Thursday, May 24, 2012

Thoughts on Google+ vs. Facebook

I was reading this Technology Review interview with Google Plus founder Bradley Horowitz

He says that Facebook suffers from conversation targeted at least common denominator (true-ish), so you end up saying drivel (seems false).

It is true there is drivel on Facebook. But, the incentive is to post "high signal" things like "Baby Born" or "Getting Married" or "Moving"

Horowitz may be right on the "least common denominator", but it's not obvious the conclusion to be drawn is "It becomes drivel".

And the immediate counterargument to Google Plus interface's too complex. Two-clicks + mouseover to Follow. Circles labor intensive.

And frankly, Facebook Groups is a decent alternative to Circles.  I was able to create a business school classmates group ( in a very short time (10 minutes) that included about 100 classmates.  And others piled in and grew it to 200.  The mechanism for adding people is quite simple and fast.  And I like that it's "crowdsourced".

And frankly, it's easy to understand Facebook Groups.  I "get" that if I want to post something for my classmates, that's a good place to go. Somehow that seems more satisfying than the Circles, which may or may not be updated or complete.

In contrast, imagine that each of us tried to create our classmates list in our own Circles. Labor intensive and hard.

Two thoughts:
1) It seems to me that a "single-stream" is easier to understand or grok. Multiple streams or circles just feels (way) too complex.

2) Gut reaction is that Google Plus isn't "non-consumer" enough, compared to it's other innovations.  I'm reading Christenson's Innovator's Solution, and he talks about how new products can disrupt by targeting non-consumers.  Transistors targeting non-consumers of Vacuum Tubes.  Angioplasty targeting non-consumers of Heart Surgery.

Google Plus, to me, just seems incrementally better than Facebook.  I don't think non-consumers of Facebook/Twitter are going to Google Plus in droves.

Whereas, in contrast, I think other Google innovations were more for non-consumers.
- Search, for those that found Altavista was just a bunch of junk links. Key features: Found what you're looking for!

- GMail, for those who preferred Outlook over Hotmail.  Key features: Fast interface, Threading, Labels, Archive
Pre-Gmail, I was a diehard Outlook person.  I couldn't imagine using Hotmail as my primary mail client.  And now, I love GMail.

- Chrome, so much faster than Internet Explorer (IE).  Not so much for "non-consumers".  But man was it faster.  And I think just this week it passed IE in usage.  Who knew IE could be disrupted?  When IE won the initial browser wars over Netscape, it seemed they were just good to go for a long time.

Friday, May 18, 2012

10 Books I've Read, and Thoughts on How They Apply to Entrepreneurs

(still a draft blog post - 5/18/2012)

Thinking, Fast and Slow - Wow, a really dense book, but well written.  So many concepts mostly centered around behavioral economics. Many concepts apply to startups, but one of my personal favorites is that people make up causal stories to explain things.  Overall framework of three main concepts: System 1 vs System 2, Econs vs. People; Experiencing Self vs. Remembering Self. Concepts include: Anchors, Availability Bias, Regression to the Mean, Errors with Small Sample Sizes, Prospect Theory, Endowment Effect, Broad Framing vs. Narrow framing, Fallibility of Intution. 

Entrepreneur Takeaway: It seems to me this is the kind of book an entrepreneur (or any person) could read multiple times, at different times of their lives, and draw big (and different) insights from with each reading.  The right concept, at the right time, could lead to an important insight that is relevant to your own business.

Steve Jobs - Commited to what he loved.  He saw the future, including the rise of tablet computers, well in advance.  He was very contrarian for his focus on simplicity.  I wonder if he would have won the PC wars had he been able to price the Apple as he wanted (instead of the $500 more for marketing budget that the CEO wanted).

Entrepreneur Takeaway:  I hope the takeaway is not "I can act like Steve Jobs and succeed (sometimes he didn't treat people that well)" but rather focused more on the commitment to simplicity ("Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication") and being tenacious. 

Einstein: His World and Universe - Amazing what he did by 24 years old.  Reminds me that geniuses can be very effective early in life.  He didn't view being an entrepreneur favorably. Didn't want to be focused on "the pursuit of capital".

Entrepreneur Takeaway: He was so tenacious (like Jobs) about finding truth, finding a unified theory.  He was still scribbling possible unified theories while on his deathbed. He was also willing (again like Jobs) to come up with his own way of thinking about things, and forego the conventional wisdom. 

Nudge - Introduces the concept of Choice Architecture and Libertarian Paternalism.  The basic idea is that, design matters.  Reminds me a bit of user interface design and Edward Tufte.  For example, a default option can make a huge difference, like in the number of donors in a country. One country defaulted "Yes, I'm a donor" and had x% sign up as donors.  Another country defaulted "No, I'm not a donor" and had y% sign up as donors.  What a difference! Entrepreneurs should know about this to know that their design decisions can make huge impact.  It's not just "yeah, the customers will click the box on the sign-up form for receiving email updates".  But rather, the default makes a really big difference.  Talks about Medicare Part D, which illustrates so much of why government initiatives fail (no competition for designing the system). Like, imagine if Facebook were a government initiative - painful, slow, obtuse, rarely updated. 

Entrepreneur Takeaway: So many possible takeaways, but the concept of Choice Architecture and it's influence on the results you achieve, is important.  I think Choice Architecture is an important toolkit to use while designing your products, but also one to look at when you are trying to figure out what's going wrong.

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life - A newspaper entrepreneur (and writer and publisher), then, after a partnership deal that provided income but relieve him of day-to-day duties, an experimenter (what color cloth makes snow melt? What is electricity?). Then, later in life a statesman.  Then, much later in life a key figure and voice in the founding of our country.  And finally, a wise voice the creation of the constitution.

Entrepreneur Takeaway: He secured early success in newspapers and parlayed that into publishing (Almanac).  I think the economics concept of "complementary capabilities" and "absorptive capacity" were evident in his ability to write, his understanding of the publishing business, and his ability to take advantage of needs in the marketplace.   He parlayed that success into "retiring" and then transitioned into "politics". 

Talent is Overrated - You can do it! As long as you deliberately practice for 10,000 hours! Interesting thesis that may explain some of Einstein's success (focus on understanding the world that started at a young age, and a relentless focus on continuing to focus); Steve Jobs (years and years running companies, working in technology); and Franklin (years of analyzing how people worked, how to run a newspaper.

Drunkard's Walk - Randomness is everywhere.  And people make up causal stories to explain it (See Thinking, Fast and Slow above). But really, so much is just random.  Like the movie producer who has a string of hits ("what skill!"), followed by a string of failures ("out of touch!"), and then after being fired, the movies that he selected end up being successful ("maybe he knew what he was doing after all?").   So, I think about how that applies to entrepreneurs. The entrepreneur succeeds ("what a genius!"), and then fails ("out of touch").  We assign causality, but what if it's just a coin flip?  The book ends with "Appreciate the absence of bad luck", and that message resonates with me.

SuperCrunchers - Data!  Lots of data!  Expert opinions can be outperformed by supercrunching lots of data. We don't want to admit it, but our experts may be fallible. In the future, data will provide a ton of insight.  There is power in data, and the ability to analyze it for insights.

Entrepreneurs will be wise to recognize the tidal waves that supercrunching will probably produce for insights.  And the advantage it gives to incumbent companies with a lot of data like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Square.

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman - Richard Feynman was an independent thinker and a deep insightful thinker.  He didn't care about doing things the "right way", like math problems.  Instead, he figure out his own way to come up with the solution.  He crushed his high school math competition. He could fix radios just by thinking through the problems. As part of the Manhattan project, he made early parallel computers out of people, working in teams, figuring out problems on color coded cards, passing them around.  He challenged a NASA computer to figure out where a rocket would land (Atlantic Ocean) and did it faster than the computer.   Rather than just read the solution to problems and accept that as "the way to solve this", he would read just enough about how someone solved a problem to know, generally, what they did, then try to solve the problem on his own, in order to truly understand how to solve the problem. 

The Lean Startup - Eric Ries is about putting in a process and culture of doing experiments and learning from those experiments ("Build, Measure, Learn", "Validated Learning").   The book attempts to validate itself for a broad audience (not just entrepreneurs) with examples of large corporations (Intuit) and government using it (gives a nice example of how it could work in government, but a stark contrast to Nudge's Medicare Part D rollout).   [still finishing this book as of 5/18/2012]

Information spreading on Facebook vs. Twitter, as # of people I follow increases

I found the following Facebook Data post:

As I read this Facebook Data team post on information spreading in a social network, I worry a little about Twitter.

Because, even though I'm not a huge fan of this, Facebook can optimize what shows up in my feed and when it shows up. It can increase the probability that I view a share from a weak tie, even if that share happened at 4am.

Whereas Twitter, as much as I like the chronological stream, cannot (currently) optimize my stream. So the weak tie share at 4am is missed.

Gut reaction. Facebook signal/noise ratio improves with # of people I follow. Twitter signal/noise ratio worsens with # of people I follow.

Put another way, if I follow 100K people on Facebook, the timeline has strong signal (good content). If I follow 100K on Twitter, noise.

On the flip side, I like the control with Twitter. I see all the tweets, in order. Something reassuring about that. Data density is better.

Jeff Stern brings up a good point that Facebook has too much noise.  Upon further reflection, I agree. Facebook has too much noise. Theoretically they shouldn't. But in practice they do.  Games, Music, Shares.  I think they are probably trying to reduce this noise over time (and they let users control this pretty well by "hiding things)

As I think about this more, I wonder if Facebook is can be disrupted from a new entrant w/ high signal. i.e. No apps, games.

Path and Everyme are taking a shot at this.  The strength of the Facebook network seems like a lot (too much?) to overcome, at least in the short run (i.e. network size, market awareness, cash in bank, revenue model works).  And, if it's true that higher signal leads to user happiness/retention, I think that Facebook can figure that out and adjust.

They have already offered a "Close Friends" option, which kinda mirrors Path/Everyme. 

Friday, May 04, 2012

3 Thoughts on a Organizational Model for edX

I saw the edX announcement and was really impressed. 

It seems the trendy thing to talk about in entrepreneurship & education is how to disrupt higher ed. For example:
Peter Thiel "Higher Education is a Bubble".
YCombinator "Things We'd like to fund: Online learning"
Minerva and Larry Summers "$25M from Benchmark, Can Minerva Build An Online Ivy?"

So what role do MIT and Harvard play? They are the incumbent "firms", and they need to be part of the disruption or be disrupted themselves by newer firms, or other incumbents (like Duke, where I work).

What are some of the assets they have?
- Brand recognition
- Faculty (and the infrastructure to attract and develop high quality faculty)
- Students (and the infrastructure to attract high quality students)
- Infrastructure to support learning
- Learnings from MIT Open Courseware and MITX (120,000 signed up for their first pilot course on Circuits)
- $60M
and the list goes on...

It seems to me that edX has a really good start. 

edX also strikes me as having the right mission. Harvard Provost Alan Garber said it was "dedicated to improving learning throughout the world". 

And edX seems to have the right posture towards working with other universities. Susan Hockfield said "Harvard & MIT welcome educational institutions to this open source platform, and to help us improve it...fasten your seatbelts".

So, I wonder, what is the right organizational model for edX to engage Duke and other universities?

Not knowing anything about the specific inner workings of edX (or MIT Open Courseware), here are a few thoughts.

1) "Be a network, not a heirarchy"
I recently heard a talk by Brad Feld (who happens to be an MIT alum) and in talking about entrepreneurial communities he said "Be a network, not a heirarchy".

If I overlay this concept onto edX, it strikes me as relevant. 

How is it relevant?  One example, Metcalfe's law:  "A network increases in proportion to the square of the number of nodes in the network".  I think part of the power of edX will come from the number of contributors (nodes). edX President Anant Agarwal said something that makes me think he'd agree: "At the end of the day, the more online educators we have, the better off the whole world is."  I think he was speaking about both edX and non-edX educators, but the statement may also be in support of edX educators itself.

It'd be easy to fall into heirarchy. "Oh, that professor teaches at [prestigious institution] they should have editorial control".  But I think that leaves out the ability for great contributors from lesser-known institutions to contribute (or at least reduces their incentives). 

It reminds me of that chapter from Malcom Gladwell's book Outliers called "The Trouble with Geniuses", where the an analysis of Nobel prize winners showed that they didn't all come from prestigious institutions.  It also reminds me of Ed Weiland's prediction of Jeremy Lin.  Ed Weiland drives for FedEx.  But he seems to have a good mind for stats.  

We want to give incentives to the Ed Weiland's of the teaching world. 

My hunch is that edX should encourage as many nodes "faculty/instructors" as possible to contribute, and structure incentives and heirarchy (or lack of) to optimize their participation.

- Add someone to the board that is an expert at network design, and can overlay those concepts.  What principle of network design should we be thinking of?
- Add faculty members who understand both the value of faculty heirarchies, but are willing to think heretical thoughts about how those work across organizations.

2) Use best practices from Wikipedia
Related to "Be a network, not a heirarchy" is "How best do you utilize the strength of the network to produce great content?"

I assume there are multiple ways to utilize a network effectively, but it strikes me that Wikipedia has figured out how to meld these together to produce, on average, great content.

I'd be curious to know if Open Courseware (or other models) have figured out how to combine sources into one understandable (and hopefully great) course.
For example, can you take Feynman's lectures on physics and add those as an input on current lectures on physics? 

- Add someone to the board from Wikipedia with expertise on how conflicts are resolved between multiple authors.

3) Use best practices from YouTube
One thing Wikipedia doesn't address (to my knowledge) is "How do you have Wikipedia style contributions (combine multiple video authors/sources) in one video?"

I'm not sure that YouTube itself knows how this works, but certainly people seem to use YouTube as the medium for combining multiple authors/sources into one video.

I don't know the research into video learning, but my hunch is that video learning is a powerful method for people to learn.  Probably superior to text-only in many ways.

How do you allow multiple video authors to combine their efforts into one, understandable, well-made video?

Combining sources: If we had video of Feynman, could we combine that with video of Einstein.  (The recent Tupac hologram at Coachella makes this seem like a possibility).

Combining authors: If we had Michael Bay, Bryan Singer, and Peter Jackson decide they want to author one video, how do they work together?  What if Steven Spielberg wants to add in something later, how can we make the video "ever-editable"?  

- Add someone that has figured out the way to combine multiple authors/sources, and do be able to continue to edit it over a long timeframe (multiple years).

In conclusion, I'm pretty excited about edX, and the general progression of online education (or just education in general).  I think the ultimate goal is for anyone, anywhere, to be able to learn anything, for free. Or to put it slightly differently "lifelong personalized education".

---Some additional thoughts

Will edX win? 
It's unclear to me if edX will figure out the right formula for making this work, but they are probably one of the frontrunners (if not the frontrunner) based on their assets and their objectives. 

What is the role of another university in edX?  
My hunch is that universities should embrace edX.  That, or they may risk getting left behind. Maybe not in the next five years, but probably left behind in the next 20-50 years. 

What is the role of a "residential university" once edX (or similar) has succeeded?
Susan Hockfield had a great quote "Online education is not an enemy of residential education, but rather a profoundly liberating and inspiring ally."  It strikes me as the kind of quote that is the tip of the iceberg.  I'd be really interested to know more about any data she has that supports this statement.  It'd be fun to look at.

Let's say she is correct.  Then what does a residential university look like once edX has succeeded (defining success as having a great online course in a majority of topics covered in universities; where the "average student" can watch the course, comprehend the information, and be able to apply it now and hopefully 5-10 years from now; most likely contributed to by multiple authors from multiple universities).

Or put into terms of Duke University, why will students come to Duke?  Why not just stay at home, do all your learning online, and graduate that way?

This is a big, and probably scary, question for most universities. 

I'm not sure.  There is value created by universities outside of academic learning. Is it enough to justify the cost?

For example, non-academic value includes:
1) Being with peers your age, and developing those intellectual relationships (hard to find comparable physicists in your town that are your age, but easier to find a bunch at a university)
  a) Caveat is that you do see some schools taking a "short residential, longer non-residential approach" like "let's spend two weeks together in London and six weeks doing online coursework".  Example is Fuqua's Cross-Continent MBA program.

2) Being able to tap into the alumni network (there are great physicists who have graduated from here, and you can get in touch with them a little more easily)
  a) Caveat is that, if you have something great to offer, being an alumni or not may not make a difference. (The converse is true if you don't have something great to offer)

3) Lifelong learning (You see this with universities offering lectures for alumni with their faculty.  This seems to be threatened as edX develops.  Although informal "chat" or small group discussions seems to continue to be something a university can offer)
  a) Caveat is that, from the perspective of the faculty, they probably just want to have the most intellectually stimulating audience.  So Richard Feynman might not want to talk to a small group of 10 physics newbies who happen to have gone to MIT (his alma mater), but rather would want to talk to 10 physics masters (regardless of school, like a Solvay Conference).

4) Experiences from being on campus (student clubs, events, sports, dating scene)
Youth may be wasted on the young (George Bernard Shaw), but I think those who have undergraduate residential experiences probably waste it in more memorable ways. 
  a) Caveat is that, for $50,000 a year, an undergraduate could probably do pretty well creating memorable experiences that aren't tied to one location.  For example, the Summit Series

Not that the above items are "enough" to justify the cost, but I think those are some of the areas to consider when thinking of justifying the costs of a university separate from the academic learning. 

More thinking will have to be put into this, but my hunch is that Universities will have to think of themselves differently.  They are "destinations" yes, but I think they will need to amp up their value beyond just the destination.  This is done, to some extent, by the Alumni Associations, but I think the scope, depth, and expertise of those groups will probably be expanded.  So it's not just that you are joining the Alumni Association and participate occasionally, but that there is constant value being provided by those Alumni Associations.  So that once you are a part of the university, it provides you a ton of value throughout your life.  

And what about the career center portion of universities?
At least for business schools, this is a big part of the value.  MBA students regularly get jobs at great companies like Apple, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Proctor & Gamble, etc... and I think there is a good argument that this is enabled by being a part of the program.

Is the career portion of universities something which is residential-dependent?  Probably not, but how does a company come "on-campus" as most of this recruiting is done, to meet with students.  There are some economies of scale from the current model.  Can this be replaced by a completely virtual model?  Possibly.  With advances in telepresence (like Cisco) the barriers for simulating face-to-face interactions are declining.

My hunch is that edX should do it's best to forego any sort of monetization, at least in the early stages. I think the mission is so big "education for all, anywhere" that it should be something that can be funded by donors.   Also, MIT and Harvard have huge endowments -- if they aren't willing to take a risk and go for the "no monetization" strategy, then not sure who will.

Wikipedia, as I understand it, has a "no monetization" strategy.  Do they struggle financially?  Yes.  But are they doing something amazing we are (mostly) all behind?  I think so.

edX should, in my opinion, dream big.  Really big.  Free education for all, anywhere in the world.

Maybe at some point monetization gets figured out.  Ads like Facebook/Google?   I could live with that. (Note to wikipedia, I could also live with that for you).  Or some sort of micropayment based on how many pages you used (like a penny a page) that is only for geographies where people can afford it?  Maybe.

But I want to believe, I think many of us want to believe, that MIT and Harvard can be tremendous "forces for good" and that monetization, while it might be important at some point, isn't important right now.

What about those who would argue that "unless it's sustainable, it's not going to be a success?"  I tend to agree with that.  However, I would challenge edX to try out every other option (begging for money/endowment, grants, whatever) before pursuing the monetization strategy, particularly if that monetization somehow raises a barrier for people to learn.  Let's have learning be first, and monetization be after that.