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

By - August 20, 2015

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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, Ask.fm, 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!

 

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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. 

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
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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
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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).

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:

meridian-screenies-of

The comparative stats:

Category Comparison meridian

And the audience tab:

Audience Tab meridian

 

 

Metromile: A FitBit for Your Car

By - January 26, 2015
MetroMile staff

The Metromile staff in front of their SF HQ (Preston is in the red shirt in the back right).

Ever since writing Living Systems and The Information First Company last Fall, I’ve been citing Earnest, the financial services startup, as a poster child for what I mean by an “information-first” company. But earlier this month I met with another perfect exemplar: Metromile, a company that is already upending industrial-age assumptions about what “insurance” should be.**

I’m fascinated by the idea of “potential information” – flows of information that are locked away and unused. Potential information flows live in the imagination of every NewCo – once tapped, they create all manner of new potential value. Metromile is a stellar example of a company that has found a vector into a treasure trove of potential information – the automobile – and is busy turning that information into a new kind of customer experience, one that has the potential to completely retool the utility and value of the insurance business.

But I get ahead of myself. Let’s back up, and start at the beginning. Metromile began as the brainchild of David Friedberg, co-founder and CEO of yet another information-first insurance breakout, Climate Corp. Climate opened up reams of new information flows for the farming industry, and along the way was acquired by agribusiness giant Monsanto for more than $1 billion. Friedberg realized that the lessons of Climate were applicable to consumer insurance, and Metromile was born.

I met with Metromile CEO Dan Preston in his crowded and humming San Francisco headquarters (pictured above). I had heard about Metromile, but my knowledge was limited to their headline: car insurance you pay for by the mile. But I figured the company was up to more than just a cheaper insurance product. On that hunch my chat with Preston did not disappoint.

Metromile does have a deceptively simple premise: those who drive a lot tend to have more accidents, those who drive less, fewer. Simple, no? But it turns out, the way insurance products currently work spreads the risk of those high mileage drivers across the entire pool of the insured. Put another way, if you drive less than 10,000 miles a year, most likely your insurance premiums are higher than they need to be. That’s because insurance companies average out the costs across their entire base of customers, forcing the less risky drivers to cover the costs of those who drive more.

Metronome

The Metronome – Metromile’s vector into a goldmine of potential information flows.

Metromile is the only insurance product on the market that charges by the mile on a retroactive basis – it tracks your miles driven, then calculates your monthly premium in arrears. To do so, it needs access to your vehicle’s diagnostic port – the same access point used by mechanics when they service modern cars (every car since 1996 has such a port).  When you sign up, Metromile sends you a “Metronome” – the same kind of device made famous by Progressive Insurance’s Snapshot, which uses them for data-driven discount products.

If you drive less than 10,000 miles a year, and live in a city environment, chances are you’ll save a lot of money using Metromile. But saving money is just the start of the company’s ambitions. After all, once the Metronome is installed, Metromile begins to collect data about your car and your driving habits. And any good information-first entrepreneur knows that the true value of an enterprise lies in mapping potential information flows. And that little Metronome is a hidden goldmine of such data.

Preston and his team doesn’t see Metromile as just an insurance company. Instead, Metromile is “your friend and ally in owning a car.” An ally with sophisticated data science and a friendly app that delivers much more than monthly savings. From the company’s website:

We aim to make the urban experience of having a car as simple as it can be, by taking our deep understanding of data and transforming it into information and services that make having a car less expensive, more convenient, and simply smarter….With the Metronome in place, the free Metromile app functions as your personal driving dashboard. Use it to track and optimize your gas usage and trips, monitor the health of your car, and locate your car if it’s missing. You can even use it to get automated street sweeping alerts.

And there’s the difference between Metromile and the rest of the insurance business – Metromile sees itself as a services company in the business of helping drivers make more informed choices about their cars. It starts with insurance, but it quickly becomes the voice of your car. Metromile’s app opens a window into the previously opaque world of automotive data and helps you understand all manner of things about your car – if it’s close to breaking down, for example, or if you’re using it in ways that might cause unwanted expenses down the road. When you think about it, Metromile is a fitbit for your car. And that’s pretty darn cool. One to watch, to be sure.

**Because I believe so much in the company, I am considering a small investment in MetroMile. Anytime I write about a company where I am or might be an investor, I will make a practice of noting it – so far, this hasn’t happened yet. As I point out on my disclosures page, I am a fairly active angel investor. 

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!