The tech boardroom: Now and then

Online content is exploding and traditional media and other start-ups still haven’t found a successful self-sustaining business model. There are cycles of motivation for content production, originally it was for communication but following the industrial revolution and the need to sell surplus production, advertising as an industry was born.

It has been claimed that Popeye was brought to life to relieve a persistent spinach surplus and to support the spinach farmers during the late 1920’s. Here a self-fueling media production was able to carry a message and grow.  The same was true with soap operas and a growing proportion of content is coming from the product providers directly.

New York venture capitalist Fred Wilson comments that recent boardroom themes are focused on “driving repeat usage and retention” referring to sites which are trying to move from traffic conduits to sticky destinations. There’s a real battle for attention being fought out.

This does however beg us to ask if this useful to anyone. From recent valuations of some high-profile start-ups from California to China, everyone wants a piece of social. From angel capital to venture capital it’s all being pumped into anything with a link to web social. The other key factors of production are being diverted this way too in man hours and productivity. It’s impossible to know if these resources would have been better in another scientific field but then maybe they’re just assembling the building blocks of a yet unimaginable innovation. After all, who’d have first imagined that silicon would have led to this?

The Economist also asks if we’re living in a bubble. This is at least some recognition that fear is growing, but the other vital ingredient for bubbles is exuberance and this seems only to be increasing. The current crop of tech top-dogs are now well established with functioning business models, cash flow and even profit, unlike their counterparts of the dot com generation. Perhaps the reason for this difference is the cost of starting-up. In the 90’s the cost of existing on the web has dropped from millions to a few thousand dollars now. No start-up now would host their own servers and soon we may all well be living in the cloud anyway. Now the downside to having-a-go may not be leveraged bankruptcy. There is a real democratization and real freedom for anyone to achieve. However the other major difference between then and now is the predominant underlying revenue generating model. The Dot Com boom was filled with companies like WebVan and Boo who were trying to bring real world products to the web. They were attempting e-commerce businesses. The big survivors of this era are companies like eBay and Amazon which understood The Long Tail markets the web would allow; i.e. giving massive reach without the associated costs of inventory.

Now linking this to the daily skirmishes in the boardroom that Fred Wilson discussed, we understand why repeat usage and retention are such important reportable metrics to the tech companies of today. This time around, the businesses are almost entirely dependent on advertising for revenue.

There is no doubt that the market leaders have changed the world and for the better too. As Google and Facebook carry the torch we all follow, it is important to recognize the danger of losing the focus of why users come to you. Boardroom meetings should predominantly be spent focused on what is genuinely useful and that makes things better for users. That’s the job.

Search in 2084

The transmogrification of search to be coded as the most individually relevant begins a very dangerous route towards 1984.

There is a troubling hidden risk that the people who proclaim and defend liberty are blinkered by the immediate gratification of personal relevancy in search which in the long run will have to weaken the foundations of our free society. Enough statistics, especially self-fueling data can lead to the conclusion that some data is neither wanted nor needed. Perhaps data from the opposition party fits here? But then maybe we’ll be shown it doesn’t. We all know that there’s no sound made from a falling tree if there’s no one to hear it.

Perhaps a solution to the question of “Is search going to be what we like?”, and Eli Pariser’s TED presentation “Beware online “filter bubbles”  is to invoke a choice, where personal relevancy can be switched on or off in pure search. Sure, let the personalized adverts hit me as they wish, this seems to be the price to pay for access to the world’s information, but never let us forget where pawning our free right to access information may lead.

Follow up and lead

There are recurring memories that travel around with us and deep down there must be a reason why our far more intelligent subconscious chooses to keep them. Whether it knows it at the time, I’m not sure. Everyone loves TED and one of the most memorable is this one by Derek Sivers. It’s how a movement is born and grows. It’s also clear that the movement offers inclusion for everyone who is willing to join. We could also say that they are dancing because of inclusion.

Is search going to be what we like?

With the news this week that Foursquare had over three million intra-day check-ins, and the growing personalization of almost everything we seem to do online (in fact we seem almost permanently logged on whether we realize it or not), it does beg the question to ask if personalized search is better. Facebook “likes”, which are celebrating their one-year birthday and still seeing about 10,000 new “like” buttons being embedded each day, seem almost everywhere. Even Google are recognizing the potential and are rolling out the new “+1” which they will be looking to influence their search algorithms.

Over time, we will begin to see evidence of the influence that our networks and our own bookmarking have on our search and our overall online environment which is coloured by advertising. Will this proliferation of this change mean that we need to choose friends with similar good taste as our own? Will this lead to the curating our own social and professional graphs with the aim of bettering our search? Could we become trapped with the search output of our friends? When it comes to searching for something serious, research is by (a) definition a systematic investigation to discover facts, theories, applications which we did not readily know. A bungee cord restriction to the nebulous world of our existing connections could be extremely frustrating in this case. There is the balance that search must find between frequent, local and playful conveniences versus the opportunity of finding meaningful serendipity. I accept the counter-charge that the opposite of this is an acceptance of search output to be the result of black-box algorithms coded in Mountain View. But why has this discussion been framed so as never to suggest the two approaches can co-exist. Different workhorses for different racecourses.

Universal home ownership: Risks can thwart aspiration

Sometimes we are so busy watching intra-day news that it takes time for us to see the underlying trends and reasons for the bigger picture.  I thought now would be a good time to consider what has been happening with our housing markets.

The main catalyst for this work has been How The West Was Lost which was written by the eminent Dr. Dambisa Moyo.

Forgive the juxtaposition between the US and UK but I have done this since it allows the clearest examples to be made in the shortest reading time.

Governments have responsibilities to their people and in trying to exercise this they have gone to extreme lengths. The world we live in has been molded by events and wars that have fought over land and trade. Recent governments and administrations have gone to war to defend energy stability but why then, working up Maslow’s Hierarchy from food, warmth and then shelter, do governments want house prices to go up? Are governmental policies geared at increasing the cost of housing, either deliberately or not?

UK and US Governments have actively encouraged home-ownership which has led to an over-allocation (more than there would otherwise have been) of our financial resources in housing stock.

An equity or bond is a cash-flow producing asset. The cash flow arrives via dividends or coupons. The value of these assets is sometimes measured as a present value of their future cash-flows. However a house is very different. Unless it is rented out, then it produces no cash-flow although it could be thought of as mitigating a rental cash-flow. Home ownership is more of a convenience asset, and a convenience we all hope to achieve and benefit from. During the recent past, under Thatcher in the UK and under Clinton in the US, encouragement of home ownership accelerated and governments created incentives to hard work and innovation. However in order to support such a large change in public policy, governments needed prices to rise to create a virtuous circle. This creates a treadmill like effect, where prices need to keep rising and ultimately a bubble is born. New house-buyers simply can’t get on the ladder – the treadmill is just going too fast.

The risk profile for property investors can vary dramatically. For a property funded by bank debt, such as that typically exercised by a buy-to-let landlord, house price volatility is a good thing. They benefit from the capital gains of the property as well as the higher yield demandable but their downside risk is limited to the capital invested in securing the deposit and other costs. This leveraged position granted to them by banks mean that they would always choose to play a game of increased stakes and volatility.

Just as price volatility affects the landlord, so it applies to one who lives in their mortgaged property. If prices rise people feel good and would then have the option to downsize with surplus cash or they may increase their leverage and upsize. This decision is very often determined by the age of the owner.  If prices fall then the worrying case of negative equity arises. This in itself is not the problem.  The risk to the mortgage payer and the banks is that the income used to repay the mortgage is impaired. In the UK and Canada, the mortgage holder is liable for the entire mortgaged amount whereas in the US, following foreclosure, then the defaulted mortgage borrower has no further liabilities. The actual meaning of negative equity really does mean negative equity in the UK and Canada but it is far less punishing to those in the USA.

For the mortgaged home dweller, the risk of losing the family home due to repossession or foreclosure cannot be more extreme, and this risk, no matter how small, would usually be considered intolerable. Unlike the landlord or an equity owner who can walk away from their failed investment, there simply is nowhere to go to for the repossessed. More than losing what was invested, there also remains the issue and cost of sourcing alternative accommodation.

The aversion to this extreme downside risk suggests that mortgage holders should be averse to volatility even though they would stand to benefit in the case of market gains. Of course, once the home is fully paid for, this risk profile becomes that analogous to an equity owner.

Facility and ability to allow home-ownership remains commendable in its ambition but erroneous in its extent and application. Quite simply it has turned the dial too far. There is a balance of wanting to hold equity to benefit from volatility versus reducing risk by minimizing debt and hence leverage. Governments need to be clear of its objectives of minimizing homelessness by repossession and foreclosure instead of maximizing home-size. This is achieved by minimizing debt (and hence leverage). The problem with the new proposed measures (recently announced in the UK Budget) is that they encourage investments where clearly the mortgage applicants are not yet ready to take on such responsibilities. The current high price of properties is the cause of this inability to accept these terms.

A very wide range of policy tools have been invoked to this end, but the underwriting of the lending institutions (Fannie and Freddie) will seem preposterous in the future.

We have come to believe the mantra that “house prices always increase over the long term”. [Has your stock-broker ever mentioned that equities do too?] This has been reinforced over the last fifty years but this does not credit the theory but allows it to deceive us, and the most vulnerable of us, in deepest circumstance.

It seems the new discriminating plan to support home owners by co-investing with them recognizes that debt solutions are folly, but just like we have bought into a few large banks that were going cheap and needed credit these last few years, there is an uncanny resemblance that we’re taking a punt on house prices again. We quite simply have to keep them rising to make sure that our tax-payer equity stake in these properties makes money.

I aspire to owning my own house and I do wish all my readers and everyone else for that matter the privilege and “convenience” of home-ownership. However we should be splashing out only when we can afford to do so. A home has to be forever.

Our anthem

The next time you listen to your national anthem you may realize that it doesn’t matter who sings it or of the depicted heroine or hero in the singing of it. What is very clear is that it is more than anyone of us can dream of doing anything for.

Dangerous news

All news is biased. Any content producing business has to provide value, whether it’s in the form of entertainment, knowledge or other general help. The logistical problem is that the right content needs to reach the right person and all this at the right time. More than this, the content needs to be sufficiently compelling to prevent the readers mind from wandering and the choosing to turn over or click elsewhere before digesting the information.

The danger is if we accept news as an entertainment, the consequence of which would lead to a race to sensationalism. Competing for the most extreme viewpoint or headline would be an obvious but dangerous tactic. I think the recent news stories of the last month have generally been dealt with in an extremely responsible way by the majority of the press, and I think the constraint has actually made me consider the possible ramifications had this not been the case. This responsibility and dedication to cause is the foundation of their reputation which is the groundwork for their business. It must be hard ignoring the temptation every day, but after every day there’s always another.

Social climbing

All the tech talk of the towns and valleys and incubator initiatives are aiming to shoot out of the park. Why shouldn’t they and how can high ambition for social be at all detrimental? I’m afraid of us swinging so hard we throw our bat. We can’t just magic a new Facebook and Google (alphabetical order) that again redesigns the graph we live in? These products came from a time when expectations were low, we were talking about things other than funding, IPO’s and at least I remember the talk being on product and functionality. We were thinking about what purpose was being served? It was about why then.

After bubbles have popped, the remaining malaise is a symptom and recognition that resources have been used to worst effect. One of the careers with the biggest possible payoffs is that of a star footballer. If it works out then it works out incredibly well, the other and overwhelmingly likely alternative can be an outcome that recognizes the other choices that had been available. There is massive skew in the desirability of the outcomes but the likelihoods of these outcomes are also massively skewed. In fact I propose that the outcome likelihoods are probably more skewed than the desirability skew. However, this phenomenon whereby significantly disproportional resources are allocated towards the upper end of the desirability chart will inevitably lead to at least some disappointment. This is capitalism and although this is how we make progress it is important to at least be aware of this skew and asymmetry and at least occasionally ask how we individually and collectively allocate our resources. Getting this wrong means bubbles and we have to re-trace our steps back to where we were and take the other direction.

Peter Thiel makes the claim that to be bullish on the future means to be implicitly bullish on tech. However I have to add that to be bullish on our long term future, we have to allocate our resources wisely. Maybe, and I’m only saying perhaps, the golden future is not as the social world gossips.

Can intelligent thought occur without emotion?

If artificial intelligence does become intelligent, will it be because it has feeling?

Imagine if you could simply calculate and nothing more. Try thinking without the feeling or emotion. In this world, unless given the instruction to calculate, you wouldn’t- why would you, you wouldn’t feel the need to do so? You may ask what if your survival depended on it, but without emotion you would be agnostic. If you were given a calculation task, the decision as to whether to calculate itself would not consider if you actually wanted to or not. The question would be redundant. What we think about second to second, the big long gaps between the thoughts and calculations we perform is a long series of wants and impulses. It’s about your interests and how you can fulfill them.

The big difference is I guess that we have spare computational capacity and by some choice that we make we chose to think about others and this is emotion. We have made many big step forwards in our evolution, but from the sharing, use of tools, or agriculture, language or alphabet, I think sharing must have been the most unimaginable before we tried it. Without this we’d have no communication – why would we?