Revolutionary Measures

The all-seeing eye

People are still coming to terms with the lack of privacy that social media and the online world have brought. Some are happy with the fact that ‘privacy is no longer the social norm’ (to quote Mark Zuckerberg). However for many more of us the fact that our every online move is tracked (whether by large companies or the NSA) is a big worry. But at the moment, the usefulness of free online services, such as search and social media, outweigh the intrusion. After all, it is confined to the virtual world and provided you don’t do anything stupid, like give out your house number on Facebook, you can keep your real life separate from the web.google-glass

But the shrinking size of cameras, and the forthcoming launch of Google Glass, promise to merge the offline and online worlds like never before. Whether deliberately or by accident you can photograph and share images, video and audio in real time, without the knowledge of those around you. Combining this with the vast store of digital information on the web enables people and places to be easily identified, tagged and shared. So far Google Glass has privacy safeguards built in – it bans facial recognition apps and requires either a voice command or tapping the top of the glasses to take a photo. However given that there is already a hack to take photos by winking, I can see developers getting round this all too easily.

Should we be scared? The normal argument trotted out by those in favour of increased surveillance is that only the guilty or those with something to hide should be worried. And obviously the ability for the police to identify criminals and terrorists is a major positive of ubiquitous cameras. But what about the person who happens to be snapped where he or she isn’t expected to be – on their way back from a secret rendezvous with a lover, or a job interview that they don’t want their existing employer to know about? The difference between official surveillance, where access to the pictures is tightly controlled, and the world of personal photo sharing, is that everyone can see everything, without safeguards to limit access. There’s already issues with unauthorised photos taken upskirt or down blouse by low lifes with camera phones. Add in facial recognition to these, enabling the victims to be identified, and it makes the whole practice much more sinister.

For me the even more disturbing thought is what businesses can do with this data. Advertisers already have access to your location, your past browsing history and what you have previously bought. Add in what you are looking at, and your reaction to it, and it gives a 360 degree view of your behaviour. Spend five minutes idly staring at a poster at a bus stop? Look at a pair of jeans in a shop window? Expect it to be noted and used to sell to you.

Don’t get me wrong, the proliferation of personal cameras can be a good thing. They can be used to provide information on the world around us – want to know what that plant is or what bird is singing nearby? Google Glass can help. They benefit dementia patients, enabling them to fill in the gaps in their worsening memory. Personal cameras provide a tamper-proof record of conversations that can prevent litigation against doctors, couriers or the police. But in my opinion, the negatives outweigh the positives.

What is needed is a fundamental review of privacy and how it is enforced. And that needs to happen now, before Google Glass and its competitors hit the streets and become mass-market. Social media failed to do this – there privacy was an add on rather than built in from the start and this has had a major impact on how our personal data is shared. When it comes to something even more personal, what we see and what we hear, governments and businesses must act now to guarantee privacy before it is too late.

November 20, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Million pound dropped

English: Harrison's chronometer on display at ...

On the face of it, David Cameron’s announcement of a £1m prize for solving a ‘grand innovation challenge’ is good news for UK science and industry. The competition will look at the biggest issue of our time (as selected by the public) and then be judged by an illustrious panel, chaired by Lord Rees, the English Astronomer Royal. The Prime Minister likened the competition to the 1714 Longitude Prize which was created to solve the problem of navigation at sea, and which spurred unknown Yorkshire clockmaker John Harrison to develop much more accurate marine timepieces.

All well and good – anything that stimulates debate on pressing problems for mankind and supports scientists and engineers is obviously welcome. Even Cameron’s idea of a ‘Britain’s got talent’-style show to identify the key issue that scientists have to solve is an attempt to put engineering and research back into the mainstream.

But there’s three main problems I can see – and unfortunately they run through a lot of the coalition’s thinking on science, engineering, technology and entrepreneurship.

Firstly, £1m is a pitifully small amount of money for an idea that will solve ‘the biggest problem of our time’. The annual Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (bankrolled by Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and tech investor Yuri Milner) has distributed $33m to 11 winners. And that’s just in one year. The new Longitude Prize is being funded by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and it appears (from what I’ve read) that the £1m is not new money, but is from the TSB’s existing budget. Hardly an expansion of government investment in science and engineering.

Secondly, like all politicians Cameron is driven by short timescales. Solving the problems the world faces can’t be accomplished in a single term in office. Research simply does not move that fast. If the Prime Minister checked his historical facts (perhaps he needs to speak to Michael Gove), this has always been the case. The original Longitude competition began in 1714 but Harrison’s clock was not successfully operational until the 1760s. And even then he was judged not to have won the official prize itself (though he was awarded multiple grants during his lifetime to recognise his achievements).

Thirdly, modern research is a global undertaking. Scientists work with their peers across the world, collaborating to solve problems across disciplines and countries. Look at the Human Genome Project – while the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge made an enormous contribution to sequence human DNA, it was a truly global effort, involving scientists from across the world. So if Cameron expects his prize to be won by a 100% British entry, he’s likely to be proved mistaken.

I really hope that the new Longitude Prize takes off and increases interest in science, engineering and technology. But, like investment in championing Tech City, it smacks of a short term, PR-led approach by the Prime Minister – aiming for headlines, not the lasting breakthroughs that take decades to unlock.

June 26, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, PR, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When to give up

failure

It used to be that failing in business was a potentially catastrophic black mark in the UK – essentially the end of your career. But over the last decade attitudes have changed, driven by a more American view that it is better to have tried and not succeeded than to not to have bothered at all. There are a thousand and one reasons that a venture might fail, many outside your control, and as long as you learn lessons you can bounce back stronger.

This more relaxed attitude to failure is reflected in the growth of startups in the UK. Rather than leave university and go and work in corporate Britain, setting up on your own is a viable choice – if it doesn’t work you can always try the 9 to 5 in a few years time. And as the Seth Godin quote goes, “If failure isn’t an option, neither is success.”

But if the stigma of failure has been removed it brings another big question – when do you give up on your idea/business? Do you shut up shop at the first signs of trouble or soldier on when all chances of success are gone? That was the topic of an entertaining discussion at last week’s Pitch and Mix in Cambridge, which got me thinking about the whole topic.

It is easy to look at businesses or individuals where it would have been easy to give up when they hit the first roadblock. Harvard made Mark Zuckerberg take down the first version of Facebook and nearly expelled him – but he learnt from the experience and moved on. In Cambridge, ARM was essentially created within Acorn as Intel wouldn’t sell the computer manufacturer the chips they needed. The business pivoted and is now a multi-billion dollar world leader.

What came out from the discussion were two main ways of helping you to know when you’ve really failed and it is time to give up.

Firstly, set realistic objectives and goals for your company/project, with a timeframe attached. It shouldn’t be a hundred page business plan that controls your life but an idea of what success looks like and the time it should take to get there. Whether as simple as “we need to have made our first sale in 18 months” or more complex, use it as a guide to when to stop. If you get to 18 months and there’s no sign of a customer then you should probably give up, but if you’re negotiating with a couple, then extend your timeframe. Build a plan to get to your objectives – what needs to happen for you to make that sale/launch the project within your timeframe.

Secondly, get independent advice. Everyone involved in startups must have passion – if you aren’t enthusiastic about the idea you won’t put in the hours to make it work. However perspective is more difficult – you are simply too close to the coalface to provide an objective view of reality. So find yourself an independent mentor, who understands your business and what you are trying to do and give you advice and perspective on the way forward.

More businesses fail than succeed, but don’t take it personally, learn and move on. And marry passion with perspective to work out when to throw in the towel and start again.

 

April 24, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lucky vs hard working

What brings success? Is it hard graft or can you short circuit the years of work by just being a bit lucky?

Roulette wheel

That was the topic of a recent CfEL Enterprise Tuesday, where entrepreneurs Rahul Vohra and Shamus Husheer discussed what makes some businesses succeed when others fail. For the lazy amongst us, the unfortunate conclusion was that you need hard work as well as opportunity if you’re going to make it big. But you do need both – as Shamus pointed out, if hard work led to success, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire, and unfortunately they’re not.

Essentially you need to put yourself in the position to be lucky – so make sure that you are in the right place at the right time, and then grab the opportunity. For me the perfect example is Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. He took an existing idea (a paper directory of students) and wrote an initially simple computer program to put it online solely for Harvard University students. As any programmer will tell you, Facebook itself isn’t the world’s most complicated piece of code, but it attracted users and the rest is history.

But look a bit deeper and there’s more hard work involved – Facemash, the first version of Facebook, was closed down by university authorities for breaching security, copyright and individual privacy and Zuckerberg was lucky not to be expelled. So he persisted, refined his idea and tried again. From Rahul and Shamus’s experience iteration is a key part of success – things aren’t necessarily going to work first time, but that doesn’t mean your idea is worthless. Other people came up with Facebook-like services but through hard work Zuckerberg’s got the users it needed to take off.

So, while it is an easy response to describe someone successful as ‘lucky’ you make your own luck in this world. Aspiring entrepreneurs need to make sure they are looking for opportunities, making intelligent guesses about what might be a success and then working hard to develop a product or service that customers actually want. Like a swan, ‘lucky’ people may look calm, but underneath the surface their legs are paddling very hard………

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December 5, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Farcebook and internet bubbles

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve found it difficult to watch the recent Facebook flotation, subsequent drop in share price and clamour of litigation without shouting “I TOLD YOU SO” at the top of my voice. Way before the flotation many analysts queried Facebook’s $100bn+ valuation given its relative lack of revenues but their voices were drowned in the hype. Just look at the number – with 1 billion users that’s a hefty premium per subscriber.

Obviously the growth statistics behind Facebook are impressive and there is still potential for it to grow in different areas around the world and by offering new services. But this is all potential rather than actual. A good comparison is Google – when it IPO’d in 2004 it had a valuation of $23 billion. Most of the services we now know Google for simply hadn’t been introduced, and the stock was priced according. Google has since increased its share value six-fold, giving it a market value of  $196 billion, helped by annual revenue of $39 billion.

There’s a decent chance that Facebook can ‘do a Google’ and monetise its users, probably through services that Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t even thought of yet. But equally it could languish in limbo in the same way as LinkedIn post-IPO without really demonstrating a vision for charging customers without losing them.

The bigger worry for me is that Facebook is continually held up by the likes of David Cameron as a posterboy for what British tech businesses should aspire to. And consequently we have a move to create frothy, social media driven businesses without clear business models, inevitably HQ’d in Tech City. It reminds me a lot of first generation dotcoms and the bandwagon that became. While some of these businesses may succeed, we need to look at what will create real value in the UK tech scene (the likes of ARM, CSR and Sage all spring to mind) and focus the best minds on solving real business problems rather than simply another cute network without any revenues.

So if the Farcebook float can change people’s perceptions that user numbers are good, revenues are not essential, then I think that’s a price that the gullible should have to pay. As the old saying goes, if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is.

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May 24, 2012 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Facebook+

Quel ricco sfondato di Mark Zuckerberg, founde...

Image via Wikipedia

Your biggest competitor is launching a new product that attacks your dominant market leader head-on. What do you do? You don’t want to look desperate but equally you can’t ignore it.

If you are Facebook responding to the launch of Google+ the answer is simple – infiltrate it. Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg allegedly joined the fledgling social network on launch and is now the most popular user, with more followers than Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

Of course, the account may be fake but I’d like to hope not given this is a brilliant PR tactic that means Facebook wins whatever happens. If Google had blocked Zuckerberg he could have complained to the media about a lack of openness. And as they’ve let him in he can ensure Facebook is central to the story. I’d imagine that Google execs are frantically drumming up followers for Brin and Page to unseat Zuckerberg from the Google+ throne as I write………..

 

 

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July 7, 2011 Posted by | PR, Social Media | , , , , , , | 1 Comment