Venture Capitalists goals to exit will drive winner-take-all growth

While watching a friend stream on twitch today, his radio station played a commercial from Audible an Amazon company. Which made me think about how Audible was a really up and coming company that a lot of people were interested in. Companies like Audible are funded by Venture Capitalists to help them in a few ways – pay for more developers, pay for access to content, hire marketing folks, or any other litany of things that a business needs. They come in at a stage when a company has little to no revenue.

These VC’s then put pressure on the companies to become profitable through new businesses, increasing the number of number of subscribers, or even changing markets or product types (pivots in their language). This is for a pretty simple reason, they make money in a boom or bust manner. If they fund 64 companies having at least one of them profitable means it needs to raise a massive amount of money to break even or to make all of those investments profitable for the company.

This means that whenever a company like Amazon approaches the leadership board of a company like Audible, the board will likely push for a higher price, but will likely be willing to sell. This is because Amazon, Google, Apple, and other companies similar in size, breadth, and depth in the market, offer absurdly deep pockets. For example, Facebook bought Oculus Rift, a company that’s only had a few prototypes released for $2 Billion. This is a huge amount of money which likely made the VC’s extremely happy.

Because of these market conditions we’ll likely continue to see a winner take all approach to markets that these players are in. Since most of these companies are competing in the exact same space, a company like Audible, that could offer a distinct advantage in the market place would be extremely valuable. It would actually have significantly higher value than if there weren’t 4 giant companies competing in the same space.

It’s likely we’ll see this continue to expand as Sony tries to figure out how to move into these spaces more adeptly, as well as Microsoft resurgence in consumer markets. Fully expect more and more of this to happen and greater and greater valuations for these companies in the coming months and years.

We know that NSA is hurting tech companies – that’s a good thing

Snowden leaked his documents a year ago. We’ve been getting a slow trickle ever since. However, some of these documents are getting date and surely the NSA is doing more stuff than they had in the past. That being said, they are continually being surprised by a new document that’s released or another. They clearly haven’t fully figured out the full list of documents that Snowden managed to take. Furthermore, they haven’t learned anything by not changing the techniques that they currently use. The NSA should have systematically shut down every program that could have been possibly leaked and moved onto something different. They haven’t, which means that they don’t really feel they need to change anything unless we force them to acknowledge that they’re doing something Americans (and the rest of the world) don’t want.

Today the guy that founded Netscape (a Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist) thinks that the fact the Edward Snowden released these documents hurt US technology companies. He thinks that because we now know that the US government does bad things with OUR tech company’s technology before it reaches a customer is hurting our companies. He blames Snowden. This is the most assinine thing I’ve ever heard. Marc Anderssen should be pissed off at the US government and praising Snowden because NOW US tech companies can DO something about it.

This is what a good manager or leader does. They support and acknowledge the fact that a person raise the attention of a problem, used them to address the root cause of the problem, and move on to the next problem. This is what Lean process improvement is all about. You NEVER shoot the messenger, you shoot the root cause of the problem eliminate it and make sure it never comes back. Saying that Snowden is a traitor because he highlighted the fact that the US government is taking good companies work (Cisco) and add malware is counter productive. We need to know when anyone government or otherwise is intentionally trying to break the internet. I do not believe that Mr. Netscape believes that the person who leaked the TransPacific Partnership is a traitor – when they essentially highlighted a similar problem.

I also believe, that labeling Snowden a traitor implicitly removes any blame from those companies that are being harmed by the US government. In many cases those companies have bee fully complicit with not just the US government, but “rogue” states (Iran, China, and other oppressive regimes) as well as companies (like Comcast, TWC, etc..) through enabling deep packet inspection (which allows anyone to snoop at anything you do. All of these have to have been enabled by a US technology company. These companies found a benefit to their benefit by doing this.

Now other companies, like Google, WordPress, and others are trying to get around both of these by encrypting their data. I actually suggested this as a tool to get around data caps or fast/slow lanes (if all data is encrypted you can’t slow or speed up traffic). This will inherently force a more net neutral internet (baffling deep packet inspection) and defeating much of the tools of the NSA.

All of these are good things. We know this because of Snowden. We know that tech companies need to address problems that the NSA and other government agencies have caused. This is a cause for celebration not condemnation. We need more people like him so that the internet can continue to thrive and be an economic driver. Don’t blame the messenger, if the US government is hurting US tech companies, we need to know so we can stop that from happening.

The Philosopher CEO

In my group at work, we have been accused of having a group of philosophers and a group of doers. This is typically mentioned with some serious disgust. As if having a group of people thinking about how the business is run is a bad thing. I think part of it stems from the idea that this means that they aren’t doing anything productive or value added for the company. The perception is incorrect of course. The “philosophers” are actually a process improvement methodology team that provides course development, course training, mentoring for Lean Six Sigma certification, continual guidance for projects in flight and manages projects themselves. There are only two of them. That’s a tall order to be honest.

But the idea of a philosophy group really got me thinking. Would it be a bad thing to have a group that looks at the ethical, moral or sustainable behavior of the company? I lump sustainability in with the morality and ethical question, because in a lot of ways sustainability is not looking to be a social issue and is another way of looking at the ethics of recycling and energy usage. I’ve talked about morality and MBA’s specifically in my last post. Singling out the MBA crowd might not have been the fair as there is no reason why engineers couldn’t behave in unethical ways, there’s no requirement for engineers to take ethics courses.

Why does this matter? Well, we’ve seen a huge number of seemingly unethical choices coming out of companies. In some cases they may have been selected in a harmless way. For example the new MacBook Pros have a glued on battery, the choice may have been made to reduce the amount of time it takes to secure the battery. Putting a fast acting glue on the battery may have accomplished this, while screwing in the battery would take more time. This selection could have been made without the consideration of the repairability or replacability for components within the laptop. However, since this is Apple I’m talking about here, I find this unlikely. The next question would be, was this choice unethical? From a sustainability perspective it could be construed in that manner, which iFixit does do just that. The computer also lost its environmental certification by using the glue and some of the other design characteristics. This design also continues with Apple’s decisions to make it more difficult to upgrade or do anything with their product once you’ve bought. This increases the number of times you have to purchase their products and exasperates the throwaway culture of many other products.

Consumers are also starting to become more aware of the unethical behavior of companies. We’ve seen this with the recent banking scandals, we’ve seen this with the investigation into Foxconn and we’re likely to see it moving forward in other sectors. We’re starting to hear about more unethical behavior in the ag industries, in regard to their treatment of animals or in the case of Monsanto basically suing farmers when seeds of their crops land in their field. The increase in consumer awareness through the increased usage of social media and other social networking tools is going to significantly increase both information and disinformation about these topics.

It is likely that there will be an increase in the number of watch dog organizations in existence and more reliance on government agencies, like the Consumer Protection agency in the US now. The banks have argued for a long time that these regulations are unnecessary as they can regulate themselves. We do know that profit pressures can prevent ethical behavior and encourage unethical behavior. Perhaps it’s time that every organization has an Internal Affairs organization similar to what the police have. I do not believe that these organizations are perfect and can become corrupt (or have the appearance of being corrupt), but I think that they can be useful.

Penn State is going to have to set up an organization like this. I think for the University this was going to be required for them to even have a chance at ever regaining their credibility. The records for that group need to be wide open for everyone to view. I think this type of office needs to be in any publicly traded company. It will ensure greater transparency, allow watch dog groups and consumers to choose the actual ethical companies and these groups would be auditable. This could be a certification process similar to ISO9001 (a manufacturing document control quality system), where the members of the team are given ethics training in a wide range of topics including morality and then are expected to train the employees of the company, CEO included.

By creating organizations such as this, companies can greatly clarify how their behavior is ethical and moral. Once several large companies create agencies like this other companies will be shamed into doing it as well. Thus increasing the number of Philosopher CEOs out there.

Ubiquitous free high speed wireless: Business

In my previous blog I discussed some governmental issues with ubiquitous free high speed wireless internet. In this piece I’m going to discuss the impact on businesses. I’ll start with some really obvious impacts and then move into some that may be more interesting.

First, this would effectively kill the current business model for telecoms. Not just internet providers but it would also have a massive impact on telephony and television providers. Internet providers would basically go out of business unless the governments that implemented the network hired them to manage the networks and perform the upgrades required to ensure expected performance. It should also be expected that net neutrality should be the norm as the internet is free as in free beer and as in free speech in a situation like this. This would impact telephony in a similar manner. With free internet phones could be designed to work on wifi (or whatever the network type is) and use services like Google Voice (which is popular in the US and free). These services provide a telephone number as well. Further more skype communication or similar type programs could become the norm as they are free and easy to use. The impact on television would be a continuation of the current system. With Netflix and Hulu driving usage to the web. Without easy access pirating will be the norm and extremely easy.

In the US Starbucks is extremely popular for two reasons, gigantic flavored coffees and free wireless internet. I think in the Dutch context free wireless internet would spur an increase in the amount of business meetings that happen at cafes. With the slow service which is designed to encourage conversation and being social, it would be a great way to work remotely from outside of home. As it stands there aren’t that many places, at least in Eindhoven, that have wireless internet like that. I think it will spur sales at restaurants.

The broadband movement is already increasing the number of people that can work from home and be educated at home. I think there will be some differences though. Mostly because of the freedom that is allowed with the wireless connections. You are able to connect everywhere and anywhere. I think this will create more flexible schedules. I’d be able to work nearly as easily on a train as I would be able to in the office. I would be able to get on a train at the time I’m supposed to be at work get there for some meetings and finish up around the same time just on the train.

I think that there will be more business models based on highly interactive advertisements and user driven actions out in the “wild.” I’ve seen a lot of the QR codes outside of buildings as it is, but I think there will be an increase in the number of these. Users will be more willing to activate them because they are going to get the data from them significantly faster than previously. This will drive traffic to these sites and potentially new jobs from the different types of videos/ads that could be created with them.

I think this will also be something of a technological discontinuity. Broadband at home encourages one type of behavior, but I think there will be very different interactions with broadband everywhere. In the long term there could be a slew of different devices that will take advantage of the continual connections. Clothing could be that could measure the current weather conditions real time which could be uploaded to get real time weather information. We could collect data at levels we’ve never seen it before. This is just one usage of the informational sphere we’ll be living in. There will be a huge number of new applications that will radically shift the way people think about knowledge, information and computing products. Predicting the next wave of technologies based on the wireless web is difficult. It’s likely to be impossible.

However, I think that in my next blog on Computing, we’ll see the largest changes.

Enabling Technological Convergences

In my last post I discussed technological convergences. I didn’t really discuss anything ground breaking or earth shattering. We all know these things happen. Even if we never really make a note of it. What’s a more interesting question though is why do some companies, like Apple and Blackberry, succeed and others like Microsoft and Rio (early MP3 maker) fail, either in creating technologies that converge or create technologies that then fail.

One of the first reasons is the culture of the company. To create a totally different product that will shake the core business firms may have to do something called “corporate venturing.” This is where a company decides they are going to take people that normally work on the major product and put them into a different area and seclude them and allow them to create a new product. Whatever sort of leadership structure develops, develops. It really doesn’t matter if this matches the rest of the firm. Essentially, these people are put into a position where they are starting a new company. Apple famously did this with the original Macintosh program. It was called a skunk works area. Of course recombining the two portions of a company creates huge problems, but good management can figure out how to deal with this.

Another piece required for a firm to successfully move into a new product space is the ability to identify the market need. This one is pretty obvious, but it still needs mentioning. In many cases it’s really obvious that there’s a product space and that some one should fill it. When companies don’t move into it there must be some sort of reason.

One of those reasons comes down to firm capabilities. Every firm has something at its core that it’s best at. I would argue that Microsoft is best at taking advantage of a virtual monopoly of a platform and moving into new directions within that platform. Internet Explorer and the Office Suite are the best example of this. Microsoft has also tried to do this with servers and other peripheries. Which is why Microsoft has had difficulty moving into other platform positions. They have failed (or mixed results at best) over and over again with phone OSes because it doesn’t rely on their dominate platform.

Another company that is an R&D powerhouse in energy but has failed at anything outside of their major focus is Shell. As a major energy company you’d expect Shell to be moving into other types of energy production to make massive amounts of money in the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. You’d actually be right. They have tired and failed. Aside from having a failed solar industry Shell has a moderately successful Wind program. Between the two it actually makes sense why solar failed and wind is doing well.

First, wind is closer to extracting material from the ground than making energy from the sun is. Now hang on, I know, but Shell has to maintain offshore oil rigs in tough conditions. Understanding how to build a wind farm out in the ocean has some similarities. Shell doesn’t actually make the windmills themselves, they buy the windmills and put them together to harvest energy. Shell was trying to make solar panels. Intel would be a significantly better solar panel producer than Shell. Why? Because solar panels are semiconductors. You make them with similar machines the technologies are adjacent to each other.

What’s technological adjacency? It’s whenever you are able to use your current skills and apply them with some research to a related technological field. I’ll discuss this more in my next blog.