For the record: Boaty McBoatface is a brilliant name.
The UK Coast Guard decided to try out this thing called “social engagement” by opening up the naming of its new vessel to the community at large. It would let the public nominate and vote on potential names. What could go wrong?
Well, what could go wrong is that the Science Minister didn’t like the winner. Boaty McBoatface won by a huge margin, as it should have. But that entry has been disqualified. Why? Because the name is not “serious enough”.
The US Republican Party should take note: apparently you don’t have to abide by the rules of democracy if the people’s choice is not “serious enough”. Just sayin’.
“What happened to disapproving of what you name your boat, but defending to the death your right to name it? Is democracy a lie?”
A good article, which points out that the futility of democracy does not end with a ship.
“By voting, you can play some role in electing your member of Congress. But you have far less control over which policies that member supports once in office, let alone which policies the government as a whole pursues. Similarly, you can cast a ballot for Boaty McBoatface and help shoot the name to the top of an online poll. But you’re pretty powerless when it comes to what the science minister does with that information.”
I include an article about an article, which I normally don’t like to do, but in this case you’ll thank me – the original article, by tech investor Bill Gurley, is reaaaaally long. The Quartz summary is more readable, in my attention-deficit opinion, and highlights the scarily relevant points.
It goes a bit beyond the now-usual “the bubble is bursting” commentary to talk about how Silicon Valley hubris is bringing the roof down on their own heads. On the one hand, it’s a pity, as so many young dreams will be washed away. On the other hand, you would think we’d learn from past mistakes, no? According to Bill, the four main factors in the VCs’ and founders’ own way are:
– emotional biases (the overwhelming desire to be a paper billionaire),
– greedy VCs with more ambition than ethics (who get unrealistic guarantees in the contract, which deters further funding),
– inscrutable financials (greater transparency in the numbers would lead to better decisions and less blind hype) and
– too much money looking for a high return.
“The pressures of lofty paper valuations, massive burn rates (and the subsequent need for more cash), and unprecedented low levels of IPOs and M&A, have created a complex and unique circumstance which many Unicorn CEOs and investors are ill-prepared to navigate.”
Here we have an interesting look at the difference between books and the web. “Boundedness” on the one hand. “Unboundedness” on the other. Is there a way to bring them together?
The Web is the most efficient technology we have for creating and distributing information …
And if …
The web is the most efficient technology for organizing connections between bits of information …
And if …
The Web is an open platform on which we can build new tools and services …
And, further, if …
Books represent the (arguably) the most important single nodes of information from human minds …
Why doesn’t the content inside of books live on the Open Web — where it can more easily be found, shared, read, and built upon?”
We have unlimited information on the Internet, which allows us to build connections, to adapt and to innovate. A book’s reassuring limitations concentrate our attention but at the same time block the creativity of immediate interaction. Online books, without the physical heft, offer the same restrictions.
“So we moved from paper books to digital books, but rather than embracing digital fully, we instead built a system that tries to mimic the limitations of paper. In fact the ebook system we have built in many ways imposed new restrictions: on ownership (since you don’t own your ebooks, you license them from wherever you bought them), and use (you can’t easily lend your ebooks, or give them away; you might be able to highlight and take notes on your books — but there isn’t anything useful we can do with those notes).”
So is there a way that books can retain their advantages, set in the beginning of printing-press time, while joining the connectivity revolution?
“Books can learn from the web how to be bounded and unbounded at once: to keep the circumscribed, portable integrity of discrete content; but to open that content to the platform of the Web. To open the reading experience to being built upon… But I think there is power in the notion of a book, its thingness, and the Web can perhaps learn how to encapsulate, in the way a book does, a discrete thing, a bounded set of ideas.”
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A brief roundup (you’re probably grateful, right?), but it’s been a crazily busy week. Glad it’s Friday. You too, I hope!
One of the purposes of the aforementioned conference was to explore ways that media can become and stay profitable, which is more and more difficult in this age of dwindling print revenues, resented paywalls and online ad blockers. Could invisible payments be part of the answer?
“In the future, there will not be one universal way to pay as we are used to with traditional cash and plastic cards. Payment options will be context-based, and in many cases payments will become “invisible” and integrated into services.”
Uber, Amazon’s Dash buttons, restaurant apps – platforms in which you don’t even have to pull out a credit card are carving out an ever-larger niche, in which payment becomes synonymous with experience and the concept of value changes. How can we incorporate this into media?
An excellent article on the mutability of language and need for humanizing punctuation. Seriously, read it. It’ll make you laugh, nod sagely, possibly weep and definitely think twice about the abbreviations we think convey emotion we’re not really feeling.
And it seems like fintech is the next sector the media is gunning for.
“Meanwhile, traditional financial institutions say they can best startups by digitizing their own businesses. “I think the banks are pretty good at using digital technology to make it easier for customers…It will be a challenge for anyone to be better, faster, cheaper than us,” JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said in a recent interview with Bloomberg.”
Apart from descriptions of the amazing sunsets and drunk lemurs, the article does raise some interesting ideas:
“Poverty, according to the theory that brought [Hernando] de Soto international fame, is not exploitation, but exclusion. In other words, people are unable to participate in capitalism because they have nothing to bargain with. Slum residents, for example, build huts but cannot own them, as there is no place and no law that will register them. If they had some kind of official paper, a certified claim to the property, a title, the hut would be worth something. They could sell it, or take on debt to start a business. To raise people out of poverty, therefore, their valuables must somehow be linked to them as individuals. They must have property rights.”
Enter, you guessed it, the blockchain.
“The blockchain would, in essence, allow capitalism to more fully move into the realm of the internet. This has always failed in the past, because in digital environments, everything is so easy to copy. Therefore nothing is scarce, which is why digital content, like music, images, and text, is almost always free, or extremely protected. The blockchain’s comprehensive ability to allocate each piece of code within its system could completely eliminate the possibility of copying a song, for example, because who has which digital copy when would be traceable. A digital magazine based on the blockchain system would have unique copies, just like a printed magazine. It could be bought and sold like a physical object.”
An insight into the power that is either all-in or poking around the bitcoin space, this article leaves you with the feeling that the sector is disorganized, creative and the harbinger of a new world order. Perfect fodder for an elite meeting on a tropical island.
I am a fan of the concept of bitcoin (and write about it here), but love that this article shows some other currency possibilities and how their value goes beyond that of simple exchange.
“In important ways, Bitcoin transposes some of the shortcomings of traditional currency onto the digital realm. It ignores a whole host of questions about the potential to reimagine what money can be designed to emphasize: What sorts of money will encourage admirable human behavior? What sorts of money systems will encourage trust, reenergize local commerce, favor peer-to-peer value exchange, and transcend the growth requirement?”
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Reparations, One Meal at a Time
Have you seen this? If not, take a look, it’s an excellent send-up of the startup pitch: Equipay – Comedy Hack Day SF 2016 Grand Prize Winner
— x —
Stuff I really enjoyed this week:
Aimlessly wandering around the breathtaking beauty of northern Spain. Stunning. Nice people. Good food. Great hotel (Real Posada de Liena, in Murillo de Gállegos). Really lovely.
So I think I finally have this blog migrated to self-hosting, although there are still a few (cough, several) glitches to work out. Thanks for your patience, and any constructive suggestions are welcome!
Some of the most interesting articles and ideas from the past week:
The always brilliant Jon Evans calls the end of the tech bubble.
“The startup gold rush of the last ten years is over. Sorry.”
Why? Because of too many startups, too many VCs, too many unicorns…
“…the more the startup ethos — MVP, “disrupt,” etc — becomes conventional wisdom, the less effective it is. The day we reached a consensus that “startups will define the future” was the day it ceased to be true. Innovations rarely come from mindsets adopted by the mainstream; you can’t be revolutionary when everyone else is trying to be revolutionary in exactly the same way.”
Yet there are still fields where new entrants can do real good:
“Tech giants may have adapted (somewhat) to the startup threat, but there are other fields — healthcare, for instance — still trying to adjust to last decade’s technology. These will remain fertile ground for some time yet.”
And bitcoin, blockchain, augmented reality, virtual reality and IoT still have a ways to run. Niche apps might get some focussed traction. But the startup sector’s buzz is gone. Which will hopefully curb the egos.
This entertaining article will have you nodding your head in agreement and fighting the urge to rush outside and look at some nature. (It’s Sunday, why fight it?). Even if you’re not a Slack user (and it appears that most of us are these days), you’ll be familiar with the overwhelm, the creep of helplessness, the sense of sacrifice for the Greater Good.
“Then, out of nowhere, here you come riding into my life like a goddamned Clint Eastwood straight out of Bridges of Madison County. The personality! The colors! You were all promises, rose petals, and sex appeal. And SO much more responsive to my needs.
Soon, we were messaging every day. It wasn’t long until it was hard to think of a time I’d ever gotten things done without you.
And that, really, was where things began to unravel for us.”
Samuel lays bare his lack of commitment to the relationship, citing the “clingyness” of the fun user interface and the intrusion of the conversation drip.
“I may have been fooling myself when we were still in the honeymoon phase, but when there was all the talk of you killing email, I have to admit I thought it was the email problem you were attacking, not just the email platform.
Which is to say, I thought you were providing some relief from the torrential influx of messages, alerts, and notifications I was receiving on a daily basis. “Me + Slack = Fewer distractions and more productivity,” I thought at the time. I have to say, though, that I’ve since found it to be the opposite.”
While the article is a good read, it overlooks the fact that people’s expectations of how you are going to behave are generally based on how you behave. Extrapolation. You don’t want to have to be on Slack all the time, don’t be on Slack all the time. If it’s to gain productivity, your team will understand. I love Slack for the amount of email it cuts down on, and how it makes distance work relationships feel more face-to-face. And I’m on the platform maximum 1 hour a day.
That said in Slack’s defense, Samuel does hit home with some very good points:
“I wonder if conducting business in an asynchronish environment simply turns every minute into an opportunity for conversation, essentially “meeting-izing” the entire workday.”
“Everything is scattered, and the mental load that comes with it is real. Linda Stone calls this perpetual, shallow quasi-presence “continuous partial attention”, and this makes each conversational thread, almost by definition, a loose one.”
There is always a backlash when something becomes so popular. And it’s important that we question what holds our attention. Of course Slack is not the perfect solution. Conversation itself is not the perfect solution. It’s complicated, messy and distracting. Yet it is productive. Slack is a step towards putting warmth back into virtual work conversations, and the juggling of channels and threads is no different to the fragmented reality of office life. And anything that reduces chain emails is, in my opinion, A Very Good Thing.
In case you didn’t have enough to worry about, I present to you: the politicisation of code.
“Historically, programming languages have lain on structures of domination. Software engineering consists of one agent (the programmer) giving commands, and another (the computer) receiving and, unless there’s an error, obeying them.
To make a programming language feminist… would require shifting to a collaboration-based structure.”
““Just because certain forms are technical, it doesn’t mean they don’t have social or political influence. Computation can’t have this pure, objectified, position-from-nowhere objectivity. Objectivity is marked in influence specifically by who you are and where you are and what you’re bringing to it.””
I have no idea what that means.
A programming language has been developed in Arabic “to challenge the anglocentric nature of computer science” (although it will have a hard time interacting with, um, 100% of other languages out there).
Taking issue with the binary dominance of 1s and 0s, TransCoder – a “queer programing anti-language” developed by digital artist Zach Blas – introduces a whole new set of, well, statements.
“For instance, running the matrimonial function “iDo” causes a computer to self-destruct, while “metametazoan” deletes all language “that is representative of gender binaries” and “sets everything in the program equal to itself.””
Known for its strong grasp of statistics, FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of the startup scene in the US eloquently sheds light on trends most of us were probably unaware of.
First, that entrepreneurship has been in decline in the US for the past 30 years. (What?). In 1980, 450,000 new businesses were started in the US. In 2013, 400,000, even though the US population was 40% larger.
“The startup drop-off has corresponded with a decline in other measures of economic dynamism — Americans are changing jobs less often, for example, and are moving across the country less frequently — leading economists to worry that the U.S. as a whole has become more risk-averse.”
But new research shows that the narrative is not that simple. There are fewer new businesses, but amongst those 400,000 are opportunities with greater potential.
“Startups as a whole may be declining, they find, but the kind of entrepreneurship that economists care the most about — fast-growing, innovative companies like Amazon — hasn’t shown the same downward trend; in fact, in the past few years, those kinds of startups have surged in number.”
Yet those kinds of startups are having a harder time in creating sustainable growth and jobs.
“The U.S.’s problem is less a failure to create enough new businesses and more a failure to help those businesses grow…Restarting that engine is key because historically, nearly a fifth of all new jobs each year have been created by new companies.”
It turns out that most entrepreneurs don’t want to build an empire. And the problem has been, how does the system identify those that do? A new study claims to be able to do just that.
“Ambitious startups share certain qualities. Their names, for example, tend to be shorter and are less likely to include the founder’s name. They tend to be set up as corporations, not limited liability companies, and they are often incorporated in Delaware, a state known for its business-friendly regulations.”
So far so good, right? No. The study goes on to show that, once identified, the “high potential” startups have a much lower chance of success than, say, 20 years ago. And those that do manage to grow are not adding jobs as quickly as their predeccesors. Tech efficiencies and scalability (more sales with less staff), offshoring and globalization, contract workers and the freelance economy… The forces at work holding job creation back are a potent mix of economics and culture, fostered by tech companies themselves.
This is not unique to the music industry. The startup world is very, very hard. The general rule is that 2 out of 10 startups “make it”. Courtney does add the valid point that startups are now a riskier place than ever from which to launch your career.
“Now, that’s par for the course in startups, and really in most businesses. But up until now the rotating door of companies was spinning — you could easily move from startup to startup without much disruption. But now all the VC money that was greasing the doors has dried up, and people are stuck — there’s just nowhere to go.”
Articles like this one serve as healthy reminders that we are all susceptible to survivorship bias: those that do well or get media coverage do not represent the sector. We tend to not hear about the ones that don’t get off the ground, or that do but then fizzle out. So we get brainwashed into thinking that technology and a good idea will bring riches and a dynamic lifestyle.
“Being in the middle of the music startup meltdown right now is terrible, full stop. It’s never fun when people lose jobs and companies close, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better, and the next few quarters are going to reveal even more turmoil in the sector. But it’s not like the internet is going to be turned off for all time; plenty of startups rose out of the web 1.0 collapse, and just as many good ones will come in the future.”
Slumps, especially of the meltdown variety, teach us that having a good idea is not enough. Having an identified and unattended market is not enough. Even getting a lot of funding is not enough. The current change in atmosphere is sad – it’s never fun to see so many dreams crumble. But it is a wake-up call, a reality check and hopefully a return to fundamentals, which will lead to stronger innovation and healthier investment. If only we can be sure we won’t forget again, like we’ve done before.
This article is not so much about Amazon, as about the creep of “ether commerce”, or commerce that happens without us really being in control.
“This is commerce sublimated into the secret recesses of ordinary life rather than commerce conveniently accessible from the computer. And not digital commerce, either, the comparatively easy domain of digital downloads and in-app purchases. Ether-commerce winds its way around you, invisible, like an H.P. Lovecraft monster.”
We’re talking about product-specific digital commerce, such as the buttons that Amazon is distributing that allow you to re-order supplies as soon as the idea pops into your head.
“The ultimate endpoint of ether-commerce is full automation: purchasing things without even really buying them.”
Since we end up paying, this can sound very frightening. And the cultural and psychological shift – and let’s not even talk about the business side – is deep.
“Those of us who are shackled to our smartphones might wonder: Why not just use the Amazon app to order a new carton of Huggies or box of Larabars? But from this perspective 1-Click doesn’t make sense either—the shopping-cart checkout process isn’t so laborious, after all; consumers just become less tolerant of any inconvenience as new conveniences arise.”
Ok, let’s talk about the business side. The participating brands gain marginal revenue, but at significant logistical cost. Enter the network effect: delivering a box of detergent to your front door is not a problem if I’m going by there anyway. And with the ecommerce or ether commerce or whatever boom, chances of that are high. But even having to stop the van, haul the detergent out of the back, walk it to the front door and wait for someone to answer has a cost. Is the small additional amount earned on that sale worth it?
It seems that the answer is yes. Volume, from both a mindshare point of view (why would I buy another brand of detergent when this one is sooooo convenient?) and from a logistics perspective (more deliveries = each delivery costs less!) is the holy grail of big-brand ecommerce. Which makes Amazon the ideal partner for the big consumer brands.
Just wait until the Internet of Things goes mainstream. You won’t even need to push a button to order your staples. Our agency in the running of our household will be pushed even further into the background. Convenience? Or the relinquishing of control?
Being told that your job is in danger is beginning to sound old. Still scary, but old. The WEF presents here a concise and blissfully easy to understand summary of the main causes for the radical change in the employment outlook, and a recipe for turning this ship around.
“It’s increasingly clear to me that creating more jobs is not enough, nor is it the real solution. This solution is based on a big misunderstanding. To tackle this crisis cubed, we need to focus on not just jobs but on people earning incomes. This requires us to develop a new model of work.
What is clear is that the transformations that are now taking place worldwide, resulting in the loss of jobs, are caused by forces we cannot alter. The disruption of our world of work is the result of a tectonic shift just as dramatic as industrialization and urbanization – and it occurs along three fault lines:”
Those fault lines are technology (automation reducing the need for people), talent (a skills gap), and Millenials (who want different things from their employment, such as meaning and a healthy work-life balance).
“Neither governments nor companies can become sustainable engines of job creation. But then this crisis is not actually about “jobs”.”
The new model of work mentioned above?
“Take away the hierarchies of today’s corporations and what are we left with? At their core, companies are a collection of people engaged in collaborative efforts. It is this collaboration that is at the heart of our new model of work.”
This sounds like the spread of the entrepreneurial mind-set, even within big corporations, at every level. Slack-connected teams, on-demand platforms and a re-thinking of what work means are both symptoms and causes of the shift. The difference between “work” and “a job” is becoming glaringly vague. The fragmentation of large entities, both locally and internationally through globalization and outsourcing, is changing what we understand by “corporation”. And the quantification of “trust” through platforms and ratings is shifting professional relationships into a looser, more superficial structure.
“So to survive, corporations have to reinvent themselves as conveners of collaborators. That is their new template. They have to morph into collaborative ecosystems – with their own rules and community ethos – in which individuals can plug in their skills. The collaboration economy can be our new model of work.”
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This opens your eyes to the power of context.
“A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what is in front of it.”
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Two things I enjoyed this week:
Rain Fall, by Barry Eisler (inexplicably republished as A Clean Kill in Tokyo). Not exactly high literature, but very enjoyable, morally dubious, satisfyingly complex and exotically detailed. And, in my opinion, very well written. It’s about a half-Japanese, half-American assassin based in Tokyo, who unravels the fallout of his latest kill.
A MOOC on Coursera from Yale University on The Global Financial Crisis. It’s just started, but so far it’s totally compelling. Get this, one of the professors is Tim Geithner! In the first week he’s already talking about what they did wrong.
An epic tale of hubris and impatience, sprinkled with wealth and innovation.
“This time it’s different”: A decrease in IPOs… Money flowing backward… The explosive growth of mobile phones… A sense of social good…
And a new financial structure. The quantitative easing and the relaxing of investment regulations for funds and governments have led to a lot of money searching for the mythical returns of venture capital. The prevalence of late-stage private financing vs IPOs is worrying in that the accounts never get public scrutiny, and the high valuations are in many cases totally arbitrary. Furthermore, as Nick points out:
The problem with being a unicorn, indeed, is that there aren’t many exit strategies. Either you can go public, which is inadvisable without a lot of revenue, or you can sell, which is difficult given the paucity of companies that can afford to make such an offer. So, for many, the choice becomes fairly simple. You continue to raise more and more money, or you die.
So, can this continue? Unconventional but statistically relevant indicators that we are in a bubble include an inflated art market, extravagant parties, and an increase in the number of prostitutes.
And did you know that virtually every bubble bursting has been preceeded by the attempt to build the tallest buildings? Witness the construction of the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, 200 feet higher than the Transamerica pyramid.
I love Nick’s synthesis of the current startup mega-trend:
“All across the Valley, the majority of big start-ups are actually glorified distribution companies that are trying, in some sense, to copy what Domino’s Pizza mastered in the 1980s when it delivered a hot pie to your door in 30 minutes or less. Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, Luxe, Amazon Fresh, Google Express, TaskRabbit, Postmates, Instacart, SpoonRocket, Caviar, DoorDash, Munchery, Sprig, Washio, and Shyp, among others, are really just using algorithms to deliver things, or services, to places as quickly as possible. Or maybe it’s simpler than that. As one technologist overheard and posted on Twitter, “SF tech culture is focused on solving one problem: What is my mother no longer doing for me?””
Personally, I’m starting to collect bubble stories. Maybe there’ll soon be a reckoning, maybe not. Either way, it will be fun to look over these a year from now. Or two. Or five. You can see my collection on my Flipboard magazine “Tech bubbles“.
Wanna hear a fun fact? Google now has a “fun fact” feature, for those down-time moments when you could use a little intellectual stimulation. Just type in “fun fact” or “I’m feeling curious” into the search bar, and feel your brain grow.
If you had any doubts about the boom in podcasts, this graph should dispel them:
graph via Medium
I’ve written before about how pleased I am that podcasts are now a “thing”. I can’t begin to tell you how much more walking I get done. And how good some of them are. I’m currently racing through Alex Blumberg’s first season of Startup, which is entertaining, slick and at times painfully real (been there!).
I was surprised at the breakdown of popular categories, and then I was surprised that I was surprised: Christianity came a comfortable #1, well ahead of the #2 category Music. My preferred sector, tech news, didn’t even make it into the Top 10. It used to be way up there, because podcasts were a geeky thing to listen to. Altogether now, let’s say “mainstream”.
I’ve written before about the impact of Twitter on the news (and confessed that it’s one of my go-to news sources). But this article in the Atlantic has opened my eyes to how limited it is as a reliable information medium.
“…if Twitter is indeed a global town square, it’s one that most of the town hasn’t entered yet—and one where the townsfolk who have entered seem to be doing more listening than talking these days. This reality has broader consequences for the promise of social media as a platform for hearing from and engaging with the world in unprecedented ways.”
While the number of Twitter users has increased by 100 million over the past two years, the number of tweeters has remained more or less stagnant. Which means that more and more are signing up to be “observers”. The article uses this fact to question Twitter’s relevance as a news communicator. But I think it validates it. Observers use Twitter as a news source, which gives weight to those that are communicating, and encourages others to do so. And one day these observers could well step in with something useful.
It does seem, however, that Twitter is not the grass-roots agitator that its reputation claims. Most tweeting is done from urban locations, where news coverage is not exactly scarce. Information from remote, uncovered areas is still scarce.
“…rather than growing outwardly and spreading to new regions, Twitter is largely growing inwardly and intensifying its coverage of locations where it was already popular, including the United States, Indonesia, and Japan.”
This questions its usefulness as a communicator of otherwise unreported news, some of which could have significant impact. We as yet still are not getting a worthwhile stream of tweets from rural Latin America, most of Africa and Central Asia and southern India, regions that do play an increasingly important role in determining the direction of capital and human movement, and the world economy. So how useful, then, is Twitter?
Interest in Twitter as a social network is nowhere near that of other platforms, with Facebook servicing 5 times more monthly users. The “walled garden” analogy that the author uses is confusing, though, likening Twitter to a “fire hose” and Facebook to an “email service”.
“People currently seem to be gravitating toward social networks that emphasize control over message distribution, with a bias toward circumscribed communication rather than broadcasting to the entire world.”
Personally, I don’t agree. On Twitter, I choose who I follow, and if they tweet boring stuff, I unfollow them. On Facebook I get so many sponsored messages and in such a long format that it feels much more fire hose-y. But then again, I’ve been using Twitter for a long time now, and it could well be just be that I’ve gotten used to it.
I stand by Twitter as a news source. I find it much easier to skim than Facebook, much less distracting and time-sucking, and much more social in that people whose views and writing I respect “introduce” me to others that I also find fascinating. I don’t expect it to come up with profound insights into uncovered areas, but I do rely on it to show me stuff that I wouldn’t otherwise see. In an easy-to-skim real-time stream, as well. List format. Which digs up gems such as this:
A hilarious tongue-in-cheek account of startup life, with jibes at standing desks, San Francisco streets and scalding coffee.
“Driving in SF is like a theme park ride — the cars move bumper to bumper, the terrain is alpine, and the people around you have the temper of 10-year-olds.”
“Here is a pop-quiz — Which one’s an SF road and which one’s a roller-coaster?”
image via Medium
“Our office, like most modern startup offices, has an open floor plan. In an open floor plan, desks are organised like tables in a college cafeteria. However, instead of food and noise, you have computers, food, and noise.”
This is a charming anecdote of how online networks can create social structure and connections, building a sense of community offline through interaction online. A new arrival in an Italian neighbourhood felt disconnected and left out, and created a Facebook group for his street. He posted flyers advertising the group, others joined, and soon the whole neighbourhood was meeting for drinks, lending each other tools, helping each other out with fixes and chores.
“Almost two years later, the residents say, walking along Via Fondazza does not feel like strolling in a big city neighborhood anymore. Rather, it is more like exploring a small town, where everyone knows one another, as the group now has 1,100 members.”
“The idea, Italy’s first “social street,” has been such a success that it has caught on beyond Bologna and the narrow confines of Via Fondazza. There are 393 social streets in Europe, Brazil and New Zealand, inspired by Mr. Bastiani’s idea, according to the Social Street Italia website, which was created out of the Facebook group to help others replicate the project.”
I think I’ll propose one of these at my next resident’s meeting.
“Bad times feed good ideas, which in turn lead to good times, which breed complacency, waste and lots of bad business plans.”
A sobering reflection from Farhad Manjoo on how an extension of the startup “bubble” would not be a good thing for business. All those writing articles (which I’m collecting) declaring that we’re not even in a bubble, that this valuation exuberance is quite normal and reasonable, should take note.
“The boom has made Silicon Valley soft: Companies are spending too much, investors are funding too many me-too ideas, and most founders have never had to confront any limits to their overweening ambitions. Venture capitalists won’t quite say they are looking forward to a correction, but some do say that a bust could toughen up the place.”
You’ve heard about too many choices creating stress and indecision, right? Well, now there’s a cure.
The next big breakthrough in design and technology will be the creation of products, services, and experiences that eliminate the needless choices from our lives and make ones on our behalf, freeing us up for the ones we really care about.
“Up to now, the tendency of designers has been to provide customers with as many options as possible—various colors for vacuum cleaners, feature options for calling plans, and a spectrum of detergents for any kind of stain or proclivity.
Anticipatory design eliminates all that and presents a singular option. “Flow not friction,” “convenience not choice,” and “efficiency not freedom” are the mantras of anticipatory design.”
It sounds great. I would love to not have to make so many choices during the day. The Jobs/Zuckerberg theme of having a casual T-shirt-and-jeans uniform sounds ideal, only I’d like mine to be a bit more colourful.
However, here’s the catch:
“But for anticipatory design to work, an interconnected network of systems and records need to work seamlessly. This means relinquishing personal information—passwords, credit card numbers, activity tracking data, browsing histories, calendars—so the system can make and execute informed decisions on your behalf.”
I would love a more streamlined life. But I don’t want to relinquish that much control. And I would also like some complications from time to time. For texture, interest and to remind myself that life isn’t perfect.
This is a fascinating article, ripe with efficient possibilities that sound like science fiction but that are possible today. But to what extent do we want more efficiency? Like the smothering mother who won’t let you do anything for yourself, when does that pass from helping to controlling? And, when does the pursuit of such efficiency become more trivial than evolutionary?
The aim of anticipatory design is, in the end, to solve the ultimate of first-world problems: too much choice.
Of all the innovations in media distribution that the Internet has facilitated, I would put podcasts at the top of the list. Ok, along with music discovery and new documentary formats. But podcasts have taught me more than any other innovation, way more, and no other development has helped fill previously unproductive times quite like podcasts. Trekking to the grocery store? a16z. Going to the gym? Tech Weekly. Walking the dog? 99% Invisible. Running? Freakonomics. Airports? The Web Psychologist. So, to say that I am a podcast fan, doesn’t quite cover it.
This article in the New York Times by Farhad Manjoo brings up some of the obstacles podcasts as a business face – the lack of industry standards in advertising, the lack of actionable data – and highlights some success stories. The author knows the sector, he himself has a tech podcast (now on my list of things to listen to). But I don’t agree with his title: Podcasting Blossoms, but in Slow Motion. Podcasting startup Gimlet Media’s first show took 30 days to reach 100,000 listeners. Its second show took four days to reach that. That’s pretty fast growth. And the torrent of new entrants into the scene doesn’t sound like slow motion to me.
But, putting aside quibbling about the pace, the fact that podcasting is featuring so prominently in mainstream media, given its almost retro non-tech feel, is exciting and encouraging. I worry about the time I’m going to need to set aside just to keep up with my favourites, let alone my new discoveries.
“Several advertisers told me that podcast ads had proved to be tremendously effective. They can’t be easily skipped, and because they are often read by hosts, audiences are often convinced of their authenticity. “We feel it creates a deep personal connection to our brand,” said Ryan Stansky, the marketing manager who runs podcast advertising at Squarespace, which currently sponsors hundreds of podcasts.
Even though rates are high, selling ads is still a laborious process and top-tier shows limit the number of ads that appear in each show. The more ads that appear, the less each advertiser will pay, a dynamic that may limit the upside of the business. There are also technical problems to be solved. Podcasters can count their downloads, but it’s difficult to tell if downloads translate to listeners, and it’s nearly impossible to tell who is listening, and to figure out what sort of ads listeners may like.”
My favourite podcasts this month (the list changes frequently, especially as I’m continually discovering new ones):
a16z (Andreesen Horowitz)
Entrepreneurial Thought Leadership (Stanford University)
This is an interesting exercise in participation, with interesting lessons in Getting the Message Out There. At the beginning of the month, The Guardian newspaper of the UK launched The Counted, a tally of those killed by police in the US. It’s a sad and fascinating project, with a sobering presentation, an absorbing design and a clear layout. The problem is that the impact is only as good as the quality of the data behind it. So, The Guardian turned to crowdsourcing, asking the public to participate, to verify and amplify the information publicly available. But how to get people to participate? This insightful article explains the process and the result.
The main takeaways:
Lose the brand. People care about causes, not brands. The Guardian’s US team set up Facebook pages and Twitter feeds that did not flaunt The Guardian’s brand, but were centred on the cause.
Moderate, moderate, moderate. Debate is good, but abuse is not. This part is difficult.
Cherish the community. Cultivate the super-users. They’ll become ambassadors and moderators, spreading the word and caring for the project as if it were their own.
Bring together small communities, by respecting their focus and their space, and by giving them a way to reach other small communities. Help them to share their stories and information.
Share the data. The more open the project is, the more usable it is and the more it will be shared and commented on. Let people have access to the data for free, and they’ll contribute more data, input and insight.
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Words take on a life of their own
The Visuwords website is fascinating. Not very useful maybe, unless you’re into language trivia. But it is hypnotic, and worth playing around with.
Yet another article comparing the US entrepreneurial scene with the European. This one (by the knowledgeable and prolific James Stewart) is more insightful and frustrating than most, for the clarity of its cultural comparisons. It’s not a Europe-bashing article which would inspire me to come to Europe’s defence. It is more a European-politics-bashing article which I have no problem with. I see so many headlines about entrepreneur initiatives and Silicon Valley wannabes that pretend that it’s even possible to replicate the scale of success. And it’s frustrating, as Europe is such a wonderful place to live (politics aside), with so much creativity and stimulation. We would like the talented individuals with lofty entrepreneurial ambitions to stay, and I’m sure that they would like to as well. It would be so great if articles like this help European legislators to wake up and realize the depth of change that mercantile law needs to compete for that talent.
“Here’s a stark comparison: In the United States, three of the top 10 companies by market capitalization are technology companies founded in the last half-century: Apple, Microsoft and Google. In Europe, there are none among the top 10…
There are institutional and structural barriers to innovation in Europe, like smaller pools of venture capital and rigid employment laws that restrict growth. But both Mr. Kirkegaard and Professor Moser, while noting that there are always individual exceptions to sweeping generalities about Europeans and Americans, said that the major barriers were cultural…
None of this will be easy to change, even assuming Europeans want change. “In Europe, stability is prized,” Professor Moser said. “Inequality is much less tolerated. There’s a culture of sharing. People aren’t so cutthroat. Money isn’t the only thing that matters. These may be good things.” But Europeans can’t have it both ways. She said that successful innovators quickly discover it’s hard to break through these cultural norms.”
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I have to share this with you. It’s one of the craziest things I’ve seen in ages. Really. Crazy.
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On that note, have a crazy (but cannibal-free) weekend.
Since it’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow, we are all no doubt about to be bombarded with starry-eyed analyses of the dating scene, and how technology is playing an increasingly dominant role (dominant as in principal, not dominant as in 50 Shades of Grey, which I haven’t seen yet and hope to avoid). This report will be slightly different, as in no stars in eyes. True, there may be a dash of “Gee, things sure are different now” and a good dollop of “Things are getting interesting”, although my more literate colleagues will no doubt end up saying it better. My reaction – and while I’m sure I’m not alone in this, it is not the bemused, tech-centric view of most – is “When did dating get so competitive?”.
screenshot from Tinder
Online dating used to be something that we were embarrassed about. Surely we must be pathetic human beings if we have to advertise ourselves online to find a date, right? Even back then I always thought that it was seriously brave, figuring out what you wanted and then taking steps to increase your chances of getting it, however uncomfortable it made you. Now, it seems that everyone’s doing it. According to Pew Research, 60% of Americans believe that online dating is a good way to meet people, up from 45% in 2005.
In sync with the anthem “Love is a Battlefield”, online daters in general are in it to win. Obviously each has his or her own definition of winning, but the amount of time spent crafting the ideal profile and choosing the right platform, not to mention the sifting through the options and then filtering the actual dates… it all adds up to a significant investment. Which, obviously, needs to be profitable. An entire ecosystem has sprung up around these sites to help you “be a better you”, to hone your marketing, and to develop a strong strategy. It’s a competitive business. In spite of sites like Plenty of Fish implying by their name that there’s no rush, whatever, you know, we all deep down know that the good catches are going to be snapped up, so you have to get-your-game-on-get-on-the-ball-and-get-out-there, in the most likeable, attractive and interesting way possible.
With so many “how to game the system” articles, you may be forgiven for thinking that it’s all about the data. Obviously, love isn’t about data. But online dating is. It’s about tweaking the photo, using the right keywords, controlling the amount of information you give. It’s about mathematical equations. Some dating sites, such as OK Cupid and eHarmony rely on algorithms to match you with someone with similar interests, based on questions you answer when you sign up.
So if it’s about data, and data can be manipulated, obviously the system can be manipulated. Amy Webb wrote a book – “Data, A Love Story” – about her (successful!) attempts to manipulate the online dating game, and you can see her very entertaining and recommendable TED talk on the subject here (“How I Hacked Online Dating”). Tales abound of studies done on the impact of one photo over another, or what happens when the photos are removed from the equation. Dating app Willow doesn’t show the photo first, as most do. First, you start a conversation based on questions submitted by other users. If you like the conversation, then you can go on to see a photo. OK Cupid tried a “blind date” experiment in which it removed the photos from its site for a few hours. It found that the number of messages sent plummeted to about a fifth of the typical level. Further experiments show a level of superficiality that could lead you to despair for the human race: the near-perfect correlation, for example, of personality ratings and looks ratings. We may despair, but how much of that is really a surprise?
screenshot from datemypet.com
With manipulation part of the game, and with so many platforms to compete on, it does seem to many that online dating is becoming a competitive sport. It’s a numbers game, it’s a race against time, it’s becoming a social barometer against which to measure yourself. How are you doing compared to your peers? Not too well? Tweak your approach. Test. Iterate.
With so many individuals taking online dating seriously, it’s no wonder that new opportunities are springing up almost weekly. The competition is not just between daters, but also between platforms. It’s a huge and crowded space. Back in 2012, Online Dating Magazine (of course there’s a magazine exclusively about this enormous part of our single* lives), estimated that there are over 5,000 dating sites world-wide. IBISWorld gives the number of companies running dating platforms as 3,500, and several of those companies are running more than one site. Forbes refers to estimates of over 8,000 competitors worldwide (although it doesn’t give the source for those estimates).
Given that the current market size is over $2 billion and is expected to continue to grow over the next five years, that’s a lot of reward for the few that make it. According to Forbes, only around 1% will be successful. But who will that be? As with most start-up sectors, it will be those with the largest user pool and/or the best user experience.
The top five are OKCupid, Plenty of Fish, Match, eHarmony, and Tinder. They have size going for them. But new, interesting models are showing up almost weekly. Bumble is like Tinder, only ladies make the first move, and it has to be within 24 hours. HowAboutWe asks users to post a date idea, to which other users can then opt in. Grouper takes shyness out of the equation by asking you to bring along two friends and then pairing you with another group of three. DateBrandonScottWolf.com lets you date Brandon Scott Wolf of Brooklyn, New York. Extra points for sense of humour.
As for the business models, they’re generally either advertising-based, or freemium-based (free for general use, you pay for extra functionality like an “undo” button in the case of Tinder, deeper statistics in the case of Plenty of Fish).
The success of Tinder and Happn show that there is a trend towards location-based matching, but the sector is also seeing some new activity in relationship-based introductions. Back in the old days, you used to rely on your friends to introduce you to friends of theirs that you might like. That’s not necessary any more, apps are springing up (Coffee Meets Bagel and Hinge are just two) to take the pressure off. These apps use your Facebook profile to see who you know, and who those people know, and who of those people might you be interested in.
The niche players could also have a lucrative idea. DateMyPet matches pet owners (we all know how important it is that your potential partner love your pet). Tastebuds compares iTunes playlists and introduces you to people who share your taste in music. SingleParents.ie helps you to meet other single parents in Ireland.
With over half of the over-16 population in England and in the US single, the potential market is huge, and the demand for the no-commitment I’m-just-looking approach to dating is growing. Competition is fierce, not just between platforms, but also within them. The number of how-to books and advice sites that have hit the market recently feed our feelings of urgency and inadequacy, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some dating sites start to “rate” the dates according to their intelligence, kindness, looks, and how good they are at, um, conversation. At what stage will it stop being fun? When does too much pressure make it impossible to have a good time? What kind of dating scene do you want for your children, and what do you want them to think that relationships are for? Important issues, and food for thought. I believe that the proliferation of online dating platforms is empowering, but also belittling. However, the technology-enabled freedom of choice and an online voice that allows us to call out abuse and bad behavior make the incursion of the personal into the public realm a positive development, as long as we can keep the pressure down. Meanwhile, it’s certainly going to be interesting to watch.
Now I have to go and convince my husband that the dating sites that he caught me looking at earlier were entirely for research purposes.
And I’d wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day, but that would be pandering to the commercial conceit that love needs to be celebrated on a specific day, instead of every single day that we can. So, instead, I’m going to wish you a happy and heart-filled February 14th.
The Spanish press this weekend talked about a new online initiative to “banish the fear of failure”, in a bid to stimulate entrepreneurship. The European Commission is financing FACE Empreneurship, a digital platform that will encourage entrepreneurship through seminars and activities both online and offline, designed to help would-be entrepreneurs overcome their fear of failure. No, I’m not joking, I wish I were. €1.5 million is about to be spent on “fixing” the fear of failure.
Photo by Casey Fyfe for Unsplash
Personally, I don’t see much evidence of a crippling fear of failure, certainly not one that warrants that much money thrown at it. The start-up scene, at least here in Spain, is bustling with good ideas that deserve success. We all know that they don’t all achieve it.
So, say we reduce the fear of failure and more entrepreneurs pile in with their startup ideas. Are these “additional” (as opposed to the startups that would have launched anyway) businesses going to make it? Will there be a noticeably higher number of successful startups because of this initiative? Let’s assume that some of them do survive. We’re still increasing the number of failed startups. But that’s ok, right? At least we’re no longer afraid of failure. Bring it on.
Seriously, in what way is increasing the overall number of failed attempts good for the economy? For the net affect to be positive, we would need to target the percentage of new businesses that make it. And for that, we need a different type of initiative. Obviously I’m not implying that, to make sure there are no failures, we should not allow any new businesses. The point that I’m trying to make is that the initiative is misdirected. Fear of failure is not the main barrier to success.
I know several entrepreneurs who did not have a knockout success the first time around, and yet are still willing to try again. They are willing to talk about it, too. That is a giant step in the right direction, that we see real examples of inspiring people not ashamed of failure. Strong people, willing to ignore the social stigma, and to use their experience to help others get through bad times. Entrepreneurship is very, very hard. Few fulfil their dreams. Most give up and go and get a stable, salaried job. Some pick themselves up and keep on trying. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is going from failure to failure without ever losing your enthusiasm.”
Did failure make these men and women stronger? No. They were strong to begin with. They learnt a lot, obviously – you learn so much more from bad times than from good times. But failure is something you survive, and these entrepreneurs were strong enough to do so. Most aren’t. Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, and failure can ruin lives.
So, should we remove the fear of failure? Isn’t fear, in general, a good safety mechanism? We’re not talking about not being able to quit smoking, or failing to get into the university you wanted. The kind of failure that we’re talking about can obliterate family savings, it can even cause people to lose their homes. And sometimes, there’s no climbing back from that, because of unforgiving structural factors that have nothing to do with psychology.
If we want to bridge the startup gap between Europe and the US, we should be focussing on reducing the consequences of business failure. Would we not be less afraid, if the consequences weren’t so severe? Should we not be doing more to help those who do fail, to pick up and start again? A focus on helping entrepreneurs to rebuild, the development of support systems to help them to do so, and the removal of the social stigma that accompanies failure in Europe, would do so much more to reduce the fear. I don’t believe that it’s the fear of failure itself that paralyzes, rather the fear of facing its consequences.
I’m going to assume that the objective is a higher number of successful startups, not just a higher number of startups, irrespective of whether they’re successful or not. So, to achieve the objective, aren’t there more effective things that we can do? Like, make it easier and less costly to hire people? More tax breaks? Better access to training, export finance and low-interest loans? Fewer laws that penalize investments in startups? An even better way of reducing the fear of failure is to reduce the risk of it happening.
Seminars, inspiring talks and interactive exercises will not doubt be motiving and possibly even fun. But, good for the economy? I doubt it. Increased risk is great for the winners. It’s not for the losers. And there are always many more losers than winners in this game.
And I seriously doubt that the main barrier to more successful entrepreneurship in Europe is a fear of failure. The European Commission should be focussing its euros and its time on encouraging structural change, not placating psychological blocks that could well turn out to be a good thing.
When will someone ask why European entrepreneurs are more afraid of failure than their counterparts in other continents? Once we figure that out, and once we start to deal with this fear at its source, then maybe we can get somewhere.