Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble

Disrupted

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble

Dan Lyons

Dan Lyons, a journalist with a respectable career covering technology accidentally started working at a start up. He finds a lack of transparency on decision making, a dysfunctional culture and some serious time-wasting; it’s depressing until he realises that it’s great source material and recasts himself as a cultural anthropologist. The result is this book.

Lyons has form for subversive writing, he was the writer behind the Fake Steve Jobs blog. In Disrupted he covers his own motivation for joining a startup; financial and curiosity – but mostly financial. He tried to pitch good ideas, and tried to understand what he was working with. Most of the book is his memoir of the year and he’s funny about his time at Hubspot, he takes shots at the company including the paradox of a company supposedly dedicated to automating sales having a high pressure telephone sales team. He explains the drive for growth and connects it back to the venture capital.
financial instrument

Disrupted covers the economic downside of the startup/digital industry with a personal perspective, fantastic wit and a healthy irreverence. He has the highly evolved bullshit meter of a journalist. I think reading this made it easier for me to digest and comprehend the more theoretical discussion in Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, which I read at roughly the same time.

It’s an entertaining book, with interesting commentary on the startup industry, and he adds his voice to the call for more diversity across the digital world. You can read an excerpt of the book on Fortune – it’ll give you a feeling for his year at Hubspot and a taste of the humour of the book. Reading the excerpt was enough for me to want to buy the book.

Productivity in 10 Minutes

Productivity in 10 Minutes

Here are some things that you can do to improve your productivity, each step will take 10 minutes or less.

(1) Find out where you waste time

RescueTime is an application that tracks which sites and apps you go to. You can set it up on all your devices and really track your distractions. Initial set up takes five minutes, but you’re probably going to need to fine tune the settings later.

Quick and Dirty solution; check the sites you visit the most from your browsers default page. If these aren’t your most productive sites you need to change your behaviour.

(2) Avoid distractions

StayFocused is a Chrome extension that will block your distraction websites for a set period of time. Wordpress offers a distraction free writing mode, and there are lots of other tools out there to create a distraction free work screen.

Quick and Dirty Solution; I use two browsers, I have all my work stuff set up in Chrome (across multiple devices) and all my “fun stuff” set up in Firefox. In work time I stay in Chrome.

(3) Plan and monitor tasks

There are loads of diaries on the market, and this range of free tools. There are as many theories as there are tools. I’ve tried lots of different online options, but I come back to a paper-based checklist. I break the checklist up by project, and then add tasks to my (online) calendar as timed appointments. It’s the planning the tasks into my calendar that is key.

Quick and Dirty Solution; I use a chrome add on that can time activities and add it back into the calendar – you can see it in more detail in an earlier post.

(4) Use the small moments

When you’re really busy there always feels like so much to do and any time spent waiting feels wasteful. Here are seven ways to use those gaps of a few minutes to improve your productivity.  The article offers long term and short term fixes – spoiler alert I’m working on the long term solution for #7 in the coming weeks.

(5) Evaluate the value of what you do.

As Peter Drucker said.

productivity quote

But that might take you more than 10 minutes to solve.

Image: Hour Glass  |Chris Zúniga  |  CC BY-NC 2.0

Still  |  Hendrik van Leeuwen  |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

10 Books to Read on your Summer Break

The Great Summer Reading List

It’s time to run away on your summer break, finally you’ll get time to read, what should you pick?

Leadership

(1) I will be reading Leadership BS, by Jeffrey Pfeffer. Which promises some ways of rethinking leadership.

(2) If you’re trying to re-think how you manage your team, then Why Work Sucks will take you through the concepts of a results only work environment – there are things there you can implement when you get back from summer.

(3) Your own leadership style comes out of your own attitudes The Art of Possibility is my favourite book to focus on personal leadership.

Innovation

(4) I’ll be reading How to Fly a Horse: The Secret of Creation, Invention and Discovery, a refreshing look at creativity.

Business

(5) I’ll be reading Industries of the Future, by Alec Ross. It seems to be a mashup of predicting trends and business applications.

(6) I want to read Phishing for Phools, reviews vary with some economists deriding it and some business people applauding it.

(7) The last business book I read (and reviewed) was Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, which challenges our current monetary system and looks at some alternative models for the future of business.

Biography

(8) I want to read the biography of Elon Musk, although I usually am wary of biographies of living people. Musk is such a fascinating entrepreneur for me, he seems driven to solve the world’s challenges as opposed to building a better widget.

Personal Effectiveness

(9) I want to read The Happiness Track, I’ve thought a lot about the way we work and the demands we put on ourselves. I’m hoping this book challenges the ideas behind our current cultural definition of success.

Fiction

(10) If you’re more into fiction – I’m halfway through The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, one of my favourite writers. The BBC has a list of ten books to read that’s making me itch for a bookstore trip.

Happy reading and happy summer.

Image: Summer Read  |  LWYang  |  CC BY 2.0

Circle Back

Circle Back

I must have looked puzzled, my colleague stopped trying to explain to me and said; “Let’s circle back on this”.

Circle back. It’s not a new term, I can find references to it online from 2009. But this was the first time I’d heard it in the wild.

He could have as easily said “let’s talk about this next week”, with the same meaning. But not quite the same feel or tone.

The Urban Dictionary gives the definition of “circle back” as

Middle-management buzzword for the need to discuss an issue at a later time.

 CNBC’s definition is a little more pejorative and includes a quote

It usually means we just had a meeting where nothing was accomplished, and we need to ‘circle back’ to have another pointless meeting,

I doubt my colleague was trying to make such a strong point, the sense I had was more “we can’t answer this now, let’s agree to do the research and see if we can answer it when we meet next week”.

Image: Light Circle  |  Louise McGregor  |  CC BY 2.0

Book of the Month: Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Douglas Rushkoff

Like many people I tend to use the products of the digital revolution more easily than I think about the economics of it. I see the astonishing figures of acquisition value for companies that have yet to make a profit and something seems odd – but I’ve never sat down and examined what. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Rushkoff’s book examines the financial industry, particularly around digital startups to show us just what is wrong with our economy, and offers the beginnings of some solutions.

The main  argument are that our existing economy is set up to serve constant growth, and the wealth generated in that economy accrues to a minority at the top, leaving the majority worse off.

BOTM Googlebus quote1

The book begins with a discussion of an unusual protest; local residences of San Francisco’s Mission District lay down on the street in front of some of the Google buses that were used to ferry employees from their homes to the Google campus. This is a symptom of the dysfunctional economy.

Growth

We have all bought into the growth myth; we need and deserve more – in financial reward for our work, the size of our homes, the shininess of our possessions or the pool of money for our pension. But in nature things grow to maturity and then stop growing, they reach a size that’s appropriate for their physical limits and their ecosystem. An oak tree doesn’t keep growing, it maintains itself over time, growing new leaves each year, but the size remains more or less constant.

Companies have a growth imperative, the market expects growth in their market capitalisation to give investors a return. Which is why the market gets excited about huge audiences on Pokemon Go, and gets jittery when Apple iPhone sales stagnate.

In the theories of business that I learnt in business school a company had to manage multiple stakeholders and keep them all happy to ensure long term success. Put simply a company must keep employees well-trained and motivated to make customers happy, ensuring income for the company to return to investors over a longer term. Stakeholder theory says that the needs of all three must be kept in balance and that neglecting the needs of one will affect the other two.

Rushkoff explains that in today’s market there are relatively few investors in the sense of people wanting to own a piece of a company and be vested in its success. Instead the market is full of traders, those who trade shares amongst themselves and might never know what the company makes or what is on its balance sheet. The most advanced of these is using sophisticated technology and complex algorithms and trading on minute shifts in share price. This trading is done digitally, using microseconds of difference in share price enabled by digital, and the activity is so removed from actual business activity according Rushkoff, that it is creating a distorted market.

The startup economy takes all this to the next level, it effectively gamifies investment.

Startup Economy

In the start up economy it’s venture capitalists doing the investing, and they are not interested in the long term profitability of your company, they’re looking for a maximum return “on exit”, which is either your company being acquired by a larger company or an IPO. Here’s a simple breakdown of how the funding works and the share of return at the IPO stage. Venture Capitalists invest significant amounts in multiple startups and expect some to fail. Conversely the ones that succeed need to do very, very well.

The drive for high valuations of startups is less about the net present value of the company, and more about the expectations of the venture capitalists. The VCs expect a return on their investment not of percentage points, like a traditional investor, but in multiples.

History of Money

Rushkoff points out that it wasn’t always this way. In simpler times we bartered our goods directly, and then as trading grew in the bazaar towns developed a form of script allowing more exchanges. Quality was ensured by a set of guilds who could control a trade. As the bazaar emerged Europe enjoyed rapid economic expansion. However, he suggests, the nobility feared losing their system of value creation, as feudalism broke down, and instituted measures to limit or eliminate local currencies.

The discussion of the changes in how money functioned in the past points to ways that it could function in the future.

Potential Solutions

Money has two functions, measuring accumulated assets and transactional, the system we have now works far better for the former function and not that well for the second. Solutions revolve around changing the currency system in various ways.

  1. Local currency; eg the Massachusetts Berkshares
  2. Free money; eg; the Worgl currency
  3. Cooperative currencies; eg; Fureai Kippu
  4. Local bank; reforming banking to enable local investment
  5. Crypto currency; eg Bitcoin, which frees up money for transactions.

Rushkoff also points to some different models of business building, where businesses are established specifically not to grow – or at least not to grow beyond their chartered purpose. He asks that new entrepreneurs think of more in the stakeholder model that delivers long term sustainable growth.

You can see a discussion of the book at the Commonwealth Club;

The book explains all the history and the theory very clearly, I think it’s a must read for digital professionals, economists and those with an interest in sustainability or social justice. There are plenty of examples throughout the book – most real and a few hypothetical. The book answered a lot of my “how does that work?” economic questions, but also made me curious at how do we solve this for ourselves and for future generations.

I look at the overwhelming wall of opposition, the “vested interests” and the conflicted interests – after all even as I see the sense of this revolution I am relying on the growth of investments to pay for my future, and the solutions offered seem too small and too vulnerable. For real change it will take government regulation to change, in the meantime I’ll look for alternative models that I can employ today.

Mobile Customer Journey


J
ust stop presenting desktop sites to mobile users.

The use of mobile phones has risen and for some uses has overtaken the use of a desktop. Companies have taken advantage of this in a big way, including online retailers. I’ve produced and translated screen captures to demonstrate the issue.

Firstly I received an SMS, telling me I could, via a link, choose a delivery time.

Just Stop It SMS
I clicked on the link and got a internet site with all my order information displayed and the proposed time of between 8am and 10pm. Well as I’d like to leave the house sometime during the day I clicked on the link to change the appointment, and here’s where it went a bit wrong…

Just Stop It… because a new page opened that was impossible to read.

Just Stop ItI could stretch the screen and make the change I needed (delivery between 9am and 1pm).

If you’re using mobile for customer service – particularly if you’re directing customers to use mobile – you need to make sure that the whole experience works on mobile. Just stop thinking it’s OK to expect customers to navigate desktop sites on a mobile screen.

garden - 1
Postscript; my order was delivered at 12.53, and set up in my terrace garden half an hour later. 

 

 

Image:  Stop  |  Kenny Louie  |  CC BY 2.0

Blockchain

Blockchain

Blockchain is the technology behind cyrptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Namecoin and Titcoin. These currencies work as any other currency in terms of spending them, but their creation is a little differently and relies on cryptography,

When I first heard about bitcoin I was working for a financial services company, and the person telling me was gleefully announcing it would be the end of banks. Lots of things have been touted as the end to banks over the years, this was just the latest. I admit I had a bit of a mental block about it, I couldn’t see how value was encapsulated in the bitcoins – which is probably exactly how people felt when paper money started to be issued by national banks.

It’s a little complicated so here’s the best explanation I’ve been able to find on the internet so far.

(Want to know more? Here’s an even more detailed version from the same expert.)

Blockchain is a distributed decentralised ledger recording transactions. At its heart it provides a mechanism to encode the trust on each side of a transaction.

It’s that documenting of trust that has led to further consideration of the blockchain technology starting with central banks themselves. Blockchain solves two problems for established banks and central banks (1) transactions become faster (2) transactions become more secure. Because the transaction is recorded in a distributed manner, and because the transactions form a sequence, it’s extremely difficult to create a fraudulent transaction.

There are other areas where documenting trust is important, The Economist reports on changes coming to the land register in Honduras that will use a form of blockchain. By distributing the land register in a blockchain system the country will finally have a single land register.  IBM is part of a consortium working on a “hyperledger” that will allow private use of an open distributed ledger to track a variety of transaction. They note that a transaction dispute can take 40 days to resolve, but with an open ledger that time should be reduced.

Using Blockchain to verify contracts, sometimes called “smart contracts” could have uses in multiple industries. In this podcast from the BBC’s “Click” programme they explored the idea of using blockchain in the music industry to codify ownership of music, and enable simple payment.

MIT (who else?) have been looking at using blockchain as a certification mechanism on qualifications and memberships. They’ve written on the background and purpose of this project. If you’re a nice honest person who never lies on their LinkedIn profile you might struggle to see why this is important, however there are lots of CV ‘exaggerations’ out there and it is important to be clear about what qualifications, experience and memberships a person holds when they apply for further education, a job, or enter public office.  In the future our CV may come with blockchain codes to verify our statements.

Lastly governments are examining the potential of blockchain. The UK Government released a report on blockchain technology this year in which they state the potential power it has in government business;

Distributed ledger technologies have the potential to help governments to collect taxes, deliver benefits, issue passports, record land registries, assure the supply chain of goods and generally ensure the integrity of government records and services.

In fact Estonia is there already, their digitally-savvy president, Toomas Hendrik, has overseen significant use of blockchain technologies in securing identity and health records within his country and he’s working for a closer integration with outer countries across Europe.  There’s a broad vision Estonia’s digital programme, and the implementation has simplified a great many processes for its citizens.

In the future some form of blockchain technology will be behind how you access government and financial services. It will be more secure, more able to protect your privacy, and less likely to disruption or loss of data.

Image: Chained  |  Danna § curious tangles  |   CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Unicorn

Unicorn Buzzword

The unicorns of my childhood were mythical, rare and wonderful beasts. Today’s unicorns are young companies that have a valuation of 1 billion USD. That might sound like something rare and wonderful, but Venture Beat magazine lists hundreds of them, with Uber leading the list in terms of valuation. Most of the companies rely on digital technology in their business model, without it their business could not scale.

So where did the term come from?

A Techcrunch article in 2013 reported on 39 companies that had been founded in the previous ten years and were valued at more than 1 billion USD. Unicorns were rare, representing 0.07% of internet related companies funded per year.

Aileen Lee, the woman behind the Techcrunch article and who is credited with coining the term, sees that the rise in unicorns may have peaked for this wave of technologies.

But what do the companies make that is so wonderful? Most exploit the possibilities of “platform economics“, rather than make something, these companies connect supply with demand. Think of airbnb which is in the lodging services business without owning a single bedroom. Rather than building hotels and then selling those rooms to guests, airbnb offers a platform for the supply side (people with spare rooms) to offer accommodation directly to the demand (visitors to the city). These platforms are often said, in approving tones, to be “disruptive”, meaning that they change an existing industry. In many cases regulators have stepped in to limit that change, for example Amsterdam City Council limits the time allowable for rent to two months per year.

We look set to have continued disruption, and while a few experts are predicting dead unicorns on the horizon it seems we’ll see a growing number of unicorns, decacorn (companies valued at more than 10 billion) and hectacorns (companies valued at over 100 billion) for a while yet. Perhaps we are, as Fortune magazine suggest finally in the age of the unicorns.

Image: Unicorn  |  Yosuke Muroya  |  CC BY-NC 2.0

3 Other Uses of Social Media

2016June Social Media Day

Snapchat is four, Instagram is six this year, Twitter is ten, and Facebook is twelve. As the social media platforms grow up and head into their teen age years how do they actually get used?

For Social Media Day I’m profiling three uses of social media for companies that you might not have thought of.

Real Time Marketing

Since Oreo won the internet when the lights went out on the Superbowl, companies have tried to use social media in real time – most often around big events. A London Fashion Week Topshop, the only high street brand on the runway, analysed twitter chat on the event and translated it to recommendations on billboards outside their stores in six cities across the UK.  There was a measurable impact on sales and more than 3 million people interacted on the hashtag #LiveTrends.

Pulling off a successful Real Time Marketing Campaign is a combination of having the right tools in place to analyse social media, the right people in the room to create a great response, and the authority to publish quickly. (The last is critical, if every post needs a legal review and three person sign off, then RTM is not for you.)

Service

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 16.09.12Social Media can provide customer service platforms. In the Netherlands most customers use at least one social media platform, so many of the larger companies here provide customer service via, at minimum, Facebook at Twitter. The gold standard of service on social media has to be KLM, their teams are so good at it that they put their response time into their twitter header, they aim to keep it below 20 minutes.

It takes significant training, good tools, and a sizeable team to run this, 150 social media agents around the world provide global coverage and respond to around 70,000 queries each week (source; KLM).

Crisis Management

Oddly enough it’s often a crisis that propels companies into using social media, requiring a cultural change to a more open model of communication that’s challenging for communication teams.

Social media also turns out to be a good medium to communicate in a crisis.

  • Mass reach, even people not on a platform can read your notes
  • Possible for individual questions/comments
  • It’s increasingly expected as people get their news from social media
  • Easy to update

Crises are by nature unexpected, but companies that plan on how to manage a crisis, and keep their social media team involved, are more able to respond appropriately. Examples could include a product recall, a supply fault, death of an executive, a case of fraud coming to light, or an airline emergency.  There’s lots of advice out there for managing a crisis in social media, in all of them preparation and speed are key.

In rare cases the way a company responds can improve the company’s reputation, two examples from very different industries.

O2, a British telecom company. During a rather long outage the community manager responded on twitter to every question or comment, even the angry and abusive ones, with personality and humour.

DiGiorno, in a now famous mistake DiGiorno responded to the #WhyIStayed hashtag with the comment “Because you had pizza”. Seems innocuous, except that the hashtag was being used to raise awareness of domestic violence. So their tweet did not go down well. However they quickly deleted the tweet, issued a simple public apology. And then apologised to every individual tweet who called them out. For weeks.

For crisis communication on social media to work, you need the social media experts involved in creating your crisis plan, and a team to execute the plan. You may also need to temporarily increase the size of your social team – during one crisis that I worked through we had 30,000 messages each day.

For all three of these social media strategies you need social listening tools, analysts and experts, and the authority to run with the strategy. Dial up your social media efforts. Happy Social Media Day.

Image: The Social Media Marketing Mix  |  Alan O’Rourke  |  CC BY 2.0

In Our Own Bubble

2016June Bubble

The information superhighway took a turn for the worse, we now travel down it in our own comfortable, insulated and isolated bubble.

We can now get any information about any subject at any time online. There’s so much information available that we cannot consume it all, so we make selections. There are more than 500 million tweets per day, but only about 20,000 make it into my twitter timeline, and I only see a subset of those. There are 420,000,00 status updates on Facebook each day, a few hundred of those make it into my feed and I read only a few of those. Then there is Linkedin, YouTube, RSS (yes I still use RSS), and general news outlets.

It’s way too much, so we apply filters. A big part of the filter is who I follow or connect to, in general I follow people who have similar interests or views. As my major news sources are now online I’m unconsciously applying a filter to what news I get.

But there’s another filter being applied that we might not be aware of. The major platforms are also filtering what lands on our screen in our Facebook feed, and (coming soon) our Twitter feed, and our search results. Meaning that Google results are customised based on your search history, your browser, your language choice, your computer. Here’s how it works.

We know that news shapes our world view; in this TED talk Alisa Miller talks about the amount of time given to various news stories. As news organisations reduce costs and dismantle their international news bureaus the international coverage has reduced. She’s speaking from a US perspective, but a similar dynamic plays out in other countries.

If you add together the distortion in what is published, the “customised” news presented in social media and search, and our own filters in choosing who to follow and what to read, it’s fair to say that we’re living in a bubble. Throw into the mix the human tendency for confirmation bias and it’s easy to see that people become increasingly entrenched in their views, both less likely and less willing to hear evidence that doesn’t support their view.

In the last few weeks I’ve seen emotional discussion on politics from both sides of the Atlantic as the US heads into a presidential election later this year and Britain heads to a referendum, dubbed “Brexit“, later this week. It’s not pretty, in both cases it’s a polarised discussion.

It’s because of the level of polarisation, and the anger I’ve seen that I started digging into this. I’ve long thought that social media platforms were poor places for serious discussion for five reasons;

  1. Clutter; Facebook is a blend of photos of cuteness, personal confessions and travel photos. Right next to a photo of my niece walking a tightrope doesn’t seem to be the best place to compare a candidates track record on gun violence.
  2. Godwin’s Law; sooner or later someone is going to drop the N-word. Either of them.
  3. Reading Comprehension; sooner or later someone is going to misunderstand you, perhaps willfully.
  4. Not in Person: in person I could read the person’s body language to pick up on sarcasm or irony (better than in an online discussion)
  5. Asynchronous; nothing worse that waiting hours for a reply to your well-formed attack on a person’s point-of-view. (This should be understood as a tongue-in-cheek comment, see no. 3 above).

So I wasn’t surprised to discover that there is a known phenomenon called the “political spiral of silence“, which means that nuanced, thoughtful points-of-view which are likely to cover some of the middle ground are lost in the noise of social media.

The outcome is a debate so polarised that it’s destructive. How can we change this? What would it take to make your social media and search results more inclusive?

Start by reading opposing views, and having open discussions. We can agree to disagree, can’t we?

Image: Bubbles  | Michael Carson  |  CC BY-NC 2.0

Digital | Social | Innovation

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