For the past four years I’ve been honored to help moderate portions of Google’s annual Zeitgeist conference, which assembles a powerful lineup of speakers each year in the Arizona desert. I hosted the last segment of the day, and sat down with astronaut Mark Kelly, who is known for his career as a fighter pilot and Space Shuttle commander, and of course, as the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords. Since Giffords was shot two years ago, and after the terrible Newtown attack, Kelly and Gifford launched Americans for Responsible Solutions, a SuperPAC that is trying to take on the NRA using NRA lobbying tactics. Gabby comes on toward the end and left no one in their seats. Inspirational stuff – one of many such talks at the conference.
(image) Yesterday in the course of my seemingly endless attempt to stay current in this industry, I came across this article on VentureBeat: Searching for the next Zuckerberg: A day in the life of a Lightspeed Fellow. It chronicles the experiences of the chosen few who have made it into a VC-backed incubator, focusing on two Stanford students who are trying to create a new sensor for lap swimming.
I recently took up the sport, and find the gadget interesting. But what really struck me was the casual use of Zuckerberg’s name in the headline, and how it was used in context of the ecosystem that has sprung up in the past five or so years around entrepreneurship. Don’t get me wrong, I think incubators and accelerators are important components of our business ecosystem. But I’ve always liked the fact that anyone with a great idea, access to the Internet, and an unrelenting will can spark a world beating company simply by standing up code on the Internet, and/or leveraging the information and relationship network that is the web. That’s how Facebook started, after all. And Google, and Amazon, Twitter and eBay, and countless others. No gatekeepers, no contests, no hackathons or pre-seed rounds. A great idea, and a great platform: the Web.
I wonder if the next Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg would ever start at Lightspeed, Y Combinator, or TechStars. Certainly amazing companies and ideas have come from inside those estimable establishments, and more will come in the future. But the peculiar fire which drives folks who are truly “the next Zuckerberg” – I wonder if that fire needs stoking from anything else than the Internet itself. If we institutionalize that fire, I think we lose something. A simple page on the open web, offering a service, waiting to be engaged with, to learn from that engagement, to rapidly iterate and grow, to fall down and fail and try again.
In the past few years, entrepreneurship seems to have become a profession, like acting or sales or architecture. On the one hand, that’s a good thing, it means more companies, more jobs, and more great ideas. On the other, something about it strikes me as a bit …forced. I can’t put my finger on it, quite yet, but it centers around the idea that we’re credentializing innovation. That feels somehow off. The beauty of the innovation that flows from the open web is that no one has to ask for permission, get a credential, or win a Disrupt or Launch award to go prove their idea is worthy. They just…put up a page on the web, iterate, iterate, iterate…and eventually, a Facebook emerges.
I may be just an old school dude, reacting to how the kids are doing it now. Maybe – but I never saw starting companies as a career path. I saw it as something I just had to do – the only thing I could do. I plan to spend more time at these incubation spaces, to check my gut and see what I might be missing. Consider this some out loud thinking for a late Tuesday night. What do you think?
Tonight I checked into my hotel room in Chicago as part of my regular cadence of visiting FM’s offices around the country. I flipped on the TV and the local news featured a dismal report about Detroit’s suburbs. The copy of Time magazine I had in my bag, same thing: Detroit Goes Bust.
Well, we all know things are tough in Detroit right now. Which is exactly why we’re bringing OpenCo there next month.
OpenCo is at its core a movement celebrating disruptive businesses that are mission driven. And when I visited there a year ago, I found them in spades – there was a sense of optimism despite the crisis, a feeling of opportunity to start all over, rewrite the rules, begin again. So I’m proud we’ll be highlighting the amazing people and companies who are opening their doors to the public this September.
At the hear of all OpenCo festivals is the Advisory Council, and in Detroit an amazing crew of people have joined the cause. They all believe in not only the OpenCo movement, in the importance of this type of community event when it comes to re-building Detroit. They include serial Valley entrepreneur Jay Adelson (a Detroit native), Director of the Arab American National Museum Devon Akmon, Team Detroit Chief Creative Officer Toby Barlow, Twitter CEO (and Detroit native) Dick Costolo, Professor Jeff DeGraff, uber connector Kerry Doman, New Economy Initiative Executive Director Dave Egner, City of Detroit executive Karla Henderson, GM exec Mary Henige, Meridian Health CIO Tom Lauzon, ePrize founder and Detroit Venture Partner’s CEO Josh Linker, Chrysler exec Neville Manohar, Brightmoor Alliance’s Kirk Mayes, Sue Mosey, President of Midtown Detroit, Inc., Mark Petroff, CEO of Marketing Associates, Benzinga CEO Jason Raznick, Richard Rogers, president of the College for Creative Studies, Wayne State’s Ned Staebler, and Marc Weiser, Managing director and co-founder of RPM Ventures.
That’s quite a list of accomplished folks, all pulling for a new Detroit. For a complete list of the OpenCo/Detroit Advisory Council click here (scroll down to the bottom of the page).
On September 12th, over 60 organizations in Detroit will open their doors and present how their mission and vision contributes to a revitalized Detroit. Some of the featured HostCos include Quicken Loans, Detroit Bus Company, Shinola, Brightmoor Alliance, Detroit Labs and McClure’s Pickles, Action Sports Detroit, Nextek Power Systems, Detroit Venture Partners (featuring nearly 60 companies in its incubator!), Curbed Detroit, Detroit Denim, Chalkfly, Über Detroit and many, many more. Each of these companies reflect the OpenCo values: they are mission driven, open and transparent working hard to make a dent in the universe. We believe strongly in showcasing organizations that exemplify these values because we believe innovation and disruption is what will drive not only the new story of Detroit, but the global economy as well.
Opening up OpenCo and speaking at our VIP Plenary event in the Madison Building on September 11th will be Mayor Dave Bing, as well as Dave Egner, Jeff DeGraff, Ben Bator, Amy Kaheril, Monty Luke and Michelle Srbinovich. It’s going to be a very special event. Huge thanks to American Express OPEN Forum, our tour sponsor, and to Yahoo! and IPG MediaBrands as well.
Registration is now open and it is free to attend these sessions and experience the innovation that’s driving Detroit to a new chapter. Click here to register today and get in on seeing our country’s most compelling urban turn around story. I hope to see you there!
Earlier this year I sat down with a videographer at the Bazaarvoice Summit in Austin. He asked me about the future of marketing, in particular as it related to data and consumer behavior. Given what I announced earlier this morning, I thought you might find this short video worth a view. Thanks to Ian Greenleigh for doing all the work!
One of the key themes in our upcoming book has to do with the interaction of information and the physical world – in particular, how all things physical become “liquid” when activated by just the right information. But when you’re writing (and thinking out loud) about this topic, it’s easy to fall into an academic cadence, because information theory is a thicket – just try reading “The Information” in one sitting, for example.
So I’ve found it’s best to just tell stories instead (and to be honest, I’d wager that nearly all information theory should be reduced to narrative, because narrative is how we as humans make sense of information, but I digress). Here’s a story that happened just this past weekend.
If you’ve been reading for more than a year, you know that I spend a good part of August working on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. It’s a special place where my great grandmother settled in the 19th century, the kind of place where you visit graveyards with your kids to remind them of their own history, then hit a carousel and ice cream shop in the afternoon.
Anyway, this year my time on the island is unfortunately brief, what with my coming back to FM and various other entanglements. So every day “on island” is a precious one. Last week my son and I went on an East Coast college tour, driving from Washington DC (Georgetown, American) through Pennsylvania (Bucknell, etc) to Boston (Northeastern, BU, etc). After touring MIT on Friday, we decided to come to the Island a day early, on Sat. That way we could open up the rental house, get the car, and prepare for the rest of our family – my wife and two daughters – who were flying in on Sunday.
On Sunday my son and I were settled into our rental, eagerly awaiting Mom and sisters’ arrival. They landed in Boston just fine, but hit a major hitch with their connection on a tiny airline called Cape Air. Now Cape Air’s largest plane seats about 8 people, as they specialize in one thing – hopping from Boston down to the Islands. Apparently some cross winds and rain fouled up the routes, and long story short, my family’s flight was delayed for two hours, then cancelled altogether (oh, and they lost my wife’s luggage too). By then, it was almost 9pm, and too late to drive the 80 miles down from Boston to the ferry in Falmouth, which is the only other way to get to the island. (The last ferry leaves at 9.45 pm).
We were all distraught – there they were, just 80 miles away, but with no way to get to us. We were going to lose one of our precious days on the island, and it just stunk.
Then a fellow stranded passenger mentioned a possible solution to my wife: There was a service in Falmouth that aggregated private commercial boats for use as water taxis. Maybe they’d be able to help?
My wife mentioned this to me, and sure enough, a quick Google search found them. At 8.30 pm I called the service and “Captain Jim” hooked me up with another lobster boat captain ready to take my family across the sound, even late at night. Awesome!
But we still needed to get the girls that 80 miles down to Falmouth, and it was past “business hours.” I’ve used a lot of car services in my business life, and I know that they are not exactly very flexible – you have to make a reservation well in advance, and they cost a lot of money for long drives. I wasn’t expecting much, but I started calling as many as I could find, asking if they had any cars near Boston’s Logan airport *right now*.
The car services I called acted exactly as one might expect. Two put me on interminable hold while the “checked to see if they had a car near the airport.” A third flat out refused to try. A fourth asked me to put the girls into a taxi and send them back into downtown Boston, where they might have a car. And so on.
That’s when I tweeted this out:
Hey @uber you need the ability for people to drop pins for their friends/family in other locations. I’d do that ALOT
— John Battelle (@johnbattelle) July 29, 2013
And this is when the story starts to get interesting, in terms of liquid, information-driven markets interacting with the physical world. It turns out, Uber *does* have the ability for someone to drop a pin remotely, I just didn’t know it – I didn’t have *the information* I needed. Twitter solved that in an instant, as one of my followers quickly clued me in about how to do it. In two minutes I was called by an Uber driver at the airport, who was ready to whisk my family down to the waiting lobster boat. An hour and a half later, I picked them up on a private dock near the house. What the private boat service and Uber did was take inactive, physical objects, in this case a Lincoln towncar and a fishing boat, and turn them into kinetic, liquid, real-time addressable assets. And the main reason this was possible? Information cycling through a digital foundation of cell phone towers, Google, and apps like Uber.
What’s even more interesting about this story are the economics: The cost to fly three people via Cape Air to the Island was nearly 25% *more* than taking Uber and the chartered water taxi. Add to this the fact that the Uber driver was far more friendly and eager to please than your typical car service guy, and the water taxi was both fun and nearly twice as fast as the ferry.
In short, having the a liquid, information-driven market of cars and boats created a cheaper, faster, and way more enjoyable experience for my family. That’s a great thing, to my mind, and it makes me optimistic about the coming liquid economy. But if I operated Cape Air or Carey Limousine, I’d be more than nervous right about now….
Yesterday I took my son to the MIT Media Lab, hallowed ground for me, as reading Stewart Brand’s 1988 “The Media Lab” propelled me toward helping to create Wired magazine, where I edited the founding Director of the Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, for five years (he wrote the back column of the magazine).
For this visit, I met up with David Kong, one of the lab’s alumni wizards, who took us on a whirlwind tour of the place (David’s work on microfluidics is, I believe, some of the most important stuff being done today, but more on that in another post). I spent a day there last summer with Director Joi Ito, and it’s amazing to see how much progress can be made in a year.
Instead of describing everything, I think I’ll let video do the work – one of the Lab’s core values is to always be demo’ing, and my son and I saw half a dozen incredible projects, all demo’d by the people who created them.
First up was the Opera of the Future group, which evolved out of the HyperInstruments lab. Akito Van Troyer gave us a tour of the components used in the recently staged “Death and the Powers” piece, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer in music. Here’s some video of that performance:
Akito also turned us onto a very cool beat machine he built as a side project, a hack based on actuators and tempo that turns anything into a percussion instrument. Here’s a video of that I found on YouTube:
After that we went to see Xiao Xiao, who works in the Lab’s Tangible Media group (this is the part of the Lab most directly connected to the themes of the upcoming book). She showed us the MirrorFugue, which is just amazing, in particular, to sit down at the keyboard as it’s playing. It’s magical, which is pretty much the goal of the entire Lab. Here’s a video of that:
You can probably sense a theme by now – all this work is about blurring the lines between physical and digital, atoms and bits. An extraordinary world is soon to be settled by pioneers in this space, and we’re all of us fascinated by it – it’s why we love the idea (if not necessarily the look) of Google Glass, or 3D printing (I met the co-founder of FormLabs while at the Lab), or cool gadgets like the NFC ring.
The Media Lab is a place where folks are actively creating the future. Over and over, I heard this refrain: “I took some off the shelf parts, hacked them together, and wrote some code.” Simple, right?
One example: Makey Makey, which went viral earlier this year with the “banana piano.” The idea is bigger than turning fruit into keyboards, however. It’s about making nearly anything physical a portal into the digital world, and bringing the digital right back into the physical. I met with Eric Rosenbaum, one of the creators, in his lab, which is called “Lifelong Kindergarten” (yeah, I know.) Here’s a short video about Makey Makey:
As the border between physical and digital gets more permeable, a new kind of literacy emerges. And that literacy is built on a foundation of code – whether it’s the codes of letters and words, or the code of bits and algorithms. Rosenbaum showed me Scratch, a graphical programming language used by hundreds of thousands of kids across the world. I’m determined to learn how to code, at least enough to be dangerous (I took classes in Pascal about 30 years ago…). Maybe Scratch is where I’ll start.
Next up I met Dan Novy, from the Lab’s Object-Based Media Group. He showed us a number of great projects he’s working on, including holo-presence (with a sense of humor, see photo at top) and new forms of augmented experience. Check out this video about redefining the home entertainment experience:
Dan also took us into a small room with a voice aware projection device in the center. Using his voice, Dan told a children’s story, and the four walls of the room lit up with visual images related to the storybook. It’s early days, but we discussed what might happen when this device is miniaturized and connected to consumer “narrative catchers” like Facebook, Path, Google Glass, and the like. Also next to the projector was an object – what it is, it doesn’t matter, but for this example it was a bottle of perfume – and when you pick up that object, “memories” related to that object are projected onto the walls. So imagine what might happen when you pick up that ornament from Christmas three years ago and hang it on the tree, and images from that Christmas past flash onto your home’s walls….
The last demo we saw was perhaps the most well known of Dan’s group’s work. In essence, they turned a basketball net into a data collection device, so as to measure the force of a slam dunk. The technology is amazing, watch Dan talk about it here:
The Media Lab is truly an extraordinary place, and seeing it with my son made it even more magical. I’ve toured it a few times now, but I’ll never tire of coming back. The work happening there is helping to define the world all our kids will be living in soon.
It’s been pretty obvious from the stock price, but LinkedIn, which I’ve written about every so often, is really on a roll lately. The influencer content play (which I will admit I’ve been part of, in a small way) is a clear winner, the company is enjoying very positive press, and its premium services are getting really interesting as well.
Just today I got an email from the company titled “What’s new with people you know?” I found it compelling in a way that emails from nearly every other service I use – Twitter, Facebook, or Google – are not. CEO Jeff Weiner tells me that this email has been sent out every six months for the past three years, but it’s clearly been redesigned as more of a media product. I care about my network on LinkedIn, and the email was full of pictures of people who really matter to me, all of whom have gotten new jobs. It’s one of the most engaging messages I’ve ever gotten from a “social network.” (In case you want some history, I called LinkedIn out as a media company more than a year ago here.)
I also found the focus on numbers very interesting. 10% of my network – which is pretty big – have gotten new jobs in the past six months. That’s quite an intriguing lens on how things are changing in our industry. LinkedIn has always been a data-centric company, and each time I speak with Weiner, he’ll cite engaging statistics his team has culled from the network’s servers. This rolls up to Weiner’s big hairy audacious goal (BHAG) for the company – to map the global “economic graph.” As he puts it:
..we want to digitally map the global economy, identifying the connections between people, jobs, skills, companies, and professional knowledge — and spot in real-time the trends pointing to economic opportunities. It’s a big vision, but we believe we’re in a unique position to make it happen.
It seems Wall Street agrees. I’ll be watching LinkedIn more closely over the coming year, and I bet Google and Facebook will be too. Hoffman, Weiner and team have built something that both those companies, and many more, must find quite enviable.
I had a chance to be interviewed with Fred Wilson by Dave Morgan of Simulmedia (and Tacoda and and and…). The video is fun and ranges around from OpenCo to the future of the Web, so I thought I’d share it here:
I was interested to read today that Esquire is currently experimenting with a per-article paywall. For $1.99, you can read a 10,000-word piece about a neurosurgeon who claims to have visited heaven. Esquire’s EIC on the experiment: “…great journalism—and the months that go into creating it—isn’t free. So, besides providing the story to readers of our print and digital-tablet versions of the August issue, we are offering it to online readers as a stand-alone purchase.”
I predicted that payment systems and paid services/content were going to take off this year (see here), but this isn’t what I had in mind. But it did get me thinking. What if you added social and elastic elements to the price? For example, the article would initially cost, say, $1.99, but if enough people decided to buy it, the price goes down for everyone. The more people who buy, the cheaper the price gets. It’d never go to zero, of course, but there’d be some kind of a demand/price curve that satisfies the two most important things publishers care about: readership (the more, the better) and revenue (ideally, enough to cover the costs of creation and make a fair profit).
The tools to do this already exist. There are plenty of sites that crowdsource demand to create pricing leverage, and sites like Kickstarter have gotten all of us used to the idea of hitting funding goals. And the social sharing behaviors already exist as well: Nearly all content has social sharing widgets attached these days. Why not combine the two? Those who initially paid the highest price – $1.99 say – would be motivated to share a summary of the article with friends and encourage them to buy it as well. They are economically incented to do so – the more friends who buy, the greater the chance that their initial $1.99 charge will decrease. And they’re socially incented to do so – perhaps they could get credit for being one of the early advocates or tastemakers who recognized and surfaced a great piece of content before anyone else did.
Let’s break down the economics to see how it might work. A really great piece of long form journalism in a magazine like Esquire pays around $15,000 (sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the author, subject, length, and title). But for this model, let’s say the payment to the journalist is $15K. Then you need to factor in the cost of the editor, copy editor, production, sales and design, as well as general overhead of the publication per piece. Let’s call that another $5K per piece (I’m spitballing here but probably not too far off). So for this article to make a profit, it needs to make $20,000 – or sell roughly 10,000 copies. Of course, the article is also monetized through the regular magazine and tablet editions, so the real number it has to hit is probably far less – let’s cut it in half and say it’s $10,000. Now to clear a profit, the article really just needs to sell 5,000 copies at $1.99.
Let’s not forget that Esquire also shows advertising against its articles. If it maintains a healthy $25 CPM, and shows two “spread” (two-page) ads between those 10,000 words, that’s roughly $100 per 1000 readers that Esquire can make. If it indeed does sell 5,000 copies of that article, that’s $500 of advertising revenue earned. And if it gets more readers, it can earn more advertising revenue – and decrease the paid content price in some correlated fashion. (No matter what, Esquire wants more readers – both to increase its advertising revenue, but also to accomplish its journalistic mission – all authors want more readers).
Perhaps a model could work like this: The piece costs $1.99 for the first 5,000 articles sold, garnering $10,000 in revenue (Ok, $9,500 for you sticklers). Once that threshold hits, the price adjusts dynamically to maintain at least $10,000 in overall revenue, but adjusting downward against the paying population as more and more readers commit (which also earns Esquire additional advertising revenue). A “clearing price” is set, perhaps at 50 cents, after which all profits go to Esquire. In this case, the clearing price kicks in at 20,000 copies sold – everyone would pay .50 at that point, and it’s a win win win for all.
Just spitballing, as I said, but I think it’s a pretty cool idea. What do you think?
Last week I was fortunate to be in New York City over the weekend, accompanied by most of my family. I had meetings with senior marketing executives at companies like Coke, Citi, and many others, and they stretched from the previous Weds. all the way into Monday of last week. I hate being away on weekends, and my wife is from New York, so she brought my daughters to visit their grandmother, who lives right in the middle of Manhattan.
Now, a weekend in New York with your family is special anytime, but last weekend was particularly notable because of the annual Pride Parade. This celebration of LGBT rights is one of the largest in the world, and this year’s was historic – just the week before, the Supreme Court had voted down the Defense of Marriage Act, a major civil rights victory for the gay community and, by extension, for citizens across the country. Last Sunday, our family joined tens of thousands of others who cheered the parade down Broadway, marveling at the exuberance and yes, sometimes at the show of skin as well.
But what stuck out with us was the pure joy of the day. Both my daughters, one fifteen, the other nine, joined in the celebrations, waving flags, cheering, and slapping high fives with passersby. Everyone was so happy, and the party snaked down Broadway for hours. What really struck me was the diversity on parade – gay fireman and policemen (that can’t be an easy world to live in) marched in uniform, followed by politicians like Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Charles Schumer. There were community centers on floats blasting dance music, and a long assortment of “firsts” – the first gay married couple in New York, the oldest married couple in New York, etc.
And then there were the brands. Yes, the brands – sponsoring the parade, and marching as part of it. I was prepared to be disappointed, and even cringed when I saw the first banner announcing a brand – I think it was Vitamin Water, a Coke brand. But instead, I was inspired. I had just met with many of the brands that were represented, and it made me proud to know the folks who had the courage to stand out and stand up for what was right.
As I watched the parade I was struck at how deeply and how honestly these brands were part of the celebration. Sure, Vitamin Water gave out free drinks, but the real story were the legions of employees – from Citi, L’Oreal, Wells Fargo, Coke, Delta and many more who marched, proudly wearing their company’s logo, proud of their individuality, proud of their voice, and proud that their businesses have stood behind them on their journey to this historic day. It felt very real – these companies clearly had backed their people on the long road to full civil rights, and their employees were proud to celebrate their brand connection – they very much believed that in their lives, the brand on their t-shirt had made an important difference. It was a very honest moment, and that’s not always the case when it comes to sponsorships and marketing. It should inspire all of us in the media business to follow the path of true human connection in our work. It certainly inspired me.