Revolutionary Measures

Back to the Future

Picture of the EO Communicator (source: the Un...

For anyone like myself who was around during the dotcom boom, it is hard not to feel that you are suffering from déjà vu. Many of the exotic ideas and concepts that spectacularly flopped at the time have been reborn and are now thriving. Take ecommerce. Clothes retailer Boo.com was one of the biggest disasters of the period, burning through $135 million of venture capital in just 18 months, while online currency beenz aimed to provide a way of collecting virtual money that could be spent at participating merchants.

Offline, we were continuously promised/threatened with smart bins that would scan the barcodes of product packaging as we threw it away, and automatically order more of the same. And goods might arrive from a virtual supermarket, run as a separate business from your local Tesco or Sainsbury’s. You could pay for low value goods and services with a Mondex card instead of cash (though initially only if you lived in the trial town of Swindon). The first Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) were launched, providing computing power in the palm of your hand. We’d already laughed out of the court the ridiculous concept of electric cars, as typified by the Sinclair C5.

Fast forward to now, and versions of all of these failed ventures are thriving. There are any number of highly graphical, video based clothes retailers, while you can take your pick of online currencies from Bitcoin to Ethereum. We’re still threatened with smart appliances that can re-order groceries (fridges being the latest culprit), but Amazon’s Dash buttons are a neater and simpler way of getting more washing powder delivered that put the consumer in control. And Dash bypasses the supermarket itself, with goods dispatched direct from Amazon. I can pay for small items by tapping my debit card on a card reader – even in my local village shop. More and more cars are hybrids, if not fully electric, while handheld computing power comes from our smartphones.

What has driven this change? First off, the dotcom boom was over 15 years ago, so there’s been a lot of progress in tech. We have faster internet speeds (one of the reasons for Boo’s demise was its graphics were too large for most dial-up modems to download), better battery life for digital devices and vehicles (iPhones excepted), hardware and sensors are much smaller and more powerful, and network technologies such as Bluetooth and ZigBee are omnipresent.

However, at the same time, the real change has been in the general public. Using technology has become part of everyone’s daily lives, and those that are not online are the exception, rather than the rule. It is a classic example of the move from early adopters to the majority, as set out in Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm. And it has happened bit by bit, with false starts and cul de sacs on the way.

So what does this mean for marketers? It really brings home the importance of knowing your audience and targeting your product accordingly. Don’t expect raw tech to be instantly adopted by the majority, but build up to it, gain consumer trust (perhaps by embedding your new tech in something that already exists), and prepare to fail first time round. And the other lesson is to look at today’s big failures, and be prepared to resurrect them when the market has changed in the future……

 

September 14, 2016 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why ARM’s acquisition shows that Cambridge is changing

The official logo for the ARM processor archit...

Like a lot of people I was initially shocked by the recent £24 billion takeover of ARM by Softbank of Japan. Not only was it the biggest acquisition ever of a European IT company, but it was also widely seen as the jewel in the crown of the Cambridge/UK tech scene.

A few years ago Cambridge had three stock market listed companies worth over a billion pounds each – ARM, Autonomy and Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR). All have now been acquired, with varying degrees of success – HP, Autonomy’s purchaser is still suing the previous management about alleged overstating of accounts.

At the same time a large number of the next tier of Cambridge companies, such as Jagex, cr360 and Domino Printing Sciences, have also been bought, leaving many people wondering where the next tech superstar will come from. This is particularly true as an increasing number of earlier stage businesses in exciting markets have been acquired by tech giants – Internet of Things startup Neul was bought by Huawei, Evi by Amazon and Phonetic Arts by Google. And that’s just the acquisitions that were announced. I’m sure that in many cases promising technology has been snapped up without making it into the press, as the deal size has been relatively small.

So, as someone involved in the Cambridge tech scene, should we be worried? Is Silicon Fen going to turn into an offshoot of Silicon Valley – a bit like the tech towns around Heathrow, but with a bit more IP? Thinking about it more rationally, there are two main reasons for the flurry of acquisitions, particularly of smaller businesses.

1          Cambridge’s reputation
All of these acquisitions are actually recognition of the strength of the Cambridge tech sector. Big companies are attracted to the area because of the talent and innovation on show, and are increasingly willing to take a punt on earlier stage businesses to get in first and lay their hands on new technology and IP. They’ve realised that not every acquisition will work, but that the wins should outweigh the losses. So, Cambridge’s PR has worked in attracting the largest tech companies to the area.

2          Changing mix of companies
Traditionally, a lot of Cambridge startups were built on biotech, science and engineering, either from the University or the innovative consultancies that differentiate the city from many other clusters. As Cambridge grows, a greater number of companies are software-based, which means that developing their technology is faster than when trying to commercialise a product from an interesting piece of lab research. Therefore, they are likely to have a steeper growth curve, and potentially a shorter lifespan as they reach maturity (and acquisition) quicker.

A further reason for optimism is given by the new Cambridge Cluster Map, which lists the nearly 22,000 businesses based within 20 miles of the city centre. With a turnover of £33 billion, the map demonstrates the range of companies and the strength of the local economy. A third of this turnover is made up of knowledge-intensive businesses, employing nearly 60,000 people. That’s a lot of innovation, whoever ultimately owns the companies concerned.

Looking back, I think commentators will see that the ARM acquisition is part of a change in Cambridge as it matures and becomes a recognised part of the global tech sector. The economy will continue to grow, but more of the capital will come from outside the city. While this means we will have fewer ARMs and CSRs, and more outposts of Amazon, Apple and Google, it won’t stop growth and innovation, which means the Cambridge Phenomenon is likely to go from strength to strength.

July 27, 2016 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is there space for Google Spaces?

Google

Today our internet use is dominated by just a few tech giants – Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple (GAFA) in the UK and US, with the likes of Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba leading the way in China.

What is particularly interesting is that generally each of these is good at one thing, or group of things. We turn to Google for search and email, Amazon for ecommerce, Facebook for social and Apple for mobile apps. There is obviously some competition – Google’s Android versus Apple iOS for example, but in general each giant has stuck to its knitting.

That’s not for want of trying – Google has tried to get into social media several times with projects such as Wave, Buzz and Google+, while Apple tried to launch Ping, a music-focused network. All failed, although Google+ limps on as everyone with a Google account automatically has a logon.

It isn’t all Google’s fault – the most successful social media networks tend to start small and grow from there, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp. Users are attracted by the features, rather than the brand name, and then it grows exponentially through the network effect – essentially the more people who join, the more value everyone involved gains from being part of it. Social media starts at the grassroots, and that’s one of the reasons that people join particular networks. Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook understands this, hence splashing out on Instagram and WhatsApp rather than trying to develop clones of them from scratch. This neatly neutralises the competition while keeping users within your orbit when it comes to the time they spend online.

So that’s why Google’s latest attempt at a social media network, Spaces, looks like it is unlikely to take off in a big way. Described as a cross between WhatsApp and Slack, it allows users to have conversations and share information around specific topics with groups of people, avoiding, Google says, the need to hop between apps or cut and paste links. The trouble is it means installing/learning another app, and as far as I can see there’s no compelling reason for this to make it to the mainstream in its current form. Sure, people will use it to share information, such as when planning a holiday or big event, but it is hardly a threat to WhatsApp or Slack at present.

What would be more interesting is if Google used it as a basis for more complex, artificial intelligence driven services, such as bots that could be sent off to gain information. So, keeping with the holiday idea, you agree where you’d like to go and use Google to collect and sift relevant information, such as accommodation, weather and flight times, and present it in a single place. Given how long it can take to find all of this normally, that would attract users – and of course provide Google with much deeper data on what users are looking for, enabling them to sell more targeted advertising and hence boost overall revenues.

It is early days for Spaces, but it looks like it needs a bit more of a wow factor if people are going to use it seriously. Google has been burned before on social projects that have been well designed, but fallen short when it comes to getting consumers excited – so time will tell if Spaces joins the likes of Buzz and Wave in the failure column or carves out a loyal user base. However at the moment Spaces risks being seen as neat, but non-essential – hardly the best way to attract us from existing applications.

May 18, 2016 Posted by | Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The typewriter trap and innovation

English: QWERTY typewriter key layout depicted...

Despite all the talk of innovation, there are plenty of things that people continue to do, even though they are no longer the optimal way to achieve something.

Take typing for example. The QWERTY keyboard dates back to the first, manual typewriters, where the typist hit a key manually pushing the inked letter onto a sheet of paper. The problem with the first typewriter designs was that people could hit the keys faster than the machine would cope with, leading to jams as multiple keys became intertwined. Hence adopting what was essentially a sub-optimal system in terms of speed, in order to make typewriters more efficient overall. Now, in the digital age jamming is no longer a problem, yet everyone still uses a QWERTY keyboard, as that is the de facto standard, irrespective of the fact that it can give you carpal tunnel and repetitive strain injuries.

Driving is another area where tradition dictates what we do. The reason that in England we drive on the left dates back to the days when people rode horses – as the majority of the population was right handed you could hold your reins with your left hand, leaving the other free for your sword. As part of the French Revolution this was reversed in France, and then imposed by Napoleon on the countries he conquered. This means that the majority of countries in the world now drive on the right, despite the fact that accident rates are lower amongst left hand drivers, perhaps due to right eye dominance.

These two examples demonstrate two things:

  • The most logical, sensible solution can’t necessarily overcome the status quo, particularly if it means people have to completely relearn how they operate.
  • People continue to choose a particular course of action, even if the reasons for it are lost in the mists of time. Tradition rules.

Why is this important? I meet a lot of technology startups, and many of them enthusiastically talk about how their invention will completely change a market or sector. Build it and they will come seems to be the mantra. All it takes is for people to see how outmoded and inefficient the current technology is, and switch to their new, unproven, but potentially much better solution. And normally relearn how they operate. And pay a bit more. Often, they then wonder why they fail to get market traction or growth.

Essentially people weren’t sufficiently convinced of the advantages to change what they did. They preferred to be inefficient rather than invest the time to solve a problem. We’ve all done this, spending an extra minute or so doing something on our PC because that’s how we were taught 20 years ago, rather than spending 15 minutes reading the manual and upgrading our knowledge.

This isn’t to say that innovation can’t happen. Look at the Dyson vacuum cleaner – the advantages of changing (no bag, better performance), outweighed the higher cost and learning how it worked. But in that case the benefits were extremely clear, and, most importantly, marketed very well.

So, the lessons for every business, whether a startup or not, are clear. The vast majority of the population generally doesn’t like change, and therefore the benefits of something new have to dramatically outweigh the disadvantages of how things have always been done. Innovation has to be clearly marketed if it is going to take root with the majority, as opposed to early adopters – it won’t just sell itself. It has to fit inside the ecosystem of what people are comfortable with, and provide them with the best overall experience. That’s why VHS beat the technologically superior Betamax technology – it had the content from Hollywood studios and was easier to operate. Often it can be easier to sell a better mousetrap than a completely new method of rodent killing device. Therefore talk to your audience, understand their pain points and make sure you provide a simple, powerful solution – otherwise you are likely to join the ranks of technically superior, but unused products, and all your innovation will be wasted.

 

March 2, 2016 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Death of a (car) salesman

Like anything, buying a new car has positive and negative parts to the journey. The excitement of choosing and test driving a shiny new vehicle has to be balanced with haggling with a salesman in a dealership and painfully avoiding the add-ons and extra warranties that they want to burden you with (and co-incidentally give them a bigger commission than on the car itself).

Automobile dealership - service and repair are...

Yet, the internet was meant to remove middlemen and enable us to deal direct with the producer. It has worked in industries such as travel, where package holiday companies have had to reinvent themselves in an era of cheap flights, AirBnB and TripAdvisor. But for bigger ticket purchases we still rely on car dealers and estate agents rather than dealing directly with manufacturers or those selling their house.

The end of middlemen?
So why are these middlemen still here and will they survive for much longer? After all, most buyers now read car reviews online, check manufacturer videos on YouTube, get information on options from websites, and can arrange finance quickly at the click of a mouse. No wonder that the average number of dealers that buyers visit when purchasing a new car has dropped from 5 to 1.6 in the US over the last ten years. As in a lot of fields, more and more research is carried out online without needing to interact with anyone, let alone a sweaty dealer in an ill-fitting suit.

Illustrating this trend, upstart electric car company Tesla is looking to go direct to customers in the US, cutting out dealers altogether. Other manufacturers are trying more limited experiments with special editions sold online only or dealerships remodelled to be more like the Apple Store, with advisors providing information and help, but no hard sell.

The pace of technology change within the car also threatens to make the dealer obsolete. Modern cars are computers on wheels, streaming data back to the manufacturer and able to refresh their operating system remotely without human (or mechanic) intervention. Tesla regularly updates the software on its car over the air– with an upgrade in January 2015 improving the performance of its Model S, meaning it can match the acceleration of a McLaren MP4-12C.

However as a recent piece in The Economist points out, changing the system will be difficult. Dealers are a powerful lobby, and while they don’t make much money on each new car they sell, the ancillary products and ongoing servicing relationship can be extremely lucrative. It also provides buyers with the opportunity to get a better deal by haggling between rival garages – if you have the inclination to do so.

I think that there are more basic reasons for any middleman, whether a car dealer or travel agent, to survive – adding value, trust and ease. These are important concepts for any company in the digital age to embrace and it is worth looking at your business with these in mind.

1. Adding value
With the vast majority of information now a Google search away on the internet, and prices displayed for everyone to see, do you really add value or are you a hindrance to the process? Again, the Apple Store is a good example to follow. You can buy your iPad from one of a hundred shops or websites, but the help you receive and the ability to get your questions answered in a positive, unpatronising way naturally leads people to the Apple Store.

2. Trust
Do consumers trust you? Or more to the point, do they trust you more than the manufacturer you represent? One of the factors I think will hold back the demise of dealerships is that consumers trust car makers less. You only have to look at botched recalls and unreported faults to see why. Car makers are also much more distant than your local dealership, making it difficult to build a relationship of trust. That’s not to say dealers are safe – they regularly top polls of least trustworthy occupations, but in the kingdom of the blind, the one eyed man is king.

3. Ease
People have to do more and more with less and less time. In many ways the internet has made us more time-poor. Whereas before a holiday could be booked by marching into the travel agency and asking what they had available, it now takes hours of internet research, comparing the relative locations of villas on Google Maps and poring over TripAdvisor reviews. Those middlemen that still have a place recognise that they need to make things easy, providing a helpful service that cuts down the time you need to spend and removes roadblocks from the customer journey, without charging the earth.

Looking at your own business, do you meet these three criteria? If not, it is time to change, before pressure from consumers and manufacturers squeezes you out of the market.

August 26, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The battle for banking – Amazon enters the fray

In a previous post I talked about how the big four internet companies Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (GAFA) had quickly developed their businesses. They’ve all moved beyond the sector they started in, extending what they offer to compete with each other in areas such as ecommerce, social networks, mobile devices and mapping.amazon_logo_wb_2328

How have they done this? They’ve used the four strengths that they each possess:

1. Agility
With the exception of Apple, GAFA was born on the internet meaning they aren’t burdened with long-established corporate structures compared to their traditional rivals. So they can make decisions quickly, unhindered by the warring departments and turf wars that characterise first and second generation technology companies.

2. Data
Rather than purely physical assets, GAFA’s USP is data and what it does with it. From selling our search histories to monetising our personal pages, the four companies have built up extremely detailed pictures of their users and their lives. This allows them to accurately predict future behaviour – how many times have you bought something suggested by Amazon even though you had no idea it existed until the recommendation popped into your inbox? The advent of even cheaper machine learning and potentially limitless cloud-based resources to crunch data means that this is understanding is only going to get more precise.

3. Focus on the customer experience
Even though the majority of interactions don’t offer the personal touch of a bricks and mortar shop, these companies have gone out of their way to create a simple to use customer experience. Compare the Apple iPhone to previous ‘smartphones’ – the only difficulty for users was unlearning the convoluted way you had to access information on Microsoft or Nokia devices. I know, I had one of the first Windows phones – the user experience was terrible. Innovations such as one click ordering, reviews and simple sharing all mark out internet companies from their rival.

4. Scale
The final differentiator is scale – and the speed at which it is possible to grow on the internet. Rather than taking 20 years to become dominant in an existing market, companies can create a sector of their own and expand globally within months. Part of this is down to the network effect, but scale has also been achieved by moving into adjacent markets and just adding them onto the offering for existing users. This lowers the cost of entry for the company with the user base and creates a barrier to entry to rivals.

Taking these four factors into account, banks should be worried about Amazon’s latest move as it builds on all four of these strengths. Amazon Lending will make loans to small businesses in the UK that sell through the company’s Marketplace platform, after the service was successfully launched in the US. The beauty of the scheme is that Amazon knows exactly how the small business is performing as it can track their sales, and then use this data to offer selected companies short term working capital to improve their business. As it handles all the billing and cash collection for Marketplace sellers it can even take repayments directly from their profits, before they it pays them, minimising risk.

Adding to this data advantage, it is also offering the same simple to use customer experience that sellers are already familiar with. Compared to faceless or unhelpful banks, this is just the sort of thing that expanding small businesses are looking for.

The ironic thing is that, on the face of it, there is nothing to stop banks offering something similar. Their merchant services arms handle online and offline debit and credit card transactions, so they have access to data that could be used to work out creditworthiness. They have a network of branches to provide loans through, as well as a significant online presence. But all of these are separate departments and banks don’t have the agility to bridge the silos and provide the one stop shop that businesses are looking for.

In the same way that Apple Pay is disrupting payment services, Amazon Lending will take another bite out of the traditional business of big banks. And, as more and more of such services launch that nibble away at banking profits, then they face being outmanoeuvred by nimbler, more customer-focused and cleverer competitors. It is therefore time for retail and business banks to get joined-up or face becoming low margin commodity businesses in the future.

July 1, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ten lessons from ten years of YouTube

Español: Logo Vectorial de YouTube

This year YouTube celebrates its tenth anniversary. Originally founded in 2005 it has grown to have over 1 billion users, with 300 hours of video currently uploaded every minute of every day. For those without a calculator that’s 432,000 hours of new content every day.

Available in 70 countries and languages it made its founders $1.65 billion when Google bought the site back in 2006. At the time many thought they were mad, but the phenomenal growth and the amount of user data that it provides to Google has proved the doubters very wrong.

So what can startups and marketers learn from YouTube and the growth of video more generally? To mark ten years of YouTube, here are ten lessons I’ve drawn from its success:

1. Don’t always follow the rules
One of the big issues with startups in new markets is that existing legislation doesn’t cater for their disruptive power. Think of Uber and Airbnb and the regulatory issues they are having as they look to sidestep rules governing taxis and accommodation respectively. With YouTube and other video sites that launched at a similar time the big issue was users uploading copyrighted material. Competitors protected themselves by checking content before it was uploaded – slowing down their growth and adding to their overheads. In comparison YouTube let users upload anything and then took it down if lawyers or rights holders complained. This gave it a key differentiator, attracted more users and reduced its costs.

2. It is all about You
Despite the growth of brands on the site, the vast majority of content on YouTube is still created by amateurs. By giving a platform for everyone to easily share video, YouTube has been part of a democratisation of the web – as shown by the viral success of many of its videos, and the helping hand it has given to the careers of artists and bloggers such as Psy, Ed Sheeran, Zoella and many others. Brands trying to connect with audiences on YouTube need to understand that it is a two-way street – it isn’t just about providing your own content, but encouraging consumers to work with you and share what they are doing if you want to increase engagement.

3. Video is worth 10,000 words

It may have taken a few years for broadband and mobile data speeds to be able to comfortably cope with streaming video, but now it is the medium of choice for many. If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, video is at least 10x as effective as it allows people to see what is happening, rather than relying on words or static images.

4. It isn’t just cute cats
A few years ago I did some market research with C-level executives to find out where they got information from. The big surprise was that YouTube featured highly in their responses. But a quick look at some of the business content on the site – from the Harvard Business Review to TED talks and The Economist – shows that there’s plenty for any audience to learn from YouTube, whatever demographic they are part of.

5. It can be monetised
People do make money from YouTube. Aside from the celebrities and stars that have used the channel to launch themselves, owners of popular channels are able to make money from the ads around their content. The targeted audiences YouTube delivers (thanks to Google’s knowledge of viewer’s demographics), make it an important way for marketers to reach the right people quickly and easily.

6. Media has become multimedia
Ten years ago there was a sharp divide between traditional print media and the broadcast world. The combination of YouTube and cheaper, higher quality video cameras (or even just smartphones), mean that any journalist or publication can create and upload multimedia content quickly and easily. From interviews to reports, people now expect to see embedded video on news sites, with most media outlets now having their own YouTube channel to host and share content.

7. YouTube is the back end, not just the front end
For every video accessed directly on the site, many hundreds more are reached through other sites. Essentially YouTube provides a complete infrastructure for brands to set up their own channels, for free, and then embed links in their own site or other media. Again, it makes it easy for companies to share video, on or off the site.

8. Attention spans are shorter
People, particularly on mobile devices, are increasingly browsing video content, rather than settling down to watch it for a long time. While there are plenty of exceptions – my children would watch 10-15 minute videos of Stampylongnose playing Minecraft all day – most people don’t want to watch long form content on YouTube. So videos need to be short, snappy and broken up into bite size chunks if they are to be watched and shared.

9. Showing is easier than telling
Doing a DIY job used to involve poring through a manual or asking friends and family for advice. Now you simply go onto YouTube and watch a professional doing it, explaining as they go. The same applies to lots of jobs and hobbies, and with YouTube results prominently displayed in Google searches, it has never been easier to work out how to do something for the first time.

10. Innovation is constant
YouTube may be ten, but it still faces challenges. Facebook is looking to compete by making it simple for its users to share videos on the network, while streaming music services are waking up to the amount of music content watched on the site. Recently Snapchat announced that it has 100 million users watching 2 billion mobile videos every day. The shift to mobile and the fact that as video grows up it becomes more of a commodity means that YouTube needs to constantly evolve if it is to remain relevant.

Ten years is a long time in tech and social media, and the growth of YouTube shows how it has managed to build a brand by understanding what people want and giving them a platform to share. It will be interesting to see what the next decade brings – hopefully not another Justin Bieber………….

May 27, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hunting for unicorns

Mankind has always had a fascination for mythical beasts, and none more so than the unicorn. Despite allegedly dying out in the flood after failing to board Noah’s Ark in time, they are still all around us in popular culture, from Harry Potter to children’s toys. I even found an exhibit in a Vienna museum labelled matter of factly as a “unicorn horn” – it was actually from a narwhal.unicorn

The horned horses are back in the news, in the world of tech at least, with any startup valued at over $1 billion by venture capitalists now dubbed a unicorn. However with more than 100 companies now achieving unicorn status there’s a growing worry that startups are trading short term valuations for longer term success. True, unicorn status helps attract skilled staff, but down the line it requires either a trade buyer that is willing to pay big money or an IPO to translate mythical (paper) valuations into hard cash. There have also been a raft of stories on how investors have structured their unicorn funding in ways that protect their cash (rather than the shares of others, such as founding teams) if the company should lose its value.

A focus on unicorns also favours certain sectors and types of company. A browse through Fortune’s latest unicorn list reveals a large number of consumer electronics (Xiaomi, Jawbone), retail (FlipKart, Snapdeal) and sharing economy (Uber, Airbnb) companies. In many ways this is what you expect – company valuations are based on what the addressable market is, so the biggest investment goes into those startups that can make most money.

However, it does potentially limit where investors put their money. There are lots of startups that will never be a Facebook or an Uber, but have the potential to be extremely successful niche players that could well grow into billion dollar valued companies. Look at ARM – when it began as a spin-off from Acorn Computers with a completely new business model, very few would have predicted its current success.

There’s also a definite geographic bias where unicorn investors are putting their money – Silicon Valley, China and India. Out of the latest Fortune list just three are in Europe, one in Australia and one in Israel. This doesn’t reflect the energy, ideas and potential in any of these places, particularly in emerging sectors. The danger is that if investors spend their time chasing unicorns they’ll miss out on the startups that could do with their help to build long term businesses that can make a difference to many markets.

So I think we need to add another category alongside unicorns. Keeping the mythical theme I’d go for centaurs. Sturdier than a unicorn, probably better in a fight and with a bit more intelligence (and opposable thumbs). They may not have the beauty or the (frankly over the top) horn of their flashier cousins but they are built for the long term, rather than mythical valuations that don’t necessarily deliver. Given the potential returns they can produce, it is time for investors to move away from the fascination with unicorns to more realistic startups that may be uglier, but have just as much potential.

May 20, 2015 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Algorithms versus spontaneity – striking the happy medium

There’s been a number of recent pieces about the rise of self-learning technology that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to carry out tasks that would previously have been too complex for a machine. From stock trading to automated translations and even playing Frogger, computers will increasingly take on roles that used to rely on people’s skills.

English: NEW YORK (May 31, 2010) Visitors inte...

Netflix used an algorithm to analyse the most watched content on its service, and found that it included three key ingredients – Kevin Spacey, director David Fincher and BBC political dramas. So when it commissioned original content, it began with House of Cards, a remake of a BBC drama, starring Spacey and directed by (you’ve guessed it) Fincher.

This rise of artificial intelligence is worrying a lot of people – and not just Luddites. The likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have all described it as a threat to the existence of humanity. They worry that we’ll see the development of autonomous machines with brains many thousands of times larger than our own, and whose interests (and logic) may not square with our own. Essentially the concern is that we’re building a future generation of Terminators without realising it.

They are right to be wary, but a couple of recent stories made me think that human beings actually have several big advantages – we’re not logical, we don’t follow the facts and we don’t give up. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for uncovering the fact that the human mind is made up of two systems, one intuitive and one rational. The emotional, intuitive brain is the default for decision making – without people realising it. So in many ways AI-powered computers do the things we don’t want to do, leaving us free to be more creative (or lazy, dependent on your point of view).

Going back to the advantages that humans have over systems, the first example I’d pick is the UK general election. All the polls predicted a close contest, and an inevitable hung parliament – but voters didn’t behave logically or according to the research and the Tories trounced the opposition. While you might disagree with the result, it shows that you can’t predict the future with the clarity that some expect.

Humans also have an in-built ability to try and game a system and find ways round it, often with unintended consequences. This has been dubbed the Cobra effect after events in colonial India. Alarmed by the number of cobras on the loose, the authorities in Delhi offered a bounty for every dead cobra handed in. People began to play the system, breeding snakes specifically to kill and claim their reward. When the authorities cottoned on and abandoned the programme, the breeders released the now worthless snakes, dramatically increasing the wild cobra population. You can see the same attempt to rig the system in the case of Navinder Singh Sarao, the day trader who is accused of causing the 2010 ‘flash crash’ by spoofing – sending sell orders that he intended to cancel but that tricked trading computers into thinking the market was moving downwards. Despite their intelligence, trading systems cannot spot this sort of behaviour – until it is obviously too late.

The final example is when humans simply ignore the odds and upset the form book. Take Leicester City. Rock bottom of the English Premiership, the Foxes looked odds-on to be relegated. Yet the players believed otherwise, kept confident and continued to plug away. The tide now looks as if it has turned, and the team is just a couple of points away from safety. A robot would have long since given up……..

So artificial intelligence isn’t everything. Giving computers the ability to learn and process huge amounts of data in fractions of a second does threaten the jobs of workers in the knowledge economy. However it also frees up humans to do what they do best – be bloody minded and subversive, think their way around problems, and use their intuition rather than the rational side of their brain. And of course, computers still do have an off switch………….

May 13, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How technology can transform moving house

Transport of a house (photo taken in New Zealand)

I’ve just moved house and am still recovering from the experience. Having last moved 11 years ago I expected that technology would have changed things in the interim, but it seems that the process is still paper-based, slow and (as far as I can see) incredibly inefficient. If you ever wondered who still uses a fax machine, look no further than solicitors………

It starts so well. The front-end of house buying is now pretty much web-based. So there’s no more peering through the windows of estate agents as you can set your criteria and instantly bring up potential properties that you are interested in. In fact there could be too much information available – we took the virtual tour of our house off our details as we worried that people could be making up their minds based on that, rather than coming for a viewing. The technology used to gather these details is also pretty high tech – with drone cameras taking aerial photos for example.

However once you’ve had your offer accepted, the back office processes revert to paper – based on my experiences, here are five areas that seem ripe for digitisation:

1          Paper-based forms
Some documents, such as Land Registry files and searches, are now all online, making it much quicker to access them. But a lot more aren’t – the fixtures and fittings form is still paper-based for example, meaning it has to be posted and scanned at the other end. By mandating that all communication is electronic, the whole process could be much quicker, more environmentally friendly and less stressful.

2          Real-time communications
We wondered why we always got emails sent on behalf of our solicitor just after 4pm. Then we realised – he’d dictated them to his PA in time to get them in the post, but rather than appearing as a letter it had just been turned into an email. While this saves some time it doesn’t deliver real-time answers that people demand (and which could dramatically speed up the process).

3          Getting a mortgage
Criteria for mortgage applications have been tightened following the easy lending that preceded the banking crash. That’s understandable, but there’s no common sense in the process now. It took weeks to get a telephone appointment with our bank to go through our personal details and outgoings – and then when the mortgage rate changed we had to do the whole thing again in order to get a better deal. And we had to talk to the same advisor (who was on holiday), adding more time to the process. Being able to re-use answers you’ve already provided, within a reasonable timeframe, would be more efficient for the bank as well as avoiding customer frustration.

4          Money transfer
On completion day, it takes forever for the purchases to take place. The money from the purchaser at the bottom of the chain goes to the solicitor for the house they are buying, who then pays the next person and so on. This is all logical but is incredibly slow – in an era of online banking where you can transfer money instantly, this is another area that needs addressing as it is inefficient and time-consuming. Our buyer’s removal van was waiting outside our (old) house for the money to go through – it then took another hour to complete on our purchase.

5          Changing address
After you’ve moved you then need to update your details with everyone from your bank to HMRC. What amazes me is how difficult some people make this. In an online world you’d imagine it would be straightforward to change the address a magazine subscription is delivered to – but in many cases I’ve had to email to get details changed rather than just amending my address online. A central portal to change all your official details might sound a bit Big Brother to some people but I would prefer it to having to wade through hundreds of sites, remembering seldom-used passwords in order to tell companies I’ve moved.

As you can probably tell, the whole moving process has left me frustrated at the missed opportunities to speed things up and make it more efficient for everyone. I don’t think it is on any party manifesto, but reforming house buying would surely be a vote winner given the stresses and traumas it creates. And having moved into our lovely new house, I won’t be leaving in a hurry…………..

April 29, 2015 Posted by | Startup, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment