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The Most Important Tech Job that Doesn’t Exist

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Yesterday I asked a prominent VC a question:

“Why is it that, despite the fact that so many successful startup ideas come from academic research, on the investment side there doesn’t seem to be anyone vetting companies on the basis of whether or not what they’re doing is consistent with the relevant research and best practices from academia?”

His response was that, unlike with startups in other sectors (e.g. biotech, cleantech, etc.), most tech startups don’t come out of academia, but rather are created to fill an unmet need in the marketplace. And that neither he nor many of his colleagues spent much time talking with academics for this reason.

This seems to be the standard thinking across the industry right now. But despite having nothing but respect for this investor, I think the party line here is unequivocally wrong.

Let’s start with the notion that most tech startups don’t come out of academia. While this may be true if you consider only the one-sentence pitch, once you look at the actual design and implementation choices these startups are making there is typically quite a lot to work with.

For example, there is a startup I recently looked at that works to match mentors with mentees. Though one might not be aware of it, there is actually a wealth of research into best practices:

  • What factors should be used when matching mentors with mentees?
  • How should the relationship between the mentor and mentee be structured?
  • What kind of training, if any, should be given to the participants?

That’s not to say that a startup that’s doing something outside the research, or even contraindicated by the research, is in any way suspect. But it does raise some questions: Does the startup have a good reason for what they’re doing? Are they aware of the relevant research? Is there something they know that we don’t?

If the entrepreneurs have good answers to these questions then it’s all the more reason to take them seriously. But if they don’t then this should raise a few red flags. And it’s not only niche startups in wonky areas where this is an issue.

For example, I rarely post to Facebook anymore, but people who follow me can still get a good idea of what I’m up to. Why? Because Facebook leverages the idea of behavioral residue to figure out what I’m doing (and let my friends know) without me having to explicitly post updates. It does this by using both interior behavioral residue, e.g. what I’m reading and clicking on within the site, and exterior behavioral residue, e.g. photos of me taken outside of Facebook.

To understand why leveraging behavioral residue is so important for social networks, consider that of people who visit the typical website only about 10% will make an account. Of those about 10% will make at least one content contribution, and of those about 10% will become core contributors. So if you consider your typical user with a couple hundred friends, this translates into seeing content from only a tiny handful of other people on a regular basis.

In contrast with Facebook, one of the reason why FourSquare has yet to succeed is due to significant problems with their initial design decisions:

  • The only content on the site comes from users who manually check into locations and post updates. This means that of my 150 or so friends, I’m only seeing what one or two of them are actually doing, so what’s the value?
  • The heavy use of extrinsic motivation (e.g. badges) has been shown time and again that extrinsic motivation undermines intrinsic motivation.

The latter especially is a good example of why investing on traction alone is problematic: many startups that leverage extrinsic rewards are able to get a good amount of initial traction, but almost none of them are able to retain users or cross the chasm into the mainstream. Why isn’t it anyone’s job to know this, even though the research is readily available for any who wants to read it? And why is it so hard to go to any major startup event without seeing VCs showering money on these sorts of startups that are so contraindicated by the research that they have almost no realistic chance of succeeding?

This same critique of investors applies equally to the startups themselves. You probably wouldn’t hire an attorney who wasn’t willing to familiarize himself with the relevant case law before going to court. So why is it that the vast majority of people hired as community managers and growth marketers have never read Robert Kraut? And the vast majority of people hired to create mobile apps have never heard of Mizuko Ito?

A lot of people associate the word design with fonts, colors, and graphics, but what the word actually means is fate — in the most existential sense of the word. That is, good design literally makes it inevitable that the user will take certain actions and have certain subjective experiences. While good UX and graphic design are essential, they’re only valuable to the extent that the person doing them knows how to create an authentic connection with the users and elicit specific emotional and social outcomes. So why are we hiring designers mainly on their Photoshop skills and maybe knowing a few tricks for optimizing conversions on landing pages? What a waste.

Of all the social sciences, the following seem to be disproportionately valuable in terms of creating and evaluating startups:

  • Psychology / Social Psychology
  • Internet Psychology / Computer Mediated Communication
  • Cognitive Development / Early Childhood Education
  • Organizational Behavior
  • Sociology
  • Education Research
  • Behavioral Economics

And yet not only is no one hiring for this, but having expertise in these areas likely won’t even get you so much as a nominal bonus. I realize that traction and team will always be the two biggest factors in determining which startups get funded, but have we really become so myopic as to place zero value on knowing whether or not a startup is congruent or contraindicated by the last 80+ years of research?

So should you invest in (or work for) the startup that sends text messages to people reminding them to take their medicine? How about the one that lets you hire temp laborers using cell phones? Or the app for club owners that purports to increase the amount of money spent on drinks? In each of these cases there is a wealth of relevant literature that can be used to help figure out whether or not the founders have done their homework and how likely they are to succeed. And it seems like if you don’t have someone whose willing to invest a few hours to read the literature then you’re playing with a significant handicap.

Investors often wait months before investing in order to let a little more information surface, during which time the valuation can (and often does) increase by literally millions. Given that the cost of doing the extra research for each deal would be nominal in the grand scheme of things, and given the fact that this research can benefit not only the investors but also the portfolio companies themselves, does it really make sense to be so confident that there’s nothing of value here?

What makes the web special is that it’s not just a technology or a place, but a set of values. That’s what we were all originally so excited about. But as startups become more and more prosaic, these values are largely becoming lost. As Howard Rheingold once said, “The ‘killer app’ of tomorrow won’t be software or hardware devices, but the social practices they make possible.” You can’t step in the same river twice, but I think there’s something to be said for startups that make possible truly novel and valuable social practices, and for creating a larger ecosystem that enables them.

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About the Author

This article was written by Alex Krupp. see more.

Entrepreneurship

Science is the Next Big Thing in Startups

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From pharmaceuticals to petrochemical processes: Newcomer companies and investors and investors alike are setting their sights on science. How the start-up scene moves beyond the mobile apps bubble…

For the last two years Silicon Valley analysts and venture capitalists are anticipating the burst of yet another bubble. This time, under the risk are the mobile start-ups which constitute the biggest share of the market. Out of 50 companies listed in Forbes’ “the hottest startup of 2015” (by valuation) only six companies are based on innovations in other-than-mobile area, one company provide cleaning services, while the rest are diverse mobile apps.

Meanwhile many products listed can be barely called innovative. A significant proportion of the listed start-ups are texting apps, apps for people search (starting from business partners to life partners) or delivery services. While those services can definitely facilitate one’s life, in general they differ from their predecessors by only a narrower audience.

Many venture investors expect stagnation if not decrease on the markets, which is why they start to transfer their capitals from start-ups offering customers software to start-ups offering specific solutions for existing businesses. Such companies are expected to demonstrate more stability in the near future.

The Market for Mobile Apps Might be Saturated

Back in 2012 a talented entrepreneur could walk into a venture capitalist’s office, say his startup was a mobile-first solution for pretty much any problem (payments! photos! blogging!), and walk out with a good-size seed investment. “That pitch was enough to get going,” says Roelof Botha, a partner with VC firm Sequoia Capital. “It’s not enough anymore.”

“I think investors are bored with investing in another messaging app. And our idea is crazy enough that it might just work. ”, has declared in 2014 Nadir Bagaveyev a founder of a start-up using 3-D printers to make rocket engines. By 2016 the company attracted investors funding sufficient to launch its first rocket.

Pharma and Biotech Start-Ups in High Demand

Currently the most successful science-based start-ups are the companies offering innovative solutions in the field of pharmaceuticals and biotechnologies. It’s noteworthy that despite the previous revelations and even judicial proceedings the list of the most expensive start-ups still includes Theranos, blood analyzing laboratory, whose story did not descend from the main pages of the global leading media from 2014.

It first amazed the audience with its fantastic take-off and then with its collapse. One of the crucial parts of the success story of this start-up is its fundamental difference from the majority of the services produced in the Silicon Valley. Unlike the others, it was not a story of yet another beautiful gadget for communication or mobile app, but the story of the scientific idea which intended to conquer the world.

The great success stories in other scientific areas are now happening on occasional basis. However certain facts allow to predict that the situation is to change soon. One of such factors is growing interest among the big corporations to attract innovative solutions from outside to develop their businesses.

Given the accelerating pace of scientific and technological development of the world, the activities of internal R & D departments are often turn to be insufficient to ensure stable development of innovative business. Outsourcing of the R&D may become the efficient mechanism to stimulate the growth of the company. And high-tech start-up can certainly benefit from it.

Start-Up Technology for the Petro-Business

In December, 2016 world leading companies in the field of gas processing, petrochemicals and chemicals announced their intentions to enforce their R&D capacities by attracting start-ups. 3M, AkzoNobel, BASF, The Dow Chemical Company, DuPont, Henkel, Honeywell UOP, LG Chem, Linde, Sibur, Solvay and Technip together created a global stage for startups and investors.

“The petrochemicals industry can and must rely on the potential of open innovations to facilitate further inventions and implementation of new solutions in all major application areas, from construction and medicine to packaging and 3D printing. Thanks to the participation of international partners, IQ-CHem is now the largest global project within the industry which attracts innovative solutions and provides for their implementation into practice,” said Vasily Nomokonov, Executive Director of Sibur, a company which coordinates the project.

Positive Experience in Chemicals and Beyond

Some of the listed companies have already gained positive experience in working with start-ups which may have driven them to elaborate a systemic approach to attract innovative companies.

At the beginning of 2016, SIBUR and RRT Global start-up reached an agreement to build a pilot plant for isomerization based on RRT Global technologies in Sibur’s Industrial Park SIBUR “Tolyattisintez”. According to Oleg Giyazov, co-founder and CEO of RRT Global cooperation with a large corporation bring significant advantages to his company.

“By cooperation with Sibur we get a huge industrial experience that enables us to develop technologies and solutions better fitted to the market demand. This advantage is often not given due attention, but we, on the contrary, see significant opportunities in it. Currently, RRT Global cooperates with several companies around the world” he said.

Another petrochemical leader BASF enjoys successful cooperation with Genomatica start-up. In 2013 BASF started the production of 1,4-butanediol based on renewable feedstock (renewable BDO) using Genomatica’s patented process and in 2015 the license was expanded to the Asian market.

Unlike traditional forms of cooperation between a start-up and a venture capitalist, a cooperation between start-up and a relevant corporation allows to minimize the risks associated with investing in a potentially promising idea where the key word is “potential” (but not “guaranteed”). While delivering services in the same field as the start-up the corporation gets an opportunity to more effectively and accurately estimate the market value of an innovative idea and to support its implementation.

Structural Changes Ahead: Outlines of A Coming Market

In the short term prospective, possibly in 2017, the global start-up market will face structural changes – both in terms of start-ups professional orientation and of funding mechanism. In the future science-based start-ups will dominate the market and will change our lives at a deeper level than the way of sending a text message or searching the restaurant for an evening meal. To be more concise this is already happening in the pharmaceutical industry, and the other scientific areas are to follow.

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About the Author

This article was written by Dominik Stephan of Process Worldwide. See more.

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Entrepreneurship

The Legacy of AIM

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On a cold February morning in 1997, America Online filed a patent for something that was to become the basis of hundreds of social tech startups.

They called it the “Buddy List.” It was the heart of the digital social structure that formed AOL Instant Messenger.

The first words of the patent abstract explained:

The invention implements a real time notification system that tracks, for each user, the logon status of selected co-users of an on-line or network system and displays that information in real time to the tracking user in a unique graphical interface.

If you were a 90’s kid, chances are you remember what a Buddy List was. You likely recall the AIM install CD, your screen name, and how much effort went into your carefully crafted away messages. You can probably reminisce about competing for time on the home computer so you could chat with your friends.

The world had never seen anything like it. And it captivated us all.

AOL Instant Messenger is shutting down for good, 20 years after it launched.

But what it established lives on. AOL didn’t know it back then, and we don’t realize it today, but AIM is the father of our modern social web.

Don’t believe me? Let’s start with the Buddy List.

Buddy List

Think about what’s at the foundation of any social media you use today. It’s that list of other human beings. Followers, friends, whatever they’re called. Social media doesn’t work without these groups of real people and it all originated with the Buddy List.

The Buddy List was everything. Credit

The Buddy List was exactly what you’d think — your list of friends. You controlled who was on it. You could find new people through information they put in their profile, but you had to both agree to the connection — if you were on their buddy list, they were on yours.

The most important feature of the buddy list was the ability to see whether each person was online. This remarkable little feature created a way to “feel” that your friends were around. There was an intimacy and immediacy to it.

Being on someone’s buddy list meant something. Nothing had ever come along like this before AIM, where you had a digital group of connections tied to your real relationships.

Away Messages

If one of your friends wasn’t online, you’d see their “away message.”

AIM away messages.

Have you ever written a tweet or status update? Then you’ve gone through the same process AIM users went through to write away messages. It is the ancestor of those widely-used features.

The away message started as a set of three default options: online, busy, or away. But then AOL set up the ability to write a custom message and it quickly transformed into a way to express yourself to your buddies. From simple plans you had for the day, to quoting lyrics from your favorite songs, the away message let you broadcast anything to the world.

Profiles

The modern digital profile is quite a remarkable thing. In essence, it represents the notion that we can have a web persona that we completely control.

We’ve all agonized over the perfect profile pic or handle. We make conscious decisions about cover images and bios so that we present to the world exactly the image that we want.

That all started on AIM.

Some examples of AIM profiles.

The service let you choose things like an avatar, bio, fonts, and colors, but your biggest decision was your screen name. It could be anything from xXPunkRockPonyXx to InternetDiane. The possibilities of every alphanumeric combination allowed you to choose something meaningful, personal, and easily recognizable, so that’s what everyone did.

This kind of customization helped us realize how what an online persona could be.

Messaging

Online instant messaging hit a sweet spot. It was better than email and less formal than a phone call. It fit right in with what the rising generation wanted as a form of communication.

Chatting on AIM. Credit

It’s still something we can’t get enough of 20 years later. The underlying concepts of Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Slack, Discord, and Snapchat all began with AIM.

This is where communication and real human connection actually happened. Things like late night chats with your best friend about the latest music or deliberately worded conversations with that girl or boy you had a crush on.

It was all about the contact with other human beings over the internet in a real, direct, private, and personal way.

The Running Man

AIM could be considered the first social media superpower. It was a digital consumer tool used at an unprecedented scale, a household name.

It defined the social potential of the web for Americans. Perhaps more than any other product, AIM helped establish the internet as a place to hang out rather than a simple utility.

Entrepreneurs realized that, too. AIM was the starting point of an exponential trend in social web startups. Companies like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram are some of the major players who have ridden that wave.

The running yellow figure of AIM’s logo seems fitting in retrospect. The idea of always on, always transmitting captured the feeling quite well.

Now the runner is passing the baton.

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About the Author

This article was written by Jordan Bowman.

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