More Humanity, Less Technology

A few recent experiences have spurred my thinking on the subject of humanity vs technology.  Some of this will seem inevitable and some of it will seem commonsense to you.  Some of it might even go against the grain of what you are currently working on right now.  My purpose is to get you thinking about how you go about your life using technology – by yourself and around others.

I am not sure if it’s just me but I feel we are starting the upswing on what will be viewed as the turning point in our society.  We will never have a “slower” life than we do today.   Cell phones allowing us to talk to and message anyone in the world was just the beginning of this movement.  Now, we have really powerful mobile computers in our pockets which basically bring the entire world to us – instantly – with a touch of a finger.  In a not so distant future we will be wearing these computers on our wrists (I hope not) or our faces with such innovations like Google Glass.  Will brain implants one day do away with any device or hardware required to access all the worlds information?

Fashion faux pas aside, I think these technical advancements are inevitable yet at the same time very scary.

What seems to bother me is what will happen to our humanity as all these technical advancements come into our lives.  We already deal with the quick “phone, text and email check” at the dinner table or during a conversation with someone else.

Is it lost on our society that this action is actually quite rude to the other person you are sitting with?  I know I am guilty of frequently swiping my iPhone and seeing what I missed over the last 5 or 10 minutes.  In reality, it simply says to the other person, “you are not very important to me and I am wondering what other bits of information I can quickly scan to keep my attention.”

What will happen when we were a pair of glasses with a screen ever-present right in front of us?

I am afraid we, as a society, are not prepared for this use of technology.  Socialogically, we are trained to observe people and gauge them via non-verbal cues as to how we are connecting with them.  Are they threatened, scared, turned on, tuned out, distracted, interested, ect…   The human eyes/mind/body instantly calculates all these millions of inputs and tells us what is going on within this specific human interaction.  We live our lives on non-verbal human cues.

These thoughts hit my mind the other day as I read an interesting article in the New York Times with the idea that Friends don’t let friends lose their capacity for humanity.  It raises the same alarming points I am mentioning here.

Ironically, as tech advances to help us “connect” with others we seem to be moving farther away from actually connecting with them – on a human level.  Does a text message saying “hi” do more than a slightly extended eye-gaze between two interested individuals?  Absolutely not.  I can learn more in 2 seconds looking at woman than 100 text messages sent from her iPhone.  All those text messages just create more questions and uncertainty between the two people.

The second experience happened yesterday as I was chatting with friend.  She mentioned how she was a natural introvert and she really needed to get out more, get away from her monitor and into social situations more often.  According to her she has a tendancy to lose track of time when she gets into her work and feels more at home in front of the screen.

I understand what see is saying but I also counter with the fact that she actually feels more at home across the table from me looking into a human eye and enjoying a face to face chat.  That is why she said she needs it more often.  There are just certain things we see/say/do which will never be replaced with technology.  Even Skyping with others doesn’t actually feed our appetites for human connection.  Like it or not you are addicted to dopamine – a chemical released when you interact with other human beings – and you will withdraw from society if you do not get enough on a consistent basis.

All this has me thinking deeper on what technology means for us humans and how we should use it in our daily lives.  More interesting is the fact that as time goes on and technology continues to move us “forward” we will actually desire more of these authentically human encounters.

Our society depends on it.

As I continue my path in the technology sector and build experiences around the web and mobile devices I make sure I keep one foot firmly planted in the area of Humanity so I don’t end up losing it.  I hope others do too, it would be a shame if we all just ended up always looking down at our mobile devices tweeting about the fact that we are feeling alone in a crowd.

The Stubborn, In Search Of An Open Mind

Why do we do the same things each day?

Why do we think about things in a certain way, taking certain stances and dismissing others?

I became aware of my open/closed mind recently as I ponder my own situation and life direction.  For a stubborn founder type it can be difficult to not look at things with a very narrow mind, only focusing on the business at hand.  And even then, with all the talk about laser focus and “being great at one thing”, one can quickly fall into a dangerously narrow view of the world.

Please pardon my philosophical and existential tonality.   The day, given its early in the new year, is met with a renewed sense of observation and analysis of my current thoughts and actions – both personally and professionally.  I think it’s healthy to frequently step back and evaluate your thoughts, feelings, words, actions and directions in life.  I, too often and probably like you, stay narrowly focused on what is two feet in front of me.  And I am starting to realize its to my loss.


The danger of a narrowly focused individual can be staleness of perspective and a stagnation of progress.  If we are not careful, what we call “the daily grind” will actually do just that – grind away and remove the excess layers.  The problem lies in what layers are ultimately removed.   Remove layers that provide a fresh view of the world and we become intrenched in sameness, staleness, and stagnant environment, with no regard to anything different.  Not to get too off subject but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this type of viewpoint has a large affect in racism, religious dogma and other societal problems.

To get around the trap is to first realize you might be narrow minded.  You can do this by consciously observing how you go about each day, each month and each year.

Do you mostly frequent the same places?  Same coffee shops, restaurants, theaters, stores, parks, roads, cities, etc..?

When was your last big vacation?  Where did you go?

What are you currently reading?  Fiction or non-fiction?  What about movies and art?

When was the last time you simply pulled up YouTube and found a talk given on a subject you knew nothing about, so you could be introduced to it and possible start a new study?

Who have you spent the majority of your time with lately?  How many different people have you spent time with talking and experiencing life?

Do you venture out on weekdays and weeknights?  Or do you normally stay in?  Why?

How many different cities and communities have you lived in over the course of your adult life?

If the number is quite low… over an extended period of time… for one or more of those questions you may be embracing a narrow minded perspective in life.

Is that such a bad thing?  No, I don’t think so.  But I do think a narrow minded stance hinders ones ability to fully experience the world, as well as discover unique insights one would otherwise discover.

It is both these – to experience life and discover insights – I am yearning for right now.  For some time now I have sensed my life narrowing into a frustratingly tight viewpoint and I am now looking to do something about it.  I want new perspectives on my current business.   I want new insights for future business opportunities.  I want a refreshing new take on the world and how technology can improve it. I want new perspectives on where to live.

I want, for lack of a better term, a more exotic life.

I am not sure where these thoughts are coming from.  I don’t exactly know why but for the first time in my life I am sensing we just recently crossed over the technological threshold and maybe this is how I am responding to it.  Technology, mobile devices and their apps, constant connectivity and the like… is now mainstream and something we all must have.  It’s no lie when most people in our society believe being without their mobile device feels like they are naked.  That’s quite startling.  Before, it was early adopters with these gadgets and ideas for new uses.  But now, it’s everywhere you look and go.

This is both exciting and frightening.

Maybe I am overly aware of societal changes and the feeling things are continually speeding out of my control.  This is worrisome to me.  Part of the worry is in the irony that even though we have access to more information than ever it seems we tend to stay within our comfort zones of products, people, places, reading material and thoughts.

So I am making a conscious intent to open my mind.  I want to look at things with a different lens, seek out new people and new places in the world, accept different stances on things I wouldn’t normally accept.  I also want to do more things WITHOUT the entire focus on my handheld mobile device.

I am going to do this because I believe it will make me a better person.  I also think it will put me and the company I lead in better place, and to hopefully bring something materially better to the world.

Valuable Lessons Learned In The First Year As A Startup CEO

About a year ago I was approached by a stranger and was asked to join a Seattle startup.  This stranger, my soon-to-be-cofounder, asked me to take the CEO role in the startup, which unfortunately was named Order SM but eventually became Seconds.

I remember it clear as day.  We met at a coffee shop in the Greenlake neighborhood in Seattle and chatted about our similar ideas on local and mobile commerce.  We both believed all the current options on the market were missing the boat, releasing bloated products and not making the mobile ordering/payment experience any easier than it was online or over voice on the phone.

I was much obliged and we immediately got to work, paving the way to release our first product.  It has now been more than a year since this fateful day and I feel it’s as good of time as any to review some lessons I have gathered through my first year as CEO of a fledging startup.

You will be underestimated

First thing to understand as a rookie – your peers, the media, investors and the rest of the industry will underestimate you.  This is a fact of life and was nothing new to me.  “He’s just a guy who was a personal trainer for god sakes.  What does he know about technology?”  Better get used to these types of reactions if you are trying to do anything out of the ordinary.  I don’t fit the traditional mold of a tech startup’r.  I look different than the rest.  I my degree doesn’t align with what we are doing.  To them, I a lost bet.  Although it’s frustrating at times to hear this, I have no problem being the underdog.  I would rather be doubted and exceed expectations than be heralded and ultimately disappoint.

It’s tougher than they say

Starting a company is definitely one of the most challenging things you will ever do in your life.  It’s especially difficult if you did not study at an IVY league or Stanford university, graduate with a CS degree, come from a family of great wealth, get hired early on by Google, Facebook or Microsoft, have a sizable exit from a previous company or any other notable event investors look for when evaluating startups.  No, my team and I have none of the above.  Yet here we are a year later, still creating great products and building an exciting company.

Be prepared to be challenged more than you ever have in your life.   You will be challenged physically.  You will be challenged mentally.  You will also be challenged psychologically more than you ever thought possible.  You will ask yourself why you are doing this and to what cost is it worth.  Challenges technically, socially, professionally and financially will string you out way past what you ever thought you can deal with.

You will also give up more than you ever thought.  Going without pay for pretty much the entire year has been humbling, to say the least.  You might even come face to face with the very things you take for granted each day – the roof over your head, the car you own, public transportation just to get to the office, enough food in your stomach so you don’t starve.  imagine what I think when I walk past beggars and the homeless nowadays.  Not only do I not have $1 in my pocket to give them but also, why would I give them a dollar when they are just sitting there asking for a handout?  Maybe if they were offering a service or working towards something positive for society I might think differently.  I understand the harshness of my thoughts but it’s the same standard I hold for myself.  Add value to get value back.

This is the road less traveled and indeed it’s much tougher than they say.

VC’s and Investors will lie to you

Unfortunately, investors will lie to you.  They will tell you straight to your face they are interested, want to learn more and actually want to invest.  This, most likely, is a lie.  Why?  Investors want access to the most information possible for the least expense, and will lead you on for months before they let you down with a “you’re just a little early for us but stay in touch.”   This is bullshit and you don’t have to take it.  Just cut to the chase as early as possible, tell them what you are looking for and that you are not going to put up with any BS.  Let them know you call the shots in these conversations, and it’s a privilege they are talking with you.  Ask them to get on the train or risk being left behind.  In fact, not cutting to the chase as early as possible shows investors you are naïve, at which point they will exploit the fact for all its worth.  Trust me, I did this too much and now regret wasting my time and energy on something that was not going to happen at the time.

Remember – if you are the one approaching your odds are slim to none.

Leadership is required from day one

The day I agreed to cofound this company and become CEO of Seconds I told my then cofounder:

“If I am CEO than the buck stops at me.  There will be no power struggles, disagreements and other crap that breaks up promising startups.  The CEO is the ultimate decision maker and will have final say, no matter if I hold the position or anybody else.  Agreed?”

I believe this initial conversation set the tone for the company, a tone that has remained solid to this day.  Clear leadership, from the CEO onto others in different roles within the company (technical, design, product lead) has been established and follows a predictable path.  If an issue or disagreement forms, we talk it out as a team and determine what feels like the right decision.  Ultimately, when all perspectives have been heard heads then turn to the CEO where everyone believes the right decision will be made.

Building a great team takes time

I wrote about building teams previously, focusing on filling complimentary roles within the team.  The way things tend to happen in a startup could be summarized by the words “controlled chaos”.  People come and go.  If your vision is intoxicating enough, you will attract people that want to help out.  Problems arise when people realize it will be harder work than originally thought, so some will split.  At that moment, you will find out who is serious and who isn’t.

It takes time and energy to find the right talent for the right job.  The initial founding team helped prototype the concept and get an initial product into the market.  A full year into existence, Seconds now has a whole new team (besides myself and Brent) working on the next phase of Seconds, which requires slightly different skills and talents.  I have never been more confident about our team – as well as more proud of the work we have done in the last month.  It’s okay to have a fluid team if the product is moving forward.  At some point stability will be found.

Building a great product takes time

Just as building a great team takes time, building a great product takes time.   You must be comfortable with timely, constant iteration and waiting patiently as your tests reveal valuable results.  Recently I commented on our evolution of Seconds:

“We launched the earliest version of Seconds about a year ago, under a different name and clearly aimed at a different customer segment.  The product was buggy as hell and to be honest, a bit embarrassing.  But that’s the point of an early release, isn’t it?  It does you no good to have an idea without a product others can touch, taste and see.  We knew we needed to get something into end-customers hands ASAP if we were going to receive any feedback – feedback that actually led to our next iteration.  I consider it lucky we were able to have a team willing to quickly put out a buggy product and gain much needed feedback.  In fact, we created that luck by committing to releasing immediately and listen to the feedback.

We refused to be boxed too narrow in the beginning, and it has paid off tremendously.  A year ago, we were a text ordering system for local restaurants, struggling to fit our solution to their non-obvious problems.  This winter, possibly millions of people will be using Seconds to make donations to an important cause with a few quick swipes of their finger.

It’s more fun than they say

I am sure you are thinking to yourself about how crazy and interesting of picture the above paints.  All in all, I am having the time of my life and I believe any startup founder needs to be doing the same.  Why on earth would put yourself through such madness if you didn’t enjoy the process?

I though I was just working hard on starting a cool payments company, yet I have learned more about myself in the last year than in the past 30 years of my life.  Deep down in the founding core of any company you will find a root motivation within every founder called personal discovery.  Of course they want to make worldwide impact and maybe even create great wealth for themselves and their shareholders.  But what they don’t talk about is the journey of personal discovery the are currently on, the one that takes them deeper into their psyche and will only make sense decades later.  I find my current journey fascinating simply because most people don’t have the courage to dive this deep.  I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

Are we a little crazy?  Yes.  But as a classic Apple commercial so adamantly starts:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes…


It’s Amazing How Much Technology Negatively Affects Our Leaders

As a lifelong student of Leadership, I’m sure I look at certain people and situations a bit differently than my peers.  When observing those at the helm of large or small tech companies, others might think genius or insanely wealthy where I tend to look for greatness or Leader.  All too often, and to my disappointment, I end up with something like “hmmm leader… not so much”.

The current state of Leadership in the tech sector has recently come to my attention as mini-crises seem to occur daily.  Wall Street this, tech companies that…  the rising turnover at executive levels of various companies.  These all definitely point to something not quite right at the top and everyone’s pointing fingers and playing the blame game.

And as it is with everything, it all comes down to leadership.

Look no further than Groupon and Zynga for real life examples. They are perfect studies of what happens when there is a clear lack of leadership.  Both companies are in free-fall with no end in sight, and both are now seeing early investors, shareholders (even founders) cashing out before it craters to rock bottom.

Coincidence?  I don’t think so.  Surely I don’t blame a founder for wanting to secure their future after years of hard work, but based on recent actions the lack of faith is clear as day.

Why all the focus on Leadership?  Well, I recently stumbled across one of the most incredible articles on the subject, Solitude and Leadership, originally a lecture given by William Deresiewicz to a class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009.   I can only imagine what it must have been like in the room that day, reading it now still yields a strong sense of how important leadership means to our military.

But as I read the article something unsettling occurred to me: are we, as an industry, giving Leadership its due respect?  Are we adequately preparing individuals to lead organizations, some numbering in the tens of thousands?  Or are we inadvertently focusing on the wrong skills and placing the wrong people at the front?  These individuals may be highly intelligent, top of their class, technically oriented and gifted with the ability to communicate with machines, but do they embody basic abilities to connect, communicate and lead others on a human level.

Accomplishment doesn’t necessarily mean people are adequate to lead.  Highly qualified people can have a CS degree from a top school, be a grifted engineer, and had the foresight to be a co-founder of a startup or previously earned millions from a well placed bet.  All those things make for a successful individual, but they have nothing to do with understanding the principles of leadership.  High tech and human interaction are pretty much opposite sides of a broad spectrum.

To put it bluntly, are we appointing the wrong people only to see the ship go sideways?

To viscerally grasp quality Leadership, one has to have a deep understanding of human motivation, psychology and sociology.  Basically, a leader must inherently know what makes people tick, and why.   The dynamics of human nature is one of the most challenging arenas to master, its more art than science.  There’s no formula or equation to use when approaching another person in the heat of the moment.  It takes awareness of the situation, yourself and the other person – all at the same time – to best handle a tense or high pressure situation.  Some people naturally posses such talents and can handle things with ease and grace.

And some don’t.

I believe this is where well intentioned but misplaced individuals fail promising companies.

The entire article gripped me, full of lessons and anecdotes on how we need to review the basics of human nature and leadership.  But a few things jumped out at me I want to share with our community in hopes it can help get our leaders back on solid ground.

Solitude is true leadership

It’s quite interesting how Deresiewicz refers to solitude as true leadership. How can time alone bring clarity to thoughts and ideas, leading to better leadership?  To find out, a simple glance around will give some perspective.  If you look around you will notice most people tend to be excellent sheep.  They flock around, listening to and following others, and are ultimately way too distracted “climbing the greasy pole of whatever opportunity they are after at the moment” to actually think clearly.

In short, rarely does anyone actually take the time alone to think for themselves.

“I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.”

Leaders would do themselves (and their followers) justice by simply taking more time alone to think independently.  Only by letting all parts of the mind come into play will they arrive at an original thought.

Deresiewicz believes we have a crisis of Leadership in this country.  “What we don’t have is Thinkers.  People who actually think for themselves – independently, creatively, flexibly, strategically.”

And he is absolutely right.  What we need is better thinkers, independent thinkers.  True leaders are able to take the time to think things through for themselves, and then have courage to make decisions even when those decisions are not popular but in fact the right thing to do.  Courage to think and act independently – for the right reasons – is what Leadership is all about.

Learn to think for yourself

To think clearly and independently a Leader must remove themselves from distraction and influence.  And when I say distractions, I mean all of them.   Today, more than ever, leaders are so bombarded with interruptions via email, texts, social networks, employees, bosses, media, etc… it’s no wonder they can’t gain any clarity of thought.  And studies have proven people do not multitask effectively – at all.   In fact, multitasker’s pretty much suck at everything they are doing when they are engaging in numerous activities at once. Various studies have shown multitasking only further distracts the individual and can actually impair ones ability to think clearly.

This is why I believe Twitter and Facebook, fascinating as they may be in our world today, are killing our ability to actually think clearly and independently, taking with them our uniqueness and innovation as collateral damage.  We’re now all dopamine feigns, searching for the next high pumped directly into our veins via short tidbits and chunks of useless information.  It’s like we are all now thinking in short tweets…  And according to Deresiewicz, this is not good:

“Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.” (Emphasis mine)

A.  Constant.  Stream.  Of.  Other.  Peoples.  Thoughts…  No wonder we are having problems thinking for ourselves.

When was the last time you found yourself in the solitude of concentration?  How about being lost for hours because you were so damn focused on working through a challenging task you forgot about time?  It’s probably been a while due to all the chiming and dinging of gadgets stealing from you any time alone or peace of mind.

Maybe unplugging for a certain amount of time each day or week is exactly what you need to progress your life.  It’s amazing to realize that without solitude—the solitude of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison and Thomas Paine—there would be no America.

Quality Leadership and technology are inversely correlated

As a society I fear we have become too distracted by the “efficiencies“ of technology we have lost sight of how to actually lead effectively.  The problem is the more we use technology the less we actually communicate with people.

Great leadership requires mastering humans, not machines.  It requires face-to-face communication (not Instant Messaging or emailing) so the leader can gauge a person’s non-verbal cues and adjust their delivery accordingly.  Leaders must be able to read an individual simply by looking into their eyes, studying their facial and body movements to decipher what that twitch or brow raise might mean.

To become a better leader, simply use technology less and spend more time with your people.  But beware, it takes an all-encompassing person, someone who is emotionally stable and can handle being outside their comfort zone as they address challenging issues with someone possibly less stable.  During a though conversation, you must be able to hear them out and handle their objections in a way that, in the end, results in saving the face of the company and everyone involved.

One of the best ways to determine if you are cut out to lead is to ask yourself “do I actually like talking to people?”  It’s a simple question but the answer tells a lot.  Indeed, intelligence is required to be a leader, but it’s people’s emotional intelligence that makes them great leaders.  Daniel Goleman, in his industry-leading work on emotional intelligence and leadership, writes:

” My research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.

To be sure, intellect was a driver of outstanding performance. Cognitive skills such as big-picture thinking and long-term vision were particularly important. But when I calculated the ratio of technical skills, IQ, and emotional intelligence as ingredients of excellent performance, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others for jobs at all levels.”

It’s obvious by now the above description of a leader naturally fits certain people and naturally dismisses others.  My suggestion is two-fold.  First, as leaders we do a better job of identifying naturally gifted individuals and place them in their appropriate positions – be it a leadership position or not.  And second, we realize the slippery slope of technology on which we are currently standing, how it affects our interactions with others and understand if our leaders fall they will surely take us down with them.

Disclaimer:  It took me a number of attempts to finish this article, as I had to check my email, send a few tweets and see what my friends were up to on Facebook.  I know… I’m working on it too!

Why Twilio Will Kill AT&T

Can AT&T remain the 20th century communications powerhouse we came to love (and hate)?  Or will they eventually relinquish their throne to an up-and-comer with a better grip of today’s communication technology needs?

This question can be heard reverberating around the business world like a never-ending echo throughout the grand canyon.  If there is one company that can displace the conglomerate with respects to providing a basic communication platform for the general public, I think it could be Twilio.

Twilio provides infrastructure APIs for businesses to build scalable, reliable voice and text messaging apps.  They provide all this so cost effectively they are seeing massive growth and are a powering a new class of startups, ones that extend their technology to touch almost every part of our society.

To realize my words aren’t mere blasphemy, it’s paramount to grasp the difference between two types of innovation: sustaining and disruptive, these types being best described in The Innovators Dilemma by author Clayton Christensen.  Sustaining innovations are improvements that make the product better, but do not threaten its market.  Disruptive innovation, conversely, threatens to displace a product altogether.  It’s the difference between the electronic typewriter, which improved the typewriter, or the word processor, which supplanted it.

AT&T is the Typewriter.  Twilio looks to be the Word Processor.

The history of AT&T is well documented in the book The Master Switch by Tim Wu.  He describes how the great telephony company, started by Alexander Graham Bell, navigates an incredible path towards dominating the communication wires for most of the 20th century.

What strikes me interesting when I read the great history of AT&T is the repugnance of anything innovative on top of their communications platform.  Was being protective and narrow minded regarding innovation just en vogue thinking of the times?  Or was this perspective so ingrained in the company culture led by visionary (and monopolist) Theodore Vail that it grew stronger as decades past?

They exhibited classic sustaining innovation characteristics.  According to Wu: “AT&T, as an innovator, bore a serious genetic flaw, it could not originate technologies that might, by the remotest possibility, threaten the Bell system.  Disrpuptive technologies, those that might even cast a shadow of uncertainty over the business model, were simply out of the question.”   

More interesting is to wonder if this still the case today?  AT&T is hard at work protecting their lot – cell phones, digital TV, Internet, and the traditional phone service.   So hard at work they are, they fought to acquire close competitor T-Mobile, just another chapter in the centuries long monopolistic story.  Losing the acquisition places AT&T at an interesting crossroads, where they must look in the mirror and choose what type of communications company they should be going forward.   They also seem to be backpedaling on data usage, specifically text messaging, at a time when messaging seems destined to become our main mode of communication.

The real question is are they embracing the new way of business, opening up and encouraging disruptive innovation, from themselves and also from others?  Or are they still about sustaining innovation and stifling anything would that attack their own den?

Twilio, on the other hand  was created to be built upon.  They have innovation running through their veins and pouring out their ears.  Why?  Because they understand the new rules of business – better in the long run to open up, provide basic communication technology to the masses and empower innovative ideas as a platform rather than remain closed and stifle anything that might attack their business model.  They understand technology moves faster than they do so the best position to be in is as a platform.  They understand they will touch more end users by encouraging innovation using their service.  An even better way to think about Twilio’s business model is it’s all about disruptive innovation.

How did Twilio get traction in such a challenging communications ecosystem dominated by the likes of AT&T?  According to  Quora:

One answer points to how developer friendly they are and how much they are ingrained  in the emerging startup culture. “Twilio’s API is beyond awesome. It’s light, it’s fast, and there is no shortage of documentation. They’ve built this from the ground up with developers in mind.  

Also, Danielle Morrill is everywhere, all the time, and doing everything. It seemed like every event I attended she would be there preaching the Twilio gospel. If she wasn’t speaking at the event she was probably in the crowd hacking with other attendees, giving out Twilio account credits, or showering people with Twilio merch (stickers, shirts, etc).  There’s no doubt in my mind that without her contribution to the company we would be looking at an entirely different Twilio today

Even investor Fred Wilson mentioned in early 2010 the unique nature to Twilio and why they have grown so quickly.  “We believe that one way to build a large network of web users is to build something that makes developers’ lives easier. And Twilio does exactly that. It masks all the complexity of telephony into a finite number of API calls that web developers can use to build apps quickly and easily.”  

USV partner Albert Wenger takes it a step farther,  “Twilio has accomplished even more. It has made telephony a bona fide citizen of the Internet, by working on the basis of URLs. This is a profound transformation. Not only does it mean that web development skills can now be applied to telephony. But more importantly, telephony is changing from a closed to an open system in which adding new capabilities now becomes as simple as chaining together web service requests.”

The stance about being developer friendly is exactly why I believe the future is shining brightly for Twilio and particularly cloudy for traditional communications companies like AT&T.

Imagine if AT&T would have realized it’s not enough to just provide people the ability to communicate, but the opportunity to build communication platforms on top of their own platform?  I can only imagine if they were empowering thousands of small and large companies to embrace and extend their technology for the sake of innovation.  Supporting such things as offering $20,000 cash prizes at Hackathons, like this one happening at the upcoming CES, helps get the ball rolling but AT&T’s reluctance to embrace the disruptive technologies and attitudes is classic innovators dilema in action.

New companies building on top of Twilio’s communication functionality have the opportunity to bring communications to the masses for incredibly low cost – if not free.  Seconds, the startup I co-founded last fall is offering messaging functionality to merchants so they can quickly communicate with customers and transact through their mobile device.  Merchants and businesses, the other half of society, have yet to experience the tremendous benefit of messing and quick text communications, and it’s ripe for disruption. I’m not seeing AT&T offering text messaging to local businesses the way the offer it to mobile subscribers.

Twilio even has a small investment fund to encourage startups to expand using their platform.   The startups receiving investment from the first fund include:

Magnolia Prime, which delivers voice messages to elderly patients, as configured by the patient’s clinician or caregiver. Callyo, also quite practical, aims to offer multifaceted crisis, emergency and tip line options for police departments. knockknock, targeted at businesses and consumers, routes phone systems to put consumers in touch with the customer service reps at the companies they want to speak with. FastCall411 aims to be the aide of the local salesman with call recording, analytics and lead scoring, while Volta serves as an A/B testing framework for outbound phone calls. And WorkersNow expedites the hiring process around contract construction gigs. Less practical, but more fun is applying Twilio’s texting capabilities to the sexting fancies of teens and young adults. Qwipd, for instance, can be used to convey flirtatious, albeit controlled, text messages with choose-your-own-ending flavor.

A major Twilio success recently came from GroupMe, born from TC disrupt in 2010 and purchased by Skype for a reported $85 million a year later.  They were powered by Twilio.

Twilio recently raised a $17 million Series C round of funding to maintain momentum after a big year, and continue hiring aggressively. The San Francisco-based company grew from 25 employees to nearly 100 in 2011, and increased its customer base by 400% to reach 75,000 developers.  Their usage has be nothing but astounding; notice the growth chart to the right.  After a few price drops in 2010 Twilio saw volume skyrocket and hasn’t looked back since.  They also recently announced an international expansion, to Canada and Europe so by no means will this trend slow down.

My question is:  What does Twilio look like in 5 years if they keep attracting young, innovating startups to leverage their communications platform for dirt cheap to bring radical change to our society?

The end goal for Twilio is to “open the black box of telecom, and move the world away from the legacy of Cisco and Microsoft’s big expensive [hardware] that you put in your closet and watch age. We’re reinventing with the cloud, and it gets better every time we deploy code.”

And what does AT&T look like in 5 years if they don’t do the same?  But what if they do?  Something is going to have to give…


If Facebook And Twitter Are Today, Is This Tomorrow?

Real time communications are increasingly seeping into our world and the era of ubiquitous web is upon us.  Twitter allows us to disseminate comments and links at the speed of bits, creating a whole new way of discovering information.  Facebook keeps friends and family updated with the latest thoughts and images from our life.  Yes, even the use of email is changing.   We still send emails and that will not change for a while, but how many times do you engage in an “instant email” conversation with a friend or co-worker.

This begs the question:  What will we be using tomorrow?  What new types of technologies will disrupt new industries to create unthought ways in which we will use the our devices?  Here is my quick thinking on four emerging ideas as I gaze into the web tonight.

Real Time Local Information Platform

Imagine a twitter like experience, including relevant informational updates from around your local city/town/village, from people and places you chose to stay connected to, delivered to your mobile device in real time.  This will happen sooner than you think…  Some might say “well Nick, that sounds a lot like Twitter, I don’t believe another platform will replace Twitter.”  Great, me neither.

I think Twitter will continue to grow and mature into a different set of protocols and essentially replace certain information hubs we still use today.  But Twitter cannot be ubiquitous worldwide and at the same time incredibly strong on a local level.  What I think will be different is exactly how the “local” community uses technology to disseminate information.  I am hedging my bet on it not being Twitter proper as we use it today.  I believe a new player will emerge with specific value propositions set for the local merchant/community/consumer.

Social Search and Discovery

I have written extensively on the concept of Social Search, you can find them here on Business Insider.  My main theory is around the fact that in the not-so-distant future we will discover and find relevant information not from a traditional Google search but from leveraging our network of contacts.  Think about how much information your network of twitter followers, Facebook friends, and linkedIn contacts interact with on a daily basis.  I believe new platforms will be built to collect, organize and disseminate this information to you exactly when you need it.  No more 10 links per page with 1,000,000 results crap.  If you think about it, why do  search engines even tell you about a million results anyway?  That doesn’t mean anything to us as users.  Whatever….  My point is the forefront of social search and discovery will come from some surpassing players, no doubt.

Mobile Commerce

In less than 5 years, there is no doubt your commercial experience – especially around your local community – will be tremendously different than it is today.  Paying with cash… gone.  Calling in an order on the phone… forget it, so last century.  Waiting in lines to be seated… a thing of the past.  Being called Sir or Madam from the restaurant owner…. probably not any more when they now can identify you.  With the use of new mobile commerce technologies, all this will be unified within a local commercial network, encompassing orders, payments, communications, social sharing opportunities, offers, marketing messages, etc… and all this will be personalized to the individual so no two people have the same experience.  It will be amazing and all driven through your mobile device of choice. Someone should be work on this…


What if cars could talk?  No, not to us… to each other.   Web enabled cars will fundamentally transform our world.  I am not referring to cars having internet screens in them, which some do today and will in the future as a standard feature. More specifically, Google is not too crazy to be working on a self driving car.  If an automobile is connected to the web and in constant communications with all the other “devices” on the grid, theoretically there shouldn’t be any more accidents or fatalities due to automobiles.  Each car would travel at a certain speed, maintain a certain distance from another, roll along on a set route and never veer from the predetermined destination.  It will be transportation 2.0.  I believe that day is not too far off the radar and would be a great time to invent or invest in this area.

These are just a few of the things I thought of tonight when I asked myself… man, if Facebook and Twitter are today, what is tomorrow?


I Am Thinking The Exact Same Thing Right Now

John Battelle is currently embarking on a new book, titled What We Have Wrought.  In it he is attempting to write a narrative of the perspective in 2040, a generation ahead who is looking back on the last 30 years of progress back to today.  As he describes our situation, I stumbled upon this and fully agree with him:

I believe we are in a critical moment in our civilization’s development, one where we will face a number of fateful decisions about how we interact with each other, with business, and with government. The decisions we make during this period will frame the kind of world we’ll leave to future generations. Who will control the data we create? What access will we allow citizens to the machinations of government? What kind of people will we become when every single one of us is deeply connected to a socially aware platform like Facebook? Are we building systems – in healthcare, energy, finance – that are too complicated for any of us to understand, much less control?

In short, can we handle what we are creating? Thirty or so years from now, will we be questioning ourselves – “Lord, what hath we wrought?” Or will we look upon what we hath wrought, and be pleased? I think the answer lies in exploring where we are, right now, and laying out the implications of our actions today.

A longer post from me on these thoughts will follow, but go ahead and ponder those words for a moment.