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It’s Time to Flip the Bit on Publishing and Data

By - September 27, 2015

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My god, do we like to talk about ourselves.

That’s my takeaway from the recent algae-bloom of writing around ad blocking and fraud lately – most of it tinged with apocalyptic implications for the future of independent publishing. I’ve hung back from writing because I’ve been so busy *reading* everything – like this piece by Anil. Or this “expose” by Bloomberg (honestly, this is not a new story!). Or this one by Jason, this by Frederic, this by Doc, or this by Cory.

Cory calls for a new model, and I think he’s right. I’ve been thinking and talking and writing about new models in publishing and media for a good long time. Perhaps now is the time to revive an idea I’ve been on about for years.

Because as Tim points out, quoting Schrage, great new companies aren’t created by assuming that we keep doing things the way they’ve always been done. They instead demand that we alter our behavior entirely, because the benefit is so great. As Ben put it, publishers need to rethink their business models. In a private post on his daily (subscription-based) newsletter, Ben further points out that the iPhone didn’t succeed because it followed the generally acceptable rules of Clayton Christensen’s famous disruption thesis, it worked precisely because it didn’t. It created so much value that people were willing to change their behavior, from using a phone to call and text people, to using it to connect them to the Internet and its extraordinarily broad set of services. Same goes for Facebook, Uber, and many other “unicorns” that have forced new behaviors (sharing all our data into a central platform, shifting from flagging a cab to pushing a button, etc.).

So this begs the question: What is the new set of behaviors consumers might adopt with regard to publishing? And what might be the 10x shift in value creation that augurs such a shift? Might there be an antlered pony buried within all this fraud and ad-blocking horseshit?

First the (somewhat easier) bit – the new set of behaviors. To me this has to do with the relationship of publisher and reader/audience member. The rise of free content on the Web has broken what was previously a clear one-to-one relationship: reader subscribed to a periodical, delivering demographic and geographic data in the process. Now, that relationship has been re-aggregated through a crazy quilt of advertising technologies seeking to identify who you are and what you might want. This “advertising industrial complex” has led to the conditions we all now lament – hundreds of data-sucking ad trackers on most web pages, slow load times, crappy ads, and massive fraud which takes advantage of a disjointed and leaky ecosystem.

But what if user behavior actually reverted to a direct, one to one relationship between publisher and reader? What if that data that advertisers so openly covet – your name, age, zip code, interests, etc. – was held by the *reader*, instead of the publisher or the adtech industry? And what if, upon coming to a new site for the first time, that site simply asked “will you please share your data with us, so we may serve you the best and most appropriate ads?” If you say no, perhaps the content doesn’t load. But why say no – if you’re in control and the data will only make your life better?

I’ve argued for just such a model in We Have Yet to Clothe Ourselves In Data. We Will. The bit that has to flip is summarized in this quote:

We lack an ecosystem that encourages innovation in data use, because the major platforms hoard our data. This is retarded, in the nominal/verb sense of the word. Facebook’s picture of me is quite different from Google’s, Twitter’s, Apple’s, or Acxiom’s*. Imagine what might happen if I, as the co-creator of all that data, could share it all with various third parties that I trusted? Imagine further if I could mash it up with other data entities – be they friends of mine, bands I like, or even brands?

It’s insane that as consumers we outsource our data wardrobe to Facebook, Apple, Google, and the hot mess that is the adtech industry. The consumer behavior I believe will change our world, and by extension the economics of publishing and advertising, is a shift in control of our own data from third party platforms to ourselves as the platform. Put in Internet terms, from the server to the node (we’re the nodes). If this happens, all manner of innovation and efficiency will erupt.

But the rub lies in the second part of this innovation equation: What will be the astonishing, disruptive force that drives such a shift? What is the Uber or Facebook or iPhone that will drive this shift in data use behavior?

God, if I knew that…I’d start that company. But I sense when it does break out (and I am certain it will), it will seem hugely obvious. How frustrating to not know what it is. Like a vivid dream lost seconds after waking, it haunts me every day. Any ideas?!

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This Is How We Pick A NewCo

By - August 31, 2015

Over on the NewCo site, I’ve updated our explanation of how we chose NewCos around the world (1,100 or so so far). Here’s that post for those readers at Searchblog who might be interested. 

Since we launched NewCo’s festivals in late 2012, tens of thousands of people have experienced the unique NewCo model of “getting out to get in.” Thousands of NewCos have opened their doors in cities as varied as London, Austin, San Francisco, Detroit, Palo Alto, New York, Cincinnati and Amsterdam. Upcoming cities include Istanbul, Los Angeles, Portland, Mexico City and Boulder.

A year or so ago we published a “What Makes a NewCo” — our second attempt to qualify what we mean when we call a company a “NewCo.” (Our first version was published 18 months ago). Below is our third pass, and if you read it carefully, you can see what we hope is an evolution toward clarity and a shared point of view on a much larger narrative unfolding across both business and society.

In the coming months, we’ll be expanding our scope beyond festivals and into editorial media. As we do, we will begin to quantify the question of what makes a NewCo, with metrics including employee reviews, social media sentiment, various research partnerships, and more. But for now, we’re eager to hear your feedback on this third version explaining both how we decide which companies are invited onto the NewCo Platform.

A Bit of Background

Driven by capitalism’s central motive of profit, corporations have become one of the most powerful actors on the global stage. In the past century, corporations have amassed more wealth, power, and authority than most governments and all the major religions. But at their core, corporations are just people and processes. And over the past two decades, in parallel with the rise of the Internet, those people have begun a quiet revolution that is redefining what a “corporation” can be, both in terms of its purpose, as well as its processes.

The global economy is transitioning from hierarchies of command and control to more flexible networks of coordination and cooperation. A new kind of organization — one that measures its success by more than profit alone — has emerged. We call these companies “NewCos.” As the networked, information-first economy has taken hold, NewCos are building innovative, purpose-driven ways of doing business. As a result, these corporations are taking a central role in driving societal change — at the exact moment our society requires historic change if it is to remain sustainable.

The people of a NewCo see their work as more than punching a clock or doing a job. They believe work can equate with passion, community, and a force for positive change.

NewCo’s mission is to identify these new engines of economic and social change, and to offer a platform for the stories and communities they foster. But how do we chose a NewCo? A number of core principles guide our selection process:

A NewCo …

Is on a mission to create positive change. Sure, any company can have a mission, but a NewCo sees itself as on a mission to change its chosen market — or even the world — for the better. Most NewCos embrace the profit motive (although nonprofits and civic organizations can be NewCos as well), but they are about more than making money. Often NewCos enter established markets that have “always worked that way” and imagine a better (or entirely new) way of conducting business. Their mission becomes making that better way happen.

Is driven by an idea, and tells a story. NewCos are about a big idea, one that drives their mission and purpose as an organization. The company becomes the storyteller of that idea — the narrative actor making that idea come to life. This core story is what we call “the NewCo Narrative” — it’s what you say after declaring “I visited this fascinating company last week, and they’ve got this amazing…” NewCo people love to tell their company’s story — it’s a deeply felt part of their identity.

…and is driven by its people. At the core of every NewCo are the people who comprise the organization, and the community the organization serves. A NewCo is never a “faceless corporation.” It’s more like a band — a group of people coming together to create something that adds value to the world.NewCos also believe that the more diverse the people who comprise the company, the more robust that company’s culture will become. Moreover, the manner by which these people organize and pursue their work is driven by a new and evolving set of social mores. NewCos are actively involved in renegotiating the social contract of work. NewCos strive to make work a pursuit, rather than just a job.

Loves the work. NewCos are reinventing what work means and how it’s done. NewCos believe work can be joyous — it does not have to suck. NewCos view “work” as a positive expression of identity — they strive to integrate life and work, rather than merely “balance” them. To that end, NewCo workspaces are powerful collective expression of a company’s identity. That’s why NewCos love to open their doors and welcome visitors inside.

Is information first. Old models of corporate command and control were predicated on a scarcity model around physical resources (commodities), physical energy (fuel/power), and human energy (“human resources”). Inasmuch as it mattered, “information” was a tertiary concern, used mainly as a management tool. But as the world becomes information, NewCos organize to optimize or rethink information flows. Hence, Impossible Foods is rethinking food as information flows, Airbnb is rethinking hospitality as information flows, and DocuSign is rethinking the information flows of paper documents.

Critical to this is an appreciation of platform economics. The rise of the Internet economy has hastened a shift to firms acting as platforms for extended networks of customers, suppliers, partners, and even competitors. NewCos are either platforms in their own right, and/or they understand how to participate in the platform ecosystem of open collaboration and considered data sharing.

Trusts the open, and is open to trust. The word “open” has many meanings, but for NewCos, “open” has a clear test: When faced with a choice between a closed and controlling approach versus one that requires trusting your partners, employees, or community, a NewCo tilts toward the latter. This applies to much more than technology stacks — it includes approaches to partnerships, transparency, and community as well. Trust is the currency of the NewCo economy.

Is of the City. NewCos revel in the tapestry of cities — their pulse, their diverse communities, and their density of networks, information and humanity. The “tangled bank” of a city has the resources, connectivity, and the infrastructure that naturally build new kinds of companies. The NewCo movement is born of city centers, large and small.

Acts Like a Citizen. NewCos realize their value comes from serving their communities — their customers, sure, but also any community where the NewCo has an impact. NewCos believe you get back what you give to your community. And when you’re truly connected to your communities, no one has the energy to be an asshole. In addition, companies understand that they are being given more and more rights (ie, Citizens United) — but with those rights come deep responsibilities.

If you are interested in learning more about NewCo, sign up for our newsletter here, or attend our upcoming events in San Francisco and/or Oakland!

Spanning SF and Oakland: The First Ever NewCo Bay Bridge Festival Lineup Is Out!

By - August 20, 2015

Bay Bridge banner

While NewCo has been celebrating unique San Francisco companies for three years, 2015 is the first year we’ve produced our hometown festival with a fully staffed and funded team. And it shows: We’re adding Oakland as a companion city to San Francisco this year, and more than 200 companies will be opening their doors for a four-day festival this October 5th through 8th – by far the largest festival we’ve ever produced.

In case you’ve missed our other posts about NewCo festivals, NewCo is a unique, city-based event that turns traditional business conferences inside out. Instead of sitting in a stuffy hotel ballroom and hearing an endless queue of startup CEOs pitching from the stage, NewCo attendees get out into the modern working city, and get inside the headquarters of the city’s most interesting and inspiration companies, hearing from the founders and senior teams in their native environment. Just as Airbnb (an SF NewCo) creates more intimate and distributed travel experiences by taking people out of sterile hotels and into the homes of hosts around the world, NewCo enables its festival goers to experience the “homes” of startups and established companies from a wide array of industries. Each NewCo company is hand selected for its unique mission and the positive change it is creating in its chosen market.

There’s a lot of goodness and new features to this year’s Bay Bridge Festival (the moniker we’ve given the combination of Oakland and San Francisco). First off, of course, is the addition of Oakland to the lineup. Often called the Brooklyn of San Francisco, Oakland has become a major center of innovation in its own right, with its own particular strengths in clean energy, social impact, food & hospitality, and of course tech and Internet. On Thursday October 8th, Oakland will shine. Check out a sampling of Oakland NewCos opening their doors: Kapor Center for Social Impact, SchoolZilla,, Gracenote, City of Oakland, Blue Bottle Coffee, Allotrope Partners, Numi Organic Tea, 99designs, and Sungevity.

We’ll end the Oakland festival with a special meetup at The New Parish, an awesome music venue right in the center of Oakland’s vibrant Uptown entertainment district. Our Oakland VIP kickoff is Oct. 7th at the stunning offices of Gensler – some of the best views in the bay, and given Gensler’s reputation as one of the finest architectural firms in the world, these offices are not to be missed.

NewCo San Francisco will kick off on Oct. 5th with a VIP event at WeWork’s downtown offices. Over the following two days you’ll have a chance to visit some of the most intriguing companies on the planet, including Airbnb, Slack, AltSchool, SV Angel, The Battery, Lyft, PCH, Compass Family Services, San Francisco Mayor’s Office, Twitter, Bloomberg, Leap Motion, Pinterest, One Medical,  Betabrand, Cloudera, Medium, LiveRamp, LinkedIn, Google, Uber, and more than 125 others.

This year we’ve added a lunch hour, a much requested respite, and NewCo itself will provide lunch at our Presidio headquarters on day two (October 7th). We’ve also added a meetup at the end of day one, at the headquarters of Westfield Labs in the center of the Westfield Mall on Market Street. We’ll be adding even more special events as we get closer to the actual dates, so be sure to check the schedule early and often. This one promises to be our best event ever (though to be honest, it’ll be hard to beat what Amsterdam, Austin, and Cincinnati pulled off earlier this year!)

NewCo works like a music festival: There are 10-15 companies “playing” at any given time, so you have to chose which one you want to attend. Most companies fill up quickly, so smart attendees register early and pick their schedules right away, to insure their spot (Google, Pandora, Blue Bottle, Airbnb, and Slack are nearly full!). We’ve got an early bird discount going for the next week or so, and our goal is to have more than 3,000 festival goers celebrating the best companies in San Francisco and Oakland. Register now – I look forward to seeing you out and about two of the best cities in the world!


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. 

NewCo Cincinnati Is Next Week. Here Are The Companies I’m Getting Inside

By - July 16, 2015

NewCoCincyI know I rave about all the NewCo cities, but once again I am picking my companies from a new festival lineup – and once again, I’m blown away. Next week is NewCo Cincinnati, and wow – what a stellar group of companies to chose from. Our partner Cintrifuse has really killed it – an impressive list of sponsors (P&G, SnapChat, BuzzFeed, Google!) and an even more impressive list of host companies. From arts to private/public partnerships to tech startups to food (and beer!), who knew Cincinnati was such a hub of NewCo innovation? Check out my picks for NewCo Cincy:

Weds, July 22, 6:30 pm: VIP Kickoff – @84.51 – Ill be there with the Mayor and the founders, movers, and shakers behind Cincy’s more than 80 NewCos (as well as the conductor of Cincy’s own symphony!). The program also features Nestle bigwig Pete Blackshaw, who left P&G more than a decade ago to start a company in what was a pretty bad area of town (but is now a hotbed of NewCo activity).

Thursday, July 23

9 am: Tom+Chee These guys had me at the session title: “Happiness Is A Grilled Cheese Donut”. This foodie outfit has a unique franchise model (so does NewCo), so I can’t wait to learn how they do it. Plus, we get to make our own grilled cheese on site! Wish I could go, but….Cintrifuse (our partner!), OTR Chamber of Commerce (advocates for Cincy’s “Over the Rhine” startup neighborhood), Strap (Internet of Things play).

10:30 am: Cincinnati Symphony & Pops Orchestra – This session will be led by conductor John Morris Russell, a local legend. I know almost nothing about symphony orchestras, and I’m curious how they plan to stay relevant in a NewCo world.  Wish I could go, but…Intelemage (innovative health tech), Ahalogy (full already!).

12:00 pm: LOTH, Inc.I’m deeply interested in the future of work as it relates to our more spiritual, purpose driven goals.  LOTH, a workplace design firm, is doing a session on workplace well being, which is a key part of the NewCo narrative. Wish I could have gone: 84.51, Xavier University, Taft Museum, First Batch. 

1:30 pm: Braxton Brewing Company. Look, the session is “The Taproom of the Future.” In! But there are so many other great orgs presenting this hour: The Brandery, Zipscene, and LISNR among them.

3:00 pm: Rockfish. A Cincy stalwart, Rockfish has been a core player in the growth of the city’s technology core. Though I’ve met folks who work there, I’ve never seen their offices, and it’s high time I go. Love that NewCo makes that possible. Wish I could go: REDI Cincinnati, Rivertown Brewing Company, OCEAN Accelerator.  

4:30 pm: Procter & Gamble. I’ve been coming to Cincinnati for ten years, mainly to see P&G. But this will be their first ever NewCo session – titled “Dancing with the Elephant.” I can’t wait! Wish I coulda gone: Skinny Mom, The Garage, Urban Artifact. 

5:30 pm: Festival Meetup @ Christian Moerlein Taproom. There are half a dozen breweries on this NewCo lineup – so it’s fitting the meetup is at one as well! I can’t wait to share stories of what the nearly 1,000 Cincinnati festival goers have learned.

If you’ve ever wanted to understand the Queen City, make your plans to hit NewCo Cincinnati next week. I’ll see you there!

Get Out, And Get Into Silicon Valley: SurveyMonkey, Google, GoPro, FlipBoard, & So Many More

By - May 22, 2015

Brian and I on SurveyMonkey’s rooftop last year.

New York is in the can (what a great event!) and next up, for those of us in the US anyway, is NewCo Silicon Valley. I won’t be able to actually attend NewCo SV, as I’ll be on the road visiting NewCo Amsterdam and NewCo Istanbul. But If I could go to Silicon Valley, these are the companies I’d pick to attend:

Day 1 – Monday June 8th

 5:00 pm – VIP Kickoff At SurveyMonkey – This is a bittersweet choice, in that our kickoff speaker was to have been Dave Goldberg, who suddenly passed away while on vacation earlier this month. It’s a terrible loss for all of us in the Valley community, and of course we reached out to his family at SurveyMonkey and offered to cancel or move our kickoff so that the company could mourn. But in an expression of what makes Dave such a beloved person, the folks at SurveyMonkey insisted on keeping the kickoff event on their amazing rooftop deck. Dave was extremely proud of the LEED certified building he designed in the heart of Palo Alto, and this kickoff, hosted by my partner and NewCo Board Director Brian Monahan, will be a very special event indeed.

Day 2 – Tuesday June 9th

10:00 am – GoPro. Zander Lurie, a good friend of Dave’s, was to speak, but is now interim CEO at SurveyMonkey. No matter, whoever speaks, I’d want to hear the story of Go Pro, which is truly one of the most inspiring new kinds of companies in the Valley. If there were two (or more) of me, I’d also want to hit Survey Monkey and LinkedIn (almost full).

12:00 pm – Google. Google is doing two sessions this year at NewCo SV, and this one on the future of search and apps promises to be a deep dive on Google’s mobile plans. You must prequalify to attend this session, as it’s intended for developers (I’m not sure they’d let me come!). Other great sessions include Silicon Valley Innovation Center and Quixey.

2:00 pm – Tesla. C’mon, you have to go to a factory tour if you can! This is another qualified session – they are looking for senior level attendees and it looks to be sold out already. That can change if the company opens up more slots, or folks drop out, but if you can’t make Tesla, there are a lot of other great options: Institute for the Future, CourseTalk, and CareLinx would be in the running for me.

4:00 pm – HighFive. Slick and affordable video conferencing for the other 95%? Sign me up. I’d love to check this out – as much as I love Google Hangouts, truth is it’s not very reliable. But I can’t afford a high end solution. Enter High Five. Not into videoconferencing? Check out StartX, Intel, or Cask.

Day 3 – Weds. June 10th

10:00 am – HealthTap. I’m fascinated by the intersection of the NewCo economy and healthcare, and HealthTap plays squarely in the middle of it. Though I’ll admit it’s hard to miss Walmart, Polyvore, and BetterWorks, which would be my runners up.

12:00 pm – Matternet. An Internet in the sky for drone-based delivery? Yes please! And if not Matternet, then check out HealthLoop (I’m an investor so I’m very familiar with the company) or Flipboard.

2:00 pm – Mozilla. I’m in the tank for Mozilla’s open web philosophy, and Mozilla’s storied founder is speaking. But if you’re looking for something else, check out Singularity University or Cloudera. Both are Diamond Pass only at this point, but worth the upgrade price IMHO.

4:00 pm – Unshackled. Fascinating NewCo story here, focused on empowering entrepreneurs on work visas. If that’s not your thing, check out Scanadu or Acxiom (I’m on the Board).

6:00 pm – Meetup at Location TBD. Well, I know where the meetup is…but we can’t announce it quite yet. Trust me though, it’ll be a lot of fun!

If reading my picks whetted your appetite to spend a couple days getting out of your daily routine and into the most fascinating companies in the Valley, register here and get to picking your schedule! Many companies are already sold out, but there are plenty of open sessions left. I’m sorry to miss it this year, but I’ll be reporting from Istanbul and Amsterdam instead. Not a bad trade!


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

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


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).

With Meridian, Sovrn Levels the Playing Field For Publishers

By - March 08, 2015

meridian-logo-invA long, strange, and ultimately rewarding trip, that’s what many involved in the past ten years at Federated Media, Lijit, and now sovrn Holdings might say. One year ago, give or take, we sold FM’s assets to LIN Media, and created sovrn Holdings, a programmatic data business focused on one mission: to foster an ecosystem where independent and influential publishers can thrive.

Sovrn has had an extraordinary year. It’s led the way in the fight against fraud, and has one of the cleanest networks in the industry. It’s a profitable, fast-growing business, and it’s more than quadrupled its network CPM – an amazing feat that is a testament to both eliminating fraud, as well as focusing on data science – understanding the reams of data the network throws off each day, and putting it to work for its 20,000+ publishers. And it’s that focus on data science that has led to sovrn’s latest crowning achievement: The launch of meridian, sovrn’s completely rethought publisher platform.

Meridian is a cooperative data-driven platform. So what does that mean? Publishers integrate with meridian – mainly because of its advertising platform – and when they do, they share their collective audience, advertising, and other data.  Because sovrn has massive scale, we can share back information to publishers that no other platform offers – and we can do it for free.

So that’s what we’re doing. Meridian is a rich insights platform, featuring information about audience segments that was previously the domain of ad buyers alone. I’m excited about this for many reasons, but the main one comes down to this: For too long smaller publishers operated in the dark: They didn’t know who was buying their inventory, for how much, or how they stacked up against similar inventory across the Internet. Meridian is changing that. Over the coming months, sovrn will build more and more information sharing into the platform, all with the same goal: To level the playing field so that buyer and seller are on equal footing.

I’m super proud to be Chair of sovrn Holdings, and proud of CEO Walter Knapp and his entire team today. Congratulations, sovrn, on a major milestone, and here’s to many many more!

A few screen shots of meridian follow.

The main dashboard:


The comparative stats:

Category Comparison meridian

And the audience tab:

Audience Tab meridian