30 posts categorized "September 2010"

How Being a Startuper Is Not Like Being an Assassin

If you saw the movies Up in the Air and The American, did you notice how George Clooney played essentially the same character in each? A handsome schlub reconciled to a soul-killing job, whose instinct to save himself kicks in too late, when he's over the hill. 

George-Clooney-as-The-American_article_story_mainThe American was 10x the better movie, and not just for avoiding anything like the bullshit let's-reconcile-with-my-long-lost-family-and-dance-poorly-at-a-wedding-I-didn't-even-bring-a-gift-to scene in the other movie.

Anyway, I stray from today's topic: the emotional sustenance that comes from knowing who you work for.

Clooney's character in The American is an assassin. He's hired to build a custom rifle for another assassin, played by Thekla Reuten, who turns the very weapon on him, though she ends up being shot by their mutual boss, who is out to kill them both. "Who do you work for?" Clooney asks her as she lays dying with a gunshot wound to the head. "I work for the same person you do," she says.

Now that has got to be stressful, to learn that your customer is your mortal enemy and your co-worker, and that your boss has all the loyalty of a public company CEO.

There are plenty of reasons to not be a startuper. Dave McClure's deck from Seattle 2.0's StartupDay 2010 listed many of them.

But one thing that impels many entrepreneurs to do what they do, I think, is an instinct to pursue the self-respect and emotional health that comes from knowing the people for whom you are toiling.

We leap quickly to the phrase "working for yourself," but isn't it a bit more complicated than that?

Artists and assassins work for themselves. Startup entrepreneurs work for KNOWN customers plus KNOWN co-founders plus KNOWN investors plus KNOWN employees and perhaps only incidentally for themselves.

Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker Essay on Social Media

I'm not the biggest Malcolm Gladwell fan. While he's good at surfacing patterns and connections that aren't obvious, his style can be smug and formulaic. But his succinct essay in this week's New Yorker throws a roundhouse punch that connects.

Gladwell argues that social media is lulling us into accepting low-risk, low-stakes "activism" in the place of sustained, disciplined commitment to social change. Social change that brooks danger or requires real sacrifice, Gladwell says, can only be effected through the support of deep, non-virtual social connections. 

Gladwell does allow that social media is good for something, though in so doing he trades a bit in damnation by faint praise:

"There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world."

Gladwell's essay appears the same week that Facebook's COO, Sheryl Sandberg, is featured at a conference of marketing professionals about the power of social media for generating activism . . . to sell toothpaste. Here's the description of Sandberg's session from the conference agenda:

It’s All About People!

Today’s web is being re-built around people. Just like in everyday life, our real friends will make our online experiences more relevant and personal. This creates a tremendous opportunity for companies to build and strengthen brands by connecting to people, creating brand advocates, sparking action and, for the first time, delivering effective word-of-mouth marketing at scale. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, shares Facebook’s vision for how brands can harness this powerful opportunity.

"The instruments of social media," Gladwell writes, "are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo." That's a message that should make the marketing pros at the conference feel pretty comfortable about spending their money with Facebook.

Bill to Require Shareholder Approval of Corporate Politicking Aims at Too Fine a Mark

Another proposed legislative redress to the mischief wrought by the Citizens United decision is one that would require public companies to seek shareholder approval of "expenditures for political activities."

This proposal is part of the Shareholder Protection Act of 2010, H.R. 4790. Under the bill, if a public company made "expenditures for political activities" without the requisite shareholder approval, then the directors and officers authorizing the expenditure would be personally liable to the company's shareholders for three (3) times the amount of the expenditure.

By my reading, the bill defines "expenditures for political activities" in a pretty narrow way. The "political activities" that would require shareholder approval seem to be limited to those "expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate" or else a communication that "refers to a clearly identified candidate for Federal office." (References: 2 U.S.C. 431(17), 434(f)(3)(A).)

Is it realistic to think that a large, public company would prominently advocate either for or against a given candidate, and thus risk alienating shareholders and customers? In a memo published after the Citizens United decision that you can imagine being read on the Colbert Report, the K&L Gates law firm talked about how "groups of corporations within an industry may form coalitions or use existing trade associations to support candidates favorable to policy positions that affect the group as a whole." Such an "indirect approach," the memo reasoned, "can provide sufficient cover such that no single contributing entity receives the bulk of public scrutiny."

Though I think the Shareholder Protection Act of 2010 has that particular loophole covered: "dues or other payments to trade associations or other tax exempt organizations that are, or could reasonably be anticipated to be, used or transferred to another association or organization" for the candidate-specific "political activities" mentioned above must also obtain shareholder approval.

But, similar to the flawed DISCLOSE Act, H.R. 5175, this bill has troublesome carveouts. "[D]irect lobbying efforts through registered lobbyists" and "the establishment and administration of contributions to a separate segregated fund to be utilized for political purposes by a corporation" are not covered, are not activities that would require shareholder approval. Why not?

Maybe the Congress cannot imagine that corporations simply have no place in politics?

Corporations should not be voting, they should not be lobbying, they should not have political speech. The Shareholder Protection Act of 2010 seems to be limited to corporate activities in the election cycle and not to the corrosion of democracy from corporate participation. I'm liking Scott Turow's idea more and more, that what we need is an amendment to the First Amendment.

Owning Your Tweets, Part 4: Own 'Em if You Can Find 'Em

A post that's getting a lot of circulation is Zach Holman's, "Hey Twitter: Give us our Tweets."

Holman's post speaks to his disappointment of not being able to access and search an archive of his own tweets -- at least not as part and parcel of Twitter's own service offering.

As comments on Hacker News point out, there are third party apps and services that permit one to archive one's tweets. (I happen to use BackupMyTweets.) But Holman seems to be critiquing Twitter's choice to not to bundle such a service inside Twitter's first party offering.

This yearning raises for me, in yet another way, how unique the "ownership" issues are around tweets and other user generated content.

Part of what we're rubbing up against here is the intuitive feeling that something one "owns" should be, to use a legal term, "alienable." We normally associate the experience of "ownership" with the right to transfer, to sell, to port the item in which one has a property right.

Twitter's terms of service acknowledge that you own your Tweets. Twitter uses your content under license, ostensibly. But Twitter also happens to be hosting and monetizing the platform on which you are composing, saving and publishing your tweets.

If we analogized Twitter to longer-form blogging platforms, we would probably regarded Twitter's lack of a user-accessible archive function as a flaw in the potential commercial viability of the business. Users of Typepad, say, fully expect there will be a feature within the service to facilitate the export of your blog posts.

What's a bit odd is that, even though you, the Twitter user, are the owner and licensor of your tweets, and even though Twitter is the licensee, Twitter has the inordinate bargaining power. My guess is, were the average user to try to negotiate custom terms with Twitter, to say, "as a condition of my willingness to tweet and to grant you a license to publish and monetize my tweets, you will agree to back them up and give me tools to make my tweets searchable and exportable," Twitter would opt to not supply the service to you. (Certain power users may already have negotiated customized terms of service, I don't know; and I can imagine in future certain users might have sufficient leverage to demand and get additional services in consideration of their tweeting.)

Another way Twitter might satiate the "ownership" instinct of users would be to share revenue with users. Some proxy could be figured out, whereby the user responsible for content Twitter is able to monetize could be paid a cut of the associated revenue.

When Twitter appears to behave as though it can turn the flow of your tweets on and off at will, it feels as if Twitter owns them, even though, strictly speaking, Twitter does not claim ownership, and, as far as I can tell, is only exploiting your tweets within the scope of the license you have granted Twitter.

Couple related points I'll hope to come back to you on soon: 

  • Does Twitter continue to use and mine tweets to which you, the user, may not have ready access through any first-party Twitter interface (the Twitter website or a Twitter mobile app)?
  • What happens to your tweets at Twitter, what happens to Twitter's license, when you quit Twitter?

Seattle 2.0's StartupDay 2010

The second Seattle 2.0 StartupDay took place yesterday in Bellevue. I love this event and for the second year my firm was a sponsor.

IMG_0019Entrepreneurs Matt Heaton and Nikki Doan met for the first time at StartupDay 2010, but quickly got down to comparing notes.  

No doubt video of the speakers' presentations and slide decks will be aggregated on the Seattle 2.0 site soon. 

I have three observations to share.

(1) Three kinds of interactions took place simultaneously throughout the day: one-on-one meetings in the advisory room; informal group discussions and networking around the tables set up for lunch; and intense listening and notetaking regarding what the featured speakers presented in the main room. It's an awesome overlapping arrangement, and a big part of the event's energy, I think.

(2) People were into the substantive and hard hitting advice that Dave McClure had to impart, and no one seemed preoccupied or distracted by his recent, vigorous retort concerning the #angelgate scandal. (Although he did make a wry, visual reference to the affair in his slide deck. In his 8th slide, he reproduced the same still from The Godfather that appeared in Michael Arrington's expose. I won't reproduce that image here lest I start #copyrightclearancegate.)

(3) The lawyers in the advisory room - all of us - weren't nearly as popular this year as last. I think that's because there were more entrepreneurs, angels and VCs donating advisory room appointments this year, and the pre-entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs attending were preferring those. Smart move! Most lawyers will meet one-on-one without charge for up to an hour, anyway, with potential startup and entrepreneurial clients.

Gaming Our Way to Wisdom

Todd Bishop wrote something thoughtful last Sunday about game consoles: that they are computers, that they are in millions of homes, and that it is shortsighted of such an influential a leader as Arne Duncan to dismiss them as potential means for education, even if they are not employed that way today.

Todd deftly delivers his points while acknowledging the political reality likely constraining the US Education Secretary -- consoles in the public mind are too tied to video games. As all good parents know, video games are inimical to studious habits.

I say "good parents" sheepishly because I have given up regulating my youngest son's passion for Halo and other first person shooter adventures. (His friends who live in households with mothers would say I never regulated game play in my house.) The recent release of Halo Reach coincided with the beginning of his senior year in High School and, for worse or for better, I'm letting him balance the imperatives of game time and school night sleeping habits. Bill Cosby (the one authority three generations of my family revere) would not approve.

But later that same day came the suggestion, or was it just fodder for rationalization, that games themselves might be thought of as literature, and ergo educational. This is Nick Bilton of the NYTimes Bits Blog speaking to Bob Garfield on On the Media:

"And I think [there's] also a change in the way stories are told . . . . We talk about, you know, kids that don't consume long-form content, but they play video games for four hours a day. Isn't that long-form content? Just because they're not sitting down to read War and Peace or a history book about World War II and instead they're playing a video game about World War II, does that mean that one is worse than the other?"

I need a minute before thinking about the arguments against this . . .

Non-Virtual Goods

Now and then I get to the office before the workday starts in earnest. On such days I am often drawn to the west facing conference room, from which you can spy ferries and container ships moving in Elliott Bay, sometimes against a horizon drawn by the Olympic Mountains.

Container ship
Here's a scene from early (for me) Wednesday morning.

The ship reminds me that Seattle is a hub for physical as well as virtual goods. It makes me think, too, of new clients whose businesses follow a pattern of combining software and hardware. Much of that hardware, assembled or as components, presumably will arrive here from across the Pacific on ships like the one pictured.

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