free html hit counter John Battelle's Search Blog - Thoughts on the intersection of search, media, technology, and more.

The Web Will Kill Apps

By - November 17, 2014

wired web dead coverLots of the “apps are killing the web” meme going around these days, with the latest batch of casket sealant come from no greater validator of commonly agreed upon wisdom than the Wall St. Journal. “The Web Is Dying; Apps Are Killing It” argues Christopher Mims, and it’s hard to argue with him given the preponderance of current evidence.

I disagree.

I am in the midst of a long stew on the future of mobile, it’s taken me through deep links and intelligent links, to the future of search on mobile and beyond, and I’m nowhere near finished with either the reporting or the writing – so I can’t definitively counter the Journal’s argument – yet. But I feel it in my bones – apps, what I’ve disparagingly called “chiclets” – are not the model of how we will interact with information, services, or the world via mobile. The best of the web – open, low cost to entry, no gatekeepers, end-user driven, standards-based, universal namespace, etc. – will prevail.

Why am I so sure of this? Because just about every single person I’ve spoken to – some three dozen or so, to date – are convinced we’re in a secular shift from the app model to….something else, something new, something better. I had a great meeting today at the mobile search startup Jack, for example, with people who are super-qualified to have opinions on the matter (ex Facebook, Excite, Apple, et al, backed in a quiet $6mm round early this year by John Lilly and Reid Hoffman at Greylock). And they are not alone – the caliber of people I’ve encountered who share my point of view is extraordinary. Something big is brewing, and I’m deep into figuring out how to frame it. It’s  a big story, and I don’t know if I can tell it as well as it deserves to be told. But I’m going to try, and if you’re reading this, well, it’s your job to course correct my attempts.

Stay tuned. The web as we knew it ten years ago may be “dead,” but its core values and framework are alive, kicking, and poised to once again disrupt the current oligarchs of mobile.

  • Content Marquee

The Internet Big Five: Doubling In Three Years On A Trillion Dollar Base

By - November 16, 2014

From time to time I have tracked what I call the “Internet Big Five” – the key platform technology companies that are driving the Internet economy. Nearly three years ago I wrote the first of this series – The Internet Big Five. I identified Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook as the “big five,” and compared their relative strengths in financials, consumer reach, and technology strengths. Some of the metrics were admittedly subjective – ranking relative offerings in “engagement” and “data,” for example.

It seems about time to take another look at the Big Five, and to consider a changeup – the introduction of Alibaba as a public company in the US certainly merits consideration. But before I do that, let’s quickly take a look at how the companies have fared over three short years.

Nov. 14 big five market cap

The first thing to observe is this: The top five Internet companies had a combined market cap of nearly one trillion dollars three years ago, a very large base to be sure. But in those three short years, the group managed to almost double their market cap – to $1.8 trillion. That’s impressive growth, and a testament to how central the markets believe these companies to be in our economy. Also, in terms of relative market cap, the Big Five have stayed pretty constant, with Facebook lapping Amazon, but not reaching the heights of Google, Microsoft, or Apple. It’s interesting to see that the market still values Microsoft above Google, something I imagine might change over the next three years.

Stock prices show a similar trajectory. You’d have almost doubled your money if you had invested in these five companies back in late 2011:

Nov. 14 stock big five

Clearly these companies are killing it at a very large scale. And Alibaba, at a market cap of nearly $300 billion, can now claim its place comfortably on the list above both Facebook and Amazon.

But what about strategic strengths? This is the area I find fascinating. Two years ago I wrote The Internet Big Five By Product Strength , and featured this chart:

TheIntBigFiveByProdv2-1024x642

Pulling back, it strikes me that the chart needs a refresh – something I hope to do during the more reflective down time of the coming holidays.  I’d also like to add in Alibaba. But a quick scan of this two year-old chart shows some interesting developments.

In Operating Systems, Social, and Entertainment, each company’s position has pretty much remained constant, but Facebook’s Oculus purchase bears watching in all three fronts.  In Productivity Software, Google’s position has strengthened, as has Apple, but I’d give the edge to Google, whose Apps suite has gained serious traction. In Advertising, Facebook is now very strong, Amazon has also strengthened, and it seems Apple has determined that advertising is a necessary evil not worth pushing very hard. “Tablet” doesn’t feel like a category to break out separately anymore – in the next rev, I’ll probably just call it “mobile devices.” In that category, Microsoft keeps trying but not gaining traction, Amazon flopped with Fire Phone but holds steady with Kindle and Fire tablets, and Facebook seems uncertain if it wants to play. Google and Apple remain the kings. Search as a category that bears scrutiny – what is “search” in a post mobile world, anyway? This question is fundamental to the next five or so years in computing, I’d warrant – expect more posts on that over the holidays. In Payment, Apple has strengthened, And in Voice, almost all the players have improved as well.

All of these companies have shifted over the past three years, some in unpredictable ways. With Page back at Google, the company has broadened its scope to include wearables, transportation, health, and energy. It’s become what I’d call the world’s first information-first conglomerate. Apple has kept its narrow hardware focus, expanding slowly into wearables (the watch) and shying from bets outside its clear wheelhouse. The market seems to be rewarding this focus. Facebook has made some big bets with drones and VR, and its advertising business is on a tear. Amazon hasn’t have any breakaway hits over the past three years, and I sense the company is uncertain how to proceed given the maturity of its core market.

In fact, one way to think about these behemoths is to identify and explore their core cash cows, and then map their strategies to diversify from that core. To wit:

Apple ———> Hardware

Microsoft —–> Desktop, Enterprise SW

Google ——–> Search Advertising

Amazon ——-> eCommerce

Faecbook —–> Social Advertising

Perhaps that’ll be the fodder for another post.

Whither the Public Commons? Enter The Private Corporation

By - November 05, 2014

uber-protests-europe

(image) From time to time a piece reminds us that we are in a slow, poorly articulated struggle over what we hold as a public commons. That was the case with Vanity Fair’s Man and Uber Man, a profile of Uber’s Travis Kalanick by Kara Swisher. Swisher deftly captures Kalanick’s combative approach in prosecuting what he calls Uber’s “political campaign” to beat established regulated markets in transportation, a campaign he believes he must win “98 to 2″ – because the candidate is a product, not a politician. In short, Uber can’t afford to win by a simple majority – this is a winner takes all scenario.

This gives me pause, and I sense I’m not alone. On the one hand, we praise Uber for identifying a huge market encumbered by slow moving bureaucracy, and creating a service markedly better than its alternatives. That’s what I’ve called an “Information First” company.  On the other hand, we worry about what it means when something that was once held in public commons – the right to transportation – is increasingly pushed aside in favor of private alternatives. Messy as it may be, our public transportation system is egalitarian in its approach, non-profit at its core, and truly public – as in, bound to the public commons through government regulation.

Are we sure we want to outsource our commons to private companies? I think that’s the existential question we face as a society. I wrote about it three years ago in a post What Role Government? From it:

Over the past five or six decades, we’ve slowly but surely transitioned several core responsibilities of our common lives from government to the private sector. Some shifts are still in early stages, others are nearly complete. But I’m not sure that we have truly considered, as a society, the implications of this movement, which seem significant to me. I’m no political scientist, but the net net of all this seems to be that we’re trusting private corporations to do what, for a long, long time, we considered was work entrusted to the common good. In short, we’ve put a great deal of our public trust into a system that, for all the good it’s done (and it’s done quite a lot), is driven by one core motivation: the pursuit of profit.

The question of the role we wish government to play seems even more pressing given the advance of largely private services such as Uber. We are in the midst of a heated social conversation around the topic, and we see the edges of it when silly insta-startups pop up to privatize public space such as parking spots. In my longer piece, I identify a series of areas where we’ve outsourced formerly public “features” of our lives to private companies. The trend has only strengthened since, and I don’t expect it will flag anytime soon.

So perhaps instead of “What Role Government,” or “What Commons Do We Wish For,” the question we need to ask ourselves is this: What kind of a corporation do we want? If we are going to have corporations play a larger and larger role in what we formerly understood to be the public commons, we might want to we spend a few cycles asking ourselves what kinds of behaviors and values we want our companies to exhibit?

Come to think of it, that’s kind of why I started NewCo last year. It strikes me that we’re just starting to have a conversation about those corporate values. I laid out some of this in What makes a company a “NewCo”?, to wit:

Driven by capitalism’s central motive – profit – corporations have become one of the most powerful actors on the global stage. Besides government, no other institution in society has amassed as much wealth, power, and control as the corporation.

But at their core, corporations are just people. And over the past few decades, in parallel with the rise of the Internet, those people have begun a quiet revolution that has redefined what a “corporation” can be.

The global economy is transitioning from hierarchical models of command and control to more networked and flexible approaches. A new kind of organization – one that measures its success by more than profit – has emerged. We call these companies “NewCos.” As the networked, information-first economy has taken hold, NewCos are building innovative, purpose-driven new ways of doing business.

A NewCo views “work” as more than punching a clock or doing a job. The people behind these companies believe work can equate with passion, community, and a force for positive change.

 

It’s fascinating to watch the debate over Uber play out – is it a good actor, or a bad one? Is its CEO a driven role model or a bully? Or is it, perhaps, still figuring out what it really means to have the public trust? Once you’ve won that trust,  well, maybe that’s when the real work begins.

Else 11.03.14: It’s Over, Google. Now What?

By - November 03, 2014

google-s-cost-per-click-growth-year-on-year_chartbuilder-1(image) Our friends in the press have decided that search has had its decade in the sun, and I can’t disagree, at least as it was known before. The question of how it becomes something else is still very much afoot, but not solved. But glimmerings abound, including from Twitter. For more, read on for the week’s best links….

Google’s dominance in search is nearing its peak – Quartz

A number of “Peak Google” pieces are in the air. But let’s not forget that Google has multi-billion dollar businesses in Android, YouTube, Ventures, and Apps/Drive et al. And it’s making plays in auto, healthcare, and energy. I don’t think Page is resting. To wit:

FT interview with Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page – FT.com

Page has been tessting a “we need a new mission” trial balloon for more than a year now, ever since the Nest acquisition (which is kind of YouTube like, come to think of it.) If you follow Google, read this summary of the Page interview.

Twitter’s Audacious Plan to Infiltrate All Your Apps – Wired

I am glad Wired wrote this piece, because I had not yet groked Fabric. Now I want to know much, much more. In short, Twitter’s new Fabric tool set is aimed squarely at mobile developers, helping them do a bunch of things that were previously hard and expensive. This may well get Twitter’s code in tons of apps, and provide, well, a fabric for the mobile web that didn’t exist before. Think AWS for mobile services.

Why the U.S. Has Fallen Behind in Internet Speed and Affordability – NYTimes.com

Reading this makes me angry. Why do I pay nearly $200 a month (two Comcase business plans) for such crappy service? Oy.

So Facebook controls the way millions of people get their news. What should we do about it? — Gigaom

We have a choice to make as publishers – do we take Facebook’s new deal, where we can pbulish directly on its platform? I think readers know where I stand on this one – Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web.

It’s time for a biological commons – Medium

Strong idea, though I’m not savvy enough to understand if the metaphor holds completely.

The Three Breakthroughs That Have Finally Unleashed AI on the World – Wired

Kevin Kelly never disappoints when it comes to the technium. Then again…

Should Airplanes Be Flying Themselves? – Vanity Fair

This very long piece on the crash of an Air France jet back in 2009 is riveting. Steeped in larger questions of the role humans and algorithms/AI play in our lives.

 Like this newsletter? Sign up!  

My NewCo Los Angeles Picks

By - October 28, 2014

I love LA. There, I said it. Yes, I made my entire career and life up here in the Bay Area, and the Dodgers bother me immensely. But I was born in LA, I grew up there, and every time I get back, I get homesick for the light, the warm air, the heady nonsense, and – lately – the extraordinary business culture that’s been brewing these past five or ten years.

That culture will be well on display at NewCo LA this year – our first festival in Los Angeles, and our eighth and final festival of the year (holy shit, right?!).

More than 60 companies are opening their doors in LA, but there are only six time slots, which means I have to pick well. Here’s where I will be on November 19th. I hope to see you there as well!

LAriver9.30 am – LA River Revitalization Corp.

What?! How is this a NewCo? Well, you need to know the story of LA’s ill fated river (yes, there’s a river running through LA, or rather, there *should* be!). And what kind of a wonderful mission might it be to get that river flowing again? A very NewCo mission, indeed. I’m in. Runners up: Oblong Industries (killer demo) and Bear State Coffee (killer coffee).

theaudience11.00 am – theAudience 

Oliver Luckett is one hell of a promoter – a classic LA business success story, blending FM-style models with Hollywood agency and scaled social executions. His company is super hot, and his offices are reportedly epic. A must see. Runners up: VEEV Spirits (early to drink but still) and LA CleanTech Incubator.

factual1.30 pm (lots of time for traffic!) Factual

Founder Gil Elbaz has a huge mission, to inform the world through structured information. I want to see how it’s coming along. Runners up: Participant Media (major producers of film) and MediaLink (uber connectors in media and tech).

novica3.00 pm – NOVICA

I’m very curious to learn how this Santa Monica startup, in partnership with National Geographic, managed to scale a business that supports artisans around the world. Runners up: Rubicon Project (adtech – big, public, important), and NewzCard (big new launch from the folks behind Getty Images.

docstoc4.30 pm – DocStoc 

Founder Jason Nazar is a pal and sold DocStoc to Intuit, which has a uncanny ear for SMB. I’ll be listening too. Runners up: GumGum and Science.

6.00 pm: Festival Party/MeetUp at Tastemade! Love that we’re going to have a party for everyone at the end of the day, thanks to TasteMade.

 

Join us for LA’s first ever NewCo – I’ll see you there! (You can still sign up for our VIP passes, which get you into the opening party/kickoff event downtown).

Else 10.27.14 – Assange Takes on Google

By - October 26, 2014

23200_large_google-dr-evil(image) So what are the most powerful, important, noteworthy stories of the past ten or so days? Read on to find out….

Assange: Google Is Not What It Seems – Newsweek

Julian Assange veers between wild eyed conspiracy theory and, well, level-headed conspiracy theory in this rather factless but quite compelling read.

The Surveillance State and You - Vice

Behind the scenes when Snowden spilled the beans.

The Digital Media Layer Cake — Backchannel — Medium

A breakdown of how value is working in today’s media world. Worthy.

The End Of Apps As We Know Them – Inside Intercom

This company is on top of the most important story on the future of mobile.

Peak Google – Stratechery

Great piece, but flawed. I rebutted it: “Peak Google”? Maybe, But Is “Native” The Reason?

The age of loneliness is killing us – The Guardian

I understand the argument but am unsure if this is really an issue, or rather, something we always struggle with.

Nerd culture is destroying Silicon Valley – Quartz

An ongoing meme these days, however – if nerds are destroying it…who built it?

Around The Kitchen Table, a Better Way To Finance “Secondaries” Is Born

By - October 23, 2014

FCCapitalNearly a decade ago I was two years into starting a new company, one that was growing quickly, but at the same time struggling with all the classic problems of a startup. We needed to raise more capital, we needed to hire more of the right people, and we needed to retain and motivate the people we already had brought onboard.

But more than anything, I was personally struggling with whether I could keep up the pace. This was my fourth startup, and I’d been at if for nearly 20 years. At that point in my career, I had serious questions about whether it was worth the time and energy, given that the pay was low (gotta keep burn down) and the hours were insane. I had three young children, all in expensive schools, and a mortgage to worry about. I wasn’t making enough to cover our monthly nut, and I wasn’t certain that the upside of any startup – even one I believed in with all my heart – was worth potentially failing my obligations to my family. After all, I was reasonably established, and I could always go get a higher-paying, more stable job.

So one morning at my kitchen table, I poured out my concerns and dreams to a close friend, Chris Albinson, who just happened to be a venture capitalist. I explained my dilemma – my responsibilities as a father and husband were in direct conflict with my career as a startup founder. I remember Chris asking what I’d need to keep my focus on my startup. At that moment, the reality was, I needed cash. I needed to be able to look my wife in the eye and say “Don’t worry, if this doesn’t work out, we’ll have enough to cover living expenses while I look for another job.”

Chris asked me to tell him more about the business I had started (it was Federated Media), and then right there, over the kitchen table, agreed to lead a financing, but with a twist: A small portion of the proceeds were distributed to me, the founder, in exchange for my personal shares of the company. Chris explained that this was called a secondary stock sale, but I didn’t care. For me, it was a lifeline, and a way to keep doing what I loved to do.

I hadn’t thought much about that story for some years, but today Chris and his partners Mike Jung and Ken Loveless are announcing the birth of a new kind of venture firm, one that has at its heart the “kitchen table ethos” that defined Chris and my partnership nearly ten years ago. It’s called Founders Circle Capital, and you can read all about it here.

FCC was born of the insight that companies are taking longer and longer to get to a traditional “exit” of an IPO or sale. For Federated, that process took nine years, and its spinoff, sovrn Holdings, is now entering its tenth year (it’s doing very well, I’m proud to say). When companies take that long to provide a return on the early invested capital or sweat equity, serious misalignments can develop between the original founding team and later investors and partners. It’s one of the great headaches of any CEO running a late stage startup – figuring out how to please all the different stakeholders who occupy an increasingly tangled cap table.

FCC was created to help align founders, investors, the company’s board, and its management team. I’m proud to say that I will play a part in the new company’s story as Chairman of its “Founder’s Circle,” a group of extraordinary founders who are in one way or another connected to FCC’s mission and community. It’ll be a safe place for founders to talk about their personal and professional journey – a virtual kitchen table of sorts, welcoming and intimate.

Companies with breakaway growth look awfully fun from the outside – but having been on three such journeys (Wired, The Industry Standard, and FM), I can tell you it’s anything but easy. In fact, as I look back on the most stressful years of my life, they map to the times when my companies were growing the fastest. Back then, I felt deeply alone, with almost no one to talk with. It’s my hope that through the Founders Circle, we might be able to change that just a little bit. Congratulations to Chris, Mike, and Ken on the launch, now let’s get to work!

“Peak Google”? Maybe, But Is “Native” The Reason?

By -
google3-600x450

From Thompson’s “Peak Google” post.

I love Ben Thompson’s Stratechery site, so much in fact that I’m writing a response to his recent “Peak Google” post, even though these days most of us limit our bloggy commentary to the 140-character windows of Twitter.

I’m responding to Thompson’s post for a couple of reasons. First of all, the headline alone was enough to get me interested, and judging from the retweets, I was not alone. But I try not to retweet stuff I haven’t actually read (which, as Chartbeat has shown us, is not the case with most of us). I waited until this morning to read Ben’s post, which compares Google with IBM and Microsoft, each of which once could claim king of the mountain status in tech, but have since been eclipsed.

But the real reason I’m responding is Thompson’s thesis that Google is at its peak, about to be eclipsed by Facebook or Pinterest or some other advertising-based company. Thompson theorizes that native advertising will carry the day, and because Google lacks the skills necessary to win in native, the company will slowly fade into profitable irrelevance (as have IBM and Microsoft).

I think the story was picked up for the resonance of its headline meme – that Google may be at the peak of its power, poised for decline – rather that the substance of its argument around native advertising. And that’s a shame, because Thompson makes any number of interesting points about Google that bear debate. In no particular order:

– Google isn’t good at native or the more “human” side of advertising. I disagree. As Thompson acknowledges in an update to his original post, Google’s search ads are by definition native – I believe search advertising is the most scaled, profitable, and useful native platform in the world. And while Google has struggled to find its voice as a media company, it’s been near-perfect at creating a platform that lets others express their voice in advertising – millions of customers use AdWords to create authentic ads in real time. And its YouTube platform is poised to be one of the largest brand channels in the world.

– Search isn’t a brand platform, and native is. I also disagree – that search isn’t a brand platform, anyway. Yes, search ads tend to be “down funnel” and direct response driven. But any brand who isn’t playing in search, which includes creation of search-friendly content, is missing a huge part of the role brands must now play as creators of great content.

– No one has yet “won” in native. Totally agree. We’re in the very early innings, though Facebook has been a clear winner to date.

– Search ads will be eclipsed by native. I sort of agree – but I prefer to think that neither native nor search ads will dominate going forward. Instead, we’ll see a blending of the two – what I’ve called programmatic native. And there’s no greater example of programmatic native than search. It’s not clear Google will win here, but it doesn’t hurt to own both search AND YouTube, not to mention Android and Google Maps/Local/Earth/Now, as you work on figuring it out.

Again, I think there’s a reason that “Peak Google” resonates so strongly in this industry – we’ve seen the movie with IBM and Microsoft, and everyone loves a story that fits a common narrative. But I’m not sure native advertising is the reason Google will fade to irrelevance over time.

Else 10.13.14: Smiling Happy Facebook People (Not Teens, Though)

By - October 12, 2014
Facebook Atlas

Now you can buy real, smiling, happy shiny people all over the web, courtesy Facebook.

Today’s summary covers the past two weeks of worthy reads, with a strong dose of the Internet’s twin titans Facebook and Google. I’ve also been busy writing on Searchblog, so you’ll find three of my own pieces highlighted below.

Facebook’s new Atlas is a real threat to Google display dominance — Gigaom

The first such challenge in … forever.

Facebook is unleashing its ads—and surveillance—onto the internet at large – Quartz

And while it took a long time, it’s now real. So what does it mean for publishers? Read on…

A tip for media companies: Facebook isn’t your enemy, but it’s not your friend either — Gigaom

The industry seems to be slowly waking up to the fact that Facebook is more complicated than perhaps we gave it credit for. Sure, BuzzFeed has been winning by leveraging viral content, but now that Facebook is leveraging its data across the web, including the data it picks up from publisher’s sites, those same publishers are starting to do the math and realize that perhaps they aren’t winning after all.

Teens are officially over Facebook – The Washington Post

Until they’re not.

Programmatic Ad Buying to Reach $21 Billion – CMO Today – WSJ

That’s a very large piece of a growing pie – and it’s set to only increase as programmatic underpins nearly all digital advertising, period.

Some pros and cons of Google’s plan to give every “thing” a URL — Gigaom

The phsyical and digital come one step to connection in this Google-led open source schema. Browse the web, browse the world…

End-user computing — The Truant Haruspex — Medium

I love pieces like this. From it: “We increasingly live in a computer-embroidered reality, and the ability to manipulate that reality is empowering. If we can find a way to bring that ability to a wide audience, it could have an impact comparable to the invention of the printing press.”

A Secret of Uber’s Success: Struggling Workers – Bloomberg View

“On-demand has thrived, in part, because the nation has dropped a bedraggled and optionless workforce in its lap — and on-demand’s success depends in part on the idea that our nation won’t change.”

Venture capital and the great big Silicon Valley asshole game | PandoDaily

Any piece that starts with “Silicon Valley has an asshole problem, and it’s high time we owned up to it” is going to get attention, and Sarah Lacy’s piece did exactly that. Lacy deconstructs the forces driving behaviors in the Valley these days, and finds our industry wanting.

Killer Apps in the Gigabit Age | Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

What might a true gigabit Internet bring? Pew asked the experts.

A Master Class In Google — Backchannel — Medium

Steven Levy is right – to understand the world today, it sure helps to understand Google. Not sure that’s possible, but one can try.

Marc Andreessen on Finance: ‘We Can Reinvent the Entire Thing’ – Bloomberg

This interview lit up the Interwebs big time last week.

You are not your browser history. — Medium

Artist Jer Thorp launches a project to visualize what can be known from browser history.

New Statesman | The most influential tech company you’ve never heard of

Spoiler: It’s Alcatel-Lucent.

The NSA and Me – First Look

Veteran NSA watcher James Bamford tells his story.

The Next Stage of Mobile Quickening: Links Get Intelligent- Searchblog

In which I argue that what Branch Metrics is doing is a good next step toward a true mobile web.

My Picks for NewCo Silicon Valley – Searchblog

NewCo SV is next week!

Living Systems and The Information First Compan- Searchblog

Companies that put information flows at the center of their businesses are winning.

Living Systems and The Information First Company

By - October 11, 2014
uber map

A map tracing the information flows within Uber’s San Francisco market.

One of the great joys of my career is the chance to speak at gatherings of interesting people. Sometimes it’s an unscripted, wide ranging conversation (like during Advertising Week, for example), but other times it’s a formal presentation, which means many hours of preparation and reportage.

These more formal presentations are opportunities to consolidate new thinking and try it out in front of a demanding audience. Last month I was invited to speak in front of group of senior executives at a major bank, including the CEO and all his direct reports. I was asked to focus my remarks on how new kinds of companies were threatening traditional incumbents – with a focus on the financial services industry, as you might imagine.

Now, I’m not an expert in financial services, but I do know how to ask questions, and I’ve been watching as the core assumptions any number of markets, from media to transportation to hospitality, have been upended by Internet upstarts like Buzzfeed, Uber, or Airbnb. So I started preparing for this talk by interviewing half a dozen or so senior executives at the bank. I was prepared for defensive answers, but instead found myself pleasantly surprised – not only did these executives acknowledge a threat, they also spoke eloquently about the self-created barriers which blocked their ability to respond. Some of these barriers were regulatory and therefore out of their direct control, but many were organizational – this bank had been in business more than 100 years, and its DNA was pretty deeply set.

There’s no dearth of literature and leaders with strong points of view about corporate change – Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma  is the classic, and there are plenty of others – Downes’ Big Bang Disruption and Moore’s Crossing the Chasm come to mind. But I’ve not made my living writing about corporate disruption, nor do I expect I ever will. As much as these kinds of books lay out specific and intelligent management lessons, I didn’t want to dole out second hand advice – after all, if the banks wanted to hear that, they could have asked Christensen, Downes, or Moore.

So preparing for this talk forced me to do exactly the kind of hard work any writer both fears and relishes – coming up with something original to say.

So I started to think about why it is that large enterprises fail to innovate. What was it about new, digital companies – which I’ve come to call “NewCos” – that allows them to so quickly pose significant threats to the incumbents in their respective markets?

It struck me that corporations – which by US law enjoy the status of personhood – act much like organisms in biological systems. Some are fitter than others, and every so often you see punctuated equilibrium – a quick reset of the ecological landscape. Further, it struck me that we’re in the midst of such a phase shift as we become information – a theme I’ve written about quite a bit (and the core thesis of my long-unfinished book).

That got me pondering the role of information in companies. I wondered, what is the role of information in biological systems? A bit of Googling reminded me of living systems theory, which I last encountered reading Kevin Kelly‘s What Technology Wants, which posits that technology itself is a living system. But I found myself pursuing a narrower path: What if we understood corporations as living systems? Might there be an insight or two to gain?

Living systems theory is the work of biologist James Grier Miller. From the wikipedia entry: “Living systems are open self-organizing living things that interact with their environment. These systems are maintained by flows of information, energy and matter.”

Bingo – there it was, right in front of me – a new way to think about corporations. The first thing that struck me in this definition was the use of the word “open” – most large enterprises are not open in most senses of the world. But most interesting was the framework of understanding flows of information, energy, and matter in a corporation. Immediately, I came up with a hypothesis: most corporations are organized to maximize their use of energy and matter, because those are the most expensive parts of their businesses. NewCos, on the other hand,  place information at the center of their business.

Put another way, NewCos are “information first” companies.  They map the flows of information in a market, and organize themselves so as to exploit or leverage those information flows, even if the flows are “potential information” – information used in a new way, a manner which may be more efficient, productive, or valuable. Put information first, and let that determine how best to organize energy and matter. Industrial era-companies, on the other hand, value their hard assets first (energy, matter), and only view  information  as a way to organize or protect those assets.

I’ve been wandering the halls of theory for a while here, so some examples are in order. I’ll start with everyone’s favorite disruptor, Uber. What has Uber done? Well, it’s stared long and hard at the information flows of the transportation business, and it’s created a service that re-imagines how, by leveraging information flows, it might go about more efficiently organizing the energy (people, gasoline) and matter (automobiles, roads) in that market. Uber is an information first business, whereas taxi commissions, rental car agencies, and even automobile manufacturers are energy and matter-first businesses.

Or let’s look at another market: hospitality. Hotel companies are energy and matter-first businesses – they look at the world as a collection of places where expensive hotels might be built, and they then spend a lot of energy and money convincing the market to come to their hotels. Airbnb focused on information flows first, and created a new approach to organizing the energy and matter of the hospitality market: it uses information to organize people (energy) and matter (people’s homes).

Once I started thinking about companies as either “information first” or “energy and matter first,” I began to see information first companies all over the place. This wasn’t hard, because I’ve been spending the past year looking at applicants for NewCo festivals around the world. GrubHub, for example, takes an information first approach to take out dining. Casper takes an information first approach to the design, manufacturing, sales and delivery of mattresses. DocuSign is obliterating paper with it’s information-first approach to trusted signatures. Hampton Creek is a classic information first company in food. On and on and on – the theory is perhaps too neat, but neat it was nevertheless.

Then I wondered – what are the information first companies in financial services? After all, I needed to bring this theory home with a strong example native to the folks who I’d be speaking to. And that’s when I remembered Earnest, a NewCo I had visited during our San Francisco festival.

Earnest

And man, does Earnest bring the point home in spades. In my talk to the bank, I laid out how Earnest’s “information first” approach allows it to entirely rethink the lending landscape. First, I explained how Earnest works: It builds an information-rich profile of a prospective lending client, using APIs from LinkedIn and the client’s own bank account. In his NewCo presentation, Earnest CEO Louis Beryl explained that the company uses more than 100 parameters of information to make a lending decision, and models that information against ever-more intelligent algorithms. It’s a process that is familiar to every information-first company, from Google to Uber, GrubHub to NetFlix.
Earnest 1

Let’s compare Earnest’s information-first approach to the traditional lending practices of most US firms. These companies lend money based largely on an outsourced information source called the FICO score.

earnest2

As you can see, these businesses are built on a relatively thin information flow – and most of it is outsourced to another company (FICO). Lenders tend to organize around three things: Lead generation (marketing cost), conversion (to a loan), and collections. Defaults are a cost of doing business. But Earnest’s approach focuses on identifying qualified clients, then servicing them in an information first manner. While still new, Earnest’s approach radically changes the game – it charges 50% less for a loan, and has no defaults to date. Time will tell if Earnest executes its game plan well enough to become a major disruptor in the financial services sector, but the company’s already convinced Andreessen Horowitz and several other major VCs to invest $15mm in its first round of financing.

###

This post represents my first “thinking out loud” about what it means to be an information-first company, and it’s in no way complete. The concept isn’t original per se, but I think might add some structure to the terminology that has bedeviled our industry for years. So often we talk about “tech companies” who “leverage big data” to  “disrupt” incumbent players. I like the idea of calling these businesses “information first” companies – because in the end, any company can put information flows first. Get that right, and the energy and matter will follow.