Tag Archives: Trends

One Reason to Limit Access to Guns

With a renewed national dialog about gun safety (I am adopting James Fallow’s nomenclature; let’s focus not on controlling guns, but on improving gun safety), I want to point out that stupidity and aggression are not constitutionally protected, and when you combine them with guns, bad things can happen. Things like:

  • A 6th grader bringing a gun to school for “protection,” and then pointing that gun at other children
  • A man forcing another man to do the moonwalk at rifle point
  • A man shooting and killing his roommate in an argument over how to cook pork chops
  • A man pulling a gun on a furniture delivery man in an argument over paying a delivery fee
  • A man going to his apartment and bringing out a rifle after having his penis size insulted in his apartment building pool

No 2nd Amendment exegesis here. Just noting that people can do a lot of awful things, and when you put killing devices in their hands, those awful things can get even worse.

Of course, 60% of my examples took place in Florida, so maybe the answer is to have tougher gun laws in that state, but leave the rest of the country alone.

One Reason Startups Fail

Come on, people! At least try to make your apps more than punch lines for blogs like mine. Just days after posting about the shakeout among mediocre consumer technology companies, I see a review of three apps designed to help you split the bill with friends/roommates: Billr, SplitWise and OpnTab. As regular readers know, I think that any company with a name like Billr is destined to fail. When it’s an app that does nothing you can’t do with a calculator (which is built into your phone), then its chances of success are even lower. In addition, despite the savage failure of Blippy, the app that shared with your social graph the details of all your purchases, here we have the launch of Mine, which shares with your social graph the details of all your purchases. Venture-backed technology is at its best when it solves big problems. Three apps that help you divide by seven are not solving problems at all.

Will Enterprise Startups Require Different Entrepreneurs?

VentureBeat ran an interesting article today about how startups are learning that the “Dropbox Effect” is a myth. That is, corporate IT departments will not adopt a consumer-driven solution just because users like it. There are too many issues around security and support for CIOs to be swayed by consumer products, no matter how sexy they are.

In this article, CEOs from very hot Silicon Valley startups are talking about the need to add executives with enterprise experience, from established companies like IBM and EMC. My question is whether, if going after the enterprise requires traditional enterprise approaches — security, support, sales & marketing — does that mean that we’ll see a move away from the 25 year old entrepreneurs who are currently the rage in Silicon Valley? I don’t know; part of the reason young folks can make good entrepreneurs is that they are willing to break the product mold, and that can be just as valuable in the enterprise as in the consumer market. But as the VentureBeat article points out, and as our QWERTY keyboards remind us on a daily basis, the best products don’t always win. If the way to sign enterprise customers is to have an enterprise-ready organization, maybe entrepreneurs will need to have enterprise experience.

Outsourcing Parenting to Technology?

I was at an event the other night featuring a panel of education technology entrepreneurs talking about how their companies teach kids skills beyond the traditional three R’s of the school curriculum. For example, Class Dojo is supposed to use gamification to improve kids’ behavior, with the founder talking about the importance of improving self-control (the famous marshmallow experiment). EverFi teaches kids financial literacy and Mindset Works is meant to change the very mindset, or self-conception, of children.

Then I got home, and saw on TV that Verizon commercial in which a kid’s family can’t be at his French horn recital, but they can watch him via connected devices. It’s a sweet commercial, for sure, and someone sitting on my couch (not me) got a little misty eyed. But it got me thinking that maybe we are outsourcing too much parenting to our technology.

I mean, yes it’s sweet that the kid’s dad uses a tablet camera to watch the recital, but wouldn’t it be better if the dad were actually there? And to the extent that self-control can be taught, shouldn’t parents be teaching it rather than some technology company? Especially since most of these education tech companies are started by entrepreneurs, not educators or child psychologists (except for Mindset Works).

I’m not trying to criticize any of these companies or entrepreneurs, all of whom are doing good work trying to help kids. And I’m not criticizing parents or teachers who use these tools. I’m not even definitively saying that I think using these tools is bad. After all, leveraging technology is something that we all do. When I use Excel instead of green ledger paper, am I outsourcing my financial analysis to Microsoft? No, I’m just using a tool that makes me more efficient. So why does it feel different when it comes to parenting?

Perhaps I am just hopelessly retro, thinking that parents should manage kids themselves, instead of using every tool available. Perhaps it is because I am not (yet!) a parent, so don’t fully appreciate the desire to do everything you possibly can to improve your children’s lives. Or perhaps I fear that parents who outsource teaching their children aren’t using the found time to be with their kids, but on themselves. I can’t rationally pin down why this parenting technology makes me uncomfortable; it just does.

Readers, what are your thoughts?

Viral Growth & User Base Do Not a Business Make

Everybody in business wants to “go viral.” If you create a funny YouTube video, or tweet cleverly, or create a web service that people invite their friends to join, then you will spread like a flu pandemic, generating massive growth in users without massive marketing expenditures. Whether you are Old Spice or Dollar Shave Club or Instagram, growth without marketing expense is a good thing. And I agree: it IS a good thing. Going viral is awesome for a business, of course. Achieving growth without buying it is clearly good.

But companies are also learning that growth itself is not enough. A user base is not a business. If you can’t make money off those users – both revenue and profits – then all your viral growth is kind of a waste. We saw this last week with Facebook, which has had huge viral growth over its lifetime, and now has a billion users, but is having problems turning those users into money, leading to a stock chart that looks like this:


Ouch!

Or take the Dollar Shave Club. Their video is definitely hilarious and it went viral, which allowed them to sign up lots of users. But if their razor isn’t good enough to keep customers ordering more, or if they can’t sell the razor for more than it costs to make, no amount of viral growth will help them be a successful business. I haven’t heard anything about their razor quality, or their margins; they could totally succeed, and I hope they do. My point is that a clever viral video is only a means to an end. The end is a profitable business.

In the social bubble we have seen this year, people have been losing sight of what really matters in business: profits. User growth and virality are to 2012 what eyeballs were to 1999. Having lots of users is good, and your user base is an important metric to track, but at the end of the day, you need to make money. Not making money is what pops bubbles.

Move Fast And Break Things. Like Your Customers’ Hearts?

Move Fast And Break Things is Facebook’s unofficial (or maybe official) motto. It’s part of the hacker ethos, and I get it. You need to try to new things, not follow established patterns, if you want to create really innovative products. “You would never build something great doing it the same way others have done it,” said Mark Zuckerberg.

Except, what if you move so fast that you break essential things? Facebook’s replacement of user emails with Facebook email address was not only a typical Facebook PR disaster, but it turns out that there was a bug so that some smartphone users had emails replaced not just in Facebook, but in their contacts too. So that they were sending emails to people’s Facebook addresses without knowing it. Facebook addresses that recipients don’t check. It was a complete clusterfuck, and users are rightly pissed. How many users ripped their Facebook app right out of their smartphone after that? And how many other users who were thinking about installing the app decided not to?

“Breaking things” is great unless your customers actually rely on those things. Then you are just breaking your bond of trust with your customers. And you never get that back.

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Education Trumps Entrepreneurship

There is a growing trend among universities to devote resources to studying entrepreneurship. This trend is primarily focused in the business and engineering departments, but it is spreading inexorably across campus. It seems as if everyone wants to create a new class of entrepreneurs. This impulse is understandable; after all, if you are the university that graduates the founders of the next Google, there are big donations in your future.

But this focus on entrepreneurship doesn’t come without costs. Universities generally don’t have limitless budgets, so if increased resources are flowing to entrepreneurship studies, that means resources aren’t flowing into other departments. At my alma mater, Stanford University (see below), our alumni magazine seems to be constantly writing about new initiatives to train entrepreneurs, but it almost never talks about a new program in English or history. I think that universities’ movement toward entrepreneurship has gone too far.

Not that entrepreneurship is a bad thing. If people want to start companies, that’s great. I’m happy that companies like Google exist. And Amgen, and Hewlett-Packard, and even General Electric, all of which were started by entrepreneurs. But notice that none of those companies were started by people who had studied entrepreneurship. In fact, they were all started before this trend in teaching entrepreneurship had even begun. It’s not as if this country had a serious lack of entrepreneurs before universities started training them.

But more important to me is the fact that there is more to a university education than just training for a future job, whether as an entrepreneur or engineer or ethicist. College is also about producing well rounded people, who can analyze life in a variety of ways, who are prepared to be good citizens of their country. And I’m not the only one who thinks that way. Thomas Jefferson founded UVA with the goal of “elevating the views of our citizens generally to the practice of the social duties and the functions of self-government.” John Adams thought that education was so important that he put it in the Massachusetts constitution:

Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country.

If people want to start companies, they will certainly do so. They always have. So let’s not waste their four years of college making them “better entrepreneurs,” as if we even know what that is. Let’s just make them smart, well-educated people, and the entrepreneurship will inevitably follow.

The University Isn’t Going Anywhere

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There is a lot of talk going around about how universities are broken, and Silicon Valley is going to put the Ivy League out of business. Certainly change is afoot, and continued tuition hikes at twice the rate of inflation are ridiculous. Online universities like Udemy and the Miverva Project are interesting, and may even succeed, depending on whether success is measured in teaching students or in making tons of money. But if success is measured in pushing the existing elite universities out of their current position, don’t hold your breath.

Kevin Carey wrote a piece in The New Republic saying how the roster of leading companies has completely changed over the last century but the roster of leading universities has not. American Cotton Oil is gone, but Harvard remains. Carey states that this is unsustainable; education should be as prone to disruption as business.

But there is a deep flaw in Carey’s analogy. Companies go out of business mostly because people no longer want their products. When was the last time you bought cottonseed oil, or film for your camera? But people still want what universities are offering, especially elite universities. Is education still valuable? Yes. Is a Harvard degree still valuable? Yes. I don’t want any cottonseed oil, but I sure want my kids to get a Harvard education and diploma. And as long as the desire for education and prestige remains (ie. as long as human nature still rules), the elite universities will remain so.

CEOs: Imagine You Are The Janitor

OK, I promise this will be the last entry on cultural change. At least for a while.
But I wanted to return to the topic that started this arc: changes in corporate culture. You might recall how I postulated that a company could change its culture only if that change started at the top. The CEO needs to live the culture that he wants the whole company to have.

But that raises a question: can a CEO, from his top of the heap position, even successfully think through cultural issues? Go back to my prior example, where there is a culture of being late to meetings because the CEO is always late to meetings. If the CEO is always late, but nobody is late to the CEO’s meetings (because he is the boss, after all), then maybe he doesn’t even realize that this culture exists, and that it wastes everyone’s time. His time isn’t being wasted, so perhaps he doesn’t even see the problem.

If this is true of the CEO, it is likely true of other high level executives, depending on the size of an organization. So how can these oblivious executives work to develop a functional corporate culture? Here I turn to the work of John Rawls, a titan of political philosophy.  Rawls tried to develop a political system that maintained the liberty of markets while countering the tendency of market economies to perpetuate economic disadvantages.

In his masterwork, A Theory of Justice, Rawls balanced these two competing strands through an invention he called the veil of ignorance. Rawls suggested that policy makers devise policies via a thought exercise in which they ignored their actual station in life and imagined how the policy would affect the least advantaged person in society. By operating behind a veil of ignorance as to how policies would affect them personally, they would develop policies that were fairer to everyone.

Maybe CEOs and other top executives should sometimes step behind a veil of ignorance. As a thought experiment, it’s not really that hard. Ask yourself “How would the average employee feel about this? What about the lowest ranking employee?” Only a CEO whose ego has been stoked to l’etat c’est moi proportions will not be able to imagine how his underlings might feel. In the case our always late CEO, surely he will recognize how people feel when he is always late to their meetings.  And if he is so Louis XIV that he is truly unable to imagine how others might feel, then that company’s culture is utterly doomed and everyone should just leave.

Can Congress Change Its Culture?

Cultural change is the recent theme here at Thoughtbasket; I discussed how a company might change its culture, and then how America might change some aspects of its culture. Today I want to look at a particular part of America: Congress. The U.S. Congress seems unable to solve any of the problems facing our country, and consequently has an approval rating of only 11 percent, which is the lowest ever. If a group is unable to complete the sole task it is given (governing, in this case) and thus is held in contempt by its bosses (voters, in this case), then that group probably has a culture problem.

The congressional cultural problem is that the entire institution values reelection instead of service (which is why incumbents are reelected more than 80% of the time). Power is more important than policy. Much like the corporation in my first post on this topic had a culture where everyone thought it was OK to be late for meetings, congress has a culture where everyone thinks that it’s OK to prioritize staying in office over doing the job you were elected to do, which is govern.

We can blame each individual congressman – and believe me, I do – but really, it is the institution and its culture that is truly to blame. Expecting some moronic ex-exterminator who only gets a two-year term to swim against a cultural tide of reelection is probably naïve. So, much like in my efforts to change cultural components in the US as a whole, we need a team approach. John Boehner + Nancy Pelosi = change?

I wrote last year about how John Boehner could be a hero by teaming up with democrats to pass substantive policy that would address the nation’s fiscal problems. Here is another opportunity for heroic action: he could rally all of congress, teaming with his arch enemies, to promote a culture of service instead selfishness.