free html hit counter John Battelle's Search Blog - Thoughts on the intersection of search, media, technology, and more.

Uber, The Rashomon.

By - April 26, 2015

Uber Women Promo

Our industry loves a rashomon, and in the past year or two, our collective subject of debate has been Uber. Perhaps the fastest growing company in history (its numbers aren’t public, but we’ll get to some estimates shortly), Uber has become a vector for some of the most wide-ranging arguments I’ve ever had regarding the tech industry’s impact on society at large.

It’s not that Google, Facebook, Apple, or Microsoft didn’t evoke great debate, but all those companies came of age in an era where tech was still relegated to a sideshow in the broader cultural conversation. Microsoft was taking over the computer industry in the 1990s, Google the Internet in the early 2000s, Facebook and Apple the mobile and social world in the late 2000s. But Uber? Uber is about a very real and entirely new approach to our economy, a stand in for the wealth divide festering in the US and beyond, an existential rorschach testing your values around the role of government, the social contract, and the kind of society we want to become.

When an Uber glides to its appointed pickup point, what do we see? Do we see an innovator hastening the inexorable shift to a new information-based economy? Or an arrogant bully using cheap capital, greed, and a dangerous, misogynist culture of convenience to consolidate a trillion dollar market?

Or do we see both?

Yes — that’s a cop out, but it’s also an honest answer. I know people who work at Uber, and I know some of Uber’s investors as well. They are in general a well intentioned group — and many of them have reservations about Uber’s unbridled success and its mixed reputation.

Uber’s success is breathtaking. Consider: Uber’s most recent round valued the company at over $41 billion — $15 billion more than Google’s initial public market cap of $26.4 billion. At a conference I attended last month, an Uber executive mentioned the company was clocking more than one million rides each and every day. If you (conservatively) estimate each ride at $10, that’d be gross revenue of $10mm a day, or $3.65 billion a year. Uber takes roughly a quarter of that revenue (20% is the widely reported number, but when I ask drivers, they tell me it’s 25–28%), or just under a billion dollars. And their costs are….well, assume about 2,000 employees (I’ve heard estimates of 1200 to 2500), for $250mm or so in labor costs. I’m pretty sure they’re not spending another $750mm on marketing and platform costs. So the company is most likely quite profitable already.

And my figures are conservative. Business Insider claims the company is on track to do $10 billion in gross revenue this year, and CEO Travis Kalanick last year claimed revenue is doubling every six months. In five years, Uber has expanded to 57 countries. So, yes, this company is astonishingly successful.

And yet…I’ve not met a single person in this industry who doesn’t express reservations about Uber. Certainly the company stepped in it terribly with the whole Lacy debacle, but the ambivalence goes deeper still. I’m sure pure Uber defenders exist, but the truth is, most of us are worried about the sheer expression of capitalistic force that the company represents. Privately, many are heartened by the regulatory counterforces that are stemming the company’s march through worldwide markets — Germany, Holland, India, Korea, Canada, Spain, France, New Zealand, and many other countries have banned Uber’s services either nationally, or through local city regulations.

Uber is the poster child for our global conversation about the role of work in our society, and about the kind of company we want to create, work at, and celebrate. And that conversation is deeply political and cultural in nature. On the one hand, the “1099 Economy” is providing hundreds of thousands of flexible, living wage jobs for those who might otherwise be marginalized or underpaid. On the other, it represents the systemic dismantling of our labor laws by rapacious, profit seeking monopolists.

If you want to hear an unalloyed economic takedown of Uber, head over to Robert Reich’s blog. And if you want to hear a reasoned defense of the company as an innovator, read what Suster has to say. But anyone who read Sarah Lacy’s passionate story has to wonder — if we didn’t have Uber now, wouldn’t the Valley just end up creating it? Certainly that’s Lacy’s conclusion — Uber is the collective creation of the Valley’s deep arrogance, its heartless celebration of high valuations and killer exits, and its male-dominated, aggressive philosophy of “breaking things fast” and “asking for forgiveness rather than permission.”

Put another way, Uber feels inevitable — a uniquely of-the-moment company, a mirror held up to the Valley’s aggregate psyche. And as we all look into that mirror, we are both fascinated and appalled.

All of this was at front of mind a month ago when an email from a site called FounderDating popped into my inbox. FounderDating is a LinkedIn-like service that connects entrepreneurs, and it sports a lively Quora-like Q&A forum. When interesting new threads emerge, the service notifies you. “Is Uber A Social Impact company?” was the question of the day, and it immediately sparked a strong debate, as you might expect. Lydia Eager, the thread’s originator, opened with this:

A lot of people love to hate uber because of their aggressive tactics, but the fact of the matter is that they are creating 20K new driver jobs/month and the median uberX driver income in NYC is $90K/year. Feels to me like they do way more good than harm and I’d consider them a social impact company. They are having a much bigger impact than say a non-profit trying to create jobs.

Do you have to have set out to have a major social mission to be considered a social impact company?

From there a diverse group of folks, myself included, chimed in with 50 or so thoughtful replies, touching on the importance of purpose- and mission-driven business, the role Uber plays in destroying living-wage jobs in the taxi and livery businesses, the actual economics of driving for Uber and similar businesses, the positive impact Uber has on carbon emissions, congestion, and drunk driving, the inevitable future where driverless cars and automation make workers irrelevant, the positive competitive response Uber has created in the taxi business (better customer service, competing apps, etc), stories of questionable competitive business practices, stories of rape and kidnapping (on both sides — taxies and Uber), debate over the meaning of “social impact” at its core, debate over the role of local and national regulation, debate over consolidation of power and money in markets and society, debate over libertarian political philosophy, and much, much more.

I hear these questions debated every time Uber comes up at a party, an industry event, or just between friends shooting the breeze. Back in 2013, when we were starting NewCo, we had the same debate when we were considering which companies to invite to our first full-fledged NewCo festival in San Francisco. We asked ourselves whether Uber was really a NewCo — an engine of positive change in our society. We couldn’t make up our mind and ended up kicking the can down the road. This year, we have to once again tackle the question. And I’m still not sure where we’ll land.

Like it or not, Uber is now our rashomon for understanding the impact technology is having on our culture. The company is showing signs of “growing up” — as all fast-growing tech companies do over time (you have to love Facebook shifting its motto from “Move fast and break things” to “Move fast …with stable infrastructure”). Uber’s stance to local regulators has shifted from a siege mentality to one of engagement (necessarily, I’m sure). Its CEO (and the offending exec) apologized, sort of, to Lacy, and has shifted its public voice to highlight its positive impact on the world — the first image on its site today is of a woman, with the headline “Her Turn to Earn — Creating 1,000,000 jobs for women by 2020.”

Is this all just calculated PR spin, or might it represent a real shift in the company’s culture? I think I know where Lacy stands on this one — she was personally targeted by a senior Uber executive, and she’s in no mood to give the company a second chance. But for most of the rest of us, the ambivalence — and the broader debate — continues. I personally believe that companies can change over time — Walmart, Unilever, and many others are now champions of sustainability — yet one could reasonably argue they played huge roles in creating the unsustainable world in which we currently live. But does that mean we shouldn’t celebrate and encourage their corporate change of heart?

If we dismiss these glimmerings of change as mere greenwashing, we are handing corporations an excuse to continue past practices. Instead, we should hold them accountable. For Uber — and all of us — that journey has just begun.

  • Content Marquee

My Schedule For NewCo New York 2015

By - April 09, 2015

NYCNewCoGrabHave you ever been to a music festival, and found yourself overwhelmed by too many great choices? Look at Coachella, for example. There are six stages to chose from. On Friday, how are you supposed to pick between Alabama Shakes and Lykke Li? I love ’em both. There’s Alt-J playing at the same time as Glass Animals, and Fitz & the Tantrums going up against Florence & The Machine.

Not fair.

That’s exactly how I feel about picking my schedule for next month’s NewCo New York. The lineup is 125 companies strong, and I can only see a total of ten (five each day). Yet picking your schedule is part of the magic of NewCo – it’s a supremely individual set of choices, but once you commit, you know you’re going to get to hang with hundreds of like-minded souls who made the same choices you did.

So here are my picks for NewCo NYC 2015:

Day 1: Tuesday, May 12, 2015

5:30 pm: VIP Kickoff

This is the official NewCo kickoff party, featuring founders and CEOs hand-picked to present their unique New York stories. The venue is The New School’s awesome new building in the Flatiron/Union Square district. Speakers include the Founders and/or CEOs of Betaworks, Mic, Roadify, BioLite, BarkBox and Gimlet. You need a Platinum Pass to get into the kickoff, but it’s a steal at $150 and includes unlimited access to all the other festival sessions, including the killer party at the end.

Day 2: Wednesday, May 13, 2015

10:00 am: CartoDB – CartoDB is an intriguing mapping company located in Brooklyn, where we’re focusing the first full morning of NewCo New York. Location is the king of signals in the mobile economy, and I’m looking forward to learning what makes CartoDB unique compared to Apple, Google, and others. I know one thing for sure: CartoDB’s crowd-driven approach to the world is inspiring and very NewCo. CEO and founder Javier de la Torre is presenting, and given the intimate nature of NewCo sessions, I know I’ll get a chance to say hello.

Wish I could go but ya gotta pick one: Atavist, Atlas Obscura (I’m an investor in both), and VaynerMedia (Gary is a NewCo advisor). 

11:30 am Bark & Co. I don’t have a dog, but I’ll be very disappointed if I don’t see a few at Bark’s HQ. Subscription commerce is hot, and these folks are leaders in the field. I’m psyched to meet co-founders Henrik Werdelin and Melanie Travis as well.

Wish I could go but ya gotta pick one: Bloomberg, BioLite, and Roadify. 

1:00 pm General Assembly General Assembly is redefining education, and with a full month to go till the event, the session is full. You can only get in if you buy a Diamond Pass, which lets you “jump the line” and get in despite the session’s sold out status. Co-founder Brad Hargreaves is leading the session, which will focus on the 21st century job market, something near and dear to the NewCo narrative.

Wish I could go but ya gotta pick one: The New School, Evol8tion, Percolate, Keep. 

2:30 pm Refinery 29 – Another session that’s already at Diamond status – which tells you that Refinery 29 is a hot company in a very hot market. Design Director Michael Ciancio is going to share his secrets of visual storytelling, which as a text dude I can’t wait to learn.

Wish I could go but ya gotta pick one: Luma (Terry’s an advisor), The New York Times, Dstillery. 

4:00 pm Hinge – Yikes, a third Diamond! I guess I chose some popular companies. Hinge is a dating service, and sure, there are plenty of those. But they seem to have a unique approach, and I chose this session because I’m super interested in how best to connect people using technology platforms (yes, it relates to NewCo!). Hinge’s VP of Product, Sam Levy, is set to present.

Wish I could go but ya gotta pick one: RebelMouse (investor), Mozilla, SeatGeek. 

5:30 pm Animoto – Co-Founder Tom Clifton will present on its breakout video platform. Video is a major initiative at NewCo going forward, and who better to help me understand the possibilities then the guy who built a platform used by 12 million folks and counting?

Wish I could go but ya gotta pick one: (RED), Kiip, StumbleUpon.

Day 2: Thursday, May 14th, 2015

10:00 am Mic – Mic has figured out how to gain and engage the finicky millennial market, which, it turns out, is the same group that makes up the bulk of NewCo’s attendees. The entire management team is presenting – the CEO and Co-Founder, VP Communications and Strategy, Chief of Staff and Dir Ops, and the VP Product. Where else can you meet all those folks in one room?!

Wish I could go but ya gotta pick one: Casper, MetaMarkets (investor), Mashable. 

11:30 am Salesforce – Michael Lazerow is presenting. That’s all I needed to know. Just one of the best dudes in the business, bar none. The title of his presentation: “Everything you ever wanted to know about a startup but were afraid to ask.” Michael sold his startup Buddy Media to Salesforce for $745 million. I’ll be taking notes.

Wish I could go but ya gotta pick one: Canary, BuzzFeed, The Verge. 

1:00 pm littleBits – What’s the deal with the Internet of Things, anyway? LittleBits is like Lego mashed up with the Mac – I want to understand this MIT-inspired startup, and get to know its people as well. I can’t wait to see the Chelsea-based offices, which I can only imagine boast a Wonka-like sense of wonder.

Wish I could go but ya gotta pick one: VinePair, Lerer Hippeau, TED. 

2:30 pm Tapad – Readers of this site know I’m deep into advertising technology, and Tapad promises to address one of the bugaboos of our industry: cross-device advertising. This session promises to go deep – and that’s why I love NewCo. I know the folks in the room will all bring their A-game questions and insights.

Wish I could go but ya gotta pick one: Superfly, Codeacademy, Handy. 

4:00 pm BetaWorks – Betaworks is the company behind success stories like bitly, chartbeat, and tweetdeck. I have never visited, even though founder John Borthwick is a NewCo advisor. I’m excited to learn about the BetaWorks’ approach to company formation and success. The speaker is Head of Creative James Cooper, who will delve into BetaWorks’ philosophy and ongoing practice.

Wish I could go but ya gotta pick one: Behance, Simulmedia, Grey. 

5:30 pm NewCo Meetup at relentless Generator A great way to end the festival is with an open bar, great tunes, and a massive meetup with attendees, host company leaders, and NewCo staff. Sure to be a killer party. We’ll be announcing a special musical act who will play as well, so stay tuned! You have to have a Gold Pass to get in, but it’s just $25, and includes free booze and tunes. What a deal!

If you’ve read this far, you must want to attend, no?! Yes! So sign up here, as sessions are filling up fast! See you there….

Integrations (and Metaservices) For The Win

By - April 04, 2015
GBoard

A GeckoBoard sample dashboard, integrating half a dozen separate data services.

What makes for a truly NewCo business? I’ve been giving this question a lot of thought the past six or so months, leading to posts like Maybe The Best Way To Change the World Is To Start a CompanyLiving Systems and The Information First Company, What Makes a NewCo, and posts on NewCos like MetroMile and Jack.

But lately I’ve noticed a strong theme running through a number of interesting and successful businesses: Integrations. From Acxiom and sovrn (where I am a board member) to Slack, Gecko and Zapier (where I am a happy customer), these companies are thriving because they have built a platform based on the integration of many different products and services. At NewCo, we call this “being platform’d” – an inelegant but apt descriptor.

Four years ago I wrote  File Under: Metaservices, The Rise Of, in which I posed a problem:

…heavy users of the web depend on scores – sometimes hundreds – of services, all of which work wonderfully for their particular purpose (eBay for auctions, Google for search, OpenTable for restaurant reservations, etc). But these services simply don’t communicate with each other, nor collaborate in a fashion that creates a robust or evolving ecosystem.

The rise of the app economy exacerbates the problem – most apps live in their own closed world, sharing data sparingly, if at all.

In 2015, the problem is coming to a head, and there are huge, proven opportunities for companies willing to do the hard work of managing complex data and services integrations. In fact, I’d go so far as to claim that in the NewCo economy, an unfair advantage will accrue to those businesses that excel at delivering seamless, effective integrations of complex services.

It’s already starting to happen. Why, for example, has Slack taken off so quickly, when there were already a raft of seemingly successful collaboration tools (Yammer, Basecamp, HipChat, etc)? As a user of Slack, my answer is simple: Slack has a super elegant approach to integrations. It “just works” with Google Docs, YouTube, Trello, MailChimp,  and about 100 other services. It creates an intelligent “metaservice” for effective group collaboration outside of its core use case. It’s not easy to make these integrations seem effortless to the consumer, but Slack got it right.

Another example can be found in what’s known as the programmatic or adtech industry. For the past four years I’ve been very close to this industry, steering FM into the purchase of an at scale programmatic advertising business (Lijit, now called sovrn), and serving on the board of Acxiom, a public data and marketing services company. With sovrn, we’ve noticed that the hardest, but most rewarding work comes in integrating new partners onto our platform. We’ve got nearly 100 integrations now, with several more coming online each quarter. These are not easy to pull off, each takes from three to six months to get done. It’s messy and hand-crafted, and it involves human to human negotiations all along the way. But once done, adtech integrations open a flood of data back and forth between partners, and when that happens, money gets made.

Adtech and data businesses that have acquired a lot of integrations, like Acxiom, AppNexus, OpenX, and sovrn, are valuable precisely because those integrations take a lot of time. If a large, well heeled tech business wanted to enter the adtech industry, they’d have to buy their way in. Doing 40-50 integrations from scratch would take years. It’s one of the reasons Facebook bought LiveRail, Twitter bought MoPub, and Apple bought Quattro.

Another class of integrators can be found in companies like Zapier, which is playing directly in the mobile app data market (and as such, is a direct response to the problem I posited back in 2011). Zapier gives developers the ability to tie together all their siloed apps, and to manipulate that data on one creative canvas. Another example is GeckoBoard, which at present is mainly a dashboard for disparate and discrete information sources, but even that limited functionality delivers a “holy shit!” set of insights.

Once I started noticing these integration-driven businesses, I saw them everywhere. Sure, Facebook and Google (and all the platforms) have been integrators forever, but they fail to solve more specific and/or bespoke problems inherent to individual use cases. Across online marketing, for example, tools like AppBoy, ZenDesk, and MailChimp lead with their metaservice-based integrative approach.  So do hundreds more, in dozens of categories, far too many to mention here.

But I’d like to call the ball right now: Metaservices is here to stay, and the best and fastest integrators will win.

If you want to get inside great companies around the globe, come to a NewCo festival. Next up is New York, then Austin and Silicon Valley.

What’s NewCo? These Videos Will Help

By - March 31, 2015

The NewCo festival model is counter-intuitive, so we made these videos to help explain what the fuss is all about. I thought I’d share them here. The first one features folks talking about their experience attending festivals, and the second one features host company presentors doing the same. Enjoy! (Oh, and NewCo New York registration is open now, sign up before the best sessions fill – more than a dozen, including TED, NYT, Gimlet, VaynerMedia, and BuzzFeed, are nearly full!)


A Few Questions For Publishers Contemplating Facebook As A Platform

By - March 23, 2015

5921703288_2e6a0f4007_b

Well, it’s happening. According to no less authoritative source than The New York Times, The New York Times is preparing to plant a taproot right inside the highly walled garden that is Facebook.

As Times’ executives contemplate moving The Grey Lady squarely under the rather constrictive confines of Facebook’s terms of service, they may be comforting themselves with a few palliative pretty-much-truths:

  1. We may be putting our content on Facebook’s platform, but we’ll still have our presence on the open web, apps, and in print. We’re really just accessing a massive audience natively, in a way they want to consume our content. In our other products, we’ll still be in control (well, not so much with iOS but…).
  2. Really, Facebook is just another channel — like when Borders and Barnes & Noble consolidated the newsstand business. Facebook’s just a big newsstand where we have to have our product.
  3. We’re going to be among the initial few to do this, which gives us first mover’s advantage, and probably the best economics anyone will ever get given how strongly Facebook is wooing us.
  4. If it doesn’t work , we can always call it a grand experiment and move along, sort of like we did with AOL back in the day. Or Apple back when the Newsstand was a thing.

All kinda true, and compelling enough to “test,” which is how the article carefully positions the Times’ intentions. But as testing beings, here are a few questions any publisher should ask before dipping a taproot into Facebook’s carefully cultivated soils:

  • Do you have full and unfettered access to reader data? Will Facebook have access to your customer data?

A publisher lives and dies by its ability to maintain a strong connection to its readership. That means understanding how people use your product, so you can make it better. It means knowing who your customers are, so you can call them by name, make them offers, ask them questions, converse with them using sophisticated tools. Will Facebook offer the kind of tools the open web does?

  • Do you have full and unfettered control over your advertising relationships and data? Will Facebook have access to that data?

If Facebook is selling your advertising, or telling you how to sell your advertising, or dictating what your advertising has to look like, or has access to data about your customer data *and* your advertising, they have your jewels in their hands. I hope those are very soft hands.

  • Do you have certainty over the levers of circulation marketing, including the price of reader acquisition and engagement? 

Facebook’s record here ain’t exactly encouraging. Everyone knows that if you want to build audience on Facebook, you have to pay Facebook. Publishers have gotten pretty sophisticated at understanding customer acquisition costs, ROI, and the like. Will Facebook offer a consistent ecosystem here, or will the sands shift as the company ropes in your competitors, leverages “proprietary algorithms” to decide who sees what, then ultimately decides to get into your business in some way? If you want to read up on such a market, just ask Yelp how it feels about Google.

  • Do you have control over your core product, so you can craft your reader’s experience as an expression of your brand? 

I can’t really stress this one too much. I mean, what if a year in, you want to ask some of your Facebook readers to pay you, in exchange for less advertising (or none)? Do you have to ask permission? Wait, you agreed to not do that? Well why would any reader pay you on the open web if they can get it for free on Facebook? And what if you want to do something like Snowfall? Or what if you come up with a really neat widget that pulls in processed content from, say, Twitter and SnapChat? Will Facebook let you? They kinda sorta don’t like those companies, last I checked. My guess is they won’t like others down the road too.

  • Do you have any proof that publishers using another company’s proprietary platform have ever created a lasting and sustainable business? 

I guess I should have put this one first. There have been good exits for some publishers from platforms — a few of the MCNs on YouTube come to mind — but those were native video publishers who will all admit that they could never reach profitability on YouTube’ economics.

I can’t really think of any publisher who thrived on someone else’s platform, for the reasons I laid out above. Sure, a lot of apps have done well, but in the main they were either hit businesses (gaming) or free services that kept their customer and revenue models well away from Apple or Google’s grasp (everybody else ever).

Perhaps Facebook has addressed all these points with the Times and others — but the article certainly didn’t find evidence of that. And all of you other publishers should know how the playing field tilts before joining the game.

Which brings us to BuzzFeed, which has taken a delightfully inverse approach to platform economics — that is to say, it embraces the distribution of its content independent of its home base. Of course, it can do so because its core revenue model is native advertising content, which is distributed in the same fashion as original editorial content. This model suits BuzzFeed very, very well. I’m not sure it scales for many others.

So far, Facebook has not clipped BuzzFeed’s native advertising wings. Could it? Just ask Zynga.

Then again, and to be fair, I’m not privy to the conversations between the Times and Facebook. Regardless, were I a publisher, I’d sure like to know the answers to those questions above. If anyone gets some, do let us know?

(cross posted to Medium).

With Meridian, Sovrn Levels the Playing Field For Publishers

By - March 08, 2015

meridian-logo-invA long, strange, and ultimately rewarding trip, that’s what many involved in the past ten years at Federated Media, Lijit, and now sovrn Holdings might say. One year ago, give or take, we sold FM’s assets to LIN Media, and created sovrn Holdings, a programmatic data business focused on one mission: to foster an ecosystem where independent and influential publishers can thrive.

Sovrn has had an extraordinary year. It’s led the way in the fight against fraud, and has one of the cleanest networks in the industry. It’s a profitable, fast-growing business, and it’s more than quadrupled its network CPM – an amazing feat that is a testament to both eliminating fraud, as well as focusing on data science – understanding the reams of data the network throws off each day, and putting it to work for its 20,000+ publishers. And it’s that focus on data science that has led to sovrn’s latest crowning achievement: The launch of meridian, sovrn’s completely rethought publisher platform.

Meridian is a cooperative data-driven platform. So what does that mean? Publishers integrate with meridian – mainly because of its advertising platform – and when they do, they share their collective audience, advertising, and other data.  Because sovrn has massive scale, we can share back information to publishers that no other platform offers – and we can do it for free.

So that’s what we’re doing. Meridian is a rich insights platform, featuring information about audience segments that was previously the domain of ad buyers alone. I’m excited about this for many reasons, but the main one comes down to this: For too long smaller publishers operated in the dark: They didn’t know who was buying their inventory, for how much, or how they stacked up against similar inventory across the Internet. Meridian is changing that. Over the coming months, sovrn will build more and more information sharing into the platform, all with the same goal: To level the playing field so that buyer and seller are on equal footing.

I’m super proud to be Chair of sovrn Holdings, and proud of CEO Walter Knapp and his entire team today. Congratulations, sovrn, on a major milestone, and here’s to many many more!

A few screen shots of meridian follow.

The main dashboard:

meridian-screenies-of

The comparative stats:

Category Comparison meridian

And the audience tab:

Audience Tab meridian

 

 

Maybe The Best Way To Change the World Is To Start a Company

By - February 26, 2015

bethechange

 

(imageThis piece from Smithsonian caught my eye today – Young People Mistrust Government So Much They Aren’t Running for Office. It covers a Rutgers professor who studies millennial attitudes towards politics, and concludes that the much-scrutinized generation abhors politics – logging a ten point decrease in sentiment toward government in just the past decade or so.

But I have a different take on why our recent college and high school graduates aren’t opting for politics, and it has to do with a far more positive reason: This is the first generation to come of age in an era where “entrepreneur” is not only a viable career option, it’s actually a compelling one.

I’ve never had a real job I didn’t make myself – back when I was starting out some 25+ years ago, the only path that seemed to make sense for me was joining a startup (job #1), or making one myself (jobs #2-7). I started out well before the Internet, and before the 1990s boom which brought the idea of a college-dropout CEO to the fore of our cultural conscience. Sure, we had Bill Gates, but he was a complete outlier, not a demarcation of a trend, as Zuckerberg became during the Web 2 era.

Back in the early 1990s, my friends and family struggled to understand what it was I was doing with my life. It was as if I had some kind of undiagnosed disease – I was addicted to risk, and clearly allergic to “real work.”

But think of the options a smart kid has coming out of college these days. Not only has company creation become mainstream and entirely acceptable, we’ve built scores of institutions that teach and enable company creation – from Babson to Slack to Y Combinator. I recently met with Sam Altman, CEO of YC, who told me his company receives more applications to his program each year than Stanford does. How many apps does Stanford get? About 40,000!

Cynicism aside, the main reason anyone wants to get into politics is to make positive change in the world. And I believe thoughtful young people are taking a hard look at our major change-making institutions – government, religion, education, and corporations – and they’re deciding that the best way to have an impact is to start a company (or join one). And more and more, those companies are focused on creating positive change in the world. To which I can only say: Right on!

Your Network Transcends Time – Care For It

By - February 12, 2015

Every year around this year I fly to Arizona and attend the IAB Annual Meeting, a confab of 1000+ executives  in the interactive media business. Yes, it’s a rubber-chicken boondoggle – what ballroom-based warm-climated event in February isn’t? – but I go because I get to catch up with dozens of colleagues and friends, and I usually connect to a handful of interesting new folks as well. I hate the travel and despise most hotel rooms, but on balance, well – I keep going. (And yes, I think the NewCo model is even more productive, but more on that in another post).

I find the best connections happen over dinner or drinks – perhaps that’s my own convivial nature, but I sense I’m not alone. So I want to tell you a story of a chance meeting at a bar, because it evokes a larger lesson in business:  you’re only as good as your relationships – and those relationships often exist outside traditional boundaries of time and space.

If you’re scratching your head, stay with me. I hope to clarify.

Monday night I was at the bar, chatting with old friends in the industry. The room was filled with happy half-tipsy industry types, the pleasant din of convivial glad-handing was well underway.  At one point I looked to my right and saw a young man who caught my eye and lit up with recognition. “John, my man, how are you?!” he proclaimed, extending his hand for an enthusiastic shake.

Now here’s where I need to admit something. I’ve been in this industry for nearly 30 years, and for 20 of them I’ve been relatively well known in this small circle of digital publishing – I was on the Board of the IAB for six years, and I’ve graced the stage of the annual meeting several times. The net of it is this: At places like the IAB, a lot more folks remember my name than I do theirs. It doesn’t help that I suck at remembering names to begin with, and it’s only gotten worse as I’ve careened toward middle age and beyond. (I’m not alone in this, I just love this TED talk from David Hornik – I’m not dyslexic, but I sure feel that way when it comes to names).

All of which is a long way of saying I didn’t have the faintest idea whose hand I was at present shaking. He looked familiar – maddeningly so – but I could not remember the connection. I am afraid this happens to me far more than I’d like to admit.

Usually when presented with this dilemma, I employ a strategy of conversing my way to enlightenment – hoping for a high order bit that might remind me of our connection. Alas, the man was enveloped in his own bubble of conversation, and after his friendly overture, he returned to his group. I doubt he knew I was struggling to recall his name – I’ll admit, sheepishly, that I displayed recognition as I returned his warm greeting.

Now, I could have written that exchange off, not given it another thought. But these things vex me – I hate not knowing who’s reached out to me with obvious awareness and good intent. It tugged at me the rest of the evening, until hours later, at dinner, it dawned on me who the fellow was. Turns out, he’s a quite successful investor and entrepreneur, but it had been a few years since I’d seen him in the flesh, and I just didn’t make the connection in the moment.

I was pleased with my recall, even if it was late. It closed an otherwise unfulfilled loop – I hate potential lapses in relationships, even if the other party had no idea I had failed to remember their name.

The next day provided a perfect example of why this matters. While waiting for my flight at the Phoenix airport I took a call from an old college friend, a man who has built a great career in banking and venture capital. He wanted to talk about a particular firm – a very well respected company with which he had potential business. And by now you can probably figure out whose company that was – it was the company where my mystery man worked.

“Ah, I just saw him last night,” I could truthfully tell my friend on the phone. “He’s a great guy, and his firm is top rate. I’d be happy to provide an introduction if you’d like.”

I have no idea if my two colleagues will end up doing business together, but that’s not the point. In business, the network is always on – even across the axis of time. The night before, I had no idea I’d be presented with a chance to introduce two great people. But if I hadn’t taken the time to close that open relationship loop, I’d have lost the chance to provide a truly warm introduction – one that might have strengthen the fabric of not only my own network, but of theirs as well. And that’d have been a shame.

Tend to your network, and do your best to return the favor of a warm greeting. You never know when it might come back to you.

Remember the Internet When Considering The Things

By - February 06, 2015

iot-tectonics-center-electric

Last month I sat down with my old pal Jay Adelson (Digg, Revision 3, Equinix, SimpleGeo) who together with his partner Andy Smith is raising a new fund focused on the Internet of Things. Our goal was to get caught up – I’d tell him about my plans for NewCo, and they’d update me on Center Electric, the fund’s new name.

Along the way Jay shared with me this graphic, which I thought worthy of sharing here. What I like about it is how Jay and Andy think about the Internet of Things holistically – most of us focus only on the things, but take the Internet for granted. But it’s worth remembering that objects only become magical when they are connected in some way, and data flows to and from them meaningfully.

More than 50 billion “things” will be connected in some way to the Internet over the next decade, and all of those things will require a massive re-thinking of infrastructure, services, UX/UI, and inter-connectivity. That’s one humongous opportunity – but only if you think systemically. My post on the role adtech will play in this ecosystem is one such attempt, I am sure there are (and will be) many more.

In the meantime, I’ll be watching the investments made by firms like Center Electric. It’s a promising thesis.

Metromile: A FitBit for Your Car

By - January 26, 2015
MetroMile staff

The Metromile staff in front of their SF HQ (Preston is in the red shirt in the back right).

Ever since writing Living Systems and The Information First Company last Fall, I’ve been citing Earnest, the financial services startup, as a poster child for what I mean by an “information-first” company. But earlier this month I met with another perfect exemplar: Metromile, a company that is already upending industrial-age assumptions about what “insurance” should be.**

I’m fascinated by the idea of “potential information” – flows of information that are locked away and unused. Potential information flows live in the imagination of every NewCo – once tapped, they create all manner of new potential value. Metromile is a stellar example of a company that has found a vector into a treasure trove of potential information – the automobile – and is busy turning that information into a new kind of customer experience, one that has the potential to completely retool the utility and value of the insurance business.

But I get ahead of myself. Let’s back up, and start at the beginning. Metromile began as the brainchild of David Friedberg, co-founder and CEO of yet another information-first insurance breakout, Climate Corp. Climate opened up reams of new information flows for the farming industry, and along the way was acquired by agribusiness giant Monsanto for more than $1 billion. Friedberg realized that the lessons of Climate were applicable to consumer insurance, and Metromile was born.

I met with Metromile CEO Dan Preston in his crowded and humming San Francisco headquarters (pictured above). I had heard about Metromile, but my knowledge was limited to their headline: car insurance you pay for by the mile. But I figured the company was up to more than just a cheaper insurance product. On that hunch my chat with Preston did not disappoint.

Metromile does have a deceptively simple premise: those who drive a lot tend to have more accidents, those who drive less, fewer. Simple, no? But it turns out, the way insurance products currently work spreads the risk of those high mileage drivers across the entire pool of the insured. Put another way, if you drive less than 10,000 miles a year, most likely your insurance premiums are higher than they need to be. That’s because insurance companies average out the costs across their entire base of customers, forcing the less risky drivers to cover the costs of those who drive more.

Metronome

The Metronome – Metromile’s vector into a goldmine of potential information flows.

Metromile is the only insurance product on the market that charges by the mile on a retroactive basis – it tracks your miles driven, then calculates your monthly premium in arrears. To do so, it needs access to your vehicle’s diagnostic port – the same access point used by mechanics when they service modern cars (every car since 1996 has such a port).  When you sign up, Metromile sends you a “Metronome” – the same kind of device made famous by Progressive Insurance’s Snapshot, which uses them for data-driven discount products.

If you drive less than 10,000 miles a year, and live in a city environment, chances are you’ll save a lot of money using Metromile. But saving money is just the start of the company’s ambitions. After all, once the Metronome is installed, Metromile begins to collect data about your car and your driving habits. And any good information-first entrepreneur knows that the true value of an enterprise lies in mapping potential information flows. And that little Metronome is a hidden goldmine of such data.

Preston and his team doesn’t see Metromile as just an insurance company. Instead, Metromile is “your friend and ally in owning a car.” An ally with sophisticated data science and a friendly app that delivers much more than monthly savings. From the company’s website:

We aim to make the urban experience of having a car as simple as it can be, by taking our deep understanding of data and transforming it into information and services that make having a car less expensive, more convenient, and simply smarter….With the Metronome in place, the free Metromile app functions as your personal driving dashboard. Use it to track and optimize your gas usage and trips, monitor the health of your car, and locate your car if it’s missing. You can even use it to get automated street sweeping alerts.

And there’s the difference between Metromile and the rest of the insurance business – Metromile sees itself as a services company in the business of helping drivers make more informed choices about their cars. It starts with insurance, but it quickly becomes the voice of your car. Metromile’s app opens a window into the previously opaque world of automotive data and helps you understand all manner of things about your car – if it’s close to breaking down, for example, or if you’re using it in ways that might cause unwanted expenses down the road. When you think about it, Metromile is a fitbit for your car. And that’s pretty darn cool. One to watch, to be sure.

**Because I believe so much in the company, I am considering a small investment in MetroMile. Anytime I write about a company where I am or might be an investor, I will make a practice of noting it – so far, this hasn’t happened yet. As I point out on my disclosures page, I am a fairly active angel investor.