If your business focus is in technology or the Internet, as mine has been for nearly three decades, it’s quite possible you’ve never heard of the GLOBE Series, a global conference dedicated to sustainability in business. Until I was invited to participate this year, due in large part to NewCo’s core mission, I certainly hadn’t. What I saw opened my eyes and left me pondering the role of tech in the future of our planet.
The longest-running event dedicated to global environment and business, GLOBE draws more than 9,000 delegates to Vancouver from more than 50 countries around the world. There’s no shortage of government ministers, nonprofit leaders, and sustainability officers from huge companies like Nestlé, Lowe’s, and Citi. But if you peruse the speaker and sponsor lists, it’d be fair to conclude that sustainability simply isn’t a core issue for technology companies. They’re pretty much no-shows.
The business story of the decade is one of insurgency: Every sector of our economy has spawned a cohort of software-driven companies “moving fast and breaking things,” “asking for forgiveness, not permission,” and “blitzscaling” their way to “eating the world.” For years we’ve collectively marveled as new kinds of companies have stormed traditional markets, garnering winner-take-all valuations and delivering extraordinary growth in customers, top line revenue, and private valuations.
But what happens when the insurgents hit headwinds? In the past year or so, we’ve begun to find out. The unicorn class has had its collective mane shorn. A quick spin through the “unicorn leaderboard” finds a cohort strewn with cautionary tales: Uber’s under continual attack by regulators and increasingly well funded competitors. Square and Box, both of which managed tepid public debuts, have consistently traded below their private valuations. Turn, SnapChat, Dropbox, and many others have been marked down by their largest investors. And of course, there’s the cautionary tale of Zenefits.
While this news has evinced a whiff of schadenfreude throughout the tech press, I think the reckoning is more fundamental in nature. The hardest part of running a company, it turns out, is actually running a company. Put another way: Growth can be bought, but growing up has to be earned.
Take Uber, for example. Once a poster child for a culture of “ask for forgiveness, not permission,” Uber is now taking a more traditional approach to new markets, meeting (and working with) local regulators, hiring seasoned pros, and learning how to play politics just like any other big company. It even gave itself a new grownup “haircut.”
Thanks to NewCo, I’ve gotten out of the Bay Area bubble and visited more than a dozen major cities across several continents in the past year. I’ve met with founders inside hundreds of mission-driven companies, in cities as diverse as Istanbul, Boulder, Cincinnati, and Mexico City. I’ve learned about the change these companies are making in the world, and I’ve compared notes with the leaders of large, established companies, many of which are the targets of that change.
As I reflect on my travels, a few consistent themes emerge:
1. Technology has moved from a vertical industry to a horizontal layer across our society. Technology used to be a specialized field. Technology companies sold their wares to large companies in large, complicated IT packages and to consumers as discrete products (computers and software applications). In the past decade, technology has dissolved into the fabric of our society. We all can access powerful technology stacks. We don’t need to know how to program. We don’t need a big IT department either. Now, technology is infrastructure, like our physical systems of highways and roads. This levels the playing field so new kinds of companies can emerge, and it’s forcing big companies to respond to a new breed of competitor, as well as a newly empowered (and informed) consumer base.
If you drive 15 or 20 minutes north of Mexico city’s richer, more well-tended district of Polanco, you’ll find yourself in the middle of Ampliación Torre Blanca, seemingly just one more crumbling set of traffic-choked blocks in this mega-city’s smoggy sprawl.
But turn down the small street of Ignacio Allende and then again into a small courtyard of #21: There you’ll find Startup Mexico (SUM), a massive converted warehouse thrumming with the energy of scores of new businesses. Once inside, you may as well be in the shared workspaces of New York’s Flatiron or San Francisco’s South of Market. Then it hits you. No one city has dominion over the startup movement: It’s gone global.
A couple of weeks ago my wife and I were heading across the San Rafael bridge to downtown Oakland for a show at the Fox Theatre. As all Bay area drivers know, there’s a historically awful stretch of Interstate 80 along that route — a permanent traffic sh*t show.
I considered taking San Pablo Ave., a major thoroughfare which parallels the freeway. But my wife fired up Waze instead, and we proceeded to follow an intricate set of instructions which took us onto frontage roads, side streets, and counter-intuitive detours. Despite our shared unease (unfamiliar streets through some blighted neighborhoods), we trusted the Waze algorithms — and we weren’t alone. In fact, a continuous stream of automobiles snaked along the very same improbable route — and inside the cars ahead and behind me, I saw glowing blue screens delivering similar instructions to the drivers within.
About a year or so ago I started regularly using the Waze app — which is to say, I started using it on familiar routes: to and from work, going to the ballpark, maneuvering across San Francisco for a meeting. Prior to that I only used Waze as an occasional replacement for Google Maps — when I wasn’t sure how to get from point A to point B.
How One Carefully Crafted Sequence in the #SOTU Reframed The Climate Debate
President Obama’s final State of the Union address is currently trending on Medium, which is pretty much what you might expect given Medium is where the White House decided to release it (take that, Facebook! — though a piece about building Instagram has about twice as many recommendations, but I digress…).
I watched the speech last night while at a company retreat with 18 of my colleagues from NewCo. Over and over, the President hit on trends consistent with our thesis of fundamental change in business and culture. For example, he spoke of decoupling benefits such as healthcare from employers, because in the NewCo era, people move between jobs a lot more (or are self employed, or want to leap into a startup). Obama spoke of living in a time of extraordinary technological and social change, of a deepening and troubling social inequality, of optimism and hard work and a right to thrive in “this new economy.”
I just opened an email on my phone. It was from a fellow I don’t know, inviting me to an event I’d never heard of. Intrigued, I clicked on the fellow’s LinkedIn, which was part of his email signature.
That link opened the LinkedIn app on my phone. In the fellow’s LI feed was another link, this one to a tweet he had mentioned in his feed. The tweet happened to be from a person I know, so I clicked on it, and the Twitter app opened on my phone. I read the tweet, then pressed the back button and….
Once upon a time, I’d read the yearly lists of “best albums” from folks like Rick Webb or Marc Ruxin, and immediately head over to the iTunes store for a music-buying binge. Afterwards, I’d listen happily to my new music for days on end, forging new connections between the bands my pals had suggested and my own life experiences. It usually took three to four full album plays to appreciate the new band and set its meanings inside my head, but once there, I could call those bands up in context and apply them to the right mood or circumstance. Over years of this, I built a web of musical taste that’s pretty intricate, if difficult to outwardly describe.
About two years ago, I started paying for Spotify. Because I’d paid for “all you can eat” music, I never had to pay for a particular band’s work. Ever since, my musical experience has become…far less satisfying.
Intrigued (well done, Mr. Rosoff), I clicked the link, noting it was to Business Insider, a publication for which I have decidedly complicated feelings**. In any case, the story was great, if single-sourced. A reporter wandering the halls at CES found a desultory Accenture booth, manned by one Charles Hartley, a “company representative.” A quick Google search (done by me, but I digress), tells us Mr. Hartley is a PR executive focused on analysts and global media — an appropriate resume for manning a booth at CES, to be sure.
Twelve years of making predictions doesn’t make writing them any easier, regardless of my relatively good showing in 2015. In fact, I briefly considered taking the year off — who am I to make predictions anyway? And so much has changed in the past few years — for me personally, and certainly for the industries to which I pay the most attention. But the rigor of thinking about the year ahead is addictive — it provides a framework for my writing, and a snapshot of what I find fascinating and noteworthy. And given that more than 125,000 of you read my post summarizing how I did in 2015 (thanks Medium and LinkedIn!), it was really you who’ve encouraged me to have at it again for 2016. I hope you’ll find these thought provoking, at the very least, and worthy of comment or debate, should you be so inclined.