TechTrek Ghana, Yahoo’s Comback, Amazon Fashion, Nasdaq Down, Netflix Recs, LinkedIn U., & BC Entrepreneurs – The Week in Geek™ – Aug. 28, 2013
Out of Africa
Boston College Magazine offers a thoughtful piece covering our latest field study program, “MI215: Technology & Economic Development” (aka TechTrek Ghana). This past spring, twenty one students studied the impact of technology and entrepreneurship in emerging markets, with a particular focus on sub-Saharan Africa. Our class time not only included lectures and seminar presentations, we also had master-class sessions with founders of high-impact, Africa-focused startups, a social impact investor, and a full day at MIT’s African Business conference. In May, these students accompanied Prof. Betty Bagnani and me for a week-long program in Ghana. Our partner, the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (which I blogged about last January) has distinguished itself as one of the world’s leading training grounds for startup leadership (alums include TechCrunch Disrupt SF finalists, a 500 Startups company, and a growing and impressive list of award-winning, high-growth firms). Time at the Accra offices of Google, GE, and IBM was shared with Ghanaian firms making an impact in farming (Esoko), health (Sproxil), software & services (SOFTtribe), media (Rancard), payments (OzinboPay), and consumer tech design and manufacturing (Rlg). We hope TechTrek Ghana becomes a regular part of our curriculum and we’re grateful for BC administrators, alumni, and in particular to Eagle and MEST Fellow Kevin Schuster for helping get us started. By the way, Kevin’s back in the US seeking opportunities blending tech & emerging markets – if your firm seeks brilliance, contact him. Info on applying for next Spring’s course will be available via the Information Systems Dept office in mid-October.
Can Marissa Mayer Save Yahoo?
BusinessWeek’s cover story on Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer provides a peek into what will end up a staple management turn-around case study, regardless of whether Mayer succeeds or fails. Yahoo today is a mixed bag. Revenues have fallen by almost half, from $7.2 billion in ’08, to just $4.8 billion tallied over the last 12 months. Under Mayer the stock is up about 75%, but most attribute this to Yahoo’s stake in China e-commerce giant Alibaba. Attrition is down by 59% – a sign that despite the hot Valley job market, more employees believe in Mayer. But perhaps most encouraging is that Yahoo has grabbed the top spot in US web reach – luring more US visitors to its sites than all other rivals, including Google.
Mayer is one of the world’s most high-profile CEOs. The former Google VP was the firm’s first female engineer, her pay package is north of $36 million, she’s only 38, a new mom, and I don’t know of any other tech industry CEO featured in Vogue.
The days of customers seeking a ‘one stop portal’ seem to be over, but Yahoo is bulking up on new content to let users “snack on morsels of information” all day long. Much of this snacking takes place on mobiles and tablets. Mayer believes that “at some point we are looking at a world where mobile is a majority of our revenue.”
Yahoo’s initial struggles in mobile are related to ‘big firm’ problems and the “innovator’s dilemma” (faculty note: now covered in the Moore’s Law & More chapter in the latest version of my textbook). Yahoo was actually early to the mobile revolution… so early that revenues weren’t there. Managers reassigned mobile talent to cash-cow desktop-web efforts, and many of those passionate about mobile left to form their own firms. Under prior leadership, a group of promising innovators was gutted, then disbanded, but now all of the firm’s 11,500 know mobile will drive the future.
The firm has rebuilt mobile talent, spending roughly $200 million on 18 startups, plus over $1.1 billion for Top-Ten web traffic firm, Tumblr (where BC alum Brian Irace is lead iOS developer, and host of last spring’s TechTrek NYC Tumblr visit). These acquisitions “lock up engineers with two- to four-year contracts and set them loose to build apps and hire more mobile developers.” Yahoo’s new mobile team is 330 strong with world-class talent centered in New York, San Francisco, and the firm’s Sunnyvale HQ. The firm’s new weather app drew wide praise, and other titles show the ‘snack-center’ future: Yahoo fantasy football, Flickr, and Mail are updated, and a new news reader is based on tech from Summly, the firm started by a London teach and which Yahoo bought for $30 million earlier this year. Content snacks include buying the online rights for Saturday Night Live clips, and possible expansion of the firm’s partnership with anchor Katie Couric. Mayer also believes in Big Data and novel algorithms to deliver value. “Search is far from over,” she says, and Yahoo has hired 30 Ph.D.s this year, with a goal of hitting 50 by year end. Innovation also extends to the firm’s logo, which has shown a new version for 30 days leading up to a ‘big unveil’ of a permanent update in early September. Another idea setting Twitterati flapping now that Steve Ballmer has announced his retirement: Microsoft buys Yahoo and installs Mayer as its next CEO.
Amazon’s Big Fashion Push
Although Marissa Mayer made Vogue, she’s not the only fashion-forward tech CEO Jeff Bezos is trying to build a business out of accessible couture. Many Amazon customers have seen runway-style adverts when visiting the site. Says Bezos: “A lot of my time these days is spent on things like apparel, because I think there’s a tremendous amount of invention going on there, especially in the Web presentation of apparel.” Amazon.com/fashion veers dramatically from the look and feel from the rest of the site. The new Amazon “Collections” section seems to have more in common with Pinterest than best-seller listings. The high-end look of the site is supported by an Amazon photo studio in hipster-central, Williamsburg, Brooklyn – a place far more likely to get fashion traffic than otherwise-lovely Seattle.
Technical Glitch Halts Nasdaq Trading for 3 hrs.
When it comes to technology, connections matter. Trading on the Nasdaq, the home exchange for widely held issues that include Microsoft, Google, and Apple was largely halted for over three hours on August 22 when a “connectivity” problem with NYSE Arca, a competing exchange, triggered technical issues. Nasdaq could face penalties and sanctions as a result. This is far from the first incident plaguing the volatile space where millisecond-timed trades, often executed by programs not humans. The flash-crash of 2010 took months to credibly identify root causes. Last year’s gaffes at Knight Capital (the firm that fulfills orders for many big brokers) led to a collapse in firm value and its eventual take-over by Getco. A bogus tweet from the AP sent trades into a nosedive And there are less technical causes, such as the 1994 NASDAQ takedown due to a particularly persistent squirrel who tragically chewed through powerlines that lacked adequate backup. The flash crash resulted in a nearly 350 point drop, but the NASDAQ was actually up a bit when trading resumed later in the day. For faculty, the glitch provides yet another teachable moment on risk, redundancy, and fault-tolerance.
Netflix Tells You What You Really Want to Watch
Our Netflix chapter received another major revision over the summer. The new update includes background on how streaming data provides even more useful personalization insights than DVD-by-Mail. Even if a user fails to give a title a star rating, Netflix has a good idea if you like something or hate it based on whether you leave after a few minutes or you binge on consecutive episodes. And Netflix data has influenced everything from casting decisions on the widely-praised original “Orange is the New Black” to helping determine if licensing deals are worth paying for. Netflix even cut several trailers for “House of Cards” and tailored which one a user was fed based on their viewing behavior. Netflix’s automated recommendations drive 75 to 80 percent of streaming. And now Netflix is hoping to be even more helpful. A new tweak to algorithms will position “titles you’re most likely to want to watch right up front.” The idea is to separate out “aspirational” titles you dump in your queue but never get to (think documentaries and period pieces) vs. those you’re more likely to want to slurp up after a rough day at work (those more in-line with yoru tastes and those who have similar profiles). To convince consumers that Netflix has a “long enough” tail and preventing them from jumping to some other entertainment source, recommendations will be a critical customer-keeper.
University Pages: LinkedIn Offers New College Profiles
LinkedIn has been on a roll. In an era where Facebook, Groupon, Zynga, and others have disappointed post-IPO, LinkedIn has seen shares skyrocket from $45 at issue to around $240 as of this writing. That’s about a buck a share for each million users. Fortune ran a glowing cover story on LinkedIn’s impact on business, and offered some great tips for effective LinkedIn use. faberNovel, the French firm known for providing wonderful SlideShare case-studies of leading firms, gave LinkedIn the treatment earlier this year, as well. In addition to checking out these great resources, college students should also dive in to LinkedIn’s new University Pages. The pages offer insight on a school’s demographics, careers chosen by its alumni base, and more. The move may also make LinkedIn a force among high schoolers seeking the right college fit. The effort’s Director of Project Management, Christina Allen says “the idea for the pages came after she saw her daughter and others struggle to find usable information on colleges.” Many of us would welcome a more nuanced effort to match students to their best-fit school than the ham-handed, coarse, and limiting ‘beauty contests’ of the highly-criticized popular rankings used today. LinkedIn as admissions savior? Maybe.
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- BCVC 2010 winner, LocalOn (then known as PIQC) is the latest “Born at Boston College” startup to graduate from the ultra-elite Y-Combinator accelerator. LocalOn helps firms manage their web and social presence with astonishing simplicity, and they seem to have cracked the customer acquisition nut. Co-founded by former TechTrek students Shahbano Imran and David Tolioupov, LocalOn is that near-unicorn rarity: a firm with a technical female co-founder that has emerged from an elite accelerator and built a profitable business. TechCrunch takes note in a brief recent profile. Shahbano returns to BC for our upcoming panel “Silicon Valley Comes to the Heights” (see below).
- Phil Dumontet, another Boston College TechTrek alum, gets coverage in Inc. twice: once in the piece “How I Turned my Bicycle into a $4.6 Million Business.” Dumontet’s DashedDeliveries can get you grub from over 500 restaurants including chains like PF Chang’s and Pinkberry, in more than a dozen cities coast to coast. Dashed was recently named by Inc. as the 7th fastest growing firm in Massachusetts and #119 nation-wide.
- Graham Gullans, co-founder of New York-based Empire Angels and (you guessed it) a BC TechTrek alumnus, was quoted in a Wall Street Journal piece on the firm’s investment in Indian startup ZoomCar. Seems Graham’s firm (whose Managing Director is also a BC alum, Christina Bechhold) is in good company. Another ZoomCar investor is former Treasury Secretary and ex-Harvard President Larry Summers.
- And BCVC ’11 winner Jebbit is just on fire. The ad-platform, which has run campaigns for Microsoft, Spotify, Bose, ZipCar, Coke, Samsung, and other top-tier clients, has raised an additional $1.25 million in capital. Jebbit also won a slot in Summer@Highland ’11 and was a Spring ’13 graduate of TechStars. The Jebbit Team will be speaking at BC’s “Young Entrepreneurs Day” (see below). Jebbit is in the running for Boston’s Hottest Startup. Winner gets to head to Vegas for a special pitch event. Kindly consider voting for them here.
Also, a few events:
Silicon Valley Comes to the Heights: Thu., Sept. 12, 2013, 6:30pm, Fulton Honors Library, will feature four alums from the Bay-area returning to share their success and insights.
- Amy Gips, whose journey took her from Wall Street to San Francisco to found an Angel investment network,
- Shahbano Imran, who won BCVC, graduated from Y-Combinator, and built a profitable firm.
- Sophie Monroe, who could have finished BC in three years, but instead deferred her degree to build what was recently named the “Best Customer Service Department” in the country.
- Sophie (Farrell) Miller, who returns to Google after earning a Stanford MBA, as Product Marketing Manager for Google Glass.
The panel has it all, except a “Y chromosome”. Co-sponsoring are the Undergraduate Women in Business club, BCVC, the Information Systems Academy, and (most generously for financial support) the Boston College Technology Council. The event will be moderated by the club’s adviser, Prof. Betty Bagnani (my co-lead on TechTrek Ghana).
Young Entrepreneurs Day: Fri, Sept. 20, Fulton 250 will feature four talks from four teams of BC entrepreneurs as part of MI021. The entire BC community is invited, but make sure my “Computers in Management” students have seats, first, since we are running the day as lectures across the four sections I’m currently teaching. We’ll hear from:
- 9am: Phyre – 2013 BCVC winners and members of the 2013 Summer@Highland class. The team’s expertise also includes victories as part of the MIT$100K and MassChallenge.
- 10am: NBDnano – 2012 BCVC winners and TechStars Fall ’12 grads, the team is pioneering innovative uses for exclusively-licensed coating technologies. Media outlets including NPR, the BBC, and the Boston Globe have taken notice.
- 2pm: Jebbit – the 2011 BCVC winners and TechStars Spring ’13 alums are flush with $1.25 million in capital and set to grow a gargantuan ad platform that has already garnered praise from top-tier clients.
- 3pm: Wymsee –members who cut their teeth on entrepreneurship at BC also landed at TechStars Fall ’12 and have built a firm that has Hollywood set designers singing their praise. Already used on over 100 productions from Anchorman 2 to Boardwalk Empire, the firm’s SynchOnSet tool is saving the media industry time and money, and opening up big-impact business possibilities.
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And one final note:
- At TechOnTap I met Harry Eva, a BC MSF alum battling stage 4 cancer. If you’re a runner, consider joining the Harry’s Heroes team at the AllState Boston Half Marathon on Sept. 15th. I’ll be there.