Tag Archive for 'US'

Bitcoin makes sense for the future

Bitcoin fascinates me. Whether it’s the future of currency itself I don’t know, but it will pave the way for the future so it’s worth studying.

There are two reasons that people claim make Bitcoin flawed.

The first is that it’s based on ECDSA (Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithmwhich consists of a private key (a secret number known only to the person that generated it), a public key (a number that corresponds to a private key which is calculated from the private key but that is very difficult with current computing to reverse engineer to predict a private key), and a signature (a number that proves an operation took place that  used a hash and the private key). Values can be determined without the private key ever being disclosed, so that a bitcoin can correspond to a public ledger to prove the authenticited of ownership — for example, an algorithm can determine with the public key on a signature to determine it was produced by a hash and the private key, without needing to know the private key.

And so the critique goes, if someone can build a sufficiently powerful quantum computer, Shor’s algorithm will enable someone to steal bitcoin’s at will as they can crack the secret of someone’s private key. But basically, it’s practically impossible for this to happen. I’m not crypto expert, but I’ll leave this for others to digest further.

The second critique is due to the known limitation that bitcoin will one day cap at 21 million units. If bitcoins go missing, we will never be able to replace them — such is the case with physical currency today which goes out of circulation (but a central authority issuing it can reprint them). And inherently, Bitcoin is considered to be deflationary — the problem with deflation is the decreased price level of goods and services. Meaning, because it’s got a future guaranteed scarcity it will get scarcer and lead to deflation so therefore it’s doomed.

This is what I want to explore further because it’s worth clarifying some fundamental assumptions about the world.

What is value?
Let’s start with a functional definition of value. “Value is energy applied to resources where the perceived utility of the output is more than the inputs.” That definition implies there are three sources of value in the world: energy, resources, and outputs that have used the application of energy on resources and becomes a transformation. And the utility of a transformation, is different from say energy and the resources that went into it, simply due to perception of it. Basically, value is at core about utility.

Resources are finite: we only have a limited amount on earth that we can use. And most of it is not usable, as we don’t have the capacity to extract the resources in a usable way. Energy on the other hand, by the human definition, is unlimited — the sun sends 1.KW for every square metre of the earth surface for free. But what limits energy is the ability to capture it, store it and transport it — so therefore energy has value. We need energy to function: animal and plant life need it to function, and we need it to extract resources as well as apply it to transform resource into new products.

Is energy in itself valuable? Well, only if we use it: if a plant sits in the sun, it’s free — as does a human who will get Vitamin D that helps it function. Just because it’s free though doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value: it’s just the price is low. Humans also need other vitamins to survive, and it requires the expenditure of energy to acquire future sources of energy — that energy could be valued as time to hunt down animals for example.

Do resources have value? If it’s utilised, it has value — and the more it’s used, the scarcer it becomes for other uses which is why it gets regulated by price when there are competing seekers of the resource. Like energy, the question isn’t if there is value: the issue is what is the price of that value. It’s how to price that utility to regulate its usage.

Theoretically, you could say the current available energy in the world that can be used and the current available resources are what is value in the world, as well as the products created through the transformation of resources with energy. Value is what the total utility in the world is. And if there are no competing uses of those pieces of value, then prices are practically nil: but once there is competing needs for limited pieces of value like resources, that’s when we see the price increase.

And that is, why fundamentally, all value is tied to scarcity: the scarcer the value (supply) and the higher the demand, the higher the price.  This is fundamental economic theory which is the study of how to best allocate limited resources in an world that is based on the assumption of unlimited wants — which theoretically, makes sense. What breaks down is that interpretation of the theory.

For example, it’s fine to say there are unlimited wants in the world — but that’s a assumption that says there will always be competing demands for resources so therefore everything needs a price. Which again, is fine: it’s just this assumption of an assumption needs to assume a more fundamental assumption: a price of zero doesn’t make something less valuable than the same resource which has a price of more than zero. If you can buy a diamond for $1 but it normally would be valued $1000, that doesn’t mean it’s less valuable fundamentally: it just has less competition and so therefore less cost to acquire.

What is currency?
Arguably, you could say the sum of value in the world is all the stored energy, available resources, and transformations in the world which has utility. The world’s currency system should be tied to that: if you could exchange all the value in the world, it should be equal that.

Currency should be a way to store value and transport it. The energy I applied with my time which created more perceived value than the energy itself in the form of knowledge,  I want to store for a future use where I can exchange that for something of similar value. Therefore, a currency needs to have a consistent form of pricing (to make value comparable) and it ideally has a stable means of being valued (ie, storing it a year ago should theoretically be valued as the same as storing it today).

But the hard thing about utility  is that it’s hard to measure at the one point in time –even though we know there is a fundamental fixed amount that can be used in the world. But that’s why the assumption that a currency should have a fixed supply makes perfect sense: the price mechanism of currency adjusts for changes in utility (assuming the supply of currency doesn’t degrade, which is another factor why modern day currency can adjust in value).

Bitcoin’s fixed supply
Which brings us to the question: does Bitcoin having a fixed supply make sense? Yes.

But what about the risk of “deflation” in the world due to a fixed supply? Well, it’s not that value in the world goes does — it’s just the pricing of that value might go down.

The above discussion I hope answers those questions.

And what about if there are missing bitcoin’s in the world, which creates a supply constraint on this new currency? Bitcoin’s are divisible up to 8 decimal places which means one bitcoin has 100 million components (yes, they have a name: called a “Satoshi”). Ignoring the clear economic incentive to not lose Bitcoin’s, lost coins get lost in the noise and this divisibility allows it to adapt. With 21 million final bitcoin’s divisible by 100 million, that means 2.1 quadrillion units of currency or Satoshi’s. To put that in comparison, in 2009 there was approximately 8.3 trillion US dollars in the world or 0.0083 quadrillion cents. If one cent was one Satoshi, that would be 2100 trillion US cents or 21 trillion US dollars.

Some say the value of the US economy to be 188 trillion dollars (different from GDP, which simply accounts for   spending in one year). Assuming the US economy in 2009 accounted for one quarter fo the world economy (based on GDP), we can assume the world has a price on the value in the world of about 750 trillion US dollars or 0.8 quandrillion.

If the total *value* of available Satoshi’s in the world one day equals that amount (One Satoshi equals 0.35714285714 US cents  or 750 trillion divided by 2.1 quadrillion) — then who cares if a few bitcoin’s get lost along the way. What we have now is a currency that does what currency is meant to do: store value for the exchange of value in society.

What the startup visa should really look like

US immigration is a subject that all foreign entrepreneurs in the United States have lost quite a bit of sleep over. Over the years, I’ve spent days researching, talking to lawyers, listening to stories of survival — and despite solving my own situation, it’s still to this day something that sits at the back of my mind as I’m constantly counseling entrepreneurs with their own situations. The reason this is so hard is because  the only way I could be an entrepreneur in the US (in the mould I wanted, which is a bootstrapping one), I needed to work for a US corporation and at night build my businesses: which is exactly what I did and how I did it (two years in the making). Its taken three years to get to a point where I can now focus on what inspired me to move to America: to build a big, global enterprise.

The entire startup visa movement frustrates me because it’s dependent on raising funding: I believe the best businesses bootstrap and raise funding when they actually need it. Hopefully this post can lead to a more productive dialogue in government policy, coming from someone that directly is impacted by all these discussions.

The options
The US visa system has a few categories that entrepreneur’s can “hack” to make them legal.

  • H1B: this is the standard work visa that foreigner’s go on, with several variants like the E3 visa (which Australian’s uniquely get). Of the H1B’s, about 65,000 new visa’s are issued every year and most of the people that have them work for big corporations. To satisfy the requirements of the visa, you need to file a petition which means three separate advertisements go out in newspapers allowing American citizen’s to apply for the job — only if no one applies and accepted that the petition satisfied.
  • O1: awarded to individuals with extraordinary ability.
  • L1: Individuals who are executives, managers or staff of a US affiliate (ie, a multinational).
  • E1 and E2: A treaty visa only available to a few countries (ie, the next in line  E3 mentioned above was due to the US-Australia free trade agreement), and which are the trader and investor visa respectively. With the E2, the rule of thumb is if you bring in about 100k of capital into the country…however, it’s more complicated than that. It’s the closest thing to a entrepreneur’s visa, but it has some difficult hurdles.
  • EB-5: This is a greencard (or permanent resident) which is probably the best type of visa for an entrepreneur as it gives them complete freedom. The catch? You need to bring $1 million into the country first.

Pretty much all the above employment-based visa’s (H1B, E3, L1) require three things. The first is that the foreigner needs to be paid above the prevailing wage for similar employees in that occupation and city. (The thinking here is that a foreigner needs to be paid more than local’s, so that firms are not motivated to hire cheap labour to the disadvantage of US citizens.)

The second is that the person satisfies educational and work experience. You need to have a US equivalent undergraduate degree or 12 years work experience (a year in college is calculcated as three’s in the workforce for every year of study) in the field you are working in. Actually, the L1 is exempt from this, which is why it’s the main alternative for people without degrees…though it comes with the challenge  of an existing business in your home country that’s been operating for over a year.

The third is that a US firm is “sponsoring” you. Basically, what this means is you have a job offer.

This all sounds reasonable. right? The US should get to cherry pick well educated foreigner’s working at companies that have a real need and which won’t disadvantage  US citizens. Yes, it should — but when you get into the details, this is when this system falls apart.

Problems with the visas
Did you know a fashion model can easily get a O1 if she has appeared in a few print magazines, but an entrepreneur has to basically have won a noble prize? I could write a book about the issues each of the above visa’s have, but I want to keep this post light as it’s a complicated subject.

The first big issue, is that the entire visa system biases established large corporations. To explain this point, I can share with you how hard it is to be a foreign startup employee by the simple requirement of being “sponsored”, which means you need to have a job waiting for you. If you’ve ever applied for a job, you’ll appreciate it’s not that easy…and if you live in another country, I can assure you, finding these jobs is even harder. Multi-nationals have professional departments where they can talk to overseas colleagues and get recommendations, but if you’re applying to work at a startup in the US you’re starting from scratch with the added communication barrier. You’ve basically got to come on “holiday” to the US and prove yourself in what is a cliquey community, so that a startup will hire you.

So why does it matter that the visa system biases the large corporation? Because startups breed startups themselves and are the best training ground for the next generation of entrepreneurs. Startups are not like normal businesses and founders are more selective about the people they hire, given how much risk there is. The extra effort of hiring someone from overseas (relocation costs, lawyer costs on visa’s, etc) only to find they are a dud, means it’s a bigger commitment to take on a foreigner. Again why is this relevant? Because making the visa process easier for startup employees, will indirectly lead to a lot more startups as foreigners tend to be a lot hungrier and research has shown a lot more entrepreneurial.

The second big issue is that you need to be paid a salary if you are to employ yourself in your business. Why is that a bad thing? Because it means I need to hire one less person. To work fulltime on my projects which have become two operationally independent businesses, I need to pay myself above the prevailing wage, which means I have to hire one less person that probably would free my time to grow the business.

The third issue is that it’s not practical. The E2 visa for example was designed for an industrial age, where you would take leases out on offices and invest money in capital expenditure on a store front. (In the information economy, the biggest expense are employees.) More problematic with the E2, is that you need to have an *already existing* business in the US, and of the $100,000 you need to invest in the economy (it’s more complicated than that, but it’s a good standard number), you need to have already *committed* to spending the cash. To rephrase this, you need to have already signed a lease to an office (which you can’t do without a credit history and operating history), spent a bunch of money, and THEN you will be eligible to get the visa. It’s a domino effect here, like the fact you can’t get  a social security number without a visa, which means you can’t open a bank account, which means you can’t get US customers to pay you. And what business man would sign a 12 months lease during their three month “holiday” to show a commitment of funds, when they don’t even have the assurance they can let back into the country?

The fourth issue is that it limits the types of people that are eligible. I used to have a portfolio company (a dozen employees, over a million dollars in capital raised) that couldn’t keep their 19 year co-founder in the country and who’s making headlines in Silicon Valley with his work, simply because he doesn’t have a degree (and so it invalidates that important test for an employment visa). This makes perfect sense for employees who are resources to grow something, but for entrepreneurs that start something? They are the rebels. The college drop out mythology of Silicon Valley where companies like Dell, Facebook, and other household names led to the creation of billion dollar businesses is incompatible with the fact foreign entrepreneurs need to have a degree.

A solution
The reason visa law is such a problematic area is because US citizen’s view foreigner’s as stealing jobs, who in turn vote out politicians who are seen as not creating jobs for them. It also creates a risk where a new liability gets brought into the country, as residents can claim their share of social security which is already bankrupt. I totally understand that.

However, this is where there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the threat of foreigner’s and what they need. Using me as proof, this year, I’ve had three American citizens on my payroll and I plan to increase that as my cashflow grows. When it comes to entrepreneurs, all we really want is the freedom to operate in the United States. I quite happily will pay taxes and not get any rights to pensions, so long as I have the freedom to live in the US and start my businesses. What entrepreneur’s need is a self-employment visa, where they don’t need anything but themselves and time to create the value they are motivated by.

It really is simple to solve this: give entrepreneurs freedom to travel in the United States, to get into agreements, and to interact with the US economy. Require them to check in every so often to prove they are not secretly working at Burger King and using that money to party in Vegas. Restrict any rights to benefits (like social security) and have them pay taxes.  And allow them to graduate into new visa’s (like a greencard) once certain milestones have been hit like revenue thresholds (tax paid) and employment (aggregate demand in the economy increases).

Immigration is so complicated that its taken me 1800 words to write this and I have only skirted the issues. But the solution is honestly simple: enable foreigner’s to generate wealth and jobs by removing the roadblocks. Give them freedom to operate, that’s it.

We no longer live in an isolated world and the freedom of the labor force to move around the world is one of the great benefits of globalisation. If the US can recognise that, it will remain the land of opportunity attracting the world’s best to continue America’s status in the world economy. But until then, I’m going to continue watching the sorry state of the US economy by politicians who are left with no option on how to get out of this mess and shutting the door on the very people who can help save America.

How to become a “full time” foreign entrepreneur in the US

Today I hit my third anniversary in the United States. I moved over here for a startup and learnt a valuable amount of things in my two years there (which was always intended as a job to bring me to America and give me a start); and this last year I’ve had the privilege to be mentored by one of the most successful venture capitalists in the world (George Zachary) has invested $150m over 17 years and returned $1b, mostly recently Yammer selling to Microsoft and Millennial Media listing publicly) working for one of the oldest venture firms in America (CRV or Charles River Ventures).

This month however marks a new beginning: I’m now a full time entrepreneur in the US. And I take great pride in that, because I’ve spent many countless months — years even — trying to work out how to play by the immigration system to enable that.  I’ve worked with lawyers, Googled the hell out of the Internet, and collected dozens of anecdotes from other entrepreneurs who have all experienced the same misery that only another expat can appreciate.

Visa’s generally favour a limited supply of talent that tends to bias the multinational company. There is no such thing as an ‘entrepreneur visa’. Silicon Valley screams out about the need of a “startup visa“, which to be honest, I have serious reservations about as it limits the potential of an entrepreneur (ie, you are required to raise funding from a major investor like a VC firm — that’s like saying you are required to get a bank loan to be able to start your business).

But after spending years pulling out my hair out trying to work out how to get around the rules legally, I’ve developed the following solution with my intent in sharing it so as to prevent the wasted opportunity that entrepreneurs after me may experience. Even some small sentences in this post I’ve spent many hours trying to validate. I hope you waste that time on marketing for your product or enjoying life, as time wasted on visas for entrepreneurs is the least productive thing society has ever invented.

As a disclaimer, I am not a lawyer. I’ve just leveraged my background in the English language to understand the rules myself, which has successfully resulted in three separate visa’s for myself and 1.75 for employees of mine.

Step one: read Geoff’s post

My friend Geoff wrote in detail the process from his own experience. This is the best summary I’ve seen to date and highly recommend you read it. My advice below is a bit bigger picture (as opposed to procedural) and tackles some of the conceptual issues (and ones that I actually disagree with Geoff on).

Step two: Get to the US.

It’s simple, but the more time you spend in the US, the easier it becomes — even if it’s for three months at a time on a visa waiver as a “visitor”. For example, you build a network of people who can support and advise you; you can build up your credit history which takes on year minimum (tip: get a secured credit card); you can setup a bank account which is near impossible to do remotely. If you move over with a job, you get a social security number issued immediately (well, that’s a separate story — it takes over a month on arrival and your life is on hold until you get one), a huge benefit given how key it is to all things regarding your identity. Ultimately, you learn how things work.

Step three: Setup a company

The US operates in a very decentralised manner, as seen by how its company law operates. As a consequence you get a lot of  innovative forms of entities being invented by states like “B Corps” and “L3C’s”. Ignore them — most companies are either C-corps or LLC’s.

An LLC will do, as it’s the lightest-weight incorporation you can get, and in some cases, might be the only option. (Certain corporations like S-Corps require you to be a tax resident of the United States…something hard to do if you’re not present in the country for less than 183 days).  It doesn’t matter where you register it: “Deleware” simply markets the brand of their state, due to the legal system having experience and other factors. Truth be told, a company is a company. Have some fun and register your company in Nevada so you can do your annual shareholder meetings in Vegas — heck it’s not a crazy idea as Nevada not only has zero income tax (a thing levied by some states and the Federal government) but it also is one of the most difficult states in which to “pierce the corporate veil.”

Step four: elect a board

Don’t forget, that your E3 or H1B visa is an employee visa — so you need to make sure you an employee. Advice I heard from the top tier lawyers suggested you needed at least three board members (assuming you are one of them), so that you could be “over-ruled” and theoretically fired by a majority vote of the other board members. This was recently clarified by the US government:

USCIS indicates that while a corporation may be a separate legal entity from its stockholders or sole owner, it may be difficult for that corporation to establish the requisite employer-employee relationship for purposes of an H-1B petition. However, if the facts show that the petitioner has the right to control the beneficiary’s employment, then a valid employer-employee relationship may be established. For example, if the petitioner provides evidence that there is a separate Board of Directors which has the ability to hire, fire, pay, supervise or otherwise control the beneficiary’s employment, the petitioner may be able to establish an employer-employee relationship with the beneficiary.

Step five: In your job offer to yourself, pay yourself above the prevailing wage. For real.

US Immigration is partly designed so that American’s are protected from foreigners stealing their job. Hence the need to satisfy the ‘prevailing wage’ case which requires you be paid above average from what an American would be paid, as defined by official statistics done by occupation and region. You can use this online tool to determine which job you need to match yourself to: http://www.flcdatacenter.com/

You can be creative here, but don’t be too creative: hiring yourself as a “secretary” at $29k a year (2012-2013 period) when you are clearly the CEO is not something I’d risk. A General Manager though is much more like a founder CEO, which is $73k —  much better than the CEO pay rate of $212k.

But just because you get your visa application approved and a visa, doesn’t mean you can fake this rule. I know of an entrepreneur that “deferred” payment of his salary — which is completely legal but were he to apply for his next visa (or reenter to the US) and have no evidence of pay checks, there would be  complication. (Athough if it took you more than two years to raise funding — the length of the visa — maybe you have bigger problems.)

I’ve actually been asked at US borders to show proof that I have been paid a wage in past — as in, actual pay stubs or bank statements. Eventually, you are going to need to prove you were paid not just above the prevailing wage…but actually paid.

Other comments

  • You should appreciate how the visa system works: the visa itself is simply a travel document; whenever you re-enter the United States, you are reissued form I-94 which is the actual work permit. Technically, you could enter the US a month before your visa expires and the I-94 that you are issued allows you to legally work in the US for a full two years (only one nerdy customs official ever did this to me, most border officials don’t even realise this rule themselves). The only catch with this of course, is that it’s a one way ticket when leaving the US and you don’t have a valid visa for re-entry: out of practicality, labour movements at check points are how governments seem to be able to enforce their immigration policies.
  • Australian’s have a God-send in the form of the E3 visa which is plentiful in allocation, has less hoops to jump through, and even allows a spouse to get a visa as well. The default option for all other foreigns in the H1B which has its own complications. Other options include the B visa (business travel) but that’s a temporary solution — the O visa (for extraordinary achievers) is an option for people who have a public profile, but expect to spend a lot of time with the lawyers preparing this submission.
  • If you don’t have a degree, things are a lot harder for you. Your only option would be the O Visa (which means you need a lot of press) or the ability to prove you have ‘equivalency’ in work experience. One university year of study is equivalent to three years work experience ie, you need 12 years based on a four year standard US degree).
  • At least for the E3 visa, the first time you ever apply for it you need to do it from your home country. Subsequent visas you can do it in other jurisdictions.
  • ADDED April 11 2014: Something I forgot to mention here is the L1 visa which not only is a great visa but the best solution if you don’t have a degree and if you want ‘dual intent’ which means you want to eventually apply for a greencard. The only catch with the L1: you need to have been ’employed’ by the company for one year before initiating the ‘transfer’

All in all, all expats in the US have war stories to share about how they managed to secure their living in the country. The above solution, as simple as it sounds, is also not that simple as it requires real capital or revenues to be able to pay yourself — but with that said knowing three years later this is a legitimate solution is something I would have paid good money for. It’s still not easy, but then again maybe it shouldn’t: little did I appreciate, getting to this point has me now appreciate what a true entrepreneur is. Seeing this as an obstacle that can be overcome will be what Phil Libin, the CEO of Evernote, is looking to hear from real entrepreneurs.

Good luck. Now, you can focus on what really matters: finding your market.

How to build a billion dollar company

Matt Mullenweg made an excellent comment on a topic I’ve often thought about. The comment was made in the context of the anniversary of wordpress.

Has it really been seven years since the first release of WordPress? It seems like just yesterday we were fresh to the world, a new entrant to a market everyone said was already saturated. (As a side note, if the common perception is that a market is finished and that everything interesting has been done already, it’s probably a really good time to enter it.)

WordPress not only has become the most popular blog software and one of the most amazing content management systems around, but its become an amazing platform for innovation. (For example, Ron Kurti and I the other day tried to think outside-of-the-box for employee expense reports at Vast. So we hacked a wordpress blog to do so – and we could do it in minutes of effort.) Not only that, but the wordpress.org founder built a company around the software and it’s become a very successful company on the web. Thank God he entered at a time of market saturation.

But it doesn’t stop there. Consider the following stories as well, which highlight lessons in building amazing companies.

  • When Google launched as a search engine, everyone though the space had matured and had little opportunity. Google has now become one of the most influential companies in history.
  • When Apple launched the iPod, the MP3 player market had been well established. No one at the time would have thought another product from this yesteryear company, would be the product that help it reinvent the company to become the second largest US company today.
  • When Facebook launched, it was yet another social network well after Friendster (the inventor) and MySpace (the populariser). In fact, I remember analysts calling 2003 the year of the social network – a year before Facebook was even invented. And now, Mark Zuckerberg has created a company that will transform online advertising, has helped contribute to the new billion dollar virtual goods industry, and is going to lead the charge for the semantic web.
  • In 1990, hyptertext systems had saturated the market since the 1960s when Ted Nelson coined the term. That didn’t stop Tim Berners-Lee, who that year invented the web – yet another hyptertext system. The Web is not a company like the ones above, but the Web is in league that few inventions in the history of the humanity have ever achieved.

Naval Ravikant has told me that in the consumer web space, the first mover advantage is so great that a company can own the space – the logic being they are so far ahead in execution and their brand is synonymous with the industry, that they become impossible to topple. This fact is why I think a lot of entrepreneurs in the Internet space seem consumed with creating a business that introduces a new concept product, as opposed to a better product – which is what the above companies did..

I think there is something to be to be said about the last mover advantage: monitor the patterns of something new, innovate on the implementation, and then out-execute the guys that invented the concept. And out execute you can easily, as the inventors are probably caught up in organisational inertia due to conflicting innovations, not to mention a misunderstanding of what actually made them successful in the first place.

As it was said once: the guy who invented the first wheel was an idiot; but the guy who invented the other three was a genius.

Facebook users: more and more in just four months

I am currently doing some research for an analyst report at work, and I thought I might update my November findings of how many Facebook users there are.

The total is within the ballpark figures of total users (Mix08 panel indicates around 65million from memory) so listing seems fairly complete, with maybe less than million missing for small countries not listed.

I found some of the results impressive, especially given the user growth in less than four months- even in countries like the US and Australia which I’d thought would be peaking. Sweden appears to have a bit of Facebook fatigue with canceled accounts, and looks like fundamentalist Saudia Arabia has a bigger userbase then tech-savvy Russians showing.

facebook users march08 update

Tangler

This is the second post in a series – wizards of oz – which is to highlight the innovation we have down under, and how the business community needs to wake up and realise the opportunities. I review Tangler, a Sydney-based start-up that has recently released their application to the world as a public beta.

Tangler is a web-service that enables discussions over a network. Think of discussions with the immediacy of Instant Messaging (it’s easy), but with the persistency of a forum (messages are permanently stored). Discussions are arranged into communities of interest (groups), which are further broken down into topic areas. Click here to see a video overview.

Value

1) It’s a network application. Although it’s got a great design, and looks like a funky website, the real power of this web service is what it’s working towards: discussions over a network. Imagine a little widget with the topic “What do you think of Elias Bizannes?” placed on my (external) personal blog, my internal work blog, my myspace/facebook/social networking page, as well as it’s own dedicated forum on the Tangler site. A centralised discussion, in a decentralised manner. That’s big.

2) It’s community has great DNA. Communities are not easy things to build – my own experience on a getting-bigger-by-the-day internal project has shown that it is a complex science, touching everything from understand motivational theory to encouraging the right kind of behaviours (policing without policing). My usage on the site has shown to me that the active community building currently occuring, is on the right track. Anyone can hire a code monkey, wack on some flashy front-end, and say they have a great product. But not anyone can build a strong community – even Google struggles on this (the acquisition of YouTube happened largely because of community, because the YouTube community beat Google’s own service). Tangler’s community is already turning into a powerful asset – the DNA is there – now it just needs exposure, and the law of cumulative advantage will kick in.

3) The founder and staff are responsive to its community. I posted a question on the feedback forum, to prove this point: I got a response in an hour, on a Saturday. The staff at Tangler are super responsive – which in part, is due to the real-time discussion ability of the software – but also because of their commitment. As I state above – the value of Tangler is the community of users it builds – this type of responsiveness is crucial to keep its users satisfied to come back, because it makes them feel valued. Additionally, the community is driving the evolution of the application, and that’s the most powerful way to create something (adapting to where there is a need by the people that use it)

4) It’s a platform. What makes Tangler powerful, is that it encourages discussions around niche content areas. Make that niche content, being created for free. Low cost to produce + highly targeted content = an advertisers dream. Link it with a distributed network across the entire Internet (see 1 above), and you’ve got something special.

Conclusion

Social networks, which is what Tangler is, are characterised by:
1) the existence of a repository of user-generated content and
2) the need of members to communicate.

Tangler’s user-generated content and communications web make them an interesting fit for both media conglomerates and telecommunication companies (but for different reasons). I see a Tangler acquisition as a no-brainer for the big Telco’s. Integrating a social network like Tangler into Telstra, builds on the synergy between the communication needs of social network users and the communications expertise and service infrastructure of the communication companies. Unlike voice calls that are a commodity now, the Telco’s need to take advantage of their network infrastructure and accommodate for text-based discussions, which can be monetised for as long as the content exists (with advertising).

The challenge for Tangler however – as with any other Internet property – is that the scale of the audience of social networks determines the nature of the relationship with a communications company. Micro-sized social networks are not interesting to communication companies. Massive social networks are, but history has shown they would rather be partners than be acquired. To be attractive to the big end of town, Tangler needs to show to have a scale large enough to grow as a business but not too large to dictate the terms of the business.

My observations conclude me to think that they will be a hit once they open up their application to external developers, which will relieve the development bottleneck faced by their resource and time constrained team. However they shouldn’t rush this, as I still think their performance issues are not completely ironed out yet. An open API would be taken up by its enthusiastic community who are technologically orientated. Not too mention the strong relationships the CEO and CMO have forged with the local web entrepreneurial and development community in Australia.

My boss is currently doing a secondment as acting Finance Director at Sensis, Telstra’s media arm. Maybe I need to organise a catch-up with him, before these guys get snatched up by some US conglomerate!

Facebook is #1 for young adults

A recent study shows Facebook is the number one site for young adults. It claims 69% of US females in the 17-25 age group say Facebook is their favorite site, with 56% of College-aged guys.