Thursday, April 28, 2011

RSS is dead to me. The Shared Web killed it.

Like almost everyone I know, I'm a total content junkie. I read everything I can get my hands on, mostly tech and startup stuff, but with frequent side trips into economics, behavioral psych, education, endurance sports, music, organizational behavior, and... well... pretty much anything that catches my eye.

When I first discovered RSS I was ecstatic. Instead of scouring the web to find great content I could now create my own private newsfeed and stay on top of all the authors and topics I cared about. I treated my reader like a second inbox (see where this is going?...) and loved how efficiently I could churn through content. But the more I read, the more great new authors I found and added to my reader. Pretty soon I was struggling to keep up with the flow, declaring RSS bankruptcy several times a week just to stay current.

Then Twitter showed up, and everything was OK again... for a while.

Since many of my favorite Twitter people are also my top blog reads, all I had to do was switch my read behavior from RSS to Twitter to get back to some kind of flow. But now the best content was now buried under shortened links. And saving and sharing my favorite stuff was much harder too. I didn't want to broadcast all my likes via Twitter so I found myself sharing a ton of stuff by email, effectively burying it for later recall. I also kept adding follows, building up an even more overwhelming flow than I had in RSS. And every day it seemed to get a little worse....

So when a team of insanely smart guys calling themselves Perpetual P showed up for TechStars Seattle last summer talking about personalized content discovery, my ears perked up immediately. 

The team - Kareem, Nav and Nicolae - all had deep CS backgrounds and loved mathematical solutions to hard problems. But they also grokked the critical role that human relationships play in prioritization and decision making. Their idea was to build a software system that enabled and amplified human content curation, extracting patterns that could be used to power automated content discovery, but leaving room for people to steer and shape the conversation, and to give feedback to each other on the content they shared. Over time, they reasoned, this system would build an "interest graph" analogous to Chris Dixon's "taste graph" idea.

Almost a year has passed since I first met the guys behind what's now called The Shared Web. Curation has become a hot topic for media analysts and investors. Explosive adoption of the iPad as a media consumption device has steered attention toward beautiful mobile read experiences that tap the social stream to produce personalized feeds - think Flipboard, Zite and News.me.

As cool as these products are, none of them does what I really need them to:
  1. Show me what I need to read.
    There's waaay too much content out there - even within my social graph - and most of it doesn't interest me. Don't just play back to me everything my friends have shared.  Roll up shares across my network and learn my preferences to show me the things I really need + want to know right now.

  2. Help me discover killer stuff I wouldn't find on my own.
    I'm a huge believer in Steven Johnson's framework for creative breakthroughs being triggered by collisions between ideas from disparate domains. A really smart content discovery platform wouldn't just amplify my social echo chamber, but would use my known preferences and interests as a jumping-off point to expose relevant new topics and ideas.

  3. Give me embedded tools to share, save and interact with others around the content I find.
    I read to feed my brain, discover new patterns and spark conversations with friends and co-workers. Not every content item merits deep engagement, but when I find one that does I need effortless ways to kick off a conversation, share it with the relevant audience and flag it for future reference, all embedded in my read flow so I can stay in the groove.
The Shared Web is a social news product - think of a social Reddit, or a relevant and spam-proof Digg (thanks to real identities and social filtering). The premise is simple: you choose the topics that interest you and The Shared Web shows you the news items you need to read on those topics. Content recommendations are based on learning algorithms that take into account not just what's being shared within your social social graph, but also thematically related content that's being shared across the entire community.

The Shared Web promises three things:
  1. You'll never miss the big stories of the day on the topics you care most about
  2. You'll also discover content that's dead on with your interests, but that you probably wouldn't have come across within your existing social graph
  3. Whenever a content item hits a nerve, you can quickly and easily (a) thank the friend who shared it, (b) recommend it to friends, and/or (c) save it to read again later.
If you're passionate about about innovation in digital media (and worry about confirmation bias or narrowcasting as a risk of social curation systems), I think you'll like what The Shared Web guys have put together. I've included an (expiring) link below to give interested folks a sneak peek at the private beta.

http://thesw.com/hR5kYq

I liked The Shared Web well enough to sign Founders Co-op on as an investor in their seed round. I'd love love to hear your thoughts once you try it out. But act fast, the link above expires in a few days!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

TechStars is a huge f*ng rocket engine strapped to Seattle's startup scene

I just got back from TechStars New York's inaugural Demo Day. This was my third Demo Day (my first was Boulder 2009, followed by our own Seattle version last November) and all I can say is...

"Holy sh*t, TechStars has become an absolute startup juggernaut!"

David Cohen and his merry band of local Pied Pipers (including my Founders Co-op partner Andy Sack here in Seattle) have built the most amazing, reusable startup rocket booster I've ever seen.

If you haven't experienced TechStars up close it's a little hard to convey how effective the program is at turning raw entrepreneurial talent into fully-realized operating companies in just three months. Since the Seattle program operates out of the Founders Co-op offices here in South Lake Union, I've been able to participate as a screener, mentor and now serial investor in several TechStars alumni companies. Based on that experience, it's obvious to me that TechStars is on an uninterruptible path to becoming the gold standard in startup accelerator programs (yes, even when compared to the universally admired Y Combinator brand).

That's good news for TechStars, but it's even better news for Seattle.

Since Andy and I started Founders Co-op a few years back I've become obsessed with how successful startup ecosystems are nurtured and grown. There's no single formula for success here, but TechStars co-founder Brad Feld has been characteristically thoughtful and articulate about his experience in Boulder, and the TechStars program embodies the best of Brad and David's experience in that market. Four of their key lessons - and how they apply to the Pacific Northwest - are listed below:
  1. It's all about the mentors

    Brad and David created TechStars, but their names are actually kind of hard to find on the TechStars website. Instead, the TechStars brand is all about the mentors, a large and staggeringly accomplished group of entrepreneurs with deep ties in each of the cities where the program operates. The entire model is built around connecting a new generation of founders with earlier generations, on a purely volunteer basis, anchored by a shared passion for innovation and company-building.

    Seattle has a reputation as a "closed" city, where relationships and access often play a bigger role than talent and hustle in determining who gets help. TechStars Seattle has succeeded in engaging a long list of Seattle's best and most accomplished entrepreneurs, bringing some much-needed transparency to the local market for startup support. These mentors are digging in, building relationships not only with the TechStars companies, but also with each other, opening new channels in the entrepreneurial network that extend well beyond the program itself.

  2. Engage the community

    Successful startup ecosystems attract long-term participation from players across the full spectrum of civic life: colleges and universities, corporations, local and state government, not-for-profits, institutional investors, media outlets, etc. Every group needs to have relationships with and understand the objectives of every other player to build effective coalitions and maximize information flow across the community.

    In Seattle (and elsewhere), TechStars has become a pivot point for the broader startup community, attracting participation and support from every institutional investor, major non-market players and leading service providers alike. The program's Boulder headquarters and mentor-centric design make TechStars an appealingly neutral platform, easily embraced by every key player in each host city because it doesn't owe allegiance to any of them.

  3. Embrace the unique strengths of your local market

    TechStars was created in Boulder, not as a way to make Boulder more like Silicon Valley, but to forge a native startup culture that valued *everything* that Boulder has to offer, from mountains and rivers to the intimacy and collegiality of a small college town. Contrast that with last week's New York Demo Day: there were more blue blazers and slicked-back hair than I've ever seen in one room and the pitching companies had clearly embraced the media, ad tech, urban lifestyle and fashion zeitgeist of their host city.

    TechStars is able to thrive in cities as diverse as Boulder, Seattle, Boston and New York because it doesn't want those cities to be any different than they are, it just wants to bring out the best of their indigenous startup cultures. Seattle has deep Enterprise, Travel, Mobile and eCommerce DNA, since that's how most of the successful local techies made their bones. We also have funky weather, killer outdoor access and a business culture that - despite all the tech wealth in the area - prefers modesty and privacy over flash and self-promotion. TechStars lets entrepreneurs self-select into the location and culture that suits them best, and in doing so gives them the sturdiest possible platform for success on their terms.

  4. Create liquidity in the talent pool

    Insanely talented entrepreneurs are the rare and precious raw material on which successful startup communities are built. What attracts great entrepreneurs? Opportunities to connect and mix it up with other like-minded and high-performing peers. As Brad Feld puts it,

    "new entrepreneurs should have their minds blown when they move from their otherwise dull and disengaged community to your exciting, welcoming and engaging community."

    Seattle has great schools and companies that attract brilliant and ambitious technologists from around the world. Inevitably, some small fraction of this population will choose an entrepreneurial path. When they do, the local on-ramps to the startup life need to be visible, accessible and warmly welcoming or those folks will gravitate toward cities and communities where they can get the support they need. TechStars is helping Seattle build those on-ramps and shine bright lights on the people and institutions who want to help.
Everything I see tells me that Seattle's startup ecosystem is on a great path: more talent, more great companies, more investors, more deals, more flow and liquidity than I've seen here since I moved back in 2001. Some of that is surely cyclical, but my long-term bet is that the foundation of a new class of entrepreneurial companies is being laid down right now. TechStars is a big reason why.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Database of Emotions

I had a great conversation with a friend today (Sree Nagarajan, founder + CEO at social media research platform Colligent) that gave me a new handle on the threat that Facebook poses to Google.

We were talking about what Colligent does, which is to allow any brand to measure and track their relative affinity with any other brand. It does this by sifting the public declarations and affiliations of more than 225 million consumer profiles across Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. As Sree put it, "brands are all about emotion, and we allow brands to quantify that emotion in order to make better business decisions."

For some reason this description reminded me of John Battelle's brilliant description of Google (and search engines more broadly) as a "Database of Intentions":
"The Database of Intentions is simply this: The aggregate results of every search ever entered, every result list ever tendered, and every path taken as a result. It lives in many places, but three or four places in particular hold a massive amount of this data (ie MSN, Google, and Yahoo). This information represents, in aggregate form, a place holder for the intentions of humankind - a massive database of desires, needs, wants, and likes that can be discovered, supoenaed, archived, tracked, and exploited to all sorts of ends."

The 'aha' for me in Sree's description is that the Social Web amounts to a parallel universe to the one Battelle describes:

If search is a Database of Intentions then Social is a Database of Emotions 

Instead of cataloging peoples' current desires, the aggregated universe of tweets, 'Likes', URLs and hashtags flowing through the Social Web captures a less immediate but emotionally vastly richer set of data, the constantly-changing moods and emotional ties of millions of consumers, much of it directly connected to specific brands, locations and events. No single social platform can claim a monopoly on this emotional datastore; Facebook is clearly the largest, but Twitter now claims over 200 million members and even the fading star of MySpace contains the world's most complete database of consumers' self-declared musical affinities.

Because Emotion is both more complex and less immediate than Intention, the paths to monetizing the Database of Emotions are nowhere near as clear and obvious as they are in Search. But if you accept the massive private valuations currently assigned to Twitter and Facebook as reasonable proxies for investor belief, the potential economic value represented by the Emotional datastore is as large - if not larger - than Intention.

The complexity inherent in the Emotion opportunity is good news for investors and entrepreneurs alike. Facebook has made significant progress in building an ad engine on top of its Emotional flow, but Twitter is still finding its way, and no single platform holds as clear a monopoly on Emotion as Google has maintained in the realm of Intention, leaving plenty of room for third parties to play.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Does your startup practice Zen Archery?

A lifetime ago (actually in the mid-1990's) I worked for an outdoor apparel company called Patagonia, running several of their product lines and leading their first foray into online retailing. The company was (and is) still owned and the original founder, Yvon Chouinard. Yvon is a brilliant entrepreneur who defies easy classification: a gifted capitalist who's deeply ambivalent about capitalism, and an inspiring leader whose self-described best leadership technique is "management by absence", spending long blocks of time away from the office on product testing junkets.

I learned a ton working for Yvon and his wife Melinda (a quiet but powerful force in the business), but the idea that has stayed with me most forcefully from that time was Yvon's favorite business parable, "Zen Archery". It came up again today in a meeting with one of the teams at Founders Co-op, so here's my attempt to to write it down...

Yvon would grimace at this description of the business, but at bottom Patagonia is a long-time survivor in the fickle and cutthroat fashion apparel industry. The company designs beautiful and well-crafted clothing inspired by - and in some cases actually used by - the most passionate and dedicated outdoor athletes in the world. From humble beginnings as a blacksmith shop for hand-crafted climbing gear, the company has become a global brand selling hundreds of millions of dollars of apparel each year through a broad range of retail and wholesale channels.

Despite this remarkable trajectory, in all my time at the company I can't recall Yvon ever talking about sales numbers, revenues or margins. When he was called up on stage to talk about the company at the annual employee meeting, instead of celebrating financial achievements, he would spend all his time talking about the incredible people he knew who were out there using the company's products, about the products themselves, or about the work being done to lessen the company's impact on the environment.

When asked about whether sales and revenue was something he was thinking about, Yvon would respond by telling the story of the Zen archer who spent years of his life perfecting each minute step in the ritual of shooting an arrow. In his story, the focus the archer brought to achieving perfect beauty and economy of motion at each step - selecting an arrow, fitting it to the string, drawing the bow and releasing the arrow - was so complete that striking the target came an afterthought. In his telling, the arrow always hit the center of the target, not because it was carefully aimed, but because all the preceding moments had been so honed that it was the only possible outcome.

The truth behind every business - Patagonia included - is always more complicated than this parable allows, but the heart of Yvon's story has always felt true and important to me. The highest probability path to "hitting the bullseye" - whether it's hitting a sales goal, building a profitable business or getting bought by Google - isn't to focus on the goal, but to dedicate yourself to your craft with such intensity and focus that the outcome takes care of itself. Too often I meet entrepreneurs who are so caught up in the anticipated outcome of their efforts that they lose focus on what really matters: building a beautiful, functional product that customers love to use. Thanks for the lesson, Yvon.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Announcing our investment in Zipline Games: an open-source, cross-platform development environment for mobile games

If you've been following our recent investment activity here at Founders Co-op, you know we love social games (e.g., Big Door, Massively Fun) and developer platforms (e.g., Urban Airship, PHP Fog). Today we're excited to announce an investment that takes these themes to a whole new level: Zipline Games.

The mobile games business is exploding: depending on which analyst you choose to believe the total market is projected to hit somewhere between $10B and $18B by 2016.

Zipline co-founders Todd Hooper and Patrick Meehan aim to radically expand developer access to this market by offering an open-source development framework that allows any game developer familiar with Lua (the industry-standard game scripting language) to quickly create and deploy high quality mobile games on both iOS and Android. Games developed using Moai are backed up by Moai Cloud, a scalable data and content management infrastructure that supports sophisticated multiplayer games with persistent game worlds and an ever-evolving stream of content.

As mobile gameplay becomes mainstream and user expectations grow, games have become ever more complex to build and maintain. In addition, the rapid growth of the Android platform requires most serious game studios to support titles across both iOS and Android, effectively doubling the development and code maintenance burden. Add in the need for more complex web back-end infrastructure and you have yet another codebase to build and support.
Moai SDK and Moai Cloud make multi-platform, web-supported game titles accessible to any Lua shop, from one-man shows to the largest studios.
Zipline has just taken the wraps off their offering but they already have one high-profile convert: Jordan Weisman - CEO at Smith + Tinker and a world-renowned game designer - has already signed on to use the platform. The company is also building two of its own titles to showcase the platform's capabilities. Additional coverage can be found at AllThingsD, VentureBeat, Xconomy and GeekWire.

Congrats Todd + Patrick - welcome to the family!