Social Media 2.0

I’d like a new social media site/app.

Not an original idea? Entrepreneurs aren’t deterred by apparent competition or from looking for solutions to difficult problems. As long as existing products aren’t serving needs and there’s a way to provide a better solution, there is a good opportunity.

The Problem with Social Media1: (if you are already nodding your head, I’m playing the right tune, because good opportunities include easily recognized problems) 

Part 1: Shiny happy people2masquerading as your friends in everyday life. Not the first one to point this out, but broadband social media is depressingly deceptive.

Many personal posts are the high points of people’s lives. You’ve seen it: here’s [someone you know] looking good, graduating from astrophysics, running a marathon, winning the award for best strawberry jam ever, getting a Nobel Prize etc. Fabulous when these things happen and everyone should feel good about them. But there is more to life.

There are the tragedies too. I don’t begrudge anyone sharing these, because this is when support is needed and everyone should be able to reach out for it. Thankfully, this sort of thing doesn’t happen very often.

What’s left? The rest of life. Because the drama dial on social media is set to 11 – really great or awfully bad – the tendency is to make posts fit into one of these categories. So we end up with a lopsided view of everyone else’s life. And wonder why ours doesn’t measure up3.

Part 2: The death of depth. ’cause really, once you’ve seen 129 idyllic photos of your friend’s kid’s wedding, asking how the wedding was seems redundant. However, there is no photo of the tension with her mother-in-law over the venue or the unresolved issues the son has with his father. A person could post every hour of every day without revealing how they are really doing.

Part 3: Hardwired to Self Destruct. Metallica gets it. We’re trapped. Social media is our venue to communicate with everyone now. Regardless if they are friends, family, people we met once or businesses we frequent, they’re all on social media, somewhat indistinguishable from each other. Friend, commerce or romantic wannabe? 

Social media (1) isn’t genuine, (2) has no depth, and (3) is essential.

Therefore, a need exists for a platform that causes people to communicate with the people who are important to them in a genuine, deep way. A platform that simulates seeing and talking to close friends and family on a regular basis about things that are mundane but matter.

Ah, it’s all in the choice of the right platform, you say. I love this depiction of various social media apps, drawing parallels to the seven deadly sins. Platforms evolve to serve different purposes4, suggesting that different design elements tailor to different needs. I think that means there is hope for introducing a new platform. 

Throwing out a few ideas for my ideal site:

1. Emphasize small groups, of say 5 to 10. Do not allow them to get bigger.

2. Keep content personal – de-emphasize reposts of news stories, etc. maybe even get rid of shares. Focus on the individual’s thoughts about their lives.

3. Get away from constant updating. Hang onto the beginning of the thread so anyone in the group can see where the conversation began regardless of when they get there.

4. Change the business model – get targeted ads out of the equation. Paying for something that meets a specific need isn’t so bad and removes the need for distracting, extraneous content (i.e. suggested content, ads, sponsored stuff, prioritization that isn’t related to the user’s priorities).

I’ve argued myself into wanting to pay for social media. I’d come up with a subscription fee if it has all the features I want and none that I don’t. As long as everyone I want to connect with feels the same way, it will work. Hummm…. maybe someone has thought of this before, but now that we are all indoctrinated into social media, this could be the perfect time for Social Media V2.0.

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1Sometimes, songs come to my mind that illustrate concepts really well, so I’ve included links to a few tunes.

2To me the song captures the duality of wanting to be happy and smiling and all loving, but the reality that life isn’t all fun and dancing, sometimes it’s hard work.

3Reminds me of a Fefe Dobson’s Stupid little Love Song

4How this happened is interesting, but another topic. Was it the original master plan, form defining function, or an outcome of the market segment that first populated the platform?

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The Entrepreneur as Customer

“I’m going to live to be 1401,” I often say. 

People laugh, which is fine. I am serious.

“But I’m going to need replacement parts,” I usually add.

Thus begins my adventure as a customer in an emerging industry: regenerative medicine. Interesting to experience entrepreneurship from the buy-side. In IT entrepreneurial circles, this happens all the time. Early adopters of new technology come from within the industry, as they are in a position to understand the need and the benefits of innovations before a broader population.

I understand first-hand (pun intended) the basic human need for tissue regeneration – it literally relieves the pain caused by degeneration. After years of wear and tear, the cartilage my CMC joint2is almost gone and won’t heal. Delicate grasping is painful – I drop things. This inability to hold a piece of paper may impede my journey to the 22ndcentury3.

I’m faced with the intractable. Modern medicine has no restorative solutions. There are pain killers. Supportive braces. Electric can openers. It’s a problem that should be remedied, not compensated for.

There is an experimental approach: Stem cells. The scientist in me understands the theory, knows it could be the ultimate answer. Soft tissue replacement parts could be made – by installing a biological factory that regenerates the lost bits. But it’s new technology with limited testing, testing that might provide surprises not covered by the theory.

I leapt at the opportunity to undergo a cell transplant procedure with a full understanding of the risks, uncertainty and cost.

The trigger event for the this new technology were findings4that fat cells, from the abdomen, are a source of stem cells – cells that have the potential to multiply and form various types of tissue. This source is appealing (competitive advantage), compared to alternatives, that are uncomfortable for the patient (bone marrow harvest), or carry risks of rejection (if the stem cells are from a third party donor, rather than the recipient) or selection of unwanted features (culturing the cells in between harvest and injection may amplify unwanted traits). Hip and knee joint replacement is common with metal, plastic or ceramic parts. While generally successful, it is major surgery, costs $10,000’s, and requires months for the patient to fully recover. Replacement joints are less common in the hands.

I am an early adopter. Perhaps a consumer of an early stage prototype or minimum viable product, provider of input to get to product/market fit. Maybe even an investor, although I want to know if this is a scalable product. Currently, it needs a surgeon for administration, and a bunch of surgical equipment. However, this is indeed what puts the technology at the stage of product/market fit. It isn’t clear that the current approach can meet mass market demand, for technical reasons as much as anything else.

There is a great opportunity here. Clear unresolved pain, competitive advantage, timeliness, and a massive market for an effective treatment of osteoarthritis. The Arthritis Foundation states that 31 million Americans have osteoarthritis, and the expectation is that this will reach 78 million by 2040.5That’s a 5% year/year growth rate sustained for 20 years in a whomping big market. 

I’m excited to see the outcome of my treatment. Will there be regeneration and healing, so I can do mundane things like open a chip bag or put on socks without pain? There are no guarantees. As an emerging technology, there is knowledge to accumulate to optimize the product, possibly making it more effective and reliable. I’ll take the risk. I’m thrilled to be part of the development of this technology, the possibility to make a difference. That’s what entrepreneurship is all about.

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1I came up with this number after reading a theoretical paper many years ago about the limits of the human life span. Current estimates range from just over 100 to no limit. 

2Where the thumb bone connects to the wrist bone.

3This may seem melodramatic but there are studies that link an inability to do minor tasks with increases in depression, obesity and other chronic illness. 

4This paper summarizes the findings of a number of studies: Miana, V. V., & González, E. (2018). Adipose tissue stem cells in regenerative medicine. Ecancermedicalscience12, 822. doi:10.3332/ecancer.2018.822

5https://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/understanding-arthritis/arthritis-statistics-facts.php

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A Scientific Approach in Entrepreneurship and Strategy

Thinking like a scientist. This may not be new, especially for scientists. And not so much for entrepreneurs who subscribe to Eric Ries’ Lean Startup method1. But it was a hot topic at the recent Academy of Management (AOM) conference.2

I’m a scientist who has lived in the business world for decades. So, I’m excited to see the scientific method embraced at a business-centred conference. The AOM is an organization of business scholars, or people who study business. However, like every business school I’ve been part of, AOM aims to share knowledge with the practicing community.

First observation: Transparent Logic. The term immediately resonated – I knew exactly what it meant and why it was important in entrepreneurship. Transparent logic is part of a model for teaching social entrepreneurship3 and requires a clear link between the proposed activities and the social problem a venture is tackling. For example, providing water purification devices will decrease the incidence of dysentery, leading to fewer hours of lost labour and therefore people earning a better wage, however, it needs to be clear how people who need the device will get them and continue to use them. For many scientists, cause and effect is utopia. Transparent logic in a social venture seeks this holy grail of cause and effect.

At a session on entrepreneurial strategy4, we heard it was less about SWOT analysis and more about observation leading to hypothesis generation. An entrepreneur sees an unsolved problem and hypothesizes they can solve it with a certain product. The term causal logic came up, followed rapidly by notions of testing. Establishing value, after recognizing opportunities, can have its roots in the scientific method. The entrepreneurial process is scientific.

In the same session, a trial to evaluate the impact of the scientific method on startups was presented. Entrepreneurs were randomized into two groups. One was mentored traditionally – entrepreneurs were guided in business methods, product development and organizational development. The other group was tutored in a scientific method, using hypothesis generation, controlled testing and analytical methods to learn from test outcomes. Those using the scientific method pivoted more frequently, acquired and activated more customers and had more revenue generation. From this: the scientific method works for entrepreneurs.

On to a plenary session on strategy.5 There, too, causal identification was presented as a frontier in strategy research. My head started to spin with so many scientific references. I was brought back to objectivity, reminded that physics with its fundamental, timeless certainties such as gravity, was more reliable for test outcomes. The fundamental forces that shape business shift more often. However, like evolution of species, changes in strategic theme occur in leaps and bounds, rather than continuously. An example is the upheaval in retail, with the onset of online shopping. A discrete change in how we shop. It left survivors (Amazon) and the less fortunate (Sears Canada).

The hotness of the scientific method in business strategy looks to me like the mid-point stage on the S-curve6 of adoption of new things (technology, products, buzz-words, sports teams). Following this trajectory, soon it won’t be the new thing, but the common thing.

When I ventured out of the lab many years ago to join an investment bank, I was a foreigner. Welcomed, but in a world of people who thought in different ways. They had vision. Visions of logical explanations. Maybe it’s me that’s catching up, learning that shrewd entrepreneurs see value where other’s don’t.

The scientific method can make sense and compelling arguments out of ideas. It makes it easy to answer hard questions about why you think this new idea you have will make a great business. A great tool for any entrepreneurial business strategist.

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1http://theleanstartup.com

2This is a huge conference, attended by thousands of faculty members from business schools all over the world. With two days of symposia, plenary sessions and papers, each with 7 time slots, and an average of 15 sessions to choose from per time slot, this means there are (15) 14 = 2.9 x 1016 different individual selections of talks to attend. Or maybe it should be 15! which is only 1.3x 1012 I’m not exactly sure how to calculate the number of different permutations of the program but any way you do, the number is really big. So my experience may not be typical.

6Not surprisingly, the S curve is S shaped.

In the beginning, a handful people embrace a new thing. The adventurers, the risk-takers, perhaps those in the field who understand the new thing better than most. This is the first stage, the flattish bottom to the S curve.

Then word starts to get around. The new thing is good. It does exciting things. It’s better than the old thing. People jump on board, start adopting the new thing like it’s the best thing since the last new thing. This is the part of the curve that swings up so rapidly that if it was an airplane, everyone on board would pass out.

As time goes on, people remain excited about the new thing, but many people have the new thing, so the adoption curve starts to lessen its assent – the plateauing phase of the vertical rise.

Finally, just about everyone who will ever want the new thing, which isn’t so new any more, has it. The S curve flattens. No additional adoption because everyone loves and appreciates the new thing.

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Startup Communities/ Entrepreneurial Clubs

Reviewing your projects and initiatives may be about as exciting as spring cleaning, but it feels good once it’s done and you may find something you didn’t know was lost. About six months ago, a colleague of mine (Jeff Kropman) and I started an entrepreneurs group with the support of the people who had the vision to create Core21, the shared office community.

We started Entrepreneurs in our Community @Core21 to grow the entrepreneurial community in Durham Region, looking to fill a gap – provide a safe environment for entrepreneurs to meet and share their challenges. It’s a venue where solopreneurs wouldn’t be alone. Our group complements networking and professional development sessions available in the area.

With a few simple principles, the get-togethers should be fun – a safe environment to share experiences. No talking heads, but semi-structured. I usually facilitate to ensure everyone gets a chance to participate. The meeting agenda keeps the group from going too far off topic. We introduce ourselves, present challenges, work on the challenges in small groups, then debrief. Applying lean startup principles, we asking for feedback at the end of each meeting, then amend the format.

On average, 10 people attend each meeting but it’s never been the same group twice. This is great, the group is there for those who want to come and chat with their peers. This is our hope, that each individual entrepreneur knows where to find others who they can reach out to.

What have we learned and what can we do better?
The most striking thing is that everyone who attends wants to solve the other attendee’s challenges, immediately. This is wonderful, the spirit of helpfulness. Because people may or may not return to the next meeting, we’ve had a hard time coming up with a system of accountability, or using the group to hold us to our goals, which is something we decided we wanted in the beginning.

Is there something we can learn from similar groups in other cities? There are a couple of (informally) syndicated groups of coffee clubs for entrepreneurs: 1 Million Cups and Open Coffee Club. Perhaps we need a cooler name. The Open Coffee Clubs¹ were started by venture capitalists in London and Boulder, who wanted to build community in their local tech startups. 1 Million Cups², which has chapters in dozens of US cities, was created by two people from the Kauffman Foundation, to tied together unlinked entrepreneurs in Kansas City. I’ve been to a few other events in my local area such as The Inventors Circle and the Small Business Network at the Metro Reference Library, both have presenters with networking before and after the presentations.

The other coffee clubs primarily start at 8 am – do people have more energy in the morning than at 7 pm, when our meetings are? Some are limited to an hour (that makes sense if you’ve got a day of work ahead of you). Formats differ. At 1 Million Cups, a couple of companies share their story and get feedback from the audience. At the tech focused Open Coffee Club, they open with discussion of current events, followed by an open floor for attendees to presentation ask the groups for input on specific questions.

Themes that transcend all the groups:

  • to be the opposite of large events or special events.
  • for the community by the community – to find peers to reach out to when trying to solve problems.
  • providing support to your fellow entrepreneurs – to answer ‘what can this community do to support you?’
  • to be friendly and low key – to get every attendee invested in the success of every other attendee.

How can we build a better group in Durham Region? Should we:

  • hold the meetings at a different time, such as early morning?
  • change the format – have presenters or time limits for each attendee to share or a different agenda?
  • make the attendees more accountable to the group?

How to answer these questions and make Entrepreneurs in our Community @Core21 a more vibrant entrepreneurial community so that we all have a better chance of surviving and flourishing? I’m going to ask the members what they want. And then do it.

 

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¹ Brad Feld (2012) Startup Communities. Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City John Wiley & Son, Hoboken, NJ

http://www.forbes.com/sites/kauffman/2013/11/05/six-lessons-for-building-startup-communities-from-the-founders-of-1-million-cups/2/

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