Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Archive for June, 2012

Imagining the future – or why the tech press lets us down

Posted by shannonclark on June 29, 2012

This week in San Francisco is Google I/O where Google gathers together some 6000 developers and woos them with the devices and API’s of the future that Google hopes will happen.

In the past this hasn’t always worked, sure it included launching Android which has been, mostly, a success but it also included launching Google Wave which while cool was not a success.

This year it included launching a pretty interesting Android tablet (the Nexus 7), a beautiful to look at in-home consumer electronics device (the Nexus Q – notable for among other reasons being made in the US), new Chromebooks, a new version of Android that (apparently) finally solves many of the UI issues that mobile OS has been plagued with and a bunch of other new APIs and services for developers to leverage to build new products on top of Android and Google+ (and other products of Google such as Maps).

Oh and it also featured one of the founders of Google channeling his full on geek ID by taking to stage in a homage to Tony Stark (Iron Man for you non-geeks, most specifically the movie version of Tony Stark played by Robert Downey Jr in the current Marvel series of major films, less so the original comics version) anyway Sergey Brin channeled Tony Stark with his keynote demonstration of Google Glass (and Hangouts and less clearly the hacker ethos and money of Google) to pull off perhaps the best demo in tech history. It involve skydivers leaping out of a Zeppelin while live-streaming multiple feeds of images and landing on the roof of the conference center in downtown San Francisco.

But with all of that happening this week we still see a technology press that mostly misses where the future is going – finding it hard to imagine mythical “real people” using any of the products demonstrated by Google this week and further mostly focusing on the tactical achievements of one company or the other in raising money or launching some latest and greatest version of something.

Where has the imagination gone?

My reference to Tony Stark/Iron Man is a telling one – a small handful of major motion pictures in the past few years, starting back with Minority Report and more recently with The Avengers do take seriously the attempt to envision the technology of the near-future and illustrate how we may interact with that technology in the future.

In many ways the story of the 1990’s (and early 2000’s) was a that of a generation of geeks who had grown up on Star Trek making much (though not all) of the technology of their childhood imaginations reality. Starting with the communicators (which gave us the industrial design inspiration for Motorola’s flip phones) and leading up to tricorders (our modern smartphones are coming close though still lacking a few sensors out of the box – though increasingly you can build something akin to a tricorder if you try…. and our iPads (and other tablets) have inspirations from Star Trek as well.

But if you think of the iconic fiction of this generation you see little to inspire future generations, few explorations of the real possible impact of technology that could be possible in the future.

And almost noone even gets what is possible today right in fiction – across any medium.

What is possible – not possible as in some obscure military lab – but possible as in “you can order it for next-day delivery” is beyond the imaginations of our creators of today. Sure Google Glass’s small formfactor wearable computer is only just available for pre-oders (and not shipping until sometime in 2013 – 2014 for consumers) but other examples of wearable computers have been around for years now. Our nearly throwaway devices – smartphones available for free (when you sign up for service) have more power and processors and sensors than the computers of just a few years ago.

We have autonomous cars, flying vehicles and walking robots (in many sizes and shapes and styles0. We have 3D printers in the home capable of amazing things. If you can imagine it you can also now get it made and delivered to any part of the globe in a phenomenally short period of time. And people across the globe are exploring what it means for billions (not millions – billions) of people to have digital access to each other.

The number of cell phones on this planet is rapidly approaching the number of people on this planet.

Yet out fictions rarely think about what happens when billions of people can share with each other, when billions of people are reachable and can pool together – sure in “small” groups but when billions of people are connected “small” can be millions of people.

The core assumptions of most of our economic and political thinking needs to change to accommodate the real impact of pervasive connectivity and technology on the globe but our creators in whom we rely upon for images of the future have let us down.

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The business opportunities I see for 2012 and beyond

Posted by shannonclark on June 26, 2012

I see 1000’s of opportunities all around me for new businesses. A few are being pursued by my friends (and even family in a few cases) but most are not being pursued or well funded. Before I list a few of the opportunities which I see let me start with a few disclaimers.

I am not (currently at least) an investor – I don’t work for a Venture Fund or other investors and my personal net worth, such as it is, is tied up in my own company and family. I will mention here many companies and ideas being pursued by friends, invested in by friends and in some cases have family involvement – I’m completely not an unbiased observer of the tech world and do not claim to be one. That said I try to offer constructive criticism to my friends (and family) when asked.

Many of the opportunities I see and the ones I’m most passionate about are likely not the ones that you “should” focus on if you want to have the easiest path to getting funding in the current environment. I will be focusing on sustainable businesses (sustainable in the sense that they can keep going based on pulling in more resources than they expend on a regular basis – in a few cases also sustainable from an environmental perspective) I’m not focusing on what is “hot” or “trendy” or “sought after by investors at the moment”.

I can offer few guarantees other than that a) I will miss at least one billion+ opportunity and b) many of the opportunities I propose will upon being pursued lead to failed companies in many cases.

So disclaimers done here are some of the 1000’s of opportunities I see all around me. I think that many of these ideas could be pursued anywhere in the world – many of them are not limited to a specific geography or a culture (but some are) and these are not just for the “1%” though again a few of them are at least initially targeted at a luxury market. My goal is not to suggest the “best” businesses for the world – or to solve every problem across the globe.

That said I do also fundamentally believe that the best businesses are based on strong values and consistency (and honesty with all stakeholders). Businesses built upon fooling someone (regulators, investors, customers, suppliers, bloggers or other partners) will inevitably come crashing down – leaving destruction in their wake. Absolutely these can be businesses that give the impression of success (and in fact often generate outsized returns for someone – see many firms on Wall Street in recent decades or the stories behind many past booms and busts) but in the long run if your business is built upon fooling someone once that deception is revealed your business (and personal reputation) will likely suffer.

Businesses which are built upon a basis of offering great value to every party involved in the business (including the communities where the business operates) are businesses which are designed for long term success.

So where do I see opportunity?

  1. Streamlined and carefully curated local businesses.
    Far too many small businesses try to please every potential customer – they try to stock something for everyone, try to have a dish on their menu (if a restaurant) for every taste and occasion. In their efforts to please everyone more often than not small businesses (and for that matter big businesses) all too often please no one and furthermore invest too much in aspects of their business which will not pay them back (i.e. in inventory which will go unsold). Instead the successful new retail businesses which I see are most often those businesses which have very carefully curated what they sell – and thus who they sell to. Businesses that may offer only a very small selection of items – but which know those items exceptionally well, offer very high degrees of service and high quality products and experiences. Frequently as well these are businesses that do not try to be the lowest priced offering in their market, instead they have the confidence in their products to offer them at a fair but often high price.

    These opportunities are both for restaurants, cafes and retail businesses of all types. Look around your community and see what is missing. Most of these businesses are unlikely to be venture capital investments – but a few could be – see The Melt for example. Consider as well that most fast food businesses were very streamlined when they started (at least) offering just a handful of items and a consistant quality. While this has changed as many businesses have expanded around the globe it is a lesson worth revisiting.

  2. Curated eccomerce combined with a pre-order and limited edition philosophy.
    Online it is relatively easy to think about businesses that have seemingly infinite inventories – think Ebay,  Zappos, Amazon.com or indeed most of the eccommerce businesses started in the 1990’s. This model is indeed powerful but for long term profits it requires vast numbers of customers (to attract eventually a buyer for everything in your warehouses) and it requires fairly significant investments into warehouses and inventory (or in Ebay’s case a network of sellers that handle these issues).

    But there is an opportunity that I think too many investors are reluctant to invest in but which is a brilliant and long-term game changing model to consider – sell only a handful of items almost all of which you have pre-sold and which you limit the number of to command higher margins and minimize inventory complications. Think the model built upon many Kickstarter projects where 1000’s of customers have paid, in advance, for the products they desire. Now imagine a business that, mostly, only sells things that customers have not just said they are interested in but have taken the bigger commitment of actually ordering and paying for in advance. This business does require a lot of care to get the timing right – you have to know how long it will take you to make the goods you sell and you have to know what your prices will be in the worst case to ensure that you haven’t just sold your entire inventory of something new for less than it will cost you to make. But if you can get that right this model is incredibly powerful (and highly bootstrapable). It also is a model that can be highly sustainable especially if you are selling a product to customers who will likely come back to buy another product from you in the future.

    This model is seen today in a handful of mostly design driven businesses – Threadless, 20×200 but I think the opportunity is actually a lot greater and bigger especially as manufacturing networks shrink and capabilities increase globally for collaboration and production to happen faster and in smaller batches.

  3. Co-operative partnerships to create strong brands and great businesses as well as create compelling content.
    I don’t know of current examples of this idea but here it is.

    Historically great content was supported by a handful of brands that sold goods and services that had a wide market but limited differentiation (think soap companies that started the genre of “soap operas” via their support of early radio dramas). In the modern era however brand advertising on a national scale has become limited to only a handful of mostly very large businesses (still some soap companies, a few banks and insurance firms, car companies, soft drinks and beer companies, drug companies and only a handful of other industries). But at the same time content creation has dropped in cost in many places (other than non-reality show television series) with the proliferation of YouTube channels and other forms of online content across all mediums.

    I think there is an opportunity for a group of new companies to pool their resources and support great content that has a logical association with their businesses, targets a specific niche and which has a long term plan both for content creation and distribution – a plan that will support the business goals of every party involved. This is high risk to be sure as most content sounds better in theory than in practice and building an ongoing audience is never easy – nor is tying that audience back to each of the supporting advertisers/sponsors a trivial issue and this has to happen over a long timeframe and at a level that grows the businesses of every party involved. That said, I think that the opportunity here is massive – something has to replace the 30 second tv spot and the historical model of advertising based content (newspapers, magazines, radio and tv). The costs here also don’t have to be high – this could start with a YouTube channel type of model and indeed we are starting to see this to a degree with some of the current crop of YouTube channels – except that the content and the sponsorship/advertising support for the channels are not tightly connected to each other in the least (and in most cases seem highly random).

  4. Businesses that are not built on offering the lowest price but on offering incredible quality and exceptional experiences. 
    Yes, WalMart will not be failing anytime soon and sure everyone everywhere loves a great deal. But increasingly there is also a recognition that many “great deals” aren’t as good as they at first appear. Cheap clothes that you have to replace every few months quickly cost you more than clothes that will last for years. Food in large bulk containers that end up being tossed away unused and rotting and which contribute to higher health care costs are also not a “good deal” however cheap they appear to be at first. Instead I think there are lots of opportunities in building businesses that charge for the value they provide and use that to grow lasting business. This is a shift back towards quality and craft alongside the customization available at lower volumes. Companies such as San Francisco’s Rickshaw Bagworks illustrate this model.
  5. Businesses that build tools and services that enable other businesses to prosper.
    Okay this is an old fashioned business, it is the modern variation on the don’t be a gold miner be the guy selling shovels and pickaxes. But more fundamentally it is about recognizing that there are in essence only two core types of businesses – those businesses that provide a core element for another business’ success (suppliers broadly speaking) or businesses that sell discretionary purchases that compete to some degree with all other optional purchases (whether optional purchases by corporations or individuals). The first category restricts your pricing to low enough that your customers can still leverage your offerings to in turn make more money from their customers. The second category allows for literally unlimited pricing (or more specifically “as high as the market will bear” but means your customers are likely fickle, more costly to engage with and your competition will continually emerge from new areas you can not anticipate.

    Amazon.com is an example of company that is trying to do both types of business – both be a supplier to 1000’s of other businesses – via both their Amazon Web Services technology offerings and via their Amazon Fulfillment services offering as well as other ecommerce services to 100’s of other businesses and of course as both a large scale consumer eccommerce company and as a publisher and consumer electronics company Amazon sells discretionary purchases directly to consumers.

What other opportunities do you see in the market today (globally or locally)?

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Conferences outside of San Francisco – TechWeek in Chicago

Posted by shannonclark on June 16, 2012

While I have been attending a lot of conferences in the Bay Area of late there are fantastic conferences being held outside of the Bay Area these days as well. If I could get back to Chicago in two weeks I would try to attend TechWeek 2012, however I won’t be able to make it this year but at least one of my Chicago based co-founders at Beyond Age will attend in my place and the folks at TechWeek have offered me a discount code to extend to my readers/followers (see below – full disclosure they also offered me a free pass – some of the text below is copy they provided though I’ve edited it a bit to clarify what I think is interesting – i.e. the speakers, range of events and affordability)

Here is some more info about Techweek 2012 Conference + Expo in Chicago, IL from Friday, June 22 to Tuesday, June 26. It’s a comprehensive tech conference that includes:

Over 350 Speakers, including:

  • Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber
  • Jason Fried, founder of 37Signals (Ruby on Rails came out of this group)
  • Stefan Weitz, Director of Bing at Microsoft
  • Matt Mickiewicz, founder of 99designs

Parties:  Several major parties and events including the annual Bootlegger’s Ball (themed rooms with live music & DJ’s, bourbon tasting and swing dancing).

Hiring Fair: Come meet with 50 of Chicago’s top companies and find your dream job! Entry is open to anyone that brings their resume.

Techweek LAUNCH: 35 exciting startups will be demoing their products and the top 5 will present on the main stage.
In addition, visit some of the many educational workshops and test your skills in the Techweek video game lounge!

Use discount code P_tbnl_172  for 20% off conference passes and if you’re a student, use discount code tw12student (must show proof of enrollment). 

Register today!

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