For as long as I’ve known him, Brady Forrest has been at the very epicenter of whatever the West Coast alpha geeks think is going to be the next big thing. I met him around 2008 when he was running the brilliant ETech conference for O’Reilly Media - which incidentally, was one of the first public tech talks that I ever gave. Since then he cofounded Ignite, a talk series which has been held thousands of times around the world - as well as Highway1, a hardware accelerator which has helped launch over 58 hardware startups.
In this curious time of trade wars, border disputes and national insecurity where something is made has become more important than how it is used. Pity the poor iPhone. Merely 'Designed in California', its actual provenance will soon be subject to greater scrutiny. But what if the most valuable part of a company is not where it makes its products, but rather the ecosystem it is a part of?
Ecosystems were originally a concept from biology, until researcher James F. Moore also applied the idea to business, describing the co-evolution of suppliers, producers and competitors within an economic community. In Moore’s view, the development of the community tends to follow a leader, who in addition to promoting a shared vision, helps participants align their investments.
The iPhone is a case in point.
A pretty device that is utterly useless without its community of content, applications and accessories - all of which have become not only a source of profits for Apple, but also an effective means for locking customers into their platform. The domestic labour component of each unit is not as interesting as the overall economic impact of the total iPhone ecosystem - a value network that will prove almost impossible to contain within national boundaries.
Google’s Android ecosystem is a different, but similarly effective, ecosystem. Unlike Apple’s proprietary operating system, Google has created an open software platform that allows global mobile device brands to innovate with their own hardware, while providing distribution for Google's digital products. Once again, a diverse range of participants drive the overall value of a converged product and services community.
A few years back, I met Sanjay Purohit, head of Infosys products, platforms and solutions at an event I was speaking at in Portugal.
Ecosystems, it turned out, were a favorite topic of conversation for him. In his view, to function effectively, a good ecosystem had to be both open and allow bi-directional engagement. He gave the example of the work Infosys was doing with P&G.
After experiencing difficulties with the myriad of distributors in markets like India, P&G worked with Infosys to create Tradeedge, a platform for linking suppliers and distributors, that now allows other brands to plug-in as well. As counterintuitive as that may be - sometimes working with competitors is exactly the kind of disruptive approach that is required to kick-start an ecosystem.
On June 12, 2014, Elon Musk announced that he was taking down the wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of their Palo Alto headquarters. He had decided to offer most of his company’s patents to his rivals - in the hope they would build on his innovations, and help the electric vehicle industry gain scale.
Tesla may sell cars today - but in the future, perhaps its most valuable asset will be the value it generates from its autonomous transportation and home energy ecosystems.
A member of the infamous MIT Blackjack Team, Jeff Ma was the inspiration for the best-selling book ‘Bringing Down the House’ and the hit movie, ’21’. A successful entrepreneur and expert on analytics, he is also a pioneer in the ‘Moneyball’ movement working with professional sports teams like the San Francisco 49ers and the Portland Trail Blazers to help them make better decisions with data. After selling his latest business, tenXer to Twitter, Jeff now works there as Senior Director of Business Insights. We met up for a coffee in San Francisco to chat about what playing Blackjack can teach you about overcoming cognitive bias, the quantification of work and what it takes to be truly data-driven.
Daniel Kraft is a Stanford and Harvard trained physician-scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, and innovator. I met him some years ago at the Singularity University, where he was chair of the Medicine Track. Daniel is also the Executive Director of Exponential Medicine, a program that explores convergent, rapidly developing technologies and their potential in biomedicine and healthcare. On a recent visit to Silicon Valley, I caught up with him to talk about how traditional medicine is being disrupted by the digital age.
For many companies the Cloud has changed the way they use software. For a fortunate few, it has completely changed the way they do business.
In the last quarter of 2016, Amazon made $3.53 billion in revenue from its Cloud business, up 47 percent from the same time last year. That division now accounts for more than 71 percent of Amazon’s $1.3 billion in operating income, confirming what was long suspected: retail and logistics may be just a sideshow compared to the profit potential of digital infrastructure. That was not always the case.
I remember the Internet as a kid. I was an early enthusiast: accessing bulletin boards with an acoustic coupler modem so slow that it loaded pictures one line of pixels at a time. From that perspective, it was inconceivable that one day we would be using the same infrastructure to stream high definition entertainment. Stranger still, that it would be the platform that ran the world.
It is easy to forget how quickly things have changed. Fast forward past AOL's startup disks, Netscape's list of cool web links and MySpace - we rapidly reached a point when we stopped thinking about the Internet as pipes, routers, and computer servers – and instead as a collection of digital services.
The Internet today is really an operating system, that powers a relatively small number of master platforms that in turn run much of the world’s applications, from performing complex calculations on demand to providing storage for both our personal and enterprise content.
All of that adds up to one thing: what it meant to be digital ten years ago, means something very different today.
If it was once enough to ensure that your business could be found online, now the real question is whether your business has been designed to be digital from the ground up.
Consider sales as an example.
In the old days, big enterprise software companies hired account executives to take prospects out to lunch, golf and even on vacation - to try and win big sales orders. Now, with self-service and subscription models, software companies won't even call you until you reach a certain number of active users. And even then, you probably won't get that free lunch.
Amazon may be the classic example of a company that constantly transforms itself, but it is not the only one.
John Deere is no longer just a tractor company, its predictive maintenance models means that it is also a company that sells data about tractors. Rolls Royce doesn't sell jet engines, it uses digital technology and sensors, to sell performance and uptime. Even Netflix, the wunderkind of 21st century entertainment, is a company in a state of constant reinvention. Not so long ago, after all, they made their money sending out DVDs in little red envelopes.
For leaders, the real priority when it comes to technology, is figuring out what is strategic and what is generic.
Generic technology is no more a source of advantage than running water or electricity – it is a utility. Being strategic means leveraging technology to design new experiences for customers and partners, as well as pushing the boundaries of how employees work, communicate and collaborate.
Even this late in the game, it is still not too late to reimagine how you do things. Digital reinvention, after all, is not something that great companies ever stop searching for.
I still can't quite get my head around it, but for some consumers, it seems that the future of technology lies in its past. Ancient feature phones, 8-bit video game consoles and even cassette players are all making a comeback. So is the retro-tech trend just sad Gen X'ers trying to relive the glories of their youth, or something more interesting?
All of us probably owned a Nokia 3310 at one point. Built like a tank, ugly as hell and virtually indestructible, it was like the mobile equivalent of those 70s Mercedes sedans that still serve as taxis in dusty, wild cities far from your comfort zone. Anyway, later this year, 17 years after its first introduction, and long after the demise of its original maker - HMD Global, a Finnish company that bought the rights to the Nokia brand, is bringing the 3310 back, 'Snake' game and all.
Old school cell phones are not the only retro-tech devices enjoying a revival.
Nintendo’s NES Classic Edition, a dimunitive plug-and-play box with 30 preinstalled games for the price of $145, was 2016’s hottest Christmas item. And for those willing to spend three times as much, you might consider the Analogue Nt mini - a solid block of aluminum and solid state electronics, that will play all 2,000 of the original Nintendo cartridges on modern televisions.
Both the Nokia 3310 and the 8-bit Nintendo are as much slow-tech as retro-tech.
Like a typewriter, they are relatively simple, reliable, and focused in their application. There are no software updates, social sharing buttons or background data leaks. They are distracting in their own way, but distraction-free compared to the 'Skinner box' nature of modern devices.
And yet, in my view, this current resurgence inobsolete hardware is more than just nostalgia - it is part of an emerging subculture around re-purposing or 'retro-modding' old technologies into new forms.
If the retro-modding scene in America has a ground zero, it is Ben Heck.
Millions have watched his YouTube show where he hacks devices from phones to wheelchairs. Generally his targets for adaption are old game consoles. Heck deconstructs them and morphs them into new, miniaturized, bonsai-like configurations. Whether it be turning an old Super Nintendo into a handheld or reincarnating an Atari 2600 game system, Heck’s adaptions incorporate modern components, better screens, and smaller, less power-hungry elements. Heck himself simply calls his work 'portabilizing'.
Another way of thinking about retro-modders is as an example of what sociologist Henry Jenkins calls 'participatory culture', where gamers cross the threshold of consuming content to re-mixing it. But as 3D printing, low-cost components, and online knowledge communities make modifying old technologies easier to accomplish - modding may shift from being a garage hobby, to being a powerful springboard to disruptive innovation.
Palmer Luckey is a case in point.
Inspired by Heck, he set up a forum called Mod Retro, and in between repairing and selling old iPhones for money, started buying up and modifying old virtual reality gear from the 90s.
In classic modding style, he took the equipment he bought apart to see if he could put it back together with more modern parts. He cannibalized components from his collection of head-mounted displays, and created prototypes with brand new screens. These projects were the basis of what would eventually become Oculus Rift, bought by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014, just 18 months after raising $2.4 million on Kickstarter.
There are close parallels between modders and the Maker Movement. Both modders and Makers refuse to see technology as a hermetically sealed package, but rather as a book to be opened, studied, adapted and re-purposed. As as was the case with virtual reality, companies may abandon a technology for economic or strategic reasons, but this doesn’t mean that their prior investments can’t be a platform for continued innovation by a community of hackers and tinkerers.
So here's a thought for you to consider: what discarded technologies in your bottom drawer might contain the seeds of the future’s next big idea?
We all know someone who is charismatic. They have a charm that can inspire devotion in others.
My question is: What creates that type of Charisma? What produces that type of presence?
One of the biggest keys to influence and charisma is being genuinely happy for other people’s success.
When someone achieves something great – do you feel threatened by their success or do you celebrate it?
One of the surest signs of someone being comfortable in their own skin is how they see others and how they can separate others experiences and achievements from their own.
Too many people subscribe to the idea that tearing others down actually builds you up and it’s just not true. It makes you look weak and insecure because that is where it is actually coming from. People who are secure with who they are genuinely happy for others, they celebrate their success and cheer them on.
And that makes them charismatic.
Richard Holden, a Professor of Economics at UNSW Business School, is one of the world’s leading experts on contract theory. He has also been a Visiting Professor of Economics at the MIT Department of Economics and Visiting Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School - and has written extensively on the boundary of the firm, incentives in organizations, mechanism design, and voting rules. Many years ago, he was also one of my debating rivals at university. After running into each other on a flight to Dallas recently, we caught up to discuss some of his recent research on why so much wealth is controlled by so few, the impact of smart contracts and the Blockchain on the future design of companies, and why now is a good time to brush up on our understanding of game theory.
There is a classic trade-off between rules and innovation, particularly if you work in a heavily regulated industry. So how do leaders balance the need for stability, compliance and certainty with a 21st century appetite for adaptability, agility and disruption? One approach is to learn to think a little less like a ruler, and more like a machine.
Late last year I gave a talk in Manila for the corporate governance team of a major telco. The company was heavily scrutinized by regulators and maintained a traditional governance regime. Not surprisingly, that meant it wasn't easy to try new things. Many in the company wanted to be rule-breakers, and yet, most of time, they just ended up getting broken by the rules.
Rules are fickle things. They can appear as authoritative as a set of commandments on a stone tablet, or as notional as a speed limit on a back road in the country. In either case, however, rules are not the natural enemy of innovation.
The reason for that is simple. Most rules are actually designed as short-cuts. Rules are heuristics, designed to speed up transactions when all parties can't assume that they can trust each other. As such, a good rule should not be immovable, but in fact, the very opposite: a principle subject to constant evaluation against a goal of efficient governance.
Reimagining the role of rules is relevant when you start to think about how a company might work in the 21st century. For example when Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos decided to get rid of job titles - it was more than just a fancy experiment in company culture. He wanted to see if Holocracy would work as a more effective set of rules than traditional 20th century management.
Whether it be smart contracts, distributed ledgers or algorithmic decision-making, the company rules in the future may start to look more like lines of code, than clauses in an employee handbook.
For anyone working in a highly regulated industry or company today, there are a few things that you can start to think about:
1. Patterns not punnishments
Set some simple, clear values to guide behavior and then consider a machine learning approach to compliance. Look for patterns that suggest misconduct, rather than attempting to codify and limit specific actions.
2. Designing not doing
Shift more decision making to algorithms, and devote more of your time to designing them. Rather than setting rules and enforcing them, shift your focus to defining problems, reframing results and debating predictions.
3. Sharing not shaming
Work with ecosystem partners and regulators for sharing transactional data from your platform in real time. In some jurisdictions, this approach is already eliminating the need for traditional corporate tax returns.
The last few years have yielded significant breakthroughs in AI, largely because of the shift from trying to use advanced programming to model entire worlds with thousands of rules, to approaches that let machines learn for themselves. In my view, the key to reconciling the trade-off between rules and innovation, is to take a similarly adaptive approach to the way we design companies.
Rules may not be made to be broken, but they should certainly be open to being constantly re-written.