The Next RSS

Note: this is a working theory that I’m hashing through – comments / thoughts / arguments welcome!

Since before the invention of the printing process, we’ve seen our content consumption largely curated by publishers.  Part of this (I’d imagine) has to do with the economies of scale associated with the distribution of content in the physical world, which continued on in much the same format on the internet (like many other offline-online transitions).   During that time, the way we discovered and obtained online content was quite simple – we went to the publisher’s website, and consumed what was available.

One of the most important early moves toward the democratization of online content discovery and curation (+ production) was the rise of blogging – which enabled a broader set of individuals the power to create and identify good content. With the vast landscape of publisher sites and blogs, RSS readers (e.g., Google Reader, Flipboard, etc.) and other content aggregators became valuable as a way of capturing the content worth consuming on an individual basis.  However, RSS is typically limited to receiving every post from a blog or a site – it allows us to bundle the publishers and blogs we like, but we then have to sort through a semi-curated firehouse to find the few items inside.

However, the social internet (today – Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Pinterest, and many others)  has fundamentally changed how we discover and interact with content.  Rather than publishers and bloggers deciding what is worth seeing, we use the hivemind of our friends and those we follow and admire. In other words, we’re in the process of seeing the curator role distributed to the crowd, in which the publishers and bloggers are influential, but less so.  Not only this, but the curation in this system is happening at the level of individual pieces of content (e.g., a single blog post, listicle, video) rather than at the level of the publisher or blog.

As much of the analysis around Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and their ilk has discussed, this shift toward crowdsourced curation has interesting implications for the required competencies of publishers going forward (and much spilled ink about whether this is “good”). But just as interesting, in my mind, is the opportunity this creates for the next RSS.  If individual publishers and their sites matter less as curators and destinations for consumers, RSS as a format and the reader applications on top of them also lose some value, as consumers see their networks surfacing the best content from those publishers, rather than needing to follow publishers blindly.

So what could rise in its place?  I think we’ve started to see a few services that have built universal content repositories (e.g., Pocket, Instapaper) – products that make it very easy to save and consume from any device, publisher, or service (especially social networks).  We’re also seeing services that mine that our networks to surface the most popular shared content (e.g., Nuzzel).  Both of these kinds of products help either capture or amplify the signal produced by our network.  As these kinds of services become more intelligent, I think they can largely do the curation and discovery “jobs” much better than RSS ever could.

Would love to hear your thoughts – tweet at me @ablordesays.

Note: H/T to HowToGeek for the image.

The relationship between excellence and simplicity

Earlier this week I listened to Alon Cohen, the co-founder of Houzz (via the Entrepreneurial Leaders Podcast I mentioned here), talk about his career experiences and lessons learned.  A core theme, as well as the title of his talk, was “Making Complicated Things Simple” – which I think is a characteristic of many great products (like Houzz), and also of mastery more generally.  Simplicity can be borne from ignorance or misunderstanding, of course, but the simplicity that results from putting in long hours wrestling with a problem is powerful.

Some of the major blessings and curses of this technological era are the explosions of data, information sources, and options.  Never before have we had access to so many resources to solve problems and learn.  The costs of this abundance are the ever increasing demands on our time – more choices and more noise to filter through.  Now, more than ever, simplicity is an important component of excellence.  Products and experts that help us focus on what matters create significant value – whether it be through interaction design (e.g., Uber’s two taps to book a ride), simplifying workflows (e.g., Mark43‘s tools for police departments), or creating frameworks to help us understand the world and make otherwise ambiguous decisions.

On the product front in Chicago, SMS Assist reduces the complexity of facilities maintenance for companies with a national presence, and Sprout Social helps companies manage social media presences at scale.  On the expert front, Warren Buffett’s annual letters lay out the frameworks through which he simplifies the world.  Clay Christensen’s Innovators’ Dilemma gives us a way to understand the complex topic of why incumbents often struggle to fend off disruptive startups.

As we build products and careers, I think the question implied by Alon’s talk is a good one to ask ourselves – how am I helping to create the right kind of simplicity? Would love to hear your thoughts – reach out here.

H/T to Heinz Marketing for the image.

Questions about Quora

Quora is one of my favorite products on the internet.  So many times, learning new things is the product of asking the right questions – and Quora is a crowdsourced repository of really interesting questions and answers, from the tactical (e.g., what is a cool / useful skill that only takes five minutes to learn?), to the philosophical (e.g., “How can one make the most of one’s youth?“). The vast majority of the times I visit the site, I emerge 30+ minutes later, having clicked through so many related questions that I’m multiple degrees of separation from the initial topic (very much like Youtube’s related videos).  Most other people I talk to who have used Quora are also similarly impressed by how addicting and high quality the content is.

However, one common observation I’ve heard (and experienced) is that, despite really enjoying the product, people don’t find themselves headed to the site of their own accord very often (note: based off my own small sample size) .  I typically visit Quora only when I receive their weekly digest email (which, by the way, is incredibly well targeted).  I’ve done a bit of thinking as to why, and the answer I’ve arrived at dovetails well with two questions we commonly ask startups:

  1. What “job” is your product helping a consumer complete?
  2. What alternatives will your product displace and why?

I think Quora struggles to answer these two questions, largely because there are so many alternative ways to acquire knowledge and wisdom (from in person conversations, books, articles, podcasts, etc.).  For the first question, while Quora might answer with “Getting smarter”, this is such a diffuse need, with so many alternatives that it’s hard to create a strong association in a user’s mind for a particular goal.  Without that association, building and retaining a network of users that come back regularly of their own accord is a challenging task (part of the reason why focus is so valuable for a company).

These challenges are not unique to Quora – on the surface, Facebook had a very similar set of difficulties to overcome.  However, Facebook was an incredibly low-friction, reliable way to complete an emotional “job” – feeling connected to your friends and community.  Going to the site was much easier than texting, calling, or arranging time to meet up with that broad circle of people, and required significantly less commitment (and cognitive load, vs. Myspace) than the alternatives. In Quora’s case, it’s not clear that going to the product is much easier than cracking open a book (nowadays, opening your Kindle app), reading an article on Pocket, Feedly, or clicking on link from your timeline. Quora finds itself competing for time and mindshare with all of these alternatives, without an immediately clear advantage. And so, even for Quora-lovers like myself, I don’t think to use the product, even in cases where it might be relevant.

Though the questions seem basic, I think companies should devote the time to developing a clear answer to each – it’s often the simple things that are deadly.

Reach out with your thoughts – would love to hear other perspectives on Quora and the framework above.

100 ways of solving a problem

Part of my daily routine is to listen to podcasts – when I’m walking to lunch, or in transit without a seat, I usually open up Stitcher and load up my podcast list.  At the top of that list nowadays is Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series.  If you’re interested in starting your own business, or in high tech startups more generally, this podcast is a must listen.  Every week or so, this program brings in either a successful founder, executive, or investor in high tech related businesses to spend an hour sharing their story, lessons learned, and answer questions; guests have ranged from Ben Horowitz of Opsware and Andreesen Horowitz fame, through to Sal Khan of Khan Academy.

While ETL is a treasure trove of interesting lessons, one of the most interesting exercises was the idea of generating 100 ways to solve a problem, featured in Tina Seelig’s talk. What’s so brilliant about this is that it forces a deep understanding of both the problem, the mechanisms that cause it, and all of the levers one might pull to create change.  All of the simple answers and platitudes (which likely haven’t been implemented for a good reason), melt away in the face of the sheer volume and depth required to generate 100 different solutions.  This approach also forces orthogonal thinking, which leads to the kinds of disruptive innovations we all chase (along with many bad ideas).  The exercise achieves many of the same ends as Google’s 10x philosophy  – avoiding incrementalism, and being willing to reimagine the entire thing from the ground up, but provides a system to help spark the necessary frame of mind.  Definitely something I want to store away for future use.

Any other ETL listeners out there?  Would love to hear your thoughts on your favorite episodes.  If not, let me know what some of your favorite problem solving techniques are.

Jobs that need to be done

Clay Christensen’s “Jobs-to-be-done” framework is one of the most fundamental, but interesting ways to look at products and businesses.  I think there’s a lot to be gained by zooming in on important jobs that a consumer is trying to accomplish, and having a clear point of view on how your product helps them complete it.  Ideally, your product helps them perform a job that they haven’t been able to before (but really wanted to), or helps them complete an important job in a uniquely superior way.

One of my favorite examples of this in Chicago is Apervita, which is helping providers and researchers perform hard but important jobs by making a broad array of health analytics more accessible at the point of care. By doing so, they improve both the quality of care we receive and reduces system cost.

So, I want to share some “jobs” that I don’t think are being done well today.  These aren’t necessarily ideas that can be the basis of a full company – but just jobs I wish had better tools to help people perform them:

  • Studying: After reading Make It Stick, I’ve become convinced that the way we are taught to study in the US is fundamentally wrong.  Highlighting, re-reading, and many of the other common practices that we associate with learning material are not optimal at best, and highly ineffective at worst.  While Khan Academy, Treehouse, and many other online learning services have started to take us down the right path, I think there’s an opening for a product that nudges us to study / learn in ways that lead to more durable recall over time.
  • Habit formation / adherence: Research is continually improving what we “know” as a society, but there’s a gap between knowledge and implementation (especially on the consumer side) that few products help us bridge today. I’m not so sure this is a single product, but more likely principles that need to be embedded into products with other use cases (e.g., weight loss).
  • Student loan education: Though I’m bullish on the ability of ed-tech to bring down the costs of quality education in the very long run, the current and next few generations of students will likely be financing large parts of their educations through loans.  In general, I don’t think there are widely used products that help prospective students and recent graduates understand the cost, and best navigate their way out of debt.

This is just an initial list that I plan on returning to and revising over time.  Are there any jobs you wish were better solved that I’m missing? Any disagreements on the above? Would love to hear your thoughts!

Looking for reading buddies

Reading is my favorite hobby – but this year, I’ve cut back the volume of books to allow myself more time to explore new hobbies, build my network here in Chicago, take on interesting projects (like this blog!) and create room for serendipity.

One activity I’d like to begin is having more discussions around the books I do read. I didn’t realize what a privilege it was to have group discussions with smart people who have read the same material in college, but I wish I had more of them nowadays. Having those conversations always forced me to examine the core arguments more closely, develop an opinion and weigh it against others’, and ultimately retain more knowledge. In short, I left the discussions smarter.

So I’d like to use this post to share some of the books I’m planning on reading this year, in the hope of finding someone (or multiple people) willing to read them along with me and discuss them. Most are related to startups or business, and the conversation can be in person (if you’re in Chicago), via email, or whatever other medium works best. Here’s the current list for 2015 (open to suggestions):

If you’re interested in reading / discussing any of these with me, send me a tweet and we’ll figure out the logistics. Hope to hear from you soon!

Allow me to introduce myself

I believe the most meaningful life pursuits are narrative driven.  At PGVC, we spend a lot of time trying to understand the narrative behind a space, company and team before we invest, and working with those entrepreneurs to continue to build that narrative. As such, I think it’s worth starting this blog with my own:

If you rewind the clock just 50 years, you’d find my mother and father living in remote villages in West Africa (Bansang, Gambia and Dzelukope, Ghana, respectively) with no running water or electricity.  Fast forwarding to today, I have the privilege of working at Pritzker Group Venture Capital with a great set of teammates and managing partners that are pillars in the Chicago community.  Getting to this point was no small thing – many risks were taken and sacrifices made.  I grew up hearing stories of landing in the US with $50, a single suitcase, and nothing else, having to forge a life in a country where you knew and had very little.  Stories of just scraping by (in my mom’s case, holding down two jobs while going to college) and, through the combination of hard work, the goodness of others, and many lucky breaks, realizing something close to the American dream. Though I’ve started from a more privileged foundation than my parents did, much of my own personal journey has been a continuation of those beginnings – trying to make progress and meaning through hard work, luck, and (hopefully) adding value along the way.

That narrative drives the primary reason why I enjoy venture.  I’m fascinated by the waves of technological and business model innovations, and think they have the chance to profoundly improve our ability to connect, share and work with one another. But ultimately, I empathize with what it’s like to carry the burden of venturing in new territory.  Of trying to create something of value with very few resources at your disposal – whether it be a company, a career, or a life. Of building upon the work of others to create meaning.

I’m excited by the dynamism of technology companies, and how they will reshape the way we work, interact, and progress – not only in the Valley, but in Bansang, Dzelukope, Chicago’s South Side (my current residence) and other places like them. Every day, I look forward to meeting with and learning from entrepreneurs, and figuring out how I can lend a hand in building their narrative, together.

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