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The NewCo-BigCo Shift or, These Nine Things Will Change Business Forever

By - February 15, 2016
VIP Dollar Shave Club

Addressing the crowd at Dollar Shave before interviewing CEO Michael Dubin during NewCo LA last November.

(cross posted from NewCo)

Thanks to NewCo, I’ve gotten out of the Bay Area bubble and visited more than a dozen major cities across several continents in the past year. I’ve met with founders inside hundreds of mission-driven companies, in cities as diverse as Istanbul, Boulder, Cincinnati, and Mexico City. I’ve learned about the change these companies are making in the world, and I’ve compared notes with the leaders of large, established companies, many of which are the targets of that change.

As I reflect on my travels, a few consistent themes emerge:

1. Technology has moved from a vertical industry to a horizontal layer across our society. Technology used to be a specialized field. Technology companies sold their wares to large companies in large, complicated IT packages and to consumers as discrete products (computers and software applications). In the past decade, technology has dissolved into the fabric of our society. We all can access powerful technology stacks. We don’t need to know how to program. We don’t need a big IT department either. Now, technology is infrastructure, like our physical systems of highways and roads. This levels the playing field so new kinds of companies can emerge, and it’s forcing big companies to respond to a new breed of competitor, as well as a newly empowered (and informed) consumer base.

2. Big companies are on the precipice of the most wrenching transformation in history — and tech is only part of the reason why. BigCos change very slowly. They are cautious by nature and extremely suspicious of “the new.” BigCos study new developments and wait for proof before they change. As digital technology spread through society over the past three decades, big companies were slow to get a web page, slow to conduct business over the web, slow to lean into mobile and social, and slow to respond to new types of startup competition. Of course, now that the web is mature and consumer platforms like Facebook and Google are massive, BigCos have shifted resources to digital. But that last point — responding to startup and business model competition — is far more problematic, because responding to new kinds of competition isn’t something you can outsource. It requires a fundamental shift in corporate social structure — and culture is hard to change.

3. The next generation’s leaders don’t want to work at BigCos (if they don’t have to). In the past year I’ve met with senior executives at massive companies like Nestle, Publicis, P&G, Walmart, Visa, and McDonald’s. When I ask what keeps them up at night, all of them answer “hiring the next generation of leaders.” The best and brightest now see “launching a company,” “working at a startup,” or “working at a digital leader like Google or Facebook,” as a preferable career choice, starving BigCos of their most valuable asset: talent. While one might dismiss young professionals’ penchant for startups as a fad or a phase, there’s something far deeper at work, namely …

4. A job is table stakes. To win talent, companies must compete on purpose, authenticity, and organizational structure. Millennials are now the largest force in the global economy, and they have a markedly different view of work: Purpose and “making a difference in the world” are central in their work-related decisions. They’d rather work at The Honest Company than Unilever, if given a choice — and the best and brightest always have a choice. Members of the next generation want to be at a company where work means more than a paycheck. They believe work can be a calling (Reich) or an expression of our creativity (Florida). BigCos aren’t currently organized to enable their workforces in this way (human resources, anyone?), but NewCos — even the very largest ones like Google — most definitely are.

5. Today’s consumers are newly empowered and are making decisions on more than price. If millennials are choosing employers based on purpose and authenticity, it follows that they decide how they spend their money in similar fashion. Convenience, selection, and price are important, but new kinds of competitors are exposing weaknesses in big companies’ essential truths, and that’s an existential threat. Dollar Shave Club questions Gillette’s core premise, MetroMile questions Geico’s core premise, Earnest does the same to large financial institutions, HolaLuz to energy companies, and the list goes on. Companies profiting from practices or products that demonstrably create more harm than good in the world are threatened in an age of transparency and accountability. Regardless of good intent or excellent marketing, if your business makes people unhealthy, or depends on exploitation of vulnerable workers, or can be laddered to climate change, it’s at risk of mass consumer migration to businesses with better narratives.

6. The platform economy means traditional competitive moats are falling away. Today’s largest consumer companies earned their power by consolidating and optimizing their access to commodities (what their products were made of), manufacturing (how their products were made), and distribution (where their products were sold and how people became aware of them). They were built on humanity’s first global platforms: television and mass transportation networks. We all know that the Internet undermined this hegemony; physical distribution is no longer a surefire competitive advantage (just ask Walmart). But what’s not well understood is how quickly other parts of the product stack have become platform-ized. Just as startups can now access technology as a service, they can also access sourcing and manufacturing as a service (Dollar Shave doesn’t make its blades, for example). This of course bolsters point #5 above: If any company can access the same economies of scale, brands must compete on more than price or distribution, they must compete on voice, innovative (and information-first) approaches to markets, and purpose.

7. Cities are resurgent. I just returned from Mexico City, which earlier this month hosted its first NewCo festival. While there, I heard a refrain consistent with my visits around the world: The city is changing for the better and new kinds of companies are at the heart of that change. When people gather at NewCo meetups or inside NewCo sessions, I keep hearing “There’s just no way these kinds of companies could have made it in this city ten years ago.” Coupled with the horizontal force of technology and the rise of a purpose-driven zeitgeist, cities have become both the epicenter of humanity’s greatest challenges, as well as the birthplace of our greatest innovation. One generation ago, one-third of humanity lived in urban centers. Today, it’s more than 50 percent. One generation from now, more than two-thirds of us will reside in the tangled banks of a city center, and that number will surpass 80 percent by the end of this century. Cities offer access to capital, education, regulatory frameworks, and a collaborative density of human curiosity and connections. It’s where great companies are born and grow.

8. BigCos are deeply aware of all this — and a massive shift is about to reveal itself. For as long as I’ve been in the media and technology business, I’ve heard big company executives proclaim they were committed to change. But it always rang hollow: Large companies expended far more resources preventing change than they ever did committing to it. Over the past year, however, I’ve sensed a deep shift in the tone of my conversations with BigCos. These are some of the smartest people in the world, and they understand the technological, generational, and social tectonics at play. In their board rooms and C-suites, conversations are already underway about changes so significant, they’ll be viewed as “calendar reset” moment: Before Shift and After Shift. We’re already seeing leading indicators — Walmart’s commitment to sustainability, GE’s move to Boston, Publicis’s rewritten purpose statement and organizational structure — but in the next year or two, the pace will quicken. New CEOs at category-leading companies like McDonald’s, Ford, and P&G will most likely announce stunning new initiatives that would have been inconceivable a decade ago.

9. The best NewCos realize there’s a lot to learn from the BigCos. After years of feasting on BigCo markets, “established upstarts” like Google, Facebook, Uber, Zenefits, and Square are transitioning from cultures based on “move fast and break things” and “ask for forgiveness, not permission.” Their leaders are now turning to questions like “How do I build a company that will last for generations? How can I maintain a strong corporate culture when I have thousands of employees? How do I work productively with regulatory and policy frameworks, now that I’m an established player?” Turns out, BigCos have decades, if not centuries, of experience in answering these kinds of questions. In my conversations with leaders of both NewCos and BigCos, I sense a new kind of detente as each side realizes how much it has to learn from the other. In the coming months and years, I expect we’ll see a lot more cooperation between the two.

In the coming months, NewCo will be focused on exploring these business trends, with new media and event products. If you’d like to join the conversation, please follow us on Facebook or Twitter, share this post, and/or sign up for our daily newsletter. We believe this the most important story in business, and we’re committed to covering it for you.

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* A note on climate change: Our society’s response to climate change is one of the most remarkable issues ever to face humankind. More than 70% of Americans now believe that climate change is real, and more than half of the world views the issue as the most serious global threat to humanity. And climate change is to Millennials what mutually-assured destruction was for Boomers: An existential threat. Whether or not you believe in this threat, climate change is now a social and business fact, a force affecting billions of decisions large and small around the world. Consumers are voting with their conscience, forcing unsustainable businesses to adopt provable, net positive products and processes. When Unilever, Walmart, Pepsi and scores of others align with the Pope on sustainability, a movement is most certainly afoot.

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Predictions 2015: How’d I Do?

By - December 28, 2015

ea8e9ff77d5d1332ef85b4eded4b28953aa4f64bEach January for the past 13 years, I’ve been making predictions on this site. Twelve months later, I pull back and review how those predictions have fared. I’ve already got a running list of predictions for 2016, but in this post, I want to handicap how my prognostications for 2015 turned out.

I made a total of 12 predictions in 2015, so I’ll run through each in turn.

1. Uber will begin to consolidate its namesake position in the “The Uber-ization of everything” trend. 

In essence, I predicted that Uber would launch delivery and logistics businesses in 2015. This wasn’t particularly insightful of me – the company had already launched two small pilots (UberEssentials and UberFresh)  in the Fall of 2014. But in January 2015, Uber killed UberEssentials, and for months, there was no expansion of either service. So was I wrong? Nope. In April 2015, Uber launched UberEats in four markets (since grown to a dozen), and this past October, Uber launched Uber Rush in three major US cities.  I think I got this one right.

2. Related, Uber will be the center of a worldwide conversation about the impact of tech and business culture on the world. 

Well, again I think I got this one right. And again, it was a pretty safe bet that the company would be the talk of tech and culture throughout 2015. A major proof, to my mind, was Rachel Whetstone’s decampment from head of Google comms to take a similar role at Uber this past May. For nearly a decade, Whetstone had successfully guided Google as it consolidated its position as the world’s most controversial and talked about tech brand (yes, yes, Facebook and Apple might compete for that honor, but we can argue that another time). But in 2015, Uber was the go to protagonist (and antagonist) of the tech conversation, from its incessant opportunistic fundraising to its starring role in critical economic, policy and cultural issues. I think it’s fair to say the company took pole position from Google, Facebook, and Apple in 2015.

3. Google will face existential competition from Facebook due to Facebook’s Atlas offering.

This prediction stemmed from my penchant for adtech geekery, and while I think it will prove long term true, I didn’t find a lot of proof that it came to fruition in 2015. Facebook made steady gains here, including the hiring of key Google adtech talent, but I think this one needs another year to prove out.

4. The Apple Watch will be seen as a success.

Well, you didn’t see this one coming did you? I’m usually an Apple naysayer (though I love the Mac), but I believed that the watch was a natural extension of the phone, and I still believe this to be the case. The results are decidedly mixed – Apple’s Tim Cook agrees with me, naturally. But plenty of others believe Apple’s foray into wearables was a disappointment. Apple doesn’t break out units shipped for its watches (a strong sign the company is itself disappointed), and estimates range from a low of single digit millions to a high of nearly 20 million. Given the paucity of data here, all I have is my gut, and my gut says, the Apple Watch was a push. Not a failure, not a success. Since I said it was going to be seen as a success, I think I whiffed this one.

5. And Apple Pay will not.

Long term, I think I’ll be proven wrong on this one, but in 2015, I think I got it right. This Fall, Bloomberg called Apple Pay “underwhelming,” and Cook’s prediction that 2015 would be “the year of Apple Pay” is widely seen as off the mark. However, I think 2016 will prove Cook directionally correct.

6. But Beacons will re-emerge and take root.

Ummm…my first reaction to this one is to cringe – beacons were not really top of mind for anyone in tech this past year. And try as I might, I couldn’t find proof otherwise. So, another whiff, at least for now.

7. Google’s Nest will build or buy a scaled home automation service business.

Well, no. Nest did launch a developer platform, which is related, but not the same. I still think this is a natural fit for Nest, but it didn’t happen in 2015. Whiff.

8. A breakout healthcare startup will emerge in the consumer consciousness

Well, does Theranos count? Because, well, I think it does. Not in the way I had expected, but still…give me half credit for this one.

9. A breakout mobile startup will force us to rethink the mobile user interface.

Oh man, we are so so so close here. Overall, my intent with this prediction was to say that in 2015, we’ll finally realize that it’s time to break out of the “apps and home screen” approach to mobile. And I really think that happened. Just so much great work happening here. There’s Google App Streaming, of course. And there’s Wrap. And this widely cited post from on the end of apps as we know them. And much, much more. But again, no one breakout mobile startup that acted as a forcing function. Alas. I’d say half credit here, right on the intent, wrong on the specifics.

10. At least one hotly-anticipated IPO will fizzle, leading many to declare that the “tech correction” has begun.

Ok, pretty much nailed this one.

11. China will falter.

My point here was that China could not keep growing the way it had been, nor would its endless cyber attacks on US and other corporate assets continue to go unnoticed. And in 2015, both were called on the carpet.

12. Adtech comes back.

My final prediction was that adtech would rebound by the end of 2015, after a terrible 2014. And while the public adtech stocks are still battered, I think I got this one right as well. Rubicon, seen as a bellwether in the category, is on an upward trajectory after hitting a low in September. AppNexus is once again looking to go public, and my sources with knowledge of the company say it’s doing quite well. And while I can’t delve into specifics, I’ve never been more bullish about sovrn Holdings, where I am Chair. The company completed an opportunistic financing round in 2015, and is positively killing it going into 2016. Overall, I think the world is going to figure out that adtech is about more than ads – it’s about creating an open, accessible processing and notification layer for the entire Internet. In 2015, adtech was definitely back.

So overall, how’d I do? Well, by my count, I got seven right and two half right, and whiffed on three. Not a bad year, to be honest – 8 of 12, for an average of .750. That’s at the upper end of my predictions, which usually come in between .500 and .750. I guess I’ll try again in a week or so. Till then, thanks for reading in 2015. I plan on writing a lot more in 2016…here, at NewCo, and on Medium and LinkedIn as well.

Have a great New Year, folks. See you in 2016.

Early Lessons From My Mobile Deep Dive: The Quickening Is Nigh

By - September 06, 2014

Do you really want to eat them one at a time? Me, I prefer mashing ’em up.

Recently I began a walkabout of sorts, with a goal of ameliorating my rather thin understanding of the mobile marketplace. If you read me closely, you know I’ve been more than frustrated with what I call the “chicletized world” of disconnected mobile apps. It’s rise was so counter to everything I loved about the Internet, I’m afraid as a result I underestimated its impact on that very world.

My corrective starting point – the metaphorical bit of yarn upon which I felt compelled to tug  – was the impact of “deep linking” on the overall ecosystem. The phrase has something of a  “dark pool” feel to it, but it’s actually a rather mundane concept: Developers tag their mobile apps and – if relevant – their complementary websites – with a linking structure that allows others to link directly into various points of entry into their applications. This is why, for example, you can jump from a Google search for “Tycho” on your phone to the “Tycho” page inside your Spotify app.

So far, I’ve had more than a dozen or so meetings and phone calls on the subject, and I’ve begun to formulate some working theses about what’s happening out there. While my education continues, here are some initial findings:

1. Deep linking is indeed a Very Big Deal. Nearly all the folks I spoke with believed deep linking in mobile was the beginning of something important, something I’ve started to call…

2. The Quickening… which I believe is nearly upon us. Mobile app developers are humans driven by business goals. If the business opportunity is large, but proscribed by narrow rules, they will follow those rules to gain the initial opportunity. For example, when the convener of a new market (Apple) imposes strict rules about how data is shared, and how apps must behave with regard to each other, app builders will initially conform, and behaviors will fall narrowly in line for a cycle or two (in this case, about five years). However, once those rules prove burdensome, businesses will look for ways around them. This is happening in mobile, for reasons that come down to new competitive players (primarily Android) and to a maturation in distribution, revenue, and engagement models (more on that below). The end result: The market is about to enter a phase of “quickening” – a rapid increase in linking between apps and web-like backends, harkening a new ecosystem in which both foreseeable and unforseen “life” will be created.

2. App Installs Rule. Till They Don’t. The market for mobile apps is – predictably – driven by app installs. And unless you’re the teen viral sensation of the moment, the only reliable way to get app installs is to buy them – almost exclusively via advertising on mobile devices. Facebook figured this out, and holy cow, did the market love that. But app makers are now realizing they have to do more than get their app installed. It’s actually just as critical to get their current installed base to actually engage with their app – lest it be forever relegated to the dustbin that is our current (deeply crappy) mobile desktop metaphor.  Hence the rise of  “re-engagement advertising,” which is serving as something akin to search-engine marketing (SEM) in the desktop web.  Several folks I spoke to told me that 80% of the money in mobile advertising is in app installs, but they quickly cautioned that installs are a house of cards which will not be sustained absent the rise of re-engagement advertising.

3. We’ve Seen This Movie. Which got me thinking. Jeez, have we ever seen this movie before. It’s called publishing. You can buy crappy circulation, crappy audiences, and crappy one-time visitors, and you can also buy great audiences, but the true gauge of a publication, a service, or an app is whether folks keep coming back. And even if you have a great app/service/publication, you need to remind them of your existence more than a few times before they are hooked (this is why classic magazine circulation has three phases – marketing, sampling, and conversion). The link-economy of the open web allowed this process to happen rather naturally, but there is no such economy in mobile, at least not yet. Thanks to early decision made by the conveners of the mobile ecosystem, mobile is deeply shitty at providing business owners with a way of reminding consumers about the value of their proposition, which is why they are frantic for some kind of channel for doing just that. This leads me to hypothesize that…

4. The App Store’s Days Are Limited. Remember when Yahoo! owned Web 1.0, because it had the entire Web in its directory? Or when Google owned Web 2.0, because it put the entire web in RAM? Yep, both those models created massive companies, along with massive ecosystems, but neither hegemony lasted forever. Apple’s App Store (and Google’s) are subject to the same forces. The model may be dominant, but it’s not going to last. As one senior executive in mobile media put it: “The app store is a weigh station, not an end point.” What might replace the App Store as a model for distribution? That’s a fine question, and one I don’t have a strong opinion about, at least not yet. But I sense the Quickening will lay the groundwork for new vectors of app adoption and engagement, similar – but not identical  – to the link economy of the web. Which is why I believe…

5. Re-engagement ads open the door to new topologies (and economics) across mobile. A pretty obvious point, if you’ve managed to stay with me to this point, but one I think is worth restatement and elaboration. Re-engagement advertising is driven by a fundamental business (and consumer) need, and Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Yahoo!, and Google are all responding with deep linking topologies that enable re-engagement. This is a relatively new development, and it’s hard to predict where it might go. But one thing’s for sure – deep linking is good for both the developer and the consumer. It’s just a better experience to go directly into the exact right place inside an app that’s already on your phone. And for marketers, deep linking enables far superior “landing pages” inside their apps, driving a conversion path that is measurable and repeatable. It’s not hard to imagine that re-engagement is the beginning of a more robust economic model for mobile, one that will re-integrate much of the goodness we created when the Web broke wide open ten or more years ago. And that makes me wonder if….

6. The home screen of “chiclets” is mutable. Broadly established consumer engagement models don’t shift rapidly, and the colorful, 16×16 sudoku model of App World isn’t going away anytime soon.  But do we really believe we’ll be poking at squares representing apps forever? I don’t. A more fluid experience based on declared and modeled intent makes a lot more sense – one in which we flow seamlessly from need to need, serviced in each state by a particular application without having to pull back, chose a new app, and then dive back in. I’ve not yet spoken to many UX/UI folks, but I sense this is coming, and deep linking is a first step in enabling it. Somehow, I sense that…

7. Search is key to all of this. Hey, this is Searchblog, after all. It strikes me that search on mobile is pretty broken, because it forces the entirety of the web onto a model that has far more specific – and useful – parameters to work with. The signals emanating from a mobile phone give search entirely new use cases, but so far, we’ve got precious little to show for it. This can’t stand for long.

I’ve got a lot more thinking going on, but it’s too nascent to be of much use at the moment. Topics I’m also thinking about include mapping the dependencies of the mobile ecosystem, grokking the concept of “agency” and how it relates to search and mobile data,  the role of programmatic in mobile, and understanding the flow of money between the big platforms and the little guys.

As you can probably tell, my comprehension of this space is still very limited, but I hope this update sparks some of your own thinking, and that you might share those insights with me in comments or via email or other forms of media. I will continue my walkabout in coming weeks, and I’ll keep writing about it here. Thanks for reading.

And thanks to the many folks I spoke with so far, many of whom are working on stealth projects or agreed to our conversations on background. Hence, I’ve not quoted anyone directly, but again, thanks, and you know who you are!

A Return To Form In Media

By - June 30, 2014

mediaappsOnce upon a time, print was a vibrant medium, a platform where entrepreneurial voices created new forms of value, over and over again. I’ll admit it was my native platform, at least for a while – Wired and The Industry Standard were print-driven companies, though they both innovated online, and the same could be said for Make, which I helped early in its life. By the time I started Federated, a decidedly online company, the time of print as a potent cultural force was over. New voices – the same voices that might have created magazines 20 years ago, now find new platforms, be they websites (a waning form in itself), or more likely, corporate-owned platforms like  iOS, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, and Vine.

Now, I’m acutely aware of how impolitic it is to defend print these days. But my goal here is not to defend print, nor to bury it. Rather, it’s to point out some key aspects of print that our industry still has yet to recapture in digital form. As we abandoned print, we also abandoned  a few critical characteristics of the medium, elements I think we need to identify and re-integrate into whatever future publications we create. So forthwith, some Thinking Out Loud…

Let’s start with form. If nothing else, print forced form onto our ideas of what a media product might be. Print took a certain form – a magazine was bound words on paper, a newspaper, folded newsprint. This form gave readers a consistent and understandable product  – it began with the cover or front page, it ended, well, at the last page. It started, it had a middle, it had an end. A well-executed print product was complete – a formed object – something that most online publications and apps, with some notable exceptions, seem never to be.

Now before you scream that the whole point of online is the stream – the ceaseless cascade of always updated stories – I want to question whether “the stream” is really a satisfying form for providing what great media should deliver – namely voice and point of view. I would argue it is not, and our obsession with producing as many stories as possible (directly correlated to two decades of pageview-driven business models) has denatured the media landscape, rewarding an approach that turns us all into hummingbirds, frantically dipping our information-seeking beaks into endless waving fields of sugary snacks.

I, for one, want a return to form in media. I want to sit down for a meal every so often, and deeply engage with a thoughtful product that stops time, and makes sense of a subject that matters to me. A product that, by its form, pre-supposes editorial choices having been made – this story is important, it matters to you so we’ve included it, and we’ve interpreted it with our own voice and point of view. Those editorial choices are crucial – they turn a publication into a truly iconic brand.*

Closely tied to the concept of form (and antithetical to the stream) is another element of print we’ve mostly discarded – the edition. Printed magazines and newspapers are published on a predictable episodic timeline – that’s why we call them periodicals. They cut time and space into chunked experiences, indeed, they stop time and declare “Over the past (day, week, month), this is what matters in the context of our brand.”

I’ve noticed a few interesting experiments in edition-driven media lately – Yahoo News Digest, Circa, and email newsletters (hello ReDEF!) most notably. But I think we could do a lot better. When the iPad came out, powerful media outlets like NewsCorp failed spectacularly with edition-driven media like The Daily. And the online world gloated – “old” media had failed, because it had simply ported old approaches to a new medium. I think that’s wrong. The Daily likely failed for many reasons, but perhaps the most important  was its reliance on being an paid app in a limited (early iOS) ecosystem. As I’ve said to many folks, I think we’re very close to breaking free of the limits imposed by a closed, app-driven world. It’s never been easier to create an excellent app-based “wrapper” for your media product. What matters now is what that product stands for, and whether you can earn the repeated engagement of a core community.

Which takes me to two critical and quite related features of “print” – engagement and brand. I like to say that reading a great magazine or watching a great show is like taking a bath, you soak it in, you commit to it, you steep yourself in it. When good media takes a bounded form, and comes once in a period of time, it begs to be consumed as a whole – it creates an engaging experience. We don’t dip in and out of an episode of Game of Thrones, after all – we take it in as a whole. Why have we abandoned this concept when it comes to publications, simply because they exist online?

The experience that a publication creates for its audience is the very essence of that publication’s brand – and without deep engagement, that publication’s brand will be weak. A good publication is a convener and an arbiter – it expresses a core narrative that becomes a badge of sorts for its readership. I’m not saying you can’t create a great branded publication online – certainly there are plenty of examples. At FM, we helped hundreds through launch and maturity – but those were websites, which as I said before, are declining as forms due to social, mobile and search. But every brand needs a promise – and that promise is lost if there’s no narrative to the media one experiences.

Our current landscape, driven as it is by sharing platforms and mobile use cases, rewards the story far more than the publication. Back and forth, back and forth we go, dipping from The Awl to Techcrunch, Mashable to Buzzfeed. Playing that game might garner pageviews, but pageviews alone do not a great media brand make. Only a consistent, ongoing, deep experience can make a lasting media brand, one that has a commitment from a core community, and the respect of a larger reading public. If the only way that public can show respect is a Facebook Like or a Twitter retweet, we’re well and truly screwed.

Reflecting on all of this, it strikes me that there’s an opportunity to create a new kind of media, one that prospers as much for what it leaves out as for what it decides to keep in. Because to even consider the concepts of “in” and “out” you need a episodic container – a form. Early in the Internet’s evolution (and I think it’s safe to say, two decades in, that we’re past the “early” stage), it made sense to explore the boundless possibilities of formless media. And while most media companies have been disappointed with “apps,” remember, it’s early, and that ecosystem is still nascent. We’re 20+ years into the Internet, but barely half a decade into apps. The next stage will be a mixture of the link economy of the original web with the format of the app. And with that mixture comes opportunity.

But as we consider the future of media, and before we abandon print to the pages of history, we should recall that it has much to teach us. As we move into an era where media can exist on any given piece of glass, we should keep in mind print’s lessons of form, editions, and brand. They’ll serve us well.

NB: Writing this made me realize there are many topics I had to leave out – longer ramblings on the link economy, on how the stream and “formed” media can and should co-exist, on the role of platforms (and whether they should be “owned” at all), on the role of data and personalization, on why I believe we’re close to a place where apps no longer rule the metaphorical roost in mobile, and more. As summer settles in, I hope to have time to do more thinking out loud on these topics…..

*I’ve noticed a few publications starting to do this, whether it’s the experiments over at Medium (with Matter, for example, or the hiring of Levy to focus tech coverage), or The Atlantic’s excellent Quartz. 


Do You Have a Mission or…Are You *On* A Mission? On Being a NewCo

By - May 15, 2014

A sampling of NewCos from our 2013 NYC festival.

 (Cross posted from the NewCo blog…)

About a year ago I wrote a piece outlining the kinds of companies we were looking for as we began the first full year of the NewCo festival circuit. Back then, NewCo was called “OpenCo,” and we were just starting to understand our mission of identifying and celebrating a major trend changing businesses everywhere. In a way, we were exploring a story that had yet to become fully expressed, and that post was my first attempt at declaring the narrative.

A lot has happened in the past year. We’ve thrown four more festivals – in LondonNew YorkDetroit and San Francisco. Thousands of people have experienced the working environment of hundreds of innovative companies in those cities. And just this week, we’re kicking off an expanded NewCo lineup – eight cities in all – repeating last year’s venues, and adding Amsterdam (happening now!), BoulderLos Angeles and Silicon Valley. So it’s a great time to revisit my post from a year ago, and once again ask the question – what makes a NewCo?

Well, we’ve given that a fair bit of thought. Last year, I noted that a new breed of company is emerging, one that takes “work” as more than punching a clock or doing a job. In fact, “work” can be much more – it can be a passion, a drive, a community, and a force for positive change. That’s why we intentionally use the metaphor of music in our language – sure, making music is a “job,” but it’s also an expression of joy, community, and kinship.

Anyone who has worked in a company we call a “NewCo” has experienced that vibe – working at a place where the music you make creates positive change for customers, partners, and your community. I certainly felt that happening at the places I’ve worked, and I see it every day in the companies I visit, and the companies who apply to be featured in NewCo festival events. Earlier this spring, we convened a small band of our own to sharpen our focus around “what makes a NewCo.” To start, we needed to lay out the big narrative of what’s happening in our economy. To wit:

Our world is at an inflection point – we are transitioning from a command and control economy to one that is networked and far more flexible. Driven by the central tenet of capitalism – 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, redfining what a “corporation” can be.  A new kind of organization – one that measures its success on more than profit – has emerged. We call these companies “NewCos.” In a world driven by a deeply networked economy, NewCos are building a new, purpose-driven way of work, one that is more nimble, nuanced, and open than previous rigid and hierarchical models of business.

Out of that narrative came a number of core principles that guide our selection of NewCos in each market:

A NewCo …

–       Is on a mission. Sure, any company can have a mission, but a NewCo sees itself as on a mission to change the world for the better. NewCos embrace the profit motive, but are about more than making money.

–       Is driven by an idea. NewCos are about a big idea, one that drives their mission and purpose as an organization. NewCo people love to tell their company’s story – it’s a deeply felt part of their identity.

…and by people. The core of every NewCo are the people who comprise the organization, and the people it serves. A NewCo is never a “faceless corporation.”  It’s more like a band – a group of people coming together to create something that adds value to the world.

–       Is platform’d. The rise of the Internet Economy has meant that no company is an island.  We are all interconnected. NewCos are either platforms in their own right, and/or they understand how to participate in the platform ecosystem of open collaboration and considered data sharing. We call this being platform’d.

–       Trusts the open. The word “open” has many meanings, but for NewCos, “open” has a clear test: When faced with a choice between closed and controlling vs. a more sharing, open tack, a NewCo tilts toward the latter. This applies to much more than technology stacks – it is applied to partnerships, transparency, and community as well.

–       Is of the City. NewCos revel in the tapestry of cities – their pulse, their diverse communities, and their density of networks, information and humanity.

–       Gives to get. NewCos realize their value comes from serving their communities – their customers, sure, but also any community where the NewCo has an impact. NewCos believe you get back what you give to your community.  And when you’re truly connected to your communities, no one has the energy to be an assh*le.

–       Loves the work. NewCos are reinventing what work means and how its done. NewCos believe work can be joyous – it does not have to suck. NewCos view “work” as a positive expression of identity. To that end, NewCo workspaces are powerful expressions of a company’s identity.

I hope you can feel the music we’re trying to make here at NewCo, and if you are part of a company that vibes with what we laid out above, that you’ll consider applying to join the festival, opening your doors to partners, colleagues, and friends, and celebrating the change happening in our interconnected, global economy. Here’s to a new way of work!

Why The Banner Ad Is Heroic, and Adtech Is Our Greatest Artifact

By - November 17, 2013


Every good story needs a hero. Back when I wrote The Search, that hero was Google – the book wasn’t about Google alone, but Google’s narrative worked to drive the entire story. As Sara and I work on If/Then, we’ve discovered one unlikely hero for ours: The lowly banner ad.

Now before you head for the exits with eyes a rollin’, allow me to explain. You may recall that If/Then is being written as an archaeology of the future. We’re identifying “artifacts” extant in today’s world that, one generation from now, will effect significant and lasting change on our society. Most of our artifacts are well-known to any student of today’s digital landscape, but all are still relatively early in their adoption curve: Google’s Glass, autonomous vehicles, or 3D printers, for example. Some are a bit more obscure, but nevertheless powerful – microfluidic chips (which may help bring about DNA-level medical breakthroughs) fall into this category. Few of these artifacts touch more than a million people directly so far, but it’s our argument that they will be part of more than a billion people’s lives thirty years from now.

There is one exception. The artifact we’re investigating is already at massive scale, driving billions of dollars in revenue and touching every person whose ever used the Internet. That artifact is currently called “programmatic adtech,” and it is most famously illustrated by Terry Kawaja’s Lumascapes (and less famously, my own “Behind the Banner” visualization).

lumascapedisplayYes, this is the infrastructure that allows a pair of shoes to chase you across the web. How can it possibly be as important as, say, a technology that may cure cancer? Because I believe the very same technologies we’ve built to serve real time, data-driven advertising will soon be re-purposed across nearly every segment of our society. Programmatic adtech is the heir to the database of intentions – it’s that database turned real time and distributed far outside of search. And that’s a very, very big deal. (I just wish I had a cooler name for it than “adtech.” We’re working on it. Any ideas?!)

Think about what programmatic adtech makes possible. An individual requests a piece of content through a link or an action (like touching something on a mobile device). In milliseconds, scores of agents execute thousands of calculations based on hundreds of parameters, all looking to market-price the value of that request and deliver a personalized response. This happens millions of times * a second,* representing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of computing cycles each second. What’s most stunning about this system is that it’s tuned to each discrete individual – every single request/response loop is unique, based on the data associated with each individual.

Let me break that down:

1. A person indicates a request: a desire, an intent, a preference – The Request

2. Billions of compute cycles and sh*tons of data are engaged to process that desire – The Process

3. A personalized response is generated within 100-250 milliseconds. – The Response

At present, the end result of this vastly complicated “Request Process Response” system is, more often than not, the proffering of a banner ad. But that’s just an artifact of a far more interesting future state. Today’s adtech has within it the glimmerings of a computing architecture that will underpin our entire society. Every time you turn up your thermostat, this infrastructure will engage, determining in real time the most efficient response to your heating needs. Each time you walk into a doctor’s office, the same kind of system could be triggered to determine what information should appear on your health care provider’s screen, and on yours, and how best payment should be made (or insurance claims filed). Every retail store you visit, every automobile you drive (or are driven by), every single interaction of value in this world can and will become data that interacts with this programmatic infrastructure.

OK. Let’s step back for a second. When you think of this infrastructure, are  you concerned? Good. Because it’s imperative that we consider the choices we make as we engage with such a portentous creation. This year alone, each human on the planet will create about 600 gigabytes of information, and that number is growing rapidly. What are the architectural constraints of the infrastructure which processes that information? What values do we build into it? Can it be audited? Is it based on principles of openness, or is it driven by business rules and data-structures which favor closed platforms? Will we have to choose between an oligarchy of “RPR vendors” – Google, Facebook, Microsoft – or will we take a more distributed approach, as the original Internet did?

These questions have been raised, and continue to be well articulated, by LessigZittrainWu, and many others. But we’re entering a new, more urgent era of this conversation. Many of these authors’ works warned of a world where code will eventually augur early lock down in political and social conventions. That time is no longer in the future. It’s now. And I believe as goes adtech, so goes our social code.

“Adtech” is a very important, very large application we’ve built on top of the platform we call “the Internet.” It’s driven by the relentless desire of capitalism to turn a profit, yet (so far) it has leaned toward the Internet’s core values of openness and interconnectivity. Thanks to that,  it’s suffering some endemic maladies (fraud comes to mind). It’s still a very young, relatively immature artifact. But so far, it’s more open than not. I’m not certain that will always be the case.

My argument boils down to this: What we today call “adtech” will tomorrow become the worldwide real-time processing layer driving much of society’s transactions. That layer deserves to be named as perhaps the most important artifact extant today.

Given adtech’s rise, let’s not forget its atomic unit of value: the oft-derided banner ad. In time the banner as we know it will most likely fade away, but its place in history is certain. One generation from now, we may not “click” on banner ads, but we’ll always be pulling into traffic, filing health insurance claims, buying clothes in retail stores, and turning up our thermostats. And those myriad transactions will be lit with data and processed by a real time infrastructure initially built to execute one pedestrian task: serve a simple banner ad.

Searchblog 2011: The Year In Writing

By - January 04, 2012

I’ve done this a few times in the past, and this year I’m feeling the need to review all I wrote in 2011, and highlight the best posts (at least, by my own measure). Even though my writing in the past year withered to an average of two or three posts a week, I still managed to get some meaningful ideas out there, and I intend to redouble my efforts in 2012. Herewith, my list of favorites from the past year, in order of appearance:

Predictions 2011 The first substantive post of 2011, by my own reckoning last month, I did pretty well.

What Everyone Seems to Miss In Facebook’s Private or Public Debate… I make the point that a company with this much data should be accountable to the public.

The InterDependent Web In which I expand on my concepts of the Dependent and Independent Web.

File Under: Metaservices, The Rise Of  In this piece I outline a vision for an app world that works,well, like the web should work. One of the top tweeted stories of the year.

Google, Social, and Facebook: One Ring Does Not Rule Them All I forgot I wrote this, but given how Google subsequently dropped Twitter and forced Google+ to the top of its results, re-reading it makes me sad. I wish Google would take my advice.

Do We Trust The Government With The Internet? Surprisingly, I argue that we should.

The Rise of Digital Plumage In which I talk about my concept of instrumenting our digital identities with as much care as we instrument our physical bodies.

The Internet Interest Bubble I’ve been always in the camp of “we’re not in another bubble,” but in this piece, I argue we do have perhaps too much interest in the whole story, at least, too much interest in rather shallow parts of the story.

KSJO 92.3 – Good Product, Bad Marketing. A Case Study One of my favorite anecdotes of the year.

Pandora’s Facebook Box Musings on my desire to use some other service to rethink my Facebook profile.

A Report Card on Web 2 and the App Economy It wasn’t a good score.

Why Color Matters: Augmented Reality And Nuanced Social Graphs May Finally Come of Age Got a ton of comments, but I was wrong about Color. I stand by the principles of the post, however.

A Funny Coincidence, or a Glimpse of the Future? A coincidental glimpse of the future, alas.

Plato On Facebook Change always augurs complaint.

Set The Data Free, And Value Will Follow “Every major (and even every minor) player realizes that “data is the next Intel inside,” and has, for the most part, taken a hoarder’s approach to the stuff.”

Web 2 Map: The Data Layer – Visualizing the Big Players in the Internet Economy A reminder of how much work I did each year getting Web 2 together.

We (Will) Live In A Small Big Town In which I dream of a world where corporations are listening, but not lurking.

What We Hath Wrought: The Book It becomes real, at least, to me!

The World Is An Internet Startup Now One of the most shared pieces I wrote last year.

Time For A New Software Economy As opposed to an app economy.

Google+: If, And, Then….Implications for Twitter and Tumblr Initial reactions to the new service.

“The Information” by James Gleick I read and reviewed a fair number of books this past year, but this one stands out.

Looky Here, It’s Me, In an Ad, On Facebook! Is This Legal? Allowed? Who Knows?! Turns out, it was not allowed. But now Facebook allows it on their own ad network (more on that soon).

Twitter and the Ultimate Algorithm: Signal Over Noise (With Major Business Model Implications) Not surprisingly, one of the most tweeted stories of the year.

We Need An Identity Re-Aggregator (That We Control) This was one of my major issues of the year. It ain’t going away.

The Future of Twitter Ads I found myself writing more and more about Twitter as the year went on.

Facebook As Storyteller On Timeline and industry journalism.

Google = Google+ One of the most shared stories of the year on all counts. In which I argue that Google+ is way more than a new social network. It’s a play for the soul of Google, its brand.

I Wish “Tapestry” Existed It’s too hard to innovate in the area of metaservices for apps.

Only Connect: Facebook, From The Eyes of an Old Newbie Highly read piece on my re-entry to Facebook. I should write a followup on my experience so far.

Government By Numbers: Some Interesting Insights Tons of data on government as a percentage of GDP, etc.

Brands as Publishers One of my chestnuts.

You Are The Platform Summary of one of the most important themes to emerge from the Web 2 Summit last year.

The Problem and the Opportunity Of Mobile Advertising A story of where we are and where we might go.

The World In One Generation: Population Trends This blew up on StumbleUpon. Go figure.

“We need some angry nerds” SOPA rears its head.

The Internet Big Five Part of my book work (as are others above, come to think of it), and increasingly part of this site going forward.

On This Whole “Web Is Dead” Meme It’s not dead.

2011 Predictions: How Did I Do? Not bad.


Well, there ya go. A fair number of “favorite posts” for what was a pretty light year of writing. Looking forward to 2012….

The Database of Intentions

By - November 13, 2003

So nothing really new in the news today, I wanted to take a graf or two and explain what I mean by The Database of Intentions, referred to in this post. That way I can use it again and again and just link the phrase to this post. Hey, we love the web, Ted Nelson lives….

The Database of Intentions is an idea central to the book I’ve been working on for the past year or so, which is tentatively titled “The Search: Business and Culture in the Age of Google” (Penguin/Putnam/Portfolio 2004). As with many in this industry, it all started with the Macintosh. Back in the mid 80s I was an undergraduate in Cultural Antropology, and I had a class – taught by the late Jim Deetz,which focused on the idea of material culture – basically, interpreting the artifacts of everyday life. It took the tools of archaeology – usually taught only in the context of civilizations long dead – and merged them with the tools of Cultural Anthropology, which interpreted living cultures. He encouraged us to see all things modified by man as expressions of culture, and therefore as keys to understanding culture itself. I began to see language, writing, and most everyday things in a new light – as reflecting the culture which created them, and fraught with all kinds of intent, contreversies, politics, relationships. It was a way to pick up current culture and hold it in your hand, make sense of it, read it.
(more via link below)

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