Sunday Seven: work, startups and ether commerce

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:

After The Gold Rush – by Jon Evans, for TechCrunch

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.

— x —

Slack, I’m Breaking Up with You – by Samuel Hulick, via Medium

Image via Medium

Image by buchino, via Medium

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.

— x —

 

Code is political – by Julianne Tveten, for Motherboard

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.”

What?

““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.””

I just might take up farming.

— x —

The Next Amazon (Or Apple, Or GE) Is Probably Failing Right Now – by Ben Casselman, for FiveThirtyEight

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.”

via FiveThirtyEight

via FiveThirtyEight

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.

— x —

The Music Startup Meltdown – by Cortney Harding, via Medium

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.

 

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Amazon Edges Closer to Fully Automated Retail – by Ian Bogost, for The Atlantic

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?

— x —

Is the meaning of work about to change? – by Rick Goings, for The World Economic Foundation

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.”

— x —

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.

rain-fall-by-barry-eisler-isbn-0451

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.

 

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