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.

2017 Is A Prime Year For …

Ok – first nerd joke of 2017 for me. Yup. 2017 is a prime number. But 2017 is a pretty special prime. In fact 2017 is a sexy prime with 2011 – bet you didn’t know that!

The Shrike né Predator and I wish you a Happy New Year.

 

If you need a great blog to start 2017 with, give yourself the gift of following the Daily Overview. And, buy the book – it will blow your mind.

Get Your Metrics Together

As we head into 2017, I have a steady stream of operating plans hitting my inbox. Since many of our investments are companies that are scaling, vs. companies that are just getting started, there are a lot of derivative metrics in these plans.

Q1 is the easiest quarter to make your plan, so most of these companies are getting a free pass for the next three months after fighting the good fight of making or beating plan in Q3 and Q4. For the SaaS and recurring revenue companies, if they missed by more than 5% in 1H16 and didn’t reforecast, they’ve had a particularly grueling uphill climb for the past six months.

While the relief of Q1 was missing last year because of the existential freakout caused by the public markets (anyone remember that?) I know a bunch of people who are hoping Q1 will be nice, calm, and normal. Good luck with that.

Regardless, you can start the year off by being clear on how you calculate your various derivative metrics and make sure that your plan – and the expectations of your board and investors – fit what you are putting out there for the next year. Before you say, “yup – no big deal – we are great at that” go read two posts by Glenn Wisegarver, the CFO at Moz.

If you’ve worked with me, you’ve probably heard me call out CAC as a nonsense metric, since it’s super easy to game. Or maybe you read my post about ICDC (increase conversion, decrease churn). Or, instead of growth rate at a moment in time, you’ve heard me ask for a monthly graph of trailing twelve month growth rate so we can see the actual acceleration or deceleration of growth, which is way more interesting than last months growth number.

There are tens of thousands of words written on the web about SaaS metrics, consumer metrics, recurring revenue metrics, and all kinds of other metrics. Entertainingly (at least to me) there are very few words written about CE / hardware metrics (other than nonsense about how to value CE companies).

As part of getting your metrics together for 2017, I encourage you to go read some of these articles. And think hard about which metrics really matter and where the change in them will impact your business performance in 2017.

The Year of Startups Everywhere

I’m not a predictor so you won’t find me participating in the “best/worst of 2016” and “predictions for 2017” lists. But there is a trend that feels inevitable to me: “Startups everywhere.”

While Agent Smith was wrong, I don’t think I am. When the phrase “Startup Communities” started to become mainstream around 2012, I made the strong assertion that you could create a startup community in any city with at least 100,000 people. I used Boulder as a canonical example of it in my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City and have been beating the drum about startups everywhere ever since.

While the meme that the only place to build a company is in Silicon Valley has softened, there’s still a strong belief that the best place to be if you are a first time entrepreneur is Silicon Valley. My argument is, and has never been, against Silicon Valley, but rather for the rest of the planet.

I saw three articles yesterday that reinforced the inevitability of startups everywhere.

When I reflect on where some of our investments are, they are in cities like Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Minneapolis, Boulder, Denver, Charlotte, Lexington, New York, and Boston. And then there’s Techstars which is now all over the world.

Sure – we have plenty of investments in Silicon Valley, or whatever you want to call it. I’ve asserted for a long time that Silicon Valley is a collection of startup communities, which includes San Francisco, Marin (the first board I was on – in 1994 – was for a company in San Rafael), Oakland, Redwood *, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Menlo Park, and Sunnyvale. Or you can just call it San Francisco, Oakland, and the Peninsula. Or maybe toss SOMA in. Or, well, does it really matter?

As a bonus, I’ve been hearing Amazon referred to regularly by mainstream media (and some people in the tech world) as a Silicon Valley company. Having invested in and spent a lot of time in Seattle over the last 30 years, I smirk whenever I hear this. I love seeing articles like How Amazon innovates in ways that Google and Apple can’t which should prompt entrepreneurs to Think Different (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).

As a bonus, I leave you with Amazon’s patent for a flying warehouse.

While Silicon Valley is an amazing thing, if you are in the rest of the world, you are in a special and interesting place. Don’t lose sight of that.