Tag Archive for 'people'

Why entrepreneurs need to say “fuck you”

One of the StartupBus teams this year was interviewed by Y-combinator. They were turned down. Why? According to the team, it was because they were not a billion dollar company. This is something I’ve warned StartupBus teams before when they pitch investors so it doesn’t surprise me. But there’s a lesson here that I hope all entrepreneurs understand.

Professional investors are in the game to make money. Their motivation is to generate a multiple on the fund they have raised.

Why is that a problem you may ask?

Well, who cares if a company makes a billion dollars? Apparently from sounding cool that you built something like that up, as a founder, you will be so diluted through multiple rounds of funding that you will probably have a 5- 30% equity stake in the business, depending on how capital intensive the business is and how many co-founders you have.

A VC however, not only makes money on a billion dollar exit, but they get to brag about it to limited partners and to attract new entrepreneurs, which helps them raise new funds and get new deals. The way it works in venture capital is that it is all about the brand and communicating your successes. Any investor that doesn’t admit to not knowing what they are doing are full of shit. Because billion dollar exits come in two forms: entrepreneurs who successfully played a game to  take advantage of the current market (ie, an acquisition today that had it not happened may not have become a sustainable business) or fundamentally disruptive businesses that no one saw coming. I can think of many examples of the above, but I’ll hold back as my knowledge of various companies are not mean to be public  — however, all that matters is the point that billion dollar exits are either due to a confluence of market factors or a fundamentally disruptive business model. You can’t predict for that. Which is why the safest strategy, as an investor, is to back a proven entrepreneur who knows how to make opportunities like that happen.

While investors look for the 15 deals that generates 96% of the returns in a year, let’s bring this back to the entrepreneur only making $300m. Put another way, a billion dollar business is more like a $300m business for you financially speaking (assuming you have 30% of the entity, a best case scenario). But if you are a $300m business pitching a VC, you probably won’t meet the investors cost of capital (ie, their fund is $300m+) and so therefore they don’t get the returns to justify their capital. Putting that into context, a billion dollar startup that a founder has a 30% equity stake in and a $333m startup that a founder has a 90% equity stake in — is, financially speaking, the same. And what I mean by that, is the people who will make that “billion” dollars (the founders) will need to work three times harder for the same return…meaning by raising financing, the market problem that needs to be serviced needs to be three timeS bigger so that people sitting in the backseat (the investors) make just as much money out of it.

Which means absolutely nothing about the problem you are solving in the world. The fact the entire silicon valley ecosystem is influenced by the investor industry, at a time when the costs of doing a startup have dropped dramatically — is a misalignment that will change one day.

If an investor says your business isn’t biggest enough, it means 20% of your hard work isn’t high enough to meet their capital hurdle of providing a certain return to their limited partners which will impact the investors future fundraising. And sadly, this fact is lost on a lot of entrepreneurs who feel they need a sense of validation despite having identified a real market problem. Which ironically, I think is what separates the true disruptive entrepreneurs from the rest. They are the ones that say “fuck you, I’m going to make this work”. And they end up disapproving the assumptions the investors falsely asserted when rejecting the teams’ vision because fundamentally disruptive businesses are never obvious from the outset.

Fixing government with the Internet

” We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness

— Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson

One of the most interesting innovations in the evolution of democracy, is the concept of representative democracy: whereby a few are elected to make decisions on behalf of the population. The lower house of the Westminster System typically has representatives from electorates which are  groups of people clustered in geographies that form a critical mass, whereas the upper house represents a different class: in England, a plutocracy but in America, it was revised to give each of the states an equal vote (though, in is still a plutocracy with just a more accountable way of election).

Overall, I think this is a good model to keep. But with the growth of the party system around the world (which has become the way government is done, a critical function that ironically not defined in most constitutions), it has become broken: using America as the case in point, the Republican control of the lower house during Obama’s first term (and Democrat control of the Senate) had politics get in the way and risked the future of the country at a time when unity was needed the most. As Jefferson said, when a government becomes destructive of the ends, it’s the right of the people to alter or abolish it. The party system is failing our democracy.

The Pirates

A lot has changed in the last 10 years, let alone 100 and 1000 years when a lot of our democratic tradition has been written. In particular, the Internet has become a new force in our society that has transformed every industry that comes in its way. It will only be a matter of time when the government gets its own shake up and that time may becoming. Gregory Ferenstein wrote an interesting post recently on innovations thanks to the Internet, with the most interesting one below:

Pirate Party

They’re less fun than a boat full of drunken sailors, but more influential in Germany than many third parties are in the United States. After winning 15 parliamentary seats in Germany, the Pirate Party has developed an intriguing crowdsourced platform of decision-making known as “liquid feedback.” The trust-based voting system permits members to leave decision-making to those they know are more knowledgeable, while preserving the inclusiveness of direct democracy. The Pirate Party is currently expanding its ranks throughout the globe.

The liquid feedback platform may be the most powerful way to fix the current system of government. Imagine that we all have equal votes, but you trusted my views on the economy more than your own views — you could allocate your vote to me, where I could make it for you. Now let’s say I came to trust an economist on matters of policy, so I would allocate my vote, which includes yours, to that economist when she makes decisions (so in effect, her votes also counts on your and my vote). And so on: what we have here is representative democracy in it’s most beautiful form. It’s only now with the Internet can we allow a system like this to exist.

This is a system that could be built into the current governance of our society. And even better, it it doesn’t need to be written into the constitution, for it to have an impact: it could be done in parallel. A shadow government could emerge where people could nominate their votes to people who end up becoming super delegates on issues. The influence these delegates could be so powerful that it could trigger a vote of confidence on our elected leaders, not to mention additional accountability on their decisions as they are compared to a benchmark by the populace. Maybe even our elected representatives in the legislature could take inspiration for their decisions not by the party they are a part of, but by what the super delegates vote.

And perhaps, this could be the way we fix our democracy. Not by changing the system laid out by the constitution of great democracies in the world like America and Australia, but by changing the way our representatives organise their votes. No more liberal, labor, democrat and republican — but a liquid party, where the people who we elect into government under this banner promise to follow the direction of the population through the votes of the super delegates. Delegates determined by the liquid democracy platform that we all have access to anytime we want to vote on an issue.

A great result for Alakaboo!

Markus Moonie, the Swiss founder of Alakaboo (a vegetable photo sharing site), has announced that Facebook will be acquiring the startup he founded for an undisclosed amount. The two time entrepreneur who previously sold his first startup to the Non-profit Creative Commons, says he found Facebook to have a unique view and aligned passion for what he was building.

 “Starting a business is hard. Creating a website with a ‘to be launched’ page, pivoting three times, feeling importance in being able to hire and fire people, and talking to investors who have no idea in picking the next big star but backed me because I’ve got good SEO on my blog and look like a good bet along with my Berkeley, D-Combinator, Creative Commons branding — means I have the right to talk like I know what I’m doing”. Moonie says that the decision to sell was based on what he thought was best for him, a refreshing change as most entrepreneurs are working to make their investors money and represents a nascent trend in how the power has shifted to entrepreneurs in today’s market.
Moonie considered the funding environment, which is going gangbusters — and what it would take to execute on his vision like an actual product that people want. He believes that it would make much more sense if he was to sell as a talent acquisition so that he can get name brand recognition of Facebook, the 2X tag that puts him on par with other entrepreneurs as successful, as well as stock options in a company that actually has a future. The fact he had no cash left in the bank and couldn’t raise additional money was a secondary consideration, according to Moonie.
We reached out for comment and Facebook declined to comment other than saying they will be shutting down Alakaboo, firing all the non-engineers in the team, and putting Moonie in a Operations manager role for a role that requires relationships with the Creative Commons and nothing to do with vegetable photo sharing. Once again, yet another win for Switzerland and D-Combinator, who produce title-but-not-substance ‘founder’ engineers and inspire the next generation of snake oil producers.
All names, entity’s, and events in this post are fictional.

Measuring success

In March this year, I posted my still evolving thought process on what success is. In the post, I said how success, like religion, is a personal thing and so there is no right answer. But I proposed a framework to think about the question: whereby I defined success as having three dimensions, which have no minimum or maximum value but simply are a constant pursuit of development. Those dimensions are existence, freedom, and impact and which I suggest you read before continuing with this post.

The problem with that framework, is it actually is still too broad. And where it lacks in detail, it also lacks in something fundamental: metrics to measure success. Six months later, this is how my thought process has evolved — still evolving, but I hope can stimulate your own thinking about your life.

On the pursuit of existence
You can define existence as a variety of ways, but I think a fundamental concept is your life expectancy as well as the quality of it. How long can you live, in years, to your full ability — being the ultimate (never ending) goal.

Number of years you are alive I think is a pretty self-explanatory thing to say as a goal: 75 years is better than 50 years. Less obvious, is how able you are: a 65 year old on life support due to lungs, kidneys and liver issues from poor dietary habits, is by no means the same as a healthy 65 year old. If life span is the number to measure this dimension of success, then your health is the factor to create an expected value: 65 years at 25% capacity versus 65 at 95% is 16 years versus 62 years. Literally, a life time apart.

Which is why your nutrition matters: look after yourself in your 20s and you’ll be doing better in your 40s, not just in life span but life quality. Drinking soft drinks at 30 once  a day hurts your  long term health quality and will reduce your life span expected value. We forget that, and it’s only when people get older do they regret not thinking about this (so I’m told).

But then there is a flip side to being a health freak:  being 30 worrying about what you eat hurts you in different ways, like your freedom and experiences. More on that below.

On the pursuit of freedom
Whether you claim to chase money or not, the point is moot: money is what makes the world go around because it’s what we’ve agreed to be a mutually exchagable form of value. Money simply represents value, and its accumulation has value not from the paper bills/plastic notes/lumps of metal itself that money is printed as but what it represents: purchasing power to save your time (not a representation of your capital base, which is materialism).

In society, we are so focussed on the material and the bigger numbers but we forget the character of what matters. But its key to understand income  — recurring monetary inflow — is such a key concept to success, because it enables freedom: without the ability to pay for food and shelter, you’re going to spend the rest of your waking time trying to find solutions to these issues, an opportunity cost.

When I spent nine months backpacking around Europe in 2005, I observed how people travelling, like how I had become, are very primitive in their activities: look for a new hostel to sleep in, find a new place to eat food.  I was quite literally, a cave man. Even with cash to pay for these, the search took time. Now imagine you need a summer job as a working holiday to experience the travel, and you’ve just knocked out more time outs during the day to experience your “travel”. Travel might be temporary, but rephrase what I said now for regular life and the point remains. “Living” means surviving as its most basic, but we can do better than that as humans.

When it comes to measuring success on freedom, understandably income should be considered a core benchmark. Not how much you spend, but how much you can make — that spending power gives you not material wealth, but something much more valuable: your time. Income can buy you food, shelter, and the ability to outsource or delegate functions in your life that time would otherwise need to be expended.

However, how much you make is not the ultimate because its not secured. Which is why the ultimate measure of income in capital: after all, capital is simply the accumulation of income. Capital is the result of income, without the need to personally exert yourself from getting the benefit of it; more specifically, capital can been monetised, generating a passive income which is the ultimate in enabling freedom.

Therefore when it comes to success in terms of capital, $100,000 is much more valuable than $10,000, obviously. But a subtle point to remember, is that to get the value of capital it either is locked up making a passive income (say, in real estate with a rental) or it’s liquid so that it enables the ability for you to use that purchasing power for your life.

One million dollars in the bank that can be withdrawn tomorrow? Very successful. One million dollars invested in a property making a 10% return? Also, very successful though not very liquid:but that’s ok becayse it’s generating $100,000 a year in passive income, on top of the capital base that grows through capital gain. One million dollars locked up in an stock market investment that can’t be liquidated for a month? Not good — but very good if it generates a 10% return on say, the stock market in that month.

But simply attaining capital is not life accomplished because if inflation rates are 9%, then that 10% return on real estate and stock is actually only a 1% return. That passive income (or rather, purchasing power) now is only 1% of the capital base. And that’s fine because capital has value in immediate liquidity (also purchasing power), but sometimes it’s worth trading short term liquidity to grow that capital base otherwise inflation will catch up and any income dependent on that capital will actually erode in value. Capital generates passive income, but that capital needs to be secured through investment to not have it be eroded.

Therefore the ultimate measure of capital is lifetime cashflow in real purchasing power. You can try to accumulate it, and you want to grow it above inflation. But once you’ve done that, you’re now getting greedy: the time cost in your life now actually impacts on your freedom, the whole point of capital accumulation, passive income and purchasing power. But as you dance with growing your capital base , income stream, and ultimately freedom, let’s not forget being busy we dream of more time, but when you have too much time on your hands it can be downright depressing. Enter impact.

On the pursuit of impact
Impact, like existence and freedom, is a core tenent to life about what I think matters if you want to define success. Impact not only gives you purpose but it gives you direction in life. Impact boost your self esteem. Better still, impact benefits your surroundings better than how you found it.

However impact is a hard thing to quantify. Is it number of people you “impacted” and what does that mean? As a raw score, sure helping one person once a day is better than helping one person once a month. But nothing in life is free: “helping” often comes with a benefit for the other party, such as profit for the business merchant, conversion for the religious zealot, or an orgasm for the sexual expectant.

If you go though life travelling the world, you leave an impact through the people you meet; if you toil yourself to build a business, you leave an impact through the products you create. But when impact is simply measured by “number of people”, it’s actually not all that solid: their needs to be not a mutual exchange, but a net positive where an interaction outputted more than what was entered with.

So what makes it a net positive? When you’ve really touched someone. But you can never know if you did that, so failing that we need to make sure one person was touched by the impact: you. You might have spent three months suffering, but that story will inspire, educate, and benefit 1000 other people in a profound way — and we may never know until your funeral, though you remember those three months. You might travel speaking to one hundred thousand people, of which only 1% where meaningful conversations: but no one remembers your name to prove it, but you remember the experience.

So when it comes to measuring impact, it’s not just number of people but number of people’s who’s lives you have touched. And by touch, it’s not a number but a meaningful impact that comes from your own life experience. One hour a day in a homeless soup kitchen is a different kind of impact from one hour a day building a game that someone plays on their smart phone. And neither is better than the other, so long as someone’s soul was touched; the most important one, being your own.

Meaning, whatever it is you’re doing, you’re leaving an impact by touching the lives of other people, but one person who we can measure is your own in the form of experience which is the only number that we can reliably count.

Success: measured
For those that think in numbers, success as a number  = (Number of years you are alive times by how able you are due to health) multiplied by (capital base times by return) multiplied by (number of people impacted times percentage that were truly touched). That gives the theoretical optimum to the ultimate thing.

Otherwise said, if you have a long healthy long life and you have a lot of purchasing power to buy freedom, then you have more time to impact which ultimately leads to the only thing that matters: number of life experiences (which along they way, benefited others as well that increased their own existence, freedom, and impact).

And that, I believe, is a what a rich life is.

The impact of competition on entrepreneurism

Last May, a new Australian incubator said they were different from StartupBus, the “people accelerator” (which I call a foundry — more on that another time) that we’ve been building for over two years now.

…the Startup Bus concept – which is essentially a start-up competition – is flawed when it comes to women….”The whole approach seems to be based on a kind of testosterone, pump”

It was an interesting point because I’ve often thought about not just how to encourage more female entrepreneurs, but more successful startups. Is a competition a way to do that?

When we ran the StartupBus Americas competition this year (840 applicants, ~270 accepted), we had a lot of upset participants. Several in particular spoke to me personally about how they didn’t understand why their team and product didn’t make the finals. One of the teams who I actually personally believed should have won the competition (but never made it past the semi finals) wrote an email thanking us (I’ve appended it at the end of this blog post, to not distract the point I’m trying to make) which I forwarded to all the participants, to which I added

With emails like this from Raymond (below), the real winner of StartupBus makes me think is Wastebits.

As Greg (Florida conductor) says: StartupBus is harder than a real startup. If you can survive this, you’ll find a real business a walk in the park.

Well done everyone, I was so proud to hear last night how many of you are continuing on with your projects. There’s something to be said true entrepreneurs are ones that break the rules (I actually smiled to hear people ignored some milestones to focus on product) and don’t let stupid things like validation (ie, the competition) get in their way.

Three months on, what’s the verdict? Still too early to tell but this week, a talented designer  Scott (who actually designed the new StartupBus logo) sent me an email saying that he was working with the Wastebits team, which has become a real business. Another team that stood out for their quality (and actually was a business idea I looked into years ago) but didn’t make the semi final — Get Wished — I’ve been hearing how they are still working on their product with serious commitment. And today, Sohail (who I convinced to turn down a job at Google so he would work at a startup) paired up with James (who was on the first StartupBus) had a post on TechCrunch announcing Hiptype who have been part of the current Y-Combinator batch — which other than credibility and exposure, also means a guranteed $150k in funding. The product the post talks about was actually launched on StartupBus this year (original video seems to be down), but they didn’t make the semi finals.

That last sentence being key. James in particular was upset in how he didn’t make it the semi finals, and caused quite a dilema for me personally because I liked their product, I knew the team members well, and I wanted them to succeed. A dilemma because we had to create a process to bring down the 50+ products to ultimately one winner and it made me question our approach which was entirely my responsibility. But the dynamics of the competition forced outcomes that even I didn’t necessarily agree with.

Is a competition the best way to select winners? Nope. But is a competition process, whereby people miss out and they want to prove something, the best way to create winners?

Time will tell, but something tells me yes. True entrepreneurs break rules, want to prove people wrong, and don’t give up. As it was explained to me by my previous boss: ruthless ambition is what creates entrepreneurial success. And the resentment of not being selected, may ironically be the best way to feed that ambition.

On a related note consider this: I’ve been observing how some of the best entrepreneurs I respect (admittedly, only men but then again there’s only a few people I truly respect) all seem to have what I call ‘daddy issues’ that they acknowledge as what drives them. Not big family problems, but just didn’t see eye to eye and a sense of having to prove themselves.

Addendum: As promised, the email from the Wastebits team this March that I forwarded to all participants. There’s a lesson in there for what incubators really should be doing.

Thank you and the StartupBus team for an incredible experience. In my humble opinion, StartupBus has innovated THE new model for entrepreneurs.
StartupBus is the epitomy of iterative adaptation and flexibility…adaptation–>the single most important factor in determining the survival of a species (adapted from Darwin).
StartupBus IS the MBA for entrepreneurs!
StartupBus creates a unique immersive experience for entrepreneurs to LEARN THROUGH DOING. There are no bystanders!
Plain and simple, graduates of StartupBus (*hint* *hint*) are well prepared to be successful bootstrappers. And even more importantly, these graduates are well informed to spread the StartupBus aspirational philosphy AND continue building that sense of community.
Wastebits came into being BECAUSE of StartupBus … it was nothing more than an un-named idea two weeks ago. StartupBus provided the environment and super-charge for a team of aspirational entrepreneurs to breath life into that idea. And now today, a meer 7 days since last Tuesday’s kickoff…Wastebits is an incorporated company, with an awesome brand, a team of senior developers, a team of industry veterans committed to forming the management structure, scaling and supply chain partners (Blackberry expressed high interest just yesterday to support Wastebits premiering via a mobile rollout), AND, most importantly, a bonefied base of PAYING CUSTOMERS (we received our 3rd Letter of Intent this morning!).
StartupBus is what enabled this to happen…happen in less than a week!
THAT is a story.
And yet, I find myself highly curious how we as the StartupBus community will achieve EVEN MORE for 2013?!?
The future is ours to envision and create. Everything is possible when the right people are connected! That is what StartupBus re-affirmed for me.
Thank you for the experience and the opportunity to join such an incredible community.
I look forward to being a part of creating the vision for StartupBus 2013!
Humbly appreciative,

Defining success and its pursuit

People often think I’m joking when I say I’m not successful. They perceive the jobs I’ve had, the education I’ve gone through, the media exposure I’ve generated, and other fake indicators of success as somehow meaning I’ve made it. Not quite, status symbols are not what I consider success.

If you’re not quite sure what I mean, let’s say you measure success on money — then how much is enough? Or for those that consider fame to be success — how many media mentions is enough?

A few months ago, I did my first ever meditation and came up with an amazing insight on some thoughts that had been stewing in my head. It was what I realised was *my* meaning to life — what I needed to be happy in life. Today, I Tweeted a summary version of that insight and have had several people retweet and favourite it, flagging to me that maybe my meaning to life is actually something that a lot of other people can relate to.

So here it is my thought process; who knows maybe it can help you define your own success.

What’s the point of life if you can’t be alive to enjoy it? That one question should pretty much explain what I mean by this — and you can broaden this to mean more than that. For example, our mental health is just as important as our physical health — family is something we consider a chore, but I personally consider an emotional need. Good nutrition, regular excercise, a close connection with your family, good friends around you, being in control of the demons in your head: each of us can interpret our existence in different ways, but they all fundamentally point to the same fact that without your full and able self, there is no life.

When I went backpacking in 2005 for nine months, I would often start the day not knowing what country I would end up in. I was in between finishing my university degree and a guaranteed job at PricewaterhouseCoopers; I was living off my savings and had no need to work that year; and had complete freedom to do whatever I wanted whenever. I had never been happier.

Freedom to me is a relative term: personally, if I lost the functional use of all of my limbs or was convicted for a life in prison, I would die on the inside because my personality perceives those aspects for my life as essential to my freedom. That’s not to say I correctly perceive it,  but that’s my own personal interpretation to freedom. And without drilling down into this any more with the many anecdotes to guide this insight for me, having creative control can be one of the most liberating experiences you will ever experience and can bestow on someone. I call that freedom.

If you drill into the psychology of great entrepreneurs, it’s not money or fame that drives them even though they may say it is. It’s the fact they are building something of value. We’re all like that — our self esteem benefits from knowing we’ve done something that improves our surrounding. That’s why charity is deep down such a selfish act: it makes us feel good.

Again, impact is different for different people that no one person has the right answer. For me, I’ve come to realise the impact I want to have on the world is something that improves the quality of life for us all in society. What that means, is something I’d rather save for when I do it and can look back  but in essence I get extreme satisfaction that I’ve played a role that improves life on this planet by enabling the entrepreneurs and scientists who have the potential to do that.


What’s success?

The American forefathers may have not only already come up with this before me but put it much more eloquently. Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  Whatever you want to call it, it begs the big question: what does existence (life), freedom (liberty), and impact (pursuit of happiness) have to do with success? Money is not success. But income is: because that enables freedom. Fame is not success. But influence is: it enables you do perform the actions you believe ought to occur.

Success, like religion, should be a personal thing. There isn’t a right answer — but above, I believe is the framework that we can all apply to our own lives to think about what we want to do with our lives. Instead of thinking of what should you do, instead ask yourself — how can I exist more fully, have more freedom, and have a bigger impact with my being? This framework might not be the right one, but it’s a start to asking ourselves all the right questions that lead to the answer.

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

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.