Five years ago the Blackberry was the most loved smartphone in the world and Samsung was known for making refrigerators and TVs. Three years ago Groupon was the fastest growing company ever and Yahoo’s founder & CEO Jerry Yang was resigning. Two years ago Zynga was one of the most innovative technology companies around and Supercell wasn’t making any money (they’re now making $2M / day). It’s bewildering to observe how during the same timespan some companies have reached all-time lows while others have grown exponentially. And there’s a common denominator for the downfall and success of these companies: mobile.
The companies that have grown over the past few years or in recent months (Apple, Samsung, Yahoo, Supercell) focused all their efforts on mobile while the ones that are quickly becoming irrelevant (Groupon, Zynga, RIM) missed the mobile step and they’re now haemorrhaging talent and money (which is ironic for RIM, creators of Blackberry, as they are after all a mobile hardware company). But besides understanding the importance of focusing on mobile if you’re running a technology company, I think there’s an even more important lesson to be learned here: earnestly observing and adopting trends.
Trends are important because they indicate where a certain industry is going to end up, long before it becomes mainstream. There are obvious trends like mobile, wearable technology or digital currencies. But there are smaller, generally industry-specific trends that are harder to spot: in digital advertising, it’s the trend of personalising ads (by device, platform, person); in fitness, it’s the quantified self movement; in health, it’s putting medical data in the cloud. Observing trends is important because it enables entrepreneurs to identify gaps in the market before others do.
In terms of identifying trends, it’s not rocket science. Chris Dixon put it well in a recent blog post saying that “what the smartest people do on the weekend is what everyone else will do during the week in ten years”. Even more so, I think what the smartest people discuss online is also a good indication of what’s going to become a trend. I’m a big fan of discussion boards and community platforms like Reddit and Stack Overflow, because that’s where the geeks hang out. It’s how I first found out about Bitcoin three years ago and Ripple most recently (see? you should be on Reddit), and it’s why last year, long before our competitors, we started focusing on mobile at Brainient. Another way is to observe kids’ behaviour. Take any kid who’s ever touched an iPad and you’ll notice that they expect every electronic device to respond to touch: the TV, the laptop screen, the refrigerator.
All in all, I believe there are many ways to spot trends if you have an earnest desire to observe what’s going on around you and be willing to be laughed at by the mainstream (the way they’re currently laughing at Google Glass). But it’s an important skill to develop if you want to innovate and one that every entrepreneur should cultivate.
I’ve never been good with timezones. I understand how they work and why they exist, but it’s a hindrance in my day-to-day calendar management because I generally need to schedule meetings on three different timezones (Bucharest, London, NY).
Today however, I discovered an amazing feature that will turn me into a calendar pro: the ability to add another timezone to your Google Calendar. Just go to Calendar -> Settings and in the “Your current time zone” section you now have the ability to add another time zone.
I love it how Google creates these tiny, little features with the sole purpose of delighting customers. More companies should do this.
Fred Wilson wrote a great post today about working too hard and not getting anywhere, something I’ve felt intensely over the past seven years since I started my first company.
But while working too hard and not getting anywhere can be solved by something as elegant as just changing the business model, there’s another scenario that’s not as easy to overcome: working too hard trying to solve the wrong problem.
A few years ago I founded a startup called BrainTV, aiming to build a new type of media company, targeting what we called “smart people”. The concept was to produce video content on certain topics (business, investment, art, theatre) that would be partly informative, partly entertaining (think of it like The Economist meets The New Yorker). I thought it was a good idea at the time but in hindsight - there were so many holes in the whole thing, I don’t even know where to start. We were trying to solve an innexistent problem. We were also perceived as arrogant and even worse, the content wasn’t that good. When I acknowledged that, I shut it down. It took 12 months.
I see a lot of this most recently through my involvement with the Digital Catalyst Fund and I’ve become quite upfront with founders whenever I see it. However, not once have I seen a founder accept that they may be working on the wrong thing, which I can understand as they’ve invested so much time and effort into their idea.
The solution to this is for investors, friends and families to stop being nice. It’s hard to tell the truth when you know it will hurt, but if an idea is shit you would be doing that founder a much bigger favour if you say it’s shit rather than letting them bang their head against the wall for 12 months.
Every quarter, Brainient organises a breakfast event called - evidently - Breakfast & Brains. It’s a forum for our clients and friends, where we discuss the newest happenings in the video advertising world and the next one (happening on May 1st) will be all about mobile: the technology, standards and tracking across the multitude of mobile devices out there.
We’ll have George Dixon (Manager - Mobile & Digital at MediaCom), Paul Lyonette (European Sales Director at YuMe), Simon Andrews (Founder of Addictive Mobile) and yours truly speaking about how to create, run and measure mobile video campaigns at scale.
You can find out more about the event and register here. Tickets are free but seriously limited so go get yours now.
One of my favourite books of all time is The Great Gatsby. I must have read it half a dozen times over the years, but while eagerly waiting for Baz Luhrman’s adaptation of the novel (coming out this May), I decided to read it again.
One of the reasons why I love Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is that each time I read it, a totally different scene sticks with me for weeks, sometimes months. This time, it’s when Nick Carraway says “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.” I find it such a beautifully complete way to describe the dynamics between people or organisations.
Take the startup ecosystem for example: you have the pursued (Stripe, Evernote, Spotify, etc); you have the pursuing (investors, VCs, lawyers, etc) who are generally pursuing the prior category; you have the busy (startups with flat growth being busy to get out of flat growth) and the boring (hipsters in Starbucks). So how do you become a pursued startup, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald?
It’s not that hard to deconstruct, really: take Gatsby (pursued by Nick): he’s successful (read: has traction), throws great parties (read: has great network) and is mysterious (read: is intriguing, unattainable), or Daisy (pursued by Gatsby): she’s beautiful (read: has traction), she’s part of the upper class (read: has great network) and she’s married (read: intriguing, unattainable). I don’t know about you, but I see a pattern here.
If you break down any organisation to its indivisible unit, it always comes down to people. Regardless of whether it’s mining asteroids or building mobile apps, someone needs to create something in order to generate some form of utility or economic value. Obviously, some people create better stuff than others.
Now, I’ve always thought that when it comes to building companies it’s 50% about product, 40% about people and 10% about luck. Products are created by people, so abstractly speaking building companies is 90% about people. And the general definition of luck is that opportunity meets preparation, which also requires people, so in it’s most abstract form you could argue that companies are 100% about people. So if companies are all about people, it goes without saying that great companies are all about great people.
I’ve never met Nick D’Aloisio but he seems to be really good at building networks of people quickly (regardless of whether it’s investors, journalists or public company CEOs). I mean, the kid is 17, he’s raised money from some pretty high-profile investors and by the looks of it he’s also met all the right people along the way (including Marissa Mayer).
So here’s why the Yahoo - Summly deal kinda makes sense: in order for Y! to become a great company (again) they need great people and Nick will now attract a lot of smart, young people towards Yahoo! Is that worth $30M? I’m not sure. Is it worth trying, given Yahoo!’s size and ambitions? You bet.
There are very few places in the world where you could say that without it sounding like a total joke. Bucharest is one of those places, according to the many foreign friends who’ve visited my hometown. So 12 months ago, together with a few amazing people, I decided to take advantage of it and helped start the Digital Catalyst Fund, a seed fund that finances entrepreneurs and helps them build their technology in Romania.
Fast forward 12 months later and we’ve funded a handful of amazing ideas. We’ve also created a software company owned by the fund (employing about 30 developers), and hired a CEO to run it (this helps us source awesome talent for the awesome startups we invest in). And we’ve even gone so far as buying and decorating a 6,000 square building to host our entrepreneurs. Accelerator-style.
This year, we’re also announcing the Student Summer Boot Camp, an initiative that encourages students to create a startup. Over the next couple of months, we’ll be selecting a number of ambitious young individuals and cover all their expenses to fly, live, build a product (and party) in Bucharest for three months. We’ve even hired a chef who’ll cook for the winners (we don’t really like burgers in Romania).
So if you have an idea and need help building it, apply now. You’ll enjoy Bucharest, you’ll be amazed by our engineers and fall in love with our women.
Later edit: I’ve been told that this post has a misogynistic tint, so I’d like to let you know that we also have plenty of women engineers in Romania. I’m sure you’d fall in love with them as well.
When it comes to technology, size does matter - the smaller, the better.
I love the iPad. I think there’s no comparable device on the market yet, and doing what I do I’ve tried all of them. For the past few weeks, I’ve been using the iPad mini. It’s awesome, so much so that I’ve stopped using its older, heavier, larger predecessor - the iPad.
There seems to be a trend in technology: it’s becoming invisible. Google Project Glass, the Pebble watch, the artificial retina are great examples. I dream of a world where I can use, touch, speak to technology without actually seeing it. And I dream of a world where all this invisible technology is connected to the internet and interconnected with all my devices.
What’s even more exciting is that the hardware for turning all these products into reality is not tens of years away. It’s here. The software isn’t yet, but it will catch-up. We live in the future and I love that I get to be a part of it. Just wanted to put that out there.
It will come to no surprise for many of my friends that I’m a big fan of Elon Musk, which makes me somewhat biased writing this post. But I’m also a big fan of The New York Times and think that they’re good guys, most of the time. This week, however, they fucked up. Big time.
For those who haven’t followed the saga, the NYT wrote an article about Tesla’s Supercharger network in the US. No need for you to read it - the main takeaway is that if you buy a Tesla Model S you’re going to run out of juice in the middle of the street. Except you won’t, as the CEO of Tesla fired back in a post on the company’s blog, in response to the (unequivocally fake) NYT article.
Now, this is not the first time a big media company trashes a technology company for eyeballs, impressions, and making a point (albeit a wrong one - remember all the negative reviews of the iPhone, anyone?). Except this time, the NYT didn’t go against Elon Musk. They went against a robot. Because for all intents and purposes, the Tesla Model S is a robot. And one of the things robots do is collect data. Lots of it.
This is a very unfortunate event for Tesla, but it sets a great precedent: in the digital era, journalistic integrity can be confirmed or destroyed by using data. I have no shade of doubt that mr. John Broder, the author of the appallingly erroneous article, will find it troublesome to be taken seriously when reviewing cars in the future. As for Tesla, this little event has just made its many fans become even more devoted to the robot that many are calling the iPhone of cars: the Model S.
My take away from all this is to spend more time making sure we collect all the data we possibly can at Brainient. And so should you.