A Full Day At CES

Pro Tip: If you are at CES today and want to connect, I’ll be hanging out at Eureka Park from 11am this morning (Friday) when I’m on a panel about diversity until I leave the premises at 2:30.

My dad and I left the Venetian yesterday at 8:30am to head over to the Las Vegas Convention Center. When I arrived back at the room at 10pm, I was done / baked / toasted / wiped.

For a number of years (somewhere between 5 and 9, according to the little badge they gave me), my dad and I went to CES together every year. In 2013, when I got depressed, I decided not to travel for a year. I punted CES that year and for the next few years, so this is the first time in four years we’ve done the drill.

We had a blast together yesterday. I think my dad was delirious by about 9pm when he left our party and went up to the room. And hour later when I checked in on him before going to sleep, he was flat on his back in bed pretending to be awake but was clearly out for the count.

We started at the LVCC. I saw a tweet from Dan Primack saying the North Hall was basically indistinguishable from the Detroit Auto Show. He nailed it – it was basically a takeover by the worldwide auto industry with a few startups sprinkled here and there. It felt like six months ago every CEO of a major auto company sent an email to the CMO that said

“We are going to be at CES. We need to show up three things: (1) Our EV prototype, (2) A completely new in-car electronics package that looks better than Tesla’s, and (3) something about autonomous driving. Your budget is $10 million. Don’t fuck it up.”

If any of this shit comes together, we are going to have completely different cars by 2020. If you are a VC and you haven’t placed your bets on this sector yet, good luck. And if you have, make sure you are spending lots of time with big auto corp dev / M&A people.

If you’ve been following any news about CES, you know that it’s been a huge Alexa takeover. Amazon’s move in the home is brilliant. I love Alexa and I’m amazed at how far ahead Amazon suddenly is. When I think of all the money, time, and energy Microsoft, Apple, Google, Nintendo, Sony, Samsung, and LG have spent in the home, I have one word for them. “Wasted.” As far as I can tell, I’ll be talking to Alexa in the future a lot more than I’ll be saying “Ok Google”, especially when I’m talking to a Samsung TV.

Several times an hour I bump into someone that I like. That’s one of the fun parts of CES – you are surrounded by 180,000 of your fellow nerds and you bump into Dick Costolo on the way to dinner. I ended up in a fifteen minute conversation with Josh Ellman. I could list another 20 serendipitous connections in random places but you get the idea.

After wandering through the Sphero secret rooms in their booth, I told my dad I thought it was the best booth experience I’ve ever had. Way more awesome than yet another random shag carpet open space with marketing displays.

Interviewing James Park at Eureka Park about the Fitbit story was fun. My experience with James, his partner Eric, and Fitbit continues to be one of the most rewarding and enjoyable – at all levels – professional experience I’ve ever had.

And then dad and I wandered around the Sands. It completely blew away the LVCC and was so much more interesting to me that I’m just going to spend the day at the Sands, wandering around startups, smaller companies, 3D printers, robots, and all kinds of stuff I like. There are zillions of CE startups in Sands. While 90% of them will fail, it’s pretty awesome to see what entrepreneurs are working on.

The only thing more baffling to me than the auto stuff were home robots. I think the 2017 crop of home robots at CES will be like the 2013 crop of 3D TVs. Kind of cool, but not commercially viable. We’ll get there, but it’s not this.

And – well – lots of chocolate ice cream. That’s one of the best things about Las Vegas. Chocolate ice cream is less than 0.25 miles away, no matter where you are.

Empty Out Your Junk Drawer

Everyone has a junk drawer. Or two. Or ten. One of mine is to the left.

So does every company. It’s now often referred to as “Labs” (as an homage to the infamous Google Labs which was disbanded in 2011.)

We’ve seen a lot of companies spin up a Labs as a way to try to create new products. In most cases, after about a year, it’s a junk drawer of random shit.

At a Techstars meeting on Monday, in response to something I said, Jason Seats blurted out “that’s just putting it in the junk drawer.” I love when Seats does that – it makes me stop and think. And, in this case he was absolutely right – it was a lot better to simply delete the thought that I’d had (and the activity around it) then to put it in the junk drawer.

I’ve come to really hate the concept of “Labs.” Fortunately, most of the companies I’m involved with who have done a Labs thing have shut it down and reabsorbed it back into the product organization in a more systematic way.

At some point, I realized that Labs was either (a) a random place to put a founder who is no longer working on the core activity of the business or (b) a place to work on a set of things that product can’t make progress on. Both of these are foundational issues.

If (a) random place for a founder, the CEO may not be dealing with an organizational issue around a founder. Or the founder may not be tuned in to how to work with a now scaling organization. There are situations where you want a founder (or founders) to go work on a new R&D project, and it could be called Labs, but it should be focused on a particular product initiative, not a non-defined grab-bag of randomness. When I think of the success cases here (and I have a few), it’s really “new product R&D” rather than “labs”, even when the new product isn’t clearly defined yet. But that leads to (b).

If (b) a place to work on a set of things that product can’t make progress on, this usually appears when the CEO (and potentially a founder) are frustrated with the pace of new product development. This is a recurring theme in my world when a company hits around $5 million of revenue on their first product. It happens at multiple points again in the future and is a good example of the differences between starting a company and scaling a company. It’s easy to blame this on the product organization, but it’s often more complicated than that. Sometimes it’s a single executive; often times it’s the way the engineering and operations organizations (including customer support) interact. And sometimes it’s the CEOs lack of understanding of how to run a maturing / scaling product line while adding in new products.

In either case, the default to creating Labs as a solution to a problem is not a good one. And, when I get home from CES, I’m going to throw all the shit in my junk drawer away.

Entrepreneurship Is Intellectual Immigration

At the MIT Celebration of 50 Years of Entrepreneurship in November, I heard a number of fantastic lines that have stuck with me. One of them was from Noubar Afeyan.

“Entrepreneurship is intellectual immigration.”

As I sat in an audience of about 200 extremely accomplished MIT graduates spanning over 50 years, I thought to myself “he just fucking nailed it.”

I’m a huge fan and supporter of immigration, especially around entrepreneurship. If you look at the landscape of success entrepreneurs in the United States you see a remarkable number of first and second generation immigrants. We can argue about immigration policy all day long (and plenty in DC do, mostly to insure that nothing actually gets accomplished) but the historical statistics around immigration and entrepreneurship in the US are undeniable.

Noubar talked about immigration being “going someplace outside of your comfort zone.” Every first generation immigrant I’ve ever met has talked about immigrating to the US as something akin to this. Many entrepreneurs I’ve met have articulated a similar emotion around their experience leaving whatever they were doing to start a new company.

My whole life has been built around the idea of intellectual immigration. I’m constantly exploring new things, getting out of my comfort zone, and moving toward new “things.” As part of this, I’m moving away from (emigrating away) from old, established things.

Ponder that.

Making Technology Work For Those Who Aren’t Working

In November, during the week of the presidential election, I was at MIT for the Celebration of 50 Years of Entrepreneurship at MIT. The Friday night event included a keystone from Simon Johnson, an MIT professor who became famous during the financial crisis because of his superb analysis along with his almost daily blog The Baseline Scenario and his willingness to openly challenge an enormous amount of conventional thinking.

I remember hearing Simon for the first time at an MIT Sloan Dean’s Advisory meeting in the basement of a fancy hotel in NY in the middle of the financial crisis. Many of the advisory board member attendees looked like hammered dog shit as they were part of the New York financial services and real estate world. Simon gave a clear eyed, extremely compelling pep talk that challenged everyone to ask questions and think hard, rather than just retreat into gloom.

On the Friday night after the election in 2016 on the six floor of E-52, Simon gave another impassioned talk. As he wrapped up, he addressed the elephant in the room, which this time corresponded with Trump, a Republican Congress, and a huge swath of red on an electoral map where a bunch of people, including me, had previously expected blue.

One question really stuck with me.

“How do you make technology work for those who are not working? Especially for those who are not working because of technology.”

This is not the first time we’ve had to deal with this as a species, or a country. The transition from the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution is a simple historical analogy. There are others, but Simon asked another question after making the analogy.

“Is this time different?”

I don’t know the answer to the questions but they slapped me in the face and made me sit up.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations, mostly with Amy, about the next 20+ years. I believe humans are in for the biggest transformation (and subsequent challenges) that we’ve faced so far since the origination of our species. I think it’s going to be extremely complicated, painful, and confusing to many.

Simon suggested a powerful approach and one he’s going to take. He’s going to rip up all the old models and start with a blank sheet of paper. As part of that, he’s going to start with the question, and explore. He doesn’t know where it’s going to lead him, but he’ll let it go where it will.

I’m of a similar mindset. I’m also comfortable with my first principles, like the notion that a key part of the improvement in our situation, both economic and cultural, around the world are startup communities. I believe ever more deeply than ever in the philosophy of #GiveFirst, which is the title of my 2017 book. I’m committed to the work path I’m on with Foundry Group and Techstars, the philanthropic path that Amy and I are on with the Anchor Point Foundation, and the philosophical path I’m on with many friends around the world.

While I don’t have any answers to Simon’s question, I have more questions and answers to some of those questions. And, I know how to find answers, and find more questions. So that’s what I’m going to do this year, both in the context of my existing work, and on new intellectual, functional, and philosophical paths.

You’ll see this show up in what I read, what I do, and where I travel. For example, you’ll see hints in my Goodreads book list (whether or not I do book reviews.) For example, each of the last two books I read – Interface by Neal Stephenson / J. Frederick George and Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance – are both relevant to this discussion.

I’m not trying to find the answer right now to anything in particular. Instead, I’m starting with a blank sheet of paper and trying to learn more, with a beginners mind.

Heading to CES 2017

I’ll be at CES from Wednesday to Friday. I went for many years, punted for the past few years, but decided to go again this year.

Techstars runs a big program called the Startup Stage that has three days of programming. It also co-hosts Eureka Park, at the Sands, Level 1, Hall G which is a collection of around 600 startups. I’ll be hanging out there when I’m not walking to CES floor, which typically takes me a day.

My dad will be with me. We love to walk to the show floor together and just be together for a couple of days. While he’s a doctor, he’s been a tech nerd since I was little, always alongside me as I played around with new stuff. He’s endlessly a kid around this stuff – always trying new things, talking to everyone, and just having the time of his life.

I’m giving two talks this year at CES as part of Startup Stage at the Sands, Level 1, Hall G.

I don’t go to CES to find the next great thing. I go to soak myself in what companies are releasing now. I run into (randomly – I don’t schedule anything) a lot of friends from the industry. I relax into the density of the amount of stuff getting shipping in 2017, as I think about where it will be in 2022.

And – I hang out with my dad. Which I love.