Social Censorship in India: Much Ado About Nothing

This post originally appeared in TechCrunch in 2011…

Another year, another attack on the Internet. Lately, though, it’s not a loose collective of individual hackers sitting in dark rooms trying to wreak havoc. This time, stronger forces and vested interests are stepping into the game.

In the U.S., bills that threaten how content is shared online surfaced in Congress. Large media companies are leveraging their power to team up with some elected officials. These forces are being met with resistance courtesy of some of the most esteemed technologists the web has to offer. Whether it was MIT Media Lab’s Joi Ito passionatelydefending the importance of open-source movements in theNew York Times, or Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures openly decrying SOPA, or the founders and investors (including USV and John Lilly) of Tumblr harnessing the platform to encourage users to directly contact their elected officials in opposition to SOPA, influential technology personalities (many with roots in Mozilla) have focused attention on ensuring the web remains open for any consumer self-expression engines that come to pass.

As a democracy, the U.S. is in a privileged position to have these public debates. Some countries (like those in and around the Korean peninsula) don’t have that luxury, which is why it was curious to see a high-ranking minister in the Indian government recently make global headlines around a meeting he called with the Indian offices of the major social networking sites to discuss the monitoring. [Read TechCrunch reporter Eric Eldon’s reporting on the story, here.] At issue, according to India’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Kapil Sibal (and as reported by the The New York Times), were messages slandering one of India’s most revered and powerful political individuals, Sonia Gandhi.

And there you have it. In a matter of a few weeks, the world’s most powerful democracy and the world’s largest democracy engaged in their own specific battles over the future of how information can be monitored and circulated online. Whereas in the U.S. the fight centers around freedom of expression (through sharing) and copyright, the suggestion made by India’s Sabil tugged at the core of self-expression itself, monitoring potentially disruptive comments generated by social media in the name of preserving the peace within an extremely diverse democratic society.

On their own, it’s likely Sibal’s statements and the corresponding kerfuffle are much ado aboutnothing.

India’s mainstream media is expert at drawing out inflammatory statements from persons of interest, and powerful members of the Indian government are oftentimes all too willing to supply those soundbites. In this particular case, it’s possible Ms. Gandhi, someone who is powerful and revered, expressed frustration over seeing her name slandered on social sites and enlisted Sabil to draw attention to it. Naturally, the Minister invoked some arcane laws that could be enforced, yet most recognize India is home to millions of innately expressive people who would be nearly impossible to silence.

Or, the negative comments in social media about Ms. Gandhi could be the early foments of a deep-seated, not-often-discussed fear among those with media or government power in India. What if hundreds of millions of citizens, the majority of them young, pick up smartphones (after completely skipping desktops and laptops), sign up for social services, start connecting with others and sharing their views, and begin to express frustration (either with their real names or anonymously) in a manner that amplifies exponentially, to the point where reality is distorted and the status quo is challenged? As any reader of (or contributor to) TechCrunch knows all too well, not many take the time to leave glowing comments. It’s in the comments where the status quo is challenged, and that’s why comments are important for debate and discussion.

It’s too easy to mock Sibal as clueless in making these types of statements. Let’s not forget he’s a professional politician in India and, therefore, quite savvy at this game. The Indian government isn’t going to act on these kinds of laws because the people will not allow it — especially those technology enthusiasts currently playing host to Dave McClure and his Geeks on a Plane sojourn to the Indian capital. More likely, Sibal may be using the mainstream media to send a message, a friendly reminder to technology companies headquartered outside its borders, as well as its own citizens, that the Indian government wants its brand of democracy to grow and not face resistance from within.

Ironically for India, this all highlights a great paradox it will face: A young, energetic country rising in economic power, continuing to grow in many diverse ways and developing newer technologies by the day. And in pursuit of these large markets, normal citizens will become empowered and have access to tools that make them more productive and relevant, potentially to the point where they could challenge parts of a complex Parliamentarian system that protected them for so long.

The fun part is that it’s not a matter of “if,” it’s simply just a matter of “when.”

India’s democracy has, so far, been quite remarkable at remaining intact despite the country’s extreme social, religious, and economic diversity, and there’s no reason to think it won’t adapt as the culture changes with new communication devices and channels. Setting India aside, one could look at 2011 as a potentially historic year with respect to governments and each one’s citizenry. Of course, the year began with uprisings in part of the Arab world, spanning from the Middle East to North Africa [related: a great post on human routers by Shervin Pishevar], and most recently, protesters in Russia taking to the streets to dispute elections and express frustration with its most powerful leader. Here in America, the #Occupy movement, though still largely undefined, has reached mainstream status in terms of name recognition. We don’t know what will happen to it in the next few weeks, or in 2012.

This is the nature of the time we live in, combined with the hardware and software tools we have at our disposal. Despite the reams of predictive statements you’ll read over the next few weeks, the onlycertainty for 2012 is that it’s likely to be as uncertain as 2011, and as a result, those with deep, wide, and entrenched interests — such as the mainstream media, or even government — could continue to see gradual shifts in the balance of power from highly-centralized system to ones that are composed of loosely coupled groups, working in concert, attempting to make the world they want to live in for themselves, no matter what stands in their way.

Exploring The “Labs” Trend in Consumer Startups

This post originally appeared in TechCrunch in 2011…

For those of us who studied (or suffered through) chemistry at some point in life, images from the chem lab inspire nostalgia (or dread). White lab coats. Protective goggles and gloves. Glass beakers and measuring cups. It was a place of experimentation. Students were given strict lab instructions, such as “Don’t mix baking soda and vinegar” or “be careful when mixing Mentos with soda,” which many of course ignored. Whether one liked chemistry or not, there was usually an undeniable sense of excitement at conducting experiments that had the potential to cause chemical reactions, the kind that would trigger loud sounds, big messes, and new things.

In the world of technology companies, the “labs” concept and nomenclature found a friendly home. Microsoft Research has FUSE Labs, there’s HP Labs, andMozilla Labs, and let’s not forget the once-mighty Google Labs (R.I.P.), among many others. Digging into the history of big tech “labs” would be the subject worthy of a book, of course, but in the context of this narrow post, it’s worth briefly noting that for those that make things and are builders, every big company needed to have something like this for branding, recruiting, and to keep the innovation engine humming as their corporate parents grew larger and more bureaucratic.  Perhaps each one wasn’t referred to as a “lab” explicitly in name, as Amazon has A9 and Google now hasGoogle X. No matter the name, there’s something powerful in the word that reminds us of the old chem lab and that spirit of experimentation.

Big tech companies have hearty budgets to set up “labs” for their best and brightest to cook up new ideas within. In the world of tech startups, by contrast, the original image “labs” conjures up is of a few people “sitting in their garage” hacking new ideas. In this world, it’s a powerful metaphor and how founders of seminal companies like Atari and Apple etched their legend. Of course, HP was started in a garage in Palo Alto. In these and many other startup garage stories, there’s something primal, something irreverent about the type of experimentation that takes place in the garage versus the big tech lab company.

Fast forward to the eve of 2012, where it’s significantly cheaper to develop web and mobile applications now that software costs have plummeted and large distribution networks exist for startups to harness, though it still remains very difficult to get discovered. The “labs” nomenclature is back in vogue in the consumer web and mobile spaces, and the gritty garage has been replaced with urban loft studios filled with hipster gear and Blue Bottle Coffee.

There are a few high-profile “labs” companies, such as Color and Milk, as well as many others, such as Churn Labs (AdmOb founder Omar Hamoui’s new mobile company), Monkey Inferno (Bebo founder Michael Birch’s entrepreneurial vehicle), Tasty Labs (makers of “Jig,” a site I really like), RG Labs (building the reputation graph), Nest Labs (which reinvented the home thermostat), and of course, Foursquare Labs. There’s everything from the MIT Media Lab (interdisciplinary projects in media) and Dogpatch Labs, an  incubator funded by Polaris Ventures, with “labs” in NYC, SF, Cambridge, Mass. and Dublin, Ireland. (There are many more companies with “labs” in the name, search here for more.)

Why all the “labs” startup companies all of a sudden?

There are a host of reasons. It sounds cool. The language is both inspirational and aspirational. There is a history of carving out these experimental activities within established technology companies, so folks in the community understand the connection and recall their own experiences, either in big tech companies or dating back to school chemistry class. And, it may be easier to find domain names and corresponding social media accounts and username handles with the extra “lab” letters at the end.

These are just surface-level reasons, of course. The deeper trend, especially as it pertains to the consumer web and mobile arenas, is that these shops are being set up similarly to fashion or game design studios. In a game studio, designing just one game can be risky. Instead, these studios work on different concepts on the assumption that they’ll learn in the process and (hopefully) increase the likelihood of developing a hit among different projects.

Not everyone welcomes this trend. Some people in the startup community feel that the “labs” concept comes at the expense of company focus and clarity of mission, or that a series of “smaller experiments” could adversely affect employee morale, consumer loyalty, recruitment, and equity considerations. While some of these “labs” may not resemble how companies like Apple or HP started with grander visions, the spirit of experimentation is still there, just in very different forms.

Regardless of whether or not a startup has the word “lab” on its doorfront or legal documents, all new companies are sort of lab experiments in and of themselves and carry similar risks irrespective of semantics. At the current moment, and perhaps for the next few years, a good chunk of mobile tech and design talent is concentrated in these little pockets that morph into labs companies.

Investors are keen to be involved here. It’s a different kind of gamble, but in the mobile app world, the skills are very specific and in short supply. And with all the competition in the various app stores, it’s nearly impossible to predict if a new product launch will flop like Color’s first release did or hopefully explode (in a good way) like Instagram. Furthermore, many of these founders and employees at “labs” companies could be very valuable to more mature startups or larger tech companies, so by creating their own shops, they have amplified this scarcity and created extra leverage in future M&A considerations.

In this vein, I believe the first release from Milk, an app called Oink, will be something we’ll look back on as a case study. Milk has a small team of seven. The founder is experienced and influential (Kevin Rose). Its angel investors are stars, yet it raised a modest sum. Its overarching mission is to develop mobile applications, and it’s first release, Oink, which was shipped in six months and is beautifully designed (though quite a bit of work), is meant to encourage users to rate things inside places. Given these factors, it had everything an app shop could dream of. As a result, Oink has been downloaded, used, and talked about often in tech circles, though we will just have to wait and see how usage fares as the Milk team tries to get broader adoption or ultimately moves on to the next project.

At the end of the day, however, simply labeling a company a “lab” just boils down to semantics. It really doesn’t matter.

What does matter is how these smaller companies are forming around talent that the rest of the community can’t seem to recruit because there are stronger incentives for them to go down the “labs” path. This is rational, and I’d argue, a good thing for the time being. Until more and more people amass and perfect these engineering and design skills for application development, we need the current crop of those who do to start building the next generation of products and services on their own, free of the trappings of operating within a larger company.

Just how this process unfolds, however, will remain a mystery. Startup “labs” could define a goal right upfront that is well-scoped, or they could just collect the best talent and wing it. There’s really no way for us to know what the best way forward is.

While we knew better than to mix dangerous chemicals in the school laboratory, creating a breakthrough product today requires real experimentation and a certain level of disrespect for the rules and conventions, the type of experimentation outside of the traditional “lab” environment that encourages entrepreneurs do totally random things–like mix mint-flavored Mentos with Diet Coke, as in the picture above–hopefully with dramatic results.

Social Travel: Rediscovering the Friendly Skies

This post originally appeared in TechCrunch in 2011…

We’ve heard endlessly how “social” will eventually disrupt and transform old, stodgy industries, perhaps even reinvent them for the better. The promise of this change, of course, is often tempered by the reality that, if indeed this stuff actually happens, it will take time and we’re currently in the early stages of the game.

And when it comes to travel, one of the most heavily regulated industries, disruption and transformation would be music to travelers’ ears. There are a number of reasons travel has become more of an onerous task (thank you, TSA), yet consumers continue to brave the elements to merrily trot around the globe.

Brushing aside the fact that a significant portion of travel is business-related, decisions around leisure travel typically involve a number of factors, many of which are coming online. The catalyst for a personal trip can originate from different sources. One could have vacation time that will evaporate unless you use it. One could be offered a travel deal rate that motivates you to capitalize on it. One may want to catch up with old friends or families, or travel for entertainment, adventure, or to simply get away from your surroundings.

In exploring the travel space through a social lens, most of today’s consumer web-related entrepreneurial attention is focused on what travelers do once they reach their intended destination. In the old days, travelers would book hotels directly (or through travel agents) and would rely on branded guides like Lonely Planet or Frommer’s, hotel concierges, and traditional tour companies to help address these needs. A few years later, services like Kayak and TripIt offered more options for users to organize their travel.

Today’s traveler has many more options. They can “couch surf” or use others’ private spaces as lodging (thanks to Airbnb), and by comparison, could literally pick from over twenty different services to get information about their intended destinations. When I travel somewhere, I’ll typically ask friends on Facebook and Twitter for recommendations, which so far have tended to be excellent and satisfy my needs.

If I happened to need even more information, I could continue my research through sites likeTripAdvisor, FlyerTalk, TripIt, Quora (local), explore Foursquare lists, peruse Gowalla’s new social travel guides, or sign up for one of a new wave of startups focused on the space, such as Planely(meet people at the airport or on your flight), Trippy (friend-sourced itineraries), Triposo (interactive mobile guides), Travellr (location-based Q&A), Toour (currently in stealth), Tripping (traveler community service), Twigmore (connect with your friends’ friends in other places), Globetrooper(tool to find travel partners), MyTab (where folks can gift travel to members), Gtrot (scrapes social data and aggregates around places), JetPac (seems to be a slick iPad app, but not released yet), and many, many others I haven’t gotten around to trying.

Jetlagged yet?

The sheer number of startups focusing attention on this aspect of travel seems out of balance to me. Investors like this particular space because the path to victory is clearer, albeit its crowded, and because these types of apps and services could be inherently viral, both in terms of onboarding new users as well as benefitting from positive word-of-mouth.

Instead of destination-based guides, however, I’ve started to wonder if the real opportunity is higher up the decision funnel, before we buy plane tickets and hotel rooms, at the point we first feel the urge to travel. The best travel recommendations I’ve received (and acted on) have come through having conversations with close friends in real life. They share slideshows of their trip and we get to interact with them in rich ways about their experience, to see if we want to sign up for the same feeling. That is a true recommendation with a real strong social signal. These moments of inspiration oftentimes ignite the travel spark and could trigger a transaction. Startups like Gtrot and Gogobot, for instance, allow users to plan trips or record them after the fact, and research travel tips from social networks, organizing information around places.

There’s simply no way that all the destination-based services listed so far will be able to survive such a cluttered field, so it may be worthwhile for some of them to at least consider the discovery-related aspect of travel and to design systems that help draw out and collect users’ preferences around travel, sort of how Gtrot and Gogobot currently do, but perhaps in deeper ways. The current offerings incorporate “social,” yes, but they seem to lack truly relevant social context. For a big decision like traveling, the strong signal usually originates from one trusted friend or source.

Despite an unstable economy, rising fuel costs, and the hassles of air travel, people continue to jam airports worldwide. The majority of travel expenditures are eaten up by transportation and lodging, as well as food and entertainment at the destination. Therefore, today’s trend is to leverage social recommendations to help consumers shape their experiences in new places, though I’d argue this focus area actually ignores richer pastures.

The real opportunities in social travel may lie closer to the top of the decision funnel, at the moment when a consumer discovers a new place he/she wants to travel to. It’s at this point where startups could build applications on top of existing social graphs to help people get inspired about travel, to plan and book their trips, and share them in novel ways with friends and family. There’s no reason TripAdvisor needs to continue to show up on the first page of Google results for travel searches anymore.

With all of the data and pictures uploaded to Facebook, the opportunity is just sitting there, waiting for someone to jump on it. If done correctly, a new site or service could be created that actually acts as a modern travel collection and concierge in one, making travel arrangements easier and more affordable. In a nutshell, that is the challenge to startups in this space—to more intelligently incorporate data, to reinvent TripAdvisor’s existing offerings plus adding social, making results more relevant, personalized, and more emotional to interact with. Whomever can crack that code and present travelers with a better travel experience will find themselves in a very enviable seat, high up in the friendly skies.

The Big Data Bottleneck In The Consumer Web

This post originally appeared in TechCrunch in 2011…

Earlier in the year, I wrote an opinion column on TechCrunch that big data “needs to think bigger.” At the time, I kept hearing the term “big data” over and over, and wondered how much of the emerging insights and techniques would be applied toward the Internet versus the larger problems society faces, such as detecting fraud in financial markets, finding new deposits of natural resources, or helping discover the next big pharma drug.

Yet in some of my experiences monitoring the space since then, I’ve come to conclusion for now that my March 2011 column meant well, but that reality is much further behind than we’d like to think. One would assume, for instance, that big drug companies would be aggressive adopting new, external, cutting-edge techniques to analyze their own data for new insights, especially with a dangerouspatent cliff looming in 2012. Turns out, oftentimes drug companies aren’t always willing to share data with third parties, which is often necessary to take advantage of big data infrastructure. While I believe that eventually the best data science will emerge to help these industries grow in new ways, for now at least, the best opportunities lie in the one area I wanted to gloss over last time: the consumer and mobile web.

Investors see the wave coming. Over the past few months, the top-tier funds have begun to make their moves. Benchmark Capital brought in Craig Weissman from Salesforce as an EIR andinvested in Josh James’ new company, Domo; Accel Partners recently announced the creation of a “Big Data Fund” by reallocating monies from existing funds, which will improve data dealflow; and of course, there’s Greylock Partners, which was one of the earliest investors in this space through numerous companies and, most recently, by recruiting DJ Patil to be their “Data Scientist in Residence.”

Since March, I’ve continued to hear the term “big data” uttered by so many, yet so few seemed to grasp what it means for us and the web (yours truly, included). We all know that the major social networks (like Facebook), broadcast engines (like Twitter), self-expression tools (like Tumblr and Pinterest), and services (like Dropbox) generate ridiculous amounts of data. Add to this the growingQuantified Self movement, where connected devices from companies like Fitbit, Runkeeper, and Jawbone let us track our offline movements and analyze them online.

What happens, then, when the companies holding these big buckets of data go to cash them in?

In the earlier stages of consumer web companies, data can be used to create new products with the hopes of increasing engagement metrics. Then, as a company begins to mature, services can be built using the data that may ideally involve revenue. In these companies today, data-driven engagement products are oftentimes baked into the earliest versions of the products, such as recommendation engines for whom to follow, where to go, or what to watch.

We should not take data as a given, however. To start with, the FTC has been warning technology executives to collect data core to their business only. One might be shocked at just how many well-funded, recognizable startups haven’t been collecting good, structured data, and in some cases, they don’t collect any. For those that do get a handle on their data, they oftentimes do not possess thetalent in-house to make sense of it because the skills required to do so are rare.

The consumer web companies that do interesting things with data are the ones you’d expect: Google, Facebook, Amazon, LinkedIn, and Zynga, among a small group of others. Most web startups don’t have access to the right mathematical and statistical backgrounds needed in order to extract value from the data. Some data scientists I’ve talked to will go so far as to say that consumer startups that start to grow fast need a data scientist as part of the core engineering team as soon as possible, because most engineers working in the consumer space don’t have the skills in statistics and/or machine learning required to make sense of the data. (A data scientist is someone sufficiently trained to ask the proper questions of the data in order to tease out insights that serve as the basis for building new products and that, in turn, generate income for the company).

And, herein lies the rub.

What I’m writing isn’t news. Everyone who watches the space knows it. The reality is that this talent is in short supply. To put it in terms we can understand, for every 100 great iPhone engineers, there may be one or two people who can, on their own, dig into consumer web data and discover and build new and engaging services from it.

It’s been my experience that the majority of those who do, in fact, posses these statistical, mathematical, and machine learning skills are currently busy, diligently applying their rare skills in other industries such as finance, life sciences, and the physical sciences. They oftentimes haven’t applied their techniques on data sets culled from the consumer web, nor are they interested in doing so. As a result, there are very, very, very few people like DJ Patil, Pete Skomoroch (of LinkedIn), orJeff Hammerbacher (of Cloudera) who truly understand these techniques as they relate to the world wide web. Since we can’t clone them, the alternative has been to build data teams consisting of data specialists and pairing them with those that have extensive consumer web data experience.

So, the next time you hear someone talk about “big data” in the context of the consumer web, realize that, yes, valuable data, whether big or small, is being collected by every click we strike. The big companies with resources are keenly aware of the opportunity, but most web startups don’t have data scientists as part of their early teams, and even if they wanted to, those folks are hard to find. Therefore, it’s my opinion that “big data” is a term we’ll hear for a very long time to come. Data generated by the web will produce some of the largest data sets ever known, if they haven’t already, and somewhere within all those billions and billions of likes, retweets, upvotes, reblogs, and repins may reside truths that, yet again, change the way we live. But more data scientists will be needed to unlock them.

Clawbacks and Startups Don’t Mix

This post originally appeared in TechCrunch in 2011.

The story emanating from the Zynga is a wake-up call for startups.

Reports allege the company threatened to reclaim stock options originally granted to employees who, in the eyes of the company, were not performing to levels on par with their equity holdings. I don’t know what’s true and what’s not about the Zynga news. Therefore, I’m not going to comment on the particulars of those specific allegations in this post. That said, however, something is clearly going on and spreading around the developer community, and if the Hacker News community is any indicator, this earthquake could have powerful, plate-shifting aftershocks.

Last year, one of our family friends was let go from a job at a small but successful hedge fund in New York City. His path to the fund was not rosy. He struggled to get into and out of college. He scraped by to get his accounting license. He worked at a big accounting company for a decade and, it turns out, happened to be so good at his craft that he randomly caught the eye of one of New York’s most powerful financiers. He was recruited, offered a plum gig (with grueling hours), jumped ship, let go of his consistent paychecks, and took on considerable risk with a small team to help build a new hedge fund in the middle of the 2008 collapse. Then, a few weeks before his carry in the fund was to be paid out, he was approached by Mr. Number Two, plainly told he’d be fired with a year’s severance, and told to grab his belongings. “It’s just business.”

He was crushed. The dollar amount aside, he couldn’t understand why this would happen. He sought the advice of all of his mentors, most of whom shook their head in disbelief, dismay, and disgust, all saying some variation of, “it’s just business.” The opening scene in The Dark Knight depicts a bank robbery pulled off by a group of men, each of whom kill each other, one-by-one during the heist, until the only person standing is the Joker, the mastermind of the scheme. As one of the robbers says, “One less share.”

Startups are supposed to be different, right?

Startups are when people get together to build something new, to form new cultures, to help define a new type of workplace while collectively trying to solve a problem. In the riskiest part of these ventures — company formation and the early stage — startups and their shareholders recruit extremely talented people, mostly technical and some non-technical, on the promise of a potential deferred payoff through realized equity in exchange for a lower monthly salary and oftentimes insane work hours and demands. Yet, so many extremely qualified, passionate people are willing to forgo the safety of a consistent paycheck and defined-contribution retirement program to get into the game. When you step back and think about the dynamics, it’s pretty damn inspiring and what makes entrepreneurial ecosystems so exceptional.

The reality, however, is that startups are not immune to the Joker’s “one less share.”

In the world of non-unionized, at-will employment, shareholders and managers can terminate employment when they see fit, even at times when a significant payout looms. Sure, once a cliff is reached with respect to vesting of shares, an employee will accrue equity that is rightfully theirs. In some cases, there could be sensitive company intelligence that only the founders, executive management, and board members are aware of, such as a potential acquisition, merger, or details around a public offering. With that information, management could, hypothetically, have an incentive to look over the ledger and ponder a re-splitting the pie.

If the story from Zynga is true, and if equity “clawbacks” and attempts to reclaim shares (against threats of termination) are used as tactics to manage option pools and optimize for a policy of “one less share,” the repercussions from this could spread. It could be the line in the sand. Should any early-stage employee truly put their trust in an equity agreement or option grant issued by their new employer? Who will back them up when legal fees may be too daunting? Will management seek to retain talent with promises of equity instead of just hiring and firing the right people, in the best interest of the company?

These ideas dominated Hacker News and one story posted today had, on its own, close to 300 comments. In my four separate interactions with engineers today, the topic came up, and their reactions were not muted. They are paying attention to every potential actor in this story and what it could mean for their future gigs or when they start their own companies. While clawbacks seem to be known dangers in the world of finance, I’d like to believe that this ethos won’t creep into the startup world, an ecosystem that is certainly not perfect but is decidedly far too passionate to say “it’s just business.”

A Critical Juncture at Quora

After 10 days of navigating Quora after its latest product release, I understand the company’s choice to create “Boards” yet remain personally confused by the new feature.

On one hand, Quora has always struggled with the “discovery” aspect of surfacing content to users, and with the rise of Pinterest pinboards driving pageviews, boards on Quora takes that Pinterest concept and applies it to curation of links and text, though I have stumbled upon a few boards that are entirely visual in content and basically resemble Pinterest. Boards provide another product for Quora’s very active users to curate content from around the web (including Quora), with the hopes that these will drive engagement and hopefully help drive/route traffic.

On the other hand, as someone who follows the company closely and who uses the product every single day, I was confused and surprised by the move. Of course, I don’t have knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes, but as a user, my feeling was that Quora’s product was nearly complete. It works amazingly well. I ask tons of questions and always get a range of fascinating answers. I occasionally post things there, too, and love using the private messaging inbox. My impression was that the company, after hiring traffic and growth engineers, would step on the gas and get more people (and hopefully experts) contributing across a range of topics, and that it would become the default place online to ask questions, which is a huge component of search.

As it turns out, the company felt that the Q&A format may have been too rigid in helping foster connections between people around topics, so allowing them to curate and collaborate around boards could soften those edges. The result for me, unfortunately, is that it has added more noise to an already noisy product and newsfeed.

Quora is at a critical juncture. If Boards take root and grow, the product could be an entirely different place than it was just a few weeks ago. If Boards don’t pan out, they could always scale them back (or remove them altogether), reverting back to a Q&A site. As with anything this team does, it will be interesting to see how it unfolds, as they are facing two very different paths ahead of them. I myself will continue to do ask and answer questions on Quora, as well as to search, which I do often. My belief was that Quora would grow into a repository of knowledge around topics, a mashup of Wikipedia, Blogger, and Google for long-tail and/or social search. With boards, that calculus changes, and I can’t tell if it they will drive the product or just be a feature, though my gut instinct is that “pinning” pictures is easier and will drive better traffic than “pinning” text. I’ll just have to wait and see, and in the meantime, start creating some boards.

Data Analysis in Early Stage Startups

This is intended to be a short post. The topic is data as it relates to early-stage startups. There are two types of data sets that people want. One, they want to know about financings, valuations, and acquisition prices. Two, they want to know about metrics, everything from daily active users, monthly active users, and a range of other emerging engagement metrics. People want this data so that we can all make more sense of what is happening in the early stages. Rather than get caught up in the hype, we can trust the data.

As nice it would be to have these, the cold reality is that these data sets are nearly impossible to get. “If” every startup honest contributed their financing-related data to CrunchBase, from start to end, we’d have some rich data, but that ain’t happening. There’s little incentive for founders and investors to disclose this data, and for currently early-stage startups, we won’t know the financing particulars for a long while, if ever. And, “if” every startup properly collected their own usage and engagement data, we’d be able to better decipher which metrics are for vanity and which are for value. As it stands, only a handful of people know the metrics at growing early-stage startups and have little to no incentive to share them.

Therefore, we don’t have good data, and whatever is there is far from clean. And, double therefore, making inferences from the data is a dangerous exercise in extrapolation. This is why I *never* try to cite data to back up any arguments I’m making. Data can always be manipulated or misused, reshaped to advance any argument. Perceptive readers will cut through that b.s. and it reduces credibility all around, not to mention trust in the source and respect of the reader’s time.

Brendan Baker has a great way of explaining this, saying that any communication or analysis around early-stage data should include the following language:

Here’s what we found, here’s what I think it means, and here are the limitations.


Let me go one step further on Brendan’s suggestion and say that this disclaimer should be appended to any data collection and analysis of early-stage companies. This clearly presents the realities to the audience, protects the author from some inevitable doubts, respects the reader’s time, and hopefully creates a good enough atmosphere for discussion around what should be an important topic. The next decade is going to slap us in the face with all sorts of data, so we must start establishing these groundrules now. Please comment with more, and thanks in advance.


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