Academia 101: Talk about careers and the big picture before the nitty gritty

This is a guest post I wrote on Quartz – original appeared a week ago and is available here

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Almost every university student takes 101 classes. Usually, they’re viewed as ways to build foundational skills or complete requirements, rather than gateways to exposing students to interesting career possibilities. The 101 course should be a place where a student experiences the beauty of discovery for the first time—the fact that the cure for cancer could lie in her hands. Often this discovery gets lost in the granular details. It’s time we start thinking about introductory education in universities differently.

According to the New York Times, at Penn State University, 80% of freshmen—even those who have declared a major—said they’re uncertain about their chosen path in college. With the current skills shortage (particularly within engineering), we can’t afford to leave this many students undecided. The 101 class can be used to get more students motivated to pursue engineering, computer science, medicine, genetics—the list goes on and on.

To spark discovery at the 101 level, we need to change the way we teach altogether. Education reformists are trying to disrupt the classroom as we know it in a variety of ways—one method is a “flipped classroom,” where students listen to lectures at home and interactively work on homework in the classroom. A slightly different idea is to switch the order of the curriculum—teaching big ideas first and working down to granular levels of detail at the end of the course.

Let’s take Biology 101 as an example. Most 101 classes start with basic (arguably, uninteresting) concepts and work up to the big ideas. You might never know that you’d be able to clone a wooly mammoth by studying the structure of a cell in intense detail. When you’re learning about the nucleus and mitochondria, you’re often not getting the broader context about why this information matters in the real world. What if we inverted the order of the curriculum, starting with exciting concepts and digging down into detail? Would we have more geneticists? More bioengineers?

At Boundless, we’ve done a lot of research about how 101-level college students use our textbooks. More than 50% of students visiting our open textbooks online look up very specific terms or concepts, and spend most of the time on the site highlighting and quizzing themselves on these concepts to make sure they’ve got them right. Rather than spending time connecting the dots on big-picture concepts, students are researching and being graded on their ability to retain smaller details. They’re immersed in the assembly line model of teaching, which has been done for years and, to some extent, people argue that it’s proven.

But the sheer statistics about how our students rank in math and science skills prove otherwise. According to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, “economic forecasts point to a need for producing, over the next decade, approximately 1 million more college graduates in STEM fields than expected under current assumptions.” With American students scoring 23rd in math and 31st in science compared to 65 other top industrialized nations, something must change the way we produce workers in these fields.

Major institutions are coming around to change—Princeton president and molecular biologist Shirley Tilghman spoke out about the need to invert the science curriculum. Salman Khan of Khan Academy has also advocated for change on the K-12 level through a flipped classroom model. But how do we get more universities to adopt the change?

We need to do two big things. First, hook students with 101—don’t be afraid to make broad changes to the way classes are taught. Freshman year is a chance to get students interested in new subjects before majors are declared or set in stone. Second, use technology to make it easier for professors to be flexible. We need more flexible textbooks and adaptive study resources for students that aren’t rigidly tied to a set order or the “way things have always been.”

Math and science provide the answers to some of the world’s most pressing problems. And math and science careers are exceptionally interesting, ubiquitous, and in-demand. It’s a shame that we’re burying those realities in mundane details. Let’s make sure students know why they’re learning what they’re learning, before drilling into the basics. An inverted approach can make learning more exciting and get graduates prepared to compete in the global economy.

The Right Solution to the “E-Book Problem”: Putting Students First

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a guest post on Forbes.com about the future of e-textbooks. Here is the post in its entirety, and you can view it on Forbes here

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Textbook publishers are trying to stay relevant in this increasingly open and digital world–but at what cost?

Tom Malek’s recent guest post on this site (“Solving the E-book Problem in Higher Education”) details textbook publisher McGraw-Hill’s new plan to accelerate the adoption of its digital texts by forcing students to buy the e-books for their courses, whether they’d like to or not.

The textbook industry is often called a broken market, as the end consumers do not select the product that they’re ultimately forced to buy. Students are able to choose from a number of options, thankfully, such as used and rental texts, but this compulsory e-book model threatens to make things even worse for them.

Today’s E-Books Don’t Meet Students’ Needs

 Malek is right about one thing—digital is the future of higher education. According to a recent survey conducted by Wakefield Research, the majority of college students (67%) use digital technology every hour. A startling 40% of students can’t stay away from technology for more than 10 minutes at a time.

However, his conclusion about why today’s e-books are failing is wrong. Malek blames the slow uptake of digital texts on students’ ignorance of the benefits of e-books and their reluctance to give up the “familiarity” of print. Studies have shown that more than half of students do still prefer physical textbooks to e-books. Yet if you give those students a chance to interact with a great e-book experience on an iPad,75% of them prefer the digital alternative.

Today’s e-books aren’t the solution to students’ textbook woes because they’re expensive, poorly designed products that students don’t want. Publishers make very high gross margins on traditional textbooks, and since e-books radically reduce the cost of distribution and printing, one would expect prices to drop substantially for digital offerings. Yet thus far, e-books haven’t saved students enough to make switching from print worthwhile. A recent study released by Daytona State College revealed that many students only saved $1 by switching to e-books.

Malek argues that the high-cost of e-books is due to the fact that physical production costs are “only a fraction of what it costs to produce a textbook.” Yet numerous innovative publishers have found ways to produce high-quality texts for far less than their traditional counterparts. Flat World Knowledge, for example, offers cheap print copies of their textbooks and makes them available for free online.

Price aside, the reality is that students have never been offered excellent digital products that cater to the way they best study and learn. A quick glance at traditional publishers’ e-books reveals mostly non-interactive PDF files and “innovative learning platforms” that are little more than multiple-choice questions with a shoddy user experience. Malek and the publishers have chosen to ignore the obvious signal of students’ disdain for current e-book offerings, calling it a mere “problem of perspective.” But rather than improving that perspective, their plan is to drive students even deeper into the textbook trap.

Malek’s Solution: Eliminating Student Choice

This new “model” is a brazen attempt by publishers to further insulate themselves from market pressure. Malek justifies the forced-purchasing model by setting up a false dilemma: the choice between very expensive digital texts and slightly less expensive ones. He avoids the obvious third option—better and significantly cheaper digital learning tools.

It’s not a surprising omission: e-books are a publishers’ dream, as they’re often riddled with restrictive DRM and eliminate the booming secondary market of used and rental texts. Despite this fact, Malek claims that this new forced purchasing model will ultimately help students save money.

Yet by hiding textbook costs in the tuition bill, prices are even MORE likely to increase. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, textbook prices have already risen over 500% over the past 30 years, at 3X the rate of inflation. Only three things have risen faster: tuition, tobacco and hospital stays. Do we really need another excuse to accelerate the rise of textbook prices by bundling them with something that is rising even faster?

Student loan debt has reached new heights in this country—additional mandatory costs are the last thing our college students need. In fact, this forced purchasing policy would increase the total mandatory cost at community colleges by 33%, where textbooks often make up a quarter or more of tuition, fees & supplies.

Is it any wonder that Malek doesn’t mention student sentiment in his discussion of the pilot programs of this new model?

Putting Students First

The best way to solve the “problem” of e-book adoption is creating MORE of a market, not further restricting competition. The future of education lies in building products for students—after all, they’re the ones whom the educational system is meant to serve. Thankfully, countless innovators and educators are putting in the hard work to realize the dream of a more student-centered design approach.

The Open Educational Resources movement has created an enormous library of 100% free content for students and professors alike. Open Content understandably does not compute for traditional publishers, as it can be both cheaper and more effective than traditional alternatives. Wikipedia, for example, often contains the same information (and more) than expensive introductory texts in a given subject.

Education technology companies have seen an unprecedented acceleration of venture investment over the past few years, topping $400MM in 2011 and potentially surpassing that this year.

New initiatives like MIT and Harvard’s edX are promising to distribute high-quality free content to learners around the globe. Companies like Kahn Academy are creating enormous content libraries that integrate deeply with the “super-adaptive” learning tools Malek praises—for $0. At Boundless, we’re committed to replacing textbooks altogether by connecting students with open content in new and exciting ways.

The Future of Educational Content

Desperate attempts to protect antiquated business models are not the answer. The solution is delivering great products for students.

The seeds of this educational revolution are being sown in classrooms, incubators and coffee shops all around the world.

It’s time to give students more choice—not less.

The Consumerization of Education

You don’t have to search far to see the many frustrations with the efficacy or cost of our current educational system. While there are many possible reasons for this, I’d like to focus on particular dynamics of education.
Traditional education products and services are ‘sold’ to key decision makers who then force the decision onto end-users. It’s no surprise then, that the result of this process are products that are inferior in the eyes of end-users. The products may very well meet some checklist that is deemed important to a key decider, but this checklist is usually different from the needs and desires of the end-users, namely, the students. One example is the oft-maligned “standardized tests”, which benefits states and districts looking for singular comparison metrics, yet often fail students by limiting exploration, breadth, and teaching focus.

Slowing Innovation in IT
Another industry that long had similar structural and market dynamics was corporate IT (information technology).
Just ten to fifteen years ago, technological innovation was driven primarily by business needs. New products were sold into businesses and large corporations, and eventually trickled down into the consumers. Whether it was the fax machine, the copy machine, or even early personal computers. The same was true for software.

The problem with that model was that the ‘decider’ was usually a different person than the ultimate ‘end user’. Corporate CIOs would make buying decisions of software and hardware for 50,000 employees, who were then forced to toil in terrible user interfaces and inferior hardware. Innovation suffered.
The Consumerization of IT
Then something changed. Companies began focusing on end-users, and began delivering terrific products, from software like Basecamp from 37Signals, to the biggest tech success of this generation in Apple. 

Apple is leading the biggest disruption in today’s IT world by being a consumer-first company. Apple kept their relationship with the end-user first and foremost, and was able to deliver great products, and ultimately great profits. This wave of innovation would not have happened had the business-first technology leaders continued to dominate. 
Another great outcome of the consumerization of IT and other verticals is the empowerment of the end-user. This new-found decision making and interest in the product can lead to increased productivity, and is evidenced in droves of business users buying and bringing their own iPhones to work, eschewing the corporate issued Blackberry. 

The Consumerization of Education
We are in a similar position in education. Innovation in education has stagnated because market forces don’t reward innovation. Market dynamics put very little power in the hands of students. Students cannot choose much today, other than where to go to school. There is tremendous opportunity to serve the needs of students directly, and use that relationship to drive significant and disruptive innovation. 
Key elements to enable Consumerization 
In order to really drive ‘consumerization’ of any industry or product, two ingredients are necessary:

1) a direct relationship to the end user
2) a desire to build amazing products
I believe strongly in both, which in education means focusing on the student first, and delivering a delightful learning experience, resulting in a more engaged and empowered consumer.
The next great wave of companies and platforms, especially in education, will be built with this ethos.

Returning to blogging – with an education focus

It’s been about a full year since I last blogged. 

That year has been incredible from a personal and professional standpoint. I’ve gotten engaged, started a new company working with a great team and a great group of investors, and even recently gotten a puppy.

This startup, Boundless Learning, was the primary reason for not blogging during that time. Not just from a time perspective, but from a mental energy perspective. All of my mental energy (and most of the physical energy) in that time period has gone towards establishing Boundless, working on everything from high level and long term vision, to immediate concerns like hiring, product roadmaps, content creation, etc. 
One area that has been central to the past year has been education. I’ve always been passionate about education, both my personal education (in and out of school), as well as the education system and what it means for society as a whole. 

Going forward, I’m going to channel my desire to blog more, with my passion and ongoing experience with education and learning. We’ve been learning a ton about the past and present of education, and are working night and day to help define it’s future.
Stay tuned.

Strengths and Weaknesses are Two Sides of the Same Coin

Strengths and Weaknesses: Two Sides of the Same Coin

We often think about strengths and weaknesses in a vacuum, as if they were completely unrelated to each other. We think about building up strengths and eliminating weaknesses.  That’s a bit disingenuous and logically impossible because you end up stuck in the middle, with no real strengths or weaknesses. You end up averaging out strengths and weaknesses, resulting in an unidentifiable and uninteresting mediocre mix of traits. 
Instead, we should be thinking about both the strengths and weaknesses tied to a given trait or characteristic.  Every strength has a corresponding weakness, inherent to the underpinnings of that strength. 

Company size as both a strength and weakness
If you’re a large company, like Google, you can throw dozens of engineers and other resources to try to a problem. That’s a lot of momentum moving in one direction, but that also means it’s harder to get going, harder to change directions, and harder to react to uncertainties or changing environments. On the flip side, if you’re a small company, you may not have a lot of resources, but you can be nimble, make faster decisions, and out-maneuver larger competitors.  
Personal strengths and weaknesses
Personal traits also inherently have strengths and weaknesses. Most of the time, we get feedback throughout our lives about the weaknesses or limitations, and end up focusing on reducing or eliminating those. We don’t realize that we’re also weakening the complementary strength. We end up settling for the lowest common denominator.

Competitiveness
I compete in everything I do, big and small, creating competitions out of non-competitive things, keeping score in every game where score is kept. That competitive outlook has helped me in almost everything I’ve done, from succeeding in sports my whole life, to my academic career, to the current startup world I’m in.  But it does have a complementary weakness. Über-competitiveness can be off-putting in certain social situations. But the reality is that it’s not something I can just turn it on and off.  I’m willing to manage and deal with the social awkwardness that may come with being über-competitive.
Confidence
The power of confidence can create a positive feedback loop of increasing confidence, increasing ambition, and increasing achievement.  But there are also inherent weaknesses of confidence.  The classic is hubris, a self-defeating pride that can lead people to forget their limitations and pursue unattainable and ultimately fatal goals. Another more benign one is that extreme confidence can also occasionally seem arrogant and egotistical, especially in a crowd of non-confident people. 

Perseverance 
I don’t give up very easily, will fight to achieve long term goals, and will work hard and summon other strengths (like confidence and competitiveness) to get things done. Like the two traits above, perseverance is so entrenched in my world outlook, that I don’t doubt it will get me through the darkest and most challenging times. But it also comes with a cost, the complement of perseverance is stubbornness. Even the word stubbornness has both positive and negative connotations. It’s important to be aware of both, and to understand the balance, but to realize they go hand in hand.
Managing strengths and weaknesses
Given that strengths and weaknesses are different ways of looking at a particular characteristic, the next step is to think about how to manage or deal with weaknesses.  The goal is not to eliminate or mitigate weaknesses, because that would inherently eliminate or mitigate the corresponding strength. 
Understanding the tradeoffs of each trait is a sign of maturity. Being able to acknowledge weaknesses that are the flip side of a strength is important. Next time you’re thinking about a weakness, think about it’s corresponding strength – somewhere in that weakness is an inherent strength.  Then think about whether it’s worth tempering that strength in order to temper the weakness.  Or even better, how to be aware of both and use it to your advantage. 
This is also highly relevant when building a team for a startup or other endeavor. Don’t worry about mitigating weaknesses, instead focus on finding a team whose strengths work well together, and whose inherent weaknesses balance each other out.

The Secret Power of Confidence

The Secret Power of Confidence and How to Build It

Confidence is one of the most important traits in life. It is imperative for everything from dating and relationships, to startups and business. Most of the conventional wisdom around confidence and self-esteem is trying to find a short cut. But the reality is that you can’t create real confidence by reading a WikiHow article about how to be confident. You can’t create confidence by simply telling yourself that you are special, smart, interesting, or appealing to others, as some confidence “experts” will tell you. All of that is simply addressing the symptoms not the underlying issue.
Real Confidence
The only way to create real confidence is to succeed in something challenging. Everything else is as empty as a participation trophy in elementary school. Real confidence is built upon a solid foundation of achievement, that you can look back on and know is real when things get tough. True confidence is so humble it’s arrogant, and so arrogant it’s humble. 
The Confidence Cycle
Confidence creates a virtuous cycle. It raises ambition, which in turn means you seek out higher goals, which also motivates you to achieve them, which brings you success, which then gives you more confidence that fuels the cycle.
Building Confidence – Seek out challenges
Since the only way to build true confidence is to succeed in something challenging, you need to seek out challenges, and be motivated enough to complete them. This process can start with small goals, to help build the cycle. The challenges do not have to be related to a core strength or long term goal, and are often more challenging and rewarding when they’re outside your core competency. For instance, if you’re an English-major, all-star athlete, learn to build a website.  Conversely, if you’re a techy non-athlete, run a marathon. If you’ve already run a marathon, run an ultra-marathon. If you’re a social butterfly, read the longest book you’ve ever read. It’s not about over-optimizing for the specific challenge, just find one, get started, and continue until you succeed.
The risk of a single source of confidence
Too often a person’s confidence is tied to a specific source, whether it’s their job, their marriage, their alma matter, or their prowess in a particular skill. There are two risks with this single source. First off, it may not imply ability or confidence in other areas. And secondly, if that single source disappears (getting fired from a job, divorce, etc.), you lose all of your confidence and go into a downward spiral. This is one of the biggest challenges of chronic unemployment. People’s confidence is tied to their job, so when they lose it, they are left exposed. 
The Confidence Portfolio
Real, robust confidence is only attained with a diversified and well balanced confidence portfolio. In order to create that, you need to continue pushing yourself with a diverse set of challenges. Make them diverse, then build on successes and let that fuel your rising ambition. The more diverse your sources of confidence, the more stable it is, because you’re creating balance through excellence in multiple things. Psychological research has shown that increased self-complexity, i.e. the different ways of perceiving oneself and one’s strengths, leads to lower levels of depression, stress, and illnesses:
“Subjects higher in self-complexity were less prone to depression, perceived stress, physical symptoms, and occurrence of the flu and other illnesses following high levels of stressful events. These results suggest that vulnerability to stress-related depression and illness is due, in part, to differences in cognitive representations of the self.”
“Self-complexity as a cognitive buffer against stress-related illness and depression.”Patricia Linville, Yale Psychology Professor, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3572732
Get out there and challenge yourself. In a follow up post I’ll share some examples of my own diverse set of confidence.

Losing 20 Pounds in 3 Months

Losing 20 pounds in 3 months

Towards the end of this past summer, I had gotten past my comfortable weight, as a result of a fun summer, not working out enough, and enjoying the food and beverage. I was up to 194 pounds, and though I carry it well (on my massive thighs primarily), it’s still pretty robust for my 5’10” frame.
It really pissed me off. And since I don’t believe in moderation, I decided to do something extreme about it, and on August 23, I tweeted the following:

Here I am, 3 months later, having achieved that goal. Looking back, here’s the simple plan and how it worked.
Step 1 – State goal publicly
I’m a big believer in using any means possible to motivate yourself, and committing to something publicly is a great motivator. So I tweeted and posted to Facebook about my goal, told all of my friends, and committed to myself. Not only did this motivate, but it’s also a great way to get other people’s support, especially when you’re turning down food and drink. 

Step 2 – Decrease food consumption
I don’t believe in fad diets. Losing weight is all about a simple equation:
Weight Loss = Calories IN – Calories BURNED (divided by about 3,500, which is the approx number of calories per pound).  
So if you’re running a 500 calorie deficit per day, you’ll lose about a pound a week. Since I was trying to go faster than that, I needed to make sure both factors changed. Reducing food consumption takes discipline, and it reminded me of my days as a lightweight rower. I didn’t skip meals (occasionally breakfast), just reduced what I ate, and ate extremely healthy foods.
Step 3 – Dramatically increase mileage
The second part of the equation is the calories burned. Once I made the goal, I went from running occasionally (5-10 miles a week) to regularly running 30-40 miles per week, every single week. Running 30 miles burns about 4,000-5,000 calories, which is about what I was targeting to lose. 

Step 4 – Profit
Three months later, I’m back at a comfortable 174 pounds, and at a steady point that I can maintain pretty well with some basic working out and healthy eating.  I feel great and look great (according to my girlfriend at least, which is all that counts). Just in time for Costa Rica 😉
Next Goal – Qualifying for Boston Marathon
Now I have to pick a big audacious goal to train for again, so I’ll announce that here. My goal is to qualify for the 2012 Boston Marathon.  For those of you keeping score (and who isn’t), that requires a 3:10 marathon, which is 26 miles at a brisk 7:15 per mile average pace.  The gauntlet has been thrown. 

Fuck Moderation: Balance through Extremes

Fuck Moderation – Balance through Extremes

This was originally written as a guest post on BostInnovation

There is a general conventional wisdom that everything in moderation is good.  As with a lot of conventional wisdom, that’s bullshit.  Everything in moderation leads to a dull, boring, shapeless, unidentifiable mass.  Moderation leads to complacency. Instead of moderation, pursue excellence.
The Importance of Balance
The irony of the conventional wisdom is that it hides a truly important point, which is the need for balance in life. While moderation is insidious, balance is important and beneficial. Balance creates interesting cross-polination, a diversified interest base, and an ability to use one strength to compensate for another when you need to. Balance creates stability and strength. On an individual level, It’s very fulfilling to have a diverse lifestyle, in the spirit the Renaissance man, but moderation is not the way to achieve true balance.How Extremism Creates Stability
In physics, the moment of inertia quantifies the ability of an object to resist rotation. The more weight is out on the extreme of a given object, the higher the moment of inertia, and therefore the more stable it is. The best real world example is a long straight pole. With most of the weight way out on either side, it provides a very stable counter-balance that can be very useful when walking across, say, a tight-rope between the Twin Towers.

Innovation is Extreme
On an entrepreneurial level, all real innovation happens at the edge. There is simply no better way to learn an industry and try to fix a problem than starting a company and devoting all your mental and physical energy to solving or improving some important issue. Startups are extreme by definition, and that’s one of the things that makes them so disruptive. Innovation is extreme. Leave the moderation to large companies looking for 5% annual growth. Even within a startup, balance through extremes is important. For early teams, it may mean finding complementary founders, both of whom are amazing and strong in very different areas, like technology and marketing, for instance.Extreme Abstinence
On the other side of the coin, there are many extremes that can be dangerous. In those cases, I think the best solution is to go extreme in the other direction, by abstaining completely. For example, I don’t gamble or watch TV because I don’t like those extremes.  So I go to the other extreme, by eliminating them completely. It’s not worth watching a single episode of a TV show, and I certainly don’t want to get hooked. In business, what you choose not to do is just as important as what you choose to actually do. It’s much easier to not start a project, or a feature, or a new market, than to do it half-assed.

Focus on 1-3 Extremes at a Time
By definition, being involved in something to the extreme is nearly all-consuming. Therefore, it’s important to focus on only 1-3 areas at a given time. When starting a company, especially in the early stages, it’s difficult to be extreme in much else.  But it’s good to have at least 1 counter-balanace. For me, it was training for an ultra-marathon (50 miles), which I used as an excuse to get me back in shape after 6 months of not working out due to injury. I ramped up my running to 30-40 miles per week, finished the ultra-marathon in just over 10 hours, and had a great time doing it.Vary the Extremes for Diversity
While I enjoy living in extremes, I’ve found it important to vary my involvements over time to create a diverse perspective. I love staying physically fit and active, traveling, understanding different cultures, cooking, starting companies, learning, and much more.  But in order to gain real depth in each of those areas, I had to really focus on each for a period of time.  By choosing to dive in on a few things at a time, you can afford to be extreme.  As you rotate through your various potential interests and projects, you’ll find yourself with a much deeper knowledge base than if you had moderately pursued them all over a longer period.

Choose what you want to do wisely, then do all of those things fully.

Static and Kinetic Friction

Static Friction > Kinetic Friction

I love analogies, especially analogies between life and physics. On a recent run, I was thinking about the parallel between static friction and the forces that keep us from starting things. We all remember the physics experiment from 8th grade, where we put a block of wood or plastic on a ramp, and see how high we can angle the ramp before the block starts moving. In order for the block to start moving, it has to overcome the static friction, which is the frictional force at work at rest, when the surfaces have time to settle and create a sort of frictional bond. Once the block got started, it only has to overcome kinetic friction, the friction against the object when it is motion. Kinetic frication is always lower than static friction. This point is reinforced by the experiment. You need to get to a much higher angle to overcome the static friction, but with a slight nudge at even a much lower ramp angle, the block will keep going.

Life is very similar. The hardest part of any project or activity is starting it. The status quo is comfortable, it’s easy, it’s known. Something new is uncomfortable, hard, unknown, risky. But everyone knows that. What’s easier to forget is that once you start, the resistant forces, while still present, are actually much lower than what kept (or delayed) you from starting.
So whether you’re lying in bed hating the run you said you’d go on, or hemming and hawing about a project you want to kick off, just start it. Trick yourself into starting it if you need. Start small. For example, if you’re having trouble running regularly, just tell yourself you’ll turn around after 5 minutes in the run if you don’t feel like continuing. You’ll likely never actually turn around after 5 minutes, because you’ll be warmed up, and you’ll feel good, but that trick will get you out of bed.

Whatever it takes to overcome the static friction, just do it.

The Lower Right Quadrant

The Lower Right Quadrant

A few months ago I got together in the old YouCastr offices with a big whiteboard, a few pizzas, a few packs of beer, and some entrepreneurial product folks to chat about various concepts (or schemes) and think about web trends in general. 

One of the concepts that emerged, admittedly following some mental lubricant, was the “Lower Right Quadrant”.  Being a former consultant, I love frameworks and 2×2 matrices. So as we were chatting about ridiculously profitable dating sites, and how hard we have all worked to create business that don’t throw off nearly those levels of cash, something hit me. Here is that framework: 

The framework looks at profitability vs. world impact. In the top right are profitable companies that impact the world for the better, like CleanTech (successful ones), and possibly Google (when they’re not being evil). The upper left quadrant are necessary humanitarian efforts that might not be very profitable, either by design (e.g. non-profits, government), or by market conditions (e.g. healthcare). The lower left quadrant is where most companies end up, slightly profitable or unprofitable, with little impact on the world. And finally, the Lower Right Quadrant, is where silly and salacious companies make a ton of money without attracting competition from well-intentioned entrepreneurs looking to make the world a better place.

Interestingly, most startups think they’re in the upper right quadrant, and have audacious goals to change the world and enrich themselves and their investors. But most startups are actually in the lower left quadrant, making incremental products that end up not being very profitable.  
We continued our discussion, thinking about opportunities in the LRQ, ranging from a Swoopo model for dating, to social games, to online pawn shops. One challenge we faced was realizing we weren’t really in the target market for any of the LRQ products we brainstormed, and had to continuously think outside of ourselves (or have a few more beers).  Another challenge is to get excited about something that is not inherently beneficial.  I do actually want to help the world, but there is probably some supply-demand type curve that relates profitability to world-changingness, i.e. the less utilitarian and world-changing the product / company is, the more profitable it has to be to motivate me to continue working on it.

So, before you get all starry eyed about your next big world changing money-printing concept, think LRQ.  And get the shirt in the meantime.

Opportunities in The Mobile Internet

I wrote previously about the four phases of the Internet, and how we’re approaching the Mobile (+ Location) Internet.  As a follow up to that post, I wanted to explore some specific areas and opportunities with this new paradigm.
Solving “Local”

Many companies have tried to solve local, applying technological solutions to the problems facing local business promotion and discovery.  Unfortunately, the local problem has proved to be extremely challenging. This is partly due to the businesses themselves, because they have enough day-to-day issues to worry about and aren’t very tech savvy. But the bigger reason is that selling to local business is very expensive. Even the tech IPO darling OpenTable has spent years and millions of dollars to get to 15,000 restaurants, and still has to fight to make a meager $2.6 million per quarter. The difference in the mobile + location internet age is that there is a potential to crowdsource the local business data (e.g. Yelp and Foursquare), and also make the onboarding process for local businesses much more seamless, potentially as simple as a smartphone app. Results may end up being as simple as geo-coupons, but I think we’ll see much more interesting things that that in this space.

Education, Books and Information
We are in the midst of what I hope will prove to be the most transformative time in education since the advent of the classroom at the start of the industrial revolution. Various new models are emerging in education, but the mobile Internet opens new doors by making an essentially infinite amount of data and information readily available.  As facts become increasingly available (just a quick google search away on your phone), education will shift to focus on concepts, methods, innovation, and synthesis, rather than the fact regurgitation so prevalent in today’s educational models. And of course, the trend will also serve to blow up the concept of a “book”, whether it merges with the Internet as O’Reilly predicts, or simply becomes disaggregated into more focused chapters or articles. Location in this case is less relevant, but mobile computing will permanently alter education and information sharing.
“Hard” Augmented Reality
One of the common threads with mobile based computing is augmented reality.  This phrase usually conjures images of superimposed information or animations on the existing world, whether through the eyes and screen of a smartphone (e.g. Layar), or eventually in more integrated means like retina displays. Google Maps and Streetview are providing the scaffolding for this type of information in the physical world, so you’ll be able to pull up information about a business or a building simply by pointing your phone at it.  Additionally, face recognition technology (e.g. Apple’s rumored acquisition of Polar Rose) will bring that type of functionality to people, perhaps pulling up their contact info and recent status posts when you greet them.

“Soft” Augmented Reality
But in addition to these map and 3D focused augmented reality, there are plenty of applications to improve day to day life that are really “augmented reality” but don’t appear to be.  A great example is Shazam, which lets you find out the name of a song you’re listening to, solving the incredibly annoying problem of not knowing what a song is when you’re listening to it. (I hate to admit it, but I recently tagged a Justin Bieber song.) Many other “soft augmented reality” applications will emerge to make daily life more interesting, fun, and pleasant, without being obtrusive. 
Gaming
I myself and not a gamer (and I’m not personally addicted to the various game mechanics of today’s location based services), but it would be silly to not talk about the Gaming component of the current internet age. An omnipresent, location aware computer (i.e. smartphone), provides an incredible device to integrate the real world with gaming. It’s the core thesis of SCVNGR. I certainly see mobile + location internet enabling the “gamification” of life, and we’ll see to what extent, hopefully we don’t end up amusing ourselves to death
These are just some of the trends and opportunities emerging with the mobile + location internet. And given that the stakes are higher, the user base bigger, and the technology easier than ever to adopt, there’s little doubt that the winners in this age will be even bigger than those in ages past.

Online Groups Suck – Email wins, with limits

I have written before about how email is still the killer app.  There are lots of new dedicated applications to serve specific needs, but often I find myself reverting back to the trusty email.  But one area that I have a love-hate relationship with is the massive email thread.

Email threads have their limitations
This annoyance has recently reached a new high as I have three of these massive email threads going at the same time, one for a local Boston/Cambridge tech geek pickup basketball and soccer, and two for soccer leagues I play on.  We use the email thread to announce game times, check who’s coming or not, coordinate rides, or make jokes. It’s convenient and annoying at the same time. 
Email threads are easy and comfortable
Email threads are great because they require no work or learning to use. It is an invisible “product” (use case really) that relies on a platform people are already using every day (email). You compose an email, fill out the addresses automatically, and hit send. And to reply, it’s one click or keyboard shortcut. No new usernames and passwords, no new places to check out, no new service to learn.
Online groups have too much friction and are not the solution
One common solution to this problem is online groups, but they have continually disappointed me as a replacement for the massive email thread. Yahoo Groups and Google groups are great for lots of collaboration, forums, or development projects, but for a simple email thread, they are terrible.
First off, they require people to register for the group before accessing it. No matter how tech savvy the group is, there will never be 100% participation, and in many cases people have to create new accounts for a new service (and nobody wants to create yet another account that they will soon forget). Second, they require a motivated and dedicated admin to create the group, manage members, and eventually possibly pass the group on to someone else. Third, they require people to either continue receiving all emails (thereby not saving the inbox), or remember yet another website to check out on a regular basis. And finally, they are not stick: I have never participated in an online group discussion that endured past the initial excitement of the first few weeks. 

What’s the solution?
Is there room for a Posterous for online groups and email chain management?  I hope so.

Ariel Day 2010 – Registration Open

Five years ago, while living in Chicago, a friend of mine was making fun of me for planning a full day celebration for my birthday, and cynically suggested to just have a full “Ariel Day”.  I thought it had a nice ring, so I went ahead and did it. 
Since then it’s been a summer tradition. Ariel Day technically is the first Saturday following the 15th of July (my actual birthday). As a point of clarification, Ariel Day is actually separate from my birthday, though every several years they fall on the same day. 

This year the plan is to head out to Georges Island, a great island in the Boston Harbor with a fort to explore, open area to play games, and BBQ pits.  After a few hours there, we’ll head back to my roofdeck for drinks, pizza, great views of the Charles and the sunset.  And for the true fighters,  we’ll head to a club here in Boston (not Felt) for some dancing.
Full details at: http://arielday.com, tickets and registration at: arielday.eventbrite.com

Is Diaspora the next OpenSocial?

Remember about 2 and a half years ago, when the Facebook Platform was still new, and all the talk was about OpenSocial?  It was supposed to be a platform for all the “other” social networks (outside Facebook), where developers could easily create apps for all of them at once. Dave McClure wrote an interesting post about two and a half years ago talking about OpenSocial vs. Facebook Platform (before Connect). OpenSocial all but died, Facebook got stronger. 
Now there is a lot of talk about Diaspora, the “the privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all distributed open source social network.” The name is already ambitious and confusing enough.  They have been making some noise, getting some press, including a piece in the New York Times, and have raise over $177k from almost 5000 contributors. Jason Fried argues that they have too much money and no product

But I’d argue that they face much deeper challenges.
Market Adoption
For this to be significant, it has to see Facebook style viral growth. Facebook’s growth curve was a once in a generation thing, I don’t think we’ll see it replicated within the same decade.

Technical Challenges
Authentication has been a challenge online for a long time. Facebook Connect (now Graph) is making great progress on Single Sign on, but it hasn’t been easy, just look at OpenID’s failures.
Users Don’t Care
Most users don’t care about their privacy settings, and won’t care about a more open Facebook. And it’s hard enough to get people to change, even when they do care.

Trading One Master for Another
If Diaspora wins, then we’ll trade one master for another. Maybe with better default privacy settings and visibility, but with a governing body all the same.
Facebook Interoperability
I think it’s fair to say that any effort to create a new social graph will need to rely on Facebook’s existing social information (profile info, etc.) and social graph (friends), and possibly also the photos and other information on there. Forcing people to give all that up will be a challenge.

We’ll see two and a half years from now if Diaspora caught hold, or ended up like OpenSocial.  I’m rooting for a more open Facebook, and maybe Diaspora will help achieve that without ever launching a product. But they’ll have some serious challenges to create a truly viable alternative to Facebook.

Alternatives to an MBA

In my last post I wrote about the only 4 reasons to get an MBA. Now I wanted to follow up with some alternatives. 
Start a Company
The best alternative is to start a company. It will cost about the same (initial investment plus lost salary), but provides a MUCH better first-hand learning, creates a good opportunity to build a network (required for fundraising, finding co-foudners and partners, etc.), and forces you to be self sufficient.  Don’t get an MBA if you want to start a company, JFDI

Get a Masters in Engineering Management
If you know you want to stay on the technical side of management (and have a healthy disregard for MBA types), then get a Master of Engineering Management.  There is a growing number of schools offering the degree (including my alma matter, Dartmouth, and see a full list at Wikipedia). 
Specialize in something you love
The other option that is often looked over, is just to double down and study or do something you really love.  Get a Masters in Fine Art, or History, or anything else. The world needs plenty of specialists, and more often than not, you’ll be able to do much higher quality work if you really love it, and the rest will come (riches, fame, etc.).  

I’m sure there are plenty of others, but these three examples quickly jumped out at me.  

The ONLY 4 reasons to get an MBA

Before starting my own company, I thought very seriously about getting an MBA. Over the past three and a half years, I’ve gone from being pretty sure I would get one, to being pretty sure I won’t. What changed were my goals, situation, and skills, not my perception on the reasons to get an MBA.  
Over the past week I’ve come across two interesting blog posts on the question of whether to get an MBA. One is a post by Steve Blank that talks about the MBA as an entrepreneurial finishing school, and the other is a TechCrunch article about whether an MBA is a plus or minus in the startup world.  Both are interesting reads (and also both interestingly mention the Master in Engineering Management as an alternative to the MBA, which is a degree I do have).  
So here are the four reasons (the only four reasons) I feel anyone should get an MBA. 

1 – To Build a Strong(er) Network

In many people’s eyes, this is the biggest (and sometimes only) benefit of getting an MBA. I tend to agree. A solid network is extremely valuable in any business, be it a startup, a consulting firm, or a large corporation. However it’s also important to remember that the quality of the network is directly proportional to the quality of the school, the jobs the graduates take, and the long term prospects of classmates.

2 – To Change Career

If you’re stuck in a career that you don’t want to be in, and it has a traditional stigma that makes it difficult to easily change careers, then spending 2 years studying general business, meeting new people, and spending a lot of time learning about new industries can be a great way to get out of a rut.  For me personally, this was a very compelling reason after my initial start in the automotive industry, which was remedied by a move into strategy consulting then tech entrepreneurship.

3 – To Learn a NEW and Complementary Skill (that you want to use down the road)

An MBA can in face teach new skills, whether they are corporate finance, business organization, micro and macro economics, accounting, etc.  For people that have studied or have been working in fields that are not very business related (e.g. teaching, research, arts), then these skills are very new, and often challenging.  But it’s important that there is at least an initial plan to use these skills in a meaningful way.  Maybe you’re a high school teacher that wants to start a business.  
Many people who get MBAs are already fairly strong in the subject matter (i.e. business undergrads, strategy and management consultants, i-bankers), and thus the MBA degree has a perception of being relatively easy from a content perspective. This isn’t the case if all of the material is new to you.  It’s like learning a foreign language if you had been speaking it at home. 

4 – If it’s required for your desired career path

In some industries, an MBA is essentially a requirement to keep moving up, for example i-banking, consulting, or Fortune 500 high level executive.  In that case, if that’s the career path you really want, then you don’t have much choice. The good news is that in many of these industries, companies will either pay for or re-pay the cost of the MBA, so it helps soften the financial blow.
If you’re thinking of getting one for any other reason, think hard about it.
I’ll write a follow up post about alternatives to getting an MBA, depending on your goals.

Guest Post on Boston’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

I posted a guest post on PopSignal about my thoughts on the recent surge in Boston’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. 
In the first part, I tried to capture my observations about what has been changing in the local tech scene, such as better networking groups and events, additional early stage funding options, and more support infrastructure.  In the second part, I wrote about the key drivers for these recent changes, which I think are all contributing strongly to the improvement of the Boston ecosystem. 

HP Acquires Palm – Well Done

I’m excited to see that HP has made a move to acquire Palm.  As I wrote before, Palm has created a solid mobile OS, and someone needed to buy that to keep it going and continue to put pressure on iPhone and Android.  

It’s a great move for HP to become relevant again in the mobile space, which they haven’t done since the poor iPaq line of PDAs.  It also makes sense because HP has been pushing hard to put touch into their desktop computers and even their printers, and the WebOS is a much stronger and nicer looking foundation for all of those efforts. 

HP stepped up to the plate, where HTC backed down because of their Android relationships, and Nokia didn’t even consider it because they are still busy putting out shitty Symbian phones.  

So who will end up buying Palm

Just 2 weeks ago I wrote about how somebody needed to buy Palm, and lo and behold, now the company is putting itself up for sale.  

When I wrote, Palm was trading at 3.76, and I noticed a great buying opportunity.  Too bad I didn’t actually move to buy any stock, it’s almost doubled in just 2 weeks.  Ahhh, hindsight.  

Well, despite my frustration in not acting on what was a clear opportunity, I’m still hopeful for the industry that someone will pick up Palm and create a solid competitor for Android and iPhone.  
I’ve been writing a lot about technology recently, but promise some general life posts coming soon. 

iPad Opportunities – Clipboard Replacement

As I continue to organize thoughts around some general motivational posts, I’m still fascinated by technology and recently the iPad, the newest addition to my tech library. 

A lot has been written about the iPad, including a recent article about how iPad is computing’s middle ground, which got me thinking.  The author references an analogy of coaches using the iPad on the sideline, so I started thinking about what are other uses of the physical clipboard that the iPad could replace:

  • Coaches – even professional coaches use clipboards, often the mini-whiteboards with an outline of the field, imagine a simple app that you could draw plays on and pull up “template” plays to then expound on.  
  • Inventory Management – anything in a warehouse where people are on the go, but need to check back on orders and current stock levels.
  • Hospitals – A no-bariner, people are writing about the benefits for nurses and other healthcare professionals.
  • Club VIP Lists – Real time updated and easier to manage than the current print-out list with a checklist
  • Wedding Planner – We’ve all seen these, frantically checking off stuff and planning to make sure things go off smoothly.
  • Construction Management – Especially on-site, lots going on
I’d be really interested in seeing some quick studies about how and where clipboards are sold and used.  I’m sure Staples is sitting on a goldmine of data that would be really interesting for future iPad developers. 

Can you think of other clipboard uses that could be replaced by an iPad?

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