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“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble.” – Macbeth
Every time I hear the word “bubble” I think of that quote from Macbeth. I also think of Tulip Mania and the South Sea Company which purportedly was the source of the concept of an economic bubble. And then I remember Charles Mackay’s classic book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds.”
When I returned last weekend from a week off the grid I encountered the word “bubble” over and over again when referring to the tech industry. A variety of people were using it to describe the current situation. This has been going on for at least a quarter or two, but the velocity of it seems to have picked up with a wave of high priced financings along with large financings for nascent companies. While plenty of tech bloggers were tossing around the word “bubble”, I also noticed it among the mainstream media. But more interestingly I saw it in my twitter feed from some entrepreneurs and VCs who I respect a lot. So I spent some time on my run yesterday rolling the idea of a bubble around in my head.
In the tech industry, the great Internet bubble inflated between 1999 and 2000 and deflated (or popped) in 2001. I remember it well as 2001 was easily the most challenging year of my business life. I made a lot of mistakes in 1999 and 2000 that I’ve hopefully learned from (I believe I have) and took on a lot of challenging things between 2001 and 2005 which laid the groundwork for the business context that I find myself in today. So, in hindsight, the great Internet bubble of 2001 was very powerful and useful to me, even though it was very painful.
I refuse to make predictions as the only thing I know with certainty is that some day I will be dead. I view predictions as irrelevant in the context of what I am working on and trying to accomplish. Sure – I pay attention to what is going on around me, have hypotheses about what’s going to happen, and adjust my behavior accordingly. But I think making predictions with certainty such as “we are in a bubble” are useless, especially in the absence of recommendations about what to do to either defend against or take advantage of the situation.
I find this discussion about bubbles especially bizarre and entertaining against the backdrop of the downward economic cycle of the past few years. In 2008, everyone in business and politics was consumed with the “global economic crisis”. However, entrepreneurs just put their heads down and continued to accelerate the current web revolution which started around 2004 with “Web 2.0” being articulated by Tim O’Reilly. Today, there is once again enormous focus on entrepreneurship as the salvation for many things, with the naysayers starting to say “but it’s a bubble” or some variant.
If you recognize that we are in a strong, positive, upward segment of the current “tech company creation cycle”, that’s more than enough. You should accept that we’ll be back in a downward part of the cycle at some point, but that we don’t know if it’ll be in a week, month, year, or decade. We also won’t know the slope of the curve although if you are a hedge fund trader you probably think you can calculate the derivative of some equation about the future that will tell you what to buy and sell. Whatever – have fun and good luck.
If you are an entrepreneur, you can build a significant, powerful, sustainable business taking advantage of market expansion during the up cycle and consolidating your position during the down cycle. Don’t get distracted by speculating about “bubbles” other than the ones in your bathtub. Instead, spend your energy creating amazing products, thrilling your customers, building an awesome organization, and living your life. Always remember that one day you too will be dead.
We’ve decided to implement a new phone system in our office. When I posted about our search for our video conferencing system, we got a ton a great feedback so I’m once again looking for your help.
We’ve been using an older version of Cisco’s Call Manager (VoIP based) that we’ve had for the past decade. While it has worked flawlessly and has a ton of bells and whistles, we simply do not use them. Occasionally someone will transfer a call and that’s about it. Call Manager is currently fed by two T1′s that flex between voice and data. We have a total about about 20 phones in the office.
Our goal is to rip all of this out (including the T1s) and replace it with something much simpler that has low to no incremental cost beyond whatever hardware we buy up front. We’re currently considering two different possibilites, one were we have no phones at all and everyone uses cell phones and a second where we continue to have a physical phone (or just a headset) and use cell phones as a backup.
Scenario #2 is where we’re looking for input. We are looking for a system that would involve no hardware at the office (save for possibly having phones/headsets on the desks) and that would not require dedicated T1′s as we want to use our existing Comcast line for this.
We’ve so far spent time exploring Google Voice but have had too many complaints of unacceptable voice quality for it to be a viable solution today. While Skype is another possible solution we have existing numbers that would need to be ported (or at least forwarded in some way) so Skype doesn’t feel like a great option either.
Thoughts or suggestions?
A post in the New York Times this morning asserted that Software Progress Beats Moore’s Law. It’s a short post, but the money quote is from Ed Lazowska at the University of Washington:
“The rate of change in hardware captured by Moore’s Law, experts agree, is an extraordinary achievement. “But the ingenuity that computer scientists have put into algorithms have yielded performance improvements that make even the exponential gains of Moore’s Law look trivial,” said Edward Lazowska, a professor at the University of Washington.
The rapid pace of software progress, Mr. Lazowska added, is harder to measure in algorithms performing nonnumerical tasks. But he points to the progress of recent years in artificial intelligence fields like language understanding, speech recognition and computer vision as evidence that the story of the algorithm’s ascent holds true well beyond more easily quantified benchmark tests.”
If you agree with this, the implications are profound. Watching Watson kick Ken Jennings ass in Jeopardy a few weeks ago definitely felt like a win for software, but someone (I can’t remember who) had the fun line that “it still took a data center to beat Ken Jennings.”
While that doesn’t really matter because Moore’s Law will continue to apply to the data center, but my hypothesis is that there’s a much faster rate of advancement on the software layer. And if this is true it has broad impacts for computing, and computing enabled society, as a whole. It’s easy to forget about the software layer, but as an investor I live in it. As a result of several of our themes, namely HCI and Glue, we see first hand the dramatic pace at which software can improve.
I’ve been through my share of 100x to 1000x performance improvements because of a couple of lines of code or a change in the database structure in my life as a programmer 20+ years ago. At the time the hardware infrastructure was still the ultimate constraint – you could get linear progress by throwing more hardware at the problem. The initial software gains happened quickly but then you were stuck with the hardware improvements. If don’t believe me, go buy a 286 PC and a 386 PC on eBay, load up dBase 3 on each, and reindex some large database files. Now do the same with FoxPro on each. The numbers will startle you.
It feels very different today. The hardware is rapidly becoming an abstraction in a lot of cases. The web services dynamic – where we access things through a browser – built a UI layer in front of the hardware infrastructure. Our friend the cloud is making this an even more dramatic separation as hardware resources become elastic, dynamic, and much easier for the software layer folks to deploy and use. And, as a result, there’s a different type of activity on the software layer.
I don’t have a good answer as to whether it’s core algorithms, distributed processing across commodity hardware (instead of dedicated Connection Machines), new structural approaches (e.g. NoSql), or just the compounding of years of computer science and software engineering, but I think we are at the cusp of a profound shift in overall system performance and this article pokes us nicely in the eye to make sure we are aware of it.
The robots are coming. And they will be really smart. And fast. Let’s hope they want to be our friends.
At the end of each day, I encourage you to reflect on whether you spent your day on “signal” or “noise.” Let me explain.
Recently, I wrote a post titled Managing Priorities. In it I talked about the idea of P1′s. My weeks start on Monday morning so my P1 for the current week (which ends in about 20 hours since I usually get up at 5am on Monday morning) is to get a draft of the new book I’m writing with Jason Mendelson to our publisher (Wiley). That’s it – one P1 for the week. Of course I did a ton of other things last week, including spending two days at Blur doing an HCI brain soak, working on closing a new investment, working on two M&A deals, having a few board meetings, giving a few talks, meeting with a bunch of people, and having a few enjoyable dinners with friends. But every morning when I woke up I thought about my P1 (the book) and every night before I went to bed I thought about whether or not I had made progress on it.
I committed to myself to spend all day Saturday and Sunday on the final edit push. Now that I’m on my second book, I know my limits and know that six hours is the most I can work productively on the book in one day. So yesterday I slept in, did email and my normal Saturday morning info scan, and then settled in for six hours of editing. Every 30 minutes I took a short break – did email, had lunch, took a nap, talked to Amy, and did a 15 minute phone call with another VC who was struggling with an issue in real time. But I got my six hours in and then went out to dinner with Amy and a bunch of friends. Today I’m going to catch up on email until about 11, head to my condo in Boulder, and spend a good solid six hours on the final pass before hitting send on the draft. I’ll reward myself with dinner with some friends, although I have no idea with whom at this point.
So, while I let a little noise drift into my weekend, I’ll have spent the majority of it on signal (my P1). This morning as I was doing my morning infoscan (Daily Web Sites, Twitter, RSS Feeds) I noticed a ton of stuff that I’d put in the noise category. There were apparently a few debates that blew up yesterday – I’ll use the one around Angellist as an example of noise.
I love Angellist and think it’s a remarkably interesting thing. However, it’s of relatively little direct utility to me – of our 35 investments made from Foundry Group, none have come from Angellist. Regardless, it has had an undeniably huge impact on angel and seed investing in the past few years. At the minimum, it’s interesting to watch the social dynamics of it. Will it impact a new generation of successful entrepreneurs and angel investors or will it result in a big money pit? Who knows – check back in ten years.
However, I saw a bunch of tweets about it (including some hostile ones followed by some conciliatory ones from the same people) linking to a handful of blog posts, comments, and more tweets. After reading a few of them, I’m not actually sure what the debate is actually about. I thought it was about “is Angellist helpful or not”, but it quickly evolved into something else.
As I was pondering this, I saw a tweet from Paul Kedrosky that said “I have had more than a few entrepreneurs complain lately about VCs/angels tweeting/blogging up storms, but ignoring emails.” While I’m not 100% sure Paul was building off of the Angellist noise, I know Paul pretty well and am going to guess that at the minimum it inspired his tweet. And his tweet is on the money – I know plenty of VCs who are making a ton of “content noise” these days but don’t seem to be able to respond to their signal-related emails. And if entrepreneurs think VC to VC email is somehow special, I’m included in that category (there are plenty of emails I’ve sent to my VC friends with specific stuff in them that are never responded to.)
Now, this is not criticism of the Angellist discussion or VCs not responding to emails. Rather, it’s an effort to give an example of noise overwhelming signal. In this case, Angellist is the signal. The discussion around it in the last 48 hours is mostly noise (I’m sure there’s some signal in there, but it’s a lot of work to pull it out, which results in a bad signal to noise ratio.)
In my little corner of the universe, signal matters a lot. I can’t consume signal 100% of the time (or my head would explode) so I let plenty of noise creep in, but I’ve got very effectively tunable noise filters. Anyone involved in the entrepreneurial ecosystem should ponder this – I encourage you to focus on amplifying signal, not noise.
At Foundry Group, we have now completely switched to Google Apps. This started in August when I decided to Try Gmail For A Week. Five months later I am ready to declare this experiment a complete success.
As every day passes, I find a new magic happy thing that ties my life together better. Today it was Google rolling out a bookmark importer for Delicious. Amy and I have been heavy delicious users, although I stopped a while ago when it was uncertain what delicious’ future was. Amy kept asking me what the long term solution was now that we are on Google Apps – it turns out that the answer is “import your Delicious tags into Google Bookmark and keep on going.”
About once a week I’m stymied by something, but the +1 each day nets out to +6 for the week. That’s fine for me – I figure out a work around and usually, voila, as if the $GOOG could read my mind, the thing that didn’t work right or didn’t exist suddenly appears.
Yesterday’s magic was finally connecting up my Youtube account (which was connected to my personal Gmail account) to my Google Apps account. Ahem – it did exactly what I wanted it to and now my Youtube life is smooth and happy again.
And even when I publicly criticize Google, they react amazingly well. A month ago I wrote a post titled Time For Google To Get Serious About Enterprise Tech Support. Within an hour of it going up, I got an email and a call from the head of Google Enterprise support. We talked through the issues, he acknowledged certain weaknesses, talked about what they were doing to improve things, and listened carefully to my very specific feedback on a few things. He connected up with our IT guy (Ross) and they spent some time going through our experiences. Again, he listened to the feedback. And we’ve seen real improvements based on what we told them. Oh, and now that we are through the migration, we almost never need support.
If anyone still doubts Google’s intention in the enterprise, you shouldn’t. Count me impressed.