Tag Archives: venture capital

The End of Being Organized

Software is getting better and better at helping manage your life, so that you don’t need stay as organized as you used to. In fact, this article from one tech journalist is even titled “stay disorganized.” In the abstract, this is a good thing. Why should people have to remember stuff, or spend time organizing their lives, when computers can do it for them? Isn’t that one of the reasons we have computers…to do the boring stuff for us? But for people who are really organized, like me, this means that technology is taking away one of our comparative advantages. Historically I have been more productive than average, since I was really organized about my work. Now technology has reduced that advantage.

I think the first step in this direction was when Google introduced Desktop in 2004. It searched your PC much faster than the old Windows Explorer search, so that you could find files (word docs, spreadsheets, etc.) even if you couldn’t remember where you saved them or what you named them. That was awesome, except that I already knew where all my files were, because I was an aggressive user of folders and subfolders (sharp-eyed readers know that I have previously commented on folder people vs. non-folder people). Thanks to Desktop, the five minutes I spent working while someone else was searching for a spreadsheet was reduced to five seconds. My productivity advantage disappeared.

Then Google brought that functionality to email (no folders at all when Gmail launched), again eliminating the advantage of my clever folder systems. And now we are seeing apps that apply that same computerized organization to your entire life. What if you forgot to print a travel itinerary, or even write down your flight number? No problem, Google Now will do all that for you. So much for my advantage of having a detailed itinerary prepared, breezing me to my destination ahead of everyone else. EasilyDo and its competitors will help manage your duplicate contacts, remind you of your mom’s birthday, and even buzz you when you haven’t returned your CEO’s phone call.

For society, this is great, freeing up space in people’s brains to write, or cure cancer, or develop more organizational apps. For me, it’s a disaster. I had one claim to fame – being organized – and now it’s gone. I guess I need to find an old has-been app.

Native Advertising: Creative is King

In the internet media world, “native advertising” is all the rage. Native ads are ads that have enough content to be interesting to readers, and are more organically embedded in the content of the website. In other words, advertorials rather than intrusive banner ads. Some people complain that native advertising breaches the editorial wall, and others say that such breaches are the only way for publishers to make money online. There is truth to both sides of that argument.

But editorial purity is not the point of this post. Instead, I want to focus on how the success of native advertising shows that, yet again, content is king. When you read about how and why native advertising is working (like here and here), you’ll see it constantly described as great content you want to read, as adding value to consumers, etc. Native advertising works to the extent that the content is actually good. Because what consumers care about is content.

Or, in the context of an advertising agency, creative is king. If you want to produce good content, you have to have good creative people doing the producing. I think that the real development here is not native vs. non-native, but rather that marketers and their ad agencies are finally putting serious creativity into online advertising.

Since the beginning of the online era, I’ve felt that the main problem with banner ads was not that they were intrusive, but that they sucked. Nobody put any creativity into them. Partly that was driven by size – there just isn’t enough real estate to do much with them – but partly it’s because online campaigns aren’t the glory campaigns in an agency. TV is where the glory is earned for ad execs. TV commercials win awards and get talked about. Online, on the other hand, is boring. It’s basically direct mail, for god’s sake.

Native ads, however, are larger and have a variety of possible formats. There is room for far more creativity than you have in banners. It’s still not a super bowl TV spot, but it’s a much broader canvas than a banner ad. Moreover, with so much of advertising budgets shifting to online, web advertising is getting more respect within agencies, and so top people are working on the web ads.

Yes, native ads are in the middle of the content, but that isn’t their innovation. Their innovation is in size and flexibility, which enables creativity. Thus, the real key to native is that it gives marketers room to focus on quality. And when quality work is done, people pay attention.

Technology, Hubris and Lunch

As you may know, here in Silicon Valley the latest thing is for companies to provide all their employees with free lunches (and often breakfast and dinner too). I think Google was the first to do this, and Facebook followed them, and now even small startups bring in a catered lunch every day, or even hire their own chef. This week the WSJ reported that the IRS is looking into whether this perk should be taxed like most employee perks are. After all, the IRS thinking goes, this is effectively compensation.

I’m no expert on tax law, so I can’t really say whether these lunches should be taxed or not. The way the WSJ laid out the issue, it certainly seems like taxation is the legal path, but the article may have not framed the issue properly.

But one of the arguments that tech companies are making is that the lunches aren’t compensation, but an essential part of the collaborative culture of Silicon Valley. As one tax attorney put it, “there are real benefits for knowledge workers in having unplanned, face to face interaction.” This is complete crap.

Can anyone say with a straight face that it’s essential for an engineer to run into a marketer at Facebook, but that doesn’t matter at Procter & Gamble, or at Caterpillar? That somehow cooperation is more impactful at technology companies than other companies? Sheer idiocy. Having interaction between various constituents of a company is valuable no matter what the company does. To claim that somehow it’s different in Silicon Valley is just the height of hubris.

Y Combinator: Living the Bubble Dream

Two of the higher profile technology incubator programs – Y Combinator and Tech Stars – recently announced their graduating classes (read about them here and here), and in looking at the companies, I saw, yet again, some reminders of the 1999-like frenzy that the technology industry is currently experiencing.

A few thoughts:

  • Not everything needs to happen online; some things (eg. grocery shopping) satisfy a ton of people in their offline incarnation
  • Lots of things are already online and don’t need a new vendor. Just because you call yourself the Airbnb of vacation rentals doesn’t mean that VRBO, the very successful existing vacation rental website, needs to be “disrupte.”
  • Vertical slicing doesn’t work online. It turns out that the Yelp for contractors is Yelp.

We saw this back in 1999: remember “vertical portals?” Yahoo for gays was PlanetOut, and that didn’t work out too well at all. Vertical slices sound good on paper, but they just don’t work; online it’s just too easy to move from site to site to get what you want. We also saw in 1999 the dot-coming of everything. “We’re going to take your garden online!” Umm, no, you aren’t.

The article about the Y Combinator class even admitted that these companies aren’t world changers, but “perhaps they’ll save a headache or two.” When this is the best that a boosterish tech reporter can come up with, you’ve got problems.

Bad Driving, Google Edition

My series of posts about double parking gets to intersect today with a trend getting some recent publicity: tech companies using private buses to drive their employees from San Francisco down to Silicon Valley.

You can read more about these buses here, here and here. There is a little controversy around these buses: on the one hand, they are clearly more environmentally friendly than having everyone drive their own cars. On the other hand, they are pretty freaking big, and often drive on city streets that aren’t designed for vehicles that large. Moreover, they use stops that are designated for city buses, and then the city buses don’t have room to stop.

Moreover, and this is my pet peeve, they don’t even pull all the way over into those stops. The photo below is of a private bus on Lombard Street, clearly not pulling into its stop and clearly blocking a lane of traffic. I don’t actually know which company’s bus this is; they tend to hide their affiliations, except for the Genentech buses, which are festooned with Genenetech logos, and which often do exactly what is pictured here, in the same exact spot.

Google bus blocking traffic

Google bus blocking traffic

In addition to their clogging up of city streets, I am a little torn on the private buses. I appreciate their greenness, but I wonder if the buses didn’t exist, then maybe a lot of these people would move out of the city and to Silicon Valley, closer to their work. Should we really enable people to live far away, rather than supporting a denser work-home nexus?

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.

Silicon Valley Shakeout: Yes, Many Startups Fail

The press is going crazy here in Silicon Valley with pieces about the coming shakeout in startups. The basic story is that over the past few years, the growth in angel investors led to a lot of mediocre ideas getting seed funding, and now that the froth is off the market, those mediocrities are finding it difficult to raise additional money from venture capitalists.

PandoDaily gives a good summary here. Dan Lyons, a well known tech journalist (and creator of Fake Steve Jobs), has a more savage take here. The following quote kind of summarizes his piece:

For the past few years we’ve had people calling themselves “investors,” who have no experience investing, swanning around the Valley, slinging money at people calling themselves “entrepreneurs” who have never held an actual job, let alone run a company.

My view is that this shouldn’t surprise anyone. The current social/mobile bubble has been obviously following the trajectory of the 1999-2000 dot.com bubble (see my prior posts on this topic here, here, here and here), and any rational observer could see how it was going to end. Just like a decade ago, the promise of quick riches drew hordes of young, aggressive tech wannabes who launched me-too companies, features posing as companies, or simply bad ideas. And just like a decade ago, huge amounts of capital desperate to be put to work meant that bad ideas got funded. But bad ideas become bad companies, and bad companies start to fail, and VCs don’t put more money into failing companies.

Ten years ago, the mantra was “let’s dot.com category X.” Now it’s “let’s take category X social. Or mobile. Or both.” But either way, good ideas with good execution get traction, and bad ideas don’t. PandoDaily looks at the travel space and explores it as a microcosm of everything that’s happening. Bad companies with bad names ( Dopplr, Tripl, Gtrot) are all going away, because they never should have existed.

This is really a standard Silicon Valley cycle; it’s just getting worse. There was once a time when VCs funded one hundred disk drive companies, which also ended poorly. Now it’s that the cycles are stronger and draw more wannabes from further away. More press and more billionaires mean more people coming to enter the lottery. I mean, now we have a reality TV show about good-looking young entrepreneurs (or perhaps I should say “entrepreneurs,” since the folks on that show are exactly the people Dan Lyons savaged). Back in the 1980’s nobody made a reality TV show about 45 year old engineers starting disk drive companies.