Fast Forward was founded in 2014 to bring the same level of support found in for-profit incubators and accelerators to tech non-profits. The firm provides its members with grants, pro-bono support, and a network of mentors and colleagues. It was founded by successful Kevin Barenblat, a successful entrepreneur who founded Context Optional which was later to sold to Efficient Frontier which then got bought by Adobe, and Shannon Farley who previously founded Spark, a marketplace for millennial philanthropists.
Earlier this week, Fast Forward presented its 2016 cohort at its annual Demo Day. In true NewCo fashion (Fast Forward has been showcased at NewCo SF), each of the nine companies shared their purpose and demoed their products. Although the focus was more on potential lives impacted rather than potential market share, like other high profile start up pageants like Techcrunch Disprupt and Y Combinator Demo Day, the goal of the presentations was to recruit investors.
One can’t help but root for all the companies who participated. You can see all nine demo videos here. Fast Forward looks for companies working on education, environmental, health, and human rights issues. The challenge, of course, is finding an economic model that gets these solutions to market. Without equity to give, non-profits rely on the generosity of donors and foundations — Fast Forward Demo Day was supported by Google.org, the Omidyar Network, and Black Rock. Google.org announced $25k grants for all participating companies and offered to match individual donations up to $100k.
Facebook’s data center is a cold mirror. Luleå is a town in Sweden, just below the Arctic Circle. Facebook operates a ginormous data center there because the frigid air helps cool its heat-radiating servers, and there’s a bounty of hydroelectric power to fuel them. Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg posted a set of photos of the Luleå server farm, providing a remarkable tableau of what’s really a kind of modern temple of industry — a data-age Great Pyramid. We think of cloud computing as evanescent bits and ethereal data; these hulking turbines, massive rack arrays, and yawning corridors are the material forms of the cloud, repressed but persistent. The images remind us that there’s really no escape from the corporeal world; we can displace the evidence of our digital media’s physical substrate and tuck it away in the Arctic ice, but it won’t be denied. You’ll also notice how few people inhabit these images. The better we get at maintaining the technology that connects us, the more we disappear from the picture. What stubbornly remains behind: mountains of shredded hard drives. Facebook is showing them off to reassure us about its commitment to privacy, but they’re also a heartbreaking reminder of sheer waste.
Today’s partner is tomorrow’s competitor. Fedex and UPS have thrived as haulers of Amazon’s crates, but now, The Wall Street Journal reports, the Seattle-based online retail giant is weighing bringing the delivery network in house. Running its own fleet of trucks could save Amazon more than $1 billion a year. Taking on its freight-giant partners would also be a vast and risky undertaking for Amazon. Once ubiquitous, this kind of “vertical integration” has fallen out of fashion in corporate circles. But Amazon’s burgeoning, voracious need for speed and capacity is driving it to take all kinds of unconventional steps.
The man who sold the Mars trip. You’ve got to hand it to Elon Musk. Equal parts engineer, huckster, and visionary, he has mastered the art of setting mad goals and then ushering them towards mundane reality. Tuesday he unveiled how he plans to take humanity to Mars: with a really big, reusable rocket (Quartz). One that’s refuelable, both in earth orbit and at its Martian destination. One that will carry 100 passengers to the Red Planet, at $500,000 a seat — $200,000 if enough people sign up! The whole project will cost $10 billion, Musk estimates, with characteristic optimism. To his credit, he has both the self-awareness to poke fun at his ambition with an underpants-gnome joke, and the honesty to admit that the effort will be crazily dangerous for the foreseeable future. (“Are you prepared to die? Then, if that’s ok, you’re a candidate for going.”) Like the protagonist of some old Heinlein or Asimov novel, Musk makes the case that we must become a “multiplanetary” species, with a backup home as insurance against catastrophe. Fifty years ago, such stirring challenges trumpeted from presidents, but today they come from our billionaire CEOs. Whether Musk delivers or not, his investments will kickstart a community with expertise in solving the problems of planetary explanation, one that will outlast any individual venture’s life span.
Amazon is eating the world. At the dawn of the Web two decades ago, Amazon cornered the online book market by providing the most comprehensive, useful catalog and the best customer service. Since then, the company has gradually swallowed up lots of other markets using the same strategy — to the point where today, one new survey says, more than half of U.S. consumers start any and every online product search at Amazon’s site (Bloomberg). Anything that can be put in a box and dropped on a doorstep, you get from Amazon. This has huge implications, not just for the future of Big Retail (looking at you, Walmart and Target), but for the fate of Google, too. It also means that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will most likely have an even bigger war chest than Elon Musk to fund his dreams of space travel.
Bring on the cyber. If you’re old enough, you remember the brief moment two decades ago when referring to the online digital world as “cyberspace” actually seemed ahead-of-the-curve. That ended fast, but somehow the prefix “cyber-” found a survival niche in the world of foreign-policy wonks and security pundits. It came roaring back to life in last night’s presidential debate, tumbling out of Donald Trump’s mouth in a muddled monologue that left jaws agape and younger viewers, particularly, in giggles (The Verge). Trump railed against ISIS recruiting and sang the praises of his 10-year-old son’s computing prowess, and by the end of the segment, #TheCyber had become a meme. Once the laughing subsided, we could all glumly realize that neither of these aging candidates has a visceral understanding of the digital world that shapes so much of our experience today. Trump has a thing for Twitter, and Clinton may have had her issues with email. But for both of them, “the cyber” seems a forbidding alien landscape — while for a growing proportion of the electorate, it is simply the ground on which we must build our work and our lives. (Props, though, to Clinton for bringing in a crew of digital natives to craft her technology policy.)
Palantir charged with bias against Asians. Palantir Technologies, the Palo Alto-based security and analytics firm that’s high on anyone’s list of “cyber” companies, is being sued by the U.S. Department of Labor for discriminating against Asian job applicants (Reuters). Federal agencies like the CIA, the FBI, and the Pentagon are also among Palantir’s biggest customers. The suit comes as Silicon Valley faces growing criticism for its failure to diversify its work force. Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel has made headlines recently for funding the lawsuit that brought down the feisty Gawker media business, and also for his support of Republican candidate Donald Trump (Thiel spoke at the Republican convention). Will Palantir claim it’s being persecuted because of Thiel’s controversial profile? Will the lawsuit provide the media with new insight into the inner workings of the secretive company? Is tech industry discrimination against Asians the next big diversity story? There’s a lot to play out here.
When Facebook sneezes, the media catch pneumonia. For some time now the ad-supported online media business has been driven by some simple principles: Advertisers love video; video is hot on Facebook; if you make lots of videos and put them on Facebook, you will make money. But what if this whole equation was based on bad numbers? That seems to be the case, based on the news that Facebook “vastly overestimated” average viewing time for video ads over the past two years (The Wall Street Journal). Naturally, ad buyers are upset, but the rest of us should be, too. Each distortion of the media economy under the influence of Facebook’s dominance means that much less diversity and risk in our informational ecosystem. It’s bad enough that Facebook twiddles the dials on the news feed at will; now we can’t trust its reporting of data. Facebook says the error was innocent, only discovered a month ago, and didn’t affect billing of advertisers. But those now-known-to-be-inflated viewing times certainly cemented Facebook video’s “this is the place to be” appeal. That it took the company two years to come clean only adds to Facebook’s credibility problem.
Yahoo finally tells the world about its gigantic data breach. Speaking of taking two years to come clean: Yahoo’s data breach turns out to be more recent than originally reported — it happened two years ago, in 2014. It’s also way larger than expected: 500 million accounts had their information compromised — that’s as in half a billion (The New York Times). The disclosure has left Yahoo buyer Verizon, which only learned of the data breach two days ago, examining its options. And it has left Yahoo’s customers staring glumly at all their other accounts and wondering what to do about changing their passwords. Yahoo is blaming a “state-sponsored actor” for the hack. (And no, that doesn’t mean an NEA-funded thespian.) Whoever is responsible, the gap between the event and its disclosure does not inspire confidence in the company, its leadership, or its industry.
Questioning Amazon’s algorithms. Amazon famously puts customers first. But a new report by ProPublica suggests that the company’s code pushes its own merchandise, even when other listings on the site offer better deals. The algorithm that chooses which seller to feature in the rectangular orange “buy box” seems to favor Amazon itself, or the “Fulfilled by Amazon” partners who pay the company to handle inventory and shipping. Read closely, though, and ProPublica’s argument turns out to be almost entirely about shipping costs. For Amazon’s favored Prime customers (who pay $100 a year for free shipping and other perks), and for anyone whose order tops $50, the shipping costs nothing, and the deal Amazon highlights really is the cheapest one. That’s still arguably a problem, but hardly the capital offense the story implies. Watchdogging algorithms is the investigative journalism of the future, and ProPublica does great work. But in its eagerness to tar Amazon it has obscured the real lessons here: Platform owners are always going to give themselves an edge. Amazon deserves credit for running an open platform that lets alert consumers find good deals and gives outside merchants access to its vast market. It has also earned a rap on the knuckles for tilting its listings to goose Prime signups. Instructive, for sure. Scandalous? Probably not.
Nuggets of gold in piles of user comments. Of course you care about user feedback and customer reviews! But who has time to read them all? Now there’s a machine-learning-style data analytics tool that will read them for you and tell you what to do (Buzzfeed). This service is called Metis, and for the moment its eyes are trained on the products of luxury merchants. For instance, it told a high-end hotelier that its guests really, really cared about customizing their breakfasts. We can assume this sort of analysis will quickly move down market as well, where the volume of feedback is even more overwhelming, and the potential payoff for small incremental improvements is that much higher. Anything that helps businesses listen better is valuable — as long as the process still allows individual human voices to make themselves heard.
Just one business day after I wrote Can Purpose Be Acquired?, which keyed off Unilever’s purchase of Dollar Shave Club and its possible acquisition of The Honest Company, another shoe dropped: Unilever acquired Seventh Generation, for a reported $700mm. But a funny thing was missed in nearly all the business reporting around the deal: Like Ben & Jerry’s before it, Seventh Generation negotiated an unusual clause in its deal that insured Unilever would maintain and protect Seventh Generation’s core mission and purpose.
It’s not like either party was hiding the fact: Seventh Generation’s CEO posted a note about the arrangement, and the company confirmed the details of the deal to me the day it was announced. But for the most part, coverage of the deal focused on how the acquisition positions Unilever to compete with its nemesis P&G in various product categories, or how Unilever has “gone green.”
It’s been two years now since Google published the infamous breakdown of its workforce that launched a national conversation around diversity in tech. Two years, in the innovation ecosystem. Fifty two sprints. The entire lifespan of your roommate’s weird startup. Forty two thousand LinkedIn requests from recruiters. Two years worth of white guys in jeans, t-shirts and hoodies, pitching their apps to the white guys in jeans, t-shirts and blazers. Two years spent fastidiously crushing minor inconveniences; of redefining work culture for those of us lucky enough to participate in it; of management fads; of bold advances in our never-ending quest towards a utopian future of sparse user-friendliness.
Oh, also, two years of deeply racially segregated neighborhoods, and the highest income disparities in the country. You’d be forgiven for wondering whether we’ve advanced at all in opening the doors to the people most drastically underrepresented in the innovation community — both in Boston, where we are based, and in cities around the world. I think about this every time I write a Slack note in Spanish. Less than 1% of Slack’s workforce was Hispanic, last I checked. /giphy fail
Patagonia wants you to stop buying its clothes. That’s the message it conveyed in a New York Times full-page ad in 2011, taking the opportunity to remind consumers of the environmental cost of “everything we make.” It’s not a typical advertisement, but Patagonia is not a typical company.
Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder, got his start in business by pursuing what he loved — climbing. Not satisfied with the metal spikes used for climbing, Chouinard began making reusable pitons after teaching himself blacksmithing. It turned into a business: Chouinard Equipment. He continued climbing with his business partners and came back from adventures with ideas on how to improve the company’s product, but they eventually realized the product was the problem. Continually hammering pitons into the walls of Yosemite had disfigured it, so they invented something more sustainable, something better: the aluminum chock. It was a good business move that also happened to be good for the environment.
Chouinard kept climbing. Patagonia, his next venture, started nearly by accident when Chouinard bought a rugby shirt. Overbuilt to withstand the rigors of the game, it made for perfect climbing gear. As with his piton, friends wanted one as well. Clothing became an opportunity to support the “marginally profitable” hardware business, but it also became a platform for a new way to do business.