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What Will Search Look Like In Mobile? A Visit With Jack

By - December 18, 2014

I’ve come across any number of interesting startups in my ongoing grok of the mobile world (related posts: 1, 2, 3).  And the pace has quickened as founders have begun to reach out to me to share their work. As you might expect, there’s a large group of folks building ambitious stuff – services that assume the current hegemony in mobile won’t stand for much longer. These I find fascinating – and worthy of deeper dives.

First up is Jack Mobile, a stealthy search startup founded a year or so ago by Charles Jolley, previously at Facebook and Apple, and Mike Hanson, a senior engineer at Mozilla and Cisco who early in his career wrote version 1.0 of the Sherlock search app for Apple. Jack was funded early this year by Greylock, where Mike was an EIR.

I’d link to something about Jack – but there’s pretty much nothing save a single page asking “What Is Jack?” Now that Charles and Mike have given me a peek into what Jack is in fact all about, I can report that it’s fascinating stuff, and at its heart is the problem of search in a post web world, followed quite directly by the problem of search’s UI overall. Whn you break free from the assumptions of sitting at a desk in front of a PC, what might search look like? What is search when your device is a phone, or a watch, or embedded in your clothing or the air around you?

Jack is trying to answer that question, and the team is rethinking some core user interface assumptions along the way.

Search on mobile is by almost any measure broken – the core assumptions of what makes search work on the web are absent on your device. On your phone, there are no links to index, no publicly accessible commons of web pages to crawl and analyze. Just a phalanx of isolated chiclets – disconnected apps, each focused on a particular service. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to search in mobile, in fact, we search a lot on our phones. But the results we get ain’t that great. In the main, that’s because when we search on our phone, we get answers from…the web. But as Jolley and Hanson pointed out, answers from the web often fail when presented to us in the context of mobile.

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Mobile search queries are just…different. Let’s explore why:

- Context. When you search on your phone (or later, on any “liberated” device), you’re more likely than not in completely different context from when you’re “on the web.” Mobile searches tend to be service related – “How do I get to this address,” and/or location driven: “What are good nightspots nearby.”

- Query & Corpus. Because of this context, *what* we want to search is focused in a far smaller potential corpus of material. Mobile searches tend to have one exact answer – we aren’t loking for a list of links that we then want to peruse, we want an answer to a specific contextual question – mobile searches bias toward service and action as the query result. That means search’s presumptive barrier of completeness (the cost Google bears of keeping the entire Internet in RAM, for example) is not a barrier on mobile. You don’t have to have ALL the possible information “indexed” – just the right information.  And what information is that? Well, that leads us to ….

- Signal. With mobile, rich new signals are available that could (and should) inform search results (but don’t). Certainly the most robust such signal is your current location, but that’s just the start. Others include your location history (where you’ve been), the apps loaded on your phone, your usage history with those apps,  and the structure inherent in those apps to begin with. Which begs a huge possible difference in…

- User Interface. Search on mobile, for now, is identical to search on the web. It’s a command line interface, where you type in your query, and you get blue links for results. Google’s been working hard to address this, and the combination of its universal search product, which surfaces “one true answer”, with voice search, is a real step forward. But the folks at Jack showed me another potential search interface for mobile, and I found it quite compelling. That approach? Well, I’d call it “conversational.”

The Conversational Search Interface

Way back in 2004 I met with Gary Flake, then a senior technology executive at Overture, a leading search firm of the day (Yahoo! later acquired Overture, which fueled Yahoo!’s search results until the Microsoft deal in 2009.) Even way back then, before mobile was a thing, I was frustrated with search’s interface.

I asked him why we couldn’t move forward in search interface – the “ten blue links” approach was so … flat. I wanted to ask one question, get results, and then ask another. Or better yet, I wanted the service to ask me a question – “You entered ‘Jaguars’ – did you mean the football team, the car, the cats, or something else?” Gary looked at me ruefully and said something I’ve never forgotten: “If only I had just one modal dialog box…”

What he meant was that search, at that point, was a race for the best ten blue links, and anything that got in the way of that, like a modal dialog box that popped up and asked a refining question, would mean that a very large percentage of folks would abandon the search. And abandonment of the search meant loss of revenue.

But that idea – of search as a series of back and forth exchanges, a conversation if you will – has always stuck with me. So imagine my surprise when Jolley and Hanson showed me a very early prototype of Jack Mobile’s search interface and it looked like….a conversation!

Jolley and Hanson have asked me to not report the details of their prototype interface, but suffice to say, it’s quite different, and it looks and feels far more like a back and forth than anything on the web. It’s delightful, and using the service is also cool. Jack knows where you are, so if you ask it “Guardians of the Galaxy” it’ll find showtimes near where you are, and return that information as the result. If you ask it “Italian restaurants,” Jack won’t give you a list of places with the most Google+ reviews – it’ll give you highly rated eateries near where you are right now, perhaps enhanced by reviews relevant to you given the fact that you have the GrubHub or OpenTable app on your phone.

Takeaways

Jack is still in very early stages, but the co-founders had a number of key insights from their work so far. The first has to do with completeness – while long tail edge cases rule the roost in web search, mobile has far more distribution of “head end” search – which means you can narrow your indexing and your algorithms and still satisfy a large majority of queries.

Also, mobile search is deeply personal – there’s almost no such thing as one size fits all result. In mobile, results should be rewarded because they are the most likely answer, not because a ranking system has pre-determined them as most authoritative. Searching for “BMW 3 series” while standing at a Mercedes dealership should most certainly bring a different result than the same search from a Taco Bell on Interstate 5. While personalized search has become a mainstream attribute of Google, the truth is, it’s quite shallow – on the web, Google knows precious little about you. But your phone knows quite a bit. Unlocking all that data is still too hard, but it’s coming.

But perhaps the most interesting implication of Jack’s approach to search lies in how it might drive a new ecosystem between “publishers” and “audience members.” Web search, Hanson points out, is all about the consumer – the creator of the web page is a second-class citizen, stuck in a suckers’ deal of sorts: You have to “publish” your presence on the web, or risk irrelevance, but you are entirely at the mercy of black box forces you don’t understand when it comes to how people might find you. Hanson posits a different model for Jack’s index, one in which publishers deliver their app and content structures to Jack via a proprietary feed of discrete, small units tagged to specific query types.  If this sounds a bit like semantic search, well it is. Hanson, a veteran of open web standards fights via his work at Mozilla, told me he has “deep scar tissue” around the topic, but at the same time, he and Jolley sense that with mobile, a new kind of level playing field just might allow semantic, personalized search to truly emerge.

There are far more questions than answers hanging over Jack, but that’s why it’s interesting – here’s a small, well funded team of search, web, and mobile experts really leaning into a new way to think about a massive problem/opportunity set. It’s certainly one to watch in 2015.

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What Media Must Do To Succeed

By - December 15, 2014
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Wired Founder Louis Rossetto at work in the early days.

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Man, there’s been a ton of hand wringing over “the media” of late, from all the fuss over First Look and the New Republic to questions about whether a publication can survive if it’s not at 20-30mm uniques and growing – like current darlings Vox, BuzzFeed, and Vice.

To me, just one question matters when it comes to a publication and whether it has a chance of long term success: Is it a must read?

Back when we were just starting Wired – 22 years ago – I remember coming into founder Louis Rossetto’s office with some pressing matter. I was the Managing Editor, and it was my job to have a lot of pressing matters – the majority of them tactical in nature. I needed to edit pieces, I needed to get pages out the door, I needed approvals on headlines and captions and budgets and scores of other details. I’m not sure what I needed from Louis that day, but I do recall what he was doing – he was sitting down, a Wall St. Journal spread out across his desk, and he was slowly and deliberately turning the pages, studying the newspaper from front to back.

I had seen him doing this enough to know it was a regular habit, and the pile next to him, consisting of the NY Times, New Yorker, and other long form, old school periodicals – told me he was going to be at it for at least another hour if not more.  As a harried Managing Editor of The Coolest Magazine In The World which covered The Digital Revolution, the idea of steeping myself in “old media” for an hour or more a day seemed insane. If an article in the Journal or the Times was really important, someone would tell me about it in email or on the Web. I interrupted Louis and I asked him: “How can you afford to take the time to do this every day?”

I’ll never forget his response. He looked up, genuinely nonplussed, and said “How can you afford not to?”

Looking back, with the benefit of having sat in Louis’ chair (as CEO of a media startup), I now understand his response. As CEO, Louis had to understand what the most important people in media were reading, and in order to do that, he had to read the Journal, the Times, and the New Yorker, at the very least. These publications were essential reading if he was to be fluent in his core community, the people in that club were the people who would determine Wired’s ability to get funding, to prosper, or to fail.

It may no longer be true that aspiring media chieftans must read the Journal to be fluent in their craft  (certainly not in paper form, any way), but the lesson of that exchange stuck with me. If a publication is going to succeed, it must be required reading for a core of influential people in a given market. At the end of the day, that is what matters most. It’s why Wired worked – lots of people may have wanted to read Wired, but a core group of them felt they had to. For four or so years, the same was true of The Industry Standard. And it was true of many of the best sites that aligned with Federated back in 2005-2010 – TechCrunch, Mashable, and GigaOm among them.

For me, the true test of a publication’s endurance is its convening power – does it bring together the most important people in a given community? If it does, it has the best chance of success, regardless of its overall reach or number of pageviews. Certainly it’s no guarantee of success – you still have to be deft and thoughtful when it comes to making money. But it all starts with that one simple question: Is it a must read? All else flows from that.

 

Google: The Information-First Conglomerate

By - November 21, 2014
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Larry Page on the cover of Fortune, Nov. 13 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, quite a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

Whither the Public Commons? Enter The Private Corporation

By - November 05, 2014

uber-protests-europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

My NewCo Los Angeles Picks

By - October 28, 2014

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

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

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

LAriver9.30 am – LA River Revitalization Corp.

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

theaudience11.00 am – theAudience 

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

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

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

novica3.00 pm – NOVICA

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

docstoc4.30 pm – DocStoc 

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

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

 

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

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

By - October 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Thompson’s “Peak Google” post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By - October 12, 2014
Facebook Atlas

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

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

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

The first such challenge in … forever.

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

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

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

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

Teens are officially over Facebook – The Washington Post

Until they’re not.

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

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

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

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

End-user computing — The Truant Haruspex — Medium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Master Class In Google — Backchannel — Medium

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

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

This interview lit up the Interwebs big time last week.

You are not your browser history. — Medium

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

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

Spoiler: It’s Alcatel-Lucent.

The NSA and Me – First Look

Veteran NSA watcher James Bamford tells his story.

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

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

My Picks for NewCo Silicon Valley – Searchblog

NewCo SV is next week!

Living Systems and The Information First Compan- Searchblog

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

Living Systems and The Information First Company

By - October 11, 2014
uber map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earnest

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

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

earnest2

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

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

My Picks for NewCo Silicon Valley

By - October 09, 2014

We’re more than halfway through the NewCo festival season, with Amsterdam, San Francisco, Detroit, New York, and London/UK behind us, and Silicon Valley, Boulder, and Los Angeles coming up.

Next up is Silicon Valley, which goes off Oct. 21 – 23, centered on the axis of Palo Alto. This year’s Silicon Valley festival is a pilot – Silicon Valley is more of an idea than an actual *place* per se – and NewCo tends to thrive in city centers. But we’ve found a great partner this year in the city of Palo Alto, which really is as close to the beating heart of the Valley as any city in the south Bay. After all, it’s where Google, Facebook, and hundreds of other game-changing companies started. So this year we’re piloting NewCo Silicon Valley in two parts – first with visits to a small number of legendary Valley company campuses, and second, with a full day of 30 or so companies based in downtown Palo Alto. Here are the companies I plan to visit this year, and why, along with my “runners up” – companies I wish I could also visit, were there two of me.

Day One – October 21

tesla10 am session: Tesla Motors – Who doesn’t want to get inside this company? Tesla is an exemplar NewCo – using an information-first approach to rethinking a huge market, mission driven, and an inspirational working environment. Runner up: eBay. I visited eBay early this year and was struck by how much its headquarters had changed, from a cube-driven IT farm feel to an open, information-sharing design that mirrored some of the best offices I’ve ever been in.

google1 pm session: Google – I’ll admit, I’ve been to Google a few times already, but every visit is fun, this one will be about the driverless car project.  Both of these sessions are already full, but there’s a waitlist, and past history shows that the waitlist does clear more often than not.

Evening: The VIP Kickoff. This is an invitation only event, but readers of this site can get in by purchasing a VIP ticket here.  The kickoff is a celebration of NewCos (we’ll have five or six presenting quick overviews of their sessions), and in each city we pick a speaker who is emblematic of the region. In Silicon Valley, I’ll be interviewing Ro Khanna, candidate for the Silicon Valley’s congressional seat. Read more about Ro here. Also speaking will be the mayor of Palo Alto. The event will be held in the offices of Survey Monkey, a fixture in Palo Alto with an awesome rooftop deck.

Day Two – October 2

xapo10 am – Xapo. I’m fascinated by the bitcoin story, and the impact many smart folks claim is coming thanks to the blockchain. Xapo founder’s and CEO promises a “bit coin deep dive” in his NewCo session, and I’m all in to learn more. Runner up:  HealthTap, Science Exchange, and Survey Monkey. Oh, and City of Palo Alto. What a time slot!

citi12 pm – Citi Ventures. Very large companies have been coming to the Valley for decades, eager to figure out how to learn and invest in innovation. Citi has embraced this idea for some time, but I’ve never seen how it’s Venture arm works, and I’m eager to learn. Runners Up: Mightybell and Cloudera.

medallia2 pm – Medallia. I am a sucker for any company that has at its core a promise of making customer service and experience better through data and UX. The Sequoia-backed Medallia does both. Runners Up: EAT Club and Fundly.

houzz4 pm – Houzz. I knew that Houzz was a NewCo when I asked my wife if she’d ever been on the site, and she responded “I live on that site. How did you find out about it?” – it was as if I had discovered a secret passion of hers. Runners up: Piazza and WePay.

Day Three – October 23

LI10 am – LinkedIn. I just love this company and it’s been a while since I’ve visited. To me, LinkedIn is the ultimate NewCo when it comes to how work is done. It’s almost full, so sign up now!

scanadu12.30 pm – Scanadu. This innovative health device company is all about the patient revolution – putting power back to teh patient. Oh, and the company is at Nasa Ames, how cool is that? Runners up: Duarte and Polyvore.

yahoo2.30 pm – Yahoo! This Valley legend has so much going on. How will it spend its Alibaba billions? Is Mayer’s turnaround working? Who wouldn’t want to get inside and see how the sausage is made?

If you haven’t experienced a NewCo yet, registration is free, and the experience is extraordinary. More than 10,000 people have experienced NewCo so far – it’s just plain fun to go and, to my mind, a far better use of time than sitting in a dull ballroom all day.