1. What about the links [in Twitter]? #Discovery

    My friends are sick of hearing it, but I believe everything is being documented and discussed on the social web. Yes, I believe every person, place, event, and subject is being discussed… but more simplistically, EVERY LINK IS BEING SHARED. 

    When Twitter first exploded, there was a surge of companies trying to make sense of the torrent of links being shared. Tweetmeme was an early example that comes to mind. I don’t know if it’s due to Twitter’s ever-changing attitude toward data access, but I can’t think of any major, remaining effort to help people discover the most interesting and important shared links. 

    For those of you unfamiliar with the idea and opportunity, Tweets are like votes. If a link is shared 10 times, it gets 10 votes [not unlike Digg]. Add in the ability to understand what the links are about so people may discover by topic, place, media type, etc. and you have an amazing way to discover what’s happening across the internet. Given the breadth of Twitter, it should satisfy any interest.

    … Even more narrowly, Twitter could just show you “top links” your friends have shared Today / This week / Since you last visited. It would just find the links your friends had shared and rank them by the links’ popularity across all of Twitter. Duh.

    Quibb is a great product that’s built around links. Their proposition is “share what you’re reading for work.” It’s a great way to discover content across the web. I want the same thing for Twitter. 

    Please build it. 

    Update: @hunterwalk pointed me to Nuzzel. First take is good. Cheering for them. 

    4 hours ago  /  0 notes

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  2. Idea: Rethinking the mobile phone dialer

    It’s time to rethink the mobile phone dialer. Rather than sitting around bitching about it, I thought I’d share my vision for a smarter dialer.

    First and foremost, the problem(s). Today’s phones are smarter than ever, but the dialer is as dumb as any rotary phone you might find in your grandparents’ house. It’s lacking in several ways:

    • it does not help you remember or complete a contact’s number
    • it does not help you discover a friend’s number when they’re not a contact
    • it does not help you discover and call a public phone number
    • it does not identify incoming unknown numbers from either public sources or friends who aren’t contacts

    There are many reasons for these shortcomings, but I reduce them to: Apple’s iron grip on the dialer, industry complacency, and the absence of an accessible rich phone number database.

    Of those three challenges, the latter has been solved by a combination of popular services:

    • Facebook has a rich set of Friends’ numbers
    • LinkedIn has a rich set of professional contacts’ and companies’ numbers
    • Foursquare has a rich set of numbers for public points of interest

    These assets are the foundation for a modern dialer. If we focus on these new developments, assume a phone has access to all three sets, and ignore Apple’s iron grip on the experience, we can arrive at what a modern dialer could and should be.

    A modern dialer should help you remember or complete a contact’s phone number

    I frequently dial close contacts’ numbers by memory, but I often misdial because I either hit a wrong key by error, cannot remember one of the final numbers, or only remember later numbers but not the first few. To solve these problems:

    When dialing a number, the phone should auto-suggest contacts from your phone book. Imagine I have two friends, Jason and Beth. Their phone numbers are (617) 555 - 1234 and (415) 222 - 1234. I’m trying to call Beth, but… 

    I only remember the last 4 digits of her number and type “1234”

    • The UI reveals a list of contacts
    • Both Jason and Beth are shown
    • For each, their full number is shown and “1234” is highlighted as hit highlighting 
    • I click Beth’s contact to call her

    I only remember the first few numbers and dial “415 222”

    • The UI reveals a list of contacts
    • Only Beth is shown
    • I click Beth’s contact to call her

    A modern dialer should source friends’ and professional contacts’ numbers for you

    Imagine I want to call a friend or professional contact, but don’t have their number on my phone.

    Let’s say I’m trying to call Steve and that him number is (310) 555 - 1234, but all I can remember is that it ends in 1234.

    I dial “1234”

    • The UI reveals a list of contacts
    • Beth, Jason, and Steve are shown 
    • Beside Beth and Jason’s name, it shows the contacts are stored locally
    • Beside Steve’s name, it shows the contact was sourced from Facebook 
    • … The dialer has searched my Facebook contacts on my behalf and discovered that my friend Steve’s phone number ends in “1234”
    • I click Steve’s contact to call him

    Or, let’s say I’m trying to call a professional contact named Rebecca, but can’t remember anything about her number.

    • I swipe the number pad aside to reveal a keyboard and type “Rebecca”
    • The UI reveals a list of contacts
    • Two Rebeccas are shown. 
    • The first is from my list of contacts, which an icon indicates
    • The second is sourced from LinkedIn, which an icon indicates
    • … The dialer has searched my LinkedIn contacts on my behalf and discovered that I have a contact named Rebecca. 
    • I click Rebecca’s name to call her

    A modern dialer should source known public numbers for you

    I frequently call businesses in my community (restaurants, hair salons, professional service providers, etc.). Each time I call one of these places, I’m forced to search for the number. This functionality should be integrated directly into the dialer.

    Let’s say I’m trying to call a restaurant to make a reservation - Giacomo’s at (617) 536-5723. I do not have the number in my contacts. I can remember their number contains 5723, but nothing else.

    I dial “5723”

    • The UI reveals a list of contacts
    • A contact from my phone book, Mike, is shown. As is Giacomo’s 
    • Beside Mike’s name, it shows the contact is stored locally
    • Beside Giacomo’s, it shows the contact was sourced from Foursquare
    • … The dialer has searched Foursquare for any known places within 10 miles of my current location that contain “5723” in the phone number 
    • I click Giacomo’s to call the restaurant

    Or, let’s assume I can’t remember the number at all. I’m searching for Aquitaine and only know the name.

    I swipe the number pad aside to reveal a keyboard and type “Aquitaine”

    • The UI reveals a list of contacts 
    • Aquitain is shown as a result
    • Beside Aquitaine is an icon that indicates the contact was sourced from Foursquare
    • … The dialer has searched Foursquare for any known places within 10 miles of my current location that contain “Aquitaine” in the name
    • I click Aquitaine to call the restaurant

    A modern dialer should source the numbers for any friends or known places that call, but aren’t in your contact list

    I frequently receive calls from friends or local establishments, but don’t answer because I don’t have the contact saved on my phone and don’t know who’s calling. A modern dialer should query all of the sources listed above to reveal who’s calling.

    I think these improvements would go a long ways toward improving the dialer experience on my iPhone. They would also encourage me to make more professional and social contacts on LinkedIn and Facebook, which those services should appreciate.

    1 week ago  /  0 notes

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  3. Should parents be allowed to track their children?

    My wife and I recently had our first child and we’re incredibly excited to be new parents. As a technologist and gadget lover, I’m enthralled with our beautiful baby boy and thrilled about the surge of new technologies that will come into our lives. But the more I browse, the more reluctant I am to buy. I’m concerned about the impact new technologies will have on my child and his generation.

    As I engross myself in new technologies, my mind races with the possibilities of tracking, recording, monitoring, and interacting with my infant child. I’ve already purchased a DropCam to view and speak to the child while I’m away and a Samsung video monitor to do the same while I’m at home. I haven’t purchased them yet, but I’ve researched the Owlet smart sock and its competitors to monitor the baby’s breathing and vitals while asleep. There are countless other infant focused technologies currently under development. The market is booming.

    Looking beyond the infant years and the products currently on the market, my mind races with possibilities as the child ages. Will my toddler wear a yet-to-be-invented Bluetooth low energy bracelet that allows the home to respond to his presence? Opening or locking doors, adjusting shower temperatures, and shutting off outlets are all in the realm of possibility. Technology has an incredible opportunity to improve his life at every turn.

    What concerns me is where all of this leads.

    Day dreaming about my child and technology, I immediately envisioned that I would know where he is at all times throughout his life - and that he too would be able to look back on that record. I’m a huge fan of location tracking and became very excited thinking through the incredible possibilities that would arise from knowing where someone had been for their entire life (which is entirely possible today - see Trax). Then I realized that location tracking is something that I’ve personally opted into for my own benefit, what happens when it’s forced on someone from birth?

    Although we’re all frogs in the boiling pot of lost privacy, we remember a day when it was absurd to think people could pinpoint us on the globe… which is why we react with shock when we learn the government is infringing on our liberties. Our children won’t feel this shock because we will have conditioned them to accept monitoring from birth.

    I believe a huge part of growing up is testing boundaries. As a parent, will I be providing my children a safe environment by monitoring them at all times and swooping in to the rescue… or will they be best served if I allow them to go off the grid and take risks in an environment where constant monitoring’s data trail doesn’t risk terrible consequences?

    We need to think deeply about how these technologies are profoundly changing our views of liberty and society over generations. I’m beginning to believe we need new policies to protect our children from tracking technologies.

    Most internet services prevent children under the age of 13 from registering. As a society, we believe the risks are too great: young children may interact with unsavory members of the network or may create a data trail with consequences far greater than they’re able to comprehend. These risks are so great that I’m not even allowed to register for and co-manage a Facebook account on my child’s behalf.

    And yet, I may clip a device to my son’s backpack and track and record everywhere he goes…

    At a minimum, the companies that sell these services need to be aware of the age of the person being tracked. They need different data retention and data access policies. My son’s activity should not be profiled until he’s at least old enough to walk himself home from school…

    I do not mean to suggest today’s companies are bad actors, but they need to be held to a higher standard.

    What do you think? Does a parent have the right to track their child? What about track and record? As a matter of policy, should services be required to delete a child’s location history after some period of time has elapsed? Should their current location not be shareable? What other protections are needed? Beyond location, what about health and behavioral data? And most importantly, how will these technologies shape our society over generations to come?

    2 weeks ago  /  1 note

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  4. The problem with local search and discovery

    After working at Microsoft, founding Spindle, and toiling in the salt mines of local and social search for many a year, I know a bit about people ‘discovering nearby’ via their phones. Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize it’s a exceedingly difficult space. Given the number of people that have reached out with ideas, I thought it might be worthwhile to document the challenges as I see them.

    There are three problems with local search and discovery and they cause a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure: people’s behavior just doesn’t match the offering(s), the scale of the incumbents renders every company a technology acquisition (yes, even Foursquare), and the underlying data challenges make integration post acquisition extremely challenging, suppressing acquisition prices.

    Why is local search and discovery a flawed concept? Simple: query volume.

    No matter how compelling or timely a service’s results are, people just don’t ask themselves “Where should I go right now?” that often. People do rely on directions and place lookup as utilities to get themselves to an already intended destination, but they just don’t walk around town desperate to discover where they should visit next. Look at Foursquare. In its early days, it was a game and drove usage accordingly. As they’ve abandoned the game elements and emphasized their search and discovery capabilities, usage has declined precipitously. People just don’t need to ‘discover nearby’ that often.

    Search businesses require massive query volumes to succeed. How often do you ask yourself, “what should I do this afternoon?” or “where should I visit right now?” Once a month? Every week? With these usage patterns, a service would need hundreds of millions of users to have a meaningful, monetizable search audience.

    Why is every local search company just a technology acquisition? The incumbents’ query volumes dwarf every upstarts’ - even if just by accident.

    Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and the other companies that own highly trafficked query boxes benefit from the halo effect of their existing offerings. Simply by having a query box in front of a massive audience, they receive more local queries than any upstart. Although their results may not be as good, their query volume affords them the critical opportunity to tune their offering, which is the true barrier to succeed in this space. If one of these companies were to buy Foursquare or any other startup, it would not be for Foursquare’s audience or search volume. It would be to improve their current offering and better serve their larger audience. Even that is unlikely.

    For certain classes of queries, Foursquare’s results are best in class and it’s entirely likely that any of the larger players would want to pair Foursquare’s technology with their current search volume. Unfortunately, this would present an incredibly challenging, but painfully boring technical problem (the worst combination). To serve local search results, a service needs a points of interest database that contains all of the places someone might search for and discover. Given the importance of these databases as a competitive advantage, most big players have invested in their own dataset. Should any company want to purchase Foursquare (or any other service) and maintain its offering, they would need to reconcile duplicate place datasets. Anyone who has worked on this problem can attest… this is one of the most tedious and painful problems to solve. It advances neither technology nor product, it’s just thankless engineering grunt work.

    So, let’s say you’re an engineering leader at Google or any other major player and you’re considering acquisitions to improve your product. I believe you quickly realize that Foursquare’s audience is actually a net negative. It’s not large enough to lift your total query volume, but is too large to kill. Purchasing Foursquare comes with enormous integration costs because you need to maintain the audience, but offers only speculative technology benefit. Most engineering managers would instead decide to either continue working on their own algorithm or would purchase smaller players with audiences that can be killed. This has shown itself to be true as each of the major players has purchased multiple small local discovery companies for their technologies.

    The integration costs for local search and discovery products with large, but not meaningful audiences are extreme, setting a ceiling on product acquisition prices. What’s worse, the flawed value proposition of the product category (‘what’s happening nearby?’) keeps query volumes below a level that would enable these businesses to reach escape velocity independently. So, you have small startups being picked up for their tech and larger startups languishing in no man’s land with audiences too big to kill, but price tags too expensive to justify a technology acquisition.

    Local search and discovery is a flawed market indeed.

    All of that said, I’m still excited by the intersection of local, search, and mobile. And I’m always searching for the company that can solve the problem.

    Companies need to think about how they’ll scale and how they’ll eliminate or reduce the integration challenges for a potential acquirer. Data aggregation is one fertile ground, with Locu serving as a potential model to follow. Generating proprietary data is compelling and Foursquare excels here with their Tips. Sexy consumer UI with a focus on user acquisition seems foolhardy to me as the path to a meaningfully sized audience seems impossible to climb. To secure meaningful volume, perhaps the best path is to ape early web search, ditch the app, and pursue search syndication and licensing opportunities. In any case, new startups must be aware of the structural challenges and raise money such that they keep all options on the table.

    For those of you who believe you have better search technology with more relevant or timely results, so what? That’s table stakes in this space. The real challenge is how do you become the one company that secures meaningful volume. Or how do you build and then demonstrate the technology that will truly improve the big players’ results, audiences, or businesses such that they must compete to own it.

    Local search is the perfect demo app for today’s phones and we will continue to see companies in this space. The combination of location and internet connected devices is incredibly enticing, but the space is littered with a thousand dead bodies for a reason…

    2 weeks ago  /  11 notes

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  5. Supporting digital small businesses

    According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 23 million small businesses account for 53% of all sales in the U.S. These small businesses account for 55% of all jobs and 66% of the new jobs created since the 1970s. Listen to any politician and it’s clear that small businesses drive the US economy. And yet, digital small businesses are intentionally neglected by today’s entrepreneurial and technology investment communities.

    Although most startups are small when they are initially funded, it’s important to remember that everything about today’s technology industry attempts to identify and support nascent big businesses. The industry term is “venture scale,” and countless ideas are not funded because they structurally cannot reach a size great enough to warrant a venture capital investment. “Small” ideas and “small” businesses are purged from today’s system by design.

    The problem lies in the exit opportunities currently available to investors and how deals are structured to realize liquidity. Today’s venture market is extremely high risk and high reward. Most companies fail, but those that succeed realize outsized rewards. Venture funds can succeed with this model so long as they can make enough investments for one or two to realize outsized gains. This dynamic creates the venture capital market in which a company must be “venture scale” to receive funding. Smaller companies, although they may have a higher likelihood of success (achieving meaningful growth), do not have the same opportunities for outsized reward… and go unfunded.

    By ignoring digital small businesses, I believe we are neglecting an enormous opportunity to lift the economy and employee vastly more people. With falling costs of development and a foundation of rich APIs and services to build on top of, it’s entirely possible for profitable small businesses to thrive in niche and local markets.

    We are at a unique moment in time with a unique opportunity to change the venture funding market and support the long tail of digital small businesses.

    Venture financing platforms like AngelList are bringing vastly more investors into the market, but perpetuate the current venture funding dynamic as the new investors also seek to fund nascent big businesses with venture scale opportunities. It seems foolhardy to believe these people can pick a winning company with only one or two bullets and the long tail of investors shouldn’t play in a market where the vast majority of companies fail outright.

    AngelList and other funding platforms have the opportunity to reduce the risk of angel investing and can drive the long tail of capital toward higher probability investments: digital small businesses. Rather than investing in a company that must win a national or even global market to succeed, shouldn’t most individual investors fund profitable small companies with a working model and the opportunity to own a local or niche market? Although these companies may not achieve billion dollar exits, the capital efficient nature of digital businesses can lead to growth that far outpaces the risk profile of these companies.

    To enable the onrush of new angel investors to support digital small businesses, we need new tools for transparent reporting and a new deal structure for investors to realize their gain on these types of opportunities.

    Unfortunately, I believe we are a long way from having the types of transparent reporting tools required. AngelList is furthest ahead in this area, but still requires the individual companies to provide their own data. This first party data is inherently suspect and we need new tools to efficiently verify self reported data at scale. Mattermark is also making strides at quantifying private company progress, but relies on weak (although improving) signals. Whether we’re reviewing and verifying what a company has to say about itself or how the market perceives a company, there’s still a long ways to go.

    Perhaps the easiest problem to solve is to modify angel investing terms to provide investors’ upside in companies that will never achieve a liquidity event by design.

    The fundamental characteristic of these digital small businesses should be that they operate profitably and their profits should be the primary means of returning capital to investors. The terms when funding these types of companies should include some form of profit sharing for the investor, perhaps with a capped multiple or a diminishing payout as negotiable points. They should include some conversion to common in the event the company does reach escape velocity and achieves an outsized exit. They should enable the company to divert profits to fund growth, converting or delaying investor directed payments to either debt or equity. And they should allow investors to sell their stake to realize liquidity should they prefer to.

    I have yet to think through the specific deal structure required to enable these types of investments, but it seems entirely possible to strike a balance that rewards investors and empowers these digital small businesses with the capital they need. Today’s companies must decide between operating profitably vs pouring earned and venture raised capital into growth. It seems to me that we should expand the current funding structures so that entrepreneurs may choose either path and investors may profit regardless.

    In some ways, supporting digital small businesses is counter to my own personal interests as it could reduce the talent pool for venture scale startups. However, I do believe a surge of small, profitable digital businesses could better address niche problems and would help employee America. I also believe it might draw more people into the technology industry.

    Imagine if not every technology company was founded in a system where they must dominate a market and exit for billions. There has never been a more efficient wealth creation engine than today’s technology industry, but todays’ high flying technology companies fail to employ the masses. Although smaller companies may not captivate everyone’s attention on their own, I believe the total effect of a digital small business revolution would be profound.

    I’d love your feedback.

    3 weeks ago  /  2 notes

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  6. Happy 3 months to Edward!!!

    Happy 3 months to Edward!!!

    1 month ago  /  1 note

  7. Idea: BLE Beacon for my bike

    I ride my bike everywhere in Boston when the weather permits. I never get ‘credit’ for these rides. Apps like Chronos or iOS pedometers fail to recognize when I’m on the bike. I ride so often that I’ll never remember (nor dedicate the time) to launch an app like Strava every time I jump on the bike. So, the rides go unrecorded.

    To solve this problem, I’d like a BLE Beacon that triggers Strava (or another app) to start recording. I’d put the Beacon under my seat. When my phone is within one foot, the app should launch and begin tracking.

    Problem solved. Now I’ll just sit back and wait for someone to build it :)

    1 month ago  /  0 notes

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