Category: Uncategorized

  • Dr. Machine Learning

    How to realize the promise of applying machine learning to healthcare

    Not going to happen anytime soon, sadly: the Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager; Source: TrekCore

    Despite the hype, it’ll likely be quite some time before human physicians will be replaced with machines (sorry, Star Trek: Voyager fans).

    While “smart” technology like IBM’s Watson and Alphabet’s AlphaGo can solve incredibly complex problems, they are probably not quite ready to handle the messiness of qualitative unstructured information from patients and caretakers (“it kind of hurts sometimes”) that sometimes lie (“I swear I’m still a virgin!”) or withhold information (“what does me smoking pot have to do with this?”) or have their own agendas and concerns (“I just need some painkillers and this will all go away”).

    Instead, machine learning startups and entrepreneurs interested in medicine should focus on areas where they can augment the efforts of physicians rather than replace them.

    One great example of this is in diagnostic interpretation. Today, doctors manually process countless X-rays, pathology slides, drug adherence records, and other feeds of data (EKGs, blood chemistries, etc) to find clues as to what ails their patients. What gets me excited is that these tasks are exactly the type of well-defined “pattern recognition” problems that are tractable for an AI / machine learning approach.

    If done right, software can not only handle basic diagnostic tasks, but to dramatically improve accuracy and speed. This would let healthcare systems see more patients, make more money, improve the quality of care, and let medical professionals focus on managing other messier data and on treating patients.

    As an investor, I’m very excited about the new businesses that can be built here and put together the following “wish list” of what companies setting out to apply machine learning to healthcare should strive for:

    • Excellent training data and data pipeline: Having access to large, well-annotated datasets today and the infrastructure and processes in place to build and annotate larger datasets tomorrow is probably the main defining . While its tempting for startups to cut corners here, that would be short-sighted as the long-term success of any machine learning company ultimately depends on this being a core competency.
    • Low (ideally zero) clinical tradeoffs: Medical professionals tend to be very skeptical of new technologies. While its possible to have great product-market fit with a technology being much better on just one dimension, in practice, to get over the innate skepticism of the field, the best companies will be able to show great data that makes few clinical compromises (if any). For a diagnostic company, that means having better sensitivty and selectivity at the same stage in disease progression (ideally prospectively and not just retrospectively).
    • Not a pure black box: AI-based approaches too often work like a black box: you have no idea why it gave a certain answer. While this is perfectly acceptable when it comes to recommending a book to buy or a video to watch, it is less so in medicine where expensive, potentially life-altering decisions are being made. The best companies will figure out how to make aspects of their algorithms more transparent to practitioners, calling out, for example, the critical features or data points that led the algorithm to make its call. This will let physicians build confidence in their ability to weigh the algorithm against other messier factors and diagnostic explanations.
    • Solve a burning need for the market as it is today: Companies don’t earn the right to change or disrupt anything until they’ve established a foothold into an existing market. This can be extremely frustrating, especially in medicine given how conservative the field is and the drive in many entrepreneurs to shake up a healthcare system that has many flaws. But, the practical reality is that all the participants in the system (payers, physicians, administrators, etc) are too busy with their own issues (i.e. patient care, finding a way to get everything paid for) to just embrace a new technology, no matter how awesome it is. To succeed, machine diagnostic technologies should start, not by upending everything with a radical solution, but by solving a clear pain point (that hopefully has a lot of big dollar signs attached to it!) for a clear customer in mind.

    Its reasons like this that I eagerly follow the development of companies with initiatives in applying machine learning to healthcare like Google’s DeepMind, Zebra Medical, and many more.

  • Why VR Could be as Big as the Smartphone Revolution

    Technology in the 1990s and early 2000s marched to the beat of an Intel-and-Microsoft-led drum.

    Source: IT Portal

    Intel would release new chips at a regular cadence: each cheaper, faster, and more energy efficient than the last. This would let Microsoft push out new, more performance-hungry software, which would, in turn, get customers to want Intel’s next, more awesome chip. Couple that virtuous cycle with the fact that millions of households were buying their first PCs and getting onto the Internet for the first time — and great opportunities were created to build businesses and products across software and hardware.

    But, over time, that cycle broke down. By the mid-2000s, Intel’s technological progress bumped into the limits of what physics would allow with regards to chip performance and cost. Complacency from its enviable market share coupled with software bloat from its Windows and Office franchises had a similar effect on Microsoft. The result was that the Intel and Microsoft drum stopped beating as they became unable to give the mass market a compelling reason to upgrade to each subsequent generation of devices.

    The result was a hollowing out of the hardware and semiconductor industries tied to the PC market that was only masked by the innovation stemming from the rise of the Internet and the dawn of a new technology cycle in the late 2000s in the form of Apple’s iPhone and its Android competitors: the smartphone.

    Source: Mashable

    A new, but eerily familiar cycle began: like clockwork, Qualcomm, Samsung, and Apple (playing the part of Intel) would devise new, more awesome chips which would feed the creation of new performance-hungry software from Google and Apple (playing the part of Microsoft) which led to demand for the next generation of hardware. Just as with the PC cycle, new and lucrative software, hardware, and service businesses flourished.

    But, just as with the PC cycle, the smartphone cycle is starting to show signs of maturity. Apple’s recent slower than expected growth has already been blamed on smartphone market saturation. Users are beginning to see each new generation of smartphone as marginal improvements. There are also eery parallels between the growing complaints over Apple software quality from even Apple fans and the position Microsoft was in near the end of the PC cycle.

    While its too early to call the end for Apple and Google, history suggests that we will eventually enter a similar phase with smartphones that the PC industry experienced. This begs the question: what’s next? Many of the traditional answers to this question — connected cars, the “Internet of Things”, Wearables, Digital TVs — have not yet proven themselves to be truly mass market, nor have they shown the virtuous technology upgrade cycle that characterized the PC and smartphone industries.

    This brings us to Virtual Reality. With VR, we have a new technology paradigm that can (potentially) appeal to the mass market (new types of games, new ways of doing work, new ways of experiencing the world, etc.). It also has a high bar for hardware performance that will benefit dramatically from advances in technology, not dissimilar from what we saw with the PC and smartphone.

    Source: Forbes

    The ultimate proof will be whether or not a compelling ecosystem of VR software and services emerges to make this technology more of a mainstream “must-have” (something that, admittedly, the high price of the first generation Facebook/OculusHTC/Valve, and Microsoft products may hinder).

    As a tech enthusiast, its easy to get excited. Not only is VR just frickin’ cool (it is!), its probably the first thing since the smartphone with the mass appeal and virtuous upgrade cycle that can bring about the huge flourishing of products and companies that makes tech so dynamic to be involved with.

    Thought this was interesting? Check out some of my other pieces on Tech industry

  • Laszlo Bock on Building Google’s Culture

    Much has been written about what makes Google work so well: their ridiculously profitable advertising business model, the technology behind their search engine and data centers, and the amazing pay and perks they offer.

    Source: the book

    My experiences investing in and working with startups, however, has taught me that building a great company is usually less about a specific technical or business model innovation than about building a culture of continuous improvement and innovation. To try to get some insight into how Google does things, I picked up Google SVP of People Operations Laszlo Bock’s book Work Rules!

    Bock describes a Google culture rooted in principles that came from founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin when they started the company: get the best people to work for you, make them want to stay and contribute, and remove barriers to their creativity. What’s great (to those interested in company building) is that Bock goes on to detail the practices Google has put in place to try to live up to these principles even as their headcount has expanded.

    The core of Google’s culture boils down to four basic principles and much of the book is focused on how companies should act if they want to live up to them:

    1. Presume trust: Many of Google’s cultural norms stem from a view that people are well-intentioned and trustworthy. While that may not seem so radical, this manifested at Google as a level of transparency with employees and a bias to say yes to employee suggestions that most companies are uncomfortable with. It raises interesting questions about why companies that say their talent is the most important thing treat them in ways that suggest a lack of trust.
    2. Recruit the best: Many an exec pays lip service to this, but what Google has done is institute policies that run counter to standard recruiting practices to try to actually achieve this at scale: templatized interviews / forms (to make the review process more objective and standardized), hiring decisions made by cross-org committees (to insure a consistently high bar is set), and heavy use of data to track the effectiveness of different interviewers and interview tactics. While there’s room to disagree if these are the best policies (I can imagine hating this as a hiring manager trying to staff up a team quickly), what I admired is that they set a goal (to hire the best at scale) and have actually thought through the recruiting practices they need to do so.
    3. Pay fairly [means pay unequally]: While many executives would agree with the notion that superstar employees can be 2-10x more productive, few companies actually compensate their superstars 2-10x more. While its unclear to me how effective Google is at rewarding superstars, the fact that they’ve tried to align their pay policies with their beliefs on how people perform is another great example of deviating from the norm (this time in terms of compensation) to follow through on their desire to pay fairly.
    4. Be data-driven: Another “in vogue” platitude amongst executives, but one that very few companies live up to, is around being data-driven. In reading Bock’s book, I was constantly drawing parallels between the experimentation, data collection, and analyses his People Operations team carried out and the types of experiments, data collection, and analyses you would expect a consumer internet/mobile company to do with their users. Case in point: Bock’s team experimented with different performance review approaches and even cafeteria food offerings in the same way you would expect Facebook to experiment with different news feed algorithms and notification strategies. It underscores the principle that, if you’re truly data-driven, you don’t just selectively apply it to how you conduct business, you apply it everywhere.

    Of course, not every company is Google, and not every company should have the same set of guiding principles or will come to same conclusions. Some of the processes that Google practices are impractical (i.e., experimentation is harder to set up / draw conclusions from with much smaller companies, not all professions have such wide variations in output as to drive such wide variations in pay, etc).

    What Bock’s book highlights, though, is that companies should be thoughtful about what sort of cultural principles they want to follow and what policies and actions that translates into if they truly believe them. I’d highly recommend the book!

  • What Happens After the Tech Bubble Pops

    In recent years, it’s been the opposite of controversial to say that the tech industry is in a bubble. The terrible recent stock market performance of once high-flying startups across virtually every industry (see table below) and the turmoil in the stock market stemming from low oil prices and concerns about the economies of countries like China and Brazil have raised fears that the bubble is beginning to pop.

    While history will judge when this bubble “officially” bursts, the purpose of this post is to try to make some predictions about what will happen during/after this “correction” and pull together some advice for people in / wanting to get into the tech industry. Starting with the immediate consequences, one can reasonably expect that:

    • Exit pipeline will dry up: When startup valuations are higher than what the company could reasonably get in the stock market, management teams (who need to keep their investors and employees happy) become less willing to go public. And, if public markets are less excited about startups, the price acquirers need to pay to convince a management team to sell goes down. The result is fewer exits and less cash back to investors and employees for the exits that do happen.
    • VCs become less willing to invest: VCs invest in startups on the promise that future IPOs and acquisitions will make them even more money. When the exit pipeline dries up, VCs get cold feet because the ability to get a nice exit seems to fade away. The result is that VCs become a lot more price-sensitive when it comes to investing in later stage companies (where the dried up exit pipeline hurts the most).
    • Later stage companies start cutting costs: Companies in an environment where they can’t sell themselves or easily raise money have no choice but to cut costs. Since the vast majority of later-stage startups run at a loss to increase growth, they will find themselves in the uncomfortable position of slowing down hiring and potentially laying employees off, cutting back on perks, and focusing a lot more on getting their financials in order.

    The result of all of this will be interesting for folks used to a tech industry (and a Bay Area) flush with cash and boundlessly optimistic:

    1. Job hopping should slow: “Easy money” to help companies figure out what works or to get an “acquihire” as a soft landing will be harder to get in a challenged financing and exit environment. The result is that the rapid job hopping endemic in the tech industry should slow as potential founders find it harder to raise money for their ideas and as it becomes harder for new startups to get the capital they need to pay top dollar.
    2. Strong companies are here to stay: While there is broad agreement that there are too many startups with higher valuations than reasonable, what’s also become clear is there are a number of mature tech companies that are doing exceptionally well (i.e. Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google) and a number of “hotshots” which have demonstrated enough growth and strong enough unit economics and market position to survive a challenged environment (i.e. Uber, Airbnb). This will let them continue to hire and invest in ways that weaker peers will be unable to match.
    3. Tech “luxury money” will slow but not disappear: Anyone who lives in the Bay Area has a story of the ridiculousness of “tech money” (sky-high rents, gourmet toast,“its like Uber but for X”, etc). This has been fueled by cash from the startup world as well as free flowing VC money subsidizing many of these new services . However, in a world where companies need to cut costs, where exits are harder to come by, and where VCs are less willing to subsidize random on-demand services, a lot of this will diminish. That some of these services are fundamentally better than what came before (i.e. Uber) and that stronger companies will continue to pay top dollar for top talent will prevent all of this from collapsing (and lets not forget San Francisco’s irrational housing supply policies). As a result, people expecting a reversal of gentrification and the excesses of tech wealth will likely be disappointed, but its reasonable to expect a dramatic rationalization of the price and quantity of many “luxuries” that Bay Area inhabitants have become accustomed to soon.

    So, what to do if you’re in / trying to get in to / wanting to invest in the tech industry?

    • Understand the business before you get in: Its a shame that market sentiment drives fundraising and exits, because good financial performance is generally a pretty good indicator of the long-term prospects of a business. In an environment where its harder to exit and raise cash, its absolutely critical to make sure there is a solid business footing so the company can keep going or raise money / exit on good terms.
    • Be concerned about companies which have a lot of startup exposure: Even if a company has solid financial performance, if much of that comes from selling to startups (especially services around accounting, recruiting, or sales), then they’re dependent on VCs opening up their own wallets to make money.
    • Have a much higher bar for large, later-stage companies: The companies that will feel the most “pain” the earliest will be those with with high valuations and high costs. Raising money at unicorn valuations can make a sexy press release but it doesn’t amount to anything if you can’t exit or raise money at an even higher valuation.
    • Rationalize exposure to “luxury”: Don’t expect that “Uber but for X” service that you love to stick around (at least not at current prices)…
    • Early stage companies can still be attractive: Companies that are several years from an exit & raising large amounts of cash will be insulated in the near-term from the pain in the later stage, especially if they are committed to staying frugal and building a disruptive business. Since they are already relatively low in valuation and since investors know they are discounting off a valuation in the future (potentially after any current market softness), the downward pressures on valuation are potentially lighter as well.

    Thought this was interesting or helpful? Check out some of my other pieces on investing / finance.

  • An “Unbiased Opinion”

    I recently read a short column by gadget reviewer Vlad Savov in The Verge provocatively titled “My reviews are biased — that’s why you should trust them” which made me think. In it, Vlad addresses the accusation he hears often that he’s biased:

    Of course I’m biased, that’s the whole point… subjectivity is an inherent — and I would argue necessary — part of making these reviews meaningful. Giving each new device a decontextualized blank slate to be reviewed against and only asserting the bare facts of its existence is neither engaging nor particularly useful. You want me to complain about the chronically bloopy Samsung TouchWiz interface while celebrating the size perfection of last year’s Moto X. Those are my preferences, my biased opinions, and it’s only by applying them to the pristine new phone or tablet that I can be of any use to readers. To be perfectly impartial would negate the value of having a human conduct the review at all. Just feed the new thing into a 3D scanner and run a few algorithms over the resulting data to determine a numerical score. Job done.”

    [emphasis mine]

    As Vlad points out, in an expert you’re asking for advice from, bias is a good thing. Now whether or not Vlad has unhelpful biases or is someone who’s opinion you value is a separate question entirely, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned — an unbiased opinion is oftentimes an uneducated one and tend to come from panderers who fit one of three criteria:

    1. they think you don’t want them to express an opinion and are trying to respect your wishes
    2. they don’t know anything
    3. they are trying to sell you something, not mutually exclusive with (2)

    The individuals who are the most knowledgeable and thoughtful about a topic almost certainly have a bias and that’s a bias that you want to hear.

  • 3D Printing as Disruptive Innovation

    Last week, I attended a MIT/Stanford VLAB event on 3D printing technologies. While I had previously been aware of 3D printing (which works basically the way it sounds) as a way of helping companies and startups do quick prototypes or letting geeks of the “maker” persuasion make random knickknacks, it was at the event that I started to recognize the technology’s disruptive potential in manufacturing. While the conference itself was actually more about personal use for 3D printing, when I thought about the applications in the industrial/business world, it was literally like seeing the first part/introduction of a new chapter or case study from Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma (and inspiration for one of the more popular blog posts here :-)) play out right in front of me:

    • Like many other disruptive innovations when they began, 3D printing today is unable to serve the broader manufacturing “market”. Generally speaking, the time needed per unit output, the poor “print resolution”, the upfront capital costs, and some of the limitations in terms of materials are among the reasons that the technology as it stands today is uncompetitive with traditional mass manufacturing.
    • Even if 3D printing were competitive today, there are big internal and external stumbling blocks which would probably make it very difficult for existing large companies to embrace it. Today’s heavyweight manufacturers are organized and incentivized internally along the lines of traditional assembly line manufacturing. They also lack the partners, channels, and supply chain relationships (among others) externally that they would need to succeed.
    • While 3D printing today is very disadvantaged relative to traditional manufacturing technologies (most notably in speed and upfront cost), it is extremely good at certain things which make it a phenomenal technology for certain use cases:
      • Rapid design to production: Unlike traditional manufacturing techniques which take significant initial tooling and setup, once you have a 3D printer and an idea, all you need to do is print the darn thing! At the conference, one of the panelists gave a great example: a designer bought an Apple iPad on a Friday, decided he wanted to make his own iPad case, and despite not getting any help from Apple or prior knowledge of the specs, was able by Monday to be producing and selling the case he had designed that weekend. Idea to production in three days. Is it any wonder that so many of the new hardware startups are using 3D printing to do quick prototyping?
      • Short runs/lots of customizationChances are most of the things you use in your life are not one of a kind (i.e. pencils, clothes, utensils, dishware, furniture, cars, etc). The reason for this is that mass production make it extremely cheap to produce many copies of the same thing. The flip side of this is that short production runs (where you’re not producing thousands or millions of the same thing) and production where each item has a fair amount of customization or uniqueness is really expensive. With 3D printing, however, because each item being produced is produced in the same way (by the printer), you can produce one item at close to the same per unit price as producing a million – this makes 3D printing a very interesting technology for markets where customization & short runs are extremely valuable.
      • Shapes/structures that injection molding and machining find difficult: There are many shapes where traditional machining (taking a big block of material and whittling it down to the desired shape) and injection molding (building a mold and then filling it with molten material to get the desired shape) are not ideal: things like producing precision products that go into airplanes and racecars or printing the scaffolds with which bioengineers hope to build artificial organs are uniquely addressable by 3D printing technologies.
      • Low laborThe printer takes care of all of it – thus letting companies cut costs in manufacturing and/or refocus their people to steps in the process which do require direct human intervention.
    • And, of course, with the new markets which are opening up for 3D printing, its certainly helpful that the size, cost, and performance of 3D printers has improved dramatically and is continuing to improve – to the point where the panelists were very serious when they articulated a vision of the future where 3D printers could be as widespread as typical inkjet/laser printers!

    Ok, so why do we care? While its difficult to predict precisely what this technology could bring (it is disruptive after all!), I think there are a few tantalizing possibilities of how the manufacturing game might change to consider:

    • The ability to do rapid design to productionmeans you could dofast fashion for everything – in the same way that companies like Zara can produce thousands of different products in a season (and quickly change them to meet new trends/styles), broader adoption of 3D printing could lead to the rise of new companies where design/operational flexibility and speed are king, as the companies best able to fit their products to the flavor-of-the-month gain more traction.
    • The ability to do customization means you can manufacture custom parts/products cost-effectively and without holding as much inventory; production only needs to begin after an order is on hand (no reason to hold extra “copies” of something that may go out of fashion/go bad in storage when you can print stuff on the fly) and the lack of retooling means companies can be a lot more flexible in terms of using customization to get more customers.
    • I’m not sure how all the second/third-order effects play out, but this could also put a damper on outsourced manufacturing to countries like China/India – who cares about cheaper manufacturing labor overseas when 3D printing makes it possible to manufacture locally without much labor and avoid import duties, shipping delays, and the need to hold on to parts/inventory?

    I think there’s a ton of potential for the technology itself and its applications, and the possible consequences for how manufacturing will evolve are staggering. Yes, we are probably a long way off from seeing this, but I think we are on the verge of seeing a disruptive innovation take place, and if you’re anything like me, you’re excited to see it play out.

  • The Marketing Glory of NVIDIA’s Codenames

    While code names are not rare in the corporate world, more often than not, the names tend to be unimaginative. NVIDIA’s code names, however, are pure marketing glory.

    Take NVIDIA’s high performance computing product roadmap (below) – these are products that use the graphics processing capabilities of NVIDIA’s high-end GPUs and turn them into smaller, cheaper, and more power-efficient supercomputing engines which scientists and researchers can use to crunch numbers. How does NVIDIA describe its future roadmap? It uses the names of famous scientists to describe its technology roadmap: Tesla (the great American electrical engineer who helped bring us AC power), Fermi (“the father of the Atomic Bomb”), Kepler (one of the first astronomers to apply physics to astronomy), and Maxwell (the physicist who helped show that electrical, magnetic, and optical phenomena were all linked).

    Source: Rage3D

    Who wouldn’t want to do some “high power” research (pun intended) with Maxwell? 

    But, what really takes the cake for me are the codenames NVIDIA uses for its smartphone/tablet chips: its Tegra line of products. Instead of scientists, he uses, well, comic book characters. For release at the end of this year? Kal-El, or for the uninitiated, that’s the alien name for Superman. After that? Wayne, as in the alter ego for Batman. Then, Loganas in the name for the X-men Wolverine. And then Starkas in the alter ego for Iron Man.

    Source: NVIDIA

    Everybody wants a little Iron Man in their tablet.

  • Web vs Native

    When Steve Jobs first launched the iPhone in 2007, Apple’s perception of where the smartphone application market would move was in the direction of web applications. The reasons for this are obvious: people are familiar with how to build web pages and applications, and it simplifies application delivery.

    Yet in under a year, Apple changed course, shifting the focus of iPhone development from web applications to building native applications custom-built (by definition) for the iPhone’s operating system and hardware. While I suspect part of the reason this was done was to lock-in developers, the main reason was certainly the inadequacy of available browser/web technology. While we can debate the former, the latter is just plain obvious. In 2007, the state of web development was relatively primitive relative to today. There was no credible HTML5 support. Javascript performance was paltry. There was no real way for web applications to access local resources/hardware capabilities. Simply put, it was probably too difficult for Apple to kludge together an application development platform based solely on open web technologies which would get the sort of performance and functionality Apple wanted.

    But, that was four years ago, and web technology has come a long way. Combine that with the tech commentator-sphere’s obsession with hyping up a rivalry between “native vs HTML5 app development”, and it begs the question: will the future of application development be HTML5 applications or native?

    There are a lot of “moving parts” in a question like this, but I believe the question itself is a red herring. Enhancements to browser performance and the new capabilities that HTML5 will bring like offline storage, a canvas for direct graphic manipulation, and tools to access the file system, mean, at least to this tech blogger, that “HTML5 applications” are not distinct from native applications at all, they are simply native applications that you access through the internet. Its not a different technology vector – it’s just a different form of delivery.

    Critics of this idea may cite that the performance and interface capabilities of browser-based applications lag far behind those of “traditional” native applications, and thus they will always be distinct. And, as of today, they are correct. However, this discounts a few things:

    • Browser performance and browser-based application design are improving at a rapid rate, in no small part because of the combination of competition between different browsers and the fact that much of the code for these browsers is open source. There will probably always be a gap between browser-based apps and native, but I believe this gap will continue to narrow to the point where, for many applications, it simply won’t be a deal-breaker anymore.
    • History shows that cross-platform portability and ease of development can trump performance gaps. Once upon a time, all developers worth their salt coded in low level machine language. But this was a nightmare – it was difficult to do simple things like showing text on a screen, and the code written only worked on specific chips and operating systems and hardware configurations. I learned C which helped to abstract a lot of that away, and, keeping with the trend of moving towards more portability and abstraction, the mobile/web developers of today develop with tools (Python, Objective C, Ruby, Java, Javascript, etc) which make C look pretty low-level and hard to work with. Each level of abstraction adds a performance penalty, but that has hardly stopped developers from embracing them, and I feel the same will be true of “HTML5”.
    • Huge platform economic advantages. There are three huge advantages today to HTML5 development over “traditional native app development”. The first is the ability to have essentially the same application run across any device which supports a browser. Granted, there are performance and user experience issues with this approach, but when you’re a startup or even a corporate project with limited resources, being able to get wide distribution for earlier products is a huge advantage. The second is that HTML5 as a platform lacks the control/economic baggage that iOS and even Android have where distribution is controlled and “taxed” (30% to Apple/Google for an app download, 30% cut of digital goods purchases). I mean, what other reason does Amazon have to move its Kindle application off of the iOS native path and into HTML5 territory? The third is that web applications do not require the latest and greatest hardware to perform amazing feats. Because these apps are fundamentally browser-based, using the internet to connect to a server-based/cloud-based application allows even “dumb devices” to do amazing things by outsourcing some of that work to another system. The combination of these three makes it easier to build new applications and services and make money off of them – which will ultimately lead to more and better applications and services for the “HTML5 ecosystem.”

    Given Google’s strategic interest in the web as an open development platform, its no small wonder that they have pushed this concept the furthest. Not only are they working on a project called Native Client to let users achieve “native performance” with the browser, they’ve built an entire operating system centered entirely around the browser, Chrome OS, and were the first to build a major web application store, the Chrome Web Store to help with application discovery.

    While it remains to be seen if any of these initiatives will end up successful, this is definitely a compelling view of how the technology ecosystem evolves, and, putting on my forward-thinking cap on, I would not be surprised if:

    1. The major operating systems became more ChromeOS-like over time. Mac OS’s dashboard widgets and Windows 7’s gadgets are already basically HTML5 mini-apps, and Microsoft has publicly stated that Windows 8 will support HTML5-based application development. I think this is a sign of things to come as the web platform evolves and matures.
    2. Continued focus on browser performance may lead to new devices/browsers focused on HTML5 applications. In the 1990s/2000s, there was a ton of attention focused on building Java accelerators in hardware/chips and software platforms who’s main function was to run Java. While Java did not take over the world the way its supporters had thought, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar explosion just over the horizon focused on HTML5/Javascript performance – maybe even HTML5 optimized chips/accelerators, additional ChromeOS-like platforms, and potentially browsers optimized to run just HTML5 games or enterprise applications?
    3. Web application discovery will become far more important. The one big weakness as it stands today for HTML5 is application discovery. Its still far easier to discover a native mobile app using the iTunes App Store or the Android Market than it is to find a good HTML5 app. But, as platform matures and the platform economics shift, new application stores/recommendation engines/syndication platforms will become increasingly critical.

    Thought this was interesting? Check out some of my other pieces on Tech industry

  • Standards Have No Standards

    Many forms of technology requires standards to work. As a result, it is in the best interest of all parties in the technology ecosystem to participate in standards bodies to ensure interoperability.

    The two main problem with getting standards working can be summed up, as all good things in technology can be, in the form of webcomics. 

    Problem #1, from XKCDpeople/companies/organizations keep creating more standards.

    Source: XKCD

    The cartoon takes the more benevolent look at how standards proliferate; the more cynical view is that individuals/corporations recognize that control or influence over an industry standard can give them significant power in the technology ecosystem. I think both the benevolent and the cynical view are always at play – but the result is the continual creation of “bigger and badder” standards which are meant to replace but oftentimes fail to completely supplant existing ones. Case in point, as someone who has spent a fair amount of time looking at technologies to enable greater intelligence/network connectivity in new types of devices (think TVs, smart meters, appliances, thermostats, etc.), I’m still puzzled as to why we have so many wireless communication standards and protocols for achieving it (Bluetooth, Zigbee, ZWave, WiFi, DASH7, 6LowPAN, etc)

    Problem #2: standards aren’t purely technical undertakings – they’re heavily motivated by the preferences of the bodies and companies which participate in formulating them, and like the US’s “wonderful” legislative process, involves mashing together a large number of preferences, some of which might not necessarily be easily compatible with one another. This can turn quite political and generate standards/working papers which are too difficult to support well (i.e. like DLNA). Or, as Dilbert sums it up, these meetings are full of people who are instructed to do this:

    Source: Dilbert

    Or this:

    Source: Dilbert

    Our one hope is that the industry has enough people/companires who are more vested in the future of the technology industry than taking unnecessarily cheap shots at one another… It’s a wonder we have functioning standards at all, isn’t it?

    Thought this was interesting? Check out some of my other pieces on Tech industry

  • The “Strangest Biotech Company of All” Issues Their Annual Report as a Comic Book

    This seems almost made for me: I’m into comic books. I do my own “corporate style” annual and quarterly reports to track how my finances and goals are going. And, I follow the biopharma industry.

    Source: United Therapeutics 2010 Annual Report

    So, when I found out that a biotech company issued its latest annual report in the form of a comic book, I knew I had to talk about it!

    The art style is not all that bad, and the bulk of the comic is told from the first person perspective of Martin Auster, head of business development at the company (that’s Doctor Auster to you, pal!). We get an interesting look at Auster’s life, how he was a medical student who didn’t really want to do a residency, and how and why he ultimately joins the company.

    Source: United Therapeutics 2010 Annual Report
    Source: United Therapeutics 2010 Annual Report
    Source: United Therapeutics 2010 Annual Report

    And, of course, what annual report wouldn’t be complete without some financial charts – and yes, this particular chart was intended to be read with 3D glasses (which were apparently shipped with paper copies of the report):

    Source: United Therapeutics 2010 Annual Report

    Interestingly, the company in question – United Therapeutics — is not a tiny company either: its worth roughly $3 billion (as of when this was written) and is also somewhat renowned for its more unusual practices (meetings have occurred in the virtual world Second Life and employees are all called “Unitherians”) as well as its brilliant and eccentric founder, Dr. Martine Rothblatt. Rothblatt is a very accomplished modern-day polymath:

    • She was an early pioneer in communication satellite law
    • She helped launch a number of communication satellite technologies and companies
    • She founded and was CEO of Geostar Corporation, an early GPS satellite company
    • She founded and was CEO of Sirius Satellite Radio
    • She led the International Bar Association’s efforts to draft a Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights
    • She is a pre-eminent proponent for xenotransplantation
    • She is also one of the most vocal advocates of transgenderism and transgender rights, having been born as Martin Rothblatt (Howard Stern even referred to her as the “Martine Luther Queen” of the movement)
    • She is a major proponent of the interesting philosophy that one might achieve technological immortality by digitizing oneself (having created an interesting robot version of her wife, Bina).
    • She started United Therapeutics because her daughter was diagnosed with Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension, a fatal condition which, at the time of diagnosis, there was no effective treatment for

    You got to have a lot of love and respect for a company that not only seems to have delivered an impressive financial outcome ($600 million in sales a year and $3 billion in market cap is not bad!) and can still maintain what looks like a very fun and unique culture (in no small part, I’m sure, because of their CEO).

  • The Goal is Not Profitability

    I’ve blogged before about how the economics of the venture industry affect how venture capitalists evaluate potential investments, the main conclusion of which is that VCs are really only interested in companies that could potentially IPO or sell for at least several hundred million dollars.

    One variation on that line of logic which I think startups/entrepreneurs oftentimes fail to grasp is that profitability is not the number one goal.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. The reason for any business to exist is to ultimately make profit. And, all things being equal, investors certainly prefer more profitable companies to less/unprofitable ones. But, the truth of the matter is that things are rarely all equal and, at the end of the day, your venture capital investors aren’t necessarily looking for profit, they are looking for a large outcome.

    Before I get accused of being supportive of bubble companies (I’m not), let me explain what this seemingly crazy concept means in practice. First of all, short-term profitability can conflict with rapid growth. This will sound counter-intuitive, but its the very premise for venture capital investment. Think about it: Facebook could’ve tried much harder to make a profit in its early years by cutting salaries and not investing in R&D, but that would’ve killed Facebook’s ability to grow quickly. Instead, they raised venture capital and ignored short-term profitability to build out the product and aggressively market. This might seem simplistic, but I oftentimes receive pitches/plans from entrepreneurs who boast that they can achieve profitability quickly or that they don’t need to raise another round of investment because they will be making a profit soon, never giving any thought to what might happen with their growth rate if they ignored profitability for another quarter or year.

    Secondly, the promise of growth and future profitability can drive large outcomesPandora, Groupon, Enphase, TeslaA123, and Solazyme are among some of the hottest venture-backed IPOs in recent memory and do you know what they all also happen to share? They are very unprofitable and, to the best of my knowledge, have not yet had a single profitable year. However, the investment community has strong faith in the ability of these businesses to continue to grow rapidly and, eventually, deliver profitability. Whether or not that faith is well-placed is another question (and I have my doubts on some of the companies on that list), but as these examples illustrate, you don’t necessarily need to be profitable to be able to get a large venture-sized outcome.

    Of course, it’d be a mistake to take this logic and assume that you never need to achieve or think about profitability. After all, a company that is bleeding cash unnecessarily is not a good company by any definition, regardless of whether or not the person evaluating it is in venture capital. Furthermore, while the public market may forgive Pandora and Groupon’s money-losing, there’s also no guarantee that they will be so forgiving of another company’s or even of Pandora/Groupons a few months from now.

    But what I am saying is that entrepreneurs need to be more thoughtful when approaching a venture investor with a plan to achieve profitability/stop raising money more quickly, because the goal of that investor is not necessarily short-term profits.

    Thought this was interesting? Check out some of my other pieces on how VC works / thinks

  • Our Job is Not to Make Money

    Let’s say you pitch a VC and you’ve got a coherent business plan and some thoughtful perspectives on how your business scales. Does that mean you get the venture capital investment that you so desire?

    Not necessarily. There could be many reasons for a rejection, but one that crops up a great deal is not anything intrinsically wrong with a particular idea or team, but something which is an intrinsic issue with the venture capital model.

    One of our partners put it best when he pointed out, “Our job is not to make money, it’s to make a lot of money.”

    What that means is that venture capitalists are not just looking for a business that can make money. They are really looking for businesses which have the potential to sell for or go public (sell stock on NYSE/NASDAQ/etc) and yield hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars.

    Why? It has to do with the way that venture capital funds work.

    • Venture capitalists raise large $100M+ funds. This is a lot of money to work with, but its also a burden in that the venture capital firm also has to deliver a large return on that large initial amount. If you start with a $100M fund, its not unheard of for investors in that fund to expect $300-400M back – and you just can’t get to those kinds of returns unless you bet on companies that sell for/list on a public market for a lot of money.
    • Although most investments fail, big outcomes can be *really* big. For every Facebook, there are dozens of wannabe copycats that fall flat – so there is a very high risk that a venture investment will not pan out as one hopes. But, the flip side to this is that Facebook will likely be an outcome dozens upon dozens of times larger than its copycats. The combination of the very high risk but very high reward drive venture capitalists to chase only those which have a shot at becoming a *really* big outcome – doing anything else basically guarantees that the firm will not be able to deliver a large enough return to its investors.
    • Partners are busy people. A typical venture capital fund is a partnership, consisting of a number of general partners who operate the fund. A typical general partner will, in addition to look for new deals, be responsible for/advise several companies at once. This is a fair amount of work for each company as it involves helping companies recruit, develop their strategy, connect with key customers/partners/influencers, deal with operational/legal issues, and raise money. As a result, while the amount of work can vary quite a bit, this basically limits the number of companies that a partner can commit to (and, hence, invest in). This limit encourages partners to favor companies which could end up with a larger outcome than a smaller, because below a certain size, the firm’s return profile and the limits on a partner’s time just don’t justify having a partner get too involved.

    The result? Venture capitalists have to turn down many pitches, not because they don’t like the idea or the team and not even necessarily because they don’t think the company will make money in a reasonably short time, but because they didn’t think the idea had a good shot at being something as big and game-changing as Google, Genentech, and VMWare were. And, in fact, the not often heard truth is that a lot of the endings which entrepreneurs think of as great and which are frequently featured on tech blogs like VentureBeat and TechCrunch (i.e. selling your company to Google for $10M) are actually quite small (and possibly even a failure) when it comes to how a large venture capital firm views it.

    Thought this was interesting? Check out some of my other pieces on how VC works / thinks

  • I Know Enough to Get Myself in Trouble

    One of the dangers of a consultant looking at tech is that he can get lost in jargon. A few weeks ago, I did a little research on some of the most cutting-edge software startups in the cloud computing space (the idea that you can use a computer feature/service without actually knowing anything about what sort of technology infrastructure was used to provide you with that feature/service – i.e., Gmail and Yahoo Mail on the consumer side, services like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure on the business side). As a result, I’ve looked at the product offerings from guys like NimbulaClouderaClustrixAppistryElastra, and MaxiScale, to name a few. And, while I know enough about cloud computing to understand, at a high level, what these companies do, the use of unclear terminology sometimes makes it very difficult to pierce the “fog of marketing” and really get a good understanding of the various product strengths and weaknesses.

    Is it any wonder that, at times, I feel like this:

    Source: Dilbert

    Yes, its all about that “integration layer” … My take? A great product should not need to hide behind jargon.

  • Why Smartphones are a Big Deal

    A cab driver the other day went off on me with a rant about how new smartphone users were all smug, arrogant gadget snobs for using phones that did more than just make phone calls. “Why you gotta need more than just the phone?”, he asked.

    While he was probably right on the money with the “smug”, “arrogant”, and “snob” part of the description of smartphone users (at least it accurately describes yours truly), I do think he’s ignoring a lot of the important changes which the smartphone revolution has made in the technology industry and, consequently, why so many of the industry’s venture capitalists and technology companies are investing so heavily in this direction. This post will be the first of two posts looking at what I think are the four big impacts of smartphones like the Blackberry and the iPhone on the broader technology landscape:

    1. It’s the software, stupid
    2. Look ma, no <insert other device here>
    3. Putting the carriers in their place
    4. Contextuality

    I. It’s the software, stupid!

    You can find possibly the greatest impact of the smartphone revolution in the very definition of smartphone: phones which can run rich operating systems and actual applications. As my belligerent cab-driver pointed out, the cellular phone revolution was originally about being able to talk to other people on the go. People bought phones based on network coverage, call quality, the weight of a phone, and other concerns primarily motivated by call usability.

    Smartphones, however, change that. Instead of just making phone calls, they also do plenty of other things. While a lot of consumers focus their attention on how their phones now have touchscreens, built-in cameras, GPS, and motion-sensors, the magic change that I see is the ability to actually run programs.

    Why do I say this software thing more significant than the other features which have made their ways on to the phone? There are a number of reasons for this, but the big idea is that the ability to run software makes smartphones look like mobile computers. We have seen this pan out in a number of ways:

    • The potential uses for a mobile phone have exploded overnight. Whereas previously, they were pretty much limited to making phone calls, sending text messages/emails, playing music, and taking pictures, now they can be used to do things like play games, look up information, and even be used by doctors to help treat and diagnose patients. In the same way that a computer’s usefulness extends beyond what a manufacturer like Dell or HP or Apple have built into the hardware because of software, software opens up new possibilities for mobile phones in ways which we are only beginning to see.
    • Phones can now be “updated”. Before, phones were simply replaced when they became outdated. Now, some users expect that a phone that they buy will be maintained even after new models are released. Case in point: Users threw a fit when Samsung decided not to allow users to update their Samsung Galaxy’s operating system to a new version of the Android operating system. Can you imagine 10 years ago users getting up in arms if Samsung didn’t ship a new 2 MP mini-camera to anyone who owned an earlier version of the phone which only had a 1 MP camera?
    • An entire new software industry has emerged with its own standards and idiosyncrasies. About four decades ago, the rise of the computer created a brand new industry almost out of thin air. After all, think of all the wealth and enabled productivity that companies like Oracle, Microsoft, and Adobe have created over the past thirty years. There are early signs that a similar revolution is happening because of the rise of the smartphone. Entire fortunes have been created “out of thin air” as enterprising individuals and companies move to capture the potential software profits from creating software for the legions of iPhones and Android phones out there. What remains to be seen is whether or not the mobile software industry will end up looking more like the PC software industry, or whether or not the new operating systems and screen sizes and technologies will create something that looks more like a distant cousin of the first software revolution.

    II. Look ma, no <insert other device here>

    One of the most amazing consequences of Moore’s Law is that devices can quickly take on a heckuva lot more functionality then they used to. The smartphone is a perfect example of this Swiss-army knife mentality. The typical high-end smartphone today can:

    • take pictures
    • use GPS
    • play movies
    • play songs
    • read articles/books
    • find what direction its being pointed in
    • sense motion
    • record sounds
    • run software

    … not to mention receive and make phone calls and texts like a phone.

    But, unlike cameras, GPS devices, portable media players, eReaders, compasses, Wii-motes, tape recorders, and computers, the phone is something you are likely to keep with you all day long. And, if you have a smartphone which can double as a camera, GPS, portable media player, eReaders, compass, Wii-mote, tape recorder, and computer all at once – tell me why you’re going to hold on to those other devices?

    That is, of course, a dramatic oversimplification. After all, I have yet to see a phone which can match a dedicated camera’s image quality or a computer’s speed, screen size, and range of software, so there are definitely reasons you’d pick one of these devices over a smartphone. The point, however, isn’t that smartphones will make these other devices irrelevant, it is that they will disrupt these markets in exactly the way that Clayton Christensen described in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, making business a whole lot harder for companies who are heavily invested in these other device categories. And make no mistake: we’re already seeing this happen as GPS companies are seeing lower prices and demand as smartphones take on more and more sophisticated functionality (heck, GPS makers like Garmin are even trying to get into the mobile phone business!). I wouldn’t be surprised if we soon see similar declines in the market growth rates and profitability for all sorts of other devices.

    III. Putting the carriers in their place

    Throughout most of the history of the phone industry, the carriers were the dominant power. Sure, enormous phone companies like Nokia, Samsung, and Motorola had some clout, but at the end of the day, especially in the US, everybody felt the crushing influence of the major wireless carriers.

    In the US, the carriers regulated access to phones with subsidies. They controlled which functions were allowed. They controlled how many texts and phone calls you were able to make. When they did let you access the internet, they exerted strong influence on which websites you had access to and which ringtones/wallpapers/music you could download. In short, they managed the business to minimize costs and risks, and they did it because their government-granted monopolies (over the right to use wireless spectrum) and already-built networks made it impossible  for a new guy to enter the market.

    But this sorry state of affairs has already started to change with the advent of the smartphone. RIM’s Blackberry had started to affect the balance of power, but Apple’s iPhone really shook things up – precisely because users started demanding more than just a wireless service plan – they wanted a particular operating system with a particular internet experience and a particular set of applications – and, oh, it’s on AT&T? That’s not important, tell me more about the Apple part of it!

    What’s more, the iPhone’s commercial success accelerated the change in consumer appetites. Smartphone users were now picking a wireless service provider not because of coverage or the cost of service or the special carrier-branded applications  – that was all now secondary to the availability of the phone they wanted and what sort of applications and internet experience they could get over that phone. And much to the carriers’ dismay, the wireless carrier was becoming less like the gatekeeper who got to charge crazy prices because he/she controlled the keys to the walled garden and more like the dumb pipe that people connected to the web on their iPhone with.

    Now, it would be an exaggeration to say that the carriers will necessarily turn into the “dumb pipes” that today’s internet service providers are (remember when everyone in the US used AOL?) as these large carriers are still largely immune to competitors. But, there are signs that the carriers are adapting to their new role. The once ultra-closed Verizon now allows Palm WebOS and Google Android devices to roam free on its network as a consequence of AT&T and T-Mobile offering devices from Apple and Google’s partners, respectively, and has even agreed to allow VOIP applications like Skype access to its network, something which jeopardizes their former core voice revenue stream.

    As for the carriers, as they begin to see their influence slip over basic phone experience considerations, they will likely shift their focus to finding ways to better monetize all the traffic that is pouring through their networks. Whether this means finding a way to get a cut of the ad/virtual good/eCommerce revenue that’s flowing through or shifting how they charge for network access away from unlimited/“all you can eat” plans is unclear, but it will be interesting to see how this ecosystem evolves.

    IV. Contextuality

    There is no better price than the amazingly low price of free. And, in my humble opinion, it is that amazingly low price of free which has enabled web services to have such a high rate of adoption. Ask yourself, would services like Facebook and Google have grown nearly as fast without being free to use?

    How does one provide compelling value to users for free? Before the age of the internet, the answer to that age-old question was simple: you either got a nice government subsidy, or you just didn’t. Thankfully, the advent of the internet allowed for an entirely new business model: providing services for free and still making a decent profit by using ads. While over-hyping of this business model led to the dot com crash in 2001 as countless websites found it pretty difficult to monetize their sites purely with ads, services like Google survived because they found that they could actually increase the value of the advertising on their pages not only because they had a ton of traffic, but because they could use the content on the page to find ads which visitors had a significantly higher probability of caring about.

    The idea that context could be used to increase ad conversion rates (the percent of people who see an ad and actually end up buying) has spawned a whole new world of web startups and technologies which aim to find new ways to mine context to provide better ad targeting. Facebook is one such example of the use of social context (who your friends are, what your interests are, what your friends’ interests are) to serve more targeted ads.

    So, where do smartphones fit in? There are two ways in which smartphones completely change the context-to-advertising dynamic:

    • Location-based services: Your phone is a device which not only has a processor which can run software, but is also likely to have GPS built-in, and is something which you carry on your person at all hours of the day. What this means is that the phone not only know what apps/websites you’re using, it also knows where you are and if you’re on a vehicle (based on how fast you are moving) when you’re using them. If that doesn’t let a merchant figure out a way to send you a very relevant ad, I don’t know what will. The Yowza iPhone application is an example of how this might shape out in the future, where you can search for mobile coupons for local stores all on your phone.
    • Augmented reality: In the same way that the GPS lets mobile applications do location-based services, the camera, compass, and GPS in a mobile phone lets mobile applications do something called augmented reality. The concept behind augmented reality (AR) is that, in the real world, you and I are only limited by what our five senses can perceive. If I see an ad for a book, I can only perceive what is on the advertisement. I don’t necessarily know much about how much it costs on Amazon.com or what my friends on Facebook have said about it. Of course, with a mobile phone, I could look up those things on the internet, but AR takes this a step further. Instead of merely looking something up on the internet, AR will actually overlay content and information on top of what you are seeing on your phone screen. One example of this is the ShopSavvy application for Android which allows you to scan product barcodes to find product review information and even information on pricing from online and other local stores! Google has taken this a step further with Google Goggles which can recognize pictures of landmarks, books, and even bottles of wine! For an advertiser or a store, the ability to embed additional content through AR technology is the ultimate in providing context but only to those people who want it. Forget finding the right balance between putting too much or too little information on an ad, use AR so that only the people who are interested will get the extra information.

    Thought this was interesting? Check out some of my other pieces on Tech industry

  • How to Properly Define a Company’s Culture

    Company culture is a concept which, while incredibly difficult to explain or measure, is very important to a company’s well-being and employee morale. Too often, it comes in the form of vaguely written out “corporate mission statements” or never-ending lists of feel-good, mean-nothing “company values”. Oh joy, you value “teamwork” and “making money” – that was so insightful…

    It was thus very refreshing for me to read the Netflix company culture document (sadly no longer embed-able, but you can find it at this Slideshare link).

    Slidumentation aside, I think the NetFlix presentation does three things extremely well:

    1. It’s not a list of feel-good words, but  actual values and statements which can actually guide the company in its day-to-day hiring, evaluation. Most company culture statements are nothing but long lists of virtues and things non-sociopaths respect. “Teamwork” and “honesty”, for example, are usually among them. But, as the Netflix presentation points out, even Enron had a list of “values” and that wound up not amounting to much of anything. Instead, Netflix has a clear state of  things they look for in their employees, each with clear explanations for what they actually mean. For “Curiosity”, Netflix has listed four supporting statements:
      • You learn rapidly and eagerly
      • You seek to understand our strategy, markets, subscribers, and suppliers.
      • You are broadly knowledgeable about business, technology, and entertainment.
      • You contribute effectively outside of your specialty
      Admittedly, there is nothing particularly remarkable about these four statements. But what is remarkable is that it is immediately clear to the reader what “curiosity” means, in the context of Netflix’s culture, and how Netflix employees should be judged and evaluated. It’s oftentimes astounding to me how few companies get to this bare minimum in terms of culture documents.
    2. Netflix actually gives clear value judgments.  I’ve already lamented the extent to which company culture statements are nothing more than laundry lists of “feel good” words. Netflix admirably cuts through that by not only explaining what the values mean, but also by what should happen when different “good words” conflict. And, best of all, they do it with brutal honesty. For instance, Netflix on how they won’t play the “benefits race” that other companies play:
      A great work place is stunning colleagues. Great workplace is not day-care, espresso, health benefits, sushi lunches, nice offices, or big compensation, and we only do those that are efficient at attracting stunning colleagues.Netflix on teamwork versus individual performance:Brilliant jerks: some companies tolerate them, [but] for us, the cost to teamwork is too high.Netflix on its annual compensation review policy:Lots of people have the title “Major League Pitcher” but they are not all equally effective. Similarly, all people with the title “Senior Marketing Manager” and “Director of Engineering” are not equally effective … So, essentially, [we are] rehiring each employee each year (and re-evaluating them based on their performance) for the purposes of compensation.Within each of the three examples, Netflix has done two amazing things: they’ve made a bold value judgment, which most companies fail to do, explaining just how the values should be lived, especially when they conflict (“we don’t care how smart you are, if you don’t work well with the team, you have to go”), and they’ve even given a reason(“teamwork is more important to delivering impact for our customers than one smart guy”).
    3. They explain what makes their culture different from other companies and why. Most people who like their jobs will give “culture” as a reason they think their company is unique. yet, if you read the countless mission statements and “our values” documents out there, you’d never be able to see that difference. Granted, the main issue may just be that management has chosen not to live up to the lofty ideals espoused in their list of virtues, but what might help with that and make it clearer to employees about what makes a particular workplace special is explaining how and why the company’s culture is different from another’s. Contrast that with the Netflix presentation, which spends many slides explaining the tradeoffs between too many rules and too few, and why they ultimately sided with having very few rules, whereas a manufacturing company or a medical company would have very many of them. They never go so far as to say that one is better than the other, only that they are different because they are in different industries with different needs and dynamics. And, as a result of that, they have implemented changes, like a simpler expense policy (“Act in Netflix’s best interests”) and a revolutionary vacation policy (“There is no policy or tracking”) [with an awesome explanation: “There is also no clothing policy at Netflix, but no one has come to work naked lately”].

    Pay attention, other companies. You would do well to learn from Netflix’s example.

  • What is with Microsoft’s consumer electronics strategy?

    Genius? Source: Softpedia

    Regardless of how you feel about Microsoft’s products, you have to appreciate the brilliance of their strategic “playbook”:

    1. Use the fact that Microsoft’s operating system/productivity software is used by almost everyone to identify key customer/partner needs
    2. Build a product which is usually only a second/third-best follower product but make sure it’s tied back to Microsoft’s products
    3. Take advantage of the time and market share that Microsoft’s channel influence, developer community, and product integration buys to invest in the new product with Microsoft’s massive budget until it achieves leadership
    4. If steps 1-3 fail to give Microsoft a dominant position, either exit (because the market is no longer important) or buy out a competitor
    5. Repeat

    While the quality of Microsoft’s execution of each step can be called into question, I’d be hard pressed to find a better approach then this one, and I’m sure much of their success can be attributed to finding good ways to repeatedly follow this formula.

    It’s for that reason that I’m completely  bewildered by Microsoft’s consumer electronics business strategy. Instead of finding good ways to integrate the Zune, XBox, and Windows Mobile franchises together or with the Microsoft operating system “mothership” the way Microsoft did by integrating its enterprise software with Office or Internet Explorer with Windows, these three businesses largely stand apart from Microsoft’s home field (PC software) and even from each other.

    This is problematic for two big reasons. First, because non-PC devices are outside of Microsoft’s usual playground, it’s not a surprise that Microsoft finds it difficult to expand into new territory. For Microsoft to succeed here, it needs to pull out all the stops and it’s shocking to me that a company with a stake in the ground in four key device areas (PCs, mobile phones, game consoles, and portable media players) would choose not to use one of the few advantages it has over its competitors.

    The second and most obvious (to consumers at least) is that Apple has not made this mistake. Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch product lines are clear evolutions of their popular iPod MP3 players which integrate well with Apple’s iTunes computer software and iTunes online store. The entire Apple line-up, although each product is a unique entity, has a similar look and feel. The Safari browser that powers the Apple computer internet experience is, basically, the same that powers the iPhone and iPod Touch. Similarly, the same online store and software (iTunes) which lets iPods load themselves with music lets iPod Touches/iPhones load themselves with applications.

    That neat little integrated package not only makes it easier for Apple consumers to use a product, but the coherent experience across the different devices gives customers even more of a reason to use and/or buy other Apple products.

    Contrast that approach with Microsoft’s. Not only are the user interfaces and product designs for the Zune, XBox, and Windows Mobile completely different from one another, they don’t play well together at all. Applications that run on one device (be it the Zune HD, on a Windows PC, on an XBox, or on Windows Mobile) are unlikely to be able to run on any other. While one might be able to forgive this if it was just PC applications which had trouble being “ported” to Microsoft’s other devices (after all, apps that run on an Apple computer don’t work on the iPhone and vice versa), the devices that one would expect this to work well with (i.e. the Zune HD and the XBox because they’re both billed as gaming platforms, or the Zune HD and Windows Mobile because they’re both portable products) don’t. Their application development process doesn’t line up well. And, as far as I’m aware, the devices have completely separate application and content stores!

    While recreating the Windows PC experience on three other devices is definitely overkill, I think, were I in Ballmer’s shoes, I would recommend a few simple recommendations which I think would dramatically benefit all of Microsoft’s product lines (and I promise they aren’t the standard Apple/Linux fanboy’s “build something prettier” or “go open source”):

    1. Centralize all application/content “marketplaces” – Apple is no internet genius. Yet, they figured out how to do this. I fail to see why Microsoft can’t do the same.
    2. Invest in building a common application runtime across all the devices – Nobody’s expecting a low-end Windows Mobile phone or a Zune HD to run Microsoft Excel, but to expect that little widgets or games should be able to work across all of Microsoft’s devices is not unreasonable, and would go a long way towards encouraging developers to develop for Microsoft’s new device platforms (if a program can run on just the Zune HD, there’s only so much revenue that a developer can take in, but if it can also run on the XBox and all Windows Mobile phones, then the revenue potential becomes much greater) and towards encouraging consumers to buy more Microsoft gear
    3. Find better ways to link Windows to each device – This can be as simple as building something like iTunes to simplify device management and content streaming, but I have yet to meet anyone with a Microsoft device who hasn’t complained about how poorly the devices work with PCs.

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  • Innovator’s Delight

    Source: the book

    Knowing my interest in tech strategy, a coworker recommended I pick up HBS professor Clayton Christensen’s “classic” book on disruptive innovation: The Innovator’s Dilemma. And, I have to say I was very impressed.

    The book tries to answer a very interesting question: why do otherwise successful companies sometimes fail to keep up on innovation? Christensen’s answer is counter-intuitive but deep: the very factors that make a company successful, like listening to customer needs, make it difficult for successful companies to adopt disruptive innovations which create new markets and new capabilities.

    This sounds completely irrational, and I was skeptical when I first heard it, but Christensen makes a very compelling case for it. He begins the book by considering the hard disk drive (HDD) industry. The reason for this is, as Christensen puts it (and this is merely page one of chapter one!):

    “Those who study genetics avoid studying humans, because new generations come along only every thirty years or so, and so it takes a long time to understand the cause and effect of any changes. Instead, they study fruit flies, because fruit flies are conceived, born, mature, and die all within a single day. If you want to understand why something happens in business, study the disk drive industry. Those companies are the closest things to fruit flies that the business world will ever see.”

    From that oddly compelling start, Christensen applies multiple techniques to establish the grounds for his theory. He begins by admitting that his initial hypothesis for why some HDD companies successfully innovated had nothing to do with his current explanation and was something he called “the technology mudslide”: that because technology is constantly evolving and shifting (like a mudslide), companies which could not keep moving to stay afloat (i.e. by innovating) would slip and fall.

    But, when he investigated the different types of technological innovations which hit the HDD industry, he found that the large companies were actually constantly innovating, developing new techniques and technologies to improve their products. Contrary to the opinion of many in the startup community, big companies did not lack innovative agility – in fact, they were the leaders in developing and acquiring the successful technologies which allowed them to make better and better products.
    But, every now and then, when the basis of competition changed, like the shift to a smaller hard disk size to accommodate a new product category like minicomputers versus mainframes or laptops versus desktops, the big companies faltered.

    From that profound yet seemingly innocuous observation grew a series of studies across a number of industries (the book covers industries ranging from hardcore technology like hard disk drives and computers to industries that you normally wouldn’t associate with rapid technological innovation like mechanical excavators, off-road motorbikes, and even discount retailing) which helped Christensen come to a basic logical story involving six distinct steps:

    1. Three things dictate a company’s strategy: resources, processes, and values. Any strategy that a company wishes to embark on will fail if the company doesn’t have the necessary resources (e.g. factories, talent, etc.), processes (e.g. organizational structure, manufacturing process, etc.), and values (e.g. how a company decides between different choices). It doesn’t matter if you have two of the three.
    2. Large, successful companies value listening to their customers. Successful companies became successful because they were able to create and market products that customers were willing to pay for. Companies that didn’t do this wouldn’t survive, and resources and processes which didn’t “get with the program” were either downsized or re-oriented.
    3. Successful companies help create ecosystems which are responsive to customer needs. Successful companies need to have ways of supporting their customers. This means they need to have or build channels (e.g. through a store, or online), services (e.g. repair, installation), standards (e.g. how products are qualified and work with one another), and partners (e.g. suppliers, ecosystem partners) which are all dedicated towards the same goal. If this weren’t true, the companies would all either fail or be replaced by companies which could “get with the program.”
    4. Large, successful companies value big opportunities. If you’re a $10 million company, you only need to generate an extra $1 million in sales to grow 10%. If you’re a $10 billion company, you need to find an extra $1 billion in sales to grow an equivalent amount. Is it any wonder, then, that large companies will look to large opportunities? After all, if companies started throwing significant resources or management effort on small opportunities, the company would quickly be passed up by its competitors.
    5. Successful companies don’t have the values or processes to push innovations aimed at unproven markets, which serve new customers and needs. Because successful companies value big opportunities which meet the needs of their customers and are embedded in ecosystems which help them do that, they will mobilize their resources and processes in the best way possible to fulfill and market those needs. And, in fact, that is what Christensen saw – in almost every market he studied, when the customers of successful companies needed a new feature or level of quality, successful companies were almost always successful at either leading or acquiring the innovation necessary to do that. But, when it came to experimental products offering slimmer profit margins and targeting new customers with new needs and new ecosystems in unproven markets, successful companies often failed, even if management made those new markets a priority, because those companies lacked the values and/or processes needed. After all, if you were working in IBM’s Mainframe division, why would you chase the lower-performance, lower-profit minicomputer industry and its unfamiliar set of customers and needs and distribution channels?
    6. Disruptive innovations tend to start as inferior products, but, over time improve and eventually displace older technologies. Using the previous example, while IBM’s mainframe division found it undesirable to enter the minicomputer market, the minicomputer players were very eager to “go North” and capture the higher performance and profitability that the mainframe players enjoyed. The result? Because of the values of the mainframe players as compared with the values of the minicomputer players, minicomputer companies focused on improving their technology to both service their customer’s needs and capture the mainframe business, resulting in one disruptive innovation replacing an older one.

    The most interesting thing that Christensen pointed out was that, in many cases, established companies actually beat new players to a disruptive innovation (as happened several times in the HDD and mechanical excavator industries)! But, because these companies lacked the necessary values, processes, and ecosystem, they were unable to successfully market them. Their success actually doomed them to failure!

    But Christensen doesn’t stop with this multi-faceted and thorough look at why successful companies fail at disruptive innovation. He spends a sizable portion of the book explaining how companies can fight the “trappings” of success (i.e. by creating semi-independent organizations that can chase new markets and be excited about smaller opportunities), and even closes the book with an interesting “ahead-of-his-time” look (remember, this book was written over a decade ago!) at how to bring about electric cars.

    I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the technology industry or even, more broadly speaking, on understanding how to think about corporate strategy. While most business books on this subject use high-flying generalizations and poorly evaluated case studies, Christensen approaches each problem with a level of rigor and thoroughness that you rarely see in corporate boardrooms. His structured approach to explaining how disruptive innovations work, who tends to succeed at them, why, and how to conquer/adapt to them makes for a fascinating read, and, in my humble opinion, is a great example of how corporate strategy should be done – by combining well-researched data and structured thinking. To top it all, I can think of no higher praise than to say that this book, despite being written over a decade ago, has many parallels to strategic issues that companies face today (i.e. what will determine if cloud computing on netbooks can replace the traditional PC model? Will cleantech successfully replace coal and oil?), and has a number of deep insights into how venture capital firms and startups can succeed, as well as some insights into how to create organizations which can be innovative on more than just one level.

    Book: The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen

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  • Seed the Market

    In my Introduction to Tech Strategy post, I mentioned that one of the most important aspects of the technology industry is the importance of ecosystem linkages. There are several ways to think about ecosystem linkages. The main linkages I mentioned in my previous post was influence over technology standards. But, there is another very important ecosystem effect for technology companies to think about: encouraging demand.

    For Microsoft to be successful, for instance, they must make sure that consumers and businesses are buying new and more powerful computers. For Google to be successful, they must make sure that people are actively using the internet to find information. For Cisco to be successful, they must make sure that people are actively downloading and sharing information over networks.

    Is it any wonder, then, that Microsoft develops business software (e.g. Microsoft Office) and games? Or that Google has pushed hard to encourage more widespread internet use by developing an easy-to-use web browser and two internet-centric operating systems (Android and ChromeOS)? Or that Cisco entered the set top box business (to encourage more network traffic) by acquiring Scientific Atlanta and is pushing for companies to adopt web conferencing systems (which consume a lot of networking capacity) like WebEx?

    These examples hopefully illustrate that for leading tech companies, it is not sufficient just to develop a good product. It is also important that you move to make sure that customers will continue to demand your product, and a lot more of it.

    This is something that Dogbert understands intuitively as this comic strip points out:

    Source: Dilbert

    To be a leading executive recruiter, its not sufficient just to find great executives – you have to make sure there is demand for new executives. No wonder Dogbert is such a successful CEO. He grasps business strategy like no other.

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  • Surviving a Consultant’s Axe

    Gawker, who seems to really hate McKinsey and other management consulting firms, recently put out a “Complete McKinsey Survival Guide” in response to McKinsey recently being retained by magazine publisher Conde Nast where they lay out a couple of interesting thoughts on how to survive a consultant’s downsizing tendencies including:

    Suck Up—Kiss ass, Kiss ass, Kiss ass. “Suck up to your own superiors, and their superiors, and theirs.” It’s just that simple. A brown nose could give you a minute edge on your fellow layoff-eligibles.

    Practice Subtle Backstabbing—You don’t want to be seen as a desperate bastard ready to sell out any and all of your colleagues to save your own job (even though you are). You just want to plant the seed. Take it from someone who’s been there: ” Don’t talk shit about individuals, talk shit about DIVISIONS in a passive-aggressive way. Saying things like: ‘Those fellows that work in [blank] division are really nice guys, but I’ve worked here for five years and I still don’t know what they do’ is a winner.” Corporate espionage at its finest, ladies and gentlemen.”

    And they even made a suggestion that you practice some form of sexual quid pro quo as a means to escape the hatchet…

    The read was entertaining, albeit a little ridiculous with some of the suggestions, but this consultant wanted to clear the air and offer three thoughts:

    1. A consulting firm is not necessarily there to fire people. Yes, that is what they are often called on to do because many firms are staffed very inefficiently (too many people in some divisions, too many managers with no reports in other divisions, too many layers of management/bureaucracy) and management oftentimes lacks the competence or the courage to trim headcount on their own. That being said, management consulting firms are also frequently brought in to do other things like:
      • Business strategy – what markets or market strategies should the company or business unit pursue
      • Supply chain strategy – how can a business reduce its cost structure by re-negotiating its contracts with suppliers
      • Workforce re-deployment – how can a business re-organize its salesforce (not necessarily downsize) to optimize its results (e.g. move X people from West coast to Europe, etc)
      • Operations support – how can a business optimize its decision-making process (e.g. how many people need to approve a decision before its made) or operations (e.g. how can I make a factory process work more smoothly)
    2. If the consulting firm is here to help your company fire people, there’s probably not much you can do. Any consulting firm worth their salt will come to their final recommendation based on objective fact-finding and analysis where they poll many experts both from within the company and externally. It is relatively unlikely that Gawker’s suggestions that you subtly backstab another division or suck up to the consultants will change any of that, unless you have an amazing ability to prove the value of your division or group in such a way that even your senior management and external experts cannot (in which case you should have been doing that already…).
    3. You should see if you can join the joint-working sessions. Although this likely won’t change the outcome, it probably makes sense to join the consulting firm-internal team joint working group if you can, if only to help raise your awareness about (a) how senior managers think and rationalize large business decisions, something with which can help your career, and (b) come up with a sensible way for how to spin whatever decision the consulting firm comes up with.
  • Tech Strategy 101

    Working on tech strategy consulting case for 18 months ingrains a thing or two in your head about strategy for tech companies, so I thought I’d lay out, in one blog post the major lessons I’ve learned about how strategy in the technology sector works.

    To understand that, it’s important to first understand what makes technology special? From that perspective, there are three main things which drive tech strategy:

    1. Low cost of innovation – Technology companies need to be innovative to be successful, duh. But, the challenge with handling tech strategy is not innovation but that innovation in technology is cheap. Your product can be as easily outdone by a giant with billions of dollars like Google as it can be outdone by a couple of bright guys in a garage who still live with their parents.
    2. Moore’s Law – When most technologists think of Moore’s Law, they think of its academic consequences (mainly that chip technology doubles every two years). This is true (and has been for over 50 years), but the strategic consequence of Moore’s Law can be summed up in six words: “Tomorrow will be better, faster, cheaper.” Can you think of any other industry which has so quickly and consistently increased quality while lowering cost?
    3. Ecosystem linkages – No technology company stands alone. They are all inter-related and inter-dependent. Facebook may be a giant in the Web world, but it’s success depends on a wide range of relationships: it depends on browser makers adhering to web standards, on Facebook application developers wanting to use the Facebook platform, on hardware providers selling the right hardware to let Facebook handle the millions of users who want to use it, on CDNs/telecom companies providing the right level of network connectivity, on internet advertising standards, etc. This complex web of relationships is referred to by many in the industry as the ecosystem. A technology company must learn to understand and shape its ecosystem in order to succeed.

    Put it all together, what does it all mean? Four things:

    Source: the book

    I. Only the paranoid survive
    This phrase, popularized by ex-Intel CEO Andy Grove, is very apt for describing the tech industry. The low cost of innovation means that your competition could come from anywhere: well-established companies, medium-sized companies, hot new startups, enterprising university students, or a legion of open source developers. The importance of ecosystem linkages means that your profitability is dependent not only on what’s going on with your competitors, but also about the broader ecosystem. If you’re Microsoft, you don’t only have to think about what competitors like Apple and Linux are doing, you also need to think about the health of the overall PC market, about how to connect your software to new smartphones, and many other ecosystem concerns which affect your profitability. And the power of Moore’s Law means that new products need to be rolled out quickly, as old products rapidly turn into antiques from the advance of technology. The result of all of this is that only the technology companies which are constantly fearful of emerging threats will succeed.

    II. To win big, you need to change the rules
    The need to be constantly innovative (Moore’s Law and low cost of innovation) and the importance of ecosystem linkages favors large, incumbent companies, because they have the resources/manpower to invest in marketing, support, and R&D and they are the ones with the existing ecosystem relationships. As a result, the only way for a little startup to win big, or for a large company to attack another large company is to change the rules of competition. For Apple, to win in a smartphone market dominated by Nokia and RIM required changing the rules of the “traditional” smartphone competition by:

    • Building a new type of user-interface driven by accelerometer and touchscreen unlike anything seen before
    • Designing in a smartphone web browser actually comparable to what you’d expect on a PC as opposed to a pale imitation
    • Building an application store to help establish a new definition of smartphone – one that runs a wide range of software rather than one that runs only software from the carrier/phone manufacturer
    • Bringing the competition back to Apple’s home turf of making complete hardware and software solutions which tie together well, rather than just competing on one or the other

    Apple’s iPhone not only provided a tidy profit for Apple, it completely took RIM, which had been betting on taking its enterprise features into the consumer smartphone market, and Nokia, which had been betting on its services strategy, by surprise. Now, Nokia and every other phone manufacturer is desperately trying to compete in a game designed by Apple – no wonder Nokia recently forecasted that it expected its market share to continue to drop.

    But it’s not just Apple that does this. Some large companies like Microsoft and Cisco are masters at this game, routinely disrupting new markets with products and services which tie back to their other product offerings – forcing incumbents to compete not only with a new product, but with an entire “platform”. Small up-and-comers can also play this game. MySQL is a great example of a startup which turned the database market on its head by providing access to its software and source code for free (to encourage adoption) in return for a chance to sell services.

    III. Be a good ecosystem citizen
    Successful tech companies cannot solely focus on their specific markets and product lines. The importance of ecosystem linkages forces tech companies to look outward.

    • They must influence industry standards, oftentimes working with their competitors (case in point: look at the corporate membership in the Khronos Group which controls the OpenGL graphics standard), to make sure their products are supported by the broader industry.
    • They oftentimes have to give away technology and services for free to encourage the ecosystem to work with them. Even mighty Microsoft, who’s CEO had once called Linux “a cancer”, has had to open source 20,000 lines of operating system code in an attempt to increase the attractiveness of the Microsoft server platform to Linux technology. Is anyone surprised that Google and Nokia have open sourced the software for their Android and Symbian mobile phone operating systems and have gone to great lengths to make it easy for software developers to design software for them?
    • They have to work collaboratively with a wide range of partners and providers. Intel and Microsoft work actively with PC manufacturers to help with marketing and product targeting. Mobile phone chip manufacturers invest millions in helping mobile phone makers and mobile software developers build phones with their chip technology. Even “simple” activities like outsourcing manufacturing requires a strong partnership in order to get things done properly.
    • The largest of companies (e.g. Cisco, Intel, Qualcomm, etc) takes this whole influence thing a whole step further by creating corporate venture groups to invest in startups, oftentimes for the purpose of influencing the ecosystem in their favor.

    The technology company that chooses not to play nice with the rest of the ecosystem will rapidly find itself alone and unprofitable.

    IV. Never stop overachieving
    There are many ways to screw up in the technology industry. You might not be paranoid enough and watch as a new competitor or Moore’s Law eats away at your profits. You might not present a compelling enough product and watch as your partners and the industry as a whole shuns your product. But the terrifying thing is that this is true regardless of how well you were doing a few months ago — it could just as easily happen to a market leader as a market follower (i.e. Polaroid watching its profits disappear when digital cameras entered the scene).
    As a result, it’s important for every technology company to keep their eye on the ball in two key areas, so as to reduce the chance of misstep and increase the chance that you recover when you eventually do:

    • Stay lean – I am amazed at how many observers of the technology industry (most often the marketing types) seem to think that things like keeping costs low, setting up a good IT system, and maintaining a nimble yet deliberate decision process are unimportant as long as you have an innovative design or technology. This is very short-sighted especially when you consider how easy it is for a company to take a wrong step. Only the lean and nimble companies will survive the inevitable hard times, and, in good times, it is the lean and nimble companies which can afford to cut prices and offer more services better than their competitors.
    • Invest in innovation – At the end of the day, technology is about innovation, and the companies which consistently grow and turn a profit are the ones who invest in that. If your engineers and scientists aren’t getting the resources it needs, no amount of marketing or “business development” will save you from oblivion. And, if your engineers/scientists are cranking out top notch research and development, then even if you make a mistake, there’s a decent chance you’ll be ready to bounce right back.

    Obviously, each of these four “conclusions” needs to be fleshed out further with details and concrete analyses before they can be truly called a “strategy”. But, I think they are a very useful framework for understanding how to make a tech company successful (although they don’t give any magic answers), and any exec who doesn’t understand these will eventually learn them the hard way.

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