Monday, May 13, 2019

Momentum is Fleeting


Doors opened. Conversations happened. Approving nods all around. Emails flew about.   Lunches, then dinner some nights. People showed up and stayed. You soaked it all in, counted your cards, dreamt of what could be next. 

It was a grand time.

After the break, silence. Doors closed. Conversations stopped. No meetings, no nods. Emails dried up. Bag lunch, leftovers. Nobody showed up. You soaked it all in, no cards to count, wondering if this is how it all falls apart.

Momentum is fleeting. Don't take it for granted. Those balls you were juggling are now hanging in the air all by themselves, stuck in the magic of the moment. The magic leaves, the balls fall down. And you pick 'em back up again and try to remember how you made it happen.

When you know there's momentum, seize it. Carpe diem. Hoo-rah. Hop on the desk. Make your stand. Round everyone up and ask them to join you. Sign 'em up. Take pictures. Slap backs. Share apples. High fives all around. Keep that momentum going. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Holding Ourselves Accountable

Sometimes I fall short.

I'll say I'm going to do something, intend to do it, and simply forget. Or push my time too far, so whatever it is I committed to gets delayed. You might do this too, or people you know do it and you get shorted.

I experience it frequently enough it makes me question whether we need a better way for making simple day to day agreements and holding ourselves accountable.

It's simple to me: if you say you're going to do something, or open to doing something, and don't follow through--either through a mistake or with intent--you haven't met your commitment. The gap between what you say you're going to do and what you actually deliver is in some ways a measure of your integrity. Even the little things.

Most people don't mean to blow past commitments. Life catches up with us. Too busy. Overcommitted. I don't like that term because it implies there's dedication, yet if you get dropped as part of the overcommitment it's an expression of your value in the chain of commitments, and a lack of dedication, in a sense.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Strong Opinions, Strongly Held

I really like smart, polite people who mean well. I've heard the phrase from a number of smart polite people that they believe in the phrase, "strong views (or opinions), weakly held." 

When I first heard that I nodded in agreement and considered its wisdom. It implies a willingness to cooperate, to not be blinded by your own beliefs to the detriment of progress. 

And I'm sure it works in certain groups---collaborators working on improving the status quo--in certain situations. And yet it can sound like "yeah I have a strong opinion about this, but I don't really care that much about the outcome." 

There's another group of people--a smaller group, I'd bet. These people have strong opinions, strongly held. 

Steve Jobs didn't hold his strong opinions weakly. Nor did MLK. Nor did Sara Blakely, the now-billionaire founder of Spanx. Nor did John Lennon, or Basquiat, or Miles Davis. 

Weakly held opinions lead to weak outcomes, the muzak of outcomes. I don't see the use of having a strong opinion about something but saying "meh." 

How does that serve society, or companies, or movements? We need strong opinions, strongly held to change the world to the better. We don't need to lower the bar to the acceptable outcome that weakly held opinions lead to. 

Be opinionated. Stick with it. And yes, be right, be informed, know your stuff, but don't give in just because it feels good to the group. Leaders have a tough job, and holding strong, well-informed opinions makes that job a bit easier. 

It's also the only thing that's moved us forward: tenacious, visionary people with very strong opinions about their part of this world. 

Monday, April 22, 2019

Search & Privacy

I've been using DuckDuckGo.com (DDG) for search recently instead of Google because of its privacy features--it doesn't track you or store your searches. And generally I find it to be useful, delivering relevant content better than or equal to Google's relatively commercial content.

When I want to shop for something, I go to Google because it's a strong engine for that--it's a commerce discovery platform when it comes down to it. Or Amazon.

DDG doesn't track anything, which is meaningful these days when every site and likely every agency tracks what you're doing.

I still think there's a space for curated search, which is what I attempted to do with the unfortunately named Jawaya, a social search or curated search engine of sorts. And I've been building a similar tool for myself as a side project that will approximate that. It's much more powerful with a network of people curating search results. So I might open it up at some point to see if that still holds true.

I think the key with any future social media is that user-generated content should live with the user, and not the service. What I'm building will have a combination of local storage and a cloud database on a per-person basis, anonymized and accessible only by that user. They'll be able to optionally contribute their work (curated content) to the network, which improves the results for everybody else. All of the data will be encrypted.

That data should be theirs and should be portable--it should be that way for Twitter, Facebook, etc. But their models don't support that and I doubt they'll ever move in that direction.

One of the reasons I'm using DDG is because it doesn't track you, but one of the shortcomings is it doesn't track you--you lose out on some of the positive results from that tracking, like relevant retailers finding you. It's not a big loss.

But what would be powerful is an ad system where my anonymous data could be exposed to an ad network, and I'd get ads on that basis (the site would need a revenue source and I doubt people would pay much for it), rather than getting ads on the basis of data held by Google or others. I'm not sure I'm being clear here, but maybe it's this, and maybe someone's already thought of it:

  1. store anonymous, portable data, either locally or on the cloud
  2. send keyword data to ad network 
  3. ad network matches relevant ads
  4. site displays ads to anonymous browser. I think. 
So I'm keeping this in mind as I build a simple tool. I'm using React Native for the mobile app, React for the web app, and Node/Express/Mongo/Mongoose for the back end. It's fun getting back into it, and especially fun to learn new tech by applying it to an idea I never quite finished. 

Oh--I almost forgot: go check out http://www.duckduckgo.com and give it a chance for a month or so. It's run by Philly-based entrepreneur Gabe Weinberg, who also wrote a helpful book for startups. 





Friday, March 8, 2019

Self-Sustaining, Regenerative Tech Ecosystems

This is a repost from 2011. As I'm diving back into tech, it feels like a good time to revisit this as I'm now based in the MidWest, which, quite broadly, sports a lot of tech companies and some interdependent ecosystems.

The capital for startups is here, but I'm at the beginning of a raise and am not sure if it's like Central Pa capital--slow, small amounts at low valuations--or competitive with NYC and the Valley.

* unfortunately we lost comments from the original post when I disabled Disqus a few years ago, from Arnold Waldstein, Brad Feld, and a few others. Brad referenced it in one of his posts on startup ecosystems. 

---------------------------

This post is conjecture from my observations and personal experience, without citations, and was about software ecosystems, though it could be applied to other sectors

For as long as I've been in tech I've heard the term "ecosystem" applied by people in regions outside of the Silicon Valley tech ecosystem to their own regions--aspirationally applied.

Most of them don't have functioning, self-sustaining, regenerative tech ecosystems. 

What's the difference? 

Pennsylvania's a decent example of aspirational efforts to create 
self-sustaining, regenerative tech ecosystems (in the name of complexity, let's give that an acronym: SRTE and pronounce it 'SIR-tee'). 
I'm making this term up, though I imagine someone else has come up with a better descriptor. 

The Ben Franklin Technology Partners Program has created some successes and I like the people I know working in it, but it hasn't created a single SRTE (to my knowledge). So what has it created? 
  • a form-heavy, long process for applying for inadequate funding
  • a bureaucracy for monitoring investments that includes documentation and reporting outside of the normal course of business
  • a network of support professionals and advisors, some of whom are very good and appropriate for startups, others who are not
  • a few great location-based services, including the incubator at Lehigh
  • a number of success stories, and more on the way, in addition to a greater number of failures, which you'll see in the normal startup world too
But it hasn't generated ecosystems. And I think that's partly because its model is not set up to do that, though it's what everyone would love to see.

*2019 note: Ben Franklin has really stepped up and is a now solid player in Pa-- I'm proud to have started one of its success stories.

Let's define SRTE.

A self-sustaining, regenerative ecosystem has these indicators:
  • new startups formed by former employees of earlier startups
  • new startups staffed by former employees of other startups
  • new startups funded by investors and/or employees of earlier startups with part of the proceeds from earlier successes
  • through at least two cycles
Nowhere in there is a long application process followed by inadequate partial funding with substantial non-standard reporting requirements. 

The most important quality: 'regenerative':
  • new startups formed by former employees of earlier startups
    • people learn by doing. The majority of startups fail, and without some level of exposure to building and scaling a startup, first-time founders have higher chance of failure
  • new startups staffed by former employees of other startups
    • this is the key indicator that you have a true "ecosystem": when you have enough viable, growing startups that employees start hopping from one to another, it's clear there's something positive going on--there's energy in the system when there's healthy movement between startups.
  • new startups funded by investors and/or employees of earlier startups with part of the proceeds from earlier successes
    • the system generated dollars that can be plowed back into the next cycle of startups without seed/early stage capital from outside the region--that's self-sustaining.
  • through at least two cycles
    • it must be long enough to get beyond the 'not dead yet' stage to 'thriving'. 
So if you're building a tech startup, why would you choose Pennsylvania or other "flyover" states? 
  • Family: home is home.
  • Relationships: building a new network of supporters elsewhere isn't easy
  • Easy access to your market (true for some, not all)
  • You want to help create a SRTE and believe that it's important and possible. 
Why would you choose to leave? 
  • Capital. PA ranks horrendously low in investing in tech startups, especially in mid-state companies.
  • Talent. You can find developers here, and you can find smart people here, but finding smart people who'll take the risk of joining your early-stage startup is the tough part. We have a more conservative workforce that values stability, and I'll suggest, perhaps wrongly, but in my experience the sense of urgency and ambition is less than what I see in the ecosystems like NY and the Bay.
  • Energy. There's some some something going on in a true ecosystem, and you can feel it, you're revived and propelled by it, you give to it and it gives more back, breaking all laws of physics along the way.
  • Partnerships. It's tough to develop the relationships that lead to partnership discussions, and phone-based partnership development is simply not the same. It takes a lot more work and travel, and you miss out on the random, incidental introductions you get in the true ecosystem. 
If we really want thriving ecosystems in PA, we need to invest in those SRTE qualities. Philly seems to be on its way, but it's missing significant capital flow,* and doesn't have enough exits creating enough wealthy founders and employees to fund the next round of companies ( *this has changed significantly since 2011). 

One or two hits isn't likely enough (Diapers.com was a great one for Philly and I'm looking forward to seeing whether that trickles down); some capital and employees need to be put right back into the ecosystem. 

I would argue against continuing the BFTP program in its current form, and instead choose two or three regions for a 10-year SRTE plan, and focus all energies on that. 

I'd choose regions with one or more recent successes, and organize capital and resources to create at least one successful, self-sustaining regenerative tech ecosystem. I do think having a loose incubator would help, but that it shouldn't be some overbuilt institutional building, it should be an old tobacco warehouse or the like, and simply provide: 
  • hi-speed internet access
  • a Makerbot. Just for fun, if not actual prototypes. 
  • bunch of Arduino kits
  • printers, including a large-format printer
  • desks
  • 2 small conference rooms
  • bathrooms
  • a bit of a lounge area
  • common kitchen
  • scheduled evening classes by participants, local experts, and mentors
  • And some capital--not a huge amount per startup.
This would cost very little. Let's do some math (this is off the cuff--flag it if it's off substantially):
  • 20 startups
  • $25,000/startup (seed only for now)
  • space, etc, which if you live in PA, is cheap and available outside Philly and Pittsburgh. 
  • The list of stuff above
So roughly, $500k to invest, maybe $100k on top of that. Maybe. Likely less. 

To keep the promising startups going, you need additional investment, though I'd hope the startups would have a business model and revenue to shoot for. Quick pseudo-math:
  • half (generously) will survive
  • 8 will have it together enough to take additional capital
  • add 12 months of capital, say with average salaries of $60k
  • 3 people per startup
  • so rounding way up for taxes, marketing, etc
  • $250k times 8 = $2.0 million. 
So now we've risked $2.1 million per region. Out of that, we've created some jobs and opportunities, with 8 companies funded enough to prove out their models. Start the cycle again every year with a new crop. 

Of those, 4 will attract additional capital, 2 will shut down, and 2 will plod along. And of the 4, one will have a decent exit, and the others might be break-even or 2x to 3x. But the one that makes it will return at least 100% of the entire investment

So let's do that annually for 10 years and round up to $3 million. I'd choose three areas: Lancaster, Harrisburg, and Bethlehem. That's $9 million/year or $90 million total, all of which you'd likely make back. Maybe more--we've got some innovative people here. 

The one thing a light incubator like this creates is its own little ecosystem, where startups help each other, and you get the vibe and feel of a some-something going on. That helps, it's energizing, and uplifting.

But I just get the sense we're too process-oriented here, and have spread resources pretty thin to serve too many regions without much to show for it in terms of significant success and they key outcome we had hoped for: self-sustaining, regenerative ecosystems. But we could try. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

2020: When the EV Breaks Out

EVs make up a relatively tiny part of US auto sales, but the Tesla 3 outsold all other luxury cars and almost outsold the Toyota Corolla. It's still too pricey, but it's coming down this summer and there's a new, lower-cost model on the way.

More Affordable
GM's Bolt EV gets about 240 miles of range, and costs about $36,000 before incentives, which total $9,000 (including rebates in some states) until April, when the federal incentive is cut in half. It's a great car, but for me the seat isn't comfortable.  The range is enough to allay your range anxiety; you can drive from Lancaster to NYC and back without recharging, depending on how you drive. You can charge while you're there in one of the hundreds of charging stations, many of which are in parking garages.

New and Interesting
Hyundai is coming out with the Kona, which has a range of about 240 miles; it's like the Honda HRV, a small crossover with a good amount of space relative to the Bolt (guessing). Hyundai isn't producing many of them yet.

Kia is expected to come out with the Niro EV, a close cousin of the Kona. Nissan just improved the range of the Leaf to 225 miles (optional), and the big news is VW announced that all car lines will have a long-range EV option.

EVs are Mainstream and Taking Over
In short, we're here. Electricity is cheaper than gas, even at today's low gas prices. 2020 will be the year the general public recognizes renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels. (If I were a responsible blogger I'd provide links, but alas).

Energy companies would be wise to move aggressively away from fossil fuels and toward renewables. They've been dabbling, but they're not trying to disrupt themselves. That's a mistake--they'll become the Kodak of energy, in a sense, if they don't move fast.

Used Market
You can buy a used 2013 Leaf now for $7,000, with a range for 80 miles--with heated seats! Every two-car family should get one for local trips. How often do you drive 80 miles in a day? 40 up, 40 back? No often, even on a day heavy with errands. You'll save 75% on fuel, and have a peppy, fun, reliable relatively spacious second car for cheap.

Downside: Unemployment in the Auto Industry
The biggest negative impact will likely be on the US auto industry supply chain and after-market retailers. EVs have something like 18,000 fewer parts than gas cars. Gas cars aren't going away entirely just yet, but fewer will be sold, and the decline is going to accelerate between 2020 and 2030 so rapidly there will be major upheaval in these markets.

Imagine a 20% decline in production of new parts--pistons, casings, bolts, screws, linings, exhaust, spark plugs, etc, etc, etc. They can't simply shift production to electric motor parts--there just aren't many parts in an EV.

Which means tens of thousands of people are going to lose their jobs--possibly millions--over 20 years. They should start looking for another job now, while there's still time. It will be a sea-change shift, and we'll be better off for it: better air quality and  water quality; less asthma and less disease caused by chemicals like benzene (from gasoline), etc. Gas stations should aggressively start adding charging stations --and lots of them--and cafes to capitalize on the longer charge times of long-range EVs.

Other Thoughts
The one benefit a gas car has over an EV is refueling time, which will change in the next several years, but right now it's at least a 20-minute wait to recharge a Leaf to 60 miles. Cars with greater range take longer to fully charge; the Bolt takes an hour and twenty minutes. Hence the cafe opportunity :)

You can get a Tesla Model S for under $30,000, if you're willing to buy used. It's a beautiful luxury car, and happens to be electric. Fast, spacious, comfortable, and amazing. Sigh.

I sold my Leaf last year for $7k. I've driven a gas guzzling SUV (Ford Escape, 23 mpg) for road sales and I hate that I burn gas, but I needed the range and couldn't afford a Tesla (and can't see driving a luxury vehicle).

So, yeah, I've loved electric cars since the 90's. I'm one of those slightly obsessed people and almost built my own with a local EV builder.  I look up prices every couple of days, read EV news, spot the EVs on the road, look at industry stats, etc. I'm addicted to this great idea finally coming to fruition. The first EV was built in the early 1900's...it's been a very, very long road to getting to public acceptance. And we're just about here.

And yes I'd work in the EV or solar industry if I had the right opportunity. I'm super excited about micro-grids and the potential for people to organize their own power sources, cooperatively in neighborhoods. A friend of mine turned me on to some new ideas around that, and it's exciting. Lots of hurdles, of course--local, state, and federal laws, working with physical stuff like, well, stuff you have to install.

EV Sites I read
Inside EVs (pure EV site)
Green Car Reports (mix of EV and Hybrid, not dedicated to EV, sadly. Hybrids burn gas--they are polluters and resource hogs. But better than full ICEs. )
EV-VIN  (current lease deals, links to other sites)

That's what's on my mind this morning.


Monday, January 7, 2019

Return to Tech or Stay in Social Impact?

One of the decisions I've put off is whether to stay in the social impact world or return to tech.

Some might argue there's an intersection between the two, but I haven't seen much of it around the issue I care most about, which is poverty and the unfairness of extractive industries. I'm talking about excessive, escalating fines for anything from parking tickets to court costs, or bank fees, or cash checking, or Rent-a-Center, etc, etc.

I'm thinking a lot about that, but haven't found the angle just yet. Payday lending is top of mind; even the framing of that practice is unjust: employees work, then wait one to two weeks for a paycheck. They're basically lending money to the employer, who pays them without interest down the road. In the meantime there are bills to pay.

So it's really a line of credit they're giving to the employer--the employee is the lender, and the employer is the borrower. There's something to that. An employer will argue the interest is built in. But the delayed pay benefits the company's cash flow, as they're currently structured. But maybe they should be depositing part or all of the pay on a daily basis, and adjust their cash flow practices around that. Why? Because it's more fair and makes life easier for low-paid workers.

Is there a tech angle? Maybe, but it feels like more of a policy issue, or practices issue.

I'm interested in solar and EVs (been obsessed about EVs forever). There's an intersection there and I'm watching some interesting ideas. The price per kWh is below fossil fuels now, and battery technologies are advancing rapidly. Graphene might be the key. Or the new thing out of MIT. But getting those to mass production will take time.

I don't like the "buy one, give one" model. It's basically philanthropy, and while free shoes are welcome (thanks Tom's), it doesn't promote sustainability and can have negative side effects.

And I don't like the 1% model. Again it's philanthropy, rather than introducing systemic change through a business model--the holy grail of impact business. Philanthropy isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's every inefficient with a lot of overhead, and tends to treat symptoms rather than root causes, many of which could be changed by policy.

So we'll see. I love tech--it's intellectually stimulating and can be a lot of fun. I'm looking at something pretty deeply right now. Not mine, but I'm pretty jazzed by it and I bet we could blow it up to something substantial.

What am I missing? Lots, I bet. It's a good time to dig in, do the research.

What excites you in tech and impact? Let me know in the comments.



Momentum is Fleeting

Doors opened. Conversations happened. Approving nods all around. Emails flew about.   Lunches, then dinner some nights. People showed u...