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Branch Deepviews: Routing Around The Damage of Apps and App Stores

By - August 14, 2015

Over and over again, the press and pundits are declaring the death of the “web we once knew.” And despite having solid proof to the contrary, I’ve always responded that the web will never die, though it may well challenge our thinking as it evolves into entirely new form(s). In short, I can’t imagine a world where we can’t link from one object of value to another, seamlessly and without gatekeepers. It’s such a fundamental and obvious value-creation platform, if something ever impeded its continued creation, the world would simply do what the Internet has always done: Identify that impedance as damage, and route around it.

Inspired in part by an accretion of that impedance in the form of Apple and Facebook, a  year or so ago I went on something of a mobile walkabout. I wanted to understand if the “web I loved” was truly on its way out. I met some interesting new companies along the way, and in particular got excited about the promise of “deep linking” in mobile apps, which was a fairly new trend back then. Indeed, I predicted we were close to a “quickening” in mobile, where the value of links between applications and the broader Internet would tip, opening up the path for a new kind of mobile web.

This past Wednesday, Branch Metrics, one of the companies I met along my walkabout, made what seemed to be a relatively mundane announcement. It was summarily written up in TechCrunch, but got little press beyond that. So why did it rip up the charts on Product Hunt, garnering more upvotes than any other tech product that day? Well, for one, the product solves a very real problem for developers who haven’t built a mobile web version of their application. Here’s the issue: Say you’re browsing the web (IE, using a browser), and encounter a link to neat feature inside a spiffy new app. If you haven’t already installed the app, that link would take you to the app store, where you’d have to download the app. Once you’ve waited for that download (and that can take a while), you would then need to open the app, find the place where the original link was pointing to, and continue in your journey.

Needless to say, this is not an experience that converts many new customers.

Branch Metric’s original product allowed developers to turn that original link into a “deep link” that carried the original destination (that neat feature inside the spiffy app). This greatly increased conversion and usage of apps, and built a bridge between various flavors of the web (namely, mobile to mobile, mobile web to mobile web, PC web to mobile, etc.). To support all these new deep links, Branch stood up a robust infrastructure that, in essence, scaffolded all these different flavors of the web.

Branch’s new announcement took their original idea an important step further. Called Branch Deepviews, they offer a way for developers lacking a mobile web version of their app to create a web-ready preview of their apps’ content on the fly. In essence, Branch has found a way to route around the damage of the app store, and in the process is creating a bridge between the mobile web, the PC web, and mobile applications. Standing up your Deepviews and your Branch links is free – a fact that is certainly not hurting adoption of Branch’s solutions.

Back in February I noticed that Branch had raised a healthy $15 million Series A round. That’s a lot of money for a lean mobile development firm, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. Now I see what the cash is for: Branch is making a serious web infrastructure play – one that reminds me of another early stage firm with a big vision and a major infrastructure-based solution.

That firm was Google. Fifteen or so years ago, Google was a small company struggling to create a scaffolding around the Internet that allowed it to scale its search product. In order to do so, it landed on a insane-sounding solution: Take a copy of the entire world wide web and place it in computer memory across Google’s own infrastructure. By the year 2000, Google was seeing about 60 million searches a day. Today, Branch is already driving 100 million unique individuals a day across its servers.

I may be pushing the speculative edge of reason by making this comparison, but far more improbable things have happened in our industry. And that’s why I think Branch Metrics is a company to watch.  They’ve identified app stores and silo’d mobile applications as damage, and they’re building the infrastructure our industry needs to route around it. I sense the tipping point is nigh.

NB: I am an advisor to Wrap, another promising company in this space, and one I hope to write about soon. 

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Information Transparency & The “True Cost” Calculator

By - August 12, 2015
View from Bolinas

The view from Bolinas

It’s been so long since I’ve written here, and I’ve missed it terribly. As startups tend to do, NewCo has taken over most of my waking hours. So I thought I’d just sit and write for a spell, even if what comes out isn’t fully baked. I’m on vacation in Bolinas, an intentionally scruffy sidebar of a town 25 miles north of San Francisco. Legend has it the locals regularly take down signs pointing the way to this place, hoping to keep folks like me away.

Truth is, I came here hoping for a bit of down time so I could write again. I can’t decide if my lapse in writing is due entirely to my focus on NewCo, or perhaps because the medium of blogging just doesn’t call to me the way it once did. So I wanted to get up early each morning this week and get at least one thing down – like Fred does so regularly. However, I’ve clearly built up quite a sleep debt over the past six months, and this week my body won’t let me get up before 9. But I’ve been at it now for two days, and the result is below.

This particular post – on information transparency and the true cost of things – has been rolling around in my head since February, when I attended Walmart’s annual sustainability meeting. Walmart has made some very deep commitments to changing its impact on both the environment and society – its three stated, measured, and Wall Street-reported goals are to be 100% driven by renewable energy, to create zero waste, and to “sell products that sustain people and the environment.” These are not small goals, and when a company as large as Walmart leans into achieving them (and reporting its progress to Wall St. each year), it’s worth finding out more. Turns out, there’s a lot going on, and potential for a lot more.

During my trip to Walmart’s Silicon Valley outpost this past February, I met Doug McMillon, Walmart’s CEO. I also learned about the “long term capitalism” movement, a nascent but important idea championed by McMillon, among others. At its core, long term capitalism is attempting to center the value creation role of business from “shareholder profit” to “societal benefit.” As with anything worthy, it’s complex, fraught, and difficult to unpack.

Just what is “societal benefit”? How do we measure it? Who decides? These questions are mostly open at this point. However, one thing is clear: Business as usual has created a mess of things. Most scientists believe our economic activity has produced an unsustainable tax on our global climate. We have to tune our economic engines toward sustainability. But how? I believe our industry – steeped in collecting, creating, and understanding data, can help. But more on that later.

First, it turns out that Walmart – and many other large companies – are already working to find answers. Walmart is a massive platform, and when it tells its vast network of suppliers that it wants renewable energy, sustainable products, and zero waste in its supply chain, entire economic sectors are effected. I had no idea this was happening, and found it both laudable and worth celebrating – we all need to encourage more of this kind of behavior.

In his letter opening Walmart’s 2015 Sustainability Report, McMillion introduces the idea of “True Cost,” and states:

Traditional costs include expenses like supplies, energy and packaging. But the net true cost considers issues such as waste-to-landfill, greenhouse gas emissions, economic mobility, worker safety and food safety. These are all examples of the effects production may have on the environment, in local communities, or on the people who grow and make what we sell. We believe a business should strive for not just the lowest prices, but the lowest true cost for all. Low prices benefit customers, but low true costs benefit everyone. To do this, we can’t sit on the sidelines until after a product is made. Walmart’s role is unique. We have a large presence in the world, and with that presence comes great opportunity to change how business is done. In addition to tackling social and environmental issues in our own operations, we need to actively engage in and reshape the systems in which we work.

By doing the right thing, a business is setting itself up for a solid and successful future. And by focusing not just on price – but on “cost” as well – a business is tackling social and environmental sustainability at the root. That’s what you’ll see us lean into further this year and in the years ahead.

Sustainability Leader badgeAt the February meeting, Brian Monahan, a friend, co-founder of NewCo, and leader in Walmart’s e-commerce division announced a new Walmart initiative. Called the Sustainability Leaders Shop, it’s a special area of the Walmart.com site featuring suppliers who had earned a badge which helps shoppers identify the vendor as a leader in sustainable practices in their given industry. The idea is simple but powerful: Walmart is helping shoppers identify and reward vendors with industry leading sustainability practices.

Of course, this made me wonder if such a badge is truly valuable for anything more than bragging rights. I mean, won’t shoppers – especially Walmart shoppers, who come there to save money – simply purchase the cheapest brand, regardless of sustainability badges? That certainly seems likely. Until a market truly values sustainability over price, the lowest price will win.

Walmart’s mission of “saving money, living better” has been a driver of the company’s culture for more than sixty years. Its DNA is all about price: The lowest price anywhere, all the time. Over the decades Walmart has earned a reputation as a cost extraction machine – and that reputation is in full conflict with the sustainability goals the company now espouses.

But what would we have Walmart do? Nothing? It strikes me that Walmart has put a very large stake in the ground, and it’s up to the market to both celebrate that stake, and push to make it even more impactful. That’s at the heart of what NewCo is about – in particular our media arm, which will be launching over the next six months. The story of a giant company trying to change for the better is not only fascinating, it’s also urgent. As goes Walmart, it turns out, so goes most of the world’s grocery and retail businesses. And those businesses in turn drive a significant amount of our world’s economic practices.

You’re used to reading about Google, Amazon, and Facebook on this site, and those of you who’ve made it this far must be wondering how on earth Walmart’s challenges relate to the things I usually cover. Well, it strikes me we’ve got a massive, and massively interesting, information problem on our hands.

In short: What if we could engineer a platform that reported True Cost for everything Walmart sells? Put another way, what if every single product had not just a monetary price and possibly a Sustainability Leader badge, but also an inherent score based on “net true cost”? Wouldn’t that be cool?

Creating such a platform would have been impossible ten years ago, which is when I first started thinking about this idea (The Search, p. 178). But with smartphones, computer vision, and ubiquitous connectivity, it’s not hard to imagine an information service that becomes a nexus for understanding a given product beyond its price tag. It could work a lot like Delectable does for wine – take a picture of the product, and up comes a profile of the product’s impact across the environment, society, and so on. From The Search:

What might be the effects of such a system coming to fruition? For one, markets would have to compete far more on…factors unrelated to price. And vendors of products that have been made in third-world sweatshops, or in factories that over pollute, or vendors that support causes some consumers do not wish to support, would be called out in a far more transparent fashion. Refusal to participate in such a system would mean that vendors or merchants had something to hide, and so the system could be a major force for good in the global economy, forcing transparency and accountability into a system that has habitually hidden the process of how products are made, transported, marketed, and sold from the consumer.

The world needs information transparency in consumer goods. There are many startups doing what might be considered point solutions in the space – The Honest Company in baby goods, Bos Creek for meats, Zero Footprint in HR, Conscious Box in subscription commerce. But there’s not liquidity of good information in the marketplace – and liquidity drives innovation and value creation (Google was built on the liquidity of link information around the web). If it was as easy to understand a product’s overall impact on the world as it is to understand its price in dollars, consumers would be moved to consider more than price when they made a purchase. Millennials, in particular, have shown a deep desire to support brands that have a net positive impact on the world.

I often write speculatively here – and I suppose that’s what I’m doing right now. I don’t know how such a system might tip into existence, but I sense when large companies like Walmart start to talk about “net true cost” and set ambitious goals that can move markets, we’re close to such a tip. I’d love to hear from you about how we might get such a system implemented. I’m guessing any number of startups, academics, and BigCos are already working on the problem. The world needs a True Cost calculator – and gathering, cleansing, and delivering the data to power such a calculator is the kind of massive problem/opportunity that creates companies like Google and Facebook. It’s time to get this done.

Why Does Silicon Valley Like “Silicon Valley” So Much?

By - June 15, 2015

silicon-valley

 

HBO’s Silicon Valley, which concluded its second season last night, is an unmitigated hit amongst the Valley folk I’ve come to know and respect. As someone who’s lived variations of the show’s comedically dramatized plotlines – investor takeovers, company-threatening lawsuits, sexist bro cultures, etc. – it makes me cringe, chortle, and engage – something precious few shows can reliably accomplish regardless of their subject matter.

This isn’t Hollywood’s first attempt at plating the Valley’s culture and serving it back to us – technology plays an integral role in nearly every piece of primetime “competence porn” – CSI, Law & Order, Scorpion, whatever. There’s always a team of nerds who work with the good-looking people to leverage data and surveillance, and for reasons that should spur any number of graduate theses, Hollywood has adopted a rather borderline approach to civil liberties so it can deliver the bad guy in the end.

But Silicon Valley is the first show that bothered to look under the hood of what we’re making here, and understand it well enough to parody it back to us. For that we’re deeply grateful. Sure, you can pick apart just about everything in the show, but the truth is, it resonates, because it gets the core narrative right: The team making Piped Piper have their hearts in the right place, the villains remind us of the asshats we’ve all dealt with, and the highs and the lows mirror our own struggles with company creation, capital raising, and team and product building.

For the first time, the Valley has a show worthy of its cultural throw weight. And that makes us all feel a bit more understood, and a little more validated. I’m looking forward to Season Three. I hope the guys all move to the city in this next chapter…because that’s where the story is heading after all, right?

 

Uber, The Rashomon.

By - April 26, 2015

Uber Women Promo

Our industry loves a rashomon, and in the past year or two, our collective subject of debate has been Uber. Perhaps the fastest growing company in history (its numbers aren’t public, but we’ll get to some estimates shortly), Uber has become a vector for some of the most wide-ranging arguments I’ve ever had regarding the tech industry’s impact on society at large.

It’s not that Google, Facebook, Apple, or Microsoft didn’t evoke great debate, but all those companies came of age in an era where tech was still relegated to a sideshow in the broader cultural conversation. Microsoft was taking over the computer industry in the 1990s, Google the Internet in the early 2000s, Facebook and Apple the mobile and social world in the late 2000s. But Uber? Uber is about a very real and entirely new approach to our economy, a stand in for the wealth divide festering in the US and beyond, an existential rorschach testing your values around the role of government, the social contract, and the kind of society we want to become.

When an Uber glides to its appointed pickup point, what do we see? Do we see an innovator hastening the inexorable shift to a new information-based economy? Or an arrogant bully using cheap capital, greed, and a dangerous, misogynist culture of convenience to consolidate a trillion dollar market?

Or do we see both?

Yes — that’s a cop out, but it’s also an honest answer. I know people who work at Uber, and I know some of Uber’s investors as well. They are in general a well intentioned group — and many of them have reservations about Uber’s unbridled success and its mixed reputation.

Uber’s success is breathtaking. Consider: Uber’s most recent round valued the company at over $41 billion — $15 billion more than Google’s initial public market cap of $26.4 billion. At a conference I attended last month, an Uber executive mentioned the company was clocking more than one million rides each and every day. If you (conservatively) estimate each ride at $10, that’d be gross revenue of $10mm a day, or $3.65 billion a year. Uber takes roughly a quarter of that revenue (20% is the widely reported number, but when I ask drivers, they tell me it’s 25–28%), or just under a billion dollars. And their costs are….well, assume about 2,000 employees (I’ve heard estimates of 1200 to 2500), for $250mm or so in labor costs. I’m pretty sure they’re not spending another $750mm on marketing and platform costs. So the company is most likely quite profitable already.

And my figures are conservative. Business Insider claims the company is on track to do $10 billion in gross revenue this year, and CEO Travis Kalanick last year claimed revenue is doubling every six months. In five years, Uber has expanded to 57 countries. So, yes, this company is astonishingly successful.

And yet…I’ve not met a single person in this industry who doesn’t express reservations about Uber. Certainly the company stepped in it terribly with the whole Lacy debacle, but the ambivalence goes deeper still. I’m sure pure Uber defenders exist, but the truth is, most of us are worried about the sheer expression of capitalistic force that the company represents. Privately, many are heartened by the regulatory counterforces that are stemming the company’s march through worldwide markets — Germany, Holland, India, Korea, Canada, Spain, France, New Zealand, and many other countries have banned Uber’s services either nationally, or through local city regulations.

Uber is the poster child for our global conversation about the role of work in our society, and about the kind of company we want to create, work at, and celebrate. And that conversation is deeply political and cultural in nature. On the one hand, the “1099 Economy” is providing hundreds of thousands of flexible, living wage jobs for those who might otherwise be marginalized or underpaid. On the other, it represents the systemic dismantling of our labor laws by rapacious, profit seeking monopolists.

If you want to hear an unalloyed economic takedown of Uber, head over to Robert Reich’s blog. And if you want to hear a reasoned defense of the company as an innovator, read what Suster has to say. But anyone who read Sarah Lacy’s passionate story has to wonder — if we didn’t have Uber now, wouldn’t the Valley just end up creating it? Certainly that’s Lacy’s conclusion — Uber is the collective creation of the Valley’s deep arrogance, its heartless celebration of high valuations and killer exits, and its male-dominated, aggressive philosophy of “breaking things fast” and “asking for forgiveness rather than permission.”

Put another way, Uber feels inevitable — a uniquely of-the-moment company, a mirror held up to the Valley’s aggregate psyche. And as we all look into that mirror, we are both fascinated and appalled.

All of this was at front of mind a month ago when an email from a site called FounderDating popped into my inbox. FounderDating is a LinkedIn-like service that connects entrepreneurs, and it sports a lively Quora-like Q&A forum. When interesting new threads emerge, the service notifies you. “Is Uber A Social Impact company?” was the question of the day, and it immediately sparked a strong debate, as you might expect. Lydia Eager, the thread’s originator, opened with this:

A lot of people love to hate uber because of their aggressive tactics, but the fact of the matter is that they are creating 20K new driver jobs/month and the median uberX driver income in NYC is $90K/year. Feels to me like they do way more good than harm and I’d consider them a social impact company. They are having a much bigger impact than say a non-profit trying to create jobs.

Do you have to have set out to have a major social mission to be considered a social impact company?

From there a diverse group of folks, myself included, chimed in with 50 or so thoughtful replies, touching on the importance of purpose- and mission-driven business, the role Uber plays in destroying living-wage jobs in the taxi and livery businesses, the actual economics of driving for Uber and similar businesses, the positive impact Uber has on carbon emissions, congestion, and drunk driving, the inevitable future where driverless cars and automation make workers irrelevant, the positive competitive response Uber has created in the taxi business (better customer service, competing apps, etc), stories of questionable competitive business practices, stories of rape and kidnapping (on both sides — taxies and Uber), debate over the meaning of “social impact” at its core, debate over the role of local and national regulation, debate over consolidation of power and money in markets and society, debate over libertarian political philosophy, and much, much more.

I hear these questions debated every time Uber comes up at a party, an industry event, or just between friends shooting the breeze. Back in 2013, when we were starting NewCo, we had the same debate when we were considering which companies to invite to our first full-fledged NewCo festival in San Francisco. We asked ourselves whether Uber was really a NewCo — an engine of positive change in our society. We couldn’t make up our mind and ended up kicking the can down the road. This year, we have to once again tackle the question. And I’m still not sure where we’ll land.

Like it or not, Uber is now our rashomon for understanding the impact technology is having on our culture. The company is showing signs of “growing up” — as all fast-growing tech companies do over time (you have to love Facebook shifting its motto from “Move fast and break things” to “Move fast …with stable infrastructure”). Uber’s stance to local regulators has shifted from a siege mentality to one of engagement (necessarily, I’m sure). Its CEO (and the offending exec) apologized, sort of, to Lacy, and has shifted its public voice to highlight its positive impact on the world — the first image on its site today is of a woman, with the headline “Her Turn to Earn — Creating 1,000,000 jobs for women by 2020.”

Is this all just calculated PR spin, or might it represent a real shift in the company’s culture? I think I know where Lacy stands on this one — she was personally targeted by a senior Uber executive, and she’s in no mood to give the company a second chance. But for most of the rest of us, the ambivalence — and the broader debate — continues. I personally believe that companies can change over time — Walmart, Unilever, and many others are now champions of sustainability — yet one could reasonably argue they played huge roles in creating the unsustainable world in which we currently live. But does that mean we shouldn’t celebrate and encourage their corporate change of heart?

If we dismiss these glimmerings of change as mere greenwashing, we are handing corporations an excuse to continue past practices. Instead, we should hold them accountable. For Uber — and all of us — that journey has just begun.

Integrations (and Metaservices) For The Win

By - April 04, 2015
GBoard

A GeckoBoard sample dashboard, integrating half a dozen separate data services.

What makes for a truly NewCo business? I’ve been giving this question a lot of thought the past six or so months, leading to posts like Maybe The Best Way To Change the World Is To Start a CompanyLiving Systems and The Information First Company, What Makes a NewCo, and posts on NewCos like MetroMile and Jack.

But lately I’ve noticed a strong theme running through a number of interesting and successful businesses: Integrations. From Acxiom and sovrn (where I am a board member) to Slack, Gecko and Zapier (where I am a happy customer), these companies are thriving because they have built a platform based on the integration of many different products and services. At NewCo, we call this “being platform’d” – an inelegant but apt descriptor.

Four years ago I wrote  File Under: Metaservices, The Rise Of, in which I posed a problem:

…heavy users of the web depend on scores – sometimes hundreds – of services, all of which work wonderfully for their particular purpose (eBay for auctions, Google for search, OpenTable for restaurant reservations, etc). But these services simply don’t communicate with each other, nor collaborate in a fashion that creates a robust or evolving ecosystem.

The rise of the app economy exacerbates the problem – most apps live in their own closed world, sharing data sparingly, if at all.

In 2015, the problem is coming to a head, and there are huge, proven opportunities for companies willing to do the hard work of managing complex data and services integrations. In fact, I’d go so far as to claim that in the NewCo economy, an unfair advantage will accrue to those businesses that excel at delivering seamless, effective integrations of complex services.

It’s already starting to happen. Why, for example, has Slack taken off so quickly, when there were already a raft of seemingly successful collaboration tools (Yammer, Basecamp, HipChat, etc)? As a user of Slack, my answer is simple: Slack has a super elegant approach to integrations. It “just works” with Google Docs, YouTube, Trello, MailChimp,  and about 100 other services. It creates an intelligent “metaservice” for effective group collaboration outside of its core use case. It’s not easy to make these integrations seem effortless to the consumer, but Slack got it right.

Another example can be found in what’s known as the programmatic or adtech industry. For the past four years I’ve been very close to this industry, steering FM into the purchase of an at scale programmatic advertising business (Lijit, now called sovrn), and serving on the board of Acxiom, a public data and marketing services company. With sovrn, we’ve noticed that the hardest, but most rewarding work comes in integrating new partners onto our platform. We’ve got nearly 100 integrations now, with several more coming online each quarter. These are not easy to pull off, each takes from three to six months to get done. It’s messy and hand-crafted, and it involves human to human negotiations all along the way. But once done, adtech integrations open a flood of data back and forth between partners, and when that happens, money gets made.

Adtech and data businesses that have acquired a lot of integrations, like Acxiom, AppNexus, OpenX, and sovrn, are valuable precisely because those integrations take a lot of time. If a large, well heeled tech business wanted to enter the adtech industry, they’d have to buy their way in. Doing 40-50 integrations from scratch would take years. It’s one of the reasons Facebook bought LiveRail, Twitter bought MoPub, and Apple bought Quattro.

Another class of integrators can be found in companies like Zapier, which is playing directly in the mobile app data market (and as such, is a direct response to the problem I posited back in 2011). Zapier gives developers the ability to tie together all their siloed apps, and to manipulate that data on one creative canvas. Another example is GeckoBoard, which at present is mainly a dashboard for disparate and discrete information sources, but even that limited functionality delivers a “holy shit!” set of insights.

Once I started noticing these integration-driven businesses, I saw them everywhere. Sure, Facebook and Google (and all the platforms) have been integrators forever, but they fail to solve more specific and/or bespoke problems inherent to individual use cases. Across online marketing, for example, tools like AppBoy, ZenDesk, and MailChimp lead with their metaservice-based integrative approach.  So do hundreds more, in dozens of categories, far too many to mention here.

But I’d like to call the ball right now: Metaservices is here to stay, and the best and fastest integrators will win.

If you want to get inside great companies around the globe, come to a NewCo festival. Next up is New York, then Austin and Silicon Valley.

A Few Questions For Publishers Contemplating Facebook As A Platform

By - March 23, 2015

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Well, it’s happening. According to no less authoritative source than The New York Times, The New York Times is preparing to plant a taproot right inside the highly walled garden that is Facebook.

As Times’ executives contemplate moving The Grey Lady squarely under the rather constrictive confines of Facebook’s terms of service, they may be comforting themselves with a few palliative pretty-much-truths:

  1. We may be putting our content on Facebook’s platform, but we’ll still have our presence on the open web, apps, and in print. We’re really just accessing a massive audience natively, in a way they want to consume our content. In our other products, we’ll still be in control (well, not so much with iOS but…).
  2. Really, Facebook is just another channel — like when Borders and Barnes & Noble consolidated the newsstand business. Facebook’s just a big newsstand where we have to have our product.
  3. We’re going to be among the initial few to do this, which gives us first mover’s advantage, and probably the best economics anyone will ever get given how strongly Facebook is wooing us.
  4. If it doesn’t work , we can always call it a grand experiment and move along, sort of like we did with AOL back in the day. Or Apple back when the Newsstand was a thing.

All kinda true, and compelling enough to “test,” which is how the article carefully positions the Times’ intentions. But as testing beings, here are a few questions any publisher should ask before dipping a taproot into Facebook’s carefully cultivated soils:

  • Do you have full and unfettered access to reader data? Will Facebook have access to your customer data?

A publisher lives and dies by its ability to maintain a strong connection to its readership. That means understanding how people use your product, so you can make it better. It means knowing who your customers are, so you can call them by name, make them offers, ask them questions, converse with them using sophisticated tools. Will Facebook offer the kind of tools the open web does?

  • Do you have full and unfettered control over your advertising relationships and data? Will Facebook have access to that data?

If Facebook is selling your advertising, or telling you how to sell your advertising, or dictating what your advertising has to look like, or has access to data about your customer data *and* your advertising, they have your jewels in their hands. I hope those are very soft hands.

  • Do you have certainty over the levers of circulation marketing, including the price of reader acquisition and engagement? 

Facebook’s record here ain’t exactly encouraging. Everyone knows that if you want to build audience on Facebook, you have to pay Facebook. Publishers have gotten pretty sophisticated at understanding customer acquisition costs, ROI, and the like. Will Facebook offer a consistent ecosystem here, or will the sands shift as the company ropes in your competitors, leverages “proprietary algorithms” to decide who sees what, then ultimately decides to get into your business in some way? If you want to read up on such a market, just ask Yelp how it feels about Google.

  • Do you have control over your core product, so you can craft your reader’s experience as an expression of your brand? 

I can’t really stress this one too much. I mean, what if a year in, you want to ask some of your Facebook readers to pay you, in exchange for less advertising (or none)? Do you have to ask permission? Wait, you agreed to not do that? Well why would any reader pay you on the open web if they can get it for free on Facebook? And what if you want to do something like Snowfall? Or what if you come up with a really neat widget that pulls in processed content from, say, Twitter and SnapChat? Will Facebook let you? They kinda sorta don’t like those companies, last I checked. My guess is they won’t like others down the road too.

  • Do you have any proof that publishers using another company’s proprietary platform have ever created a lasting and sustainable business? 

I guess I should have put this one first. There have been good exits for some publishers from platforms — a few of the MCNs on YouTube come to mind — but those were native video publishers who will all admit that they could never reach profitability on YouTube’ economics.

I can’t really think of any publisher who thrived on someone else’s platform, for the reasons I laid out above. Sure, a lot of apps have done well, but in the main they were either hit businesses (gaming) or free services that kept their customer and revenue models well away from Apple or Google’s grasp (everybody else ever).

Perhaps Facebook has addressed all these points with the Times and others — but the article certainly didn’t find evidence of that. And all of you other publishers should know how the playing field tilts before joining the game.

Which brings us to BuzzFeed, which has taken a delightfully inverse approach to platform economics — that is to say, it embraces the distribution of its content independent of its home base. Of course, it can do so because its core revenue model is native advertising content, which is distributed in the same fashion as original editorial content. This model suits BuzzFeed very, very well. I’m not sure it scales for many others.

So far, Facebook has not clipped BuzzFeed’s native advertising wings. Could it? Just ask Zynga.

Then again, and to be fair, I’m not privy to the conversations between the Times and Facebook. Regardless, were I a publisher, I’d sure like to know the answers to those questions above. If anyone gets some, do let us know?

(cross posted to Medium).

Apple and Google: Middle School Mean Girls Having At It

By - January 20, 2015

THE-DRAMA-YEARS(image) I’m the father of three children, and two of them are girls. And while my first was a boy, and therefore “broke me in” with extraordinary acts of Running Headlong Into Fence Posts and Drinking Beer Stolen From Dad’s Fridge Yet Forgetting To Hide The Bottles, nothing, NOTHING, prepared me for Girls Behaving Badly To Each Other Whilst In Middle School.

Those of you with girls aged 11-14 know of what I speak: Middle school girls are just flat out BADASSES when it comes to unrepentant cruelty – and they are almost as good at forgetting, often within a day (or an hour) the rationale or cause of their petty behaviors. On one of my daughter’s wall is a note from a middle school friend. It says – and while I may paraphrase, I’m not making this up – “Hey Girl, I’m so glad we’re best friends, because I really hated you before but now we’re best friends right?!” And my daughter *pinned this* to her wall – her ACTUAL wall, in her bedroom!

Anyway, every so often girls in middle school end up squaring off – and the result is an embarrassment of small-minded but astonishingly machiavellian acts of cruelty. Little lies are let loose like sparks on a pile of hay, and soon a fire of social shunning rips through the school. Invitations are made, then retracted vigorously, and in public. Insults are veiled as compliments, and a girl’s emerging character strengths – a penchant for science perhaps, or a love of kittens for God’s sake – are expertly turned against her.

But this post isn’t really about middle school girls. Because we all know middle school girls – with love, patience, and copious wine (for the parents) – eventually grow up and out of such behavior.

Apple and Google? Not so much. And as an avid consumer of both these company’s products, I’m tired of it.

It’s the little things that pile up, the unnecessary lies and petty inconveniences. Like the fact that you need to install a javascript or browser extension to make Gmail the default mail application on your Mac. Because, you know, everyone knows how to do that. Or that you need a third party app (and a degree from General Assembly) to make music and movies purchased on Google Play work in iTunes, or vice versa. Or that Apple won’t let Google index apps in the iTunes store, because, you know, that Google mission of making the world’s information useful and accessible sounds suspicious, right?

Or – and yes, this is the one that pushed me to write this post – that you have to follow an utterly convoluted five-step process just to make group texting work between iPhones and Android users – only to learn it doesn’t really work every time, and in fact, if you’re expecting an important text from someone with an iPhone, well, you better just man up and buy a f*cking iPhone too, loser.

I’m not even scratching the surface of the bullpucky these two companies are putting us through to create “user lock-in” and discourage consumer choice. I mean, we gave up on the easy stuff, like, oh I don’t know, a universal power cord that can charge any phone. Because, you know, why have standards when you can take forty bucks from some poor loser every time he misplaces his charger? Or, if you wanted to change your default browser to Chrome, you had to root around in Safari to do so (Google has since gotten around this)? And don’t get me started on Apple Contacts and Calendar…and getting them into Google’s universe. Yeah, it’s supposed to work. And no, it really doesn’t, not so much, and not so well. I’m six months and thousands of dollars into trying to make that work. Um, Google – tell me please why there’s no Google Calendar app for iPhone? Is it because…you know, Apple’s not cool anymore? Gah.

I bet I’ve missed tons of examples, but given the state of diplomacy in the Apple and Google worlds, I’m not expecting a solution anytime soon. The two companies clearly don’t want to play nice – Apple’s DNA is to lock you into their pristine, walled garden user experience, and Google certainly isn’t eager to encourage Android users to interact with iOS. Apple has kicked Google out of the default position for mapping in iOS, and many expect search to be next. The walls are getting higher, and the middle school girl behavior is likely to get worse.

To Apple and Google, I say simply this: For the sake of folks who love both of your product lines: Grow up. Please!

App Stores Must Go

By - January 11, 2015

appstores2014 was the year the industry woke up to the power of mobile app installs, and the advertising platforms that drive them. Facebook’s impressive mobile revenue numbers – 66% of its Q3 2014 revenue and growing  – are a proxy for the mobile economy at large, and while the company doesn’t divulge what percentage of that revenue is app install advertising, estimates range from a third to a half – which means that Facebook made anywhere from $700 million to more than a billion dollars in one quarter on app install advertising. That’s potentially $4 billion+ a year of app installs, just on Facebook. Yow. That kind of growth is reminiscent of search revenues a decade ago.

But as I’ve written before, app installs are only the beginning of an ongoing marketing relationship that an app publisher must have with its consumer. It’s one thing to get your app installed, but quite another to get people to keep opening it, using it, and ultimately, doing things that create revenue for you. The next step after app install revenue is “app re-engagement,” and the battle to win this emerging category is already underway, with all the major platforms (Twitter, Yahoo, Google, Facebook) rolling out products, and a slew of startups vying for share (and M&A glory, I’d wager).

Over time, app install revenue is bound to wane, and app re-engagement revenue will wax, to the point where the latter is inevitably larger than the former. Neither will disappear entirely, of course, but as the mobile model matures, it’s likely they will take new form. But the following three steps will remain constant – they were true before apps (when we called Internet services “websites”), and they were true before the Internet itself:

  1. Get people to notice your product or service, and engage with it for the first time. 
  2. Get people to come back, and keep sampling your product or service. 
  3. Get people to regularly give you their money for your product or service.

We’ve now got a reliable model for #1: It’s the combination of the app store platform and app install advertising. #2 is coming along as well, as I mentioned above.

But what of #3? It’s one thing to get someone to give you a few bucks for your app, but how can you keep them giving you money (or doing things that make you money, like ordering on GrubHub)? If app makers are spending an unhealthy percentage of their capital on advertising, innovation in product will suffer, and we won’t get apps that people are willing to continually pay for. It strikes me, after any number of conversations I’ve had around the state of mobile, that mobile markets in the US will slowly but surely evolve toward the norms currently in place in Asia, where advertising is a minority of mobile revenues, and in-app commerce of all kinds is the standard. After all, that’s how it is for business in general – advertising is a small but significant percentage of overall revenues.

But for this to occur, our process of app discovery and engagement has to rationalize – it’s simply too expensive to build a loyal audience in mobile, and the top 1-2% of apps can afford to price the rest of the market out. This is the great failure – or cynical intention – of Apple and Google’s hobbled app store strategy. There simply should not be one app store per platform – they’re what Steve Jobs would call “orifices” – monopolistic constructs created to consolidate control. App stores stifle innovation – they are damage, and the Internet will eventually route around them. 2015 should be the year that becomes evident.

My other recent musings on mobile can be found here.  

The Three Golden Rules of Naming Something

By - January 06, 2015

10645727_s(image) I love being part of naming something. It’s probably the flat out most fun you can have legally with your clothes on – but for many folks, including entrepreneurs, it’s the source of endless consternation.

It doesn’t have to be. Here’s how I think about coming up with a name for something – a company, a new product, even a project you might be working on.

Rule #1: Don’t Overthink It. A name means nothing till those using it make it mean something.

So be willing to consider non obvious, even crazy names. Google? I mean, really, Google? And….Yahoo?! Alibaba? APPLE?

In other words, don’t overthink the literal meaning of a name too much – a brand is nothing more than a cup you fill with meaning later – a vessel to hold what your brand ultimately becomes. (That cup metaphor, by the way, I stole from somebody famous at some point over the past three decades, and I can’t find the original source. Any help?!)

Rule #2: Narrative. The best names have a story behind them that evokes the purpose and mission of the thing being named. Google was a riff on a mathematical term that was almost unimaginably large (a googol, or 10 with 100 zeroes after it).  Big enough to tell the story of Google, which aimed to swallow and rationalize the entirety of the Internet. We gave my current company the name NewCo because it tells the story of how people are always striving to create new approaches to company creation, to do new things with companies – and often they call those things “NewCos” until they come up with a proper name. Sovrn was given its name because we wanted to evoke the idea of sovereignty on the Internet – our publishers are sovereigns over their particular domain, and our tools help those publishers be in control of their own fate.  And so on…. A name is just a word till it means something, and stories are how we give things meaning.

Rule #3: Find your Entendre. It helps when a name has a clever wink or nod to another meaning, an inside joke that your core community can believe in (and evangelize). Wired had this – it worked as an imperative “Get Wired!” – and it worked as a badge for insiders – “I’m Wired, are you?!”  The Industry Standard had at its core a goal of providing rigorous, high quality journalism to an industry overwhelmed with mainstream hype – so the name evoked old school newspaper naming conventions. Federated Media was so named because it told the story of federating many quality web sites together so as to have the power of one large site (Rule #2), but it also shortened to “FM”, which evoked the album-driven rise of quality rock’n’roll stations of the 1970s – and as founder, I always thought of blogs as the rock’n’roll bands of the Internet.

I could go on and on, but honestly, I think if you run a brainstorming session with these three rules in mind, you’ll find your name pretty quickly. Maybe in a subsequent post I’ll outline how to run these kind of brainstorming sessions. I still do at least half a dozen of these each year for friends and colleagues, and it’s a total hoot. The latest is a new publication called “Tincture.” More on that soon!

Google: The Information-First Conglomerate

By - November 21, 2014
FortunePageCover

Larry Page on the cover of Fortune, Nov. 13 2014

Last week Google CEO Larry Page got the Fortune magazine cover treatment, the latest of many such pieces attempting to quantify Google’ sprawling business. The business press is obsessed with answering the question of whether we’ve reached “Peak Google.” (Clearly Fortune’s opinion is that we have not, given they named him “Businessperson of the Year.”)

“Peak Google” is what I like to call a “contagious misconception” – it seems to make sense, and therefore is worthy of consideration. After all, we’ve seen IBM, Microsoft, and other companies hit their peaks, only to drop back as they face the innovator’s dilemma.  Search is past its prime, Google is a search company, ergo – Peak Google.

But as the Fortune piece argues (and yes, I’m quoted, for what that’s worth), Google has a lot more going on beyond search. And while it continues to milk that multi billion-dollar quarterly profit center, it’s built five additional billion-dollar businesses – some of which are directly related to its search empire, but others that are not. Google Apps/Cloud, YouTube/Play, Android, Ventures, and Adtech are already past the billion-dollar mark. Huge businesses in waiting include plays in home automation (Nest), healthcare (Calico), transportation (Chauffeur/self driving cars), and connectivity (Fiber). Beyond that group lie a dozen or so potential blockbusters in energy, robotics, AI, wearables, and the unknown moonshots behind the curtains at GoogleX.

It’s that stunning breadth of scope – what Fortune calls the company’s seemingly limitless ambition – that has caused a prolonged internal debate around Google mission statement:

“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Page has been floating trial balloons about expanding Google’s mission statement for nearly two years. When Tony Faddell, CEO of Nest, announced Google’s acquisition to his staff in January of 2013, Page took the stage and took questions from the stunned audience. One staffer asked Page why Google had any interest in a home automation company – it seemed quite orthogonal to Google’s focus on search, apps, and mobile. According to sources at the event, Page answered by acknowledging that Google’s mission statement may not be large enough to contain his company’s ambitions.

Since that first admission, Page has been testing out the idea of an expanded mission, and with Fortune he aired his ambivalence in public, telling Miguel Helft that “it’s probably a bit too narrow.” And on first blush, that seems right – what does a thermostat have to do with organizing the world’s information, anyway?

Actually, quite a lot.

When you look at Google through the lens of what I call “information first” businesses, things start to make a lot more sense. By that measure, Google is not only an information-first company, it’s also the world’s first information-first conglomerate – starting or buying businesses in every market undergoing the transition from “matter first” to “information-first.”

We see the transportation business shifting to information first, for example. The currently maligned but nevertheless extraordinary Uber is proof of it, but so is Zip Car, Tesla, and the entire autonomous car industry. The true value of these new kind of businesses is in how they understand information flows in the transportation markets, then execute new approaches to old problems (how do I get from here to there?) using novel and/or more efficient methods based on information technologies. Uber doesn’t put cars (commodities) or drivers (means of production) first – it puts information processing first. The cars and driver then reorganize to the new information flows and – voila! – a $17 billion company is born in four years. Uber proves that if you solve difficult information processing problems in traditional markets, you can create world beating value. Airbnb, DocuSign, Lending Club, and many more are further examples of the same thesis.

So what markets are ripe for transition to an information first framework? Well, let’s break down what makes for a “ripe” market. I think there are two key attributes of a market ready to be radically shifted by an information-first approach. First, a market where there’s liquidity of poorly organized and processed information. In other words, there’s a ton of data, but it’s not well organized or computed. Think about the world wide web in 1998, for example. Sh*t tons of information, terribly organized and lacking a processing layer. Google came in and – voila – a multi billion dollar company was born in five short years. Secondly, look for a market currently controlled through centralized chokepoints, but with the potential to be rapidly reorganized if and when consumers gain control. Again, look at search – before Google, portals like AOL and Yahoo ruled the web. Everyone went to a chokepoint to “see what was on the Internet.” After Google, consumers took control of their own web surfing.

So…what markets have both data liquidity and are currently controlled by centralized chokepoints? Well, let’s look at mobile. Tons of data, terribly organized, controlled by the chokepoints of carriers and OS vendors. Check! Or, how about healthcare? Oh hellz yeah! Energy? Yep! Connectivity? Most certainly! Markets where there’s not yet liquidity of information, but there’s about to be – home automation, food, retail – are also ripe for reinvention.

The world is turning into information, and that information wants to be organized, accessible, and useful. I don’t think Google’s mission needs to change at all. Whether or not they knew it at the time, Google created a manifesto that I believe will prove to be dead on in the context of an economic shift to a information-first paradigm. And when the history of this era is written, I’d wager that Google will be seen as the first information-first conglomerate to both identify and exploit that shift.