Tech media companies find that rapid growth doesn’t come easy

The news business: It's still afloat.


Publishing is a tough business. And despite the buckets of venture capital that have been poured into media companies in recent years, it’s clear that not every publisher can make those investments pay off.

Two recent exits, Re/code and Gigaom, show why tech publishers need to diversify their revenue sources.

Re/code’s Code Conference is one of the best tech conferences around. And at $6,500 per ticket, it brings in a lot of cash. So it surprised many people when, on the morning of the conference’s opening day, the news broke that Vox Media was acquiring Re/code.

Naturally, the 700 or so at the event were buzzing about the deal. Re/code’s founders, Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, joked about it onstage. Lots of people I talked with seemed eager to hear what I thought of the Re/code news, and what I thought it meant for VentureBeat (we are competitors, after all). So here’s my take:

The acquisition came less than 18 months after Re/code got its start, and its terms were not disclosed. The conclusion most would draw from that: It’s not a win. If the investors and founders were confident they were on a rapid upward trajectory, they wouldn’t have sold so soon. If they sold it for a large amount, they would have leaked the price to someone.

Also this week, an Austin, Texas-based content farm called Knowingly announced that it was buying Gigaom’s remaining assets, which mostly amount to a URL and a bunch of archive stories that, according to sources I’ve spoken with, are still generating significant traffic. The purchase price was undoubtedly low — probably $1 million or less.

That marks an inauspicious restart for Gigaom, which abruptly shut down earlier this year — although founder Om Malik posted a hopeful note that seems aimed at stimulating the new owners’ sense of responsibility.

Taken together, you might think that these two events spell bad news for those of us in tech news who are still independent from large corporate owners. Add in the recent sale of AOL (the owner of TechCrunch and Engadget) to Verizon, and you might be wondering if tech news is viable at all.

My takeaway is different: Most publishers currently make money through advertising and conferences. Neither are especially conducive to rapid growth.

Advertising is a fickle mistress. Thanks to ad networks, there’s a lot of downward pressure on ad prices, which eats into publishers’ revenues. To offset that, or battle against it, you need scale — a really big audience — and a killer sales team. Re/code lacked the former, and Gigaom lacked the latter, so neither made much revenue in advertising.

Many publishers have, like Re/code and Gigaom, placed their faith in conferences. But conferences are hard to scale, because each one requires a lot of work. The scalability problem goes double for elite events like the Code Conference: Because it draws such high-level attendees, it is by definition a scarce resource. The only way to grow that business is by adding spin-off conferences (Code Media, Code Enterprise), but each one risks poaching attendees, speakers, and ultimately cachet from the main event.

So publishers need something else — or they need to give up on the dream of rapid, startup-like growth. In VentureBeat’s case, we grew comfortably, if slowly, on our profitable event and advertising businesses, from our founding in 2006 until 2014. (Founder Matt Marshall raised a tiny angel round early on, but the subsequent growth was entirely based on revenues.) Last summer, we took a small round of seed funding in order to build a research and information business that, we believe, will be disruptive to the current research industry, and will be much more scalable as it grows. But we’re also investing in the older businesses because they are self-sustaining and form a solid foundation for the new line of business.

Big publishers like Vox, BuzzFeed, and Vice Media have a different play. Vox is building an enormous audience through a network of interlocking sites. The end game there is to achieve publishing efficiency by using a common platform and to command high advertising revenues by selling the network to advertisers as a premium package: The Conde Nast model.

BuzzFeed makes money as an advertising agency that drives traffic to custom content it helps create; the news business adds credibility and helps with the audience, but it’s really the traffic engine that its customers come to it for.

Vice, which has raised $580 million — more than any of the others — is not strictly a tech news site. It appears to be doing something similar to what Buzzfeed does: Building a massive audience and offering advertisers services to reach that audience with custom content.

There are many other examples of tech-related media companies picking up massive amounts of funding: most recently, in January, Mashable ($17 million) and Business Insider ($25 million).

My advice to these growing, venture-funded publishers — and to our own investors and my boss — is not to place too much faith in a single business model. The media business is far from dying, but it’s fluid, and what worked last year may not work next year. The only enduring requirement: To earn, and hold on to, your readers’ trust.

As for the business, it requires adaptability and diversification, especially if you dream of startup-like growth curves.

Of course, there’s always the option of remaining small and independent. But to do that, publishers would have to stop thinking of themselves as startups. In Silicon Valley, that’s almost like giving up.

 

Originally published on VentureBeat » Dylan Tweney: http://ift.tt/1FkOfqb

Tech media companies find that rapid growth doesn’t come easy

How Reddit’s fixed salary policy is diversifying its workforce

Ellen Pao onstage with Kara Swisher (left) at the Code Conference in May 2015

RANCHO PALOS VERDES, California — Reddit is taking an unusual measure towards diversifying its workforce: It has stopped negotiating salaries with potential hires.

“Women are one-quarter as likely to negotiate for salary as men are, and when they do, they’re penalized,” Reddit’s interim chief executive Ellen Pao said today at the Code Conference. Also, she said, some managers weren’t as good at negotiating with the people they wanted to hire.

The new approach: Reddit does research to establish what the market rate salary is for every position. When they make an offer, it’s a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. The company will negotiate over the balance of cash versus stock options, but the overall package is fixed.

This has helped increase the diversity of the applicant pool, Pao said.

“We’ve had people apply to Reddit just for that reason,” she said.

It has also standardized salaries across the organization, so they’re more consistent than before.

Pao is the former Kleiner Perkins employee who filed suit against the VC firm alleging sex discrimination. Pao lost that suit in March, and is still considering whether or not to appeal it, she said.

Diversity and gender discrimination was a big part of Pao’s discussion onstage with Re/code founder Kara Swisher today, and it’s one of the major themes of this year’s Code conference.

Originally published on VentureBeat: http://ift.tt/1GEhlVP

How Reddit’s fixed salary policy is diversifying its workforce

Senator Elizabeth Warren puts tech crowd to sleep with talk of infrastructure

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, onstage at the Code Conference with Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg.


RANCHO PALOS VERDES, California — Senator Elizabeth Warren is on fire about infrastructure.

Specifically, Warren says, America needs to resume investing in things like roads, bridges, power grids — as well as education and basic research — that enable future innovation.

“We have all helped build the world in which others can build more,” the Massachusetts senator said today at the Code Conference, a gathering of the tech industry elite. Roads, bridges, and so forth: Past generations’ governments built these things so that people today can start and grow companies without having to lay out their own transportation networks — or police forces.

“Then some people come along and they lay down the seeds that produce success, and God bless them that they do that,” Warren said.

You’d think that a rallying cry like this would go over well in a crowd whose entire existence, from computers to the Internet, was enabled in part or whole by federal government research investments.

You’d be wrong.

Although Warren bubbles over with enthusiasm when she’s talking about the need for these kinds of investments, or the need to take a closer look at fast-track trade agreements, or the need to increase (on an inflation-adjusted basis) our investment in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget, her enthusiasm did not translate to audience engagement.

Halfway through her onstage time, a good proportion of the crowd had their noses in their white iPhone 6+. For the last quarter hour, the sound of cocktails conversation from people who had drifted out of the auditorium grew louder and louder.

Granted, Warren clearly came with talking points, and she stuck to them: America spent much more on infrastructure in the earlier part of the 20th century, she said, and started spending less in the 1980s, as the demand for tax cuts ate into government’s ability to spend money on big projects.

“This is part of what it meant to be in America: We invested in the future,” Warren said of the past. Today: Not so much.

“It seems to me that we’re just underinvesting and underinvesting and underinvesting in [infrastructure],” Warren said. “And as a result we have an infrastructure that is crumbling under our feet. We have an education system that is failing our students every day.”

But even allowing for the talking points and her evasiveness about whether she’d consider running for president, the pro-tech, pro-education message seemed to fall a bit flat with this tech-centric crowd. Even conference organizer and onstage moderator Kara Swisher noted that Warren was getting a little “wonky” for the crowd.

Silicon Valley really doesn’t have time for U.S. politicians, it seems — even when those politicians are talking about bread-and-butter issues that would deliver more investment opportunity at home.

“I do want to see more people in the tech industry engaged in government,” Warren said.

“The only way we get change in this country is if enough people say ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m fed up with this,’” and then demand that their representatives make a priority of investing in infrastructure, education, and research.

“We have to make these issues salient and not wonky,” Warren said.

Originally published on VentureBeat » Dylan Tweney: http://ift.tt/1Ax6Kef

Senator Elizabeth Warren puts tech crowd to sleep with talk of infrastructure

Nobody wants your wearable

Skully's "smart motorcycle helmet" includes a rear-view camera and a heads-up display.


SAN FRANCISCO — The problem with wearable technology might just be that nobody particularly wants it.

Not if you call it “wearable technology,” that is. That’s the conclusion proffered by Marcus Weller, the chief executive and cofounder of Skully, the maker of a “smart” motorcycle helmet.

I spoke with Weller in a brief onstage appearance at the Wearable World Congress yesterday.

Skully’s helmet might not be what you think of as a “wearable,” which is a category that up to now has been dominated by smart glasses (Google Glass, mostly) and smartwatches (the Apple Watch, mostly). But a helmet is most certainly something you wear.

Skully CEO Marcus Weller and VentureBeat editor-in-chief Dylan Tweney onstage at Wearable World Congress.

The technology inside the Skully helmet is pretty impressive. There’s a rear-view camera that captures a wide-angle, 180-degree view of what’s going on behind you, in your blind spot, and all the way up to the edge of your peripheral vision. There’s integration with your smartphone’s GPS, phone, and music capabilities. And there’s a transparent heads-up display that shows both the rear-view camera imagery (“de-warped” so it’s easy for your brain to understand what it’s looking at — which can be tricky with a fisheye lens) as well as important alerts, such as an upcoming street that you need to turn on in order to reach your destination.

It sounds like a lot of information to throw in front of a motorcycle driver, and I was a little concerned when Weller told me that his customers respond to the product by saying how it makes them feel like a fighter pilot, or like Iron Man. Making motorcycle riders feel more like a cartoon superhero doesn’t seem like the best way to keep them from wrapping themselves around some car’s rear bumper.

But Weller and his team have spent a lot of time thinking about how to make the interface as minimal as possible. Their goal, he said, is to “reduce cognitive load” — make it easier for your brain to process information, not harder.

“Users experience reduced cognitive load as delight,” Weller said, pointing to the radical simplification of the smartphone user interface that Apple achieved with its iPhone. Similarly, he believes that Skully’s helmet will make it simpler and easier for people to ride safe. Upshot: Fewer motorcycle crashes — and happier motorcycle riders.

But even though it’s technically a wearable, Weller steers away from calling it that. In fact, one of his most useful and actionable observations — especially for an audience full of people making wearable tech products — is that the word “wearable” really doesn’t work in marketing campaigns. It’s actually off-putting.

Instead, Weller advises wearable makers to focus on what their product enables customers to do: Ride safely, enjoy life better, have more fun, or be more productive.

I think that makes a lot of sense. Few people really wanted to wear Google notifications on their head, especially if it makes them look like a creepy, Borg-like technodork. So Google Glass didn’t take off.

A similar fate awaits the Apple Watch if the company can’t convince people that there’s a larger benefit. Just making someone’s watch “smart” isn’t appealing. And saving you the hassle of pulling your smartphone out of your pocket is not a particularly big leap forward. (Although some commentators have said that this actually is a remarkable improvement, I don’t think that glancing at your wrist instead of your phone is going to be a compelling advantage for most people.)

In short, both Google Glass and the Apple Watch were positioned primarily as wearable technologies, not as life-enhancing, superpower-enabling tools.

Both Google and Apple might take a page from Weller’s book. Skully broke Indiegogo fundraising records when it debuted in 2013, raising $2.44 million from individual backers. The company went on to pick up $11 million in series A venture funding in February of this year, and is set to begin delivering its helmets later this year.

And Weller didn’t get there by pitching them on how smart his helmet is, or how cool its wearable tech is. He got there by making them feel like Iron Man.

Originally published on VentureBeat » Dylan Tweney: http://ift.tt/1FxK0ec

Nobody wants your wearable

Wherever Satoshi Nakamoto is, he’s probably filthy rich by now

Bitcoin


The mysterious creator of Bitcoin identified himself as “Satoshi Nakamoto” in the 2009 software release that kickstarted the cryptocurrency.

After playing an active role in the Bitcoin community from 2009 to 2011 — only via email, never in person or by phone — Nakamoto disappeared, leaving many people dying to know who the real person is behind this pseudonym.

But why the secrecy? The New York Times suggests one good reason: Safety.

Whoever Nakamoto is, he probably owns a lot of Bitcoins. One expert the Times talked to estimated that Nakamoto mined close to a million Bitcoins during the first year the system existed, when mining was computationally cheap and quite easy. Given the current price of Bitcoin, which is around $235, that means — if he held onto his stash — that Nakamoto is now worth over $200 million. Staying anonymous would be one way of helping ensure that fortune stayed secure.

That factoid is buried toward the end of the Times story, which lays out a case that Satoshi Nakamoto is actually Nick Szabo, a cryptography expert and polymath who has been involved in cryptocurrency both before and after the emergence of Bitcoin. Lots of people in the Bitcoin community believe that Szabo is Nakamoto, so Popper’s theory is not that outlandish, and he musters a number of pretty suggestive, if circumstantial, arguments — including lexical analysis of the words and phrases used by both.

Szabo, for his part, vehemently denies that he is Nakamoto. “I’m not Satoshi,” he told the Times writer, Nathaniel Popper, point-blank.

Who to believe? It’s hard to say. But if Szabo is Satoshi, he’s certainly not living large on his fortune. The Times notes that Szabo tends to wear beat-up black sneakers and untucked shirts, and drives a 1990s-model car.

Originally published on VentureBeat » Dylan Tweney: http://ift.tt/1Pskspr

Wherever Satoshi Nakamoto is, he’s probably filthy rich by now

I backed up 24,280 photos to Google Drive. What happened next blew my mind

Dylan Tweney, the future editor-in-chief of VentureBeat, in front of Versailles in 2000.


My lovely wife and I recently decided to back up all our family photos to a single online location, so we’d be less dependent on the Mac Mini they currently live on. That, in turn, would free the Mini up so that the 14-year-old could use it as a music-and-movie studio and (eventually, I hope) to get some homework done.

After some comparison shopping, it became clear that Google Drive would be the way to go. For $2 per month, we could store up to 100GB, which was plenty even for our bloated photo library. Using Picasa, which is where we’ve been storing our photos, we simply turned on the auto-back up option, specified the option to make full-size copies of our photos, and waited.

And waited. And waited.

It turns out that we had more than 15,000 photos to upload from the Mac, and that took about two-and-a-half days to complete.

We had a few thousand more photos from other sources, like my wife’s phone and things I hadn’t yet imported into Picasa. When finished, we had 24,280 photos on our shared Google Drive. (We have a Google Apps account, which we use for the family email addresses, and there’s a single shared “Media” account where we put all our music and photos, so everyone in the family can access them.)

Then the fun started.

Every day, I got new notifications saying that Google had added a few “Auto Awesome” photos or a few new “Stories.”

These are features that Google+ has had for a while. They use image analysis and location data to group images together, either automatically applying filters, auto-stitching panoramas together, or creating short animations from groups of related photos (Auto Awesome); or by putting photos together into narrative “stories” that cover a single day or a trip (Stories).

A press conference at Intel Capital's Global Summit,  November, 2014.

Auto Awesome has been a novel feature that’s occasionally proved useful for me, like the time it put all the photos I took of speakers at an Intel press conference into one animated GIF, conveying the spirit of the event more concisely than I could have done in any number of words.

But when presented with a vast volume of photographs, Auto Awesome and Stories really shine. Our 24,000 photos date back over a decade, back to when we got our first digital camera in 2000. Google gradually worked its way through our photo library, creating animations and stories year after year, and in the process bringing up moments I had forgotten about and photos I hadn’t looked at in years.

There was last month’s trip to Spain and France, of course. But there was also last summer at the beach. Last Christmas and the Christmas before that. The time my daughter visited my at “Take Our Children to Work Day” and a Wired staff photographer did a glamour shoot with her. Easter six years ago. My son jumping on a trampoline six years ago. My daughter learning to ride her bike. A panorama from our trip to Paris in 2000 before the kids.

Some of the animated GIFs were goofy and funny. Some were amazing little snippets, moments in time captured and suddenly reappearing a decade later. Some of the enhanced photos were odd and unbeautiful, but still intriguing. The stories didn’t have much narrative, but they stitched together key moments of big days in ways I hadn’t bothered to do myself.

In short, Google had reached into the depths of an overwhelmingly large photo library, identified some highlights, and put them together in a way that surprised and delighted me.

I don’t tend to expect surprise and delight from Google, which has tended to focus on wonky, pragmatic, and often poorly designed solutions that are useful, but not big on amazing me. This was the exception.

These GIFs are fun to look at. The stories are incomplete and leave me wanting more, but they are a great start. The filters and panoramas are neat.

But mostly, they provide entry points into our my family’s memories, and our photo library, in a way that no other tech product I can remember has done.

For that, I say: Thank you, Google!

Learning to ride a bike: An animated GIF created by Google's Auto Awesome.

 

 

Originally published on VentureBeat » Dylan Tweney: http://ift.tt/1cFoDw8

I backed up 24,280 photos to Google Drive. What happened next blew my mind

Welcome to our beautifully designed, corporate-controlled future Internet

At Slack headquarters in San Francisco.

There’s a generational shift in technology happening right now: From the open Web to native apps, from desktops to mobile phones, from platforms built on standards to platforms owned by corporations.

Let’s call it the second Internet. Here’s what it looks like:

Facebook Instant Article

That’s right — it’s Facebook. More than 1.44 billion people use Facebook every month, and almost a billion of them use it every day. The majority do so via the Facebook app on their phones.

Think about that: A decade ago, the majority of people using the Internet were doing so on desktop computers or laptops, accessing HTML and JavaScript websites. Today, a vast number — maybe not a majority, but a lot — experience the Internet primarily through Facebook’s mobile app.

That’s why publishers like the New York Times, Buzzfeed, and National Geographic were so eager to test out Facebook’s new Instant Articles platform.

This platform puts publishers’ stories directly into the Facebook app (on iOS only, for now), where they load more quickly than they would if Facebook just linked to the publishers’ websites — which take an average of eight seconds to load, Facebook says. Instant Articles also offer a variety of snazzy tools for publishers to present their images and interactive elements.

Facebook’s efforts to become a publishing platform are not unique. Instead of publishing posts on their own blogs, many of the best writers in tech journalism are now publishing on Medium, a site completely owned and controlled by one company. Why? Because the experience of writing and reading is so much better on Medium.

It’s not just consumers who are shifting toward platforms that are more engaging, easier to use, and yet more controlled.

In corporations, Slack is taking off like an F-18 engaging its afterburners. VentureBeat is testing it out, and it’s easy for me to see why people view it as the long-awaited email killer: Slack is fast, fun, and works almost exactly the same way on a variety of devices.

If it can kill email, that’s a good thing, because most people hate email. There’s too much of it, it’s inefficient, and it’s no fun.

But we lose something when we move from the open Web to Facebook, or from email to Slack. What we lose is the ability to build tools that interoperate with our new platforms without first having to ask permission.

That’s not how the Internet was built: It was designed by groups of people discussing and gradually coming to consensus on what standards should govern various technologies.

I’ll grant you, standards are boring. They emerge only out of endless, dull committee meetings. They are difficult to understand without specialized knowledge, and they can be a pain in the ass to implement.

But the upside is that you don’t have to ask permission to build an email client, or a Web browser. You just study the relevant standards, build the best tool you can, and put it out there. If it works well and it is sufficiently compatible with the standards that other people are using, it has a chance of becoming widely adopted.

Where did the Internet fail us?

It’s clear, though, that the standards-driven Internet, for all its interoperability, is leaving people wanting. It’s not clear why.

Facebook is clearly more attractive than the open Web to many people. Instant Articles will only accelerate that trend, keeping more Facebook users inside the Facebook app.

Slack is far better than any email client — and believe me, people have tried to make email clients fast and fun.

And mobile apps, based on device-specific native code, continue to outstrip the growth of universally accessible mobile websites.

The hypothesis I am reluctantly proposing here is that maybe the standards-based Internet can’t deliver a great user experience. Maybe you have to go beyond the Internet’s standards to really delight your customers. Maybe you have to take control of the platform.

I’m not about to make a simplistic distinction between “open” and “closed” systems, because the truth is a lot more complicated. Facebook and Slack are both highly extensible platforms, and they’re open in many ways. Facebook in particular has made every effort to publish APIs and embrace developers, giving programmers the tools to build on top of Facebook with minimal interference or oversight. Slack is easy to extend with integrations that plug it into a variety of other tools, and it’s easy to see it becoming even more extensible in time.

But at the end of the day, these companies own their platforms, and can dictate the terms. Perhaps that is exactly why the customer experience is better there.

But if they’re open and welcoming to developers today, these platform owners could easily change their tune tomorrow.

That’s why nearly every story about Facebook’s Instant Articles includes some kind of comment from the publishers, or from the reporter covering it, about the risks these publishers face. “We’re going in with our eyes open,” the NYT CEO told Recode, somewhat defensively.

It’s an issue for consumers as well as publishers. When Facebook is a publishing platform and your sole source of news, how comfortable do you feel that the news is free and independent?

And for other corporations: When you’ve traded free, open email standards for the nicely designed confines of Slack, will you regret it in 12 months — or five years — when your company owes enormous monthly fees to Slack and there’s no viable alternative?

Or will it simply not matter, because the user experience is so awesome?


VentureBeat’s VB Insight team is studying marketing and personalization…
Chime in here, and we’ll share the results.

Originally published on VentureBeat » Dylan Tweney: http://ift.tt/1cED8jU

Welcome to our beautifully designed, corporate-controlled future Internet

PR folks: Here’s how to pitch me

Matthew Inman, The Oatmeal
Matthew Inman, The Oatmeal

The lovely Ayelet Noff from PR firm Blonde 2.0 interviewed me on the best way for PR people to approach me with stories. Here’s an excerpt, but read the full story on her site if you’re wondering about this kind of thing.

1) What’s the best way to pitch you?

The very best way is to look at the contact form on VentureBeat’s website, and either use the form there or use the list of reporters to figure out which reporter to pitch:

http://venturebeat.com/contact

If you can’t figure out which reporter is the best contact, it’s ok to email me.

It is *highly* recommended that you copy tips@venturebeat.com any time you have time-sensitive news that you are pitching, whether you are emailing me or anyone else on my team.

That form, by the way, as well as tips@venturebeat.com, go to the whole news team. We do monitor incoming messages constantly, though we don’t reply to everything.

If you don’t hear from me, it’s ok to follow up in a day or two (just re-mail me in the same thread so I have all the context right there).

How to pitch me: Dylan Tweney

PR folks: Here’s how to pitch me

A few notes on innovation

Photo: Thomas Hawk
Photo: Thomas Hawk

Originally published on Medium. Follow me there!

With nearly two billion people around the planet connected to the Internet, it is tempting to say that the revolution is nearly over. The largest providers of Internet access have consolidated their positions, the major search and social media players have been established, the largest content publishers have so much momentum and audience reach that they are difficult to dislodge. And, watchfully monitoring everything, the unblinking eyes of the NSA and other national security agencies.

Perhaps the revolution is over. But perhaps the spirit is only sleeping, waiting for the next round of disruptive innovation to topple today’s giants, just as they toppled the previous generation.

What happens next depends in large part on the kinds of decisions we make today about technology: Decisions as individual consumers, as corporations, and as voting members of democratic governments.

Will we choose openness, interoperability, and decentralization, keeping our options open and fertilizing the ground for the next generation of entrepreneurs? Or will we opt for central management, safety, and convenience, ceding increasing amounts of control to gatekeepers like Google, Facebook, AT&T, and Amazon.com?

Up to now the choice has been framed as a stark battle between openness and control — between open-source and proprietary platforms. But that description is too binary, and it obscures the subtleties in how technology actually develops. Sometimes a putatively closed-source, proprietary system can turn out to be an enormously fecund source of innovation, giving rise to thousands of startups and creating many thousands of jobs, as happened with Apple’s iPhone. Sometimes a strictly open-source system like Linux can develop into a rich ecosystem in one area, like servers, while remaining an interesting but ultimately uninfluential dead end, as it has on the desktop. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between open and closed systems at all, as has happened during the net neutrality fight.

In reality, making informed decisions about technologies and their long-term impact requires understanding how they work in greater depth. There has been too little literature on this. Books like Jonathan Zittrain’s “The Future of the Internet” and Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants” have made bold theoretical arguments, bolstered by real-world case studies, but demonstrate a too-shallow understanding of how the Internet’s fundamental platforms actually operate.

It is also important to understand the people behind these platforms, what motivates them, and what their business models and ultimate objectives really are. Unlike with book authors, entrepreneurs’ motivations may not be particularly interesting to many consumers of their products. But understanding those motivations — or at least the stated aims — can aid in evaluating a company’s technologies.

We live in a time when understanding technology to some depth is an essential part of being an informed consumer, a professional, and — I maintain — to being a citizen.

And yet too many people are ignorant about the dynamics of the tech industry at this moment. We are at a critical junction, where the balance of innovation is shifting away from independent entrepreneurs and towards large corporations. This shift may be as inevitable as the swing of a pendulum, as Tim Wu has argued in “The Master Switch,” but
it is not completely out of our control. It is possible for individual, corporate, and government action to change the arc, as has happened with the breakup of AT&T in the 1980s and with the deregulation of the telecommunications and media markets in the 1990s.

To understand the technology industry and its impact on innovation, entrepreneurship, and the economy — not to mention our own lives — we need to take a look at the key enablers of the innovation economy today. What are the primary technologies upon which we rely every day for connectivity and commerce? Where did they originate? What is their ultimate business goal? How do they enable or stifle additional invention?

These are the questions I hope to explore in the coming weeks, through in-depth interviews and profiles of the people and ideas behind some of today’s most instrumental technology platforms, plus some of tomorrow’s up and comers:

Wi-Fi and open spectrum
Java
Amazon Web Services
WordPress
Facebook
Google Search
Apple iOS
Github
Bitcoin
Hadoop
Coursera
3D printing

These stories, I believe, will reveal that the easy “open vs. closed” rubric is not always easy to apply. What appears open and transformative may not always be, and what appears closed and controlled may actually be surprisingly open in its effects.

More than that, the way these platforms have developed and attracted communities around them reveals much about what makes a technological ecosystem work.

It is true that building an ecosystem is not a prerequisite for success as a technology company. Recent startup success stories like Airbnb and Uber show that it is possible to achieve multibillion-dollar valuations with a completely closed system that, while employing many people, does not actually enable the creation of new technology companies on top of it. Older sites like Craigslist show that it is possible to revolutionize a marketplace (classifieds), completely upending incumbents and slashing prices, without creating comparable replacement value — and without becoming a platform that others can build on. (Craigslist in fact actively discourages people from building on it.)

But to build a successful technology that create value not only for its inventors, but also for a whole economy of innovators who in turn go on to create their own ecosystems in a recursive, virtuous circle of innovation, that takes a special something. That takes a platform. And that’s the kind of technology I’ll be exploring in the weeks to come.

A few notes on innovation

Secrets of my inbox

Last summer, Ben Kaplan posted an interview with me about how PR folks can get my attention. I’ve been pointing people to this interview time and again, because it is a helpful summary of how my day really works.

Here’s the start of the transcript. Read the whole thing, or give it a listen, on PRHacker.com.

BEN KAPLAN:

First of all, what is your average morning like? Are you going right to your email inbox? What does it look like when you get these pitches?

DYLAN TWENEY:

Usually, I wake up and after getting a cup of coffee at home, the first thing I’m doing is checking what’s happening on my website and out there in the news media.  Also, I’m very quickly looking at my inbox, which on a typical morning has hundreds and hundreds of unread messages, stuff that came in overnight. If I see a lot of things that were sent at midnight, I delete them immediately because it’s a very suspicious time. Lots of spam comes at midnight, right?

BEN KAPLAN:

That’s a good tip to know.

DYLAN TWENEY:

I usually have a lot of stuff leftover from the day before that I couldn’t get to, as well as a lot of new stuff from that morning, so I’ll go through that while I drink my coffee. I’ll be reading email on the train on the way in to work. At work, I’ll be doing email and talking to people on my team. A really, really large proportion of my day is spent in Gmail, responding both to people internally but also to a lot of people outside the company who want coverage.

BEN KAPLAN:

What is the average time that you give each pitch? Let’s say it’s a cold email. You don’t know the person. It’s just an average email that ends up in your inbox. Are you just reading the subject line? Are you clicking on it and giving it a three-second look over? Are you actually skimming the whole thing? What’s your process to deal with 150 emails?

DYLAN TWENEY:

The average is really hard to say because there’s a good proportion of messages that I don’t recognize the sender and what I see of the subject line is not interesting. I just delete these messages straight off. You have, basically, your subject line. If I don’t know you or I don’t know your name, you have the subject line to get my attention.  And it better be the left half of the subject line, too.

BEN KAPLAN:

So you’re saying about five words? If you’re talking about the left half of the subject line, that’s about five words to get you to read the rest of it?

DYLAN TWENEY:

No, no, no, it’s probably like the left ten words or so. It’s 50 characters.

BEN KAPLAN: 

Whatever would appear in Gmail?

DYLAN TWENEY:

In Gmail, that’s right, yeah.

 

Read the rest: Secrets of my inbox: VentureBeat’s Dylan Tweney

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Secrets of my inbox

The next generation of entrepreneurs will need more open platforms

Which platform you choose could make a huge difference in the end.


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Last week I wrote about the way specific technologies have lowered the barriers to entrepreneurship worldwide: Amazon Web Services, Google Drive (and Google Search), mobile devices combined with widespread wireless Internet service, and Facebook.

Most of these tools are what author Jonathan Zittrain would call “generative,” in that they are technologies which engender further innovation, thanks to their openness and extensibility. Like the earliest personal computers, AWS is an open-ended tool with virtually no restrictions. You can use a credit card to purchase an instance — a virtual server — and you can set it up and use it in almost any way your creativity will allow.

That creativity has enabled thousands if not millions of entrepreneurs to try out their ideas, build web sites, and host data for mobile applications at a minimal startup cost.

In contrast to generative technologies are what Zittrain called “sterile” technologies: Black boxes that are locked by the manufacturer to a single set of uses, and which can’t easily be modified or extended by the customer. His example of a sterile technology was the iPhone, which Apple controlled completely at the time of its launch. That turned out to be a pretty poor assessment of the iPhone’s capabilities, because over the past seven years, since the launch of the App Store in July, 2008, the iPhone has given rise to hundreds of thousands of independently developed apps, many of which have turned into businesses or even platforms of their own.

But the question of control is an important one. If you’re an entrepreneur, you don’t want to build your app (or service, or product) on top of a platform that is too controlled by its owner.

In a previous tech generation, companies that made DOS or Windows utilities often found themselves in this predicament. If their software addressed a shortcoming of the platform, or offered something too valuable, Microsoft might just add a feature to a future version of their operating system that rendered the utility obsolete, pulling the rug out from under the entrepreneurs’ feet.

Similarly, companies that have built large followings on Facebook have found themselves suddenly captive to the company’s new business model. It used to be possible to amass thousands or millions of “likes” on Facebook, and then use that channel to deliver marketing messages to your fan base or customers. No more: The organic reach of posts that brands post to Facebook has dropped to almost zero. If you want to reach customers, you have to pay Facebook for distribution, even if you have millions of people who have liked your page. Bummer, especially if you were counting on getting that distribution for free.

Content publishers that grew to rely on inbound traffic from Google searches have been kneecapped when Google changed its search algorithms to penalize “content farms” and linkbait. That’s a good thing for most of us — unless you’re a content farm.

By and large, entrepreneurs are not concerned about this kind of risk. As long as Facebook reaches 1.44 billion people per month and almost a billion every day, it’s going to be an irresistible marketing platform. As long as AWS provides cheap, flexible, easy-to-use computing power, it’s going to be a smart choice. And as long as Google indexes billions of Web pages and remains the primary search tool on the Internet, you’re going to want to optimize your site for Google’s search engines.

If any one of those platforms changes its rules to the point where it becomes untenable, business built on top of it will have to adapt, just as they adapt to any other changes in market conditions.

But it does suggest that entrepreneurs and other tech decision makers would do well to pay more attention to the architecture and the business models of the platforms they’re using. The “generative or sterile” distinction may be too binary to be useful. Open platforms don’t necessarily have to be open source. But the question of relative openness is important.

Is the platform open enough that you can build what you want, and deploy it to the customers you want to reach, without being overly dependent on a gatekeeper?

Are the gatekeepers, if they exist, reliable and predictable enough that you can plan around them?

And what are the rules of the platform? Can you build something on top of it that will itself turn into a platform?

The answers to these questions may wind up being more important than you think. Because, if you choose the wrong foundation to build on, you could wind up limiting yourself right from the start.

 


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The next generation of entrepreneurs will need more open platforms

The importance of good design in the enterprise (podcast)

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This week on What to Think, we talk to Etan Lightstone, the vice president of design for New Relic, about design trends in enterprise software.

Editor’s note: This is the last episode of VentureBeat’s podcast — in this format, at least. Use the comments below or email me if you would like to be notified when we resume podcasting.

A decade ago, you’d never have heard the word “design” and “enterprise” uttered in the same sentence. But design and user experience are becoming increasingly critical to business software (and SaaS) providers, as try-before-you-buy and consumer-focused marketing becomes the primary distribution channel into new customers.

That is to say: If the people making decisions about your software are the people actually using it — not the command-line-loving Linux jockeys in the IT department — it damn well better be easy to use.

New Relic has figured this out, as have other recent successes in the enterprise world, like Dropbox, Zendesk, Box, and more. (Disclosure: New Relic is the sponsor of this podcast.)

Lightstone tells us how the design team at New Relic gets its ideas, tests them, and how he uses data from actual users to improve the product. He also talks about his interest in data visualization and his design inspirations, including Edward Tufte and Mike Bostock.

Plus, we tell you what to think about:

All this and more is in our latest weekly episode. Give it a listen!


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

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The importance of good design in the enterprise (podcast)