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We Are All Venture Capitalists Now


“I would again draw an analogy to venture capital,” observes Ben Thompson, in a typically incisive Stratechery post eviscerating the new streaming service Tidal. “The importance–and amount–of venture capital has never been greater.1 The truth is that because so many folks can now get started it is that much harder–and more expensive–to cut through the noise.”

Indeed. Music, movies, books, and other arts have always been “tournament” industries, in which most success accrues to a minority of blockbuster hits, as described by a power law. For every billionaire J.K. Rowling, you find ten thousand frustrated unpublished novelists.

That’s why movie studios, record labels, and book publishers have stubbornly refused to wither and die. While technology has made it cheap and easy for anyone to create and distribute their books/songs/videos, that fact brings more and more contestants to the tournament, while the number of winners remains very small. This in turn makes the boost contestants can get from a studio/label/publisher ever more valuable.

Oh, a few statistical outliers succeed without such support, but those rogue champions are mostly stochastic noise. The arts are becoming more and more winner-take all, as their power-law curve grows ever steeper–

  • Books: in the UK, “the median earnings of a professional author [are] down 29% in real terms [compared to] 2005.”
  • Movies: “25% more [huge-budget would-be blockbusters] than a decade ago.”
  • Visual arts: “In the arts, as throughout the middle class, the professional is giving way to the entrepreneur.”

The great Nassim Taleb calls these kinds of tournament industries Extremistan, as opposed to Mediocristan. In Mediocristan, you work fixed hours for a fixed wage. In Extremistan, success is enormously lucrative, but failure is far more common … and, for artists, condemns you to a life of grinding poverty and/or working outside of your chosen field.

Of course tech startups also live in Extremistan. So too does venture capital itself, a meta-tournament of picking winners, in which enough money is (hopefully) made from the few big hits to outweigh the inevitable failures–

–and so too will we all, soon enough.

I’ve argued before that, because software is eating the world, “technology is slowly dragging us all, economically, away from Mediocristan and into Extremistan.” The power of software is such that it gives ever-smaller numbers of people ever-greater leverage. Meanwhile, much of yesterday’s rote Mediocristan work can and will be automated tomorrow.

As a result, our economies are moving (slowly, in fits and starts) to a power-law Extremistan future: one which features ever more entrepreneurs, ever more creative work, ever more self-employed contractors, ever more startup launches … and economics ever more like those of tournament industries such as startups and the arts.

This might be one reason why “average [American] wages have remained unchanged for the last eight years, and remain below what workers earned in the 1970s,” even as the economy has steadily grown. It could be one reason why this has happened to median household income:

In Extremistan, we are all tournament players, investing our limited time and money in unpredictable ventures that may succeed or fail, quickly or slowly. Wins are fewer, but bigger; losses are more common; and, importantly, volatility is high.

Economic volatility has indeed been increasing in the USA. The classic “American dream” is a narrative of steady economic progress, but since the 1980s, America has seen “a big increase in the number of people who saw big drops in their income.”

At some point in their working lives […] as many as 30 percent reached the equivalent of $200,000 in 2009 dollars, or roughly the top 4 percent. Similarly, nearly 80 percent at least temporarily plunged into a red zone, where their income dropped near or below the poverty line, or they were compelled to gain access to a social safety net program.

Joseph Stiglitz argues: “The American dream is a myth … CEO pay has risen to 300 times the average worker’s income, up from 30 times … minimum wage jobs are increasingly held by a family’s primary breadwinner.”

But I don’t think that’s quite right. The American Dream hasn’t died; it’s just moved from Mediocristan to Extremistan. That’s a transformation, not a demise. There are ways to keep it alive.

Educuation, you say? I don’t think so. Not education as we know it, at any rate; because education as we know it is itself very much an Extremistan tournament, one arguably more vicious and more important than any job that follows.

As Peter Thiel says: “What if higher education is really just the final stage of a competitive tournament? … Higher education sorts us all into a hierarchy. Kids at the top enjoy prestige because they’ve defeated everybody else in a competition to reach the schools that proudly exclude the most people.”

Similarly, from a grim New York Times piece about high-school suicides in Palo Alto: “children are picking through the static to hear the overriding message that only the best will do — in grades, test scores, sports, art, college… “I hear students tell me that if I don’t get into X, Y, Z college, I’ll wind up flipping burgers at McDonald’s.””

Trying to deal with the move to Extremistan by turning our educational system into an ever-more-high-stakes tournament is exactly the wrong move. Instead, what’s needed is a strong safety net so that increasingly common individual losses/downturns aren’t irrevocably catastrophic, and a life spent in the long tail of the power-law curve is still a life morally worthy of great and wealthy nations.

Ironically, the largely libertarian Silicon Valley tech industry actually provides us with an excellent example of this. The Valley is deeply entrepreneurial, and its startup scene is pure Extremistan — but while most startups fail, most of their founders (especially engineers) know that they can easily fall back on the safety net of a full-time tech job.

What we need is some kind of safety net like that, writ larger; a kind of economic trampoline that gives everyone new chances, even if their last attempt to achieve their dreams failed ignominiously. I believe the ultimate answer is a universal basic income — and that sooner rather than later, technology (and world-eating software) will make the developed world wealthy enough to easily afford such a net.

1That isn’t strictly true–total VC investment last year was still less than half that of 2000—-but the amount has more than doubled since 2009, which is remarkable.

Featured Image: Glenn Brunette/Wikimedia Commons UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE

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Fliplet Secures Seed Funding For Its ‘Fast’ Enterprise Apps Building Platform


You’re a business that wants to create a mobile app, but faster than it would take a designer to build something bespoke. UK-based startup Fliplet says it has come up with a simple way to do this which is mainly used by companies to produce internal business apps, such as to support sales, reporting, training, marketing, stuff like that. Existing customers include Marriott, Mars, Xerox and Sky, and the company counts Samsung, Citrix and ATT among its partners.

It’s now secured over £500,000 in seed funding from Angels to help it boost sales and marketing efforts in the UK, as enterprise spending on mobile apps takes off. The lead investor is Ben Wynne-Simmons, formerly of 3i and Barclays Private Equity, who is joined by a set of other unnamed investors.

Ian Broom, CEO and Co-Founder of Fliplet, says: “Enterprise apps are today where corporate websites were in the 1990s; seen as a nice-to-have, but not essential. But with smartphone use exploding businesses need to pay attention.”

Fliplet competes with enterprise app development tools tools such as those provided by Appcelerator, Kony, Adobe, Magpus and Pagesuite, but, says Broom, “they are largely targeted at app developers, have long build times and are often expensive.” He says Mobile Roadie and TheAppBuilder – “tend to be limited in terms of design flexibility and backend integration, and less focus on security integration for enterprises and app store deployment.” And mobile enabled web sites wont work offline, while in-house or external teams can be expensive and slow.

Fliplet joins many startups aiming to take advantage of mobile, given that the business and productivity app market is predicted to grow to $58 billion by 2016. Fliplet is going after the rapidly expanding enterprise app market that had over 5 billion downloads in 2014.

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Splittable App Makes A Play For Renters Who Have To Split Apartment Costs


We’ve seen how Venmo has taken off in the US for when people want to split things like shared restaurant bills. Now a UK startup has come up with an app which it claims will make it easier to share expenses when sharing an apartment.

According to the UK’s Office of National Statistics, the country has over ten million young renters driven into sharing apartments because of sky-high house prices. They have to split household costs and track group expenses, obviously. Many share with virtual strangers they have met on flat-sharing sites, which can make dealing with money awkward. And apartment sharing can be for only short periods.

So Splittable (a web site, Android and iOS app) works by providing housemates with a simple visual representation of household expenditures. House-sharers invite their cohabiters via email, a Facebook message or a WhatsApp message and can see what’s owed, at a glance.

Founder Nick Katz says the site has already been successfully trialled by over 1,000 young renters in London and is part of the Pi Labs consortium of UK property technology start-ups and incubated by the Open Data Institute before that.

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The Apple Watch Can Be A Sixth Sense


Editor’s note: Dan Kaplan helps startups tell their stories. He blogs about marketing, storytelling, and growth at Threadling and is preparing to launch Dispatches From The Future, a podcast about the future of humanity. 

The world around us is screaming with signals our original five senses don’t detect. Unlike some snakes, we can’t sense infrared with our naked eyes and unlike ducks and geese, we don’t have a native intuition for magnetic fields. But we’ve got pretty incredible brains, which we’ve used to craft ways to augment our five basic senses for a very long time. 

While you could argue that this process goes back to the creation of language, it started getting serious with the adoption of the compass for navigation by China’s Song Dynasty in the 11th Century. With this breakthrough, humans could suddenly compensate for their lack of innate magnetic sensitivity with a piece of technology. For the first time, our species could leverage the Earth’s magnetic fields and use them to help us be better at life. 

The development of extra-sensory devices accelerated after the scientific revolution and took off with the discovery of electromagnetic waves and the subsequent development of radio. With radio, not only did we figure out how to broadcast electromagnetic frequencies, we built the technology necessary to manipulate them as sound.

But the first massive step towards the development of an external sixth sense in humans happened in 2007, when Steve Jobs got on stage at Macworld and ushered in the modern smartphone era. 

Combine the smartphone’s core capabilities with push notifications, the right dataset, and the software necessary to turn raw data into useful information in real time, and that becomes the recipe for a powerful sixth sense.

Think of it as a richer ambient awareness of the world, mediated by the Internet and a smart device. In other words, your phone + the Internet + the right software work together to “sense” the data permeating your environment and deliver this data to you as information with a push notification. The result is a vibration you feel or an auditory alert you hear. To make this concrete, consider Foursquare, Facebook and Google Now.

Foursquare, Facebook’s Nearby Friends, and Google Now

The Foursquare check-in. For all of its long-standing struggles for stickiness among consumers, Foursquare has used check-ins to build the world’s richest, more accurate online database of physical locations. When you sign up for the latest version of the app, Foursquare also encourages you to give it data about your favorite foods and activities.

This way, when you venture near a restaurant that serves your preferred foods, a bar that specializes in your favorite cocktails, or any other real-world location that offers something you’d probably enjoy, Foursquare sends you a push notification to let you know.

To pull this off, Foursquare combines its databases, GPS info coming from your phone, and its unique algorithms to tell you things you might not know about the world around you. It does all of this in real time without you having to ask. 

The result is a digitally enhanced sense of the brick-and-mortar world.

Facebook’s Nearby Friends senses our social environment. Though there are weaknesses in Facebook’s data and current algorithms that limit the feature’s utility, Nearby Friends is a concept with potential: If Facebook had a better understanding of our relationships, it could tell us when our close friends were nearby and what they’re up to at the time.

It would get really interesting (and a lot more intrusive) if Facebook figured out how to notify us of interesting people around that we didn’t know but would likely benefit from meeting.

The result is a digitally enhanced sense of our social environment.

Google Now senses everything else. If you use Google’s services to power most of your digital life, Google Now mines your calendar, your email, your location, your search history, and the time of day to give you all sorts of useful notifications about your world.

Got an upcoming meeting and traffic conditions get worse before you’re planning to leave? Here’s a notification to leave now. Did a package you ordered just go out for delivery? Here’s a notification to let you know when to expect it.

Depending on your perspective on Google’s intentions, you might consider this kind of proactive analysis of your life downright creepy. If it weren’t so damn useful, you might even get mad.

Smartphone Push Notifications Are Still Primitive 

As anyone in a relationship with someone who can’t stop checking their phone will tell you, smartphone notifications are a nuisance. A plague, even. This is partly due to the fact that most push notifications were designed explicitly to pull you away from whatever you’re doing for the purpose of advancing some form of corporate interest: “Buy this! Come back to our app! Check out our latest virtual sword!”

Indeed, far from being useful, many (if not most), push notifications actually harm us, hooking us on our own dopamine and making us less present and aware of the moments of life passing us by.

There is a world where push notifications actually help us live better lives, but we’re not living in it yet. This all begins to change with the Apple Watch, and its breakthrough “taptic engine.” In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept of the “taptic engine,” it is the feature of the Apple Watch that taps you on the wrist when a notification comes in. 

Despite its clunky, overly technical name, the taptic engine is what sets the Apple Watch apart. Without the taptic engine, the Apple Watch is just a beautiful digital trinket. With it, however, the device becomes much more.

The Breakthrough Taptic Engine  

Because you are wearing the Apple Watch on your body versus carrying it around, the connection its taptic engine creates between your mind and the information from push notifications is dramatically more direct and intimate: Instead of a vibration in your pocket or a distracting auditory alert from your purse, you get a subtle touch on the wrist.

Think about this for a minute: A device on your wrist is using a wide range of online datasets and your sense of touch to notify you in real time of things you might otherwise not perceive.

The Apple Watch can analyze data from its clock and its accelerometer to tell you when you’ve been sitting too long. With a little help from another wearable like the Spire or the Lumo Lift, it can tell you when your breathing patterns are showing signs of stress or your posture is off.

Some of this information just helps you be healthier. Some of it is life and death. If you’re diabetic, for example, you can use the Apple Watch with a wearable glucose monitor and get notified of any worrying trends in your blood sugar levels throughout the day.

These taptic notifications get even more interesting when third parties with access to unique datasets start exploiting their potential. 

Imagine you’re in a new neighborhood in Kansas City and it’s lunchtime. As you’re walking around, Apple Watch taps you to recommend a nearby restaurant that is renowned for its ribs. As you walk out satisfied with your meal, you get another tap. A good friend is at a coffee shop down the road. You tap your watch and his watch taps him to let him know you’re around. 

As you and your friend meander, the Dark Sky app taps you to tell you that hard rain is imminent. As you consider heading inside, you get a quick set of urgent taps from the National Weather Service. You turn your wrist and glance down to see that a tornado warning is in effect for the next two hours. 

You get the idea.

The downside, as both Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times and Steven Levy at BackChannel have pointed out, is that the Apple Watch opens the floodgates to a never-ending series of taps making insistent demands on your already-overstretched attention. 

But with some smart, mindful tweaks, you can set up your budding sixth sense to provide useful information instead of meaningless distractions: your Lyft is about to arrive; your heart rate is abnormally fast; your breathing patterns indicate anxiety; you need to take a break and breathe some slow, deep breaths.

From the Apple Watch To Homo Sapiens 2.0

While the road to the future for humankind is uncertain and full of pitfalls, one things seems likely. If we navigate the next few decades without blowing everything up, our species is set to evolve. 

Some forecasters think that this evolution will come in the form of a conscious artificial intelligence. I believe that our technology will steadily flow into our biology, and the next generation of humans will be a deeply integrated nexus of man and machine. 

Along that trajectory, a lot of incredible things will have to go down first, but they are already starting to happen. Eventually, our bodies and minds will be awash with hardware and software that connect us more deeply with the digital world. 

By the time that happens, the Apple Watch and its breakthrough taptic engine will be a distant memory, like the early computers of Bletchley Park are today.

But when they look back and talk about how we got from here to there, the Apple Watch and all of its adjacent applications and enabling technologies will be considered a crucial early step.

As the Apple Watch, itself, demonstrates, an innate, digitally enabled sixth sense in humans is only a matter of time.

Featured Image: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock

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Is Seattle Silicon Valley’s Next Favorite Stop?


Editor’s Note: Hadi Partovi is a technology investor and entrepreneur and is the co-founder and chief executive of the Seattle-based nonprofit Rich Barton, Glenn Kelman, Ed Lazowska, and Ari Steinberg contributed to writing this. 

In the last ten years, the Seattle tech scene has changed quite dramatically.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the only gigantic software companies in town were Microsoft and Amazon. For a time it even became common knowledge that most Seattle-based startups had only two viable exit strategies: go public, or get acquired by Microsoft.

This led to a lopsided startup ecosystem, with a very small number of tech titans, and a large number of relatively tiny startups, with very little in between.

Unless your startup was clearly on the IPO trail, the shortage of alternative success strategies caused a dampening effect on the startup ecosystem. Whether you were looking for investors or trying to recruit star talent, it’s harder to pitch a startup whose only fallback is “getting acquired by Microsoft.”

Of course, when one invests in a startup, one aims for outright success.  But the presence of reasonably attractive fallback options is still appealing, especially with recruits who may be scared of making the leap to a new startup.

The recent rise of the acqui-hire as an attractive fallback strategy has created an incentive for a lot more Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and engineers to try their hand at a startup.  But the same incentive has been missing in Seattle, because there have historically been very few potential acquirers for most tech startups.

The last 10 years have seen a sea-change in this dynamic in Seattle, caused by two forces.

The first part of the change has been the rise of a new breed of large Seattle-based tech companies – companies that are still smaller than the two local titans, Microsoft and Amazon, yet large enough to fill out the middle tier of the tech ecosystem.

This group includes public companies such as Expedia, Zillow, Tableau, Zulily, as well as very large acquisitions such as PopCap Games, Isilon, Big Fish Games or Bluekai. Along with older companies such as Adobe and Real, the home-grown tech industry in Seattle now has a sizeable number of companies not only at the $100 billion valuation, but throughout the $10 billion, $1 billion, or $100 million valuation ranges.

The second force has been the increasing appearance of Silicon Valley engineering offices in the Seattle metro area. Google was one of the first major Silicon Valley offices to open an engineering office in Seattle, and in fact Google now has two engineering offices – one downtown in Seattle, and one in the suburb of Kirkland, WA.

Ever since Google’s first expansion to Seattle, a host of team-productivity and engineering-productivity tools have arrived on the scene and made it much easier for teams to work together across geographical boundaries – whether it’s Atlassian’s HipChat, the more recent Slack, or tools like GitHub.

A decade after Google set up shop in this city, Seattle has seen an explosion of Silicon Valley companies setting up their second engineering office. Seattle is now home to engineering offices for Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Salesforce, eBay, Dropbox, Uber, SpaceX, Taser, Palantir, Groupon, Hulu, Electronic Arts, Yahoo!, Pivotal Labs, and many others (feel free to list ones I missed in the comments).

Even China’s Alibaba has opened a Seattle engineering office, which is rumored to become the US headquarters for the Chinese e-commerce giant. Many of these offices have only appeared on the scene within the last two years (Apple, Dropbox, Uber, Twitter, Hulu, SpaceX).

Many of these offices are planning to hire thousands of engineers. Some of these Seattle-outposts have even started acquiring smaller startups without requiring relocation to the Bay Area – for example when Google acquired Picnik, or when Salesforce acquired Thinkfuse – enabling a new exit strategy for Seattle’s newest entrepreneurs.

There’s a misconception that tech companies expand beyond Silicon Valley to reduce costs – because software engineers demand too much in salaries. This is clearly not the case – and in fact, software engineering salaries in Seattle are on average second only to the Bay Area. The more important factor is that there simply aren’t enough high-caliber, experienced software engineers in Silicon Valley to feed the ambitions and growth potential of these companies. And when they look to expand to open a new engineering office, Seattle stands out as the first stop for three reasons:

(1) Seattle has one of the largest populations of software engineers, in part because of the original recruiting power of Microsoft during the 1980s and 1990s.

In fact, Washington State is one of only 4 states where the most common job occupation is “software developer” (the others are Virginia, Colorado, and Utah). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett metro region has more software developers than any other tech region – more, for example, than the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metro.

(2) The University of Washington houses one of the top 10 computer science programs in the country, with a steady flow of graduates who want to remain in the region. A recent analysis of LinkedIn data by a Boston startup found that of UW graduates in the past two years who list their occupation as “software engineer,” 90% reside in Seattle! . The New York Times extensively profiled UW CSE’s impact on the local tech scene in 2012.

(3) Seattle is in the same time zone as San Francisco – so setting up meetings doesn’t require coordinating across coasts. And thanks to Alaska Airlines, travel is a piece of cake between Seattle and San Jose or San Francisco, with 8 and 9 nonstops each way each day. (These flights are known in the industry as “nerd-birds” because of all the tech industry passengers)

At this point, the Seattle tech scene is demonstrably different than just seven years ago, in 2008, when Glenn Kelman of Redfin wrote that Seattle would be “the next Silicon Valley,” or John Markoff of the New York Times wrote about the influx of talent and capital and a whole lot of “Baby” startups, offshoots of the 3 big companies of the region (Microsoft, Amazon, and Google).  Seven years later, the ecosystem has changed.

It’s home to pretty much all the biggest names in tech, whether they are homegrown, or setting up their second shop. And the “Baby” startups have grown up, resulting in multiple technology IPOs in Seattle every year.

No question Seattle is still smaller than the Valley. In fact, Expedia and Zillow co-founder Rich Barton recently described Seattle as the “blond, scruffy-haired little brother of the star quarterback (Silicon Valley).”

Privately, he added: “It can be really awesome being that little brother….  His girlfriends muss your hair up and call you cute, and so on. Obviously money and talent flows along a very high bandwidth route between the Valley and Seattle.”  Indeed the next batch of Seattle IPOs such as Redfin or Apptio have investors in Silicon Valley as well as Seattle, as is increasingly common.

The one thing that hasn’t changed? It’s still a lot cloudier than California. Or as Oren Etzioni of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence compares working in Seattle to working in San Francisco: “People aren’t distracted by too much sunshine.”

Featured Image: Andrew E. Larsen/Flickr UNDER A CC BY-ND 2.0 LICENSE

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Gillmor Gang: Time Machine


The Gillmor Gang — Danny Sullivan, Robert Scoble, Dan Farber, John Taschek, and Steve Gillmor. Recorded live Friday, April 24, 2015. We got nothing but time on our hands waiting for the one on our wrists. Plus, the latest G3 (below) with Halley Suitt Tucker, Denise Howell, Mary Hodder, Rebecca Woodcock, and Tina Gillmor.

@stevegillmor, @scobleizer, @dannysullivan, @jtaschek, @dbfarber

Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

Liner Notes

The Gillmor Gang on Facebook

G3: Nothing Ventured

G3 on Facebook

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