I was fortunate to spend an hour with a group of about 30 people and Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC yesterday morning. It was a super interesting and stimulating conversation that preceded an excellent speech that Wheeler gave on his Net Neutrality proposal. Go read it and ponder it. It’s in English (not legalese), is blunt, direct, and at times humorous. And it hits the soundbites that are being used against “the government takeover of the Internet” and “the end of the Internet as we know it” crowd quite effectively.
But in this post I want to talk about a phrase Wheeler tossed out early in the conversation that really stuck with me. He said:
“In the 1800s, in a very short period of time, we experienced two innovations that created the death of distance and the end of time.”
I’ve been very open about my belief, which I wrote about for the first time in my book Startup Communities, that the global financial crisis was the point at which networks overtook hierarchies in importance in our society. And, while I’ve read about the history of railroads and the telegraph, I never really thought about them as the starting point for the creation of networks given the death of distance and the end of time.
It’s a powerful construct. Today we are starting to see the self-actualization of networks and the path to what many refer to as the singularity. Regardless of whether you believe this, are comfortable with it (like I am), or are afraid of it (like many others are), it is inevitable that innovation, networks, machines, and AI will continue to evolve at an extremely rapid pace. If you don’t believe me or understand this, go read William Hertling’s amazing Singularity Novels.
As a species, I do not think we can control this. Nor should we. We should enable it. We should explore ways to make us a more amazing species. A more fascinating society. We should embrace our innovations and evolve with them.
The path we are on started in the middle of the 19th century. The debate over Net Neutrality is a tiny blip on this path. If we study history, at all points along this path companies behave in their self-interest. We expect that. Human behavior and economic interest always move toward the question, “How can I maximize the position I’m in?” Think about the evolution of the railroad industry. Think about the evolution of the telegraph, and then the telecommunications industry. Think about where we would be if AT&T still prevented us from putting non-AT&T manufactured things “on their network.” Or, maybe more importantly, think about where AT&T would be, which given the passage of time would likely be still promoting Picturephones. Ok – that was gratuitous and unnecessary, but I couldn’t help myself.
In our discussion yesterday, the idea of epistemological modesty came up, reminding us that we can’t predict the path of innovation even in something we know well. I live this every moment in my business as a VC and strongly believe that we should enable, not try to control, innovation.
After listening to Wheeler, reading his speech, and thinking deeply about this over the past few years, it’s clear to me that he understands this. And for those saying “he’s using 1930s monopoly-style regulation to have the government control the Internet”, you are simply wrong. Read his words:
“We will forgo sections of Title II that pose a meaningful threat to network investment. That means no rate regulation. No unbundling. No tariffs or new taxes. I would note that when applied to mobile voice service over the past two decades, the use of such light-touch Title II – which, by the way, was sought by the industry – went hand-in-hand with massive investment.”
It’s really hard to ignore the soundbites and dig into the facts. But I encourage everyone to try.
As Boulder Startup Week 2014 comes to an end, I have been reflecting on the power of startup communities today.
When I wrote Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, I made some assertions about how to build startup communities and what the impact of them would be on society. As I sit here at the end of a week pondering everything that is going on in the world around startup communities, I believe I have vastly underestimated their potential impact. And this makes me feel very happy.
Startup Week is a great example of an activity and event that I talk about in my Boulder Thesis. It was also another creation from Boulder, just like Startup Weekend, Techstars, and the Boulder Thesis. Andrew Hyde, the founder of Startup Weekend, was also the founder of Startup Week. After a hiatus of a few years, Andrew came back to run Boulder Startup Week. But he is also about to do something magical with Startup Week – look for more on that soon. And, if you enjoyed Boulder Startup Week, go check out Fort Collins Startup Week which is happening from 5/20 – 5/25 and looks awesome.
This reflection led me to think about how to wire up the largest startup community in the world. Geography is one boundary, but the Internet allows us to create a global startup community that is a network of startup communities. UP Global, which I’m on the board of, is doing just that.
You might know UP Global by the names of the two organizations that combined to form it – Startup Weekend and Startup America Partnership. This combination happened about a year ago and the progress in the last year has been remarkable.
I encourage you to take a look at the UP Global 2013 Impact Report. It’s 28 slides and when I looked at it early today it blew my mind. Here are a few key metrics:
- 310,000 alumni and volunteers
- 4,500 mentors
- 132,000 businesses
- 87,000 developers
- 39,000 designers
- 501 cities
- 126 countries
Go look at the UP Global 2013 Impact Report. It’s insanely wonderful how many people and startup communities this organization has touched.
The network is getting incredibly strong and powerful. I believe that networks are now more important in our society than hierarchies. Sure – we’ll have hierarchies forever, but I’m going to spend as much of my time as possible in the network. And for everyone who is part of the network of people engaging in startup communities, thanks for all your efforts on this mission!
A few days ago, Amy and I came up to our house in Keystone. We haven’t been here for about two months; we’ll be here through the end of the first week of January.
The first few hours were predictable. We “turned” everything on. We unpacked the car. We got settled in.
And I got frustrated. The Internet was slow. The Sonos wasn’t working correctly. Everything was trying to update itself. It was like a giant machine was trying to boot up, but was stuck in an initialization loop.
I wandered around the house tweaking things. One by one I got things working. As I reset things, I kept thinking to myself “I wonder why we need that.”
We bought this house in 2006. The network infrastructure is a cumulative build since then – a NetGear router connected to the cable modem, Cisco WiFi access points on each floor, default Sonos configuration, a Cisco phone that isn’t used anymore acting as a wired network repeater, USB hubs with one device connected, power extension cords, cables, and a bunch of other crap. The last time I was up here I installed an Apple Airport Extreme (which needed an update) but I left everything in place.
I decided to rip it all out yesterday and replace it with the Apple Airport Extreme. The result is a giant box of crap.
For an hour or so I continued to be frustrated. Things were better, but still choppy. I’d set all the computers up to use Google’s public DNS server (the magic 184.108.40.206 and 220.127.116.11) but the network performance was still choppy – fast, then slow, then fast, then slow. At some point I realized I hadn’t set the Airport Extreme to use Google’s public DNS and it was defaulting everything to Comcast.
I made the switch. Boom – everything was fast again. As expected. Pandora played all day long without dropping. Video and audio calls were fine again.
As I looked at the giant box of crap this morning, I thought about the idea of decluttering. We have all this gunk in our lives that just slow us down. Just like my network. As the year comes to an end, I’m going to keep decluttering, the physical and the virtual.
Remember rock / paper / scissors? It’s a beautiful kids game that unlike tic-tac-toe regularly results in a winner. Paper always beats rock. Rock always beats scissors. Scissors always beats paper. But what happens when you only have two – say “software” and “network”.
Whenever I’m at a Silicon Flatirons event, I always get into an argument with someone from the telecom world about “what the Internet is.” Most of the time I try to listen patiently for about 30 seconds as the telecom person explains to me how without them there would be no Internet and the applications that exist are merely “traffic” on “their network.” They then try to tell me crazy things like “no one will ever need more than 100 Mbps” and say snarky things like “who knows, maybe Google will spend more on their 1 Gbps buildout then they did on the 700 MHz spectrum.” I try to remind them that when I was 13 someone told me “you’ll never need more than 48k of RAM” and then again when I was 18 someone told me “you’ll never need a hard drive bigger than 10MB".” Oh, the things people say in the throws of competitive pressure. Innovation? Who needs innovation. Let’s take a big helping of regulation instead.
As someone who has been involved in creating software in one form or another for the past 25 years, I know I’m biased. I happily live in my little parallel software universe, generate huge amounts of data that travels over these complex networks, and pay a lot of money each month for the privilege. If you add up all of my bills – Comcast in multiple houses, a Qwest T1 to my house just outside of Boulder (since Comcast doesn’t get there), a Verizon MiFi, AT&T for my iPhone, Tmobile for Amy’s Dash, Verizon for a Droid we don’t use, lots of connectivity to my office, and probably some other stuff I don’t even know about, it’s a big number. Oh, and that doesn’t even count all the connectively that the companies I invest in use. You’d think – for all this – the network would be the driver of my behavior.
But notice the different providers above. Comcast. Verizon, AT&T, and Tmobile. I know my friends at Sprint must feel left out – I’ll have to figure how to get something on the Now Network. Oh yeah, I’ve got DirectTV in one location (the one with the T1) because of – er – no Comcast to my house. These companies are all household names for me because they spend ridiculous amounts of money on advertising – not because I love them. Do you love any of them?
I had an interesting experience in New Orleans over the weekend. After a day, I turned to Amy and said “have you noticed that almost everyone is walking around with an iPhone?” I was amazed by the incredible the penetration of the iPhone. I followed this up with “I wonder what they are all doing since I can’t get a signal on this thing worth a shit.” Then, during the marathon on Sunday, I noticed that the vast majority of runners who had a device had one of three devices: (1) A Garmin GPS watch, (2) an iPhone, or (3) an iPod. That was it. Every now and then someone had a different phone. But the number of runners with iPhone’s was remarkable.
I can assure you there weren’t using the phone for the network. It’s pretty funny to watch someone at mile 15 of a marathon on the phone saying “Hello – can you hear me? Damnit – fucking AT&T.” Yes – I heard that once. During mile 15.
I predict all those iPhones were out there because of the software, not the network.