Sometimes tech turns a corner and it is so weirdly tangible.
Perhaps it’s the company I keep, but lately I’ve noticed a malaise that attaches itself to some conversations. There is visceral uncertainty about the next great wave in consumer tech and it is making us all rather uncomfortable. We all like to have Our Thing, the one that some people see but others don’t (Twitter 2008 or Pinterest 2010 for example), and I am struggling to find one right now.
Social has matured, though I am certain there are many many more great messaging companies and apps to be made. The Tier 2 On-Demand Economy is feeling the heat of actual operational overhead, and there is nothing more unsexy than a balance sheet full of red and negative unit economics (“we’ll make it up on volume”). The app gold rush has stalled, mostly. Social gaming and viral news came and went once facebook plugged up all their newsfeed and advertising holes. The Internet of Things is growing, but slower than anyone might like because hardware is hard and especially brutal for startups. Mary Meeker’s slides show massive numbers, but on all the metrics and scales we already know. There is thirst for a new metric.
All the up-and-up companies are now just plain large, or acquired, or hit their “now it’s time to make money” threshold and the faucets aren’t pouring out gold coins like everyone said they would. Or they are and it’s not yet public knowledge.
As someone who is often accused of Pollyanna-like opinions I am feeling lost. One super-interesting company right now is Slack, but it’s an enterprise software company in consumer clothing. I struggle to think of the Series A and B consumer companies that I know in my heart will go to the moon. The ones that show glimmers of real creative change, massive, sticky reach, and something that is genuinely new, or at least enough of a repackaging (there’s the “nothing is new” argument to be made) that it feels new-ish.
Perhaps it is these dull moments that are in fact the most relevant, as it’s time to pursue ideas that aren’t necessarily bankable or worthwhile or sure-things. The weird stuff. A Satoshi 2008 Moment.
I have been mourning the dormant state of this blog, but as I sit here waiting patiently for something new to be pumped about, I want to return to more writing in 2016. Looking back (as one does in December), it’s the best record I’ve got of those moments of excitement that now seem too fleeting.
Thanks to some magic from an awesome friend, all of my old writing from “Save Me From B-School” is now here, available on this blog. The databases have been merged so the posts flow back seamlessly all the way to January 2009.
For the uninitiated, Yo is an app for iOS/Android where you can send people a “Yo” via push notification. There’s hardly an interface or even an in-app experience. It’s all about the push, quite literally. Do yourself a favor and download it, and you too can be part of a tiny moment in tech history.
Let me be clear: I am not a Yo power-user. I love the app, but in that way where you love something because of what it stands for, not because you actually love it. Like Starbucks, for example. I can take or leave the drinks, but oh wow that Howard Schultz “third place” philosophy still to this day gives me chills. Point is, if you send me a Yo I may or may not return the courtesy.
But that isn’t what’s important.
I would like to thank Yo for getting everyone excited about notifications again.
You see, the historical attitude toward push notifications has been an interesting one. They are often seen as an afterthought, rather than a core part of the in-app experience (gaming is an exception) and are treated as such. They have been derided as too invasive to be useful, or simply a tool to drive DAUs. Their implementation is technically non-trivial. And on and on.
There are very VERY few apps that have centered their entire existence, and core interactions, around notifications. Similar to Yo, I too am a believer that notifications are their own kind of canvas. See Wut for another example. This is the #1 reason why I think Yo is exciting.
Think about it this way: most messaging is very invasive. It’s active and distracting. There is an implied counter-action. You text me, I text you back. You email me, I email you back. I post a photo/status/tweet/snap and sometimes you comment, like, heart, reply, favorite, etc. Even though you don’t react every single time, every system relies on your participation. You get the idea.
Can there be a platform where counter-action is not only discouraged but impossible? Where consumption is truly meant to be passive? It’s very hard, if not downright impossible, to create network effects when there is no implied counter-action. I’m open to ideas here, and in fact would love to hear some.
Let’s take a look at an effective use of Yo.
Through the magic of the internet, I stumbled on “Product Hunt, Yo!” which is an app that uses the Yo API to alert the user when a product reaches over 100 upvotes on Product Hunt, an amazing new community for product discovery. Simply add “PRODUCTHUNTED” to your friends list and that’s it. The alert is simple and light. Here’s what it looks like:
There isn’t any social contract to reply, or even any way to jump to the site.
It simply is.
Although this interaction is delightful and elegant, I struggle to figure out how this translates for humans. I think the potential is more something like IFTTT but about 100x more simple and consumer-friendly. I’m not sure how sending someone a “Yo” really has any utility at all (sorry), because my hope for digital communications among people is that they evolve to become MORE nuanced, not less. This does not contradict the need for a product centered around extremely simple notifications, however. I’m just not sure they are meant to be among people. And that, I think, is the main challenge for Yo. They haven’t yet solved this issue.
If I were to pick a side, though, I would still say that Yo is stupid brilliant. To expose the potential of notifications in a novel way is admirable, though IMO they are at the point where they have figured out that selfies are a thing, but haven’t yet created Snapchat.
Sometimes the world/internet serves up an undeniably amazing set of events that one can’t help but stand in awe.
The Net Neutrality debate has been a topic of much discussion amongst the tech cognoscenti lately, but it has been difficult to find a real-world example that illustrates why it’s so important. That is, until last night. I sat, biting my lip, and listened *twice* to this very painful customer service call between a Comcast rep and a customer who just wanted to cancel his service (but as a former journalist was smart enough to record the call).
I’m not sure if you sat and listened to the entire 8 minutes, but it is worth it.
As Americans we should be allergic to monopolistic bullshit like this. Our high school history teachers, at least mine anyway, promised us that Standard Oil would not happen again. That we had learned. And yet here we are, a few generations later, and our government is so paralyzed by dysfunction and lobbying dollars and a categorical and fundamental misunderstanding of technology (healthcare.gov, etc.) that promises like these linger and get lost.
Even in the age of 24/7, push-button documentation, this company is allowed to be essentially a monopoly and brazenly act as one.
Think about that for a second.
Painfully disappointing acts and proposed acts of governance with regard to technology continue to be served up on the regular. They are failing us, and we are innovating around them. Make no mistake: there is currently no one more hungry and more willing to work endlessly than a newly-minted tech entrepreneur with a dream. New York Magazine’s Wash-and-Fold fairy tale should make this painfully obvious to any dissenters. Pair this with the fact that government-regulated industries are often so technologically backward that, when looking with opportunistic eyes, you cannot help but see a vast, lush meadow of open space.
In what has proven to be an extremely prescient (if rather long) set of essays from 2012, Venkatesh Rao, points out the following:
The key is to ask: where are there still significant unfair advantages to be found, for entrepreneurs, that investors cannot easily neutralize? The answer should not be surprising to those who know their history: politics.
It seems to me that as we continue to create technology innovations that chip away at expansive government inefficiencies, which btw is working out kind of splendidly so far, we now also must fight on a much broader level for our own right to create such things. I know that it’s much harder to understand the “why” behind taking action on a more generalized issue like Net Neutrality (esp. with the lame-ass branding) because it’s certainly not as visceral as something you can relate to on an everyday-experience level.
This is where Comcast Man comes in.
Thank you to Comcast Man for giving me a reason to take action. For reminding me of my nearly 18-month effort to get internet service at my house from your BFFs over at Time Warner (long story for another time). For giving me the inspiration and courage to once again pick up the phone and call all the people I support with my tax dollars.
I often think about that Forbes piece “Why Best Buy is Going out of Business…Gradually” that was published nearly two years ago. You probably read it too; as of today it has around 3 million views. The emotion that author Larry Downes generated with that prescient article was overwhelming — like a collective “we can do better” echoing through the internet.
Two years later, and Downes is more right than ever. Through Grand St. I’ve had a front-row seat to the emerging hardware movement, and the big realization I’ve come to is that it’s not just Best Buy that’s going to fade away, it’s our entire notion of “Consumer Electronics”. It will be gradual, but there are already signals that indicate a shift is happening.
It’s a tailwind that’s supporting a growing long-tail of hardware and a new kind of creator.
As to what’s causing it, here are a few thoughts:
1. Hardware as an outlet for creativity
There have always been people that have used electronics as out outlet for creativity — people who made custom modifications and took devices apart just for fun. With the rise of open-source hardware, channeling that creativity has become easier and much more structured. Not limited to the devices already available, now you can invent new devices from scratch depending on your whims. It’s also significantly cheaper as well.
2. The notion of “core devices” is disappearing
For the foreseeable future everyone will likely have a smartphone and a laptop, but the number of miscellaneous ancillary products that people are buying is growing like crazy. There’s a flood of these creative devices that are invading our lives and our homes and even the most traditional products are becoming pieces of technology.
3. People starting hardware companies
My friend Adam is making an awesome new bluetooth speaker called the “Bongo”. It looks amazing and I can’t wait to get mine. He is an example of the new kind of hardware creator – someone with a great idea but not necessarily decades of experience.
4. Rush of money
In the past two years, money going to crowdfunded hardware projects has spiked 10x **per year**. Investors are starting to get in the game in a very real way, but the real money is coming from consumers hungry to buy.
5. The role of the smartphone
The ubiquity of smartphones is contributing in a big way to long-tail hardware. By leveraging thriving platforms (Android, iOS), hardware producers don’t have to start from scratch when building software for their devices.
What this means for the future of CE as we know it now is pretty interesting…it’s simply no longer a commodity game that revolves around price, further complicating Best Buy’s future. As costs come down further, and more creators enter the market, we should see a whole range of hyper-customized devices that address all kinds of niche and mainstream markets.
At Grand St. we see awesome new devices every single day, and they are only getting better.
Today we announced the Grand St. seedround. We are incredibly excited to be working with some of the smartest investors in hardware, commerce and digital communities around and are delighted to have the opportunity to grow the company and build more dope internets for our community. Much love to our earliest users, customers (!!) and friends for all the support so far.
In a way this moment in our (admittedly short) history has made all of us painfully aware of how much we want to accomplish. The hardware revolution is truly just beginning, and there is much to be done. This financing will help us grow our team (now at 7!) and continue to make the experience better.
There’s so much amazing innovation happening around new hardware, and our sole goal at Grand St. is to build a store that is just as innovative and delightful as the products we sell.
We launched Grand St. v0.1 on December 14 to the few thousand people who were on our email list. One of the best moments in the life of any small company is the moment when someone who is not your mom or your friend or your cousin buys something. Here is a random stranger who decided that you built something legit enough to hand over their credit card information (which btw is VERY SAFE TO DO thx stripe) … little do they know that four people are crouched around a computer screen cheering and mostly doing this. That day, we sold many thousands of dollars of creative technology to people across the U.S. and realized that maybe we weren’t the only ones who wanted a site like Grand St. to exist.
Creative Technology is Real
The democratization of hardware/consumer electronics is very real and should not be underestimated. Think about the number of really fantastic products that have launched in the last 12 months. Over time, that number will grow aggressively and the number of new products available not the market will become more and more impressive.
We feel privileged to work with so many independent (and even a couple of established) inventors. Putting together our April Fools roundup, I realized that 10 years ago it was an unthinkable fever-dream to try and launch a new electronics product. In the same way that the music industry has transitioned from top-down to bottom-up, the same thing is happening with consumer electronics.
Though by now we have had many customers who aren’t our friends or family, each and every new product sold is still exciting for us.
The future of Grand St., though, and the most profound thing for me (and Joe and Aaron too) is our fast-growing team. We are excited to show up every day mostly because everyone is effing genius-level talented and inspires all of us to work harder and better.
Like Phin said, we hope “…technology makers can focus on crafting experiences and utilize platforms to dramatically reduce the friction in their businesses. This means more craft and less commodity activity for the maker and it means more choice and creativity reaches the consumer.”
In some ways, we all know we have always been living in the future, and now we can get paid to do just that.
I spent about a month last spring working on a hardware concept with a fewfriends. There was this energy around hardware that was becoming so palpable – pg called it “The Hardware Renaissance” in a recent essay.
After talking to many friends going through the same process we realized that for all the opportunity and excitement around hardware, there’s a lot of pain too. But when you work in startups, you begin to see pain as real opportunity.
For all the excitement around new connected devices that remind us all that we live in the future, why are we still buying this stuff at Best Buy (slowly imploding), and Amazon (the best, but too much of a general store)?
Surely our generation, filled with tinkerers and device-makers and digital natives, could do better.
And so we changed things up. Got back to work. This time on a store, built from scratch, that would sell these devices in a way that was just as awesome as the devices themselves. Something that was constructed to be digital first, screen-agnostic, and mobile, that would tell the stories of these devices in a way that the existing retailers aren’t doing.
What we realized as we started talking to hardware producers is that the incentive structure around retail agreements isn’t great — it’s a brick wall on both sides. Customers get almost no information about how, where and who made this product they are buying and why it’s great. And producers get hardly any data on who is buying their products, where they live, who they are, etc. Coming from the data-obsessed world of software, this made very little sense.
In an attempt to crowdsource some feedback: I’d like to know, internet peeps, what you would like to see in a new kind of electronics store? Is it really still about price and specs? I feel like we’ve moved on from that.
We are doing a pretty small closed beta and we’d love some rando testers who aren’t our moms (who we <3) to tell us what they love and hate. Be way harsh, we can handle it. Sign up at GrandSt Dot Com, please enjoy our snake game, and we’ll email you.
If there really is a hardware/connected devices/electronics renaissance that’s coming, there has to be a place to tell its story and, you know, sell THE THINGS. Excited.
And although there was a lot of commentary around the event itself, I kept waiting for a discussion to pick up around what the union symbolizes for the future of gadgetry in general. It’s certainly not the first time that the fashion and tech paths have intersected, but the significance here, regardless of your feelings on Glass, is potentially larger than simply an entertaining pairing. Instead, I see it as the beginning of a merging of paths – gadgets are becoming stronger identity markers like clothing, and as such the two industries will begin to overlap in new and interesting ways.
It reminded me of that part in “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) where Meryl Streep chronicles in ice-cold terms the path that Anne Hathaway’s bargin-basement marm sweater took from runway to mass market. For someone who knows next to nothing about fashion, this point actually made sense. It was the technology adoption curve, just for clothing. And it’s also the best scene in the movie:
Actual lifecycle of fashion trends and cerulean history aside (another topic for probably a different blog than this one), the point of the rant is clear: “you think this has nothing to do with you”. Many of us who stand firmly on the technology side of this worlds-colliding trend believe a pairing like this is perhaps comical but otherwise insignificant to us. That this move from DVF doesn’t imply more fashion/tech pairings in the future or a general uptick in technology as differentiating accessory.
And after giving it some real consideration I think that’s wrong.
There has been some overlap in the past but the lines were always clear – fashion on one side, technology on the other. Get together when it’s lucrative to do so, otherwise keep to yourself.
Never before though, has there been as strong an impulse around gadget as identity piece — from your headphones to your smartphone case to your laptop stickers, electronics personalization is becoming more and more mainstream. Look at the indicators in the market. Personal electronics are cheaper and easier to make, and cheaper and easier to personalize. Urban Outfitters has transitioned most of their front section away from random liquor-related knick knacks to electronics. Beats by Dre is a $500m business and they are *everywhere*. Case and accessories companies are growing like weeds. The Internet of Things meme means we’ll have more connected devices than people as soon as 2020 (7.6 billion vs. 50 billion), and that study didn’t come from crazies but from Cisco and Ericsson. And on and on.
The proliferation of devices means more opportunity to differentiate and be creative in all sorts of ways that don’t involve specs and pricing — things like customization, storytelling, software, etc. Couple that with the fact that barriers to entry in consumer electronics are coming way down as the market becomes more democratized. This is going to create an explosion of new creativity in consumer electronics.
So the lines will continue to blur. There will be more collabs and more overlaps in either direction, and either personal technology will become more fashionable or fashion will become a little geekier, though I wonder if we look back at this particular collaboration in a few years and look at it as an indicator of change to come. Regardless of your feelings on whether that’s a good thing for either industry, change like this always has interesting and unpredictable results.
And the video that they made with Glass was undeniably pretty awesome:
In a fit of early-morning delirium I approached the head of the line at the Soho Apple Store just before 8am on Friday. They gave me a card and asked if I had any questions. So I asked about cases, because no one drops phones like this girl.
The guy in the blue shirt said no cases. I replied that I guess I would have to be extra careful.
And then, in a moment of unscripted wonderful, the Apple employee stared back at me and said:
“…you should treat it like the supercomputer it is.”
Although my first reaction was to roll my eyes and dismiss his comment as fanboyishness at its best, it got to me.
Two days go by and people ask what I like about the new phone, wondering if they should upgrade. And I can’t quite come up with an answer. Sure, I am happy to pass on kind words about the speed and cameras and features and LTE and weight and what-have-you, but that’s just not really it.
Fast forward to Saturday, when I am at the Bruckner Blvd Home Depot in the Bronx (the largest HD in the five boroughs, nbd). I am sitting at the picnic tables outside, drinking cherry coke and trying to not blatantly eavsdrop on the people next to me. It was a 15 year-old explaining to his older uncle/brother/dad/cousin about a new app for odd jobs. The younger one pulls up the website on his brand new iPhone and walks through the app – explaning that you can segment jobs by type and location and walking through how you can place bids on the jobs you want. They found one that looked good, and placed a bid right then. It was really great to see TaskRabbit in the wild, but even more awesome to see this entire series of events happen at a picnic table outside Home Depot in about 3 minutes.
Mostly when people have their phones out in public they are looking at photos or playing games or listening to music or reading. There’s just not a lot of transactional behavior happening, so it was really neat to see.
While all of us tech-lovers have been celebrating smartphones for years and years, I think it’s worth the reminder that the mobile economy is so incredibly nascent and only going to become more interesting. After a brief brainstorm the other day, the only mobile-only billion dollar companies I could name were Instagram, Square and Rovio (add more in the comments if you have any). Surely there will be more epicness to follow.
Perhaps it’s that most futurist types live so far in the future that they miss out on the moment when the *real* shift happens for the rest of the world.
And so I keep thinking about the supercomputer comment. The idea of a powerful machine in my pocket sounds trite at this point, but still really isn’t. Smartphone penetration passed 50% just this year (2012). What will the world look like when it’s at 70%? 90%? Perhaps that’s what I like best about the iPhone 5 – that it, even more than any other iPhone launch IMO, sits so perfectly at the intersection of the future and the present.
Perhaps you too remember that crayon-factory segment from Sesame Street. The one where they show dramatic shots of hot orange wax getting poured into vats and molds and eventually labeled and boxed up into neat packages of the rainbow, while Skrillex-junior music played in the background. This was my favorite segment on Sesame Street, evidenced mostly by the fact that it’s really the only one I remember. Not to worry if you have no recollection, I found it for you on YouTube.
Some people freak out when they see movie sets, or space stations, or fire trucks, but for me it has always been factories. I spent some time 2005-2008 wandering in and out of factories in Shenzhen, Dongguan and Chaozhou and what was most surprising was how much is still made by hand. It is not all robots, even remotely.
And modern supply chains were built around that very premise – that hands were needed, and the best way to compete and scale was to find the cheaper hands. But some very interesting rumblings on the periphery of mainstream production (specifically in electronics) indicates not that the need for hands is going away, but that the entire system is evolving in a much more fundamental way.
The latest buzz-phrase-of-late seems to be “hardware is the new software” – and from what I can tell, the significance rests in the idea that the formerly painful process of making software has become a mostly democratized affair that has created many billion dollar companies along the way. The same will soon happen in hardware. And “soon” is used very loosely here. Could be 2, 12, 20, years down the road (ok probably not 2), but it seems near-inevitable that the shift will create many new and interesting companies along the way.
I titled this post “APIs for Manufaucturing” because that’s what I hope will happen; in many ways the changes are already underway. The dream is that manufacturing will eventually be democratized through a series of APIs. They will make it easy for aspirational producers to access expensive production devices that they would not be able to get access to on their own. Because sadly manufacturing is still extremely difficult and out of reach for all but the most tenacious producers. Open-source hardware and consumer-friendly 3D printing is slowly changing that, but getting any sort of scale remains quite difficult.
A great read from yesterday is Ben Kaufman’s blog post on Quirky’s recent $68m fundraise. Perhaps the most insightful observation for me was from this reaction piece: “After several trips to China, Kaufman realized that he actually needed to master a list of “50 or 60″ disciplines to make his product a reality”. It is these 50 or 60 disciplines that will one by one become companies in the still-nascent MaaS market (manufacturing-as-a-service, a term not-yet widespread but still used). Perhaps that’s why this is such an exciting time in hardware – the changes are materializing but are nowhere close to realized.