Tag Archive for 'technology'

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.

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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.

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.

Why the angel bubble is not a bubble but actually the missing link

Naval Ravikant has written a thought-provoking post on the growing “angel bubble”. His thesis is that there is no bubble because the total money amount of money being invested in venture hasn’t increased. What’s changed he claims, is simply that instead of bigger Venture Capital (VC) rounds that are fewer in number, we’re seeing smaller but many more Angel investments occurring. In other words, the VC industry — not the Federal Reserve — are the ones that should be worried about this “bubble”.

I actually think what’s happening is that the market is now more resistent to bubbles. Contrary to a previous post of mine where I hypothesised the seed investment bubble (which I’ve since reconsidered and I’ll explain later in this post), the Angel “bubble” is a externality of one simple fact: it’s now a lot cheaper to build a startup. To understand this, watch the presentation Naval gave a few month’s ago which is the best I’ve seen to date in this trend.

So as a consequence, angel investment has now becoming (and rightfully so) the dominant way for a company to fund a startup company, with the existing VC model being relegated to more of a latter stage role.

Why is this a good thing? Well first of all, a lot more startups are being funded — but with the same amount of money in the economy. Statistical theory will claim that this alone will be good thing for the economy, as there is a higher probability of home runs. By spreading risk among more bases, there’s a better opportunity to generate returns.

But something more important is happening. VC’s now have a better qualification of a business to invest in. The huge amounts of capital they can invest into a business, are now going to be done after having seen a more advanced startup’s potential future, pushed to that stage by the seed accelerators or angels that cover their startup cost.

What I mean, is that by the time a company gets to VC, they will no longer be a startup — which is a business searching for a business model — but instead a high-growth business that’s now executing on their newly discovered and high potential business model. The VC firms are no longer needed in the business of starting something in information technology; they are instead now purely in the business of growing a business (where already some of the larger funds exclusively focus on). And the capital they are putting at risk on behalf of the endowments and pension funds that gave them that money, now have a lower risk of achieving higher returns.

Better still, the VC’s funds can focus on the future of technology like clean energy, biotechnology, and nano  technology — industries that were what information technology was in the 1970s: high startup cost, low chance of return.

And while that’s all well and good for the VC’s, this new funding lifecyle actually opens up opportunities for returns for everyone (which is why this isn’t a bubble). The seed accelerators and angels have the ability to pass the baton and exit their investments to better capitalised groups like the VC’s, allowing them to focus on the earlier stage of the market. With the IPO market dead since the introduction of the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, tech has relied on acquisitions as the sole form of return. But with earlier stage investors like the Angels getting exits to VC’s, and the VC’s having better qualified businesses that they can grow to a large IPO, this is actually going to see the IPO market reopen due to this focus.

All in all, that’s not a bubble: that’s called efficiency and a rejuvenation. The Angel bubble isn’t a bubble but a maturity and evolution of the technology ecosystem. This is actually the missing link in efficient information technology being built — the link which now connects the super-highways of the economy to sustainable growth and value, not bubble.

The secret to effective people management

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, talking and reflecting these last few months on a broad cross section of things. One of them is people management, which actually has been a competency I’ve spent years trying to understand: whether it was managing volunteers at non-profits, coaching junior staff in a work environment, or observing how other people interact with others and the impact it had. Today I came across something on Quora that Ben Pieratt wrote and which I think is very wise. He reflects on the work ethic:

I think it comes down to the fact that, for some people, work is personal. Personal in the same way that singing or playing the piano or painting is personal.

As a creative person, you’ve been given the ability to build things from nothing by way of hard work over long periods of time. Creation is a deeply personal and rewarding activity, which means that your Work should also be deeply personal and rewarding. If it’s not, then something is amiss.

Creation is entirely dependent on ownership.

Ownership not as a percentage of equity, but as a measure of your ability to change things for the better. To build and grow and fail and learn. This is no small thing. Creativity is the manifestation of lateral thinking, and without tangible results, it becomes stunted. We have to see the fruits of our labors, good or bad, or there’s no motivation to proceed, nothing to learn from to inform the next decision. States of approval and decisions-by-committee and constant compromises are third-party interruptions of an internal dialog that needs to come to its own conclusions.

Worth reading is also this interview with the CEO of Zynga (one of the fastest growing companies in Silicon Valley). He says what he does to motivate staff, which put words to what I’ve seen in my own observations of effective (and ineffective management).

You can manage 50 people through the strength of your personality and lack of sleep. You can touch them all in a week and make sure they’re all pointed in the right direction. By 150, it’s clear that that’s not going to scale, and you’ve got to find some way to keep everybody going in productive directions when you’re not in the room…

…I’d turn people into C.E.O.’s. One thing I did at my second company was to put white sticky sheets on the wall, and I put everyone’s name on one of the sheets, and I said, “By the end of the week, everybody needs to write what you’re C.E.O. of, and it needs to be something really meaningful.” And that way, everyone knows who’s C.E.O. of what and they know whom to ask instead of me. And it was really effective. People liked it. And there was nowhere to hide.

In case you miss the point, this is it: giving ownership is a powerful emotional state that can literally transform the perception someone has of their work.

Update 11 October 2010: My good friend Alisdair Faulkner — an experienced technology entrepreneur and executive — explains the spirit of the term “ownership” better with a clarification. Alisdair says it’s less so about  ‘ownership’ than it is ‘creative control’, which he says means “Authority and Accountability vested in the same individual”.

Manipulating numbers that don’t mean anything

Erick Schonfeld wrote a post today saying all the hoopla over Facebook’s privacy isn’t justified. I disagree for two reasons.

1) Awareness.
When Facebook announced their new changes, I tweeted why the hell no one was complaining. Chris Saad and I then wrote one of the first (if not the first) posts that criticised the Facebook move. CNN referenced our post and the entire industry has now gone over the top complaining.

Why didn’t anyone from the major blogs critique the announcement immediately? Why the time lag? For the simple fact there wasn’t awareness – people hadn’t thought about it deeply. And to validate my point, check this recent exchange with a friend in Iran when I asked him how the people of Iran felt about the changes. He had no idea, and when he found out – he got annoyed.

2) The monopoly effect
I love Facebook as a service. But I will also admit, nothing compares to it – I love it for the sole fact it’s the best at what it does. If there was genuine competition with the company, that offered a compelling alternative – I wouldn’t feel as compelled to use it. They win me over due to great technology and user experience, but I’m not loyal to them because of that.

I think Facebook has some security right now because no one is in their class. But they will be matched one day, and I think the reaction would be very different. Rather than tolerate it, people would move away. And whilst Facebook can lock my data and think they own me like I’m their slave, the reality is my data is useless with time – what they need is permanent access to me, and to have that, they need to ensure my relationships with them is permanently ahead of the curve.

Ubiquity – it’s coming

I applied to do a panel to SXSW on a topic I deeply believe in and want the world to get excited about: I call it ubiquity. My topic was rejected because it’s too broad a topic (fair point), but with The Startup Bus (that thing llaunched last week), I’m going to make it a live example testing the limits of ubiquity and a barometer of that progress.

Ubiquity relates to some long term trends in our society that are now converging: the fact we can access information and computing resources wherever and whenever we are. We can see it now with the changes to how we get the news. But here is a more dramatic example, as it’s the examples – not the rhetoric explaining it – that get me excited.

a) Contact lenses that contain a computer chip in them

b) Wireless electricity: it’s happening.

c) Google translate integrated into Google googles

a +b + c = awesome. We’re not there yet, but the future of our world is damn exciting.

One word explains the Google superbowl ad: Bing

Google, a company that used to pride itself on the fact it never had to advertise, put an ad in the mother-of-all advertising slots: during the Superbowl, the most expensive time you can advertise in television. And this was posted on the official Google blog by the CEO Eric Schmidt, a man that doesn’t all that often post to the company blog.

Why did it break tradition, with this cute emotional-brand-building ad? Because Google now has for the first time a real competitor, in the rising Bing – Microsoft’s rebranded search engine boosted by the $100 million Powerset acquisition. Bing’s search technology may still lag far behind, but it’s certainly ringing a bell on the marketing side and growing quite healthily as a result. And as well all know, the reason we search is less because we think it’s better technology, but more so because of the importance we place on the brand that we feel comfort in.

Google’s ad was cute. But capitalism is all about self-interest, and for the few million Google had to spend on this seemingly non-informative ad, what management are thinking is quite clear to me. That being, Google’s trying to revamp the emotional attachment we have with the world’s most loved brand. But more tellingly, from the very top, Google’s scared as hell and is now protecting what they know matters the most in the search engine wars: the emotional connection to a brand.

Do entrepreneurs have an expiry date?

Startup’s that are built-to-flip (ie, sold early on) may be the best and dominant way to sustain innovation. How so? Because through observation of the brilliant people I’ve met in technology startup world, I’ve come to realise an important lesson: entrepreneur’s have an expiry date.

I just don’t care any more
I started writing this post sitting in my parents living room last week in Sydney, where I visited for the Christmas break to spend time with family. Chatting away with my parents, my father said something very startling but also very relevant. He was talking about his 73 years of life and the 47 years he’s had as a lawyer. Once a fiery dragon in the courts and of life, he’s now an aged playboy winding himself down. He said he’s thinking of giving it up and going into retirement, as he has been working these last few years purely for the passion. Why quit now, I asked: “I just don’t care anymore”.

I’ve got countless anecdotal examples (but none I can share specifically here, sorry). People I thought that were pushing to create global businesses, are now giving way to other priorities and looking to sell their very valuable company. People who have been involved with a startup for over four years, that’s only now exploding in growth, but feeling fatigued and ready to move on.

It’s not just entrepreneurs
A good friend of mine who has worked for five years at a big bank, is now looking for a change in employer. Several other friends, who have been in long-term romantic relationships for around 3-5 years, are now feeling the pressure of making a decision: get married or stop wasting her time. And sometimes it’s not them making the decision – but it’s what she’s probably thinking.

Passion, fire and ambition is needed to start something – whether it be a new job at a big brand company, a new company that disrupts the industry, or a partner that reinvigorates your life. But like life itself, there is a predictable pattern that follows. What gets born will also mature – and will die, one day. It’s just how life is; what goes up, will go down as well.

Build to flip: it’s a good thing
Bringing this back to the point of this post, I want to highlight that the obsession to build a sustainable business is actually not a normal thing. And I said obsession, because a few years ago I made a naive plea that that was the only way. Now that I’ve seen more, I’ve realised it’s a way but not the common way.

People that create businesses are creative. The same reason that makes them creative, is also the same reason that has them get bored when a process gets repeatable. The types of personality that start a company and battle during its pre-revenue days, are vastly different from the ones that help grow and manage a profitable business.

So the next time people criticise a company that doesn’t stay the course towards an IPO, and let’s itself get bought out – just remember, that sometimes, it’s because the people behind them just don’t care anymore. And that’s perfectly alright. Don’t fight it – it’s how it is.

Aussie startup Stalqer helps you find your friends when about

Over the last few weeks I’ve been alpha testing an innovative new iPhone app by an Aussie team led by Mick Johnson, innovating in an exciting space. Leena Rao at TechCrunch has written a brilliant post about the product, with another high quality article on CNET by Rafe Needleman. Both those posts cover more than enough so I won’t rehash, but I will share an interesting concept this product has that’s got me thinking about.

Stalqer has an unique viral dynamic at play. Your friends are on a map, and the technology behind it automatically tracks their whereabouts. The cool thing though, is that the technology can be overcome – for example, if I see one of my friends in a location that I know they aren’t, I can physically drag them to where I think they should be (like where I am now at a bar, as they are sitting next to me). This means that even if you shut off Stalqer, you are forced to have to deal with it if you care about your privacy.

This may sound evil, but it’s all relatively safe and you can control which friends see you. However, the fact other people can determine your location, forces you to interact with the app and at least be active with it.

All too common with web and phone applications, people sign up to them and then move on – often forgetting they had signed up in the first place. But Stalqer’s innovation is that it focuses on something people (claim) matters to them – their privacy – and requires them to stay at least alert of what’s happening if they care to protect it in any way.

It’s a simple concept, but it’s also sheer brilliance in my eyes. Admittedly, I haven’t been too phased by this feature and I still think it needs more work for it to truly be viral (like incorporating game mechanics to give people an incentive to move their friends frequently). But it certainly gives an interesting perspective and highlights a smart approach in creating engagement in this saturated market. That being, aligning peoples incentives to participate even when they get bored of it.

How to become a global innovation centre

In May 2009, the Australian government asked me what should they be doing to build Australia’s technology sector. I responded by asking the 600 people who have self-identified themselves as technology entrepreneurs in Australia, and over several months wrote a paper in a crowd-sourced way, to send this formal submission to the government. Later this week Senator Kate Lundy will be hosting a public sphere event, which will be an influential event that could change Australia’s direction and government policy in technology.

Here is a video I was asked to do explaining the paper.

You can read the submission here, which I’m sure other countries may find useful – it may not be right, but it’s what a portion of Australia’s entrepreneurial community thinks.