A New Look for The Spiders Edge

It’s summer. Time to catch my breath, preferably in a lounge chair under a canopy of trees while a gentle breeze cools my dewy skin. Birds churp, vegetables grow, thoughts turn philosphical. 

This year, I’m contemplating the ethics of artificial intelligence and why toilet paper isn’t a better business to be in. Not that those two things are related. I don’t think. But I’m not done researching yet.

Also on the list: an update to my website and the logo for my business, The Spiders Edge. This isn’t related to toilet paper or artificial intelligence. I don’t think. It’s summer, thoughts wander. And wonder.

Perrenially, I wrestle with how to reconcil all my professional interests. Disconcertingly1, it suddenly seems simple. The underlying interests are the same, the implementation has two sides: practical and philosophical.

There was a time when I wrote science fiction. Science fiction was a conduit for me to bring science to people. To increase their understanding of scientific practices, to bring comfort with technological advances, to make them ask questions about the implications of emerging capabilities. This segued into a passion for business ethics. Science and technology are evolving so fast, writing science fiction to contemplate how it will effect humans and the planet is too slow. Science fiction happens in real time. So I write about business ethics now. These interest are philosophical.

The practical. I can’t sit still without envisioning how a scientific developments can be deployed to solve problems, fulfill a needs or generally make themselves useful. This has fired many professional roles (investment banking, technology transfer, research management) and now inspires my teaching interests in business and entrepreneurial strategy. It’s why I like being around entrepreneurs, helping and mentoring them to start their own businesses.

The Spiders Edge is part of my practical side, working with entrepreneurs and the organizations that support them. Why the update to the logo and site? Five years ago, the original logo 5 years came from digging through old files (paper ones!) to find something that resonated with the value I deliver to people I work with.

The old chromatograph depicts purifying a protein, symbolic of hitting on the one, right thing.

That’s what I deliver – the way forward, a rationally-derived focus. And the graph paper resembles a spiderweb, which reflects my network, linking entrepreneurs to the connections they need. Marvel Comics inspired the name with the concept of spidey senses. My spidey senses allow me to know how to communicate about a new business idea. Articular what investors, government, angels, investment bankers, need to hear about a new venture. And what the entrepreneur needs to know too. What’s important for the best chance of success.

These themes carry on in the new logo. Striking the right cord, the spidey network and the colours. Red and black and white. Fire and energy, with clear direction and message. The update is professionally drawn, modern, crisp and clean. Of sufficient resolution to say I mean business.

My message hasn’t changed. I help people find their way to making a difference by translating their invention, concept or startup into a focused business model that investors, customers and suppliers understand and appreciate. The Spiders tagline has changed, from ‘Business Savvy for Technology Commercialization’ to ‘Business Savvy for Innovators’. Modern entrepreneurship includes doing all sorts of creative things with technology and business models, including bringing inventions to market, finding applications for emerging technology, and leveraging technology to satisfy needs in a new way.2

The new logo and updated message reflect dedication to this mission of making entrepreneurs more successful. Updating reaffirms rather than changes. The vision remains: to help innovators/inventors/entrepreneurs achieve their goals of making other people’s lives better/easier/happier.3

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1Generally, amateurs writers use too many adverbs. They too are flowing for me this summer. Swimmingly.

2I’ve written about this before. The technology is often no longer limiting. Fulfilling a need is the key.

3If this sounds too socialist for you, bear in mind my philosophy about business is that if a product or service is appreciated by the customer, if there is value, money will flow to the entrepreneur. There’s a bunch of math behind this to explain how much money, but that’s the basics. If you build something people find useful, the money will come. However, this is predicticated on finding the right target market , a viable value propostion, a competitive advantage and a bunch of other fundamental business concepts.

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Destructive Creative Destruction


You know the list. The technologies, labelled creative destruction, that changed life as we humans knew it: Fire. Pasteurization. The assembly line. Washing machines. Email. Mobile Phones. 

Each of these had a dramatic impact on society, generally decreasing the effort required to do a vital human activity and allowing us to do other, more interesting things1.

Should plastic be added to the list?2 When introduced, it was a major new technology and found broad applications3. The ability to engineer polymers so they are flexible, solid, durable, the right colour and shape, mass-producible, light-weight and low cost lead to the introduction of many new products. Products like plastic bags, straws, packaging. The coating on electrical wires. Cheaper just about anything: shoes, suitcases, light fixtures, flooring, automobile components, toys, machine parts, human body part implants. The list goes on forever.

What has been disrupted by plastic?

Most things plastic are affordable, leading to increased consumption of each item. They tend to be single use, by which I mean two things: disposable or non-repairable. Disposable comes from the low cost – “I’m tossing this out because I can get another one for 3 cents”. Non-repairable because of the process used to create plastic widgets. Stuff made out of other substances known to humans can be engineered and modified. Wood, metal, cement, kryptonite4, plaster can all be fiddled with and/or repaired. Plastic, not so much. To be fair, this is what makes plastic appealing – the ability to spin or mold or extrude it into different shapes. The consequence is that it can’t be fixed because it’s all one piece.

Back to disruption. Here’s some of the ways plastic has changed in our lives:

  • Eating on the run. Plastic containers, plates and utensils made it possible to grab a meal from the takeout window or mall kiosk and eat it anywhere, rather than tethering dining to a venue that could manage ceramic plates and metal forks. 
  • Because plastic changed packaging, it facilitated transportation of goods to distant locations. Thus, more competition in many markets. Lower prices. More choice for consumers.
  • Plastics made many things affordable to more people. Furniture. Cars. Etc. A new social order of ownership emerged.
  • Not coincidentally, with the rise of plastic goods came the era of consumption. Affordable stuff enabled (and required – see above about repairing plastic items) frequent replacement of the items.

Many substitutes, such as plastic bags for paper bags, plastic bumpers on cars, plasticized paper cartons for milk rather than glass bottles, may seem disruptive, especially to the producers of paper bags, metal bumpers and glass milk bottles, but don’t actually result in a new social order.

From my list, plastic has disrupted: sit-down meals, local sourcing of goods, possessions as symbols of wealth, and the need for expertise in repairing many things. Based on fundamental values of community and social connectedness, as well as environmental stewardship, I’d say three of the four of these aren’t good. It could be argued that disrupting possessions as symbols of wealth, is social advancement. Otherwise, plastic disruption has not been good to us, even thought there are plenty of benefits to the use of plastic.

This disruptive technology (generally considered a good thing as it ushers in a new approach to old problems, makes life easier and richer) had negative consequences.

The earth has a problem with plastic. It doesn’t decay, ever. Even kryptonite decays. Plastic was celebrated for its disposableness, while ironically its permanence has clogging up the landfill, oceans, and microcirculation of the earth’s creatures. Oops, we created a monster. Vacuous consumerism snowballs the problem of overflowing landfill, making the monster multi-headed, with enormous tentacles and an awful smell.

Sometimes, what seems like a good idea at the time isn’t. Plastic isn’t the first time the true impact of a novel product wasn’t realized until time and mass consumption had gone by. Cigarette smoking. Fossil fuel emissions. Drugs with fatal side effects in one-in-a-million patients.

Fortunately, the plastic pollution crisis presents all kinds of opportunities for new creative destruction. Constructive creative destruction, please.

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1Fire allowed us to cook food and stay warm, increasing survival. Pasteurization was a process that made milk and other foods safer and allowed them to be transported further, increasing both the availability of food and the livelihood of producer. After the invention of the assembly line, cars became more accessible to different socio-economic groups and then expanded their horizons. Washing machines and other appliances are credited with allowing women the ability to lead a life outside the house, as it became possible to spend less than all of their time doing household chores. I don’t have to explain how email and mobile phones have changed the way we communicate, but future generations will need to be told.

2It piqued my interest when I saw it on a list of disruptive technologies in ‘Prediction Machines. The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence’ by Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans and Avi Goldfarb, so thanks to them for making me think.

3For a great summary of the history of plastic, I recommend this https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics

4Kidding, kryptonite isn’t on the list, it isn’t real.

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Ask What AI Could Do for You

Embrace new technology. Change life.

Who wouldn’t want that? Me, sometimes.

AI is the next big thing in disruptive creation. Errr, creative destruction. It’s not so new. Forms of AI have been embedded in commonly used products for decades: auto-correct typing, suggested products you may like, search results. Now, it’s becoming ubiquitous. The projected capacity of AI to make life easier is celebrated in investor conference calls, with services such as arranging for transportation to the airport when the AI knows you’ve bought a plane ticket, or ordering another box of laundry detergent when the one you have is about to run out. 

This makes me ask (and you can too), what would I love AI to do for me? Would it be great if AI ordered all my household consumables? Not really. I’m proud of my system for keeping a sufficient supply of life’s necessities (food, drugs, cleaning and pet supplies) on hand. It isn’t a big deal. If it is for you, or you just hate doing it, ok, I’d invest in that AI, if there were enough of a market to justify it.

Great new business models remove the pain of a current task, solve an existing problem. What do I see as really annoying, inefficient situations I would pay handsomely to change?

Here’s a starting1list:

  • the awkwardness of software updates – stop making me have to stop and think about something I’ve learned to do intuitively, like find the weather app on my phone screen.
  • the uncertainty of hiring competent contractors, plumbers, landscapers, auto mechanics. 
  • knowing when something I do regularly is going to change and how my life should adapt. When the bus schedule changes, I want to know if I need to get out of bed earlier, not just that the schedule has changed.
  • gardening solutions. Random bugs eat my leaves and buds. Critters steal my veg. Anticipating this, as preventative measures are likely the most effective, would be awesome.
  • interpreting what my cat says, translating to english. Seriously, why don’t we really know what ‘meow’ means, after domesticating cats thousands of years ago?

I happened on an application for AI that I didn’t know I needed until I needed it in a hurry. It required getting information from a series of government and corporate entities, late on a Friday afternoon, before a long weekend. And I got it. Because it was information that each entity stored electronically. So emails were generated to use the info to answer my questions. In 10 minutes! Huzzah!

There are probably many more services I consume irregularly that AI could speed up. From what I’ve read, the sorts of process AI is expected to be used in first are industrial/business applications. This means that many of the best uses of AI won’t be noticable to us consumers except in declining prices, faster delivery or a better selection of options.

Why my cautious approach to AI? There are many AI applications that I imagine would take the fun out of life. Anything that requires creativity. Or some combination of serendipity and knowledge. Interior decorating. Discovering new restaurants, clothing lines, bands, books to read. The whole point to discovery is that it’s random. If something tells you where to find it, that’s ok if all you wanted was to get the thingy asap. Roofing shingles, a new muffler, parts for your appliances, or shoe laces for your winter boots are like that. For other items, there’s the thrill of the hunt, randomly happening on the perfect wastebasket for the downstairs bathroom, shoes to go with your suit, or a gift for your three year old.

I strive to challenging myself to achieve more, learn more, do more, in physical, intellectual, and economic realms. If AI made it all easier, I’d cease to grow, learn or improve. Proponents of AI might say the technology would allow me to stop wasting my time on parts of life that don’t challenge, so focus is on improving in important areas. AI might even lead me to the next, more enriching challenge.

What do I wish AI would do for me? Take care of the annoying things and leave me the interesting ones. Bearing in mind that what I find annoying, you may find interesting, the key is to make everything more efficient but make the high efficiency version elective. A mundane example of this is that grocery stores sell loaves of bread, but also all the ingredients to make bread from scratch.

That’s real intelligence, delivering what each customer wants.

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1I’m writing as an individual consumer. I may be in a demographic of one, which doesn’t make for a good business model, unless the product costs millions of dollars, which I don’t have, so forget that. However, more than likely I am in a demographic of significantly more than one, as most of us are.

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An Annual Celebration of Innovation.

Is the concept of an annual celebration of innovation a contradiction? If a thing happens regularly – like the OCE Discoveryconference, can it do justice to the new, the creative, the evolving?

This was my ninth Discovery conference – a wonderful event held each year in Toronto where all things new in technology and business are showcased. A few thousand people attend, from academic researchers, startup and established businesses, to government representatives and other investors that support them. And they bring exhibits of their new technologies. There are talks, speed networking sessions, pitch competitions and plenty of catching up with new and old colleagues.

My first impression of this year was that it wasn’t as exciting as previous years. On reflection, I decided that was the point. And that’s exciting. Disruption isn’t coming from the introduction of a new thing, like mobile phones in 2009 to shift how we talk to each other, or affordable cars in 1913 to allow every person the mobility of owning an automobile. Disruption was coming into everything. Every business. Every industry. Every aspect of life.

Evolving areas of technology represented at the conference included:

  • artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data utilization, 
  • 5G connectivity and synchronous internet connectivity for enhanced user experience, 
  • sustainability and cutting down greenhouse gases, 
  • autonomous vehicles, 
  • internet of things. 

None of these come as a big surprise. The startling part was the myriad applications for these technologies. Here’s a sampling of what I saw:

Innovation in operations in stable, mature industries with sustained product demand:

  • Beer and steel manufacturers optimizing input resource utilization
  • Enhanced sustainability in agriculture production

Industries offering the next version product:

  • Established players in telecommunications getting ready to deliver 5G
  • The introduction of autonomous vehicles marching forward, with an emphasis on testing.

Advances in capabilities of established industries:

  • Applications for monitoring and processing data, especially in healthcare
  • Augmented reality to facilitate retail or business collaboration
  • Artificial intelligence in accounting

All examples of existing businesses and industries incorporating new technologies, primarily to provide the same products to the same customers, only better. For the most part, this is what we call component innovation, rather than architectural innovation which destroys the entire industry. Enhancement rather than destruction.

In the category of new industries, there was crickets as a source of protein, but even this was discussed as a growth business with scale and distribution challenges, rather than an emerging one seeking market acceptance.

And cannabis. Another industry out of its early stage and into a growth phase.

And Space. This surprised me a little, except that space exploration is of interest both as a potential solution to the stretched resources of the Earth and as a new aspect of tourism.

The most startling, clever idea that was perfectly obvious after I saw it but never crossed my mind before that, was the establishment of hazelnut farms in Ontario. Big demand for the product. Uses existing resources (Ontario climate and agricultural history) with a few enabling tweaks (climate change, new cultivars). Incremental technology innovation.

Another great year of discovery at Discovery. Everything old is new again. Now that’s innovation.

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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.

——

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.

——–

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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Multi-factor Authentication Answers the Wrong Question

Two factor authentication. Securing your account with email address, phone number and password.

Seriously? When is it too much work to be worthwhile? We shouldn’t be asking how to make our accounts more secure. We should be asking what’s wrong with this system that we live in such fear of having our online accounts hacked.

It isn’t bad enough that passwords need upper and lower case letters, numbers, symbols, more than 8 of the above. And they need to be changed regularly. And we all have at least 50 of these, none of which should be the same. A mere password is insufficient to secure an account these days.

Signing in online is broken. Any system this clunky needs to be rethought. It reminds me of a common joke. Here’s a good example:

In ’80-90s shows of people in New York, they had with multiple, heavy duty deadbolts on their front doors. Took 10 minutes to lock and unlock. Huge waste of time. Then, the crime rate in NY City was high. In 2017, it hit record lows.1 Not because people got better locks or ways to defend themselves. The decline is attributed to a variety of factors, such as better policing, social programs and an improved economy.

Two factor authentication requires the user to provide two independent forms of information, such as a password and answer to security question or password and randomly generated six digit number. The six digit number is generated at 30 second intervals and relayed to a device that displays the number and the one deciding if access will be allowed to the secured account. A third party is involved, even if it’s an electronic one. How safe is that? From a brief survey of guru tech publications, the six digit random thing is considered state of the art in account security.

What disturbs me about this, in a very visceral way, is that being me is no longer enough to access my accounts. I need an assistive device. All by myself, I can memorize critical passwords so they are always there in an emergency. With two factor authentication, I need more than just me. I am not in control of my own accounts. Some device is.

Not only that, but this enhanced security to get into an online account is like putting an armoured door on the house, while leaving the windows open. Front door access may be secure but viruses and weakly protected internet connections may allow infiltration. That ‘remember me’ box you click after entering your username and password pretty much invalidates the complex password, because once access to the device is obtained, every app on that device is open.

Several accounts I have are encouraging me to link my phone number to an internet access account. This seems silly. If I add more personal information into my profile, when it gets hacked, doesn’t the hacker has even better ways to forge my identity? The phone number is supposed to allow a question to be asked if a suspicious entity is trying to login. Or the email address will receive messages to confirm or deny suspicious activity. Based the ample spam I get regarding breaches of accounts (I may or may not possess) that must immediately be responded to (just click this link), I’m likely to mark any correspondence about an account issue as junk. Dangerous, sloppy and unlikely to have the desired effect.

I find it clunkier and clunkier to operate digitally, suggesting to me we’re building silly systems that compensate for weaknesses rather than fix them. As each lower layer is breeched, we retreat to upper layers, abandoning were we once lived comfortably. It may be that we are achieving more and more security, but at what cost of restraining people’s lives?

What happened to biometric/facial recognition? Give me something I always have with me, like a body part or function to prove I’m me. Security was supposed to get easier with innovation. In the future, it should be trivial to identify each human beyond a shadow of a doubt, without any more than the wave of a wrist. And, how about getting at root causes of cybercrime?

I’m holding my breath until we get there, because multi-factor authentication is no way to live.

1https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/27/nyregion/new-york-city-crime-2017.html

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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.

——–

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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AI Personal Assistants – The Death of Shopping as we Know it

Predictions are, in the near future, we will each have a personal assistant with artificial intelligence (AI)1 that runs our life. It’ll order household items before we run out, book social engagements, reminds us of upcoming events and related purchases (like birthday gifts, a bottle of wine for the hostess, or a new outfit to wear to the party).

More elaborate predictions have the AI constantly searching for better deals on services like vehicle sharing, archery lessons or landscaping services. It’ll sample the news wire for updates on unhealthy foods or ethically produced music, keep up to date with product reviews (posted by other people’s AI personal assistants) and use this collected wisdom to amend our purchase decisions (which the AI made in the first place, so we won’t even know).

This got me to imagining the end of marketing as we know it. No more emotional buying decisions. Every single purchase would be made with the maximum amount of data and, hopefully, solid facts.

Why would an AI be interested in brand loyalty? An AI would access all available information to determine if the latest version of a brand name item delivered on the quality expected, and if not, find another brand that did. Far fewer buying decisions would be based on the logic ‘I’m buying Apple because Apple makes good technology’. Your AI would buy Apple if there was proof it was the best available technology. And the proof would come from objective tests and the unbiased reports of AI’s everywhere (because why would an AI lie?).

Trickier is image, prestige, lifestyle or that thing where you buy a certain brand because it reflects who you want to be. Would your AI get that, have the same image of you as you do? That you wear a certain type of sneaker because people who share your values do.

Then there’s the ability to forget things you prefer to forget. Like booking a dentist appointment because you don’t like going to the dentist, so putting it off another month would be fine. Would your handy personal assistant let you do that? The dentist would be happy if you came back more often, so the dentist’s AI would encourage yours to book, maybe offer a discount. The same rationale could apply for the vet, furnace cleaning, arranging a visit to those relatives you find tedious, getting the oil changed in the car you jointly own, and a few dozen other things that fall into the category of adulting ( willingly doing things you know are good for you but are unpleasant, no fun, boring etc).

Then there’s retail therapy. Could your AI pick out the perfect new sweater for you, when you don’t need a new sweater and can’t afford it, but accidentally yelled at your boss, spilled milk on your toddler, and got a ticket for not going through a green light all in one day?

Is having an excuse to get out of the house a thing any more? Shopping used to be a good neutral destination that always worked if you needed something to do or to get away from the humans you lived with. You can’t get your AI to do that for you. Unless it pretends to be your friend who has to meet you at the mall.2

There will always be new ways of doing things. But humans are humans. We learned to live much of our life online, but we shop for more reasons than to get stuff. We also forget things on purpose. We act on our emotions because that’s what makes us human.

I think I’ll sneak out of the house, tell my AI personal assistant I’m on my way to the dentist, then cancel the appointment so I can go shop for stuff I don’t need, but want.

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1Purchased from a large tech company and embodied as a hockey puck-size matt silver thing that sits on the kitchen counter.

2If this sentence doesn’t make sense to you, please review a TV show or movie from the 1970’s for context.

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Are You Being Served (by online shopping)?

Online retail is ubiquitous. But is it any good?

Sometimes. Other times, not so much.

What about the environmental impact?

The good:

  • Consistently comprehensive information. Full product descriptions. Reviews by:
    • other consumers, consumer associations,
    • industry associations,
    • random bloggers. many of whom are professionals in the field.
  • Stock. It comes in that colour, your size, a format compliant with the electrical supply in Iceland and can be purchase without leaving the comfort of your lawn chair.
  • Products are easy to find. At the physical store, staff that don’t seem to be able to find one of the 200,000 products in the [warehouse] store. Because really, who could? Online, the droids in the warehouse find it for you.

Online allows the entire company’s warehouse to be within reach of every customer service representative and has other wonderful features, like convenience, variety, ease of finding the lowest price. These features suggest an overall positive environmental footprint. Fewer car trips by buyers, more efficient delivery through route optimization with one vehicle serving hundreds of customers. Lower shipping impact compared to a company stock dozens of outlets across the country. Less impulse buying and therefore throwing of unwanted items into the landfill.

The dark side:

  • Occasionally not so convenient. If you order something requiring a signature, such as wine or expensive electronics, and aren’t there when it is delivered (because you are at work during the day, when it’s always delivered), then you have to trek, drive etc., to an outlet that is only open during the day. Online shopping is meant to avoid this.
  • Prone to theft. Because of the point above, many packages are left on the doorstep. And some disappear while waiting for the buyer to come home from work. Various creative approaches are being suggested to overcome this. Meeting people at in the parking lot of their work. Designated, convenient pickup points. Secure approaches to allowing the delivery person to place the package inside the home. It is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to address.
  • All that packaging. Tape. Boxes. Bubble wrap for fragile things. A mountain of stuff that is left over after the UPS truck departs. Might packaging of home-delivered merchandise negate 50 years of carrying your own shopping bags?

While the first two points could lead to extra emissions due to unnecessary trips, the third is more worrying, because it seems to have garnered little attention. The stats are staggering1. For the 2017 holiday season, UPS was predicted to ship 750 million packages, over 30 million a day.2 According to one source3, 41% of Americans get 2-5 parcels a month. Between 2012 and 2017, average annual deliveries increased in number between 5 and 6% for UPS, FedEx and the United postal service. How much cardboard, tape, sticky labels, and other assorted wrapping was involved? Tonnes4. Literally. And I haven’t heard a peep about it as an issue. Cardboard boxes are recycled, but how efficiently? The tape and labels aren’t generally. Overall, environmentally concerning.

While we’ve learned to minimize the packaging for items we carry out of the brick and mortar stores, can the same be done for home delivery? Here’s a great entrepreneurial opportunity – a ready made, growth market. Socially conscious. Easy to identify buyers and an easy to make value proposition if the new solution is less expensive than the current mound of packing.

Somebody go for it, please!

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1 Unless you are in the delivery business and then they are great – indicative of a good growth industry.

2https://www.cnbc.com/2017/10/26/ups-expects-to-ship-750-million-packages-this-holiday-season.html

3https://www.shorr.com/packaging-news/2017-05/2017-package-theft-report-porch-pirates-purchase-habits-and-privacy

4 Incidentally, who is making cardboard boxes? -This also must be a great growth industry, especially with good recycling programs.

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