Tag Archive for 'opportunity'

How to fundraise in the next six months

Is funding for startups now starting to tamper out? The answer is yes but not really.

Long term trends in the industry have fueled the creation of a seed bubble that is now starting to face the consequences of the tranche of new investors that increased activity in the market. The macro economic environment will create issues that impact the players that have driven the seed bubble which will create a sense of crisis in the industry, compounded with a permanent trend where it is simply now more competitive to raise money as a startup.

Ultimately, what is happening is a readjustment in the industry, rather than a cash crunch and a bubble bursting — and that there will still be money for smart founders and their teams. This is so long as they understand that one of the most important lessons to raising money is on the vision of the founder CEO and not just the traction of the product or calibre of the team.

I’ll be unpacking these statements below.

What made things bubbly
In mid 2010, we saw a dramatic turnaround in Silicon Valley: the boom was back. As some educated commentators noticed, a bubble formed in the early stage of the market. Seed stage startups were now raising money at inflated values. Rather than blaming this on any individual player, the long-term trends in the industry created this transformation in the industry,which in short are the lower costs to build an Internet business.

Consequently, the three major investor groups (incubators, angels and venture funds) boosted this trend to become a new boom. So how did it become bubbly?

Bubbles

With the incubators driven by the seed accelerators, it led to a dramatic increase in the volume of startups. The same money, but spread across more startups meant an increase in volume. This in itself is not what helped cause the early stage bubble, in the same way that a forest is not responsible for a bush fire. However, a less obvious explanation on the impact of this is that investors were now being over-whelmed by deal flow, that they now couldn’t spend the adequate amount of due diligence time required to make an investment. Quicker decisions made to not miss out, lead to fatigue due to the volume and consequently poor judgement, which may lead investors making deals that potentially may not have done if things were at a slower pace. When people are making investment decisions not grounded in fundamental valuations, that’s when we have a bubble.

And the angel investors have been no angels themselves. More startups were now getting funded, more often — shifting the perception of (perceived power) between investors and entrepreneurs that anyone could raise money now. Their biggest crime is in funding seed companies with small ideas hoping for quick returns (like talent acquisitions) or for status to build their personal brands, contributing to the amount of companies that survive post incubation by which will never make it past the gates of a VC.

The impact of venture capital in seed has also fueled the boom but on the valuation side. For a VC, putting money into a startup at a seed stage means less to them than an angel (ie, they are not as price sensitive). Several VC’s don’t set the terms of the money they put in, leaving the entrepreneur to, who price their round as high as they can (if someone was to give you a blank check, would you put a lower or higher number?!). So while some people claim it’s the VC’s that fueled the bubble, it’s more correct to say VC’s facilitated entrepreneurs to over-price themselves for short-term benefit — but long term at a disadvantage as they now have a higher bar to meet in follow on funding.

How the economy will impact the tech fundraising environment
You have $10m sitting around — what are you going to do with that cash? Well, invest it of course. You can have it sit in a term deposit, and make less than 1% interest; or you could put it into a startup and make a 900% return: that’s the allure of angel investing in the early stage. But what if you don’t want to do either? What’s going to generate a return in this economy that’s not idle cash in the bank but also relatively safe at generating a good return? The stock market.

When the stock market crashes due to a confidence issue after news is announced about the economy, so does the wealth of these wealthy individuals. For this reason, the correlation between the economy and the appetite of angels to invest will directly be proportional; whereas it will have practically no impact on newly raised venture funds (typically a 10 year fund, will be actively invested for its first three years).

This is especially true of funds that have been performing in the market as they will be able to continue raising money from limited partners desperate to get returns on their capital. (That said, the amount of successful VC’s is a separate issue — I’ve been told only 30 out of 600 firms in the last decade have shown positive returns.)

recession buster

In other words, don’t let the economic news affect your thinking on fundraising unless you’re trying to raise from an angel: VC’s actually love it in a downturn as they can now regain their inboxes.

The impact of the seed boom and the road from here
It’s now been 18 months since the seed “bubble” really started. It’s also now when we are seeing the results of these investments.

Startups eventually are going to need to tap into larger investment dollars available only by VC’s as angels bow out of the larger rounds. The impact for the entrepreneur is that it’s now a more competitive landscape to raise funding: a VC who previously picked 2 companies out of 20 to do a series A round, now has 100 to choose from…but can still only pick 2.

Why does this matter? If less startups are being funded, it means they will fizzle out. Investors lose their money. And the truth sets in that angel investing is a risky game. This won’t lead to a significant decrease in angel investing, but it does mean a sobering reality for those investors who just lost some of their wealth.

For existing startups that have already raised a seed round (from angels or VC’s), we’re going to see the impact of the seed bubble in three ways:

(a) You need to sell more than a dream now. For startups trying to raise follow on funding, they now have more data points of their traction and so venture investors are more acute of their cost of capital needs being met.  Seed rounds are considered the new Series A, meaning the funding is significant enough that a startup can exist for 18 months — a lot can happen during that time period, so when they go to raise their Series A, the VC’s are no longer investing in an idea and team (a “dream”), but an idea, team, and quantified traction of how realistic the business will be (still a dream, but instead that dream is being explained the next day when people are awake…).

(b) You may be great but overpriced. For startups with existing high valuations from the seed round, we’re going to see higher priced Series A rounds. The consequence is that the smart money will simply step away from this. Others may participate. But what was previously thought a good thing — entrepreneurs being able to over-price their seed round just because they could — is now going to impact them as they now will be raising (or expected to) at a much higher valuation without the necessary traction to justify it.

(c) The bar is now higher. VC’s are being flooded with deal flow now, thanks to the broader trend of lower costs to start a company and looser capital at the early stage (and no, that’s not a good thing as it’s leading to burnout in VC’s trying to keep up which will lead to poorly-researched deals being done, making a real bubble). As a consequence and to the point I raised earlier, there is now just more competition for the same finite spots of investment opportunity by a venture fund. You may have a great product, a great team, and some great traction — but you’re now being compared to many more startups who also have great products, great teams, and great traction.

Never forget in fundraising the cost of capital investors need to meet
At the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco last year, I noticed an interesting thing: what the angels and micro-VC’s were saying about what you need to raise capital, was very different from what the experienced VC’s were saying. The VC’s talked about vision, the angels talked about customers, revenues and traction.

If you’re fundraising, don’t underestimate vision and quantifying your market opportunity. Cost of capital is the reason.

golf lesson

In finance, the cost of capital is a term to describe a return needed on equity — think of it like the interest rate on debt. Venture funds who raised money from limited partners, have a cost of capital which is to be able to return the fund and then some. I feel like people see professional investors as rich guys that can give money simply if they like you — not quite. VC’s need to make money, and they are going to do that by investing in startups that they think have a chance of generating a return.

So how do that do that? Well, they look at the team and the product because after all that’s the execution part of the equation. But just as important and if not more important, is the market opportunity. If a VC has a $200m fund, that means they need to have a 20% stake in a billion dollar startup for them to return their fund. If they invest in anything that’s worth less than a billion dollars, then it’s not worth the investment. Of course, VC’s have differing strategies in their investment thesis and may invest in something for other reasons, but for the most part, the reason why VC’s are so interested in the vision is because the CEO founder is painting the picture of a best case scenario of what the opportunity is.

The fundraising equation a professional investor needs satisfied in their head could be explained as the market opportunity (potential valuation) multiplied by the probability of achieving that opportunity (the risk factors in execution reducing the probability) multiplied by the percentage stake in the business. If you’re a billion dollar idea which a good chance at success, why wouldn’t a VC want to invest in you? Founders overlook the importance of the vision because they ignore the fact VC’s are professional investors in the business of generating returns, and instead focus on the product, relationship, and confusing a good product from a product that has the potential to meet an investors cost of capital.

As an aside, this is also why long term we will be seeing more and more micr0-VC funds existing, funding smaller ideas. Why? Because if you think of the equation above, the return needed by Micro VC’s (with say a $50m fund) is much smaller now — an acquisition signed off by a Google/Microsoft/Yahoo VP for $50m rather than a billion dollar IPO is all they need.

The moral to this story?
The industry is in an adjustment phase but we’re not going to see the ugly side of the seed boom as the bubble will be absorbed and far away from the public markets.

the road gets better from here

You need traction to raise money as that proves your execution and reduces the risk for an investor, but traction without vision is just as bad as a vision without traction. In the next few months, people are going to start panicking, but don’t — the best entrepreneurs will still be able to raise money. You just need to be aware of the cost of capital for the investors you pitch.

Just remember to nail that vision bit.

Delicious will go down as one of the great tragedies

As Marshall Kirkpatrick eloquently wrote, I’m also another person disappointed that Yahoo! is shutting down Delicious, the social bookmarking site that helped generate the Web 2.0 trend. But this reflects a deeper problem at Yahoo.

How Yahoo’s spreadsheets miss the point
As a “heavy” user myself, it may be ironic to say that I never visit the site; I often will not bookmark a site for month’s. And yet, it hits me like a shot to the heart to hear that it will be shut down. Why? Because it’s so valuable to me. The amount of times I’ve been able to rediscover content I’ve previously read has alone made it valuable — the tagging innovation that Del.icio.us pioneered makes my search for hard-to-recall content much more efficient. But there was even a time, where the most popular links of delicious were my homepage: the quality of the content being shared justified my daily attention in the same way other aggregators have to me like how techmeme.com have.

In fact, I’ve recently rediscovered this as I experiment with the Rockmelt browser, and I check the most popular links via the widget on the side of my browser.

Delicious via Rockmelt

But notice how I don’t visit the website? I might see what links are popular, but that doesn’t mean I will click on them. I don’t visit the actual delicious website and so the metrics the Yahoo management are reviewing are skewed. If advertising is on the site (the only type of revenue model attempted), it would not convert much. They believe no one is using the service, but the truth is, they are.

I never thought the “network” operating model could suffer due to the fact metrics measuring value can’t be quantified. So it’s completely reasonable why a Yahoo management team thinks it time to shut down this service: low on traffic, low on revenue. Numbers in the spreadsheet say this is a loss: let’s kill it, says the MBA.

What we have here though is a management team who not only are out of touch with how people use delicious (potentially because they don’t get the vision that only the founder truly gets — and he’s long gone), but more important, completely misunderstand how to capture the value of this valuable asset (not property). As a point in comparison, Yahoo acquired the other Web2.0 darling Flickr, which is a service I also have been using for over 5 years. And when I say using, I mean a paying customer that has paid his subscription without hesitation every year (which I will note, there are not many services I pay for which makes this even more impressive). Like Delicious, I store data with Flickr that I may not use for a while — but the way it manages my data has become an invaluable tool for my life.

I worry more about Yahoo and any company it acquires
Yahoo’s management should have implemented a subscription model like Flickr, because it’s obvious that a “book marking” site will never get a lot of a traffic (you can book mark sites without having to need to visit delicious.com). Tools like this don’t make money from traffic; and network business models like this generate value beyond the confines of the web property.
With the news breaking, it will now force an action. Either sell it to people who have now seen their cards (in fact, I’ve had friends of mine not in tech ask me how can they put an offer for this!), open-source it (like how Google reacted when etherpad was going to be shut down), or shut it down as they said they want to and lose the opportunity to capture its value. Of course, they could publicly announce they won’t shut it down, but everyone now knows what they think and it will kill the service due to new users being paranoid about their data. Yahoo! gains nothing with this.

But the sad thing about this, is that it’s forced them to ignore the opportunity of potentially being more innovative with the revenue model. And because they failed to do this, this impacts the company more generally — monetisation is key to sustainability and if you have a management that can’t do that (which presumably, is the reason it’s being shut down), then there’s something even more wrong with this new age media company that as Jeff Jarvis has called, has become the last old-media company.

Yahoo is an amazing company, and companies need to make tough decisions sometimes to grow the company. But not understanding the potential of Delicious will go down in web history as one of the great tragedies — and if Yahoo sells it, one of its biggest blunders.

Update: And just as I clicked “save” on this post, the Delicious blog posted saying they are now going to “sell” it as it’s not a strategic fit, which as I mentioned in my post was one of the likely outcomes. So if it’s not a strategic fit, it begs the question again, what is Yahoo?

A billion dollar opportunity with video

When Google made an offer for On2, I was dumbfounded. I wrote to a friend working at Google the following:

Phat. But I’m confused. How does Google benefit by making the codec free? I understand Google’s open culture, but for 100million, really? They help the world, but what’s the incentive for Google? (Other than of course, controlling it).

The reply: “incentive = greater adoption of HTML 5 = apps are written for HTML 5 = apps can be monetized using Adsense”.

Interesting perspective from a smart Googler who had no real insider information. But no cigar.

Newsteevee posted a follow up article today on what Google is going to do with this technology, quoting the Free Software Foundation. What really made me get thinking was this (emphasis mine:

Google’s Open Source Programs Manager Chris DiBona had previously argued that Ogg Theora would need codec quality and encoding efficiency improvements before a site as big as YouTube could use it as its default video codec. The FSF now writes in its letter that it never agreed with these positions, but that Google must have faith in VP8 being a better codec if it invested its money in it (Google spent a total of about $133 million on ON2).

The open source advocacy group apparently realized that Google wouldn’t switch codecs from one day to another, which is why it suggests a number of smaller steps to make VP8 mainstream. “You could interest users with HD videos in free formats, for example, or aggressively invite users to upgrade their browsers (instead of upgrading Flash),” the letter reads, adding that this would eventually lead to users not bothering to install Flash on their computers.

Think about that for a second: video on the web finally becomes free for real and open, becoming a core infrastructure to the online world – but the default is crappy. Don’t like crappy? Well Mr and Ms consumer, if you want High Definition, you need to pay for a subscription to a premium codec by the already dominate Adobe or another rising star. Assuming you get the whole word watching video and only 1% convert – holy crap, isn’t that a brilliant business model?

Bono, the lead singer of the band U2 wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times the following recently:

The only thing protecting the movie and TV industries from the fate that has befallen music and indeed the newspaper business is the size of the files”

Simple but profound insight from the famed entertainer. So with this fairly obvious logic, why isn’t the movie industry (backed by Google and Apple) innovating business models in this area? Value comes from scarcity – and quality is the best way of doing it. The reason why box office sales and Blu-ray broke a record in 2009, is because the quality is worth the premium for consumers.

What’s the incentive for Google, to answer my own question? The return on investment to be associated with a default open technology that you give the option to upgrade to users, is a billion dollar business waiting to happen. Doing no evil to the world and securing future growth at the same time sounds like a Google business in the making,

Advertising on the Internet needs innovation

On the weekend, I caught up with Cameron Reilly of the Podcast network , and he was telling me about his views on monetising podcasts. It got me thinking again about those things I like to think about: how content can be monetised. Despite the growth in online advertising which is tipped to be $80 billion, I think we still have a lot more innovation to go with revenue models, especially ones that help content creators.

Advertising is a revenue stream that has traditionally enabled content-creators to monetise their products, in the absence of people paying a fee or subscription. With the Internet, content has undergone a radical changing of what it is – digital, abundant, easily copied – whilst the Internet has offered new opportunities for how advertising is done. However, the Internet has identified the fundamental weaknesses of advertising , as consumers can now control their content consumption, which allows them to ignore embedded advertising altogether. Content on the other hand, still remains in demand, but means of monetising it are slipping into a free economy which is not sustainable. I make that point to illustrate not that professional content creation is a sunset industry – but rather there’s a big market opportunity as this massive industry needs better options.

time mag

"Hey man, there’s this new thing called the Internet. Sounds pretty cool"

One of the biggest innovations in advertising (and enabled by the Internet) is of contextual search advertising. This has been popularised by Google, which now makes 98% of its $17 billion revenue from these units. This advertising dominates online advertising (40% of total) because of its pull nature, whereby key-words stated by a consumer in effect state their intention of what they are interested or would like to purchase. Whilst this is a highly efficient form of advertising, it also has its weaknesses – for example, it is not as effective outside of the search engine environment. Google makes 35% of its revenue from the adSense network , where these contextual ads are placed on peoples personal websites. Evidence from high traffic bloggers suggests they barely make enough money through this type of advertising. Another point to consider is that aspects of the Google network include significant partnership agreements like the one with AOL which accounts for 10% of Googles revenue (this is a 2005 figure which has likely changed, but Google does state in their 2007 report "Our agreements with a few of the largest Google Network members account for a significant portion of revenues derived from our AdSense program. If our relationship with one or more large Google Network members were terminated or renegotiated on terms less favorable to us, our business could be adversely affected.". AOL most recently reported for Q1 2008 half a billion dollars largely from search advertising ).

Other attempts at creating more efficient advertising which have existed for over a decade, have come in the form of profiling or behavioural tracking. However, these forms of advertising has also highlighted the growing awareness of consumer privacy being eroded, and is under heavy scrutiny by activist groups and government. Facebook is a company that is best posed to deliver new forms of advertising because of the rich profiling data it has, but it itself has faced massive backlash .

My view is that the majority of online advertising for successful individual publishers at least, has largely come from traditional approaches to advertising – a masthead blog with a sales team that uses display advertising. How effective this display advertising is is debateable with widespread banner blindness and consumer control over their content, but it would appear that this is more a case of advertisers seeing this as the least bad on the overall scale of opportunities. The fact it replicates the mass media approach of number of unique consumers viewing the content, and not the types of users, means this isn’t anything new other than being done in a digital environment.

Digital content is in need of a better monetisation system.
Targeted advertising is the most efficient form, yet consumer privacy is a growing force preventing this. What we need, is not a new advertising technology, but a new way of thinking about advertising – in a way that can help the content economy rather than riding on it without giving benefit. Contextual advertising sounds great in theory as it calculates key-word frequency of words on a website, to match it to a key word ad – but it’s proving in practice these ads are not very relevant. Yet trying to think of a smarter way to advertise, may be the wrong question – perhaps half the problem itself is advertising as a concept?

perspective

Are we running down a tunnel, only to find there is nothing there?

Content which comes in the form of news (historical and breaking), analysis, and entertainment can be monetised via a persons attention or through a transaction (ie, subscription, fee, etc). Both this approaches have different barriers.

– Attention: The key driver is increased dollars per unique person, over a period of time. The barriers to this approach is the challenge of identifying the individual in a way that gives advertising that is highly relevant and will result in a conversion. In other words, privacy privacy privacy.

– Alternative payment: Requiring consumers to pay for content is a barrier due to the paid wall. What is more problematic for digital content, is that the ability to replicate it freely makes it not just easy to do for the masses but has created a culture of if it’s not free, it’s not worth purchasing unless its really necessary. There needs to be a strong value proposition for a consumer to purchase content, and in the absense of a brand and marketing, the restriction of what value the content offers is a barrier for consumer demand as they don’t know what they are missing out on.

So as you see above, content creators are in a difficult position. Charging people reduces their opportunity unless they are really established, but even then, due to the digital environment they don’t have any control over subsequent distribution (with rampant piracy). Yet advertising is fraught with being irrelevant and hence not effective (so advertisers go to other forms) and any attempts to make it more relevant, gets held back by the concerns of privacy advocates (and rightly so). Whilst the Internet parades itself as an advertising growth machine, it’s growing in new areas but not the old areas that have traditionally been the medium for advertisers.

This advertising growth is largely being driven through utility computing products that aim to make information retrieval more efficient (ie, search). However, the growth for the content creators, is not happening. As Cam was telling me, in a market like Australia – small content organisations like TPN and Bronwen Clune ‘s Norgs , don’t have access to the big end of town for a sales team. And he didn’t have to tell me, those Google ads for the smaller guys, are not enough to pay the bills. That small to middle end is not being really catered for.

But before you jump on the phone and create some mid-tier advertising network that caters for a niche, think about the real problem: content creators need a better solution to monetise their content. But advertisers also need a better way of selling, other than some slick-talking sales person who can sell ads on pageviews (a broken model with weak alternatives ) They need advertising that is suited for their product, but the market now includes other products media outlets never had to compete with like marketplaces now happening online and utility computing products. Whilst the technology community obsesses about search , let’s also remember we have yet to see a new way to monetise content that is superior to the old world. Contextual advertising of text is the latest new thing area, but that technique is nearly a decade old. As I prove above, outside of the search environment, it is showing to not be that effective.

Where is the innovation going to come from? Not through technology but with a new paradigm shift like how content creators operate . New ways of thinking about the way we ‘sell’ like what the VRM Project is challenging. But perhaps more fundamentally, is an understanding that the holy grail of targeted advertising has got a speed hump called privacy – and that may actually be a sign of not going faster towards better targeting, but changing the vehicle all together.

Emerging trends? Nope – its been a long time coming

When I read the technology news, concepts about cloud computing still seem to be debated . I think to myself: you are kidding me right? I take a step back and think maybe the future won’t be like the current mantra, but then again, trends take time to materialise.

Scanning through my hard-disk, I could not help but laugh after I found a document I wrote to a friend in February 2006 – and as I said in the document "Those six points, as rough as they are, form core elements in my thinking on how I approach business on the Internet …[I’ve been thinking about it] since November 2003"

So below, is literally a copy and paste of that document that has seeds from way back in 2003 when I submitted a grant application for a business idea (ahem, no response obviously…). The fact that nearly half a decade has passed since I first synthesised these ideas (and no doubt, from reading of the thinkers of the day not just me being imaginative) means they are not flake predictions: they are real. Ready?

1. Digital future. All information – news reports, television shows, educational text books, radio shows – are being digitalised, coexisting with their analogue versions. Whether the digital replicas replace their analogue counterparts is pure speculation. But one fact we cannot ignore is that the possibility is there – all content is now digital. And consumers will switch to the digital version if the value of the content consumed is better realised in digital form

  • Quick case study. Many pundits believe newspapers will not exist in 15 years. I know they won‚Äôt exist in 15 years, and I have spent three years thinking about this very point. At first I used to think digital replicas, as shown by http://www.newsstand.com, was what was going to transform the newspaper business. What I didn‚Äôt realise, is that the current newspaper experience far exceeds the digital replica (I was hung up on the idea of electronic paper [www.eink.com] ‚Äì which still remains a big possibility). But I knew the digital future was going to make the current newspaper business obsolete ‚Äì there is more value out of digitial. It only just hit me recently by observing my own behaviour‚Äì traditional newspapers are not going to be replaced by digital versions ‚Äì rather, the method¬¨ that people receive their news is going to change. And this fact is embodied by the recent acknowledgment of the world‚Äôs great newspapers of not being in the newspaper business anymore, but in the information business now. I used to read every single major newspaper, and several international newspapers, as I was a debater ‚Äì I was a heavy news consumer, and I still am. Today, I still follow the news very closely ‚Äì but I have not read a newspaper all year. Why? I receive all my information needs through websites, RSS feeds and blogs. A new method, made possible by the digital future. People means of consuming content will change because of digital.

2. Internet as infrastructure. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the internet will be the core infrastructure of anything to do with information and communications. The power of the internet as infrastructure to communications and information unlocks opportunities that are transforming the world. Radio, TV, phone calls – you name it – can be done via the internet protocol now.


3. Content is king, distribution is queen – but advertising is what pays for the cost of that sting. Google now makes more revenue than the three prime time television stations in the USA. In monetary terms, that’s about $10 billion a year. And yet, 99% of that revenue comes from one thing – Google’s click-through advertising (about 45% from Google results, the rest from the Google network of publishers through adsense). HarperCollins announced last week that they are trialling a new business model of providing books for free but supported by advertising – the consumer book business up until then was literally the only segment of media not reliant on advertising as a revenue model. Whilst broadcasting organisations make money from several sources, advertising is literally the backbone of their revenue. To make money out of any content, you place a huge reliance on advertising.
In short, if you want to make money out of content, you need to understand advertising

4. One-to-one advertising is the superior form of advertising. Partly due to technological factors, the mass media could only advertise through a one-to-many medium – meaning one message to many. The digital-internet future has transformed that ability, by customising content on a one-to-one basis. If advertising, and content can be targeted to an individual’s personality profile and preferences, it allows for the value of the content to be maximised, with 1-to-1 advertising returning a higher return on campaigns Рfar superior than any other form of advertising. Superior because it can make advertising more relvant for consumers (ie, higher response rate), it can increase advertising inventory (mass media advertising is a bit like throwing pamphlets out of a plane, hoping the right people catch them Р1-to-1 means the right people get it at minimal cost and best of all, it creates better accountability which is what advertisers now demand.

5. The best business practice for one-to-one advertising is not there yet. The internet is the platform that enables one-to-one advertising, and yet, this opportunity has still not been fully exploited. There is a massive need in the market, for a means of providing personalised advertising far superior to the current technologies and methods. Google populised an innovative form of advertising through click-throughs. However internet click-throughs, despite providing more accountable and better targeted advertising, still lacks the ability to unleash the real power of one-to-one advertising. The power of the internet as a one-to-one advertising platform is still in its infancy

6. Privacy matters. Privacy is the right to determine what information is available about you, when you want it to be available, and to whom you want it available to. Current practices of companies who gain as much information about you through your sales history, your activity on the web, and the like – are often doing so without the full knowledge of the consumer. It is information collected by spying on a consumer, and whilst some people retaliate by various measures (ie, fake information, anonymous proxies), there is great mistrust by the public in providing personal information, or rather, too much to one organisation. If information is to be used about people, there needs to be proper approval – both for legal reasons (a business model cannot rely on consumer stupidity) but also for the integrity of the data (ie, a cooperative consumer will provide more reliable data)

  • Companies like Double Click who would collect your surfing history relied on placing a cookie on your computer ‚Äì what happens if you delete that cookie? And what happens if your dad, mum, and cousin from Brazil, use the same computer as you? That creates a fairly inconsistent ‚Äúprofile‚Äù of a person that is to be targeted

I had totally forgotten I had written that. And reading it now it’s a bit lame and I could probably extend on things a little bit – actually there are things I have actually written in blog posts this last year. Better still, I can provide actual evidence that validate these trends as advancing like the existence of the VRM project for advertising, the big clash with Facebook and privacy (and lets not forget the first time ), and Microsoft’s recent announcement about moving away from software (to pick but a few examples).

If this is what I was seeing in November 2003 as a naive university student absorbing what the industry trends were back then; February 2006 when I wrote to my friend what I thought he needed to consider about the future; and the fact I still agree with it in May 2008 – I think things are beyond speculation: these are long-term trends that are entrenched.

Information overload: we need a supply side solution

About a month ago, I went to a conference filled with journalists and I couldn’t help but ask them what they thought about blogs and its impact on their profession. Predictably, they weren’t too happy about it. Unpredictably however, were the reasons for it. It wasn’t just a rant, but a genuine care about journalism as a concept – and how the blogging “news industry” is digging a hole for everyone.

Bloggers and social media are replacing the newspaper industry as a source of breaking news. What they still lack, is quality – as there have been multiple examples of blogs breaking news that in the rush to publish it, turns out it was in fact fallacious . Personally, I think as blogging evolves (as a form of journalism) the checks and balances will be developed – such as big names blogs with their brands, effectively acting like a traditional masthead. And when a brand is developed, more care is put into quality.

Regardless, the infancy of blogging highlights the broader concern of “quality”. With the freedom for anyone to create, the Information Age has seen us overload with information despite our finite ability to take it all in. The relationship between the producer of news and consumer of news, not only is blurring – but it’s also radically transforming the dynamics that is impacting even the offline world.

Traditionally, the concept of “information overload” has been relegated as a simple analysis of lower costs to entry as a producer of content (anyone can create a blog on wordpress.com and away you go). However what I am starting to realise, is the issue isn’t so much the technological ability for anyone to create their own media empire, but instead, the incentive system we’ve inherited from the offline world.

Whilst there have been numerous companies trying to solve the problem from the demand side with “personalisation” of content (on the desktop , as an aggregator , and about another 1000 different spins), what we really need are attempts on the supply side, from the actual content creators themselves.

info overload

Too much signal, can make it all look like noise

Information overload: we need a supply side solution
Marshall Kirkpatrick , along with his boss Richard McManus , are some of the best thinkers in the industry. The fact they can write, makes them not journalists in the traditional sense, but analysts with the ability to clearly communicate their thoughts. Add to the mix Techcrunch don Michael Arrington , and his amazing team – they are analysts that give us amazing insight into the industry. I value what they write; but when they feel the stress of their industry to write more, they are not only doing a disservice to themselves, but also to the humble reader they write to. Quality is not something you can automate – there’s a fixed amount a writer can do not because of their typing skills but because quality is a factor of self-reflection and research.

The problem is that whilst they want, can and do write analysis – their incentive system is biased towards a numbers system driven by popularity. The more people that read and the more content created (which creates more potential to get readers) means more pageviews and therefore money in the bank as advertisers pay on number of impressions. The conflict of the leading blogs churning out content , is that their incentive system is based on a flawed system in the pre-digital world, which is known as circulation offline, and is now known as pageviews online.

A newspaper primarily makes money through their circulation: the amount of physical newspapers they sell, but also the audited figures of how many people read their newspaper (readership can have a factor of up to three times the physical circulation ). With the latter, a newspaper can sell space based on their proven circulation: the higher the readership, the higher the premium. The reason for this is that in the mass media world, the concept of advertising was about hitting as many people as possible. I liken it to the image of flying a plane over a piece of land, and dropping leaflets with the blind faith that of those 100,000 pamphlets, at least 1000 people catch them.

It sounds stupid why an advertiser would blindly drop pamphlets, but they had to: it was the only way they could effectively advertise. For them to make sales, they need the ability to target buyers and create exposure of the product. The only mechanism available for this was the mass media as it was a captured audience, and at best, an advertiser could places ads on specialist publications hoping to getter better return on their investment (dropping pamphlets about water bottles over a desert, makes more sense than over a group of people in a tropical rainforest). Nevertheless, this advertising was done on mass – the technology limited the ability to target.

catch the advert

Advertising in the mass media: dropping messages, hoping the right person catches them

On the Internet, it is a completely new way to publish. The technology enables a relationship with a consumer of content, a vendor, a producer of content unlike anything else previously in the world. The end goal of a vendor advertising is about sales and they no longer need to drop pamphlets – they can now build a one on one relationship with that consumer. They can now knock on your door (after you’ve flagged you want them to), sit down with you, and have a meaningful conversion on buying the product.

“Pageviews” are pamphlets being dropped – a flawed system that we used purely due to technological limitations. We now have the opportunity for a new way of doing advertising, but we fail to recognise it – and so our new media content creators are being driven by an old media revenue model.

It’s not technology that holds us back, but perception
Vendor Relationship Management or (VRM) is a fascinating new way of looking at advertising, where the above scenario is possible. A person can contain this bank of personal information about themselves, as well as flagging their intention of what products they want to buy – and vendors don’t need to resort to advertising to sell their product, but by building a relationship with these potential buyers one on one. If an advertiser knows you are a potential customer (by virtue of knowing your personal information – which might I add under VRM, is something the consumer controls), they can focus their efforts on you rather than blindly advertising on the other 80% of people that would never buy their product). In a world like this, advertising as we know it is dead because we know longer need it.

VRM requires a cultural change in our world of understanding a future like this. Key to this is the ability for companies to recognise the value of a user controlling their personal data is in fact allowing us new opportunities for advertising. Companies currently believe by accumulating data about a user, they are builder a richer profile of someone and therefore can better ‘target’ advertising. But companies succeeding technologically on this front, are being booed down in a big way from privacy advocates and the mainstream public. The cost of holding this rich data is too much. Privacy by obscurity is no longer possible, and people demand the right of privacy due to an electronic age where disparate pieces of their life can be linked online

One of the biggest things the DataPortability Project is doing, is transforming the notion that a company somehow has a competitive advantage by controlling a users data. The political pressure, education, and advocacy of this group is going to allow things like VRM. When I spoke to a room of Australia’s leading technologists at BarCamp Sydney about DataPortability, what I realised is that they failed to recognise what we are doing is not a technological transformation (we are advocating existing open standards that already exist, not new ones) but a cultural transformation of a users relationship with their data. We are changing perceptions, not building new technology.

money on the plate

To fix a problem, you need to look at the source that feeds the beast

How the content business will change with VRM
One day, when users control their data and have data portability, and we can have VRM – the content-generating business will find a light to the hole currently being dug. Advertising on a “hits” model will no longer be relevant. The page view will be dead.

Instead, what we may see is an evolution to a subscription model. Rather than content producers measuring success based on how many people viewed their content, they can now focus less on hits and more on quality as their incentive system will not be driven by the pageview. Instead, consumers can build up ‘credits’ under a VRM system for participating (my independent view, not a VRM idea), and can then use those credits to purchase access to content they come across online. Such a model allows content creators to be rewarded for quality, not numbers. They will need to focus on their brand managing their audiences expectations of what they create, and in return, a user can subscribe with regular payments of credits they earned in the VRM system.

Content producers can then follow whatever content strategy they want (news, analysis, entertainment ) and will no longer be held captive by the legacy world system that drives reward for number of people not types of people.

Will this happen any time soon? With DataPortability, yes – but once we all realise we need to work together towards a new future. But until we get that broad recognition, I’m just going to have to keep hitting “read all” in my feed reader because I can’t keep up with the amount of content being generated; whilst the poor content creators strain their lives, in the hope of working in a flawed system that doesn’t reward their brilliance.

Climate change: forget the science, it’s real for the market

I recently sat through a two hour presentation on climate change at work. My employer this year (a big four firm) has been mobilising to respond to the market with a climate change solution for our clients – and the things happening are amazing. They want to be first-movers in what is a huge business opportunity. Even through I have had dealings with people on the climate change team, it wasn’t until I sat through this presentation that a few things clicked for me: climate change is real. And I am not talking about the science – it’s real for the market economy.

I wouldn’t be doing any justice if I attempted to explain what I learned, however I will explain something that was a big realisation for me. This guy that spoke is a world expert, and he reckons more has happened in the last eight months of his career regarding climate change than it has in 25 years of his career. To understand why, is to understand the realisation of the markets.

Increasing shareholder value

If it’s one phrase that sums up corporations working within the framework of capitalism, it’s about “increasing shareholder value”. It’s a term that is mocked because we are sick of hearing it, but it essentially explains the market: investors make money by putting their money where they can generate more value for their buck. Value creation is the centre of everything – a start-up company generates value through innovative new products that people buy; a tax agent generates value by reducing your tax expense; a real estate agent generates value because they can sell your property at a higher valuation. In the context of corporations, people make money in companies through returns: a higher share price means a higher value of that share or piece of property. Companies are judged on their profits because more profits reflect a higher return an investor gets from that entity; just like a home being sold, it reflects the additional value they can generate from that piece of property they own.

Profits reflect shareholder returns, which come in two forms.

1) dividends, which are cash payouts from profit distributions to shareholders. An investor wants higher profits, because it means more cash for them on their existing shareholding – it reflects a better return on their investment.

2) retained earnings, which is when a company doesn’t pay the dividend but holds it so they can fund future growth. More profits, means extra cash to invest to generate more growth in the entity, which ultimately means more value. If you buy a share for $1, and the company grows and your share is now $2 – you are a happy chappy because you’ve effectively doubled your money.

How climate change now has a price

Lets say we generate x amount of carbon tons a year. The objective of climate change, is that we can reduce the amount of x with time, and then get to the stage where we can grow sustainably, which means for every x we generate, we can offset that bit of carbon so as to to generate a net of zero on the environment. That’s called sustainable economic growth.

Lets say y is the amount it costs to remove a ton of carbon dioxide. Meaning y represents the expense of generating carbon. So if you times x with y – that equals the amount it will costs to remove the carbon dioxide we generate so that we have a net impact of zero on the environment (or at least, the cost to reduce emissions). If the government forces you to reduce your emissions, like they force you to pay taxes, that expense has now become very real.

How much a ton of Carbon Dioxide will cost is a big issue yet to be settled, but as you can tell y is an important number because it determines how much it costs for you to reduce your carbon footprint. A very conservative estimate is that it costs 25 US dollars to remove 1,000 tonnes of carbon. The reason I say conservative is because more recent evidence suggests it is actually a lot more than that (I think he quoted 40 euros). Using the $25 figure, he said that it will cost us $15 trillion to remove carbon dioxide. There is so much pressure on governments from voters, lobby groups and the like, that governments (like here in Australia) are going to mandate that you offset your carbon emissions each year. The Kyoto agreement is saying a 60% reduction from 1990 levels by 2050 for example.

Now as an investor, I am thinking my investments have a share of the pie of a $15 trillion expense that they have to pay each year. That’s expensive. Expensive stuff reduces my profit. Reducing my profit means lower returns for my investments (ie, lower dividends, lower retained earnings to fund growth). Holy crap – this climate change thing is eroding shareholder value. Crap crap crap – I want to start knowing what my investments are doing to tackle this future expense. I want more accountability, alongside the financial reports that companies are mandated to provide (and which tells us about profit).

And that is exactly what the investors that control $41 trillion dollars – one third of the worlds money -are currently saying.

So much more to say, but I just want to share that point: climate is real economically and the environmental cost is being built into the market mechanism. There are a lot of issues that are yet to be resolved, but you’d be stupid to start ignoring the massive developments occuring, because its getting nearer to an agreement where it will affect every transaction we make in our economies.

John Hagel – What do you think is the single most important question after everything is connected?

I recently was pointed to a presentation of John Hagel who is a renowned strategy consultant and author on the impact the Internet has on business. He recently joined Deloitte and Touche, where he will head a new Silicon Valley research institute. At the conference (Supernova 2007), John outlined critical research questions regarding the future of digital business that remain unresolved, which revolved around the following:

What happens after everything is connected? What are the most important questions?

I had to watch the video a few times because its not possible to capture everything he says in one hit. So I started writing notes each time, which I have reproduced below to help guide your thoughts and give a summary as you are watching the presentation (which I highly recommend).

I also have discovered (after writing these notes – damn it!) that he has written his speech (slightly different however) and posted it on his blog. I’ll try and reference my future postings on these themes here, by pinging or adding links to this posting.
Continue reading ‘John Hagel – What do you think is the single most important question after everything is connected?’

Study finds people would not pay for privacy options

A 2007 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon and the University of California at Berkeley found that most subjects were unwilling to spend even a quarter [25 cents] to keep someone from selling sensitive information about them — such as their weight or number of sex partners. “People prefer money over data, always,” says Alessandro Acquisti, assistant professor of information technology and public policy at CMU. Source: Wired

Is privacy really that big a deal? In short – yes – but paying for paid privacy options is not something I am sure of. Rather, I would expect the forces to swell up like a hurricane that will require political action to enforce privacy as a legal right. As a business, you shouldn’t think of privacy as a revenue stream, but rather, a branding tool to build trust. It’s users ignorance of the truth, not acceptance of the consequences, that has people giving away their data. Don’t abuse that trust if given the opportunity.

You need to be persistently adaptable

Tim Bull has recently written an interesting discussion point on when is the right time to innovate. In a post titled “Steam engine time“, he asks:

If innovation is a process of the right idea, in the right place and at the right time, how do we judge what the right time is and measure what is going on around us to hit the right spot?

Some would say luck has something to do with it, although I believe that is the perception from an outsiders point of view. In my eyes, a core set of attributes are required for innovation.

Consider this quote from Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of USA:

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

I think Tim is wrong to ask when is the right time, because innovators understand their environment, adapt to it – and then push until they get there. Persistence and adaptability, in my eyes, are two crucial aspects needed in a person or even a country or company, for it to successfully move forward. However whilst persistence is key – you need determination to push forward despite the barriers you are going to encounter – adaptability is the real secret to successfully innovating.

A case-study: multiculturalism in a flat world
Although I was born and bred in Australia, I have been brought up under a very strong Greek influence. With an Australian-born father, and a fresh-off-the-boat Greek mother – I have lived a life straddled in two cultures. Going to an Anglo-Saxon school, yet at the same time doing Greek classes at 9am Saturday (but leaving early for my schools footy games) – I grew to resent Australia’s multiculturalism policy. Without going into too much detail because this will turn it into a political discussion and detract from the point I wish to make – I disliked the fact that Greeks in Australia refused to integrate into the local culture. The Australian government’s stance of officially supporting Multiculturalism, which does things like pay for that Saturday morning tuition, was to me a stupid policy.

Fast forward to 2005, when I visited the Balkans as part of my nine months traveling around Europe. Serbia’s story is one of the saddest stories in Europe. Walking around the city of Belgrade, interacting with its inhabitants, and just generally experiencing Serbia – you realise you have come across a hidden gem in Europe. Yet once you look at the statistics and talk to some of the educated, you understand otherwise: a basket case situation that has little hope.

Serbia, like a lot of other countries I discovered in my travels, have a cultural problem: they can’t let go of the past. Millions of people have died over differing interpretations of history. The Republic of Macedonia’s identity is entirely staked on the fact they are situated on the lands of Alexander the Great. Identity to the nation states of Europe, is in history. And challenges to that history, and their identity, has led to some stupid wars affecting millions of innocent lives.

So guess what? I now think multiculturalism is the best thing my country could ever do, for the simple fact we can never have a fixed identity – what it meant to be Australian 50 years ago looks very different from what it looks like now. In Europe, identity is based on ethnicity with a fixed identity tied to history, language and a religion. In Australia, our identity isn’t allowed to be based on a certain ethnicity, and forces us to find common ground on what really matters like our way of life. If it wasn’t for the policy of Multiculturalism, we would be turning into one of these static nation states within Europe who become fixed as a certain point of time. The Greeks are still mourning over the Turks capturing the Great City of Constantinople from them in 1453 (which is why Tuesday is the unlucky day of the week for them). Yet for the countries like Australia, who don’t have much of a history – they are not locked – and consequently look forward, rather than back. Multiculturalism is a crucial ingredient to our success, because with all that diversity, it means we are constantly evolving our culture to the times without any one group fixing it. And with a globalised word, Australia’s ability to adapt to circumstances will be a key competitive advantage we have over countries.

If you don’t agree with me, have a read of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat – a book a entrepreneur/intrapreneur suggested I read. This guy who told me about the book was a German from Argentina, working for an Indian company to set up the company’s presence in Turkey! He told me that after he read that book, he quit his job and got himself into his current role. He faced the facts, and adapted his career.

Adaptability as success
You’re probably wondering what I am trying to get at, but to tie it back to my point about adaptability, successfully innovators need to constantly adapt to their environment. What happens with people once they get an idea, is that they spend all their time trying to fit it into a world that once existed, only for the world to be a entirely new place. Successful innovators need to constantly evolve their ideas, to the changing circumstances.

In October last year, I made a proposal at my firm to implement a new technology. For the months leading up to that point, people had to some extent talked down my idea and some even flat out rejected it. October however had me find the right person to hear my idea. And yet if I look at what I originally had thought, and what it is now – it is almost a completely different thing. Because when I pitched my idea, I was asked “why” it works and “how” is it different from anything else. It was that ‘why’ question that had me spend countless hours researching and understanding – adapting – my idea to the scenario being presented to me. I successfully made my business case, because I was given the opportunity to reframe my idea and adapt it to the circumstrances I was presented. Had I not adapted my original idea and vision, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now.

Of course, I could have summed up the above by mentioning Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Survival of the fittest, right? Adapt to the Green forest like that Green lizard that looks like a leaf, and you’ll find some food (rather than being the food yourself). Adaptability in life is a key critical success factor; and with innovation, it is the hidden factor that on the outside and in retrospect by others, gets attributed as luck.

Update 20/6/07: Catching up on some reading, I just came across a great posting by Marc Andreessen, an internet pioneer, who talks about the four types of luck and which nicely complements my thoughts above.