Sunday, July 23, 2017

Nothing beats a platform monopoly

Since the birth of broadband, net neutrality’s cheerleaders have feared that service providers might begin to act as the internet’s “gatekeepers,” …The real distortions come from massive “platform monopolies” like Google, Facebook and Amazon, whose proprietary algorithms decide what users see online.

The supposed purpose of “net neutrality” is to stop any internet company from getting a leg up over others. But that’s exactly what happens when Google’s search results prioritize its own services—and profits—over competitors’. …If Google’s favoring its own products while pushing potential competitors down its rankings doesn’t create “fast” and “slow” lanes, what on earth does?

Similarly, avowed net-neutrality supporter Amazon was granted a patent in May for “Physical Store Online Shopping Control,” a system to block shoppers in brick-and-mortar stores from using Wi-Fi to view competitors’ prices. Isn’t “no blocking” the heart of net neutrality? Facebook, meanwhile, has virtually abandoned chronology in its News Feed in favor of picking and choosing what users see—and what they don’t—based on what the company has learned about them.

The costs of such abuses from the platform monopolies are obvious and many. Newspapers have nearly been “prioritized” out of existence by Google’s shameless appropriation of their work: Why click through and read a whole article when Google News will pluck out the most important bits and show them to you free—alongside its own ads, of course. … Last year, the FCC chairman tried and failed to force TV companies to make their feeds available on set-top devices made by—wait for it—Google, Apple and Amazon.

The internet giants behind the Day of Action can now track users’ physical location 24 hours a day, learning where they live and work, by logging where their phones are at different times of day or the Wi-Fi networks they pass. If two phones sit side by side overnight, advertisers knows what that means—and appropriately “targeted” pitches are sure to follow.
From Ev Ehrlich, “‘Neutrality’ for Thee, but Not for Google, Facebook and Amazon,” Wall Street Journal, July 21, 2017.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The meaning of Memorial Day

The story of Lt. James Cathey, U.S.M.C. (1980-2005) is told in a photo essay that has been circulating today on Twitter in honor of Memorial Day. Attached to the 2nd Marine Division, he died on August 21, 2005 as the result of an IED explosion in Iraq. The photo essay is part of one that won a Pulitzer Prize for Todd Heisler, then at the Rocky Mountain News and now at the New York Times. 

A haunting image is that of Lt. Cathey’s pregnant widow Katherine, sleeping on an improvised bed next to his casket upon its return to the U.S.. The photo includes one of the local Marines standing vigil, as part of three day guard mounted in honor of their fallen colleague.

Memorial Day was created to honor the war dead of the Civil War. Seeing this photo reminded my of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (as read by Henry Fonda in a recording Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait”):
That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

We need more great founders

Cross posted from the Engineering Entrepreneurship blog.

Successors to successful founders rarely do as well, according to two Bain consultants who’ve studied the topic.

The headline in Monday’s WSJ made it clear:

The Company Founder’s Special Sauce
No one leads a firm as effectively as the person who started it.
Dec. 18, 2016 5:03 p.m. ET

‘The Founder,” a new film starring Michael Keaton, tells the story of McDonald’s Corporation founder Ray Kroc as he turns a few small restaurants into a ubiquitous international chain. It’s a tale of founder-driven corporate growth—something that has become too rare today. This breed of entrepreneurial spirit makes for a good story, but it’s also crucial for the economy.

Research we published in July finds that of all newly registered businesses in the U.S., only about one in 500 will reach a size of at least $100 million in revenue. A mere one in 17,000 will attain $500 million in revenue and sustain a decade of profitable growth. Despite their rarity, these successful firms are a bedrock of the U.S. economy.

A study out earlier this year from Bain & Company, where we work, shows that over the past 15 years founder-led companies delivered shareholder returns that are three times higher than those of other S&P 500 companies.

Such performance can sometimes continue long after a founder leaves. We analyzed examples of sustained success at 7,500 companies in 43 countries, visiting many in person, to determine what made them stand out. Great founders imbue their companies with three measurable traits that make up what we dubbed “the founder’s mentality.”
Those three traits: insurgency (i.e. disruptive innovation), obsessive focus on customers, and permeating the vision of the founder throughout the entire organization.

I have not had a chance to read their research, but it rings true. I did my dissertation on Apple, once led by Steve Jobs — perhaps the most unique founder of the 20th century; in America, only Henry Ford, Tom Watson Sr., Hewlett & Packard and maybe Howard Hughes come close.

Jobs was driven to make “insanely great” products, to the point of being a tyrant (slightly more human after he had kids). Since his death five years ago, they’ve had mediocre leadership and nothing they have done has come close (something us shareholders must lament).

One caveat: while I lionize great founders — and aspire to be a good founder once again — there is an important confound. Firms have their best people, best ideas, greatest disruption and greatest impact during their initial growth phases; a second round of growth and disruption (as in the Jobs II era, 1997-2011) is virtually unheard of. Big companies don’t grow as much as small ones, nor is the CEO (of any stripe) able to have the same impact. (And unlike Jobs, most tech founders have their greatest impact in this initial period, not running the stable successful mature company).

Still, nothing I’ve seen this year does as good a job summarizing the great debt society owes to those who roll the dice, take great chances and endure years of high-stress intensity to create a new company. The decline in US startups is troubling not only for economic growth, but for the lost opportunities for employees, customers and complementors as well.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Hire great workers, even if you can't keep them

Silicon Valley — like the Big Four accounting firms and big law firms — has a well-deserved reputation for hiring bright young people and working them hard until they move on. While the impermanence of SV employment (6-12 months is not uncommon) may be unique, the idea of hiring good people is not.

In his new book Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent, Dartmouth leadership professor Sydney Finkelstein argues that a key trait of the best bosses is that “you’re better off having the best people for a short time than average people forever.”

That philosophy fits well with my own experience as a manager during my 15 years as an “executive” (of 5-15 employees) at my startup company. At my entrepreneurship blog, I summarize the comparison of his comments (from his recent WSJ article) with my own experience.

I have great respect for Finkelstein. In an earlier book, he provided the clearest explanation of why once-great Motorola destroyed itself because (as I saw in my cell phone research) of its inability to come to grips with the disruptive shift from analog to digital mobile phones and base stations.

However, there is one line in the article that would give a chuckle to any veteran Silicon Valley watcher — where he lists Larry Ellison as one of “the world’s greatest bosses”). Yes Ellison is a self-made billionaire worth $40+ billion and one of the world’s 10 richest people. And surprisingly, Oracle has had a great run of growth for the last decade, even if the stock price is below where it was in the summer of 2000.

This is the same Ellison whose ego is (or was) so large that his biographer titled the book The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison: God Doesn’t Think He's Larry Ellison. So while Ellison was successful and had some smart people working for him, I don’t know that I would hold him up as a role model (even in Silicon Valley) of how to best lead people.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Silicon Valley's ambivalence towards growth

Last month, the latest mayor of Palo Alto explained his slow growth philosophy against both economic and housing growth. An interview with Curbed San Francisco began

Curbed SF: Everybody agrees that too many people can’t afford Palo Alto. So why is it like this?

Mayor Patrick Burt: There are a number of factors. First, we’re in a region that’s had extremely high job growth at a rate that is just not sustainable if we’re going to keep [Palo Alto] similar to what it’s been historically. Of course we know that the community is going to evolve. But we don’t want it to be a radical departure. We don’t want to turn into Manhattan.

Curbed: But there’s a pretty big margin between Palo Alto and Manhattan. What are you comfortable changing?

Burt: We're looking to increase the rate of housing growth, but decrease the rate of job growth.

Curbed: You want fewer jobs?

Burt: I know, it’s a strange idea to contend with. But this doesn’t mean we want no job growth. And it doesn’t mean we want reckless job growth. We want metered job growth and metered housing growth, in places where it will have the least impact on things like our transit infrastructure. …
The interview seemed in response to the resignation of a city planning commissioner who resigned two weeks earlier because her family could no longer afford to live in Palo Alto. It’s hard to disagree with part of Park’s argument that economic growth requires housing growth — but Burt (a medical device CEO) seems ambivalent about the latter as well.

In today's Wall Street Journal, former hedge fund manager Andy Kessler notes that the cheapest house in Palo Alto has 959 square feet, backs to the train tracks, and costs $1.35 million. (That's roughly double what a comparable house cost when we looked at moving to Palo Alto in 2002).

Kessler continued:
I wanted to ask Mayor Burt: Is stifling job creation really going to help? Or would that only boost surrounding towns? Palo Alto has already capped the annual growth of office space. It took years to approve a new $5 billion Stanford Hospital extension, which the area desperately needed. Even worse, there is a funny quirk in the zoning laws that limits what’s allowed in so-called Pedestrian and Transit Oriented Development areas (downtown). This includes restrictions on research and development, a catchall for limited manufacturing, “storage or use of hazardous materials,” and “computer software and hardware firms.”

I can tell you outright that the only hazardous materials in an office of software coders are their high-test caffeine concoctions. But the software firms are many. Amazon has its search team in Palo Alto. The big-data firm Palantir has been gobbling up buildings for its engineers. Facebook had several before moving to neighboring Menlo Park. SurveyMonkey has a huge site near the train station.

Even Palo Alto’s residential areas are filled with startups, real-life versions of Erlich Bachman’s house from HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” They’re easy to spot, having more cars parked during the day than at night. These companies offer high-paying and productive jobs that are great for society.
In the 1970s and 1980s, San Francisco was decrying “Manhattanization” but today that is a fait accompli. Meanwhile, most of the Bay Area (particularly the City and the Peninsula) is emulating the trends of excessive living costs that drove large companies and jobs out of New York City during that same period.

The explosion of housing prices in the Bay Area over the past five years is pricing ordinary workers out of the market. Yes, it is possible to commute from New Jersey (which here is called "Contra Costa County"), but such commutes strain highway and mass transit infrastructure (and push suburban and exurban housing prices up too).

Kessler notes that the solution to high housing costs is (surprise!) building more housing. I understand the importance of making available single family homes, and I think it is a strength of both California and the U.S. more broadly. Still, anyone driving along I-280 knows there are large swaths of undeveloped land in the Bay Area — that in LA would be houses but in the Bay Area are called “open space.” According to Wikipedia, the housing density of Palo Alto (2,500 residents/acre) is half that of nearby Cupertino, and less than one-fourth that of Santa Monica — another upscale, highly desirable community. (Burt’s hyperbole is demonstrated by noting that the actual housing density of Manhattan is nearly 30 times that of Palo Alto).

So will Silicon Valley voters (let alone politicians) embrace the full implications of economic growth by developing undeveloped land or increasing housing density? Or will it continue down this path of being available to well-paid tech elites, while ordinary (non VC-funded) entrepreneurs and businesses have to move elsewhere?