One day, at a time

Ciara Judge - big screen at Dots

Yesterday was the Dots conference, part of the Brighton Digital Festival. I was there to do a little bit on Unthinkable but mostly just to sit and enjoy the conferences with the 200 or so other attendees.

In terms of content, this was the conference’s difficult second album, after a blinding debut last year including Russell Davies, Mark Earls, John Wilshire and many others.

Antony and the team at Brilliant Noise ensured a low-pomposity affair at the Duke’s cinema. Light-hearted but packed full of short, impactful presentations (oh, and very nice food).

My key take-aways:

Adam Morgan, inventor of the phrase ‘challenger brands’ opened (obvious headliner!) with an interesting piece on how constraints drive creativity. Some of the examples may suffer a little bit from the ‘selection bias’ of picking winners out of history that fit a particular thesis. However, the concept that an entrepreneur is someone who doesn’t assume that the available resources are only those which are under their direct control would prove to be a theme that ran throughout the rest of the day, and forces us to look quite differently at many of the challenges we face.

Continuing his naming flair, Morgan came up with the “Uber Generation” to describe our currently emerging ‘unreasonable’ consumer who expects more for less and presented in a prettier box. Whether we like generation Uber or not is left to the reader. However, they are presented as the target market for the Next Big Thing.

Next up was Tess MacLeod Smith from Net a Porter. She’s behind the brand’s Porter magazine (a bi-monthly global fashion magazine to rival vogue but with built-in shopping off the page) and various other apps and social media components.

For me, the most interesting thing was to see the huge change that an ostensibly traditional media person (MacLeod Smith) had experienced in leaving Hearst and Harper’s Bazaar to go to a tech startup which was basically doing the same thing. Perhaps it’s equally interesting that once she had learned the new ways (agile and all that), that she had little intention of going back.

The idea of starting a magazine today is also so counter to traditional wisdom that is causes us to look once again at all of those “x is dead” statements.

Last before the break was a wonderfully irreverent insider look at the transformation of FT.com from its CIO Christina Scott. Unlike the standard case study (and it should be said, Net a Porter), Christina offered a peak at the real challenges faced when trying to get innovation and transformation away inside a big firm. If I had to pick one thing, it would undoubtedly be the rule that execs at FT (including Scott herself) are no longer allowed to attend governance meetings because of the impact they have on projects. Sound familiar?

I remain convinced that real life stories such as Scott’s are the most valuable inspirations for all of us trying to affect some kind of change (which is probably most of us), even if they are not shiny, simplistic or have the best outcomes.

Next up was Antony himself with a great talk about organisations, leadership, transformation and possible futures, a topic he had unapologetically half-inched from Nick Price, a late addition to the afternoon line up.

Again a theme which would be echoed several times over the day, Antony talked about businesses as organisms not mechanisms. Good line. And about the concepts of ‘possible futures’. For example, will we end up with centralised or ‘stacked’ web that Facebook, Google, Amazon and others are pushing us towards, or the radical decentralisation which blockchain promises and has historically been the hallmark of the web?

Either way, we should think of the future not as a 10-tonne truck which is hurtling towards us, but a range of possible outcomes over which we have influence and where there is tremendous opportunity.

Contrary to earlier promises, however, Antony did hold a metaphorical large melon (in the style of TED):

Antony-Mayfield

Before lunch we had the treat of Steve Chapman. Steve made a compelling case that we spend most of our lives deliberately avoiding the creative zone and presenting lots of ideas for getting out of our comfort zones, including some toe-curling conference experiments. Plus great, hand-drawn, pseudo science charts making good points:

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 08.46.45

A panel discussion after lunch covered how companies are working with start-ups. Although it quickly became obvious that the answer lies somewhere between ‘they aren’t’ and ‘unsuccessfully’, although we hope in the future things might improve.

Nick Price followed, standing in for Eva Applebaum, and talking about future thinking. I’ve personally never come across this before, beyond the somewhat pointless ‘futureology’ of generic trends forecasting. It was a great introduction to the art form, and reassuring to hear that Neal Stephenson (who has incredible form in predicting the future) is part of the US chapter of the several organisations trying to turn future thinking into a discipline. Simplistic take. Don’t start with the end in mind. Start with the possible ends in mind.

After that it was me. Slightly too sardonic as usual and I think the only person to actually be profane but people were very nice about it and luckily only one person knew who Steve Sasson was.

I’m very glad the lady following me wasn’t on before instead as I think she probably captured the conference’s imagination most. Ciara Judge (pic at top) is the winner of the Google Science Fair, an entrepreneur, and a very compelling speaker. She talked about the fact that people chose to focus instead on the fact that she is 17 and a girl. She made the case that social constraints and expectations are largely imagined restrictions, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing her on a TED stage very soon. Whether she’s young or not, I think a lot of us were humbled that she’s done more in 17 years than we have done in twice as many.

She didn’t mention One Direction. Not even once.

Actually, however, I think Ciara was upstaged. The next presenter was Stuart Turner. Stuart joined by Skype, not least because he is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. He told an extremely inspirational story of more or less dragging himself out of his ‘prison’ of disability using modern technology: first wheelchairs and assistive devices, and then robots and drones which allow him to travel, run and experience more of the world once again. Even doing the presentation was clearly highly tiring for him, again humbling us with the ‘constraints’ we feel in our lives.

Steven Ramage introduced What three words – a new approach to mapping based on the idea that combinations of three words (out of the 40,000 available), creates enough variants to uniquely identify any 3x3m square on earth. It’s a tantalising promise of creating addresses for millions worldwide who do not currently have them.

Wrapping up the day was Sam Conniff, Co-founder of Livity, a fascinating social enterprise. Facing statistical obsolesce as Livity approaches its 15th birthday, Conniff took a philosophical and wide-ranging look at characteristics of businesses which last 100s, not 10s of years, concluding that we need to replace today’s profit-focussed and self-centred business leaders (under which he invoked Kim Kardashian and – phrase of the day – ‘Jack Welsh’s disgraceful face’ ) with leaders who care about society and sustainability – modelled on the Rowntrees and Rockerfellers  of the past.

To do this Conniff has appointed himself the world’s first Chief Purpose Officer.

In a twenty-minute presentation that covered about 40 topics, Conniff was an energising end to a brilliant conference.

For those of us exhausted with traditional conference formats, speakers and, frankly, pricing, Dots has now twice proven to be the perfect pick-me-up.

Joining the dots

 
Did I mention I was speaking at Dots in Brighton? Neil (who is curating) has a look at the whole line up here. Even better, I can offer a few time-limited reduced price tickets if you are one of the first five to use the discount code ‘Tom’ when booking online. See you you there for a lovely, lively and interesting day by the sea.

Linkened In

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We constantly hear about how innovative musicians have become. The labels are wankers, dinosaurs, out of touch, unable to adapt their business model: their days are numbered.

Well now it seems that the artists are wankers too. In this article from HBR, we find that the very darlings of the MySpace revolution, Linkin Park – a band which launched its own innovation business in 1999 and managed to build direct relationships with millions of fans etc etc – are once again turning the innovation knob (up to 11).

But this time it’s all in management doublespeak. in 2014, we learn, the band decided they needed a ‘paradigm shift’. Its executive vice president decided that there was plenty of “blue ocean” for them to explore.

Let’s hear from the band themselves:

As co-lead vocalist and founder Mike Shinoda puts it, “Our goal was to build an internal team of diverse talent to support the non-traditional endeavors the band plans to pursue in the coming years.” The move allowed us to venture freely into diversified revenue models to complement our music sales. Our business now operates like a tech startup, with less hierarchy and far more agility.

I don’t know about you but when I was a kid I really wanted to be in a rock group… With a diversified revenue model – so cool!

As the article goes on, I personally had to cough back a little vomit as I found out about the need to build a ‘differentiated brand ecosystem’ and, even better, to ‘dissected the Linkin Park ecosystem and architecte a framework to execute our new long-term vision’.

Possibly the best bit of innovation non-sense is when it is decided that the band should use ‘creative content to communicate our brand’s point-of-view.’ Perhaps they could play some songs and dance?

As you read on, you occasionally check to see that the URL hasn’t switched to The Onion. Rock musicians talking like management consultants is not on the list of things that makes the world a better place. But don’t worry,

To be clear, we are still in the music business, but creating and selling music now plays more of a supporting role in our overall business mix.

The physics of failure

Tim Cook and the Apple Watch

Reading Amanda’s Dear John letter to Apple, expressing her disappointment over the Apple Watch, reminds me of an interesting dynamic of product launches. Not much more complex than the proverb ‘success has many fathers, failure is an orphan’, we know that the sound of a winning product is a constant stream of jubilant announcements and endorsements. The sound of failure is a deafening silence.

This is hardly the first time we’ve (not) heard it. Blackberry had a particularly extended quiet time. Windows 8 was eerily silent.

But for Apple, its new territory, at least when they look back on their history over the past 5-10 years.

Now of course, I could easily be wrong about the Apple Watch. I’ve been wrong in the past at least as often as I’ve been right about these things. I still haven’t lived down the assertion that the iPad wouldn’t take off. Perhaps generations 2 and 3 will resolve some of the issues of the first watches. They may even solve the “purpose” question. I hope so. There’s something reassuring about a world where you can rely on Apple to always get it right.

For the rest of us, failure or rather failed products is likely to be a much more consistent theme. Even with the best thinking, insight and experimentation, you can expect to get it wrong at least as often as you get it right. Do you plan for that? Do you think through how you will know when to stop and move on.

It will be fascinating to watch (sorry) over the next year how Apple deals with it’s first orphan. And conversely how the market (and arch-copycats Samsung in particular) responds in turn.

MVP and the microsite

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When the whole web industry started out, it most closely resembled the wild west. Companies would end up with fifty different websites, as people throughout the organisation were all commissioning away.

That didn’t last for long. Eventually companies realised they were wasting money on a confusing mess. They decided they’d have one website, with everything in it. Cheaper, better for customers, and a nice new way to invent some corporate governance. Some new rules to follow. Everyone is happy.

Everyone, that is, except the agencies. All of a sudden they couldn’t just sell websites to everyone they met. “We’ve got a team that does that,” they would hear, and they would be handed over to the technology team. But seeing as agencies don’t (didn’t?) speak technology, this rarely went well.

And then one day, desperate to sell a website (rather than to solve a problem), an agency johnny came up with a great rouse. The microsite. Wasn’t that like the old days? The out of control days? The wild west. Well no, the argument went, these things were temporary, or only for very specific audiences, so they didn’t belong on the “main site”. Sometimes, they would even look like the main site, a kind of weird one-way tributary for any poor confused users who happened – against the odds – to find them.

Agencies: 1, Common Sense: 0.

Alongside the thousands of wasted projects and millions of wasted pounds spent this way, perhaps a few of these things made sense. But not many. The self-serving argument of the agency (and client) –  that full integration was “too hard” or “too expensive” – doing little to disguise the real reasons for these white elephants.

And now, in the world of product development, and perhaps with slightly better intentions, the son of the microsite is born.

This time it’s called the ‘MVP’. Oh, of course, we’d make a full product properly. But this isn’t a full product, it’s an MVP. In that case: carry on without any thought. The label of course – made popular through The Lean Startup – is now almost completely devoid of meaning, and certainly doesn’t correlate with the Minimum Viable Product of Ries and Blank. The other day I heard someone talk about an MVP marketing campaign. Just as agile used to be hijacked to avoid documentation, MVP has become – perversely – a rallying call for the unplanned, unthought through. Hey it’s summer, lets all MVP. MVP like it’s 1999.

There’s no saving the concept now. It has been torn from our hands by the new business and marketing department. Let it die, and make sure it’s not used to blind you to a hair-brained plan, or desire to avoid the heavy lifting where it’s needed.

Posted in MVP

Picture perfect

Selfie - Beatle

We all spend a lot of time in brainstorms, imagining the future. Often the excessively audacious ideas are shelved. Sometimes they’re kept but labelled “vision”.

And then, every so often, one of those weird or audacious ideas will materialize.

Whether that’s because you did it yourself, or someone else did it, it’s a very strange feeling. Like the storybook dragon coming to life.

There’s been a few for me. The hard-drive based mp3 player which can store every compilation tape you’ve ever made (aka the iPod – not the first but the first true incarnation), synchronized “last watched” positions in movies across devices (hats off to Netflix  – again not the first, but the best), and “from here you could get home in 43 minutes” (currently best done by Google Now).

These are all a sort of reverse-Eureka moment, where not the idea but the reality, is the reason for jumping out of the bath.

Possibly the most audacious problem I’ve ever worked on is the challenge of managing digital photography.

For a short period, when our ideas were only constrained by Post-It glue, we had devised the perfect solution, only to find that it would be almost impossible to achieve.

The problems were clear. The volume of digital photography most people collect is enormous. The information held in photos is hard for machines to decode or file. Once lost, photos cannot be recreated. Whilst most photos are rejects, it’s almost impossible to spot which ones aren’t without (or even with) human interaction. Duplicates and close-duplicates are hard to pick out, and fit into multiple different use cases  – sometimes it’s “take four so at least one of them is good”, sometimes its burst shooting on purpose, sometimes its burst shooting by mistake and on and on.

At the heart of it, the apparent freedom to point and click, click, click with little cost attached translates into a deferred cost of managing, storing and ultimately deleting which few care to deal with, and even fewer have a good strategy for.

These are all the consumer problems. What is the business problem?

We put it like this: knowing that consumers are trigger happy, and few have had the incentive required to take the management problem seriously (i.e. few have lost the wedding pictures and now think about it properly), no business in their right mind would get into the free-storage for photos business because:

  • Unlike music/video lockers, there is no room for de-duplication
  • Storage must be incredibly robust as must be any plan to delete user pictures (e.g. for inactive accounts) since the PR risk of deleting family photos is high

Yet, consumers themselves are highly unlikely to pay for such a metered service, as this would require them to act responsibly, which they don’t want to do, or sign up for an essentially open-ended cost.

Enter Google Photos. The search giant has woken from its social network madness, releasing photos from the inadvertent sharing risk which Plus imposed. And the chocolate factory has provided the user with several types of magic:

  • Unlimited storage – no need to act responsibly
  • Free up storage – Keep you photos easily accessible but off your storage-strapped device
  • Auto-magic organisation (a technical term from the project team) – Turning photos into collections, finding duplicates, organising bursts, using information in pictures to categorize them (most notably landmarks), using meta data cleverly (e.g. if picture A is in London and 10 seconds before picture B, then it is likely also in London).
  • Assistant – which creates fun and interesting slideshows and similar from your images and plays them back to you.

From the playbook we dreamt up five years ago, virtually everything is in there. It is interesting to see that facial detection is played down and social network ingestion is not currently present. But this will surely come, and with it, a whole new level of utility (especially if Google can crack the challenge of metadata removed by networks such as Facebook).

So the consumer problem is – for the most part – solved, including the ingestion problem with apps for various devices doing the heavy lifting.

But what of the business question?

How on earth can they afford it?

Considering the likely take up of this service, can we imagine them taking it down any time soon? Deleting users “memories”? Haven’t they saddled themselves for an indefinite period with an enormous storage challenge for images that even the photographer themselves may not care about keeping?

Here is where conspiracy theory comes in of course. The photographer. The hapless chronicler of first birthdays. Surely they must be the product. But how?

I can imagine only two potential business models. In pure storage terms, especially with video included, we could conclude that users will cost Google at least £30+ per year at commercial AWS/Azure rates (which presumably are above Google’s internal costs). They must be expecting to make this back in some way.

Option 1 – Driving Google Drive revenue. This is the straight-forward upsell path to store larger images and  potentially other documents.

Option 2 – Monetisation based on data. To achieve this, we would have to suggest that the images will tell Google enough about their customer to increase the cost it charges for advertising in some of its many channels.

Given that Google already knows what you’re interested in, where you’ve been, who you know, what you buy and so on, what do photos give them? Perhaps device ownership or usage (through EXIF data). Perhaps putting faces to names (beware the conspiracy theorists!). Perhaps inferred data, like children’s ages is of such value that a case can be made but it seems pretty thin.

Of course, we may never find out exactly how they’re paying for it. But it is an amazing accomplishment and hopefully one which will quickly influence other ecosystems to finally take the pain out of one of the last issues that exist with personal data management.