The adventures of an analog engineer and digital storyteller who studies emerging networks and their impact on the great game of business.
Aug 5, 2013

The Networked Company

Frank is a very smart guy who works for a large utilities company. He knows more about the intricacies of enterprise software than any other human being that I know. He’s passionate about the stuff.

During a recent conversation at a friend’s party, he described an idea to build enterprise software that would solve the database woes of most large corporations. Although his description went over my head, he was convinced that if he had the right investors and enough capital, that he could build this software.

“How much will you need?” I asked.

“About $40 million to start,” he said.

“40 million?” I blurted. The amount sounded so…umm…old fashioned to me.

“Yeah,” he answered, matter-of-factly.

“Do you know other people who are as passionate about solving this problem as you are?” I asked.

He thought for a moment, nodded, and said, “Yes.”

“Then why not consider building this product as an open source project?”

Frank looked at me as if I had asked him to calculate the square root of fifty-three without a calculator.

I tried to explain. Rather than trying to find investors willing to fund $40 million into a startup company, he could start much smaller and thus less risky company whose job is to orchestrates the building of the software.  By writing the spec, partitioning the design, prioritizing the modules, and ultimately showing how they’ll all come together into a single road map, his company would become the worldwide expert in the new software.

He wasn’t convinced. “But how will I make any money?”

“If your big solution is as valuable as you say it is,” I said,  “there will be plenty of money available.” I explained that companies needed to be convinced to use the software. Once convinced, the software must be installed. And, if the solution was as valuable Frank said, companies will still need the help of consulting services to integrate it with their existing platforms.

“The key to getting paid is the fact that you know the problem and the solution inside and out. That highly specialized knowledge creates opportunities to explore new business models.”

An odd moment of silence filled the air. Soon, we changed the subject to our families. And while we both explained what our kids were doing in September, I had the feeling that we were both thinking, yet not saying, the same thing.

“That guy is nuts.”

Filed under: Social Media

Jun 30, 2013

A lot has happened since this blog was born six year ago. For example, the iPhone had just redefined the smartphone as an appliance for the masses as opposed to the preferred email device of corporate road warriors. Today, 56% of all U.S. adults now own a smartphone. And if you think that adoption rate is impressive, consider that since the iPad was introduced in April 2010–just 20 months ago–34% of all U.S. adults have integrated a tablet computer into their lives.

The flood of smart mobile devices into the marketplace has forced companies to change the way they create and deliver content, products and services. Rather than assuming that their customers seek information or want to make purchases from homogeneous desktop machines, companies are working to ensure that customer experiences are not biased by time-zone, physical location, or the size of a screen.

And although this customer accommodation movement will have significant impact on companies and the economy, I’m finding myself becoming disenchanted with it all. It seems that so much of our innovation effort is being focused on making, publishing, sharing, and converting bits into illuminated pixels for consumption, that something important is getting lost in translation.

I get it. Humans have fundamental need to communicate. But is it possible, that the communications pendulum has swung a little too far in one direction? In the rush to share our bits with the world, might we have simultaneously estranged ourselves temporarily from another deep human need to get our hands dirty while building physical things? Could we be a little bit out of balance, having spent too much time communicating with bits and too little time actually making stuff out of atoms?

I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.

Over the past six years, I’ve written over 250 articles about the communications revolution. Now that the revolution is nearly complete, I’m feeling a need to start covering other topics, such as people who are using our new communications technologies to collaborate with others in order to build physical things.

I don’t know how it is gonna work out, but I know it will be interesting. Are you interested in joining me for the ride?

Filed under: Building Things

May 15, 2013

Adopting new technologies is like a good-news/bad-news joke. The good news is that we have a new way of doing things. The bad news is that we have a new way of doing things.

While innovators and early adopters love to play with new technologies, companies who’ve built their businesses upon the limitations of old technologies will try valiantly to fend them off. It’s inevitable. Whenever their livelihoods are threatened by new technologies, industries will argue for the status quo.

But, there’s an odd flip-side to this self-centered view of new-tech adoption.  Just as established industries will fight to hold onto their competitive advantage, it’s common for some early adopters to fight to hold onto theirs.

It’s like the story of David vs. Goliath. David’s slingshot gives him a competitive advantage over the size and strength of Goliath. But what happens if Goliath decides to adopt the slingshot for himself? Is that unfair to David? Forgetting that technologies are free to be used by anyone, some early adopters seem to think so.

We’ve seen this situation play itself out many times in social media. When the main stream media started adopting podcasting, some early adopters cried foul. When Ashton Kutcher saw an opportunity to converse with his fans via Twitter, many early adopters started sounding like cranky old men screaming at the neighborhood kids to get off their lawns.

And, as it always does, history has repeated itself again. No longer an obscure little crowdfunding site, Kickstarter has hit critical mass as everyone and their grandma can see it as a viable way to fund a project. While Kickstarter remained an obscure website that funded little indie-art films, early adopters could place their projects in front of small, dedicated audiences of other early adopters. However, once Kickstarter projects entered the big leagues, producing millions of dollars for ideas such as the Elevator Dock, DoubleFine Adventure, Pebble, or OUYA, that’s when it drew the attention of others…such as celebrities.

Coming on of the heels of the successful Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign, producer/actor Zach Braff decided to launch his own Kickstarter campaign called Wish I Was Here. Braff exceeded his $2 million goal in four days and with nine days left in the campaign, 38,000 people have already pledged $2.6 million.

It didn’t take too long for the Davids to start complaining that Goliath had dared to use a slingshot, thus giving the actor unfair advantage over less-famous competitors.

Putting aside the hypocrisy of the argument, the Davids don’t understand that the more people that are exposed to Kickstarter, the larger the potential base is to market new projects to. Sure celebrities have larger audiences to draw from, but at the same time, they draw large numbers of new members into a growing crowdfunding ecosystem. Paraphrasing one of my favorite authors, Paul Zane Pilzer, celebrities aren’t taking a large slice of a fixed pie. By their very involvement, they are helping the crowdfunding community “…grow a bigger pie.”

Innovators and early adopters bring new technologies into the world. But at a certain point, they must act like parents and let their children go, thus allowing new technologies to finish the creative destruction for which they were born. And whether early adopters like it or not, that creative destruction must change everyone, not just a select few.

And that’s a good thing.

Image Credit: PuddlesMcGee under Creative Commons

Filed under: Disruptive Tech