Tunnel vision

Posted on Nov 6, 2017

(Originally published on Medium.)

In code, product, design, video games, life, tunnel vision plays a role. You’re in the middle of something, and when you come back up for air, you realize the world has changed. Your code no longer makes sense. Your product doesn’t fit the market. Your design is outdated. Your past goals no longer represent you. Things changed, and you didn’t see them change. That is tunnel vision.

Fushimi Inari-taisha, back in April 2017. Photo by Diana Borges.

In design and development, tunnel vision renders your skills irrelevant. You stopped learning new programming languages, or looking at what’s new in the world, because you were too busy building things. Your designs feel off because you haven’t been looking at inspiration as much, or experimenting with new ideas.

In product and product management, tunnel vision renders your work irrelevant. You go down one path, and the world shifts around you — a new technology comes out that revolutionizes how people see work and the world; a competitor product finds a way to mitigate the issues you are solving for; you spent too much time zigging while the world was zagging.

In life, tunnel vision disconnects you. You were too busy to spend time with your friends. You spent too long focusing on your work, while life chugged along. You were looking down while the world was right in front of you. You were hoping the clock would slow down just a little because, hey, a new sprint planning just ended and your task inbox just filled up again. But the clock didn’t really slow down — It just kept going, at the unreasonable pace of one second per second. Hold on — another email just came in, and I really have to check that.

I come bearing no true solutions.

I can’t tell you how to live your life — heck, this post is as much about me as it is about what I see in the world. What I can tell you is to come back up for air more often. In engineering, maybe that means spending a percentage of your time exploring new technologies. In design, maybe it is being inspired by the work of others a little more often. In product, maybe that is asking if your vision of the world still makes sense. In life, maybe that means spending more time with those you care about, and who care about you.

Look up.

With great devices comes great responsibility

Posted on Oct 25, 2016

Your fridge, light bulbs, and baby monitors are all connected to the internet. Chances are, however, that they’re also vulnerable to attack.

Remember last week when your Netflix went down, your Github account was unavailable, and — perhaps more importantly — you couldn’t tweet about any of that because Twitter was down, too? You can thank your smart home cameras for it.

These devices run software stacks similar to your computers and your smartphones, which get compromised all the time. Your smart lock is no different. It runs code, has an IP address, and in all likelihood has bugs that make it exploitable.

So even if a malicious hacker around the world has no interest in opening your garage door remotely from afar, chances are your device can be used in an attack like the DDoS last week.

Right now around the world, millions of devices are just sitting there, either hacked or ready to be hacked. Years ago, news came out that a specific model of smart TV was capturing images with its webcam without user consent and sending them to remote servers — who knows what for.

Now, your smart cameras are bringing down critical internet infrastructure.

Sadly, there is little that you — as the buyer — can do. Sure, keep your devices up to date if there’s a way to do that. And make sure your home connection is safe (firewall options in your router, strong passwords), so that connecting from the outside is not possible.

But truth be told, with the internet of things, we’re at the mercy of the manufacturers. It is up to them to write great software, keep up with the latest security exploits, and patch their devices if flaws are found.

The internet of things is both a boon and a curse. It is hard to argue against all the great things we get out of these devices. But at the same time, they’re right there running code we don’t know, packed with cameras, microphones, and other sensors we can’t control. They are online, and the internet is ultimately unsafe.

This is the internet of small, shiny, well packaged modern day trojan horses.

Don't launch with a splash

Posted on Mar 12, 2014

If you follow tech blogs, you've seen a million of these - startup homepages that are nothing but an email address field and a vague sentence selling a vague idea. The hope is that you'll type in your email so you can be notified if and when the startup launches.

The big issue with the splash launch is we, as humans, simply don't have the luxury to care about everything we see. In a world of continuous partial attention, we jump from product to product, idea to idea, often several times per minute. If all you have is a splash screen and an input field, it is like you're bringing a stick to a sword fight. People will leave, and they will forget.

Your splash page is your pitch

If you're not ready to launch but still need some kind of web presence (and chances are you do), make it meaningful. Instead of passively trying to sell to people just enough for them to give you their email address (an increasingly complicated proposition, given how much stuff we get in our inbox already), sell the idea of the product from day one. If I can't have your product now, what can you do to make me want to wait?

Your most important pitch, is the pitch to your users. And that is what your splash page should be. It isn't about their email address - it's about you. It's about the problem you solve, and the wrong you are going to right with your app or service. Look at it from that perspective, build it with that in mind, and then ask me for my email address. Chances are I'll be happy to give you that, now that I know I have something exciting to wait for.

Gut, data and bias in VC

Posted on Feb 13, 2014

Since the early days of venture capital, the investment process has been based on a combination of gut, people and deal timing. And while data has always been a part of that equation, it never took center stage.

Recently, however, we've seen the emergence of quantitative venture capital. Funds and angels collect data on startups and use that data to guide deal scouting and the decision making process. At Disruption Corporation, we stand on the thesis that data can help investors make better decisions. Over the past year, we've been working on tools to support that thesis - one of those tools being Indicate.

During this process, we've had some time to think about some of the problems when dealing with data and making data-informed decisions. Here are some of the things we learned:

  • Be wary of confirmation bias: humans are hard-wired to see patterns everywhere. And we do - often where they don't exist. Keep in mind that any person (and any system) may represent data in a way that makes it hard to see a problem.
  • The right metrics for the right company: no two data points are alike. If a mobile app company sees a ton of traffic to their website but app downloads don't follow a similar trend, that might mean a lack of market fit. Make sure you're paying attention to the right numbers.
  • Public data is limited: pre-investment data sets are often based on public data (Alexa traffic estimates, social media attention numbers, App Store downloads). Consequently, important metrics such as revenue are often omitted. Always evaluate the data you have, but do not ignore the unknown unknowns.
  • Gaming: if there's a financial incentive behind numbers, some people are going to inflate those numbers. Traffic, social media numbers, and app downloads can all be gamed. The same way data supports the investor's gut, the same gut should confirm data.
  • It's a slow process: data-backed decisions need a validation feedback loop to confirm hypotheses. You make a decision based on a set of metrics, wait for the outcome (e.g. an exit), and validate the initial model. Venture capital moves at a slow pace, so this feedback loop is slow too and there isn't a lot of history to work with.
  • Black swans: there are always going to be surprises (both positive and negative) that data can't predict. And as Nassim Taleb describes in The Black Swan, these surprises are often rationalized in hindsight. You should be okay dealing with the unexpected (and frankly, that's one of the requisites of being in venture capital).

These are still the early days of quantitative venture capital, and as an industry we have a lot to learn. Over the next few months, I'll be posting more about how we use data at Disruption Corporation, and how you can use it too, whether you are investing in startups, or running one.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to reach out on Twitter.

Diminuished substitutes

Posted on Jun 14, 2013

Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a kind of interaction possible without the person being near his phone. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. And then texting, which facilitated yet faster, and more mobile, messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.

But then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes.

Finally got a chance to read Jonathan Foer's opinion piece from last week's New York Times Sunday Review. A subtle reminder that technology is but a thin veneer on top of, well, life. Highly recommended reading.