Once upon a time simple forms of industry knowledge were a significant competitive advantage. The little things we knew about our industry from working in it mattered. We had to earn expertise over long periods, and the release of that expertise to prospective customers. We traded in trade secrets. But now those days are coming to a close.
In a market where anyone can know anything about an industry (from the worlds experts) with just a few key strokes, then we need change our view on what creates an advantage. Knowledge of products, prices, places, who does what and who owns what are all knowable. We are quickly approaching a market of perfect information. And when everyone can know everything, and prices quickly level out, the only thing left is trust. And a great way to build trust is by sharing trade secrets. By being generous with our knowledge well before we want to do business with anyone. We need to share what we know so others can navigate the market and reduce their risk.
When it finally comes down to doing business, customers have a much higher probability of trusting those who gave them the most trust first.
While success is a relative term, there is a simple way to know if we’ve built something we can regard as a huge macro success. And that is when others are claiming derivative success within the platform we have created.
Examples could include:
- A top downloaded iPhone app
- X million views for a Youtube video
- A featured post about your project on Boing Boing
- Being person X on platform Y
Once someone can be regarded a success because they have used what we’ve built well, that’s when we know we’ve really changed the world.
I’ve been reviewing my notepad from 2013 and thought I’d share my insights into what’s changed and the big issues from my perspective in startups, business and technology.
Technology is no longer a thing: It’s almost not worth mentioning now it is so ensconced in human life. Business, political and social activities are intertwined in technology as an organism. Having a digital strategy is a bit like having an ‘electricity strategy’ – it’s just nonsense. In fact, if any business still delineates a part of their strategy as digital, then it’s fair to say they have no strategy at all. A terrific piece of evidence for this fact is observing how the technology and business section of the WSJ and New York Times now have a massive overlap.
Social media just is: It’s becoming a bit like general chit chat between any group of friends. A way of communicating. It doesn’t have a nuance or specificity that makes it remarkable anymore. It just is. I guess it’s now just a stage in the evolution of human communication. We could regard this as evidence of its permanence.
Anonymity is the new black: You may remember in the early commercial web era – post 1993, we all had alias names and emails before we felt comfortable enough to convert to our actual human self on line. It seems now that anonymity is back. People wanting to express themselves without it impacting their college application or next job interview. It’s been said that this helped tumblr, and is a large part of Snapchats appeal. As privacy gets eroded through government activity we can expect a lot more anonymous forums to emerge as powerful web platforms. Another outcome is the potentiality for privacy to become a serious luxury going forward.
Email & text on the comeback trail: The inbox has made a comeback for me. This year I signed up to a number of email newsletters which provided a haven of curation in my areas of interest. It might also be that my email address is mine, where social media has the who owns this data issue hanging over it. I also reverted to more text / SMS activity which would’ve been the only domain for my social media a couple of years ago. I think this was facilitated by improved video and photo output of smart phones, the direct & personal nature of people we share with phone to phone. Also the up weighting of data allowances on mobile phone from carriers.
Device equilibrium: All devices are merging to a kind of functionality equilibrium. Phablet anyone? It does seem as though all tech devices can perform much the same function. Now the only differentiator is size preference and UX.
Still waiting for wearables: It feels like we are in early 2000′s phase for smart phones when it comes to wearable computing. We all know we want it, we all know it is inevitable, but no one has quite nailed the technology output yet. Google Glass is the clear front runner, but no one has launched anything yet which has captured the ‘iPhone’ this changes everything moment. Here’s hoping for 2014.
We of things: See above – insert web of things.
The geo layer: Doesn’t seem to me like it can be a point of difference for any web related startup or brand. Foursqaure and others may have missed their chance. It’s a lot like digital now and just exists as an invisible layer on all our output. A vital component to making sense in a technology world, but omnipresent simple and expected.
Long reads: The deminishing returns of news and immediate communication are helping long thoughtful analysis make a comeback. The startup Medium.com seems exciting and longer posts which consider the implications of rapid change are capturing more of my time these days.
Tech valuations & bubblenomics: Crazy company valuations continue to astound. We are absolutely in another technology bubble, this time it is a valuation bubble, rather than an investment boom. I was talking with Nic Hodges about the $3 billion+ valuation of Pinterest proposing that they are like a shopping centre of sorts – a Westfield maybe? His retort was classic. He said:
Westfield owns $20 billion worth of property. What Pinterest owns is some code.
It seems that everyone forgets that valuations must be a function of earnings, or expected future earnings. Here’s a question worth asking when it comes to the true worth of any company. What would you rather own:
Apple stock at a 14 times price earnings ratio?
Facebook at a 141 times price earnings ratio?
Do you really think Facebook will be 10 times more profitable than it is now or any time soon? Or that Snapchat with an infinity price earnings ratio (zero earnings on $3.2b valuation) will ever make serious money? There is a very big difference between usage utility and commercial value.
There’s a reason why Warren Buffet has been in the top 2 richest people in the world for the past 30 years – he knows what companies are actually worth. And there’s a reason why many famous VC’s are rich – they are selling you sausages at caviar prices. It seems the real money in technology stocks is made when the founders exit, not when investors buy it.
So – what did you guys notice in 2013?
With so much information abundance, it takes a certain skill in knowing what to know. Many emerging trends and changes in our economy and social structures are vital points of knowledge. We need to know them intimately, know how to use the technology and have a detailed domain expertise or we’ll miss out in a business or social context. But many things, maybe even most things, knowing about them is enough. Simply knowing it exists, that people like and engage in it, and why they like and engage in it will get us through:
- Angry birds
- Candy Crush
- Reality TV
- Most news
- Any ‘down time’ activity…
If we’re across the motivations, the technology and the sociology, then it’s highly likely we wont get caught short by not having a personal interaction with it. Unless of course, it is related to what we actually do for a living. This is the key point, knowing which domains are worth us investing our time in to understand.
In a world of infinite expansion and choice where we can’t try or participate in everything, knowing what to ignore is an art form. If it feels disposable, then it is probably not deserving of our bandwidth.
I couldn’t think of a better time to go on an anthropological journey through living and working spaces. The story is surprising and interesting. If you’re in Melbourne tomorrow come along and have a listen – I’ll be on at 12.30pm. No power point, no data, just idea exchange and human knowledge. This is the outline of my talk to whet your appetite:
I’m really excited about this one.
The late great comedian Greg Giraldo was one of the smartest and funniest guys who ever lived. He really had an eye on society. In 2004 he had a bit in his stand up comedy routine which spoke of the Obesity Crisis:
They say were in the middle of an obesity epidemic. An epidemic like it is polio. Like we’ll be telling our grand kids about it one day ‘The Great Obesity Epidemic of 2004′. How’d you get through it grandpa? “Oh, it was horrible Johnny there was cheesecake and pork chops everywhere.”
It is not without a small amount of irony that we are now entering what I regard as a great content crisis. There is such an abundance of content available that we are literally gorging ourselves on omnipresent opinion and data. We are doing this without thinking about how this shapes our minds.
“… Oh it was horrible Johnny, there were blog posts and celebrity stories everywhere….”
Both of these consumption problems are a function of our make up. Our desire intake as much information and food as we possibly can is mostly out of our control, it is coded into our DNA. Our current human operating system which dates back around 2 million years has us programmed to eat all of the food available to us (which is why sugar and fat taste best), and to take on all of the data available to us (which is why we are mesmerised by media). These behaviours are part of the human species survival doctrine. Our ability to be omnivorous, control our food supply and acquire knowledge are what put as atop of the food chain. The problem is than our DNA is yet to update its operating system to cope with an over abundance of food, and now information. Given our operating system updates via natural selection, we are faced with an intellectual challenge – the ability to ignore the instinct for more, and instead to choose less, but less with the required nutrition.
As we enter an age where we have access to most everything, both physical and mental, longevity and success are being redefined. The art of living well is becoming less about wealth and more about the ability to choose, and choose well. And that choice will invariably need be about the nutritional value of our inputs into our person, both mental and physical.
There is nothing more common in startup land than to hear the advice of remaining focused. I used to believe this myself, but recently I’ve changed my view. I’ve changed my view because I think we focus too soon. We tend to focus when we think the idea or the space is we are playing in is hot. We should only focus once we have real in market validation. While there are many measures which validate a concept, media coverage does not amount to market validation. We have to remember the objectives of the media – especially when it comes to technology industries. What they want to do is the following:
- Report on something new
- Try and predict new trends and what’s next
- Fill up their pages for traffic (fill the void)
Just because what we might be doing is interesting and different, doesn’t mean it will get traction in market. In fact, sometimes media coverage in the early phases of a startup is an indication the idea itself might be bad. They cover the new and the shiny, which could mean we’ll have a much harder job ahead of us in changing behaviour and redefining how something is done.
I think we can take a lesson from the old fisherman we see on the shore line. They tend to cast a lot of lines in the water and employ the multi-fishing rod strategy. Not knowing which one will get a bite. They use different bate and different sized sinkers. Some lines are cast far from the shore, while others are much closer. They are looking for validation, for a bite. And once they get a bite, they’ll focus on that particular fishing rod and reel it in. Focus, post validation, not before.
When it comes to non-fishing startups we need to look for real in market validation. Real usage growth and revenue are the simplest. And once we have that, we can start to focus without folly.
Now that we all have reading devices permanently placed in our pockets we can catch up on our reading at any time. For me this presents an interesting set of considerations we should be aware of:
- Does it increase the amount of reading we do, or just change when we do our reading?
- Are there only so many words we want to read each day?
- What do we read during our ‘mobile’ reading times: Social media, news, articles, books or all of them – versus our home reading time?
- Are we in a space for which quiet consideration and reflection is even possible when we read?
It got me thinking that much of the reading we do now is more disposable than ever. A type of mind junk food for which there is often little intellectual nutrition. I’ve been as guilty as anyone wanting to know the latest business, technology and startup news. The type of stuff which is interesting to know but wont compound our knowledge.
I feel like reading has now split into two categories much like food has:
- Fast Reading – The latest stuff, a quick mind fix, but with little long term value. Disposble.
- Slow reading – Tome orientation which has a longer term perspective, directional postulations and philosophical musings. Timeless
I’m trying to focus on the latter, because if we have a foundation of thought we can easily digest the latest trends or factoids. But more importantly, add a rounded perspective which instigates a personal opinion. We go beyond regurgitation and develop thought leadership.
The key question I now ask myself is this: Will what I am reading be relevant 5 years from now? In truth it doesn’t matter where, how or with what device we consume it, but the reality is our immediate environment often shapes our consumption behaviour. We need new habit awareness during times of technology transition.
At the end of the day, it becomes a choice between knowing the latest news or tactics, or having understanding of the larger shifts and building a philosophy. I know which one I’d rather choose.
The pace of change is overwhelming. Many established companies have finally realised that this change isn’t just a little blip in the way things are done, but an entire business eco system reorganisation. It’s fair to say that the level of corporate anxiety is at an all time high, and with good reason. Only 57 companies still remain on the inaugural Fortune 500 list from 1955, while more than half of the Fortune 500 companies were not in it just 10 years ago. And while the cost of not adapting to the digital era is likely to be extinction, it seems as though every day I see yet another story of a large legacy market leader who is, to put it bluntly, Kodaking.
Kodaking is the term I now use to explain a company implementing strategies which are fundamentally flawed in the new business infrastructure. But before I go through the signs of a firm who is Kodaking, I’ll recap some of the terrible decisions made by the once revered imaging company.
Kodak’s Digital Camera from 1975:
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Kodak had over $16B in revenue in the late 1990’s – yet is bankrupt today. In fact they recently sold 1,100 of their remaining valuable digital imagery patents to a consortium of Apple, Samsung, Google and others for the sum of $527 million in a bid to restructure and salvage something. They ironically invented the digital camera in 1975, but had little incentive to facilitate its mass marketing as it disrupted their highly profitable film sale and processing business. As late as 2004 Kodak in their
wisdom stupidity attempted to sell digital cameras which plugged onto home based printers so they could continue with their old model of selling chemical film for profit. Here’s the kicker though…. What they did do, share memories, ‘Kodak moments’, has never been in stronger demand than it is today. Twice as many photos have been shared in the first half of this year as were shared in all of last year. What is facebook other than a Kodak moment 2.0? Facebook’s market capitalisation is (as of today) $122b while Kodak had a market value of only $28b at its peak. In fact there is no limit of new and large brands who took what Kodak resisted – Flickr, Instagram, Smartphones, GoPro, parts of Google, elements of Apple…. the list is long. Kodak could obviously see the future, because they invented most of it. But they were greedy. What they really failed to do was connect people, the way the people wanted to connect. They tried to dictate the methods of visual connection with people. As we know technology has no respect for the past, and our strategy must always be defined by our audience’s desires. They recognised the technology, but failed to open their mind to the revenue possibilities of it, and play the long game.
So how do we avoid Kodaking? Here are some things to look out for:
- Shelving technology which is less profitable, but highly probable to redefine a market.
- Defining the company by product portfolio instead of human needs underneath them (see the Marketing Myopia).
- Trying to find new ways to keep old revenue models alive.
- Not asking these core questions often enough: What business are we in? What business do we need to be in?
- Internal talk about the advantages of scale and infrastructure, when the opposite is true.
- Ignoring the potential of disruptive startups in adjacent industries.
- Trying to charge a fee for what can now be found elsewhere for free.
- Competing for market share in an existential pie (Kodak vs Fuji vs Agfa). The future is often in baking a new market share pie.
- Not entirely embracing technology as a mandatory company focus.
Startup blog says: Don’t be Kodaking.