Thursday, 15 December 2011

On a roll

No post for two years and then two in a day.

The text and video here of Hillary Clinton's presentation in the Netherlands this week describing US policy and ambition for an open internet. She is very impressive and the speech to my ear is compelling both because of the quality of the arguments made and because I agree with them.

What makes this horribly confusing then is that she speaks as if for the US and yet the same US (through Congress) is pushing for SOPA which will destroy the ambition for the internet that she describes.

Though she is Secretary of State, the actions of Congress do make it seem as though her speaking for the US is too much of a reach on this particular issue.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Talking of cleft sticks.......

I have been fascinated by the events over the past week concerning Britain's participation, or lack of, in Europe. I have worked pretty hard to understand what is going on and read extensively across the media to try and form a view as to what Cameron's veto actually means. I do not think I am there yet, but here is a list of things which I believe to be true based on that reading.

(i) Cameron outmatched

It seems obvious that when it comes to politicking Cameron is still in short trousers compared to the mastery displayed by Sarkozy. Sarkozy did not want a rewriting of the treaty that Merkel proposed but was able to sidestep it thanks to Cameron, upon whom he could easily pour all the blame. That Cameron insisted that his demands were trivial matters not at all; it was easy for Sarkozy to turn them into requests which did not meet the prevailing mood in the room to put national interests aside for the sake of the EU. Chapeau!

How did that come to pass? Largely through lack of preparation, though one has to wonder whether the Conservatives also fancied themselves a little too much in terms of negotiation and political maneuvering. The last time they were in such a position was in negotiating a coalition with the LibDems. In that case, it was the Lib Dems who turned up with knives to a gunfight. In that case though the LibDems were outmatched but did not have any time to prepare. Cameron has no such excuse: both he and his Euro-connected Deputy should have recognised that weakness and worked doubly hard to compensate for it. Cameron came too late and was easily beaten. It was his own fault.

(ii) This is not the right end point

This cannot be the final outcome. It is not sustainable for Britain to remain at the fringes for its own sake. It is naive to suppose that 26 members will not evolve positions on key topics and then spend time waiting for Britain to catch up when it joins for main plenary. See above and see the multiple references to Lyndon B Johnson's earthy refrain: better [to have him] in the tent pissing out than outside pissing in. Cameron's demands and subsequent veto give further credence to the observation that Britain is too dependent on the Services sector (and particularly banking), and therefore it cannot now be out of discussion by its own volition which will look to shape how that business is conducted in Europe. So, if this is not an outcome which Britain can sustain how do we change it?

I can see three outs:

First, the Euro may collapse. If it does, I dare say we'll hear about the prescience of Cameron from his own PR team. There will be a moment then to rejoin the conversation and look to how a single market is rebuilt. There may be some initial reluctance from Germany and others to warm to Britain but in the chaos bygones will have to be bygones and even the most ardent anglophobe would be hardpressed to suggest that it was Britain's fault.

Second, the Government fails. I do not think that the math supports this. I am sure Clegg has been tempted to consider throwing his lot in with Labour but the thought can only be fleeting. The LibDems and Labour do not have enough to carry Parliament and the Conservatives one suspects would actually welcome an attempt to govern alone. Instead, the LibDems are put to the sword and ask whether they wish to be in or outside of the tent. Then, there is also the issue of how electable Ed Milliband is. At this precise moment in time I imagine every Labour supporter is bemoaning that his brother David did not win the Leadership contest: he has the proven chops on the diplomatic stage. Something which is sorely needed now.

Third, Cameron finds a path to renegotiate. The door is left ajar here: everyone appreciates that a Euro solution would be stronger with everyone in the boat; Germany-France would probably welcome a sharing of the load; the long tail would welcome not being quite so overwhelmed by France and Germany. To every player there is a story with which the UK can re-enter. If the lack of preparation was the principle cause for the need to veto, then use this window now while the markets are clearly still jittery to find the face saving solution that allows Cameron to claim victory while not taking it away from others (notably Merkel and Sarkozy). Naive? Possibly, but isn't that what negotiation and politics is about - finding a path to keep all stakeholders happy. Nobody is that happy at the moment, not even Sarkozy one suspects when the adrenalin of having got one over on Cameron begins to fade. I'd note also that this has to be the only path open to Clegg as a constructive way forward: I think the LibDems as a political force is an issue in the balance at the moment.

(iii) This was not intended

The lack of Government spin, the lack of communication, the lack of a coherent plan of what next, gives you all the indication you need that this was not intended despite Cameron's statements that he would take this path if he had to. Bluster in advance to satisfy the skeptics then provided a trapdoor of his own making at the negotiating table. I imagine that there has been a lot of handwringing going on as the core team tries to work out what next. I actually take as a good sign Nick Clegg not being present for the session yesterday; it lets me imagine that this was a deliberate and agreed act in order to provide room to leverage the open doors I speak about above. Or perhaps that is wishful thinking.

(iv) How hard you have to work to understand the topic

This is a complicated event to understand both politically and economically but the newspapers try too hard sometimes, and too early, to put their spin on things before it is clear what is or has actually happened. The stock of the Financial Times and The Economist has risen for me through this process as both papers appear to have had real insight into the discussions; I have found the New York Times independent view to be useful as well as its use of guest editorials; The Guardian has had very good coverage, though you need to decode everything for its pre-determined view against Cameron; The Telegraph falls marginally behind in terms of completeness compared to The Guardian and has had less bias perhaps due to the uncertainty. The majority of my reading has been online, so I cannot comment on The Times coverage (due to the paywall) and the only print copy I saw was The Daily Mail which was as unsubtle as ever in telling me what I ought to be thinking.

The BBC has been a confusion of coverage, covering the event like it does its football with a healthy smattering of what people around the country think via twitter, email and text. It really should focus on promoting the thoughts and opinions of its own well connected correspondents. Tweets from Joe Public as entertaining byplay during football commentary has its place; in the midst of the largest political moment in recent history it strikes an odd tone.

The Bagehot Diaries in The Economist from where you can also visit more extensive coverage.
Any number of articles from the FT such as this one which exposed the lack of preparation or this guest editorial offering a view from France.
The New York Times is following events here and its guest editorials/commentaries are insightful, but beware they all come with a strong view e.g. here.
The Guardian's coverage is also complete and can be found here.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Cultivating entrepreneurs

I often dip into for insight or inspiration into any number of topics. I enjoyed this speech below on Entrepreneurship - a topic dear to my heart.

I once met Steve Ballmer in a small forum when I was CEO of my own start-up (the Accel funded Mippin) and the thing that impressed me most about him - aside from the fact that he was completely different from the persona I expected - was his passion to encourage his children to innovate and experiment with technology.

As I have written before, we miss this spirit in the UK. We are too straight-laced and fearful of failure. I hope to inspire my children to innovate (fighting my cultural inheritances that they might fail in the process).

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Customer service shenanigans

An astute piece on Apple's recent iPhone customer service forays from John Naughton, one of my favourite tech writers. There are not many companies that could have carried this off and even in this case there is no guarantee that it will in the long term - it may yet bite back.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Crazy British Entrepreneurs = An Oxymoron

You'll always find an exception to the rule, but I think you'll be hard pressed to prove that the UK has the right cultural backdrop to create and sustain a vibrant hi-tech start-up community.

When I first announced to my family and group of friends that I was going to quit my "high-flying" job to try and create a company with no guaranteed funding, my parents took a long deep breath and my friends all looked at me quizzically as if I had lost my mind. In their minds, and in the minds of most, to embrace something which has such a strong chance of failure is seen as potentially suicidal from a career perspective.

I think that we British lack a little of the 'devil may care' attitude that our early heroes showed: the Mallory's, the Gordon's, the Scott's - coincidentally all famous for their catastrophic failures and yet wildly lauded for their heroic acts. Whether we are led by the media or the media is a mirror image of our values and social code is another matter, but what is undeniable is that we are surrounded by often vitriolic headlines for people's failing at something, often after we have put them on a pedestal. This is a reflection of life at large. We are too constrained by fear of failure as a result.

The truth is that failure in a start-up is a wonderful thing. It is a true MBA - one founded on experience rather than text book learning, providing opportunities for dabbling in many things which would not occur in a large company environment. From my time in a start-up I can look on real experience gained in: Product Management, Engineering, Leadership, Marketing, CRM, Customer Care, Recruitment etc etc etc. Where else would you gain such an insight?

I'd do it again - with the right idea. But even then I would be constrained by providing security for the family and a change in work:life balance which means that I like spending time with my family which would be less hours ploughed into an early stage business. In other words, I am too old now. I would be uncompetitive with other start-ups fuelled by young entrepreneurs fresh from college, used to living on a few $ per week.

Not all of the US is different from the UK but Silicon Valley is a place where a CV is not a CV without a failed start-up on it. The value of the experience is understood and counts as a positive rather than a stigma. I remember once having the pleasure of seeing Steve Ballmer speak in a small intimate setting (I recall being taken aback by how different he was from his brash public persona), he spoke eloquently about how he'd love his daughters to play around with technology and try a few different things out. He'd encourage them to fail as a valid part of finding the right path.

In the UK, I think we are too uptight for that and too afraid to fail. (Do you not see this in the England team at the current World Cup?)

Trigger points for this post:

This article with Eric Schmidt saying Europe has to find a way to embrace entrepreneurs; and, this extraordinary letter to employees from the CEO of Woot! It is inconceivable to me that I could find someone in the UK that would write such a letter and even more unbelievable to me that I would say that we need some of this DNA in the UK. But we do.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Kids of Today

I have been to a few conferences in recent years which have included a panel of teenagers sharing their experiences of the web and impression of different brands. I always find these sessions insightful and amusing.

I received this email from a colleague and loved the comment on Twitter in particular.

A VC-buddy of mine went to this event this week in Menlo Park. He was amused by the ever-popular teen-panel, where about 10 kids between 12 and 14 were asked about their consumption of media and use of technoloigy, with the following summary:
  • Two services they could not live without are: GMail and Facebook
  • When asked whether they would continue using their essential services if they had to pay $5 a month, they said no and that they would just switch to free service and friends will follow
  • "Twitter is for Journalists and old people"
  • Linear broadcast TV is not used; several mentioned that TVs have been disconnected in their houses
  • In trade off between watching TV on e.g. a 42" plasma or a low-resolution laptop, the latter wins because of non-linear programme choice and lack of parental supervision
  • Which would you rather have - iPhone or Droid? One third each plus one third don't know what Android is or whichever is cheapest?
  • Might consider paying for music for a band they really like, but unlikely

Friday, 28 August 2009

AdMob: building step by step

I noticed on GigaOm that AdMob announced its purchase of AdWhirl. It is an intelligent move from a growing company from whom we have come to expect little else. AdMob proliferated initially from a low value but hugely scaleable ecosystem which basically created an efficient clearing house for advertisers and publishers eager to explore the mobile space.

In reality these advertisers were those already active in the mobile space, arbitraging buying traffic from AdMob and monetising their inventory through various means including AdMob ads. Several businesses were built in similar vein on the desktop through Google. Quality was not high and eCPMs seldom cleared $1 but the poster children of AdMob's early evolution were social networks like Peperonity who had never seen higher than that anyway.

With the advent of the iPhone, AdMob saw (before anyone else) the opportunity for a new type of mobile ad which most people more commonly know as display - though I do not remember AdMob ever referring to them as such. The problem with display, even on a single platform, is that it is not as scaleable a business. Creative types get in the mix, agencies start to muddy the waters and all of a sudden there is a lot of grit in the wheels. AdMob needed to work a lot harder for its money and, as the market grew and people saw the opportunity, the market also fragments.

Now, AdMob has done three smart things all in one. One, it has bought in a dedicated Ad Aggregator and being 'in' means that there is no bridge between the user and AdMob, it will have the data it needs to target its ads more effectively. Two, it has bought a company specialised in creating an exchange of different ad networks (very similar to Google's model in the desktop space) and now can focus on providing the right kind of targeting information to those networks to maximise benefit for Advertiser and Publisher; it can focus on the day job again of being an efficient clearing house rather than a sales house. Three, by making it open source it is basically saying - he is an efficient ad exchange for mobile - it's free, feel free to use it - the more the merrier.

Each time I think AdMob has run out of steam, it makes another intelligent step and may yet make the mobile space its own.