Revolutionary Measures

Tech startups are booming – or are they?

The tech market across Europe is on a roll. According to Dow Jones VentureSource European startups raised €2.1 billion (over $2.8 billion) in Q2 2014 from VCs, the highest amount since 2010. The average size of the 365 deals was €2.2 million, up from €1.5 million in Q3 2013. Essentially that means every day of the quarter four startups got funding from VCs.

European Union flag

European Union flag (Photo credit: YanniKouts)

At the other end of the company journey, Tech.eu counted 92 tech exits in Q2 2014, up 70% from Q1 2014. 10 of these were IPOs, showing a healthy move back to the stock market for tech companies. And while deal size was undisclosed in 72% of cases, 15 were for over €100 million.

So, does this mean that everything is rosy in the tech market and your startup will receive its deserved funding in a heartbeat? Unfortunately not, and there are three worrying points behind the figures:

1          What is a tech company?
I’ve always been suspicious/puritanical on what makes a startup ‘tech’ rather than part of any other sector. Taking a look through both the Tech.eu list of exits and its corresponding index of EU tech funding rounds so far in 2014, I don’t see that many companies I’d class as technology. IPOs and exits included:

  • Takeaway platform Just-Eat (food)
  • Zoopla (property)
  • Markit (financial information)
  • Oldford Group (gambling)
  • M and M Direct and Game Digital (retail)
  • eDreams Odigeo (travel)
  • Jobsite (recruitment)

Companies that received the largest amounts of funding mirrored this list – Delivery Hero, which has raised $285 million to date, is an online food ordering platform, while Ozon ($150 million) is an online Russian retailer.

There are what I’d consider genuine tech companies receiving funding (Klarna is a payments provider, Tradeshift is B2B software and Elasticsearch is a search and analytics engine). And looking at the IPOs, Zendesk (customer service software) also fits into my narrow definition of proper tech.

Obviously consumer facing companies need large amounts of funding – they have to market themselves and launch into competitive marketing which takes cash. But my complaint is that technology is part of every business, so just because you sell via the web, that doesn’t make you a tech company. After all, in the early days of the telephone, no-one created a new category for businesses built on the communications power of the phone. By lumping these companies into ‘tech’, investors and commentators overlook the genuine technology companies making software and hardware in favour of more glamourous consumer businesses. It was exactly the same issue in the dotcom boom, with anything that had a website being lauded to the skies as a tech pioneer.

2          Europe lagging the US
The European figures for funding look strong, but in the US private tech companies raised $13.8 billion in the same period. We’re talking about a similar size market in terms of people, yet nearly five times the investment. No wonder that many EU tech firms are crossing the pond to tap into US funding. Zendesk is a good case in point. While founded in Denmark, its successful IPO was on NASDAQ, where it has seen its share price nearly double from $9 to around $17.97 currently.

Clearly, there are structural and funding issues that need to be addressed to convince European companies that this is where they need to build their startups if we are to build a vibrant tech sector across the EU.

3          Selling out too soon?
Some companies are never going to have the scale to survive on their own and fit better as part of a larger entity. So, trade sales are a vital part of the tech ecosystem – investors get their money back (hopefully), enabling them to invest elsewhere, while founders and management teams are able to move on to the next big idea.

But looking through the crop of acquisitions the largest amount (37%) were by US companies. Facebook and TripAdvisor made two European acquisitions, and the likes of Cisco and Intel bought one business each. The risk is that too many smart European tech businesses don’t turn into long term, billion dollar companies with their own ecosystems around them, as they don’t get the chance to grow before being snapped up for their technology or market position. That holds back the wider European tech economy and reinforces US dominance. It would be good to see longer term backing for European tech, with more IPOs and acquisitions by local companies, rather than selling out to US giants.

I don’t want to come across solely as a whingeing naysayer, as it is great news that funding is up for tech businesses across Europe. But I think there needs to be a narrower focus on what tech actually is amongst the media and investors, and a longer term attitude if Europe is ever to come close to building a sustainable tech economy across the continent.

 

 

August 6, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Big Brother is manipulating you?

As anyone that has read George Orwell’s 1984 knows, the ability to rewrite history and manipulate information is at the heart of controlling behaviour. As communist Russia showed, people could simply be airbrushed from the official account and would vanish from the public consciousness. 1984

Of course, in the age of social media, the web, and 24 hour global media, this ability to control news should have disappeared. If a government blocks a site or a mobile phone network, there are ways around it that spread information quickly, bypassing attempted censorship.

However, I’d argue that the reverse has happened and that Big Brother can operate stealthily in two ways. Firstly, rumours can start and spread unchecked, with the majority of us not taking the time to get to the original source, instead believing something that has been retweeted or shared on Facebook. I’ve had people swear blind to me that a major incident took place ‘because I saw it on Facebook’ – though I can’t believe they’d be as credulous if a random stranger told them the same story down the pub. By the time the truth is out, immeasurable damage can be done – to a company’s brand or share price or a person’s reputation.

Secondly, we believe what our computers tell us, and act accordingly, particularly when it chimes with our own preconceptions. Essentially we think that the complex algorithms that control what appears on our screens are unbiased, rather than reflecting what the site owner has determined in some way.

This leaves us open to manipulation, whether by marketers trying to sell us things or more sinister experiments. Facebook received justified criticism for running an experiment where it tampered with the stories in people’s timelines, seeing what the impact would be on what users themselves wrote. Unsurprisingly the percentage of negative or positive posts had a direct link to the tone and language people used in their own posts.

Now dating site OKCupid has admitted that it experimented on its users. This included deliberately pairing up unsuitable couples and telling them that they were a perfect match to see what would happen. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little serendipity, but deliberate meddling risks breaking the trust between a site and its users. Throwing in a wildcard of “here’s someone completely unlike you, but why not see what happens if you meet?” is one thing if it is advertised, but quite another if it is hidden behind the veil of computer processing.

Some might argue that this is just a next step in techniques such as Nudge, where choices are ordered in a way to drive particular outcomes. These are supposedly for the greater good. For example, if diners come to the salad bar first in a cafeteria they eat more healthy stuff and if you automatically enrol people in pensions, they tend not to take the opportunity to opt out. But I’d say it goes much further than this, and is about trust.

In many ways breaches of trust are similar to security breaches – something that the user relied upon unthinkingly has been removed, calling into question the entire relationship they have with a company. And like trust in any relationship, it is a time-consuming and difficult process to rebuild it.

So, anyone involved in marketing, media or technology does have a responsibility to be as open and transparent as they can be. At the very least there are legal safeguards (such as the Data Protection Act) that need to be obeyed, but I think companies need to go further than that. We live in a world where people want to have a genuine relationship with brands that they respect and trust, rather than the transactional, one-sided versions of the past. Therefore organisations need to think first about the consequences of experimenting on their users before playing Big Brother with their lives.

July 30, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

JerkTech – the unacceptable face of technology?

It seems to be turning into a bad week for those that believe technology is solely a force for good. Firstly, the UK government has rushed through new legislation that means that ISPs and telecoms companies have to store metadata on email and phone communications (though not their actual content). The aim of the new law is to fight crime and protect the country against terrorism, according to the Prime Minister.

"Technology has exceeded our humanity"

“Technology has exceeded our humanity” (Photo credit: Toban B.)

And over in the US, there’s a growing backlash against so-called JerkTech applications. For those that have missed the debate, these are applications that let people sell on resources at above the market rate that they’ve paid. For example, Monkey Parking enables drivers who are parked in public streets to auction off their space, while ReservationHop makes reservations at hard to book restaurants under false names and then sells them on.

The key point about these apps, and those like them, is that they corner the market in publically available resources (whether parking spaces or restaurant tables) and then charge people for the privilege of using them. While this is neat in economic terms – you are taking something that is underpriced and selling it at the market rate, they remove the ability for anyone to chance upon a parking space or get that hot table. And the actual provider of the resource (City council or restaurateur) doesn’t get any benefit at all. Indeed, if ReservationHop fails to sell a booking the restaurant will have an empty table that it could have filled in other ways. Hence, the JerkTech name, as coined by Josh Constine of Tech Crunch.

The best technology is disruptive – but that does come with risks and potentially even responsibilities. In the same way that scientists and medical researchers are governed by ethical standards, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. This particularly applies to ways of using technology to manipulate people (without their consent). There’s been a huge furore about a Facebook experiment where users were served a preponderance of either happy or sad content in their newsfeed – the result of this manipulation was that they posted either more positively or negatively themselves.

We live at an exciting time for technology. We’re moving beyond the original web, to a more mobile, wearable and all-encompassing version, with the Internet of Things allowing previously dumb machines to communicate in real-time in order to improve our lives. The danger is that the sheer pace of change will overwhelm everyone except for early adopters, and consequently new innovation will either be banned or will simply not be used by those that it could benefit. Genuine advances (and I don’t mean parking apps or social networks) will be lost, and there is a potential that geeks will join bankers in the category of ‘most hated profession’.

I think everyone in the tech community needs to think about four questions before they launch (or market) new innovations if they want them to flourish.

  1. Is there a genuine need behind your software, hardware or app? No, we don’t need yet another social network.
  2. What are the positive and negative consequences of your disruption? I don’t mean that a big business will be inconvenienced or will lose market share, but will it hit those that genuinely have no other source of income or add to the load on the public purse? If so, how can you spread the benefits to them, such as by creating a social enterprise or partnership.
  3. Is it ethical and responsible? In the absence of any existing code, maybe the best way to check this is to explain it to a senior citizen – do they find it fair?
  4. And finally, is it secure? Is there any danger that personal data could be hacked or lost, or confidentiality breached?

It may seem odd for tech start-ups and developers to look beyond the coolness of their technology (or the possibility of selling it for millions later in its development). However, in a world dominated by social media, the consequences of being a jerk can be fatal to your company’s success, no matter how innovative your product. So think first – and run it past a senior citizen just to be sure.

July 16, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Marcel Proust and the right to be remembered

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the right to be forgotten on the internet, after a landmark court case. European Union judges ruled that Google should remove a link to a story about the auctioning of a Spanish businessman’s house in 1998 to pay his debts to the government. The story itself, on a Spanish newspaper website, remains up, as it is a media organisation, with particular rights.

Marcel Proust in 1900

Since the ruling, less than a month ago, Google has received 41,000 further requests to take down links to material, from (amongst others) politicians, paedophiles (12% of cases) and murderers. As in the Spanish case none of these are incorrect or untrue stories – they are simply facts that the people concerned would rather were removed from public view. Therefore in my view, this is a real threat to one of the key tenets of the internet – it provides access to all information and lets people make up their own minds about someone’s character or views.

The whole case, and the plethora of information available today, would have been of real interest to the French novelist Marcel Proust. Famed for his seven volume, unfinished, epic, A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), his whole work focuses on memory, and in particular the involuntary connections between cues and recollections of the past. In its most famous episode, the taste of a madeleine cake summons up memories of the narrator’s childhood.

Essentially, Proust was a connoisseur of memory, talking about the need to pick particular episodes, mull them over and develop them individually and at length. In contrast, he sees life as a spinning top that turns so fast that all the specific colours turn to a mix of grey. The ability of the internet to collect huge amounts of information would have simultaneously enthralled and dismayed Proust, giving him an insurmountable treasure trove to mine. We’ve now got a spinning top on fast forward.

But Proust’s central idea of focusing on remembering is probably even more important today than in his lifetime. We’re bombarded with information and sensations, which leads to the danger of swapping reflection for instant action, before moving onto the next thing. You can see this in knee-jerk reactions to events on social media, with peaks of controversy swiftly forgotten by the population at large.

I’d argue that rather than the right to be forgotten, what we need is the right to remember, with people forced to stop, think and analyse their feelings and memories, rather than rushing into an instant response. It’d certainly make people calmer and more thoughtful (and perhaps nicer)………..

In fact, social media and the internet could help solve the problem it creates – how about a service that randomly sends you emails, photos or Facebook posts from your past, giving you the chance to reminisce and refresh your memory? Effectively In search of lost tweets, rather than lost time (or a more arbitrary version of TimeHop). I’d much rather go down that path than an internet open to the removal of embarrassing, but true information, which is where the right to be forgotten potentially takes us.

 

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June 11, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The first social media World Cup?

With the World Cup almost upon us, we’re in the midst of a slew of big budget ad campaigns, coupled with unrestrained hype about the potential prospects of England making it further than the group stages. And of course we have the obligatory ‘will the stadia be ready?’ and ‘FIFA is corrupt’ stories on the front page of most newspapers.

English: FIFA World Cup Trophy Italiano: Trofe...

With its global audience, the World Cup has always been a magnet for brands, something that has swelled FIFA’s coffers. Obviously you don’t need to be an official sponsor to jump on the bandwagon (provided you are careful you don’t infringe copyright). For example, bookmaker Paddy Power has already come up with a (for them) remarkably restrained campaign, commissioning Stephen Hawking to look at the factors necessary for England to win the tournament. Just avoid penalties – as the renowned scientist pointed out when it came to shoot-outs “England couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo.”

This should be the first real social media World Cup, with traditional broadcasting sharing the stage with the likes of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. As the marketing focus has shifted online, and more towards real-time activities, it does mean the playing field has levelled. It doesn’t quite let Accrington Stanley take on Brazil, but it offers a better opportunity for non-sponsors to get involved and engage with fans. Good, creative, well-executed campaigns don’t necessarily require enormous budgets, but do need brands to understand social media influencers and reach the right people if they are going to succeed.

Looking at social media, YouTube has been the early front runner, as brands increasingly put their video adverts on the site, either in addition to big budget TV slots or as an alternative for smaller brands. Castrol’s Footkhana ad, featuring Brazilian footballer Neymar and rally driver Ken Block has already had over 15 million views on YouTube, a figure that is bound to increase as the tournament nears. Nike’s ad, featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, was seen online by 78 million people in four days – before it even went on TV.

When we get to the matches themselves, expect a flurry of activity as brands try and embed themselves into second screen conversations. Facebook estimates that 500m of its 1.28 billion users are football fans, while the 2012 Champion’s League final generated 16.5 million total tweets. Social media has already become a major part of big sporting events – and the World Cup will demonstrate this. It gives non-sponsors a chance to muscle in on the action, but is going to require a combination of good planning, quick reactions and genuinely engaging content if they are going to actually reach the right audience. Competition will be fierce – as well as brands, pundits, media organisations and the general public will all be looking to have their say, so expect Twitter records to be broken.

In essence there are three competitions going on simultaneously – on the pitch, between brands and also between the social media networks as they look to monetise their members and wrest advertising and marketing budgets from traditional channels. All of these promise to be fascinating contests – however far England actually get.

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June 4, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Time to hit mute on Twitter?

twitter fail image

Twitter is currently in a bit of a pickle. Since it floated on NASDAQ its stock has been falling, culminating in a drop of 10% in after hours trading when it recently announced its Q1 results. The reason for the beating? A combination of slowing growth in user numbers, a trading loss of $132 million, and the ability for staff and early investors to sell their shares for the first time.

But it is important to put things in context. User growth did slow, but Twitter still added 25% more people to its network, bringing total numbers up to 255 million. And it actually made a modest profit by some accounting standards (and certainly improved from last quarter’s $511 million loss). The company is still worth over $24 billion – about the same as breakfast cereal maker Kellogg’s for example, and a lot more than LinkedIn.

Essentially sentiment has turned against the microblogging site, with investors disappointed that it isn’t growing or adding new services in the same way as Facebook. The issue is a classic one of people expecting too much and then punishing a company for not delivering what they dreamt of.

Twitter is really hamstrung by the simplicity of its service. You go on, give a 140 character update on what you think is interesting, see what other people are saying and have a conversation or two. Yes, you can share other content, such as video and photos, but as Twitter is finding it is difficult to monetise conversations, based on the limited information it holds on users compared to the likes (or should that be Likes?) of Facebook. So any new features are correspondingly limited – you can now mute people that you still want to follow, but don’t actually want to listen to (how very polite!).

There are interesting things happening on Twitter – Amazon is experimenting with the ability to add items to your shopping basket through a tweet, for example. Where it is really succeeding is in becoming the mainstay of live interaction around big events, from football matches to breaking news stories or TV shows. 5.3 million tweets were sent around the Eurovision song contest on Saturday night – a new record for a non-sporting event. And more and more companies are using the channel to give customer service support, both in terms of spotting aggrieved customers and offering a faster alternative to email.

The point is, anyone that bought Twitter stock thinking they’d got the new Facebook was, frankly, delusional. But it is time for the social network to be a bit more adventurous and start thinking outside the 140 character box. In the same way that Google is built on capturing and analysing billions of pieces of user data, Twitter needs to better understand its members and actually monetise them more effectively. I appreciate that this sounds a bit mercenary for social media purists, but as a quoted company Twitter needs to spread its wings and fly. E-commerce is one area to look at, but how about creating private twitter feeds for individual companies, enabling staff to share their thoughts in real-time, or providing ready made monitoring packages for TV shows, celebrities or organisations. Perhaps it should buy another, complementary, network such as Pinterest. It could even look at creating paid-for subscription feeds, such as stock prices or business news from the likes of the FT or The Economist. The more you think about it, Twitter is no turkey – but what it needs is to both innovate and show the market that it coming up with cool new stuff if it isn’t to go the same way as MySpace or countless others…………

 

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May 14, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The future of money

The internet has radically changed how we bank, removing the need to physically visit and turning a thousand and one redundant branches into All Bar Ones and Wetherspoons. But the actual mechanics of transferring money around haven’t really changed. Through a combination of regulation and the sheer complexity of the financial world most of us still entrust our money to a bank and use their systems to move it around. There are some notable new entrants, such as PayPal, and smaller banks, like Metro Bank, have been launched, but the majority of transactions still go through the same channels as before. The only change being that we do the work ourselves online rather than queuing up for hours in a draughty branch behind the man from the arcade paying in his weekly takings one penny at a time.

Twenty pound notes

But most people recognise that the banking system doesn’t deliver the flexibility or mobility that technology can underpin. So how do you do banking without the banks? One way would be to make it simple to transfer money from person to person using a web-based platform that the majority of the world is a member of. Step forward Facebook, which has applied to the regulator in Ireland to launch e-money across Europe. This would allow people to transfer money to others on the social network as well as to buy things online. The combination of Facebook’s reach and brand could provide stiff competition to the likes of Western Union. However those worried about privacy may baulk at giving Facebook access to their bank details in any way, shape or form.

A second way is to change the currency altogether and allow payments and transfers through new forms of money, such as Bitcoin. However, the danger of an unregulated market has come back to haunt Bitcoin, with exchanges mysteriously emptied of money and government concern that the currency is used to pay for drugs, arms and sundry Bad Things.

Now the banking industry itself has come up with a third way. Paym, has been created by umbrella body the Payments Council and enables money to be transferred by simply typing in the phone number of the recipient, provided they are also registered on the service. Fast, direct and no need to give out your bank details to other people through insecure channels such as email. However it looks like the banks themselves are unconvinced by the possibility of doing themselves out of a job. 20 million account holders of RBS (and its subsidiaries NatWest, Ulster Bank, Clydesdale and Yorkshire banks), as well as First Direct, won’t be able to use the scheme until later in the year, while Nationwide’s five million customers will have to wait until 2015. RBS says it is prioritising getting its IT systems straight, after several high profile meltdowns, before joining.

With more and more of our money transferred online to friends and relatives who are further and further away from us, we need options that make it easy to transfer money simply, and quickly. But given our previous bad experiences with banks, will it be Facebook that steals a march and becomes the new financial hub for the internet age? Either way, consumers should benefit through genuine choice and hopefully better service, whoever they pick.

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April 30, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Virtual Reality – the new mobile?

Oculus Rift

Acquisitions by large companies can be a bit of a mystery, forcing people to ponder why they are spending their money on unrelated markets or technologies. Is it a stroke of brilliant foresight, PR by association or just bailing out a mate with an interesting idea?

Facebook’s purchase of virtual reality company Oculus VR is the latest purchase that has led to a lot of head scratching. How does the company’s immersive headset for video gaming fit into Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for the future of the social media giant? Will every Facebook user be issued with a headset so that they can see their friends and ‘like’ things in a virtual world?

Zuckerberg himself has said that he sees virtual reality as the next stage of computing, after mobile, and the company is planning to expand the use of Oculus technologies to include “communications, media and entertainment, education and other areas”. Some of the original KickStarter backers of Oculus, which initially raised £1.5m on the crowd funding site, are unhappy that they won’t see any of the $2bn purchase price, but their reaction seems to ignore the basic site premise of providing funding for zero equity.

Having been to a demonstration of virtual and augmented reality technology a few months ago, I think there are three main reasons that Facebook has shelled out for Oculus VR.

Firstly, bear in mind they are actually ‘only’ paying $400m in cash (the rest is in Facebook shares), so they are not betting the farm. And as an internet company that started with essentially one product, they have been diversifying rapidly into neighbouring markets, with the purchase of WhatsApp and Instagram. This mitigates the risk of having all your eggs in one basket and provides the chance to diversify and sell other things to your enormous user base. The perfect case in point is Google. While it began in search it now offers everything from mobile and desktop operating systems, robotic cars, smart thermostats and cloud-based office applications.  And that’s the stuff we know about. In an industry as fast-moving as the internet, clever companies realise that they can’t stand still – better to take a punt on a variety of new technologies, see what works and learn as you go.

In my opinion, the second reason is based more on a desire to be taken seriously. Google has Glass, Microsoft has Kinect and Amazon wants to deliver your parcels through drones. All bold statements that lift the company from being about mundane bits and bytes to being part of the real world. Facebook has a shedload of money and is essentially aiming to compete with its older, more established neighbours.

But the third reason, is that Zuckerberg might just be right and VR could be the next wave of computing. The fact is that companies, brands and marketers are continually trying to get closer to consumers, and bridge the gap between the digital world (where everything can be measured) and the messy, chaotic real world. From Google Glass headsets to augmented reality and even QR codes, companies want us to use our mobile devices to interact with brands. The businesses that manage to own this intersection will be extremely powerful gatekeepers, in the same way that Google is the start point for the vast majority of internet browsing or searches.

Time will tell whether Oculus becomes central to Facebook or withers away in a corner of the campus. It does mark a step change in Facebook’s growth, since, while the product is about virtual reality, the headset is a physical device, rather than an app or social media network. What it does show is that the Facebook of 10 years time will be radically different to the network we see today.

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April 9, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Campus vs College – creating the best environment for ideas

Everyone understands that the bigger a company gets, the more difficult it is to create and nurture ideas. There are a number of reasons. The sheer size of the organisation mitigates against change – it is incredibly difficult to get everyone to understand a game-changing idea and align themselves behind it. You get a fragmented approach and the whole thing can get mired down in bureaucracy and finger-pointing.

Emmanuel College, Cambridge

Large organisations are inherently conservative, with people not wanting to rock the boat, while there is fierce rivalry between different divisions/departments which can lead to ideas being squashed if they seem to tread on someone else’s turf. There’s also a fine line between a strong company culture and having too inward looking a focus. Even successful companies such as Facebook have been accused of a lack of perspective – because they solely use (and love) their own products they assume they everyone else believes they are equally awesome. Step outside the organisation and your obsession is just a minor part of the lives of your customers.

The good news is that the majority of organisations do understand the need for a stream of fresh ideas. After all, the world today is dominated by companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon that either didn’t exist twenty years ago, or were considerably smaller. Competition in every market is increasing and no-one wants to go the way of Nokia or Woolworths.

So how do you align your company to create the best forum to create ongoing ideas? I’m no management consultant, but I’ve seen a few attempts over the last twenty years and it boils down to three broad types:

1              Innovation silos
In many industries (such as pharmaceuticals), where innovation relies on expensive capital equipment it makes sense to create separate, concentrated, research labs. These have the intellectual muscle and resources but can suffer from their sheer size and distance from the business. They can then hit the same problems as any other big organisation, with divisional rivalry and static corporate culture. Alternatively businesses have focused innovation in standalone business units – either skunkworks operations that are locked away from the rest of the organisation, incubators that support promising ideas at arms length or even smaller companies that have been bought and are run as ideas factories. All of these can work, provided management stay true to their word not to meddle or demand fast results, but there’s still no connection with the wider business and its needs.

2              The campus
You break up your monolithic organisation into a campus style environment, with different divisions occupying their own buildings, but close together. Splitting into smaller teams is good for creativity, and you get the economies of scale of having everyone on a single, but large, site. However the ability to cross-pollenate between groups can be limited – unless you happen to bump into someone over lunch you might be completely in the dark about what other sections of the company are working on.

3              The college
What I think is really interesting about the campus model is that it deliberately mimics the university campus structure. While this makes for a good working environment, it doesn’t help spread ideas. So I think companies need to look at a more collegiate model, similar to that of universities like Cambridge. You have two allegiances/bases – your division (essentially your college) and your actual project (your faculty). So you get the chance to mix with people from other divisions and collaborate on joint projects. Some people may find it disorienting, but if projects are scheduled to last 2-3 years the goal is never that far away.

Innovation is vital in every industry, and the size and structure depends on the sector and the market each company operates in. But I think it is time for more organisations to look at the college structure if they want to nurture and develop a stream of ideas that take their business forward over the long term.

 

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March 19, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Generating a network effect – why WhatsApp is worth $19 billion

As I’ve said before, the technical side of creating a new social network is relatively easy – and nowadays with cloud computing you have fast, cost-effective access to the resources you need to scale it in line with demand.

Diagram showing the network effect in a few si...

But how do you create the demand – for your social network or any other service in today’s complex and fast-moving world? Essentially you rely on the network effect – the fact that the more people use a service, the more valuable it becomes to each user. A classic example is the telephone. If one person is connected, it is worthless, but add more users and the positive effects increase dramatically – you actually have someone to call. It can also drive lock-in – if 80% of businesses use Microsoft Office there are compatibility issues for those that don’t, but who want to share documents with them.

Social networks are a classic example of the network effect in action – the bigger Facebook gets, the more people are on it who you know and supposedly want to communicate with. WhatsApp is another. It has built a base of 450 million users – 70% of whom are active on a daily basis. And as it allows free texts to be sent between users (and doesn’t cost to join for the first year), why wouldn’t you sign up to message your friends? No wonder it is predicted to hit the billion user mark in the relatively near future.

So how do you create the network effect and catapult your startup into the $19 billion bracket? There are six things I think are necessary

1              Word of Mouth
Obviously people have to know about your network or service, but traditional PR and marketing can only take you so far. What you need is people to recommend it to their friends, so start by researching and targeting the nodes of networks (i.e. those with lots of connections). If they join then their followers will as well. Approach these people and maybe even make them brand ambassadors to get them onside.

2              It has to be different
In open markets there is no point trying to simply copy what is already out there – if people are already using a service, the alternative has to be different or substantially better, if they are going to join. What issues/problems do people have that you can solve? In the case of WhatsApp it is removing the cost of sending text messages, so there is a clear advantage of moving to the service.

3              Make it easy to use (and free)
An obvious one, but if people log on and have to navigate through a maze of functions when they join, they are going to be put off. From registration to ongoing use, make things simple for people. And you have to understand and appeal to a mainstream audience – test it out on real people, rather than early adopters and fellow geeks. An intuitive user experience and comprehensive online support, including video and how to guides are a must if you are to grow. Put it where people will use it – on their mobile devices as well as PCs. And the basic package has to be free if you want to recruit major numbers of people.

4              Make it compelling
Just getting people to join is the easy part – network effect relies on them actively using the service. LinkedIn had this problem a few years back. Everyone had joined, but no-one was logging on, unless they were actively looking for a job. It changed this by adding in compelling content that aims to drive you back to the site – from the thoughts of business leaders to seeing what your peers are doing. You need to create reasons that drive people back to your site on a daily or even more frequent basis if you are going to build a solid user base. 

5              Think global from the start
When it comes to tech and the web, you need to think global. Does your proposition work in Delhi as well as Derby? The wider the target market, the bigger the potential user base, provided you make it appealing to a worldwide audience. Even if your site is initially just in English, the user experience has to be understandable by non-native speakers. As things grow you should quickly add other languages, dependent on demand.

6              Keep evolving
Nothing stands still – since its acquisition, CEO Jan Koum has announced that WhatsApp will offer voice calls on its platform, putting it in direct competition with Skype and traditional telecoms companies. You need to add new services and functions to both keep momentum going, ensure users return regularly and to recruit new ones.

The success of WhatsApp demonstrates it is less about the technology, and more about generating network effect if you want to attract a lucrative exit. Is it worth $19 billion? If it can continue its growth, introduce new paying services and bolster Facebook’s own platform it might just be.

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February 26, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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