The future of cities with swarms of driverless cars (podcast)

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In the future, you might not own a car. Instead, you’ll get around town by hopping into one of many autonomous 3-wheeled pods swarming the streets.

To get a picture of how we’ll get there, we invited Xerox executive David Cummins to talk to us about the company’s efforts to improve parking — yes, parking — and the future of transportation in cities around the world. He’s the vice president for mobility solutions at the company, which gives him a remarkable perspective on the future: That’s because many big cities use Xerox services to help them process parking payments, plan traffic and parking flows, and get prepared for the future.

In Cummins’ view, automobile ownership is on the decline. Millennials are leading this charge, with many of them deciding that they don’t need to own a car — or even have a driver’s license — when services like Uber, Lyft, or the local public transit system can take them wherever they need to go.

Autonomous vehicles will accelerate that trend. In the coming years, cities may be filled with fleets of self-driving cars — not owned by any individuals — that come to you whenever you need a ride, and drop you off where you need to go. Cities may even put in dedicated “autonomous car lanes,” just as they have started to do with bike lanes.

Cummins chats with me and VentureBeat’s Mark Sullivan about how we’ll get there, and what to expect in the next few years.

Plus, we tell you what to think about:

All this and more is in our latest weekly episode. Why don’t you give it a listen?


You can also find the latest edition of What to Think on iTunes, or on SoundCloud.

In addition, you can find What to Think on Stitcher or get the What to Think RSS feed for the podcast player of your choice.

Enjoy the show!

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The future of cities with swarms of driverless cars (podcast)

Sunrun’s journey shows that there is rarely a straight line to success

A Sunrun employee installs a solar panel on the roof of a house.

With $2 billion worth of solar panels installed on 70,000 customers’ homes across 12 states, Sunrun is well on the way to proving that its model for solar power generation can work.

But it wasn’t always so clear. When the company started, in February 2007, cofounder and chief executive Lynn Jurich says she faced an enormous amount of skepticism.

“It was a hard model,” she said. She had trouble convincing investors to back Sunrun because they were concerned about how capital-intensive the business would be. And a look at the string of solar company failures over the past few years suggests that investors may have been right: Solar is a risky, capital-intensive business.

Before you can start generating electricity from the sun, you need to install a lot of solar panels. A typical household rooftop solar system costs at least $12,000, and often as much as $30,000. Jurich’s idea was that Sunrun would install these systems on houses, but retain ownership of them — and then make money by selling electricity, at below-market rates, to the owners of the houses.

In effect, Sunrun is building a vast, distributed solar power generation plant by renting space on people’s rooftops. The “rent” it pays comes in the form of a discount on the electricity it sells. Win-win: Homeowners get to go green, they benefit from cheaper electricity, and they don’t have to give up anything other than roof space they weren’t using anyway; Sunrun gets cheap “land” and can profit from the difference between its costs and what it receives for selling that power.

“The model on its face makes a ton of sense,” Jurich told me in a recent interview. “Homeowners already buy a ton of electricity as a service, and who wants to spend a ton of money to buy a solar system and maintain it themselves?”

There’s an additional advantage: The federal government offers a tax credit for homeowners to install solar systems. By installing it for them, Sunrun gets to claim those tax credits, which it can then sell to banks or other companies.

Long story short: This is a tricky financing play. By getting banks to front the money for solar panel installations, Sunrun can build those panels — then pay the banks back in tax credits and in the cash made by selling electricity.

Sunrun cofounder and CEO Lynn Jurich has found her happy place, it seems.

But before the economic engine could get humming, Sunrun had to prime it with a few customers. And it couldn’t get customers without having some money to build solar systems for them. So after closing its initial funding round of $12 million, Jurich and her partners funded the first crop of solar panels out of the company’s cash equity. It used that momentum to try and raise the debt financing it needed to continue growing.

But it was a tough sell, because they were trying to raise that money in the teeth of the 2008 recession, from loan originators that were used to lending money for multibillion dollar power plants, not distributed networks of home solar panels. If you’re loaning somebody $2 billion to build a power plant, you know where the money is going, and it’s easy to evaluate if the business is doing well. $2 billion to build a bunch of solar panels is a whole different thing.

Eventually, Jurich says Sunrun was able to close a first $40 million round of debt from U.S. Bank. And then, in late 2011, the federal government changed the solar panel subsidy, ending one of the company’s major selling points.

“It changed the value proposition we were offering consumers, and our sales totally fell off the cliff,” Jurich says. It was, she says, really hard to get capital and customers in balance for the first few years of the company’s existence.

“It was like, ok, we got the capital — but now, whoops, the value proposition changed and we don’t have the customers,” Jurich says.

The situation was bad enough that Jurich and her cofounders contemplated winding the business down. Without the subsidy, it looked like the market opportunity might not exist any more.

But Jurich says she stuck with it, partly because she was on the front lines of the business. She knew what customers wanted, and she had a sense that Sunrun could still make a compelling pitch to them. That gave her the confidence to continue pushing through, she says.

Not every entrepreneur does that — many hire a sales executive, and then stop going on sales calls, so they lose touch with what customers really want.

“Let’s say you’re a product girl, or you’re a technology girl, so that’s your comfort zone,” Jurich says. “Don’t overly rely on bringing in the sales person — you need to be in every one of those phone calls so that you’re able to tweak your business model and your product and make tough calls about the longevity of the market.”

Ultimately, Sunrun tweaked its pricing, stayed in the market, and went on to raise $2.8 billion in debt financing, of which $2 billion has been deployed building homeowner solar systems.

“And then Solarcity came along and copied us,” Jurich laughs.

(She hastens to add: Solarcity is more of a frenemy than a direct competitor. While larger than Sunrun, it’s more focused on commercial installations — and the retail electricity market opportunity, for now, is far bigger than both of them.)

Much of this story is captured in a cute, animated video narrated by Jurich and produced by one of Sunrun’s backers, Foundation Capital. I’m embedding it here because it’s a rare look at the ups and downs of an entrepreneur’s journey. Too often we hear the sanitized, mythologized version of a founding story. And no doubt this story has been edited to remove the really gnarly parts too. But in general, it’s a refreshing look at how much of a nail-biter Sunrun’s early phase was.

Many other companies can no doubt tell similar stories.

 

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Sunrun’s journey shows that there is rarely a straight line to success

Why I changed my mind about the new MacBook

The new Retina MacBook comes in silver and gold, plus "space gray" (not pictured).

When Apple announced its new MacBook last week, I was initially excited.

A Retina display — with resolution of 2,304 by 1,440 pixels — and a hugely promising 9 hours of battery life with active Web use sounded like exactly what I wanted. Plus, it weighs only slightly more than an iPad, at just 2 pounds. A nicer keyboard and a “force touch” trackpad are nifty add-ons, if not anything anyone had actually asked for.

Even the USB-C port didn’t bother me much. I’m actually a huge fan of USB-C, partly because it finally addresses the age-old problem with USB ports: Lack of symmetry. As everyone who has ever used one can attest, there’s a huge usability flaw with USB, in that you have to plug it in with the correct side up, but there’s not an easy way to tell which is the correct side without looking closely at the plug and the receptacle. The USB-C connector, by contrast, is reversible, so you can plug it in whatever way you want.

More than that, USB is quickly turning into a nearly ubiquitous standard not only for high-speed data transfer but also for powering up devices, from smartphones to cameras to Nintendo DSes. Using it to recharge a MacBook seems like a clever and logical next step.

But when I looked closer, it became clear that the MacBook is suffering from two serious flaws.

One, that processor! It’s a 1.1GHz or 1.2GHz Intel Core M processor, aka the “Broadwell” line of chips. Apple and other PC makers, not to mention Intel itself, have done a great job of obfuscating the differences between their chips over the past few years. Let me simplify it for you: This is a mobile chip, not a PC chip. It means the MacBook is actually closer to an iPad than it is to a MacBook Pro or a MacBook Air. Don’t plan on running processor-intensive applications like PhotoShop, Logic Pro, or graphics-intensive Mac games on this device. Sure, you can probably run them, but you’ll quickly discover why Apple markets its truly powerful MacBook Pro at people who actually want to run applications like this.

Two, the USB-C port: There’s only one. While that might seem like an elegant move towards design simplicity, the fact that it is the MacBook’s source of power and only wired peripheral port is a huge drawback. If, like many laptop users, you like to plug in your laptop while connecting it to an external monitor, you’ll be out of luck with the MacBook. It will force you to choose between recharging and connecting to a monitor. And if you want to connect to a monitor, you’ll need to buy a $79 adapter cable.

In short, this is a $1,300 netbook, more comparable to Google’s latest Chromebook Pixel than anything else.

Cult of Mac writes that the MacBook is a down payment on the future of laptops. Other PC makers may mock the MacBook today, but in a year or two, Apple will address some of the more glaring flaws (maybe adding a second USB-C port), drop the price, and mop up the competition. It followed this playbook with the initial MacBook Air, which was ridiculously overpriced and limited when it first came out, but which is an affordable workhorse today.

If Apple is indeed moving towards a more tablet-centric future, I have a suggestion: Make that Retina screen into a touchscreen, and make the keyboard detachable.

But if you did that, you’d have something a lot like Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3, wouldn’t you?

Finally, I have to admit: This parody video, while hilarious, is spot-on. It does a terrific job of skewering the new MacBook’s weakest points. No wonder it has 3.6 million views already!

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Why I changed my mind about the new MacBook

Tinder users at SXSW are falling in love with an A.I.

Ava, shown in her profile photo on Tinder, is not who she appears to be.


Take a look at this photo. Cute, right?

That’s the profile photo for an ostensibly 25-year-old female named Ava on Tinder, a popular dating app.

The profile has been popping up for Tinder users at SXSW this week. But after swiping right and making a connection with Ava, the conversation takes a strange turn, according to a post in AdWeek.

A conversation between "Ava" and Brock, a real human.

That’s right — Ava appears to be an A.I., or if not an actual artificial intelligence, at least a decent chat bot. The conversation concludes by directing people to Ava’s Instagram profile, @MeetAva, which is a promotional for an upcoming movie called Ex Machina, whose site it links to — and whose starring actress is actually the face of “Ava.” The movie comes out April 10, and there was a screening of it last night at SXSW.

It’s a pretty clever way to market a movie about A.I., but it’s not reaching a ton of people. @MeetAva only has 98 followers. On the other hand, the campaign scored a writeup in AdWeek — and now VentureBeat.

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TL;DR: Your emails are too long

photo credit: Urlesque Buttons via photopin (license)
photo credit: Urlesque Buttons via photopin (license)

I recently met with an interesting startup from Israel called TL;DR that has changed the way I’m thinking about and using email.

TL;DR stands for Too Long; Didn’t Read. It started as a quip used on Web forums and now occasionally stands in as a shorthand for “Here’s the summary of the long-winded thing I just wrote.”

The TL;DR app only works on iPhone 5 and 6 models, and I don’t have one of those, so I’m not actually using the app. But its approach resonated with me: It encourages you to write very short emails by explicitly giving you a “TL;DR” box to summarize your messages in 30 words or less. In some cases that turns out to be all you need.

It also presents incoming emails in a Facebook-like “card” view so you can easily scan them and dispose of them or reply to them. Neat.

But the philosophy, not the app, is my takeaway:

1. Most emails are too long. That’s fixable: I’m now skipping most of the greetings, the signoffs, and the excess verbiage I used to use. I’m writing emails more like Tweets now.

Sure, I sometimes write longer, when I need to convey a lot of information or I’m being extra-polite when introducing myself to a new person. But my default email is now very short.

2. If you treat email as an endless stream of social data, its less burdensome. Somehow email has come to seem like “a pile of things I have to deal with” rather than “a series of messages I might be interested in.” But you can look at your inbox more like Twitter, and it changes your relationship to it. Older than a week? Forget it; I’m not feeling obligated to look at it. Next year, my cutoff might be a day or two.

Finally, a tip: I found an easy way to scan through Gmail in a way that speeds up reading a lot. It is not as elegant as the TL;DR app demo I saw, but it is almost as fast.

You need to enable Gmail shortcut keys for this. Here’s my current workflow:

Open up the first message in your inbox. Look at it, and if there’s no action to take, press the [ key (the left square bracket), which archives the current message and then displays the next one. This works better than Y, which archives the current message but then returns you to the inbox.

In this way, I can plow through a lot of messages just by going [ [ [ [.

If there is an action to take on a message, you can reply to the message quickly (press R), add a star (press S), or defer taking action by moving to the next message while leaving the current one in the inbox (press J).

Also useful: Press M to mute a message thread, so you won’t see it in your inbox again unless someone directs it explicitly at you. This is really useful for those long, useless intra-office pile-on threads.

Using this workflow I’ve been able to read most of my incoming “Priority” messages every day, while leaving a minimal number of other messages in my inbox for later followup or monitoring.

And as for the rest? I don’t worry about missing them any more than I worry about seeing every single Facebook update.

Here’s an Oatmeal comic about the problem with email. It’s kind of long, so TL;DR: Your emails are too long. Write shorter.

Matthew Inman, The Oatmeal
Matthew Inman, The Oatmeal (This is just the first panel — click through to read the rest of the comic)
TL;DR: Your emails are too long

First Floor Labs, .XYZ domains, and DJI Drones: My appearance on NBC Bay Area

I was on NBC Bay Area’s Sunday show “Press Here” a few weeks ago. This is a really fun show to do: It’s like a local version of “Meet the Press,” hosted by Scott McGrew. They bring in a couple local journalists and do a few short segments where we interview entrepreneurs about what they’re working on.

This time, I was on with Michal Lev-Ram of Fortune. There were three segments. We talked with Eric Cheng of DJI Drones, a big manufacturer of drones:

 

And Daniel Negari of .XYZ domains:

 

And Mendel Chuang of Smoopa and AOL’s First Floor Labs:

 

First Floor Labs, .XYZ domains, and DJI Drones: My appearance on NBC Bay Area

A company fighting the meaningless cycle of clicks and likes

Eishay Smith and Danny Blumenfeld, cofounders of Kifi.

For many of us, our lives are an endless feedback loop, punctuated by clicks and likes.

Wake up. Check Facebook. Check Twitter. Click on a few links. Post one of those links on Facebook with a funny comment. Brush teeth. Check to see if anyone liked your post on Facebook yet. Commute to work, checking Facebook on the way. Instagram your latte. Do a little work. Check to see if there are any more likes. Post something clever on Twitter. Did anyone like it yet? Do a little more work. Check Twitter. Check Facebook. Check Instagram. Click click click.

Repeat until the nursing home takes away your device.

The fact is, our social networks, like free-to-play games, are designed to stimulate our nervous systems, sucking us into ever-increasing levels of engagement. The more you click, the more time you spend in their apps, the more these businesses succeed.

And over the past few years, these businesses have gotten very, very good at this. The average American spends 40 minutes a day on Facebook. That’s 243 hours per year.

I don’t think many people would argue that all that time is making us smarter.

A new startup, Kifi, wants to create a different dynamic, using the design and social media techniques that other apps have honed not to make you click on the latest memes, but to help you find more useful knowledge. Its goal is, as the founders put it, “to connect you with the things that you should know, based on who you are.”

Kifi lets you save web pages into topical libraries, then recommends related content from others' libraries.

Kifi is, at first glance, a fancy bookmark manager. Using the site, its browser plug-in, or its apps (for iOS and Android) you can save links to web pages you like, dropping them into topical “libraries” if you want to organize them, or just dropping them all into a single generic library if you prefer. Those libraries can be shared, or private, as you prefer. A new feature lets Kifi capture all the links you post on Twitter, which will appeal to those of you with an archival bent.

We’ve seen a lot of such tools for collecting and sharing interesting things, from (in order of decreasing minimalism) Delicious to Pinboard to Pinterest to Polyvore.

Here’s where Kifi diverges from most bookmark managers, though. Behind the scenes at Kifi is an artificial intelligence system that the company calls “Cortex,” aimed at creating meaningful connections between individuals and their interests — building a “social network for knowledge.” In my tests of the app and website, it shows much promise. It’s well-designed, responsive, and engaging.

But it’s the founders’ vision that stands out the most to me.

Today’s tech, CEO and cofounder Danny Blumenfeld says, is all about “distraction, distraction, distraction.”

“I don’t want to bring my kids up this way,” he adds. Cofounder Eishay Smith also brings up his children when discussing Kifi’s vision.

Instead, they want to build a “social network for knowledge.” Their investor presentation actually refers to building a “hive mind,” a rather grandiose science fiction-y term. In short, they’re aiming a lot higher than bookmarks.

How it works

When you visit the Kifi site, or use its app, it suggests a stream of content you’re likely to find relevant, based on which people and which libraries you’re following. But unlike Twitter or Facebook, you don’t get a huge feed of items: Kifi limits itself to showing you only the updates it believes you’re most interested in. On the mobile app, that’s just one “card” at a time. It actively slows you down from obsessively swiping up to see more, more, more.

Kifi's setup screen asks you to choose "who you are," not what you are interested in.

“You choose who you are, not what your interests are,” Blumenfeld says. “I’m a parent, I’m a writer” — not, as on other sites, “I’m interested in adoption” or “I’m interested in marketing techniques.”

The distinction is a little subtle, but it gets at the profundity of what Kifi is trying to do, which is give people a deeper, more meaningful way to connect based on their fundamental identities, not their transient interests. It’s aspirational. I found it to be a good way to discover longer, less newsy articles to read — similar to the way I use Instapaper or LongReads.

That’s not to say that Kifi avoids the kind of techniques used by other social media. For instance, there’s a bit of a viral loop in that relevant libraries get shown to people who are interested in that kind of content, which means people wind up clicking on and saving those URLs themselves, which pushes the original library further up in recommendations, and so on.

For some reason, a library I’m curating on “writing well” now has over 2,000 followers — apparently there are a lot of people on Kifi interested in writing. One by Kifi VP of marketing Mark Yoshitake on “true happiness and living well” has over 4,000 followers.

Other libraries can attract solid SEO, because, as Blumenfeld says, they’re essentially “curated search results.” For example, the first Google result on a search for “Danny Blumenfeld” is not his LinkedIn profile, but his Kifi list of useful stuff for a startup CEO.

The founders tell me that Kifi’s algorithm can shift its recommendations over time. If you start planning a European vacation, saving links into a “Europe” library, Kifi’s algorithms can pick up on that interest and present more Europe-related links, then return to your baseline interests when you’re done planning. In my tests, that aspect of Kifi’s adaptability wasn’t immediately obvious — it is better at responding to my enduring interests rather than my latest temporary obsessions.

With the browser plugin, it can also insert related results from Kifi on top of Google search results. (Evernote has a similar feature with its browser plugin.)

The next challenge: Scale

Kifi is still very small, with only about 16 employees. It has a bit fewer than 40,000 users, who have collectively saved over 2 million “keeps,” or websites. It’s adding between 1,000 and 1,500 users a day. But it’s raised an impressive $11 million to date, with a $1 million seed round from Oren Zeev (a little-known but very successful angel who also made very early investments into Houzz and Chegg) and a $10 million A round led by Chicago-based Wicklow Capital.

Kifi’s technology has been quietly in development for over two years. Smith speaks with a huge amount of confidence about the technology’s ability to scale, despite the fact that it’s enormously computationally intensive. It helps that he’s assembled a stellar team of engineers and Ph.D.s. And Smith himself is the former director of engineering for Wealthfront, while Blumenfeld founded Pageonce (then sold it to Intuit).

Can Kifi can live up to its promises, grow its user base, and keep the site performing as it grows?

I think it’s off to a great start. Kifi’s design, and its algorithms, are designed for long-term relevance, not newsworthiness. It’s a good place to discover advice on VC fundraising, parenting tips, baking recipes, and articles on technology marketing — but not the latest news.

That can be a very good thing. For example, when the rest of the social media world was flipping out about #TheDress, this viral topic barely made a dent on Kifi. The few articles that Kifi users did share about #TheDress, Kifi tells me, had more to do with the science and optics behind the phenomenon — not the craziness of the dress sharing itself.

So if you’re looking for a refuge from the meme-soaked madness that is the Internet we’ve built, Kifi is worth a look.


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A company fighting the meaningless cycle of clicks and likes

Heroic levels of hype

I’m going to try something new this week. I’ve been admiring emails by Om Malik, Alexis Madrigal, and Caitlin Dewey, who send daily or weekly lists of links to interesting things to read. (You should sign up for their newsletters — all three are wonderful, in very different ways.)

And my occasional emails have felt a little self centered. I write just a handful of posts every week, after all. And yet each week I come across a lot of wonderful things I’d like to share: great stories written by the VentureBeat team, things I saved to Instapaper, long reads on Medium, links I tweeted, and more.

So I’d like to try sending you a few interesting links in each of my weekly emails. Just a few: I’ll keep it short and limit it to high-quality things you might actually enjoy reading.

The focus will reflect my day job — lots of business technology news — but I might start including some things off that path too. And I will continue to include links to my weekly columns.

Let me know what you think!

Dylan.

Hillary’s Email [Medium]
A minor scandal erupted last week about Hillary Clinton using a personal email server, instead of the official State Department email, for her entire term as Secretary of State. Here’s a really smart take on that. “It’s probably the case that if Hillary Clinton was focusing solely on security, using her personal email with 2 Factor Authentication was probably way *more* secure than using the honeypot mess of IT that is the State Department’s email servers.”

The Year We Broke the Internet [Esquire]
News, or “newsiness”? “We in the media have been struggling for twenty years to solve that riddle, and this year, the answer arrived: Big Viral, a Lovecraftian nightmare that has tightened its thousand-tentacled grip on our browsing habits with its traffic-at-all-costs mentality—veracity, newsworthiness, and relevance be damned.

Much Ventured, Much Gained [Foreign Affairs]
A rare interview with Michael Moritz, one of the most successful VCs in history. “Clarity of thought. The ability to communicate clearly. A great sense of mission. A massive willingness to persevere. A willingness to make painful decisions. Extraordinary energy. And a belief that he or she has embarked on their life’s work. Those are the hallmarks of the truly wonderful entrepreneurs behind the handful of fantastic companies.”

What to Think, Ep. 44: Using big data to improve your March Madness bracket [VentureBeat]
In this episode of VentureBeat’s weekly podcast, Jordan Novet and I do our best to cover for our almost complete ignorance regarding the NCAA in order to have what turns out to be a really interesting conversation with Nik Bonaddio, the founder of NumberFire.
And here’s my column for this week:Welcome to Hero City, land of opportunity — and heroic levels of hype

The first thing you notice when you walk in the front door of Hero City is a gleaming, black Tesla. Except the Tesla has been cut in half, lengthwise, and converted into a reception desk.

The second thing you notice is that, underneath the sweeping, high ceiling, in front of the grand staircase up to the second floor, dozens of desks are arrayed, about half of them empty, the other half with young entrepreneurs hunched over laptops, typing away, working on their plans to change the world.

Then — over there on the wall to the right: a giant mural. Two stories high and probably fifty feet wide, it covers one entire side of this giant room. Painted in comic-book style — by DC Comics artist Jim Lee — it features Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Robin. Robin is saying “Holy amazing opportunity, Batman!” Wonder Woman, who is standing next to a group of professionals (a lab coat-wearing doctor, a tie-wearing office worker, and a hard hat-wearing construction manager) is saying “Unleash the Heroes!”

And next to Robin stands a 15-foot-high cartoon portrait of Hero City founder, third-generation venture capitalist, and political gadfly Timothy C. Draper, ripping open his standard-issue VC blue dress shirt to reveal an orange superhero leotard with a Draper logo on it.

Draper, you suddenly realize, kind of looks like Superman — in the portrait as in real life. And damned if he isn’t making the very most of that resemblance.

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Heroic levels of hype