Friday, December 30, 2011

Hey Stanford, We'll Take Ya!

Dear Stanford,

I hope in recent days you have realized the err of your ways in backing out of your opportunity to enter the East Coast start-up market. Silicon Alley has become a tremendous incubator for tech talent and start-ups. Bi-coastal tech revolutions are an inevitable future. So, what better place to build a new campus than Northern New Jersey--- the 6th borough? Seriously, Jersey has all the elements necessary to add heat to this innovation engine.
The trifecta:

1) Knowledge workers. As someone who works in technology, albeit finance technology, I travel along with many of my workmates into Manhattan from New Jersey every morning. The shear amount of technical brainpower that crosses the Hudson every day is mind blowing.

Instead of letting NYC "steal" all of these people and take their pound of flesh in commuting costs and taxes, why not build scalable companies at home, in these bedroom communities. Downtown Jersey City and Hoboken have already spawned a few startups as many of the larger companies have seen the shift and moved headquarters to the banks of the Palisades. Harvesting this local brain power would be infinitely smart for the state, smart for the residents, and profitable for any institutional body (read: you) who could create the new environment.

2) Clustering. The success of Silicon Valley was not because of you solely. It was a culture of solving big problems and collaboration among some of the top universities that allowed the primordial ooze of startups to spawn. With Cornell and the Technion setting up shop on Roosevelt Island, Columbia in Washington Heights and if Charlie O'Donnell has his way, an NYU-Poly consortium in Brooklyn, we've created a hot bed, a triangulation of brainiacs. Add to that Rutgers and Stevens within spitting distance and we've got a cluster. Like antique shops and bookstores, like minded individuals and institutions do better in packs, attracting the best talent, start-ups, and ideas en masse.

You could be the seasoned veteran and linchpin that pulls the whole thing together from your experience breeding the next great startups. Frankly, NYC is sick of being a farm team for Silicon Valley and the minute a startup has some marginal success they pack their bags and move to the West Coast. Investors, talent and savvy are all here, NYC just needs better clustering and branding to anchor local start-ups and attract foreign ones.
3) Infrastructure. We need to realize that the innovation revolution isn't just about the web or mobile applications, it's also about agriculture and green tech. Despite the smear campaign, Jersey has lots of pristine land and lush greenery in spades.
New Jersey has more modes of transportation than probably any other state in the entire US, second only to NY. We have the PATH, a light rail, tons of buses and trains courtesy of NJT or a multitude of other carriers, access to bridges, tunnels, major airports. Anyone who's ever come into any one of the three major airports in the area, will always choose Newark above JFK and LGA, hands down.
Houses in the more urban areas can be rented for a fraction of a tiny apartment or office in Manhattan (or the Boroughs) where you can have three founders and their code monkeys living and working-- just like the homes near Sand Hill Road, but vastly cheaper. Additionally, in Hudson county there is the UEZ zone that provides small businesses with incentives and low start-up costs.
Jersey is built for the modern granola academic, the green space start-up junkie, the fast talking venture backed hustler. The classic Jerseyite understands and exploits economies of scale. He puts the idea ahead of his own ego. He is able to commune a team of straight-talking, quick thinking, self-deprecating engineers. She has the heart of a visionary, but the mind of a pragmatist, and many have been 'New Yorkers', in the deepest sense of the term, for three or four generations.

So how 'bout it Stanford? Call us the 'Silicon Swamp' if you like--- just make sure to call us.

-From Jersey, With Love.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

SideTour Needs a Detour

I just came across SideTour, "your place to discover and book new experiences offered by interesting and talented people around the world". It piqued my interest since my wife and I are regularly looking for unique learning experiences. It was part of the latest batch of TechStars NYC and what it attempts to do is give people with various hobbies and professions like antique collectors, boating enthusiasts, and Olympic athletes a platform to share their expertise as a docent would in a museum. SideTour allows these "experts" to create an event, let people sign up and ultimately collect money for these services.

Reading some of the press on this company was a bit frustrating because it seemed to me that the writers (particularly TechCrunch, who provided the comparison companies) didn't get the business model at its core. The first problem is that the companies SideTour is being compared to were Vayable and Skyara (at the time of this writing now known as Ravn).

The reason why Vayable is not a good comparison is their focus feels more related to travel and hence their market is travelers. It is more for people going to some exotic place that they've crowdsourced from friends and travel guides but they are searching for the holy grail of modern gypset travel--- the unique experience not written up in a Frommer's guide. Like any traveler you are going to take the elevator to the top of the Eiffel tower in Paris or visit the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Vayable appeals to the type of people who want to
go home and say they ate a tasting menu prepared by the sous Chef of Itinéraires in his private home on his day off or be served tea while privately shopping for and learning about silk turkish rugs in the Grand Bazaar. Clearly, the AirBnb partnership is a logical extension of this supposition.

As for Skyara, they originally seemed to be relatively close to SideTour but for reasons unbeknownst to me they appear to have abandoned their business model while "pivoting" to Ravn. As an aside, this term wreaks of whitewashing and needs to be banished from the start-up vocabulary along with 'disruptive'. Given I haven't been one of the lucky few to get an invite to Ravn, I can only speculate on the details and go off of other's reports. It looks as if they are a search engine for unique local experiences. However, the reason this is not like SideTour, is that it becomes crowdsourced and business-sourced rather than curated. This removes the air of a luxurious and exclusive experience and reminds me more of a specialty Meetup. Additionally, when people are looking for something new to experience, they shouldn't be faced with the existential equivalent of a blank google box.

My best head-to-head comparisons for SideTour are UrbanDaddy or Gilt City since they are trying to provide luxury unique experiences you won't be able to get elsewhere. They are being more selective and curating the experiences people want which seems to make more sense given the amount of information overload these other sites provide. I can speak from experience that when trying to cull through thousands
of "unique tours" I revel at the thought of someone I trust being able to pick for me and guide me to the better opportunities with pre-screened experts. The problem however is all of these companies are looking at this entire business completely wrong.

The thinking is that the "build it and they will come" idea. Create the platform for experts to sell their wares and people will just flock to it thereby allowing them to sit in between these two parties and collect a vig. WRONG!!!! Not only is this a chicken-egg problem even if you get over this hump at some point how many times can you post a unique experience to taste Burbon in Brooklyn? I say, not that many, which in turn means the model is fundamentally flawed. The solution to the problem is to stop looking at the model as a platform but instead a talent management business. That's right, like they've been doing in music and TV for years, be the agency that creates individual stars.

Yes the platform is important but as a company SideTour could go further and nurture their best experts. They could do this by sending out surveys to attendees after an experience, churning the data and finding the diamonds in the rough. Taking the great ones, helping them build a brand and a sustainable business model. Take for example, the "Dine with a Banker-Turned-Monk at an East Village Monastery" experience. If he's that good, why not work with Rasanath and help him develop seminars, books and TV appearances? He is clearly spending his days in deep meditation rather than looking at financial statements and market analysis--- or else he would have stayed a banker. This is where SideTour's added value lies, helping these not-even-small businesses without the capacity or interest in metrics become scalable brands. Thus that tiny vig for a singular transaction now becomes a management fee or a stake in a growing small business. Thus SideTour organically becomes an incubator for niche experts.

An example of another startup that started out as a platform but developed into a curator for small businesses is Foodzie. When I first read about them in 2010 they were doing something similar to SideTour but over time they realized that their real advantage was in the data they were gathering and their ability to curate good food. Although they recently had some missteps, ala Netflix, I think the majority of customers are happy with the new model and now they can get into what I would consider the "pivoting" point of their business they first mentioned in the Entrepreneur magazine article: "[H]elp vendors distribute their products both online and in stores--and not limiting Foodzie to being a direct-to-consumer distributor."

It seems there are loads of start-ups in the churn and burn market---create some exclusive deal and sell the hell out of it until it is dead. These start-ups fail to understand the importance of relationship management, relationship of the customer to a small business and relationship of that small business to the agency who
brought them that customer. I hope SideTour can learn from the path of others and realize its not the deal--- its the relationship.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Is art an integral part of life?

As a young boy, growing up in a lower middle class family, going to museums was an opportunity to escape the confines of the urban landscape and be transported to far off places not only in the world but in time. I could visit the museum of Natural History and be surrounded by pterodactyls, tyrannosaurus rex, brontosaurus and even mosquitoes the size of my head, or I could be 20,000 feet under the sea smack in the middle of fight between a squid and a whale. If I visited the Met I could walk through the Dutch hall and imagine myself fetching various flora and leaves for Vermeer to mix his own paints while watching him create one of his masterpieces. Or better yet I could pique my creative curiosity by visiting the Guggenheim and wondering if people really did have both of their eyes on one side of their face in the 1920's as Picasso portrayed them. Looking back the shear ability to allow the mind to wander in those types of directions is an immeasurable gift.

Lately, to me art itself has taken on a more concrete identity, as not just the great equalizer--- equalizing people's backgrounds and opportunities---but more, the great revitalizer. I happen to be sitting writing this entry in a place that is near and dear to my heart, the Catskill and Hudson River Valley region of upstate New York. It is a place in which I find great beauty and charm, however a less informed person might look around and see a locally depressed economy, a high degree of poverty and lack of modern amenities (Starbucks anyone?).  They might make the snap judgement that nothing important or meaningful could be happening here and that the area is in need of white-wash gentrification. However if you were to visit some of the wonderful art galleries, coffee shops and festivals occurring you will see there is more to the story than meets the eye. There are people that care deeply and passionately about their communities and although some of those surface observations might be right, art is the turning tide that is keeping these magnificent towns relevant. So in a very literal sense art is breathing new life into these communities by helping spur commerce and economic development. The Walkway Over the Hudson exemplifies this type of progress. What started as an artistic vision of a local resident in the early 1990s to fix a "fire scorched, abandoned eyesore over the Hudson" transformed into a magnificent jewel of the region celebrating it's one-millionth visitor in less than two years after being opened to the public.  Creativity and artistic expression is the life-blood of many of these towns.

In a more abstract sense, adulthood has changed the way I look at art and the reasons for my trips to museums.  With each trip I am able to revisit perspectives and angles I no longer have time to ponder.  I am able to see things that tend to get lost with life experiences. As a child you are a clean slate, unwilling, but more likely unable, to judge things for what they are on the surface. As a child you ask questions, dig deep and see things with open eyes and an open mind. As an adult the business of life forces you to simplify and overlook things you have heard and seen before and take what you want and leave what you don't like. You are forced to categorize, simplify and pass judgement.
Dayna and I recently came back from a trip to Israel. One of the stops on our journey was to a town called Tsederot. This is not a big city and hence has had little name recognition, even amongst Israelis until a few years ago. That was until the intifada. It's proximity to the Gaza Strip (only a few miles away) made it a ripe target for 50-200 bombs per day. Homes, schools and synagogues were destroyed daily and residents would have only 60 seconds forewarning to find cover. Initially, any sane person would feel pity for these people and pray for their safety regardless of political views given that these are innocent civilians just trying to live their lives. Secondly, you might ask, as many often do, what would drive these people to live in constant fear for their life instead of just moving to a more secure location. However, upon visiting this town we found that the people of Tsederot didn't want our pity and found our question of moving a perplexing one. As many unequivocally stated, Tsederot is their home, and although they were scared for their own lives and those of their children, this fear all too quickly gave way to hope for their home and hope for their future. Hope that one day all the pain and suffering they have endured will be gone and they will be able to live in peace with their neighbors.

You see this hope visually manifested are all over the town. Streets are lines with bomb shelters, that are covered in technicolor street art. Playgrounds are surrounded by whimsical snakes with cavernous bellies and empty purple castles so that the childhood naivete I spoke about before remains unbroken. Even some of the shrapnel from the bombs have been used to create sculptures of playful musicians. The people of Tsderot are irreverent, many might say. They will not surrender to fear or run from their homes. They want a new age and what better way to express that than by creativity and art. Life continues, no matter the hardship, and the people of Tsderot understand that better than most. Hence the artistic pulse of the town beats louder and stronger than anywhere else. 

Seeing and observing art transports me back to my childhood naivete and gives my mind and senses the shock they need to stop and attempt to see the world through a lens I threw away many years ago--- which is really, no lens at all. As an adult you forget how much baggage you travel with and all the limiting choices you have made to help you understand and simplify the complexities of life. In those moments in front of an architectural wonder over water or anthropomorphistic bomb shelter, you get the opportunity once again to see something in the world through someone else' eyes or with a different filter.  It is then that you are able to share in another's vision and maybe, just maybe help change the world for the better.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Blogging in the age of Facebook and Twitter: Is it DEAD?

After reading this article in the Times today, the one thing the writer points out which I believe to be the crux of the issue is that 'the blogging industry' is all a semantics game. Tumblr is nothing more than a photo blog and twitter is a micro blog. The thing is that the term "blog" has gone out of vogue.

The most concerning thing I find about the above mentioned services plus Facebook is that the focus has gone self promotional and derivative. The beauty of the long form blog is the analysis and thought put into the words you are writing--- the synthesis of ideas and creative wit. Where has that all gone?

The unfortunate thing is that Facebook doesn't have a strong blog platform (FB Notes IMHO doesn't count). The reason why an ability to blog on Facebook would be great is that it would solve the central problem every blog has: readership. By leveraging your existing social graph, which you gathered for reasons other than blogging, translates into immediate followers directly increasing your readership. The obvious downside to this model however is the lack of openness of your account. The "old" blog world where anyone could come along and read your opinions and analysis, which Blogger and Wordpress provide, is lost since anyone can't really stumble upon your blog on FB. A possible solution to this is when someone comes to your public Facebook page you could set your privacy settings that your blog would be public and give people the ability to friend you as blog reader, solving the whole privacy issue around accepting strangers as friends. The added benefit of this approach to you would be that your blog posts could show up in your new "friends" news feed. Zuck you should get on that!

The other relatively obvious site that could fill this void would be LinkedIn. Since your basically accept anyone on that site given its business type focus and the goal of a blog to promote your opinions and knowledge of a subject the marriage seems ideal. Most people using LinkedIn are either looking for a job or new business so what better place than that to show your analytical muscles and your expertise in your purported space? Again, I am unaware of any blogging capabilities in LinkedIn. And while I am on the topic of LinkedIn, the entire status aspect just doesn't make any sense to me. I can barely tolerate the status updates on Facebook about a friend from high school who I don't really talk to anymore going to take a shower. I doubt a potential employer or recruiter wants to read that you hiccuped and made minor changes to your profile.

Given the current state of things it seems to me that either LinkedIn and/or Facebook (business blogging and/or personal blogging) need to try to fill this gap or another service which marries the social network aspect and blogging aspect needs to fill what I would consider a huge hole in the system.

Is there something out there? I for one would definitely be interested--- call me a philistine but I've never taken to tweeting or modern FB.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Puccini's Armida Libretto

"Armida you have taken all my strength."

"You have imprisoned me in your eyes."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Future of TV Advertising

I am not sure how many of you caught Ben Silverman on Charlie Rose last night but it was quite an interesting interview ( and got me thinking about the fate of advertising in TV. As they sat and discussed the growing use of time-shifting technology the move of companies wanting to do advertising will move to product placement. That raised a few questions for me that I would love to get people's thoughts on:

1) According to a lot of stuff I have been reading, product placement has not brought the success companies thought (and advertising companies pitched) it would. If this is going to be the de-facto standard what needs to change to make it successful? Is there any meaningful way to measure the success of this type of advertising?

2) Putting my TV executives hat on, I always thought a major way to generate follow up revenue on the success of a series was to eventually license it to someone else on a different network. If this is the case, will NBC want to buy a show from TNT stuffed with product placement ads from GM if their advertisers are Toyota? I am assuming there will be a fine line between what people (read: viewers) are willing to accept vs. an infomercial-esque TV series (Vincent D'Onofrio using a Dell laptop vs. him eating a sandwich from Jimmy's Deli and drinking a Coke while interrogating a suspect).

3) If product placement advertising isn't the answer to save TV, then what is? My quick thoughts on this is that product placement will only work in a subtle fashion and will demand consistency, not only from a particular series but on a given network. Haven't done the market research but I am willing to bet that people have a strong tendency to cling to a network so if every show on ABC uses Dell laptops people will likely think of buying from Dell next time. I would love to see the statistics of the recent success of Taittinger champagne, as Bravo has clearly 'placed' it in nearly every show on the network. I also strongly believe the corresponding web portals will move away from being bolt-on aspects and become a critical component right from the start. Executives will have to think carefully about how best to use these tools as they will play a huge role and will become a major selling point for advertisers.

Would love to hear what other people are thinking about this especially when companies are moving towards using only proven advertising models and/or have short attention span for experimentation.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

A Rough Discussion of Candidacy

Throughout this election I continue to hear candidates talk about change, but I am unsure if they fully understand what it means to transform. As history shows, many presidential candidates have talked about change in Washington and how the “machine” is broken. Many have presented quixotic platitudes about how their plan and their methods will not only fix that which is broken, but more, continue to keep the US the most powerful nation in the world. My inherent problem is that everyone speaks about the ends, but no one talks about the means to get there. Not only will our next President need to have a thoughtful and comprehensive course of action, but he must also be able to bring people from both sides of the aisle together. Will the next President be able to not only talk about change but have the necessary skills and experience, both in life and political prowess, to enact change? Will the next President have the necessary strength to stand his or her ground even if it isn’t possible to make the changes as quickly as the American people want it? Focusing on results rather than thoughtful planning can lead to extreme disappointment. When the end never comes to fruition, people lose hope in their political figures and their ability to effect change. The problem is, that a result should never have been asserted, only research and plans of action should be set forth.

In the past eight years we have had an administration destroy everything we hold sacred as American citizens, a form of progress that harmed our democracy. The current administration understood the system, knew how to effect change within it, and sadly, also knew how to work around it. My hope is that the next administration will have the same skills but use them in a positive way; first undoing all that was done as well as propelling this nation forward.

The American people trust that a candidate will bring every promise to fruition. The common misconception is that these promises will automatically be brought to pass, when in actuality candidates only assert goals for the future. They sign checks that only hard work and cooperation can cash. Unfortunately people are not patient or active enough to understand what it takes to even move the machine, let alone change it. I am afraid for my generation and generations that follow that there are not enough people, especially the young people, examining the real issues this country faces. I fear that many people see the issues solely through the eyes of the candidates and media and have not examined the issues for themselves, which in my opinion taints any final conclusions.

Before people embrace candidates that speak about change, voters must understand the issues they plan to “change” from multiple perspectives and only then determine which candidate has the best solution, best plan of action and the skills to produce results. Candidates must have the right answers but more importantly, must ask the right questions. Sometimes, a politicians view of the country and of the issues that our nation faces, are overly simplistic. In order to create a catchy sound bite and inevitably produce a result, they choose to neglect the dimensionality of the issues. Changing the system requires thoughtful progression and deliberate actions. We should not only expect imagination and planning from our elected officials, but we, as the public, must also be aware of the issues and the questions that should be asked. If more people do this I am confident we as a nation will continue to hold our place among the greatest superpowers in the world since we will then have a more holistic approach to the problems we face, and will have representation that can effect those goals.

We are a nation of multi-taskers. We reward productivity rather than independent thinking and imaginative problem solving. To force our candidates to be result oriented rather than geared toward purposeful planning, I believe, would be a grave disservice to our nation. Just as we should live our lives more through the means than the ends, so should our representatives. Let us take back the humanity and dignity that has been stripped from our collective national consciousness. Let us hold our politicians to a higher standard, and allow them the freedoms that we hope for ourselves.