Monday, June 25, 2012

The Titles We Carry

It used to be that Entrepreneur meant someone who started something, and Engineer meant someone with an engineering degree. If you were an early employee, you were certainly entrepreneurial, but not an entrepreneur; if you programmed but hadn't studied engineering, you were a programmer or a developer.

When I was working for UniTeller, a money transfer startup doing family remittances to Latin America,  in 2004-2005, my boss called my El IngeƱiero Elpern (Engineer Elpern) [1], but this was a conscious effort by him to pump me up in the eyes of our latinoamericano partners, who have great respect for titles. We both knew the game we were playing and that we were being a little hand wavy with the word. I have a computer science degree but not an engineering degree, and frankly being called an engineer made me a little uncomfortable.

Over the past couple of years however I've noticed the usage of these words become much looser, particularly in the startup world: people without founder experience are calling themselves entrepreneurs, and people without a real engineering or computer science background calling themselves engineers. When it's just one person, you can say they're exaggerating. When it's a few, you can rant about people who don't know what the words mean, and hope it's just a fad. When it becomes the norm, you have to accept that language has changed and go with it.

This raises the question: if the entrepreneur title no longer requires starting something new, and the engineer title no longer requires the study of engineering, what do these words mean? [2] Is anyone with startup experience an entrepreneur, and anyone who can code an engineer? Or is there a particular bar for using these terms, like being a high-level employee at a startup or being particularly proficient at coding?

Oh, and I'm now an entrepreneur and an engineer, according to my Twitter and profiles.

[1] A uniquely Latin American title that is analogous to the use of Dr. to mean someone who has an MD, but for an engineering degree.
[2] In the startup community we don't confer these titles with formal status, but they still manifest themselves in the headlines we write for ourselves, whether on, LinkedIn, or a company site, to say nothing of the way these terms define our self-image.

The Easiest Way to Predict the Future Is to Build It

Academics study the past, at best the present. Entrepreneurs predict the future, by building it.


Title quote by Peter Drucker

Friday, June 22, 2012

Tech Then vs Tech Now

In the dot-com era tech was popular for tech's sake. It was this exciting new thing, the Internet, and you could make millions just by adding dot-com to your name. It was revolutionary, the most exciting new thing since railroads, it was the tracks and the trains, the distribution and the cargo. The rush was on, everyone knew what they were chasing, but no one really understood what it was.

Today, there is a giddiness inside the tech sector, but not in the rest of the economy. People already know what the Web is; the difference b/w PC and mobile and tablet is fairly incremental. There have been some important innovations, like MPG replacing WIMP as the dominant UI model, NoSQL databases, REST APIs, and App Stores, but again these are all evolutionary compared with the Web. Today's tech world is Web native, and so we take it for granted. Everyone understands what it is, but no one knows what we're chasing.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Industry Events - Waste of Time or Customer Development Opportunity?

A colleague recently sent me her comped tickets to a half-day summit on social media and internal communications. Attendees are probably mid to mid-senior level managers at large corporates, but no rockstars or C-levels. The question is whether attending is worth the time.

Most startup folks would say no; these speakers are unlikely to say anything new about the topic that I don't already know, and the attendees probably aren't decision-makers. If I had to pay I would agree, but since I don't it gave me an interesting opportunity to reflect.
What if the benefit from attending a corporate event is not to meet power brokers or learn new ideas, but to understand how the people who will be driving adoption of your product see the world?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Products and Distribution

The tech and media industries have been at each others throats going back to Napster at least. Popular sentiment favors tech, since tech would purport to provide content for free (although it will be interesting to see if the pendulum swings the other way following the recent privacy backlash against companies like Facebook and Google). What's often overlooked is that this is a classic battle between a producer and a distributor.

In the media world, bitter negotiations between content producers and content distributors are hardly limited to the online world. They are probably even more bitter in the offline world, where the stakes are higher. Look at Time Warner Cable's blackout of Knicks and Rangers games over a dispute with MSG Networks over retrans fees.
Battles between producers and distributors have been going on since time immemorial, probably since  economic activity specialized enough to justify dedicated providers of distribution services. Opportunistic repricing, aka "holdup," is a well-honed technique of in the distributors to squeeze more money out of producers under the very real threat that if they don't pay up, the distributor will cut off distribution. Amazon has used this technique repeatedly in its negotiations with publishers. Eric Clemons, whose class on "Information: Strategy and Economics" was one of my favorites at Wharton, gave the classic example of the refrigerated cars that distributed beef from the Great Plains to Eastern markets. Initially, the shippers offered lower prices to entice the cattle farmers to take a chance on this new technology. Later, when the shippers had greater market power and wanted to renegotiate, they could simply say to the meat sellers, "Whoops, we need more money to get your meat to market. It's all going to rot if you don't pay our increased rates." Typically holdups are done after market leverage switches between negotiating partners.

Did SOPA/PIPA represent a tipping point in market leverage between traditional content producers (media) and the new content distributors (tech)? What sort of holdups might we see in the future of this relationship?