Posts from Web/Tech

Don’t Automate, Obliterate

On Friday we did our monthly two hour “deep dive.” That is when our entire investment team spends two hours going deep on one topic. This time we talked about how the Internet, twenty years in, has only really disrupted a few large industries so far and there are many that are largely operating in the same manner that they were operating before the Internet came along. Albert postulated that we are only now seeing these large industries be impacted by the Internet.

That led to a discussion about how to recognize the most interesting opportunities in these “laggard” industries. We went back and looked at our portfolio and what we have learned from that. I observed that many entrepreneurs look to use technology to automate a workflow as a basis to build a technology company, but we have learned that creating an entirely new workflow seems to produce bigger outcomes.

Albert brought up a famous Harvard Business Review article from 1990 by Michael Hammer titled Don’t Automate, Obliterate. In this article Hammer argues that reengineering industries using technology is much preferable to automating them. You can read the whole thing on the link above. It was written 25 years ago, but it seems as fresh and relevant today as it was when it came out.

So, to me, the thing to look for when investing in technology opportunities in “laggard industries” is entrepreneurs that want to obliterate business processes instead of automating them. That is hard to sell to the established companies. They will not willingly adopt an entirely new process. They will want you to automate it for them. So coming up with a back door into the industry is often better than a full frontal assault if you intend to use the obliterate approach.

Like most deep dives, we did not come away with a fully formed investment thesis. But we did come away with some important observations and words we can use to talk about them. Automate vs Obliterate is great and I am sure it will be quite helpful as we start looking around laggard industries for investment opportunities.

Video Of The Week: NYC’s Internet History

This is an oldie but goodie. I’ve posted it here before but not since I delivered this talk almost seven years ago. This is my history of the NYC Internet community from 1995 to 2008. It’s about 25mins long.

Where Protocols Come From

There’s an interesting discussion on usv.com this week called Where Protocols Come From. Here’s the anchor to the discussion:

Protocols play a vital role in computing, as well as a vast array of our online interactions. The device you’re reading on now has a USB connection; without it, your device couldn’t interoperate with other devices. You’ve probably sent an email to someone in the past hour; without the standard IMAP/SMTP protocol, you wouldn’t be able to send email to people who aren’t on Gmail.

While protocols make interoperability possible, and in fact many are governed by standards bodies, history shows that standards are often imposed by one dominant player. For example, Apple may have quietly invented the new standard for USB. JVC played a large role in the invention of the VHS.

On the software side, the history is a little murkier. Among file formats, Adobe invented the PDF and Apple is largely responsible for the proliferation of MP4HTTP was invented by a computer scientist and widely adopted without the domineering of any one industry player. Attempts to establish social networking protocols, such as Tent.io, have largely failed. We are, however, beginning to see an uptick in protocols proffered by companies, such as our portfolio company Onename.

This week we’re asking:

  • Why have hardware protocols been driven by dominant players but not software?

  • What might it take for a software company to establish a protocol?

  • What conditions must be met to establish to establish an internet protocol?

The discussion is here. We are collecting both comments and posts in the discussion, which is how we do every topic of the week at usv.com.

We Live In Public

I’ve written about Josh Harris here before. He envisioned all of the stuff that has happened on the Internet in the early 1990s, roughly ten to twenty years before it happened.  And he tried to bring much of it to market in the mid to late 90s, but the technology and the market weren’t ready for it. I talked a fair bit about Josh in my “history of the NYC Internet community” talk that I gave at Web 2.0 in 2008. Josh was one of the seminal figures of the NYC Internet community and we owe him a lot for what he imagined and what he made.

Josh’s ultimate project was We Live In Public, which is also the name of the movie about Josh that was released in 2009. In the We Live In Public project, Josh put cameras all over his loft apartment in NYC and livestreamed his and his girlfriend’s everyday life, which ultimately led to their breakup. It’s always been unclear to me how unscripted or scripted that project was, but it hardly matters. It was entertaining in a voyeuristic way. It predated reality TV and all that has come since.

I got to thinking about We Live In Public after reading The Verge’s post about our portfolio company YouNow. YouNow is the living breathing realization of Josh’s imagined world where everyone is broadcasting their lives in real time on the Internet. There’s been plenty of media attention to Twitter’s Periscope and also Meerkat, but YouNow has been at this since 2012 and has amassed a huge audience who tip the live broadcasters enabling them to make a business out of livestreaming their lives. If you want to take a look at how all of that works and what goes on on YouNow, give this a read.

I have been watching the livestreaming category emerge for years and it’s been fits and starts for sure. Most of the stuff that is getting livestreamed is hardly entertaining and many of us have more important things to do with our time than watch other people hangingat work or at home. But it sure seems like the category is alive and well and maybe even here to stay. Just as Josh imagined it would be twenty years ago.

Feature Friday: Twitter Video

I tried posting video to Twitter today. It works simply and easily.

I haven’t seen a ton of video in my feed so far, so it’s not clear that posting video has become popular with Twitter users.

But it’s just as easy as posting a photo so I expect it will become more and more common over time.

Sending Stuff To The Wrong People

I got a bunch of emails yesterday that were clearly not meant for me. I replied to let the senders know and deleted them without reading beyond what I had read to know it wasn’t for me.

Then I saw this tweet by Chris Dixon:

Then it all jelled in my mind. Gmail was autosuggesting the wrong people to a large swath of its users over the weekend. I was struggling with the same problem but I hadn’t realized it was a service wide issue.

Sending emails to the wrong people is embarrassing and potentially much worse. The same is true of google docs, dropbox, and a host of other cloud based services where we create and store sensitive information. At least google docs pops up the warning “you are about to send this outside of your domain.” That has saved me many times from sending a google spreadsheet or doc with personal information to a woman with the same first name in Mellon’s Private Bank instead of my wife. You would think Google would know my wife is more important. But it does not, particularly on mobile.

The thing of it is that Google is so good at knowing who you might want to send something to that they should do more than they do right now. They could easily pop up a warning saying “you don’t normally send this kind of document to this person” or “you don’t normally include this person in the group you are sending this to.” These sorts of data driven protections/warnings would further cement the already airtight lock they have on me and many others who use gmail and google docs.

But try as we might, we are human and prone to error. It is almost certain that each of us will send something super confidential to someone who should not see it at some point in our life. My hope is when I do that, the person on the receiving end is decent enough to do what I did, inform and delete, not store and forward.

The Ethics Of Algorithms

Last week, USV hosted one of our regular portfolio summits. We do this on almost a weekly basis now for some subset of our portfolio (engineering leaders, human resources leaders, marketing leaders, etc, etc). It is all part of our USV Network offering for our portfolio companies.

The summit last week was for the data analysts in our portfolio. These summits have produced some of the most interesting insights for us over the years. And last week was no different. There was a recurring discussion of the ethics of machine learning and recommendation engines.

So we decided to make that the topic of the week on usv.com. The discussion is here. Check it out.

Feature Friday: Back Up iPhoto To Dropbox

The Gotham Gal moved from an old macbook air to a new one about a year ago. When she moved all of her files, configurations, and settings from the old macbook to the new one, somehow her iPhoto folders didn’t come over correctly. She was missing a bunch of photos on her new laptop and could not seem to find them on the old one.

I tried to help out but quickly got frustrated. Somehow she had messed things up in her moves from mac to mac to mac over the years and she had not backed up her iPhoto properly.

She told me that there were years, maybe a decade or more, of photos of our family and such on that laptop and that she feared they were lost.

So last week I decided to take another shot at it, using a Dropbox feature that scans your iPhoto library and backs up all the photos in it to Dropbox. I installed the Dropbox for Mac client on her old machine and let it do its thing. It eventually prompted me with the option to backup all of her iPhoto library to her Dropbox. I clicked yes and it started scanning and scanning and scanning. It must have been crunching away on her hard drive for an hour or more and eventually it said it had found over 14,000 photos that it wanted to upload.

I thought “14,000!!, that must be all of her lost photos” and went upstairs to tell her the good news. It took over a day to upload all of the photos and it seems that Dropbox found some old buried folders that I could not find myself that contained all that she had thought had been lost.

We haven’t taken a deep dive yet on the 14,000+ photos to see if they include everything she thought was lost. But I have a strong hunch that we have.

It’s a great ending to a frustrating story. If you had a fire in your house and you had to choose the few things you wanted to get out before everything went up in flames, family photos would likely be near the top of the list, after people and pets. So losing them, or thinking you lost them, is a terrible feeling. And finding them is an amazing one.

Backing Up Your Files

I read an article a few weeks ago about a class of malware called ransomware. The author’s mom had clicked on some sort of attachment which installed the malware on her computer which in turn locked all of her files and delivered a ransom note to her requiring $500 for the decryption keys. The ransom had to be paid in bitcoin, of course, and the price escalated the longer she waited to pay the ransom.

I immediately thought of my situation. I like to think I would not have clicked on the attachment. But even if I had, my files are backed up into the cloud. As long as my cloud backup service doesn’t back up the encrypted files and overwrite the earlier versions, I’ve got unlocked versions of everything. I think I am good. But I made a note to ask around about this.

I’ve been backing up my hard drive for as long as I can remember. There was a time when I backed up to local storage. But starting in the late 90s, I used a variety of online backup services, what we would now call “the cloud”, to backup my files.

My rationale for backing up my files was always fear of a hard disk crash. I’ve lost important files over the years and I’ve spent a small fortune to get them back, usually by hiring someone who knows how to work miracles on a corrupted hard drive. But I have not worried about this issue for at least a decade, maybe more.

But when I read the article about the woman whose files were being held hostage, I realized that many people still don’t backup their files every night. Just like many people don’t use strong passwords. Just like many people click on attachments they should not click on.

My number 10 prediction on the What’s Going To Happen post was:

10/ cybersecurity budgets will explode in 2015 as every company, institution, and government attempts to avoid being Sony’d. VCs will pour money into this sector in the same way they poured money into the rental economy. and, yet, the hacks will continue because on the open internet there is no such thing as an impenetrable system.

It is not just big companies and institutions and governments that need to be diligent about information security. It is all of us. The consumerization of technology works both ways. We are all targets and we all need to protect ourselves. Backing up your files is one of those things we should all do. Another thing to add to the new year’s resolution list.