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July 16 2013

La face cachée de la Silicon_Valley - leJDD.fr

La face cachée de la #Silicon_Valley - leJDD.fr
http://www.lejdd.fr/Medias/Internet/Actualite/La-face-cachee-de-la-Silicon-Valley-618923

Les points forts de la « Bay », qui accueille 7.000 à 10.000 Français dans le domaine des nouvelles technologies, sont connus depuis longtemps. Les nombreuses difficultés auxquelles se heurtent les entrepreneurs, un peu moins.

Un titre racoleur pour évoquer très vite fait #émigration #startup (je regrette de l’avoir partagé, mais ça peut toujours être utile pour les chiffres toujours #entreprenariat)

February 06 2013

Have an idea for a health care startup?

I sit down now and then with Roy Rosin at the East coast hub of health care business networking, the Gryphon Cafe in Wayne, PA. (I’m saying that only slightly tongue in cheek.) Roy was the long-time Chief Innovation Officer at Intuit and now holds that role with the University of Pennsylvania Health System. Our conversations tend to be wide ranging, but this morning he let me know that he’s been working on a partnership between Penn Medicine and Independence Blue Cross to fund a health care incubator with DreamIt Ventures in Philadelphia.

If you are working on a health-related startup this is worth your time because it’s being funded by the largest provider and payer in the region. This will give your startup access to both sides of the payer/provider equation in a meaningful way (the aforementioned “unfair advantage”). The application deadline is coming up fast on February 8. Details can be found here.

December 20 2012

The industrial Internet from a startup perspective

I don’t remember when I first met Todd Huffman, but for the longest time I seemed to run into him in all kinds of odd places, but mostly in airport waiting areas as our nomadic paths intersected randomly and with surprising frequency. We don’t run into each other in airports anymore because Todd has settled in San Francisco to build 3Scan, his startup at the nexus of professional maker, science as a service, and the industrial Internet. My colleague Jon Bruner has been talking to airlines, automobile manufacturers, and railroads to get their industrial Internet stories. I recently caught up with Todd to see what the industrial Internet looks like from the perspective of an innovative startup.

First off, I’m sure he wouldn’t use the words “industrial Internet” to describe what he and his team are doing, and it might be a little bit of a stretch to categorize 3Scan that way. But I think they are an exemplar of many of the core principles of the meme and it’s interesting to think about them in that frame. They are building a device that produces massive amounts of data; a platform to support its complex analysis, distribution, and interoperation; and APIs to observe its operation and remotely control it.

Do a Google image search for “pathologist” and you’ll find lots and lots of pictures of people in white lab coats sitting in front of microscopes. This is a field whose primary user interface hasn’t changed in 200 years. This is equally true for a wide range of scientific research. 3Scan is setting out to change that by simplifying the researcher’s life while making 3D visualization and numerical analysis of the features of whole tissue samples readily available.

At the heart of the system is an illuminated diamond knife blade capable of making one-micron-thick tissue slices coupled with a scanning objective. A cubic inch of tissue, such as a mouse brain, sliced into one-micron slices will take seven hours to scan and will produce about a terabyte of data. The design of the knife is licensed from Texas A&M brain networks lab where Todd spent some of his graduate student years, and 3Scan is building it into a cost effective platform by taking advantage of technologies from other industries. For example, the tissue stage was adapted from an aerospace application, and the first version of their sample viewer is based on OpenLayers, an open source geo-spatial platform. Also, the cost to store and process the data has dropped by multiple orders of magnitude since Todd first started working on it in 2005.

Mouse brain vascular networkMouse brain vascular network

Mouse brain vascular network

What makes this interesting from an industrial Internet perspective is the way they are combining an instrumented machine (the microscope) with powerful data analytics and remote access to enable a service. The samples are volumetric and high resolution (1 cubic micron) instead of the traditional 2D slides prepared for microscopy, and because they are digital they are available for 3D viewing, algorithmic inspection, categorization, and analysis as well as traditional 2D viewing. This is a very complex “thing” that is getting on the Internet in a meaningful way, producing data, exposing APIs, and allowing for remote interaction and control.

Researchers will be able to follow their sample through the entire process from receipt to scan to the application of analytical algorithms. They won’t have to develop the competencies to run a machine that would otherwise have to be dumbed down for grad student deployment, and they will be able to add their own algorithms into the processing pipeline without having to manage the analytical infrastructure.

Longer term one can imagine the data and analytical pipeline breaking away from this single device and serving as a general analytical platform for a range of machines that provide different forms of volumetric imaging. Or, a single sample might be processed by different machines across different scientific service providers (i.e. imaging, DNA sequencing, etc.) and because each of them is operating as a network service rather than as a standalone device, the range of analytical methods can continue to grow.

Talking to Todd I felt like I was getting a glimpse here at the future of connected instruments.


This is a post in our industrial Internet series, an ongoing exploration of big machines and big data. The series is produced as part of a collaboration between O’Reilly and GE.

Related:

June 13 2012

Four short links: 13 June 2012

  1. Warren Buffett Lessons -- nice anthology of quotes, reordered into almost a narrative on different topics. (via Rowan Simpson)
  2. Silent Circle -- Phil Zimmermann's new startup, encrypting phone calls for iPhone and Android for $20/month. "I'm not going to apologize for the cost," Zimmermann told CNET, adding that the final price has not been set. "This is not Facebook. Our customers are customers. They're not products. They're not part of the inventory." (via CNET)
  3. New HTTP Code for "Legally Restricted" -- it's status code 451.
  4. PeerJ -- changing the business model for academic publishing: instead of charging you each time you publish, we ask for a single one off payment, giving you the lifetime right to publish articles with us, and to make those articles freely available. Lifetime plans start at just $99. O'Reilly a happy investor.

June 04 2012

Can Future Advisor be the self-driving car for financial advice?

Future AdvisorLast year, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen famously wrote that software is eating the world. The impact of algorithms upon media, education, healthcare and government, among many other verticals, is just beginning to be felt, and with still unfolding consequences for the industries disrupted.

Whether it's the prospect of IBM's Watson offering a diagnosis to a patient or Google's self-driving car taking over on the morning commute, there are going to be serious concerns raised about safety, power, control and influence.

Doctors and lawyers note, for good reason, that their public appearances on radio, television and the Internet should not be viewed as medical or legal advice. While financial advice may not pose the same threat to a citizen as an incorrect medical diagnosis or treatment, poor advice could have pretty significant downstream outcomes.

That risk isn't stopping a new crop of startups from looking for a piece of the billions of dollars paid every year to financial advisors. Future Advisor launched in 2010 with the goal of providing better financial advice through the Internet using data and algorithms. They're competing against startups like Wealthfront and Betterment, among others.

Not everyone is convinced of the validity of this algorithmically mediated approach to financial advice. Mike Alfred, the co-founder of BrightScope (which has liberated financial advisor data itself), wrote in Forbes this spring that online investment firms are wrong about financial advisors:

"While singularity proponents may disagree with me here, I believe that some professions have a fundamentally human component that will never be replaced by computers, machines, or algorithms. Josh Brown, an independent advisor at Fusion Analytics Investment Partners in NYC, recently wrote that 'for 12,000 years, anywhere someone has had wealth through the history of civilization, there's been a desire to pay others for advice in managing it.' In some ways, it's no different from the reason why many seek out the help of a psychiatrist. People want the comfort of a human presence when things aren't going well. A computer arguably may know how to allocate funds in a normal market environment, but can it talk you off the cliff when things go to hell? I don't think so. Ric Edelman, Chairman & CEO of Edelman Financial Services, brings up another important point. According to him, 'most consumers are delegators and procrastinators, and need the advisor to get them to do what they know they need to do but won't do if left on their own'."

To get the other side of this story, I recently talked with Bo Lu (@bolu), one of the two co-founders of Future Advisor. Lu explained how the service works, where the data comes from and whether we should fear the dispassionate influence of our new robotic financial advisor overlords.

Where did the idea for Future Advisor come from?

Lu: The story behind Future Advisor is one of personal frustration. We started the company in 2010 when my co-founder and I were working at Microsoft. Our friends who had reached their mid-20s were really making money for the first time in their lives. They were now being asked to make decisions, such as "Where do I open an IRA? What do I do with my 401K?" As is often the case, they went to the friend who had the most experience, which in this case turned out to be me. So I said, "Well, let's just find you guys a good financial advisor and then we'll do this," because somehow in my mind, I thought, "Financial advisors do this."

It turned out that all of the financial advisors we found fell into two distinct classes. One were folks that were really nice but essentially in very kind words said, "Maybe you'd be more comfortable at the lower stakes table." We didn't meet any of their minimums. You needed a million dollars or at least a half million to get their services.

The other kinds of financial advisors who didn't have minimums immediately started trying to sell my friends term life insurance and annuities. I'm like, "These guys are 25. There's no reason for you to be doing this." Then I realized there was a misalignment of incentives there. We noticed that our friends were making a small set of the same mistakes over and over again, such as not having the right diversification for their age and their portfolio, or paying too much in mutual fund fees. Most people didn't understand that mutual funds charged fees and were not being tax efficient. We said, "Okay, this looks like a data problem that we can help solve for you guys." That's the genesis out of which Future Advisor was born.

What problem are you working on solving?

Bo Lu: Future Advisor is really trying to do one single thing: deliver on the vision that high-quality financial advice should be able to be produced cheaply and, thus, be broadly accessible to everyone.

If you look at the current U.S. market of financial advisors and you multiply the number of financial advisors in the U.S. — which is roughly a quarter-million people — by what is generally accepted to be a full book of clients, you'll realize that even at full capacity, the U.S. advisor market can serve only about 11% of U.S. households.

In serving that 11% of U.S. households, the advisory market for retail investing makes about $20 billion. This is a classic market where a service is extremely expensive but in being so can only serve a small percentage of the addressable market. As we walked into this, we realized that we're part of something bigger. If you look at 60 years ago, a big problem was that everyone wanted a color television and they just weren't being manufactured quickly or cheaply enough. Manufacturing scale has caught up to us. Now, everything you want you generally can have because manufactured things are cheap. Creating services is still extremely expensive and non-scalable. Healthcare as a service, education as a service and, of course, financial services, financial advising service comes to mind. What we're doing is taking information technology, like computer science, to scale a service in the way the electrical engineering of our forefathers scaled manufacturing.

How big is the team? How are you working together?

Bo Lu: The team has eight people in Seattle. It's almost exactly half finance and half engineering. We unabashedly have a bunch of engineers from MIT, which is where my co-founder went to school, essentially sucking the brains out of the finance team and putting them in software. It's really funny because a lot of the time when we design an algorithm, we actually just sit down and say, "Okay, let's look at a bunch of examples and see what the intuitive decisions are of science people and then try to encode them."

We rely heavily on the existing academic literature in both computational finance and economics because a lot of this work has been done. The interesting thing is that the knowledge is not the problem. The knowledge exists, and it's unequivocal in the things that are good for investors. Paying less in fees is good for investors. Being more tax efficient is good for investors. How to do that is relatively easy. What's hard for the industry for a long time has been to scalably apply those principles in a nuanced way to everybody's unique situation. That's something that software is uniquely good at doing.

How do you think about the responsibility of providing financial advice that traditionally has been offered by highly certified professionals who've taken exams, worked at banks, and are expensive to get to because of that professional experience?

Bo Lu: There's a couple of answers to that question, one of which is the folks on our team have the certifications that people look for. We've got certified financial advisors*, CFAs, which is a private designation on the team. We have math PhDs from the University of Washington on the team. The people who create the software are the caliber of people that you would want to be sitting down with you and helping you with your finances in the first place.

The second part of that is that we ourselves are a registered investment advisor. You'll see many websites that on the bottom say, "This is not intended to be financial advice." We don't say that. This is intended to be financial advice. We're registered federally with the SEC as a registered investment advisor and have passed all of the exams necessary.

*In the interview, Lu said that FutureAdvisor has 'certified financial advisors'. In this context, CFA stood for something else: The Future Advisor team includes Simon Moore, a chartered financial analyst, who advises the startup on investing algorithms design.

Where does the financial data behind the site come from?

Bo Lu: From the consumer side, the site has only four steps. These four steps are very familiar to anyone who's used a financial advisor before. A client signs up for the products. It's a free web service, designed to help everyone. In step one, they answer a couple of questions about their personal situation: age, how much they make, when they want to retire. Then they're asked the kinds of questions that good financial advisors ask, such as your risk tolerance. Here, you start to see that we rely on academic work as much as possible.

There is a great set of work out of the University of Kentucky on risk tolerance questionnaires. Whereas most companies just use some questionnaire they came up with internally, we went and scoured literature to find exact questions that were specifically worded — and have been tested under those wordings to yield statistically significant deviations in determining risk tolerance. So we use those questions. With that information, the algorithm can then come up with a target portfolio allocation for the customer.

In step two, the customer can synchronize or import data from their existing financial institutions into the software. We use Yodlee, which you've written about before. It's the same technology that Mint used to import detailed data about what you already hold in your 401K, in your IRA, and in all of your other investment accounts.

Step three is the dashboard. The dashboard shows your investments at a level that makes sense, rather than current brokerages where when you log in, they tell you how much money you have, with a list of funds you have, and how much they've changed in the last 24 hours of trading. We answer four questions on the dashboard.

  1. Am I on track?
  2. Am I well-diversified for this goal?
  3. Am I overpaying in hidden fees in my mutual funds?
  4. Am I as tax efficient as I could be?

We answer those four questions and then in the final step of the process, we give algorithmically-generated, step-by-step instructions about how to improve your portfolio. This includes specific advice like "this many shares of Fund X to buy this many shares of Fund Y" in your IRA. When the consumer sees this, he or she can go and, with this help, clean up their portfolios. It's kind of like diagnosis and prescription for your portfolio.

There are three separate streams of data underlying the product. One is the Yodlee stream, which is detailed holdings data from hundreds of financial institutions. Two is data about what's in a fund. That comes from Morningstar. Morningstar, of course, gets it from the SEC because mutual funds are required to disclose this. So we can tell, for example, if a fund is an international fund or a domestic fund, what the fees are, and what it holds. The third dataset is from the datasets that we have to tier in ourselves, which is 401K data from the Department of Labor.

On top of this triad of datasets sits our algorithm, which has undergone six to eight months of beta testing with customers. (We launched the product in March 2012.) That algorithm asks, "Okay, given these three datasets, what is the current state of your portfolio? What is the minimum number of moves to reduce both transaction costs and any capital gains that you might incur to get you from where you are to roughly where you need to be?" That's how the product works under the covers.

What's the business model?

Bo Lu: You can think of it as similar to Redfin. Redfin allows individual realtors to do more work by using algorithms to help them do all of the repetitive parts. Our product and the web service is free and will always be free. Information wants to be free. That's how we work in software. It doesn't cost us anything for an additional person to come and use the website.

The way that Future Advisor makes money is that we charge for advisor time. A small percentage of customers will have individual questions about their specific situation or want to talk to a human being and have them answer some questions. This is actually good in two ways.

One, it helps the transition from a purely human service to what we think will eventually be an almost purely digital service. People who are somewhere along that continuum of wanting someone to talk to but don't need someone full-time to talk to can still do that.

Two, those conversations are a great way for us to find out, in aggregate, what the things are that the software doesn't yet do or doesn't do well. Overall, if we take a ton of calls that are all the same, then it means there's an opportunity for the software to step in, scale that process, and help people who don't want to call us or who can't afford to call us to get that information.

What's the next step?

Bo Lu: This is a problem that has a dramatic possible impact attached to it. Personal investing, what the industry calls "retail investing," is a closed-loop system. Money goes in, and it's your money, and it stays there for a while. Then it comes out, and it's still your money. There's very little additional value creation by the financial advisory industry.

It may sound like I'm going out on a limb to say this, but it's generally accepted that the value creation of you and I putting our hard-earned money into the market is actually done by companies. Companies deploy that capital, they grow, and they return that capital in the form of higher stock prices or dividends, fueling the engine of our economic growth.

There are companies across the country and across the world adding value to people's lives. There's little to no value to be added by financial advisors trying to pick stocks. It's actually academically proven that there's negative value to be added there because it turns out the only people who make money are financial advisors.

This is a $20 billion market. But really what that means is that it's a $20 billion tax on individual American investors. If we're successful, we're going to reduce that $20 billion tax to a much smaller number by orders of magnitude. The money that's saved is kept by individual investors, and they keep more of what's theirs.

Because of the size of this market and the size of the possible impact, we are venture-backed because we can really change the world for the better if we're successful. There are a bunch of the great folks in the Valley who have done a lot of work in money and the democratization of software and money tools.

What's the vision for the future of your startup?

Bo Lu: I was just reading your story about smart disclosure a little while ago. There's a great analogy in there that I think applies aptly to us. It's maps. The first maps were paper. Today if you look at the way a retail investor absorbs information, it's mostly paper. They get a prospectus in the mail. They have a bunch of disclosures they have to sign — and the paper is extremely hard to read. I don't know if you've ever tried to read a prospectus; it's something that very few of us enjoy. (I happen to be one of them, but I understand if not everyone's me.) They're extremely hard to parse.

Then we moved on to the digital age of folks taking the data embedded in those prospectuses and making them available. That was Morningstar, right? Now we're moving into the age of folks taking that data and mating it with other data, such as 401K data and your own personal financial holdings data, to make individual personalized recommendations. That's Future Advisor the way it is today.

But just as maps moved from paper maps to Google Maps, it didn't stop there. It moves and has moved to self-autonomous cars. There will be a day when you and I don't ever have to look at a map because, rather than the map being a tool to help me make the decision to get somewhere, the map will be a part of a service I use that just gets the job done. It gets me from point A to point B.

In finance, the job is to invest my money properly. Steward it so that it grows, so that it's there for me when I retire. That's our vision as well. We're going to move from being an information service to actually doing it for you. It's just a default way so that if you do nothing, your financial assets are well taken care of. That's what we think is the ultimate vision of this: Everything works beautifully and you no longer have to think about it.

We're now asked to make ridiculous decisions about spreading money between a checking account, an IRA, a savings account and a 401K, which really make no sense to most of us. The vision is to have one pot of money that invests itself correctly, that you put money into when you earn money. You take money out when you spend it. You don't have to make any decisions that you were never trained nor educated to make about your own personal finances because it just does the right thing. The self-driving car is our vision.

Connecting the future of personal finance with an autonomous car is an interesting perspective. Just as with outsourcing driving, however, there's the potential for negative outcomes. Do you have any concerns about the algorithm going awry?

Bo Lu: We are extremely cognizant of the weighty matters that we are working with here. We have a ton of testing that happens internally. You could even criticize us, as a software development firm, in that we're moving slower than other software development firms. We're not going to move as quickly as Twitter or Foursquare because, to be honest, if they mess up, it's not that big a deal. We're extremely careful about it.

At the same time, I think the Google self-driving car analogy is apt because people immediately say, "Well, what if the car gets into an accident?" Those kinds of fears exist in all fields that matter.


Analysis: Why this matters

"The analogy that comes to mind for me isn't the self-driving car," commented Mike Loukides, via email. "It's personalized medicine."

One of the big problems in health care is that to qualify treatments, we do testing over a very wide sample, and reject it if it doesn't work better than a placebo. But what about drugs that are 100% effective on 10% of the population, but 0% effective on 90%? They're almost certainly rejected. It strikes me that what Future Advisor is doing isn't so much helping you to go on autopilot, but getting beyond generic prescriptions and generating customized advice, just as a future MD might be able to do a DNA sequence in his office and generate a custom treatment.

The secret sauce for Future Advisor is the combination of personal data, open government data and proprietary algorithms. The key to realizing value, in this context, is combining multiple data streams with a user interface that's easy for a consumer to navigate. That combination has long been known by another name: It's a mashup. But the mashups of 2012 have something that those of 2002 didn't have, at least in volume or quality: data.

Future Advisor, Redfin (real estate) or Castlight (healthcare) are all interesting examples of entrepreneurs creating data products from democratized government data. Future Advisor uses data from consumers and the U.S. Department of Labor, Redfin synthesizes data from economists and government agencies, and Castlight uses health data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In each case, they provide a valuable service and/or product by making sense of that data deluge.

Related:

December 15 2011

Where is the OkCupid for elections?

OK Candidate and ElectnextTo date, we've generally been more adept at collecting and storing data than making sense of it. The companies, individuals and governments that become the most adept at data analysis are doing more than finding the signal in the noise: They are creating a strategic capability. Sometimes, the data comes from unexpected directions. For instance, OkCupid's approach to dating with data has earned it millions of users. In the process, OkCupid has gained great insight into the dynamics of dating in the 21st century, which it then shared on its blog.

Based upon their success, I wondered aloud at this year's Newsfoo whether a similar data-driven web app could be built to help citizens match themselves up with candidates:

After Tim tweeted the observation, I quickly learned two things:

  1. Albert Sun, Daniel Bachhuber, Ashwin Shandilya and Jay Zalowitz had built exactly that app at the 2011 Times Open Hack Day on the day I posed the question. OkCandidate is a web app that matches up a citizen with a Republican presidential candidate. (There's no comparable matching engine for Barack Obama, perhaps given that Democrats expect that the current incumbent of the White House will be the Democratic Party's nominee in 2012.) OkCandidate presents a straightforward series of questions about a wide range of core foreign and domestic issues with ratings to allow the user to rank the importance of agreeing with a given candidate. The app is open source, so if you want to try to improve the code, click on over to OkCandidate on GitHub.
  2. ElectNext, a Philadelphia-based startup, has focused on solving this problem. The "eHarmony for voters," as TechCrunch describes it, aims to match you to your candidate. I also learned that ElectNext won the Judges' Choice Award at the 2011 Web 2.0 Expo/NY Startup Showcase. In the video below, Joanne Wilson and Mo Koyfman discuss the startup from a venture capitalist's perspective.

The politics of big data

Creating a better issue-matching engine for voters and candidates is a genuinely useful civic function. The not-so-hidden opportunity here, however, may be to gather a rich dataset from those choices in precisely the same way that OkCupid has done for dating. That's clearly part of the mindset here: "The data on individual users we don't share with anyone," ElectNext founder Keya Danenbaum told Fast Company. "But the way we foresee using all this information we're collecting is ... eventually to aggregate that and say something really interesting in a poll type of report."

How news organizations and campaigns alike collect, store and analyze data is going to matter much more. Close watchers of the intersection of politics and technology already think the Obama campaign's data crunching may help the president win re-election. As Personal Democracy Media co-founder Micah Sifry put it back in April, "it's the data, stupid."

Big data is "powering the race for the White House," wrote Patrick Ruffini, president of Engage, an interactive agency in D.C.:

The hottest job in today's Presidential campaigns is the Data Mining Scientist — whose job it is to sort through terabytes of data and billions of behaviors tracked in voter files, consumer databases, and site logs. They'll use the numbers to uncover hidden patterns that predict how you'll vote, if you'll pony up with a donation, and if you'll influence your friends to support a candidate.

Alistair Croll, the co-chair of the Strata Conference, thinks it's a strategic capability. "After Eisenhower, you couldn't win an election without radio," he told me at Strata, Calif., in February. "After JFK, you couldn't win an election without television. After Obama, you couldn't win an election without social networking. I predict that in 2012, you won't be able to win an election without big data."

Strata 2012 — The 2012 Strata Conference, being held Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20

Related:

December 06 2011

Stickers as sensors

Rather than ask people to integrate bulky or intrusive sensors into their lives, GreenGoose's upcoming system (pre-orders start on Dec. 15; systems ship on Jan. 1) will instead provide small stickers with built-in Internet-connected sensors. Tip a water bottle and the attached GreenGoose sticker logs it through a small base station that plugs into your wireless router. Feed the dog, go for a walk, clean the house — GreenGoose has designs on all of it. No special skills required.

GreenGoose founder Brian Krejcarek calls his company's sensors "elegantly playful." In the following short interview, Krejcarek explains how the GreenGoose stickers will work and how he hopes people will use the data they acquire from their everyday activities.

What will GreenGoose stickers measure?

Brian Krejcarek: Our sensors measure things you do based on how you interact with an object. This interaction correlates to a signature of forces that our sensors try to match against known patterns that represent a specific behavior around the use of the object. When there's a match, then we send a little wireless message from the sensor to the Internet.

For example, you can put a sensor sticker on a medicine bottle or water bottle. There are certain patterns here — tip, dispense, return upright — that the sensors can pick up.

Stickers are great for this because they're simple, flexible and they easily stick to curved things like bottles. Also, existing objects or things around the house can be enabled with sensing capabilities by just sticking on a sticker. We're taking everyday things and making them more fun. We're also lowering barriers to adopting sensors by treating them in a playful way.

We're trying to make it really easy. There's no batteries to recharge or USB cables or software to worry about. The sensors last more than a year, and the range is over 200 feet, so it's completely in the background.

We're finding all kinds of new applications for these sensors. We're going to be launching with sensors that target pets — measuring when you feed your pets or walk the dog, for instance. We've got about 50 or so other sensors in development right now that we will fairly quickly release over time.

GreenGoose sensor system
The GreenGoose sensor/sticker system.

How are you applying gamification?

Brian Krejcarek: We're keeping the gamification side of this really simple to start. It's all about making people smile and sharing a laugh as they do ordinary things throughout their day. No points, levels, or badges, necessarily. We're first going to roll out a simple application ourselves around these pet sensors, but developers will have immediate access to the API and data they generate. We invite those developers to start layering on their own game mechanics. GreenGoose is a platform play.

How do you think people will use the data your sensors gather?

Brian Krejcarek: We hope that the use of the data fits nicely into applications that help people have more fun with everyday things they do. Think families and kids. Toward that end, we've got a bunch of sensors on the way for toys and doing things around the house.

What lies ahead for GreenGoose?

Brian Krejcarek: Plans going forward include launching the previously mentioned sensor kits around pets, releasing an open API to developers, and launching a sensor around physical movement (exercise) as a little card that can slip into your wallet or purse. We affectionately call it a "get-up-off-your-bum" sensor. No calorie tracking, or graphs and charts. More sensors will be released shortly afterward, too.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Strata 2012 — The 2012 Strata Conference, being held Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20

Related:

December 01 2011

A young entrepreneur's perspective on Angolan innovation

Nyanga Tyitapeka (@kapetatyi) is the founder and director of Infonauta, Prestação de Serviços, an Angola-based startup company specializing in customer loyalty solutions. I met Tyitapeka at Strata New York last September and was struck by her background in energy and environmental analysis, political science, and economics.

The chance to hear about technology innovation in Africa from a personal perspective is rare, so I asked Tyitapeka to share her thoughts on the Angolan tech scene.

Give us the 10,000-foot view of the technology industry in Angola.

Nyanga Tyitapeka: Today, Angola is certainly not a bountiful country when it comes to tech goods and services. The industry is only just starting here — Angola is one of the last frontiers for big tech giants.

However, the industry is expanding at a fast pace, pervading societal interactions and becoming a source for change in the lives of many Angolans in a significant way. It will be extremely difficult for Angola to stay immune to the wave of technological development that has hit the rest of world in the last decade or so. There's a concerted effort by the government to lay down the regulatory foundations, and it's also investing in infrastructure that will allow for faster development. Fiber optic cables, for instance, are being installed, and we expect to have a telecom satellite by 2013.

Large tech companies have, in the past, adopted a wait-and-see approach toward the Angolan market, either opting to not come or to use middle-men; this scenario is definitely changing. Companies like Google, which held a conference in Luanda during the first week of November, have recognized that this moment is propitious for serious investment.

It's not surprising that telecommunications has benefited the most from tech innovations. For decades, civil conflict was a de facto bottleneck in the flow of information. Once peace came and the right conditions were set, it was as if a can of soda had burst open. Angolan telecommunication companies, with the help of Siemens and Portugal Telecom, along with business leaders (both men and women) who turned to Brazil, Dubai, the U.S., the UK, Portugal, and China as suppliers of mobile phones and computers, all moved fast to respond to the demand of the market for telecommunication goods and services. The number of newly installed landlines dwindled, pay phones never took off, desktops are mostly confined to the office setting — yet communication soared.

What are the biggest challenges facing Angola today?

Nyanga Tyitapeka: Low levels of literacy, in general. There is not enough brain power devoted to the tech industry and, consequently, there is little to no production capacity. Development issues are the biggest problems for Angola and for a significant number of countries on this continent. There are other challenges, but those are minor in the face of basic needs. Literacy is obviously a prerequisite to achieving reasonable tech-literacy.

Where are the biggest opportunities?

Nyanga Tyitapeka: Like in many other African countries, Angola will soon experience vertiginous growth in mobile tech applications. Mobile platforms and the introduction of GSM, coupled with some interesting payment options, have allowed a war-torn country to bypass huge infrastructure investments. Here, both individuals and businesses rely heavily on USB modems to browse the Internet and on cell phones to stay in touch. An Angolan with a bank account can conveniently check her account balance by sending an SMS, bypassing traffic and long queues at the bank.

Some predict that in the next few years, services like buying a movie ticket, downloading an MP3 file, or using a vending machine in Africa will not require cash nor a credit/debit card, just a cell phone. Cell phones as wallets work well because while an illiterate person may not know how to read and write, she can count and use numbers. Therefore, she can learn how to send an SMS, so long as the message is a number. The possibilities are endless — think about it. When a business can receive mobile payments from a customer, everybody wins: the business's bank, the customer's bank, the telephone services provider, the business, and the client.

What is fascinating about Angola and sub-Saharan countries in general is that they compensate for weak infrastructure and overcome major obstacles by embracing solutions that are nearly grid-free and simple to use.

There's also plenty of room for growth for some device makers who want to establish a presence in the region. Angola, in particular, imports virtually all of the tech devices it uses. Creating regional industrial subsidiaries would greatly cut down the price of imported devices, which sell well here, in spite of the fact that they are extremely expensive due to low supply.

You founded your own company recently — how would you characterize the startup environment in Angola?

Nyanga Tyitapeka: The startup environment is heavily skewed toward restaurants, beauty parlors, corner stores, and small fashion boutiques. Angolans are known in the international business community as entrepreneurial; however, the success rate of startups is still very low. Starting up a business is relatively easy and cheap. I did it in one month's time. However, maintaining it is a whole different game. Some 60% of businesses fail within the first year. You want to start out as lean as possible, say by running a home office by yourself. But working from home is often looked down upon, and working alone can be extremely hard — running administrative errands around town with heavy traffic and without the support of an assistant is a nightmare here.

More troubling for the startup environment than dodging heavy traffic, avoiding high rents, and overcoming cultural barriers is the small pool of enthusiastic people who are OK forfeiting a salary in order to join a startup.

Are you working on any new projects?

Nyanga Tyitapeka: I am currently building Infograficus. It's a hobby platform and a place for Angolans who want to start using the data I've been tracking to make their lives a little easier.

I've started playing with the data I've collected to get some visuals, mostly mapping how prices of the same product vary in different areas of the city. I am also interested in using the information to visualize the economic geography of street vending and to understand the civil response capacity to an emergency situation. It is one way I can help people who face the same problems I face on a daily basis.

Is big data having an impact on the work you do? Where else are you seeing its influence?

Nyanga Tyitapeka: I am not aware of how companies and governmental agencies are harnessing the power of big data, but it is out there, especially in the energy, financial, telecommunications, retail, travel, and public and health sectors. The truth is that Angola is at a stage of the evolutionary process where data itself is a product. Companies and government institutions are, knowingly or not, collecting loads and loads of data.

Data is a natural resource that can assume many forms — from cash transactions to video footage in a store. I call it a natural resource because it is a byproduct generated almost automatically in every business transaction. My hope is that aside from just storing data and running the risk of losing it, economic agents will start looking for companies like mine to figure out what to do with data they already have: how to get better data, how to analyze the data by asking the right questions, and how to turn data into actionable information and a competitive advantage.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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Related

November 17 2011

Four short links: 17 November 2011

  1. Questioning University -- my take on the issue of whether a university education (particularly CS) is still relevant or whether kids should go straight to startups. So what do I tell my kids? Should I urge them to go to university? Should I tell them to jack it all in and run off and join a startup? This is what's occupying my mind now.
  2. Still Cripped by Free (Simon Phipps) -- the freedoms of free and open software (the ability to use it for whatever you want, to improve it or give it to others who can then improve it) represent creative and financial independence. Fifteen years after open source and business really started to get dirty with each other, the misunderstanding is still widespread that it's about price. Simon has a clear and robust essay about the latest UK procurement guidelines to show why price can be subverted in a way that freedom cannot.
  3. The Private and Social Costs of Patent Trolls -- Using stock market event studies around patent lawsuit filings, we find that NPE lawsuits are associated with half a trillion dollars of lost wealth to defendants from 1990 through 2010, mostly from technology companies. Moreover, very little of this loss represents a transfer to small inventors. Instead, it implies reduced innovation incentives. (via BoingBoing)
  4. Facebook's Teams and Use of Data -- great talk by Adam Mosseri of Facebook, where he covers the composition of teams at Facebook, how they use data to make decisions, and when they don't use data to make decisions. (via Bryce Roberts)

August 25 2011

The Daily Dot wants to tell the web's story with social data journalism

If the Internet is the public square of the 21st century, the Daily Dot wants to be its town crier. The newly launched online media startup is trying an experiment in community journalism, where the community is the web. It's an interesting vision, and one that looks to capitalize on the amount of time people are spending online.

The Daily Dot wants to tell stories through a mix of data journalism and old-fashioned reporting, where its journalists pick up the phone and chase down the who, what, when, where, how and why of a video, image or story that's burning up the social web. The site's beat writers, who are members of the communities they cover, watch what's happening on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, Tumblr and Etsy, and then cover the issues and people that matter to them.

Daily Dot screenshot

Even if the newspaper metaphor has some flaws, this focus on original reporting could help distinguish the Daily Dot in a media landscape where attention and quality are both fleeting. In the hurly burly of the tech and new media blogosphere, picking up the phone to chase down a story is too often neglected.

There's something significant about that approach. Former VentureBeat editor Owen Thomas (@OwenThomas), the founding editor of the Daily Dot, has emphasized this angle in interviews with AdWeek and Forbes. Instead of mocking what people do online, as many mainstream media outlets have been doing for decades, the Daily Dot will tell their stories in the same way that a local newspaper might cover a country fair or concert. While Thomas was a well-known master of snark and satire during his tenure at Valleywag, in this context he's changed his style.

Where's the social data?

Whether or not this approach gains traction within the communities the Daily Dot covers remains to be seen. The Daily Dot was co-founded by Nova Spivack, former newspaper executive Nicholas White, and PR consultant Josh Jones-Dilworth, with a reported investment of some $600,000 from friends and family. White has written that he gave up the newspaper to save newspapering. Simply put, the Daily Dot is experimenting with covering the Internet in a way that most newspapers have failed to do.

"I trust that if we keep following people into the places where they gather to trade gossip, argue the issues, seek inspiration, and share lives, then we will also find communities in need of quality journalism," wrote White. "We will be carrying the tradition of local community-based journalism into the digital world, a professional coverage, practice and ethics coupled with the kind of local interaction and engagement required of a relevant and meaningful news source. Yet local to us means the digital communities that are today every bit as vibrant as those geographically defined localities."

To do that, they'll be tapping into an area that Spivack, a long-time technology entrepreneur, has been investing and writing about for years: data. Specifically, applying data journalism to mining and analyzing the social data from two of the web's most vibrant platforms: Tumblr and Reddit.

White himself is unequivocal about the necessity of data journalism in the new digital landscape, whether at the Daily Dot or beyond:

The Daily Dot may be going in this direction now because of our unique coverage area, but if this industry is to flourish in the 21st century, programming journalists should not remain unique. Data, just like the views of experts, men on the street, polls and participants, is a perspective on the world. And in the age of ATMs, automatic doors and customer loyalty cards, it's become just as ubiquitous. But the media isn't so good with data, with actual mathematics. Our stock-in-trade is the anecdote. Despite a complete lack of solid evidence, we've been telling people their cell phones will give them cancer. Our society ping-pongs between eating and not eating carbs, drinking too much coffee and not enough water, getting more Omega-3s — all on the basis of epidemiological research that is far, far, far from definitive. Most reporters do not know how to evaluate research studies, and so they report the authors' conclusions without any critical evaluation — and studies need critical evaluation.

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Marshall Kirkpatrick, a proponent and practitioner of data journalism, dug deep into how data journalism happens at the Daily Dot. While he's similarly unsure of whether the publication will be interesting to a large enough audience to sustain an advertising venture, the way that the Daily Dot is going about hunting down digital stories is notable. Kirkpatrick shared the details over at ReadWriteWeb:

In order to capture and analyze that data from sites like Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Etsy and more (the team says it's indexing a new community about every six weeks), the Dot has partnered with the mathematicians at Ravel Data. Ravel uses 80Legs for unblockable crawling, then Hadoop, its own open source framework called GoldenOrb and then an Eigenvector centrality algorithm (similar to Pagerank) to index, analyze, rank and discover connections between millions of users across these social networks.

There are a couple of aspects of data journalism to consider here. One is supplementing the traditional "nose for news" that Daily Dot writers apply to finding stories. "The data really begins to serve as our editorial prosthetics of sorts, telling us where to look, with whom to speak, and giving us the basic groundwork of the communities that we can continue to prod in interesting ways and ask questions of," explained Doug Freeman, an associate at Daily Dot investor Josh Jones-Dilworth's PR firm, in an interview. In other words, the editors of the Daily Dot analyze social data to identify the community's best sources for stories and share them on a "Leaderboard" that — in beta — shows a ranked list of members of Tumblr and Reddit.

Another open question is how social data could help with the startup's revenue down the road. "Our data business is a way of creating and funding new value in this regard; we instigated structured crawls of all of the communities we will cover and will continue to do so as we expand into new places," said Freeman. "We started with Reddit (for data and editorial both) because it is small and has a lot of complex properties — a good test balloon. We've now completed data work with Tumblr and YouTube and are continuing." For each community, data provides a view of members, behaviors, and influence dynamics.

That data also relates to how the Daily Dot approaches marketing, branding and advertising. "It's essentially a to-do list of people we need to get reading the Dot, and a list of their behaviors," said Freeman. "From a brand [point of view], it's market and audience intelligence that we can leverage, with services alongside it. From an advertiser [point of view], this data gives resolution and insight that few other outlets can provide. It will get even more exciting over time as we start to tie Leaderboard data to user accounts and instigate CPA-based campaigns with bonuses and bounties for highly influential clicks."

Taken as a whole, what the Daily Dot is doing with social data and digital journalism feels new, or at least like a new evolution. We've seen Facebook and Twitter integration into major media sites, but not Reddit and Tumblr. It could be that the communities of these sites acting as "curation layers" for the web will produce excellent results in terms of popular content, though relevance could still be at issue. Whether this venture in data journalism is successful or not will depend upon it retaining the interest and loyalty of the communities it covers. What is clear, for now, is that the experiment will be fun to watch — cute LOL cats and all.



Related:


August 22 2011

MagAppZine's goal: From PDF to app in about 15 minutes

MagAppZineLogo.PNGThe next TOC Sneak Peek webcast on August 25 will feature startup company MagAppZine, a platform that allows publishers to create custom apps without a lot of overhead.

In the following interview, MagAppZine founder Paul Canetti (@paulcanetti), who worked at Apple during the birth of the iPhone and the subsequent app revolution, talks about how the MagAppZine platform works and the benefits he sees for publishers.

How did MagAppZine get started?

paulcanetti.jpgPaul Canetti: I was working at Apple when the iPhone was first released and I got to see the effects of the "app revolution" firsthand. I left in 2009 and started creating apps for hire, and that is when I realized the huge potential for publishers — but the costs and demand on resources were just too high. So I set off to create a platform where publishers can actually create apps themselves and manage their content over time, quickly, easily, and affordably.

MagAppZine really aims to get publishers of all shapes and sizes up and running in the digital age as painlessly as possible. Anyone that tells you it's hard is just doing it wrong.

What's the process for creating an app through MagAppZine?

Paul Canetti: There are five basic steps:

  1. Sign up for an account at magappzine.com
  2. Once logged into MagControl, our web dashboard, click "Create New App"
  3. Enter basic information like name, description, and upload your logo, app icon, etc.
  4. Start adding issues by uploading PDFs
  5. Click "Submit" and we send your app off to Apple

The whole process takes about 15 minutes, assuming you already have your icon and such ready to go. I should also mention that starting in September, it is going to be free to sign up for an account and try out the MagControl tool. You can make an app and upload issues using your free account. Only when you want to actually submit it to the App Store in step 5 will you be charged.

Is the platform targeted toward a specific kind of publisher?

Paul Canetti: Clearly the name brings in magazines first and foremost, but the tool itself is really applicable to all sorts of publications. Anything that can be a PDF is fair game. I have a lot of conversations with small book publishers looking to create a bookstore app on a particular topic or as a branding tool for the publisher or a specific author. It is my philosophy that you should be everywhere your readers potentially are, so when someone searches for you on the App Store, it's you that they find.

How can book publishers use the platform?

Paul Canetti: The bookstore app is really cool, and chunking up books into collections fits nicely under the umbrella of the app. I'm also excited to start seeing sub-divisions of books — selling chapter by chapter — or using the subscription functionality to have a sort of book club app or a series where new content is being released regularly. The possibilites are really endless. Not only that, but using our new multimedia and link tools, you can add audio or video to your books, skip around within the book — remember the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series? It really opens up the doors for being creative and taking advantage of the format.

What's your launch schedule?

Paul Canetti: Our most basic app package launched in April of this year, but in September we are re-launching MagAppZine 2.0, which will include the new links and multimedia, an InDesign tool, and integration with Apple's upcoming Newsstand feature. We're also rolling out a new tiered monthly pricing structure that has plans starting at $99 a month.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Webcast: TOC Sneak Peek at BookRiff, LiquidText, and MagAppZine — Sneak Peeks are a TOC webcast series featuring a behind-the-scenes look at publishing start-ups and their products. Our next episode will feature presentations from BookRiff, LiquidText, and MagAppZine.

Join us on Thursday, August 25, 2011, at 10 am PT
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Related:


  • The ascendance of App Inventor
  • Apple's in-app shift: What does it mean for publishers?
  • The secret to digital publishing success? Don't start with the book
  • Ubiquity and revenue streams: How HTML5 can help publishers

  • August 16 2011

    July 25 2011

    What publishing can learn from tech startups

    Todd Sattersten (@toddsattersten), founder of BizBookLab, argues in his new book "Every Book Is a Startup" that authors and publishers need to be more entrepreneurial and treat each book like a startup business. His conviction on this point is so strong that he's using the startup model itself to publish his new title. In the interview below, I talk with Todd about the specifics of the model and how he's applying it.

    What parts of the traditional publishing model are limiting opportunities?

    ToddSattersten.jpgTodd Sattersten: There are several things that limit opportunities. Most traditional books take two years to write, publish, and distribute, and risk increases with time. Editors ask themselves more often today, “Will the point of view presented still be applicable and relevant?”

    Additionally, product marketing as a business practice has evolved, while books continue to be published as a singular product without regard for alternate use cases and price points. For example, only the biggest of bestsellers warrants a premium edition. Enormous opportunity lies in versioning.

    Your personal definition for a "book" can limit your opportunities as well. If you limit that definition to, say, 224 pages of paper in a 6-inch-by-9-inch trim size, you just made your world a pretty small one.

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    How does your book map out the new publishing model?

    Todd Sattersten: My argument starts with the idea that entrepreneurship needs to be brought back to book publishing. As an industry, we introduced over 3 million new products to the marketplace in 2010. Each one of those books start in the same place: in search of an audience. Startups face the same problem.

    The core set of ideas I plan to present will look familiar to people who work in publishing. The way I approach them will be very different. I dispel some myths and identify some trends that are important to understand as we search for new business models.

    What kinds of tech startup concepts can be applied to publishing practices?

    Todd Sattersten: Publishing uses what the technology folks call the waterfall method of development. The process starts with a set of requirements. The functions are stacked next to each other, and the work is handed off in a serial fashion until the requirements are complete and the project is ready to be launched. In the world of books, this starts with the proposal and ends with the finished book on the shelf.

    The startup community has abandoned the waterfall method for a different process called agile development. The process starts with direct feedback from the customer about what they want. Work is released over the course of weeks or even days. And most importantly, the team collaborates through the iterative process with product managers, programmers, testers and operation folks all at the table throughout.

    For a startup, the first iteration of the agile process is the minimum viable product. What is the absolute smallest feature set that can be introduced to the market so that the company can gather feedback from real customers? The initial release emphasizes learning and iterating, adding what is needed as the customer base grows.

    I am not going to suggest that every book can follow this path, but there are plenty of examples where it works. How many books start as magazine articles or short stories? Chris Anderson's cover stories in Wired magazine preceded by two years "The Long Tail," "Free," and his upcoming book "The New Industrial Revolution." Vanessa Veselka's new book "Zazen" was serialized twice — on her blog and then in Arthur Magazine — before being published by Richard Nash's new publishing company Red Lemonade. When the work is released into the world, readers have the opportunity to interact with it. Holding onto an idea only increases the risk that no one will be there when it is finally released.

    SatterstenBookCover.gifHow are you applying startup techniques to your book launch?

    Todd Sattersten: We are using the minimum viable product concept with this project. The initial release of the book comes with two core ideas — “Black Swans and Long Tails” and “Help the Heroes.” At the end of the current release, I ask the readers to give us feedback on the quality of the material and what they would like to see next. I have set up a site at Get Satisfaction to let everyone contribute and interact with the evolution of the book.

    We are also using a dynamic pricing structure for the book. The initial price is $4.99, and we will raise the price as more material is added. What is particularly interesting is that once a reader buys it, he or she will get all future updates at no additional cost. So, the sooner you buy, the more value you get and the more opportunity you get to shape future releases.

    I love that we are taking the very ideas that we talk about in the book and applying them to the business model of the project itself. We need to be trying more experiments like this in publishing.

    Are there aspects of a tech startup that don't apply to the publishing side?

    Todd Sattersten: Yes — first, a book has a limited life cycle. The majority of revenue is earned in the first three to five years. There would be a weak business case for enlisting angels and venture capitalists to invest capital in exchange for equity. Startups have longer runways and higher revenue potential.

    Startups also normally have more than one founder, and they focus on different aspects of making their fledgling business successful. Books lack this strength in numbers, as most are written by one person with expertise in their subject area, not the inner workings of book publishing. This inexperience forces them to find their own way and their own market, and it limits the potential of many books.

    Finally, startups can change their business models and pivot toward more successful configurations. The business model for a book is defined when the contract is signed — the product is largely defined, revenue splits are determined, and the distribution capability is known.

    This interview was edited and condensed.



    Related:


    • Release Early, Release Often: Agile Software Development in publishing
    • Want to succeed in online content? Get small, be open, go free
    • Ebook pricing power is undermined by perceived value
    • Support vs Access: Why Highlighter picked Seattle


    • July 20 2011

      Support vs Access: Why Highlighter picked Seattle

      HighlighterLogo.PNGAnnotation and marginalia issues in digital publishing have been much discussed here on Radar and elsewhere. Solutions are being brought to the table, the latest and perhaps most in-depth of which is Highlighter, an application that allows readers to interact with words, sentences or paragraphs of content on any content management system. (Audrey Watters has a nice breakdown of Highlighter's capabilities on ReadWriteWeb.)

      For more on the company — including its location outside the publishing and tech epicenters of New York and Silicon Valley — I turned to Highlighter co-founder and CEO Josh Mullineaux (@JoshMullineaux). Mullineaux will also be speaking at next week's miniTOC Portland in Portland, Ore.

      Do you consider Highlighter to be a tech company or a publishing company

      Josh_Mullineaux.pngJosh Mullineaux: I see Highlighter as more of a tech company. The reason being that we are a very software-heavy company with plans to produce more software. We are a publishing company, too, because our goal is to bring publishers and readers together, via our software.

      Why did you choose not to locate in Silicon Valley or New York City?

      Josh Mullineaux: We are all from Seattle, our families are here, most of our investors are here, and Seattle is a fantastic place to start a software/technology company. There is a large talent pool here with Amazon and Microsoft, and now Facebook and Zynga as well. Seattle is a close-knit community, so networking and getting to know others in both the technology and publishing industries is fairly easy to do. The people of Seattle also are committed to making this a great place to start a company and to nurturing our community.

      miniTOC Portland — Being held on Wednesday, July 27, 2011, miniTOC Portland will bring together art, business, craft and technology leaders for a day of collaboration in Portland, Ore.

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      Do you have concerns about not being in one of the tech or publishing epicenters?

      Josh Mullineaux: I attended Book Expo America in New York this year for the first time, and I must say that I was immediately impressed with the concentration of people in the publishing industry based in New York City. If there's a drawback to our location, it would be that. Seattle simply doesn't have the number of publishing companies and people in the publishing industry that New York has. That said, I'm sure I'll be spending more time in New York connecting with people and companies.

      What are your short- and long-term goals for Highlighter?

      Josh Mullineaux: When we launched our first WordPress plugin about eight months ago, we learned a lot about how people wanted to use Highlighter and the sorts of features that were going to be most useful for our customers. Now with the public launch of Highlighter, the product is completely based off of user requests and where we see Highlighter as being most effective. Our short-term goal is to really refine the product to something that authors, bloggers, and educators absolutely love.

      Our goal for authors is to make their online content more social, help them drive more traffic to their content, help them write content that their readers love, and in the end, help them sell more books.

      For educators, we want to make their online content even better. We have partnered with professors at the University of Colorado, University of Washington, and Northwestern University, and we are making their online content for courses more engaging. This means allowing students and professors to interact over specific sentences, paragraphs, and images and also making it easier for students to save important notes and snippets of texts or images to their Highlighter account. The education market is something we're excited about.

      Long term, we want to be an indispensable part of education and to authors. We want to make sure we're helping authors sell more books and helping education become more effective.

      This interview was edited and condensed.

      For more on how Highlighter works, check out the following video:



      Related:


    • Reports of marginalia's demise have been exaggerated
    • 3 ways to improve ebook note taking
    • Ebook annotations, links and notes: Must-haves or distractions?
    • Notes that don't break the reading flow

    • July 13 2011

      What are the ideal conditions for tech startups?

      When Thibauld Favre started talking about his startup at the reception following the first day of the eG8 Forum in Paris, he could have been any eager, bright young entrepreneur. He pitched the idea of a "Windows App Store" with great enthusiasm, noting that All My Apps already had more than 500,000 users, with a billion-plus potential Windows users to attract in the future. Favre said that the platform was in open beta and, with 15 employees, his startup was growing fast.

      And then he said that his next step was to move to California to be closer to the ecosystem of developer networks and startups. When I asked Favre why he would leave France, which was offering generous subsidies for his fledgling tech company, his answer was straightforward: He wanted to tap into the culture of tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

      During my trip to Paris for the eG8, the following concerns about the conditions for startups in France emerged in various discussions.

      • Lack of a mentorship culture — In Silicon Valley, established entrepreneurs mentor new ones.
      • A limited venture capital ecosystem — There's low tolerance for risk, or lack thereof, in investors. That concern goes for engineers as well, in terms of joining startups, big business, or government.
      • Hierarchical institutions — There's a resistance to the flattening effect of technology in enterprises and government. That culture can transfer to smaller concerns. (Think of "Gov 2.0 vs the beast of bureaucracy.)
      • Inability to fire people — When people don't perform as needed in startups, entrepreneurs have to bring in new talent or they'll lose to innovators in the market who can.
      • Low tolerance for flex time or casual attire — Talented software engineers have a global marketplace for their talents. Formal dress and rigid working hours are significant negatives.
      • Tax structure — Without being too specific about the codes in question, entrepreneurs said startup costs and red-tape were an issue.
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      The Economist's briefing on Europe's tech entrepreneurs last year reflected these themes. There are young European technology companies in France, like Criteo, but from what I've heard there's a long way yet to go to attract more of them or catalyze their founding.

      "I definitely agree with these arguments," said Internet entrepreneur Fabrice Grinda, founder of Aucland and co-CEO of OLX. Grinda was quite critical of the eG8 after its conclusion. "The inability to fire people and too much red tape are high on the list and can be addressed," he said. "A smaller domestic market and entrepreneurs looking only domestically is harder to address."

      What do you think? Do you agree with this characterization of conditions in France? Do they exists elsewhere in Europe? If France could address these issues, would more venture capital move into the country and fund the technical talent coming out of its universities? Is there a universal set of conditions that a given city, state or country needs to meet in order to catalyze startup activity and job creation?

      Please share your thoughts in the comments.

      June 30 2011

      Four short links: 30 June 2011

      1. Electric Dreams - The 1980s 'The Micro Home Computer Of 1982' (YouTube) -- from a reality show where a gadget-using family are forced to relive 30 years of technology invention, one year each day. This clip is where they're forced to choose a microcomputer from the rush of early hobbyist machines in the 80s: Spectrum, Dragon-32, etc. (via Skud)
      2. K-12 Entrepreneurship: Slow Entry, Distant Exit (PDF) -- paper (from the set I pointed to yesterday) laying out in start terms the difficulty of educational entrepreneurship. Keeping the lights on and a teacher in every classroom consumes most of the annual money spent on education so that little is left over to generate or try new tools, techniques or approaches. Out of every dollar spent on education in 2005, only 3.5 cents was spent on materials, tools and services. Subtract the big mandatory purchases of textbooks and annual testing, and one is left with almost no free funds to deploy creatively. With class size reduction and teacher incentive pay ramping up around the country, the pressure on these budget lines continues to increase, reducing the dollars available for investment in breakthrough tools and services.
      3. VisualSearch.js -- MIT-licensed open-source JavaScript library for augmenting search-boxes with facets and values. (via DocumentCloud Blog)
      4. Here Be Dragons (Bryan O'Sullivan) -- the thorny problem of printing floating point numbers. Prior to Steele and White’s "How to print floating-point numbers accurately", implementations of printf and similar rendering functions did their best to render floating point numbers, but there was wide variation in how well they behaved. A number such as 1.3 might be rendered as 1.29999999, for instance, or if a number was put through a feedback loop of being written out and its written representation read back, each successive result could drift further and further away from the original.

      June 16 2011

      Four short links: 16 June 2011

      1. Solar Powered Wireless Sensor Network -- Chris is building wireless sensor networks using open source software and hardware that could be used in a variety of applications like air quality or home energy monitoring. It looks like he was inspired by Tweetawatt and is using xBee and ASUS wifi for communication in conjunction with Pachube for data display. (via MindKits)
      2. CSS Lint -- validate and quality check your CSS. (via Jacine Luisi)
      3. An Introduction to Stock Options for the Tech Entrepreneur or Startup Employee (Scribd) -- nice introduction to board, stock, options, finance, dilution, and more.
      4. Interesting Web Hacks (Quora) -- You can quickly run HTML in the browser without creating a HTML file: Enter this in the address bar: data:text/html,<h1>Hello, world!<h1> (via Alex Gibson)

      June 01 2011

      May 06 2011

      Improving the landscape for organic startups

      Next Tuesday, May 10, entrepreneur Sherwood Neiss will be testifying before U.S. Congressman Darrell Issa and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to advocate a regulatory change that I have been working to support: a small offering exemption, aka "crowdfunding exemption." It's a simple change that the SEC has the authority to make, and which I believe would spur grassroots innovation and empowerment the way the NSF's revision of the internet backbone's Acceptable Use Policy did back in the early 1990s. (Remember that one?)

      The background (which I didn't know until fairly recently), is that any investment where the return does not depend on the investor's active, day-to-day involvement is considered a security. And securities, no matter how small, are either regulated by the SEC or state securities departments. There are no de minimis exceptions; shares in a lemonade stand would require registration, which I'm told costs $50,000-$100,000 or more (federal) or $20,000-$50,000 (state), mostly legal fees. For VC-free startups based on people doing things that they care about, these costs are prohibitive.

      There are exemptions from registration, but never for investments that are described on the open web, like the donation pitches that have made sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo such fonts of creativity — this is prohibited as "general solicitation." Investments offered privately to friends and family can be exempt, but with strict limits on the numbers of "unaccredited" investors (non-millionaires) allowed in, like a maximum of 35.

      These laws were enacted to protect unsophisticated investors from fraud, but they also prevent people from investing in small businesses in their own neighborhoods, or garage ventures launched out of communities of interest that they belong to — despite the likelihood that their personal ties to such investments gives them a better basis for evaluating risk (and contributing to success) than some mass of SEC filings cooked up in an office somewhere. And so, in the name of investor protection, the investments industry currently has a monopoly on all the invested assets of the non-millionaire public. People can't invest in the people they know from their own communities; they can only entrust their money to the choices contained in a managed menu of exclusively non-local, large-scale investment products.

      As an alternative, the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) in Oakland (for whom I volunteer) petitioned the SEC last year for a new exemption to cover investment offerings where individual investments are capped at $100 and the total amount is less than $100,000. The SEC posted it to their website last July 1 as File No. 4-605 (PDF). Check it out! It's a great document, written to be understandable by laypeople, and I think everyone involved is proud of how it turned out. The funding for the legal work behind the petition was itself raised through crowdfunding.

      As hoped, the proposal has been bouncing around and gaining support from Republicans and Democrats alike. The SEC's comments page for the petition (which you can add to by emailing rule-comments@sec.gov and putting "4-605" in the Subject line) contains more comments than any other petition listed, all of them positive (as of this writing). Last November, when I and some other supporters of the petition attended the SEC's Small Business Forum to promote the idea, the SEC seemed interested.

      Since then, Rep. Darrell Issa wrote a letter to SEC chair Mary Schapiro asking about easing regulations for crowdfunded investments, and Schapiro wrote back (PDF) to say they were evaluating the issue, citing 4-605 and our visit (see footnotes 77 and 78 in the document). Meanwhile, Florida entrepreneur Sherwood Neiss also met with the SEC to promote the idea, and published a less restrictive proposal for a small offering exemption (which also cites 4-605) at his website StartupExemption.

      Neiss has also done a wonderful job of spearheading and publicizing this issue. Understanding the power of celebrity, he encouraged Whoopi Goldberg to tweet her support for his exemption proposal. The Wall Street Journal blog covered Goldberg's tweet on March 23. This reified the issue among financial journalists, who have since reported on it in Bloomberg, The Fiscal Times, The Washington Times, and POLITICO Pro. (Before Goldberg's endorsement, only the Boise Weekly had covered the idea.)

      Now Neiss is scheduled to testify before Issa's committee next Tuesday, May 10th, and everyone I've been working with on this who knows is thrilled. I've read an early draft of his planned testimony, and it's terrific — a great argument with great supporting facts for a revolutionary new idea. I was excited just reading it, and in an idle moment afterwards I caught myself humming "Marching to Pretoria."

      This past Monday, I called C-SPAN's main number (202-737-3220) to suggest that they cover Issa's hearing and Neiss' testimony. The receptionist told me to call back on Monday, May 9th because they don't decide what to cover until the day before. When I asked her if there was any other way to suggest coverage, she asked me what hearing I was interested in, and told me that she would pass my suggestion on to the editors. Fingers crossed!



      Related:


      March 31 2011

      Four short links: 31 March 2011

      1. Debt: The First 5,000 Years -- Throughout its 5000 year history, debt has always involved institutions - whether Mesopotamian sacred kingship, Mosaic jubilees, Sharia or Canon Law - that place controls on debt's potentially catastrophic social consequences. It is only in the current era, writes anthropologist David Graeber, that we have begun to see the creation of the first effective planetary administrative system largely in order to protect the interests of creditors. (via Tim O'Reilly)
      2. Know Your History -- where Google's +1 came from (answer: Apache project).
      3. MIT Autonomous Quadcopter -- MIT drone makes a map of a room in real time using an X Box Kinect and is able to navigate through it. All calculations performed on board the multicopter. Wow. (via Slashdot and Sara Winge)
      4. How Great Entrepreneurs Think -- leaving aside the sloppy open-mouth kisses to startups that "great entrepreneurs" implies, an interesting article comparing the mindsets of corporate execs with entrepreneurs. I'd love to read the full interviews and research paper. Sarasvathy explains that entrepreneurs' aversion to market research is symptomatic of a larger lesson they have learned: They do not believe in prediction of any kind. "If you give them data that has to do with the future, they just dismiss it," she says. "They don't believe the future is predictable...or they don't want to be in a space that is very predictable." [...] the careful forecast is the enemy of the fortuitous surprise. (via Sacha Judd)

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