It's a Read/Write/Execute Web and We Just Live In It

I hesitate to put any kind of definition around the versioning of the web. The fact that the internet world has to quantify the differences between the so-called Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 is silly at best. However, there is no doubt that there is a vast degree of difference between the web that was known in, say, 1999 and the web that we know of in 2009.

Objectively speaking, the first generation of the internet was based around a premise of “Read only”. It, of course, was not termed that, but the technology did not exist to support anything else. People used the internet to read the news, find weather forecasts and catch up on sports scores. Blogs didn’t exist. Facebook and Twitter were but thoughts in their founders minds, and likely thoughts that did not even exist yet. Who knew that a time would come when the most interactive thing on the web would not be shopping and ecommerce?

Somewhere in the middle of this decade, the web took on a more interactive approach. Tim O’Reilly began calling it Web 2.0 to note the clear cut difference between a “read only” web and a “read/write” web. Social networks and blogs gave users of the internet a chance to participate in the creation of it, by generating content. Eventually, content generation transformed from the written word to video, podcasts and microcontent.

On the cusp of a next generation to the web, there is a movement toward meta-data, that is granular information to help discoverability on the web. APIs allow developers to take content from, say, YouTube or Twitter, and repurpose that into something usable in other forms by humans, applications and mobile devices. It is, in essence, a “read/write/execute” version of the web and we are already beginning to see this.

Ari Herzog, a longtime reader of this blog as well as a longtime opponent of mine, wrote a post declaring Europe’s Government 2.0ish aspect of their EU site a win over the United States. See his post for his rationale.

He certainly makes a good point with his premise after the jump:
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Tech Community Worthless to Economic Recovery

One of the most notable things about the dot com bubble burst is that the innovations and technologies established in the late 90s and early 2000s spurned the comeback of the economy and the establishment of a new economy of business and internet value. We called it, for better or for worse, Web 2.0 and it was marked by stark innovations in human interaction driven largely by the glut of bandwidth provided by undersea cables laid in the 90s. The technology that, arguably, caused the downturn that resulted in so many dot-com bombs, became the impetus for a new generation of business and spending.

Unfortunately, this new generation of internet technology, technologists and startups is so far not demonstrating any ability to lay the groundwork for the economic recovery and innovation. Instead, we continue to focus on “teh Twitter”, and marketing gimmicks played out by celebrities like Ashtun Kutcher and Oprah. We talk about the new look and feel of Friendfeed, seen Friendfeed focusing on making what we know better, but ignoring the very impetus for economic recovery proven time again – innovation. Something new. Something radical. Something that challenges the basis of the cultural and societal problems in existence that generate the economic problems affecting everyone, not just a subset of the population existing in a subset of the worlds geography.

In the 1930s, the United States (and by proxy, the world) faced the worst economic crisis in modern history (one could make the argument that the Dark Ages were actually centuries old and worse than anything generated by modern economic recessions). It wasn’t until society was forced to innovate, via programs instituted by President Franklin Roosevelt, that the economy began to recover.

Silicon Valley, as bubble-like as it is, has been the center of innovation in the technology world, for several economic cycles now. In every case in the past 20 years, the impetus for technology growth and recovery, can be categorized by new ideas, new companies doing new things. They don’t rehash the same cycles. They haven’t focused on the same ideas. They start over building from the plateau left from the cycle before – utilizing prior technologies and developing completely new things.

This is innovation and this is not what is happening in this cycle. Instead, the technology world talks about celebrity races to 1 Million Twitter followers. They talk about the mainstream adoption of these technologies. We live in years of yore, still conversing about how Obama won the White House using social media – as if that fact will somehow change our world.

We still talk about advertising on blogs, as if advertising sales are somehow going to spur economic recovery, despite a regression in advertising spending across the board. We still build companies based on an idea that free is a valuable asset.

BREAKING NEWS: The economy spins out of control while people keep spinning stupid ideas worthy of 2001.

It’s time to get smart about business. It’s time to start applying the entrepreneurial spirit that we claim as important to our culture. It’s time for the technology community to actually be important to the economy. It’s time to stop expecting that the President will call upon us as a community of change and innovation, when all we can do is talk about publicity stunts by celebrities.

Grow up, people. Get real about making a difference. Maybe we can actually get this country and this world moving again if we stop being stupid. Maybe. We are not necessarily the chosen ones. That right must be earned.

Crossing Over Technology With Government

In recent months, I’ve made a small fuss over the so called Government 2.0 experts descending on Washington expecting to change the way of life in government. Of course, I’ve been also called out for not providing actual solutions. Probably rightly so, but understand that I don’t work in the government space. I am simply an outside observer who approaches problems with some degree of sobriety and realism.

Today, I figure I’ll offer some ideas that can move the conversation forward in some kind of constructive way. Wired’s Noah Shachtman covered a white paper released from the National Defense University that approaches Government 2.0 from the perspective of information sharing. While that is indeed a portion of the solution to the greater problem, the military in particular, probably needs to look at broader solutions (and more specific, less 50,000 foot view), as a more effective technology complement to their Mission.

For instance, while simple communication across the various branches of the service is useful for any enterprise, it would pay to address the core war-fighting mission of the military. For instance, a less than 50,000 foot view that suggests “information sharing”, might propose use of mobile devices that utilize GPS information for tactical war-theatre decision making.

Real-time use of video and photography immediately makes data available to analysts requiring split second decisions (such as the split second decision making by the Navy Captain responsible for ordering the sniper takedown of the Somali pirates this weekend).

It is not useful to simply put out generic information about “information sharing” and suggest blogs, wikis and the like are the solution to the problem. While I understand whitepapers are intended to provide a skeletal framework for further action, it is condescending to organizations who already value and understand the need for “information sharing”. What they are looking for is the “hows” and “whats” to achieve their mission.

As stated in previous articles, this is where the “experts” should be focusing. Realistically, those activities will be classified and not published for public consumption. That’s probably the way it should be. The real experts are working internally, inside their organizations, with their constituency – not in the public forum where context and value are lost.

Dan Mintz: Government 2.0 is an Experiment

Lately, I’ve focused quite a bit in the government technology space. With the new administration and the apparent focus on open technologies and dialogue with the public, it is clear that government is going to become more transparent and will likely adopt (and maybe re-engineer) some of the technologies that the private sector has taken advantage of over the last five years.

Dan Mintz, formerly the CIO for the Department of Transportation reiterates my assertion, in an interview with ExecutiveBiz, that the Government knows that no one is an expert in this area but is willing to work with competent individuals and companies who are willing to partner in learning the space:

This is still an experiment so therefore “˜how this will play out’ will require people who are comfortable with experiments. The government has a tendency to be risk-averse, which is understandable. It will be very important for the leadership within the departments and agencies to provide support for people who are willing to do the experiments. The second important factor to remember is that it [2.0 activity] will be user driven, not IT driven.

In my earlier article on this matter, I stated:

What [self-described Government 2.0 experts] don’t realize is the government they wish to work with understands that Government 2.0 is new and that very few people are experts. The government, I believe, is looking to partner with people who have the chutzpah to become experts. Who have a firm grounding in communications principles and web savvy. They understand that the next year will make experts if the right candidates, firms and contractors are chosen. They are looking for people who have the savvy needed to guide and advise, with the understanding that it’s a completely new playing field. My instinct says that the government knows that they are getting prepared to experiment and want someone to experiment with.

Sounds like we are saying the same thing. It’s just a shame that Mr. Mintz is the former CIO of the Dept. of Transportation.

DC Needs a Fred. Any Takers?

FredWilson cropped.pngProfiled in Sunday’s New York Times, Union Square Ventures‘ Fred Wilson is a legend of contemporary venture capital — a title previously reserved for West Coast luminaries like Moritz and Doerr, and maybe a couple others. At Web 2.0 Expo in New York last week, Wilson was greeted with cheers usually reserved for celebrities. . . or rock musicians.

We don’t need a celebrity here in DC. But it would be great to have a venture capitalist with a fraction of Wilson’s passion, commitment, and drive. It’s not so much that he’s an investing legend. . . what’s amazing is his sheer devotion to his companies, his followers, and everything Web 2.0.

By his own admission, Wilson’s had his share of bad calls. But most of that goes back to The Bubble, when he was at Flatiron Partners. I was at a startup (liveprint.com) pitching Flatiron in 1998. I met Wilson briefly back then, as well as the firm’s the most vocal partner, Jerry Colonna; the partner who ended up leading our investment was Bob Greene.

Flatiron’s highest-profile investment was probably deliver-to-your-door service Kozmo.com. I remember getting a Kozmo.com hat. Kozmo raised $100M, before its legendary implosion. I left liveprint.com after the first Flatiron (~$3M) round, before an additional ~$40M bought all those Aeron chairs, and the chairs were acquired (along with the rest of the company) by Kinko’s in a transaction so complicated that no one knew what they had until a check arrived in the mail.

According the NYT profile, Flatiron wrote off a third of its investments.

But Wilson returned, humbler and smarter. To me, he’s the quintessential early-stage VC. Why? Because he’s so focused on his space, and passionate about his companies. True, he’s been accused of shilling for them . . . but from an entrepreneur’s standpoint, the benefits of having such a high-leverage, high-profile investor on your team is literally worth millions (not to mention what you’ll save on not needing a PR firm.)

Just watch Wilson work. He uses nearly every one of his portfolio company’s products — twitter (6,571 follow him @fredwilson), disqus, tumblr. Add these to his blog (A VC), and he’s one of the most prolific posters on the planet.

DC needs a Fred.

Or maybe a Josh. Josh Kopelman, though less vocal than Wilson, has put his money where his mouth is, on behalf of the venture fund he founded just outside Philadelphia, First Round Capital. In fact, First Round has made no fewer than 57 early-stage investments, nearly triple USV’s portfolio.

Or maybe a Bijan. Or a Brad.

And this isn’t just about attitude. There are clear metrics here. Several mid-Atlantic firms talk about their ‘seed’ programs. But the litmus test is: name the ones routinely doing investments in the $250k – $1M range. For most firms, the funds are just too large for the math to work — invest a $250M fund $500k at a time, and you end up with 500 startups in your portfolio. That’s a helluva lot of board meetings.

Which is why First Round usually doesn’t take a board seat. (Most VC firms have a six-seats-per partner limit.) This is about volume (or more accurately, statistics). Quicken the cycle of investment, trim the due diligence, invest more with the gut . . . and let the odds work in your favor over a larger statistical sample. Though time will tell, based on initial exits, it seems these guys are doing pretty well.

So while it’s good to see them on the East Coast (Silicon Valley has sufficient players that none is noteworthy) — and Baltimore, DC, and Northern Virginia are certainly within their flying radius — it’s just not the same as having our own local VC hero. I mean, how sad is it that a local meetup was organized for DC Fans of Fred? (Full disclosure: I was there, and met some great, like-minded entrepreneurs.)

And perhaps more than anything else, these guys get Web 2.0. Unlike most VC firms, USV is not only not afraid to invest in pre-revenue companies, they will invest before a revenue model is even figured out (twitter, tumblr, disqus). So who out there will claim this mantle? Anyone? Anyone?

Lessons Learned — Scaling Social Systems

My charter with Venture Files is to contribute to and promote entrepreneurship and the startup scene around DC in general. Now, as I’ve warned, my posts may reveal my bias towards the Web 2.0 world. (It’s what my startup is about.) But heck — I’m at the Web 2.0 Expo in NYC, so . . .

A session today of great interest was Joshua Schachter’s ‘Lessons Learned in Scaing and Building Social Systems.’ For many of us, Schachter lived the great American Web 2.0 dream:

Step 1. Build an app (del.icio.us) in your spare time, and operate it from your apartment (server ‘farm’ below);

Step 2. Sell it to Yahoo! (rumored to be in the neighborhood of $20M . . . nice neighborhood);

Step 3. Retire (he now devotes his time to playing XBox).

Delicious server.png

I can certainly relate to that!

Schachter’s talk on scaling wasn’t technical — he was referring to scaling the features, the very functionality of his social bookmarking site del.icio.us (now delicious.com).

Interestingly, Schachter built the application to solve a problem he had — he had a Word file with thousands of lines of links for all the web pages he bookmarked. Thus, the application’s initial value was utility. And that’s what Schachter would provide the world — a useful site for keeping track of favorite sites . . . and making your friends aware of them.

And for a couple of years, that’s what it did. But when the number of users got substantial, features surrounding the network effect eclipsed the site’s original value. Achieving a critical mass of users (file this under ‘high-class problem’) suddenly transformed the site’s functionality from a utility to a social application, giving Schachter a whole new set of issues to deal with — customer service, spam, kiddie porn. (“You see it all, when you get to scale.”)

Ultimately (for all of us), the focus of scaling shifts to revenue. Being ad-driven, for del.icio.us, that meant getting to more and more users and pageviews. Subtleties start to really matter, such as encouraging sharing among del.icio.us users (he saw, for example, that a disproportionate number were checking the ‘keep private’ box; it dropped dramatically when the label was changed to ‘do not share’ — as in, ‘what, you don’t want to share your toys, Johnny?’). Bingo.

“The problem, however, is that these features impact one another. Optimizing revenue often comes at the expense of user satisfaction — think of ad-splattered sites, or Evites that force you to visit the site, rather than providing details of the invitation in the email.”

Here are a few other nuggets:

Make your product self-marketing Provide as much functionality as you possibly can before asking people to register.

Want harmony on your site? Avoid conversations Schachter really disliked the flame wars that comments generate, so unlike digg, delicious.com to this day has none.

Listen to your users We’ve heard it a hundred times, but the best founders (Flickr, 37 Signals, WineLibraryTV) all really do it — Schachter read and answered every customer email up until a year ago, when the volume got so great, five people at a Yahoo! customer-support center had to be dedicated to it.

Learn your ‘drivers of infection’ The two most dramatic traffic-builders for del.icio.us were the Firefox plug-in and the RSS feed.

Great lessons for all of us.

Beg, Borrow, or Steal (Okay, Maybe not) Your Way into O'Reilly (Pt. 2)

The SF O’Reilly Web 2.0 Expo was a defining moment for me, and for my startup. True, I was just a noob there. I thought I knew what I was doing with my social networking app.

But from the workshop sessions on the first day — the serious, four-hour kind (I chose ‘Strategies for Financing,’ which included startup CEOs telling their war stories) — to the evening ‘Launchpad’ startup pitch competitions, to the interviews with the likes of Max Levchin (ex PayPal, now Slide) and Marc Andreessen (him you should know) — to the Booth Crawl (a sort of ‘Weed & Feed’ where you walk around the exhibit floor sipping beers and margaritas) — it was positively giddy.

Now just so I don’t sound too much like a starry-eyed fanboy, the real stuff of O’Reilly is in the main sessions.

Pay attention. You will learn about viral acquisition (it’s about nuance, and testing — did you know that RockYou! (creators of Facebook’s SuperWall), with 100M monthly uniques across all its apps, sometimes does as many as 30 releases a day? That they A/B test samples for as few as five minutes? (Guess that makes sense, when you have 100M users.)

And you’ll learn about retention, cohort analysis, monetization. Those were just a few factoids, from a couple of sessions. Multiply that by four days, five sessions a day, and nine parallel tracks! (The worst part of it all: your inability to be in multiple places at once.) Sure, you can get the Cliff notes — a lot of the presentations are available — but seeing it, tasting it, discussing it at the parties (oh, yeah) . . . is indispensible.

There was much more than I can go into here. All I can say is, figure out which one makes the most sense, and find a way to get there.

And if you still can’t seem to justify it, maybe this will convince you . . .

End of the Booth Crawl, my last day at the conference, getting ready to board BART for the red-eye. Beers and blenders at every booth . . . but no one seemed to have any food. Until a nice young lady offered me an extra sandwich she had (I promise never again to refer to them as Booth Bunnies!). I sit down to eat it, and there’s all this commotion around a booth. Turns out, the Make people were doing free laser-etching of phones and laptops. (I’ve seen places charge upwards of $100 for it.) Two minutes before the show closed, thanks to a nice gentleman who offered me his place in line, I had annotated a little piece of history.

MacTat.jpg</

On BART, I drunk-twittered the world that I had marked my virgin O’Reilly experience with a ‘tattoo.’ And it’s just as permanent — which means, for my startup, failure is not an option. I’m reminded of that every time I take out my MacBook Pro.

The Art of the Mashup

The other day, I was talking to the CTO of a company that is working to build a web technology solution for a problem that exists due to the arcane infrastructure and systems already in place in the niche target industry. He was mourning the fact that, after spending gobs of time wireframing and re-wireframing a solution, the parties who initially expressed interest in licensing the technology, had decided to walk away from the table for a variety of reasons.

The big conglomerate that had decided to walk had expressed concern over the fact that they already had systems for billing and other management aspects of their company and didn’t want to invest in something unknown and untried over their long-standing, yet antiquated, solution.

Over the course of an hour or so, and even since then, we looked over his wireframes determining what the company should look like in order to make some sales, if not all the sales he wanted. I realized that his product was designed in such a way that dependencies were created everywhere. If a customer wanted just this one portion that does employee management but not the other part that does billing, there was no productive way to do this so he could make a sale without making the big sale.

In the web world, we talk about mashups. Take a google map and mash it up with Twitter and you have Twittervision. Mashup Basecamp with FreshBooks and tie in Salesforce and you’ve got a complete back-office CRM-Billing system to build your company on top of.

The strength of mashups is the distributed nature of the work. I no longer have to store my own video files because YouTube will do it for me and give me a means to access it, thus eliminating the overhead and cost of doing business associated with that video. I no longer have to worry about the development time and money needed to distribute a widget containing my content to other websites because Clearspring does that work for me. The trick is in APIs which allow others to innovate on top of the technologies created by others.

My advice to this entrepreneur was to create APIs between his various modules and build out-of-the-box products that he could sell that utilize those APIs. In fact the APIs can be open and still be paid access, which provides another stream of revenue – especially when his clients have the money to pay top dollar for those APIs if they consider the alternative cost of throwing out entire chunks of their existing infrastructure and using an out of the box solution that may not meet their unique needs.

Age of Exploration 500 Years Later

In 1519, an explorer by the name of Ferdinand Magellan began a journey that would be the first of it’s kind. He would lead an expedition that would circle the globe for the first time. It would cost him his Portuguese citizenship, 219 crew members, 4 ships and even his own life. In the process, his expedition would sail through the southern tip of South America, Guam, the Philippines and throughout the Far East. It would be the first trip of its kind.

In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on horseback from the small port town of St. Louis and headed west to explore the great unknown chunk of land gained from Napoleonic France in the controversial “Louisiana Purchase”. The Louisiana Purchase forgave millions of dollars in French debt as well as provided the critical port city of New Orleans to the United States. However, the territory came with millions of acres of unexplored land.

Notably, after two years of exploration along the Missouri River basin and eventually finding the Pacific Ocean, they returned bringing information and intelligence about the Natives they met and territory they explored. Further exploration would happen in subsequent years cementing the western territories as part of U.S. culture and history.

One hundred-fifty years later, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced to Congress that he wanted the U.S. to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, an ambitious goal that was itself controversial. As history tells us, Neil Armstrong became the first man to lay foot on the moon on July 16, 1969 stating that, “This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.

Amazingly, we continue to explore in our innovation. Obviously, I’m one of these geeks that gets into all the new tools and gadgets that some new entrepreneur comes up with but not everybody is. The other night, I spoke at Social Media Club DC and I compared today’s internet with the internet of 10 years ago. Ten years ago, realtime online communication carried a connotation of creepy stalker-like chats on AOL. Today, we have real time communication instantly in so many forms and on so many platforms that the lines blur.

And we don’t really think twice about it.

When I think about the explorers who have gone before us, I see that they explored and discovered and brought something back for the rest of us. Magellan told us about peoples and nations and geography that we did not know existed before. Lewis & Clark showed us just how big the United States really is. Armstrong brought space, the final frontier, to us. Everyone of these explorers added something back to society through their discoveries.

Then they all came back (Well, except Magellan who died en route to coming back). Consolidation took place.

Today we are in another innovative age. I’m proud of my friend (disclaimer: he’s also done contract work for b5media) Keith Casey. When I met him several years ago, he was a die hard developer. He mocked me for using Twitter and now uses it religiously. Today, he is the CTO for WhyGoSolo an upstart company that suddenly has the eyes of the world on them. I feel like I watched somebody grow up in front of me (Keith, no offense, man. You were grown up already)

At this point, I’m thinking some consolidation takes place. Sure there’s the economic consolidation (recession) that people like to talk to. But I think I see consolidation being more of a maturation of what we have. “Now the Moon has been walked on, let’s build a Shuttle and put satellites up there.”

At least that’s me.

An Open Letter to BlogTalkRadio

Hey BlogTalkRadio

Thank you for your time in stopping by. I know you guys are going through some changes, and that mostly they are good changes. I want to thank you for hiring Kris Smith. He will be a great addition to your team. I know Kris very well. He sorta likes to name drop me. We’ve done a few podcasts together as well. Great guy.

But, BlogTalkRadio, you’ve got your problems. I’m sure you know this, but in case you didn’t, let me break them down.

Multiple Hosts

As you know, because you want to feature our show on the network, we use your service. When I say “we”, I mean “I” because your system only allows for one host. Geoff Livingston is also a host, but you don’t recognize him as a host so he has to call in on a caller line and use up our precious open phone banks. Why, BlogTalkRadio, do you not have the basic concept of multiple hosts built in? I mean, we’re not all in the same room. It’s the internetz.

Your User Interface is teh suck

When I say teh suck, I really do mean it. We’ve done six shows now and I can never find my way around. It’s particularly aggravating to try to download the MP3 so we can have our own professional look for the show on our own professional looking website. This is a core requirement of marketing. I wouldn’t dare send archive listeners to our show page at BTR because, well, because it’s teh suck.

Call Management

Why, for the love of all that is good and pure in this world, do you not provide a host a way to perform basic show management functions from a regular phone? Take for instance this past week when my internet connection dropped due to ice, 3 minutes before the show went live. With my cohost in Barcelona and unable to get a reliable internet connection himself, it caused a loss of listeners, a loss of motivation and a loss of our standard 4pm time slot (we had to reschedule for 4:30 so I could drive to a Panera Bread and do the show while everyone looked oddly at me). I found out after the fact that Geoff had dialed in and could hear me cursing in the background, but I had no way of knowing he was on the line (again he was a caller, not a host) nor anyway to unmute his line if I had known he was there.

Call Screening

Although we are geared toward a DC-metro audience, it is not unusual to have callers from around the country and around the world. It’s the tubez. People have Skype and what not. I have a real problem using your switchboard and knowing who is on the line. I know that technically, it would be a challenge, but “real” radio has a way of doing “real” call screening so we know who is on the line and what the heck they want to comment on. Imagine this, a scenario from a few weeks ago: We talk politics for 10 minutes then jump into a different topic – maybe the Yahoo-Microsoft (non) merger. A caller calls in wanting to comment on politics but by this time, we have moved on from the topic. We can take the call and adjust back, possibly interrupting a flow, or ignore the caller and run the risk of pissing them off. You gotta give me a way to handle this more effectively.

Finally, BlogTalkRadio, while I appreciate your efforts, we need real tools. Seriously, it’s only a matter of time before an upstart competitor with more vision, more ability and more marketing prowess comes along and does what you are doing only better. Right now, you have no real competition in this space and so you have the luxury of dicking around doing whatever you do. But when another competitor comes along and gives you a run for your money, they are going to treat hosts as professional radio hosts (yeah, I know we aren’t but we like to pretend). The more professional tools you can give us, the more you ensure that the DoC show won’t jump over to the other guy. I’d like optional video streaming to conjunct with audio streaming. I’d like an improved switchboard with real call screening. I’d like a possible dual channel audio mixer with the possibility of multiple hosts, so maybe one host can do the production for us. Personally, I don’t want to mess with that stuff. I’m competent but I have a show to host.

Please, throw me a bone.

Love always,
Aaron