired” for the value of that furniture and nothing more, that’s not success; that’s just money being shuffled around.

I’ve been observing a trend where smart engineers think they are founders. They start a company, but they lack essential skills that makes the startup gradate to a sustainable business: which is what the entire point is for a startup (the search of a business model, which it can then execute on). These smart engineers are smart engineers — but they are not founders. And because there is a talent crunch, these companies will get “acquired” and be considered a success, distorting the story that will inspire and help future entrepreneurs.

A ponzi scheme built on snake oil
If a company is acquired before it generates positive cash flow or even revenue, it means what they build wasn’t a success in the context of “let’s copy that model”. As to why they were acquired, there could be multiple reasons: talent acquisitions are just one example, but there could be strategic value in acquiring a company as it complements the acquiring company’s existing product line. A product is a solution to a problem, and often people build great technology that is better classed as a feature. An acquisition gives these feature driven technologies a fake sense of validation. It’s a ponzi scheme.

Snake oil, Sapa

Economically, this ponzi scheme doesn’t hurt so there is no need to regulate it: these founders cash out something and the company that acquires them can likely absorb the losses. In fact, the maturity of the information technology industry now has allowed for outsourced innovation which I think is a great thing. (Innovating in a big company is practically impossible if you ever meet someone who has lived to tell the tale, and now Silicon Valley giants can acquire disruptive innovation rather than solely relying on it to be generated internally.) But it also creates a fake understanding of what success is. An externality of this are small ideas and nothing game changing, the higher calling for those that can change our world.

A true measure of success
I’ve come to realise that the only metric that matters in business is cash. Not revenues, not number of employees — but cash that sits in the bank and the inflow of it that will grow it. I get nervous when I see companies hire ahead of their revenue growth and skeptical of companies that boast about revenue but sugar coat their margins. Cash is king, and any evaluation of a business is useless without understanding its cash position.

Start -> All Programs -> Cash Machine!

Which leads to why the ultimate goal of a startup is to be able to generate enough cash from customers so that it can fund its operations. You may want to change the world and that’s an honourable goal for a startup — but if you are not sustainable, you’re not going to last long enough to have that impact.

When we hear about smart people selling their companies, stop to ask are they really successful? Technology allows us to automate processes, but this simply allows us to scale operations due to reduced cost. But scalability is irrelevant in the same way revenue is irrelevant for a professional services firm that relies on the hourly input of its staff. If you’ve built something that improves society, while at the same time return increasing profits despite a constant investment — you’re a success and you should be ranked according to the fundamental value of the asset you build. And if you sell your company for whatever reason, you’re still a success: just don’t go around rubbing that snake oil in people eyes, because that’s not the medicine we need to foster the next generation of great businesses.

Everest syndrome is the biggest crime in our society

US President Barack Obama made an observation last April:

One of the things every time I come to Silicon Valley that I’m inspired by but I’m also frustrated by is how many smart people are here, but also frustrated that I always hear stories about how we can’t find enough engineers, we can’t find enough computer programmers.  You know what, that means our education system is not working the way it should, and that’s got to start early.

A country facing recession and high unemployment, and yet Silicon Valley is in a talent crunch where companies like Google and Facebook have resorted to constantly acquiring companies now just for the talent. How so?

My friend Mike Casey (more on him below) and I  have come to call this “Everest Syndrome”. It’s where our smartest men and women are wasting their potential in middle management of a large corporation. Where they climb the corporate peaks for the elusive goal of getting to the top, many killing themselves along the way and only to find out how lonely it is at the top.

I believe it is the biggest crime of our time, as these people should be at the forefront of our economy, driving its progress and ultimately increasing our standard of living.

The Everest view

Sketching the picture with some stats from Australia
I’m good friends with the guys that run Grad connection, the largest graduate recruitment website in Australia and the fifth biggest jobs portal in the country. I asked one of the founders Mike Casey to pull out some numbers to illustrate how graduates enter the workforce. Although their total database is much higher, we were able to get 17,887 students who specified a specific course they had studied — which represents about 12% of the 150,000 students that graduate each year.

While I’m sure we could get more scientific on this sampling approach as there’s a bias on their employers and hence graduates, it still paints a fairly representative picture on the broad base ‘commercial’ disciplines. Gradconnection has just five categories which account for 88% of the total sample population, which are as follows:

  • Commerce: 31%
  • Accounting: 20%
  • Banking: 18%
  • Information Technology: 11%
  • Law: 8%

Accounting and banking means 38% of graduates end up in financial services, and the lawyers grow that professional services group up 8% to 46%. (For context, services make 71% of the Australian economy — with the topic of this post referring to the now distinguishable quaternary sector emerging.) That’s not a good thing and here’s why.

Student eeePC user

A story by the storyteller
I went to a school that made me think doing a business degree was the right thing; and when at university, thought working at a big bank or professional services firm was the ultimate goal and what would make me successful in life. Those things in themselves are not a bad thing, but the attitudes they created were: at high school, I thought the people studying art were wasting time; and at university, I convinced a former school mate to make our newspaper venture a non-profit university society rather than an actual business that his father was willing to bank roll. The reason? I didn’t want to threaten my studies by a project, that would prevent me from “something important” like getting a job at a big firm.

That attitude I had — fostered by my environment — is pathetic. (Although ironically, this “non-profit” which challenged us to find a useful product/market fit exposed me to the Internet and led me to develop my first business idea of electronic newspapers…which fortunately never went passed the business plan.) Everyone can similarly liken it to how every good family has children that become lawyers or doctors, because that’s considered a good direction in life. My father — a lawyer of nearly 50 years now –often complains about the over-supply of lawyers in the industry: there just isn’t enough work to go around to sustain all these graduates.

 

We need graduates that originate value
I’m a chartered accountant and I’m proud to have survived the grueling process to become one. But like all professions, my training  has me biased towards being a service provider. Service providers add a lot of value and we need them, but the thing is that they are optimisers of value, not originators of value.

If you had a nasty court case to handle due to a marriage breakdown, business conflict or car accident — then my father is a God-send because he can help you solve those issues with his expertise. But what happens where you don’t have any marriage, business or car issues that require his help? Well, you’re happy and he has no work. Service providers are inherently dependent on the rest of society, which is why there can only be a fixed supply of them.

This is very different to what I regard the originators of value. The art students I shunned at high school, can now do something in technology that has them one of the most sought after talent: design interfaces. Apple, a company that has brought interface design into the core of the company’s approach to building technology, will probably become the most valuable company in the world ever to have existed.

Similarly, scientists and engineers: they are builders. They can build value, for any industry and a solution to any problem limited only by their creativity. We will never have an excess supply of computer science students, because if they can’t get employed they can simply leverage their skills to entrepreneurship and employ themselves!

Accounting is the language of the business world and it’s why I decided on that path; but I’ve now come to appreciate computer science as the language of the information society. Those who smartly go in that direction, will be the leaders of our future.

future retro

We need more people in startups. But startups are not for everyone
If our smart people need to get out of the big corporations as a postulate, where should they go? They should be working in startups. And instead of being service providers at big banks, they should be product builders at disruptive companies.

But not everyone. I’ve observed multiple times personalities that are more detail-orientated and prefer structure tend to get more easily frustrated in the organised chaos that is a startup. They focus on execution, whereas a startup is more experimental and adaptive — and so clash with people who are the latter. While differences in personalities is a given thing in any work environment, the issue with these clashes is that you need people who can hold their head and not blow up. Conflict is fine, as long as it’s managed — and I’ve found more structure-orientated people tend to freak out more and then affect the work of their colleagues (which is the real issue, not the fact they need a more structured work environment).

But with that, is the only disclaimer I’m willing to give to Everest Syndrome. If there was one thing I could change in the world, it would be that. Because ahead of poverty, hunger, and war — it is smart people working on challenging problems that can help change the world. The Internet’s development and people understanding computer science creates the opportunity for not just new startups, but every day innovations that can automate processes (like research), connect people (like disaster relief) and maximise the opportunity for economic and political freedom for humanity.

Not everyone has the intelligence, passion and will to be a science researcher uncovering new medicines, one of the nobler career choices in my eyes. However, computer science is fast becoming the new literacy in business. Put more simply, if you don’t know how to put a website up on your own, then stop feeling pity for the third word’s first order impoverishment and reflect on the rich world’s higher-order impoverishment reflected in your inability. A symptom of a bigger impoverishment of the mind, that is a disillusion of what truly is valuable to drive our society forward.

Skies 1