I attended a Silicon Flatirons Artificial Intelligence Roundtable last week. Over the years Amy and I have sponsored a number of these and I always find the collection of people, the topics, and the conversation to be stimulating and provocative.
At the end of the two hours, I was very agitated by the discussion. The Silicon Flatirons roundtable approach is that there are several short topics presented, each followed by a longer discussion.
The topics at the AI roundtable were:
One powerful thing about the roundtable approach is that the topic presentation is merely a seed for a broader discussion. The topics were good ones, but the broader discussion made me bounce uncomfortably in my chair as I bit my tongue through most of the discussions.
In 2012, at the peak moment of the big data hype cycle, I gave a keynote at an Xconomy event on big data titled something like Big Data is Bullshit. My favorite quote from my rant was:
“Twenty years from now, the thing we call ‘big data’ will be tiny data. It’ll be microscopic data. The volume that we’re talking about today, in 20 years, is a speck.”
I feel that way about how the word AI is currently being used. As I listened to participants at the roundtable talk about what they were doing with AI and machine learning, I kept thinking “that has nothing to do with AI.” Then, I realized that everyone was defining AI as “narrow AI” (or, “weak AI”) which has a marvelous definition that is something like:
Narrow artificial intelligence (narrow AI) is a specific type of artificial intelligence in which a technology outperforms humans in some very narrowly defined task. Unlike general artificial intelligence, narrow artificial intelligence focuses on a single subset of cognitive abilities and advances in that spectrum.
The deep snarky cynic inside my brain, which I keep locked in a cage just next to my hypothalamus, was banging on the bars. Things like “So, is calculating 81! defined as narrow AI? How about calculating n!? Isn’t machine learning just throwing a giant data set at a procedure that then figures out how to use future inputs more accurately? Why aren’t people using the phase neural network more? Do you need big data to do machine learning? Bwahahahahahahaha.”
That part of my brain was distracting me a lot so I did some deep breathing exercises. Yes, I know that there is real stuff going on around narrow AI and machine learning, but many of the descriptions that people were using, and the inferences they were making, were extremely limited.
This isn’t a criticism of the attendees or anything they are doing. Rather, it’s a warning of the endless (or maybe recursive) buzzword labeling problem that we have in tech. In the case of a Silicon Flatirons roundtable, we have entrepreneurs, academics, and public policymakers in the room. The vagueness of the definitions and weak examples create lots of unintended consequences. And that’s what had me agitated.
At an annual Silicon Flatirons Conference many years ago, Phil Weiser (now the Attorney General of Colorado, then a CU Law Professor and Executive Director of Silicon Flatirons) said:
“The law doesn’t keep up with technology. Discuss …”
The discussion that ensued was awesome. And it reinforced my view that technology is evolving at an ever-increasing rate that our society and existing legal, corporate, and social structures have no idea how to deal with.
Having said that, I feel less agitated because it’s just additional reinforcement to me that the machines have already taken over.
I get asked all the time for a list of “tech reporters / bloggers” to contact around an announcement. A few weeks ago, I was pointed to a list on the web by Brownstein & Egusa titled the Tech Reporter Contact List. It’s actually seven lists.
As a bonus, there’s also a good Beginners Guide To PR up on the same site.
One of the jokes in my little universe is that “every time I hear the word ‘marketing’ I throw up a little in my mouth.” I’ve been joking about this long enough that it’s become conventional wisdom that I hate marketing. Yet, if you look at many of our successful investments, they are extraordinarily good at marketing and some people suggest we (Foundry Group, me) are also good at marketing.
Thirty minutes ago, Chris Moody – a long time friend and COO of Gnip – sent me an extremely thoughtful email titled “Food For Thought”. I read it, thought it was 100% correct, and asked if I could reblog it verbatim both as (a) an explanation of how I actually should / do think about marketing and (b) an example of how I learn through direct feedback.
Chris – thanks for taking the time to write this. You nailed it. The way I articulate how I think about marketing will be permanently different going forward.
At this point I’ve probably heard/read most of your basic philosophical points on the various aspects of building a successful business. I agree with most of them of course. However, there is one area where I’ve consistently felt that you have under represented your true feelings and it feels like your general input on the topic has been mostly nonconstructive. I’d like to try to help change that for the good of the broader entrepreneur community (and to make you look even smarter).
The topic is marketing. I have no doubt missed some brillant thoughts you’ve offered to the community and I’m sure you’ve provided countless pieces of good advice to individual entrepreneurs in one-on-one situations. But, the sound bite version I’ve heard from you on a few occasions goes something like this “I hate traditional marketing. Focus on building a great product or all the marketing in the world won’t matter.” When I think about the first time entrepreneur, this response feels particularly unhelpful. And, the second part of the quote could be applied to almost all aspects of a startup business including sales, finance, etc. If you don’t have a great product, none of the other shit matters.
And yet, when I see how Foundry Group approaches marketing and when I look across your portfolio companies, I see a very common thread around how you guys approach marketing. I would characterize the theme as “marketing through thought leadership.” In more basic terms it is expressing marketing ideas via “this is why we are doing what we are doing and why it is important” instead of “hey, look at me.” Have a new product feature? Sure blog about the feature, but spend way more time on why the feature is important to your overall purpose and beliefs.
To illustrate the point, I’ve recently talked to/interviewed a few current/former people from Rally and ReturnPath. When I ask them “what is the most significant thing you did from a marketing perspective to accelerate the business” the answer across the board has been “we focused on being a thought leader in our space.” As you well know that is the same approach we are taking at Gnip and I see it in many of your other portfolio companies too. Not sure it is always a conscience effort by the companies, but it seems to be pretty consistent across the portfolio..
When I think about FG itself I see tons of “marketing activity” but most of it could also be just be labeled: thought leadership. You sponsor conferences around topics that you care about. Your blog post are rich with “here’s why did it and why it matters” instead of “here’s what we did”. In fact, your whole theme based approach is really about thought leadership focused in a few areas. Foundry Group clearly believes that startups have the power to change the world. You guys spend countless time and effort expressing your opinions on this topic. You write books to support your beliefs. If you only talked about what you do with your startups “we invested in x, we sold y”, the conversation would be short and have a limited audience. Instead, you talk about what you believe and why startups matter. As a result, you have built a real following around people that care about the topic.
If I were going to create the Brad Feld sound bite for Marketing it would go something like this “Don’t do marketing. Focus on becoming a thought leader in your space. Talk everyday with your customers, perspective customers, partners, and the world about why you do what you do and why you think it is important. The reality is you can only talk about what you do one or two times before people think ‘got it’ and stop listening. But, if you talk about what you believe and point to countless examples that exemplify your beliefs , you can build real engagement with people who care/believe the same things.”
Not trying to put words in your mouth. Just saying that the actions that I see don’t match the words that I hear and I think there is easy opportunity to change that for the better.
As my partners at Foundry Group know, every time I hear the word “marketing” I throw up a little in my mouth. I hate traditional marketing and have always resisted it early in the life of a new company.
Fred Wilson has a phenomenal blog post up this morning titled Marketing. Among other things he demonstrates his mastery of marketing by sending me an email this morning pointing me to the post and saying that he’s channeling me knowing that it’ll likely inspire me to blog something about it and link to his post, increasing the chance that he’ll be the first Google result for the search “Marketing” (he’s already #6 for marketing VC).
When I think off all of the companies in our portfolio that are growing like crazy, they all spend money on marketing. However, it’s driven by an obsessive focus on the customer and the product, rather than a “marketing budget” or “marketing initiative.” And phrases like “social media marketing” and “marketing spend” rarely surface in discussions, and when they do I vomit a little in my mouth.
Of course marketing is a key part of the success of these companies. However, it’s wired into the DNA of the business, not an extra thing that is attached on, like it used to be in the 1980’s and 1990’s as “marketing”, “PR”, “marcomm”, etc. were a key part of every startup plan.
I’m currently in a world of conservation of words as I drive to finish the draft of “VC Financings: How To Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and VC” due to Wiley on Monday at 5:59am so I’m going to stop now, go brush my teeth again, and remind you to go read Fred’s post on Marketing right now.