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The Risk of Our Obsession with Technology



In the spring of 2013, Nobel prize-winning physicist James Cronin was awarded the Alumni Medal for lifetime achievement as a professor at the University of Chicago, where I went to college. In his remarks, Mr. Cronin stated that his greatest concern about the future of America was our emphasis on science and technology education. He was not concerned with too much science education as much as too little education in the other areas of life. He said much of his breakthrough thinking came from his discussions with the social scientists and humanities faculty at the University, not from hanging around only with physicists and other scientists.

I live in Austin, Texas, a leading center for technology startups, especially software and online companies. I travel the world talking (excitedly) to people about entrepreneurship and innovation; technology is often at the heart of our discussions. I love gadgets and am enthusiastic about many of the technologies that have emerged in the last 50 years. For example, the book Abundance by technology enthusiasts Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler is a favorite of mine. I believe that “big data” understood by the right minds will have great benefits to society.

At the same time, I share Cronin’s fear that our obsessive focus on “hard” science and technology has swung too far, resulting in an under-emphasis on understanding the other aspects of life and society. It will cost society greatly if we do not have a more holistic and integrated approach to what we consider important and to our educational priorities. What do our future leaders need to learn?

This emphasis on left-brain, analytical, and quantified thinking is both global and pervasive. In some parts of booming Asia, the bright kids get into engineering school and the ones with lower test scores study the liberal arts: history, the humanities, the social sciences. Our whole system seems to march toward formulas, science, and technology.

Over the last 50 years, most American business schools have moved towards finance, information technology, quantification, and formulaic/algorithmic thinking. But leaders in the “real” world spend more time and energy on human motivation and organization – psychology and sociology – than on any other field. Among the most important required talents are communications skills – the ability to speak and write clearly.

I often see business and engineering students looking for ideas and solutions solely through ROI (Return on Investment) analysis rather than through thinking about humans, why people do what they do, and how we as entrepreneurs can meet their real needs and solve their real problems.

At many business schools, there is little support for entrepreneurial ventures which are not considered tech companies, or not fundable by venture capitalists, who also tend to emphasize tech. Most startups, including many of the great enterprises of the future, are neither tech nor suitable for venture capital financing. In this process, are the importance of psychology, sociology, biology, art and design, language, history, and others getting left out?

Experience indicates that a more balanced approach is critical to great success, even in technology companies and industries. The rise of the computer in the early 1950s is telling. Philadelphia’s Univac had pioneered the commercial mainframe computer, but the other leading office machine and tech companies of the era also saw the vast opportunity. Distantly behind Univac were such names as IBM, GE, Westinghouse, RCA, Burroughs, and NCR (National Cash Register).

Most of these companies were focused on the science, aiming to design computers with faster brains (CPUs). But IBM leader Thomas Watson, Sr., instead asked his customers what they wanted, and none thought they needed a faster CPU. They needed a faster printer in order to get the information out of the mainframe. So he went back to his labs, and they invented the high speed printer.

Within two years IBM achieved a market share above 60%, and held that astounding position (or better) globally for the next 30-plus years, creating one of the greatest and most profitable enterprises in US history (prior to its near-death in the early 90s and subsequent rebirth). Watson (and his son and successor Thomas, Jr.) understood that selling technology was all about people: about understanding customers and their needs. New IBM mainframe computers were introduced with secrecy followed by great fanfare and visually designed at a much higher level than their competitors – even their office architecture and logo reflected high design standards.

Fast forward 40 years and we saw Steve Jobs following a similar pattern. Last year the iPhone alone generated more revenue than the whole of Procter & Gamble. I don’t think that remarkable achievement was due primarily to better science or more advanced algorithms. It was due to making things that are easy to use and understanding what it is like to be a user, coupled with outstanding product design. All with showmanship and marketing pizzazz – pages right out of the Watsons’ IBM playbook. It has been said that the greatness of Steve Jobs was that he had the heart of an artist and the mind of an engineer. We need both. We also need innovation in our society and culture.

One ranking of the greatest business people of all time placed David Sarnoff high on the list and William Paley much lower. Sarnoff is rightfully ranked high because he was the primary promoter of commercial radio in the US (through his RCA and NBC companies) and the technological leader of broadcasting’s evolution into television, followed by color television. Bill Paley on the other hand built CBS, and gave us “cultural” innovations like the nightly TV news, the soap opera, the situation comedy, and the television star. Because we sometimes tend to think of innovation as tech-only, Paley is not ranked as highly as Sarnoff. But his innovations will probably long outlast those of Sarnoff, which will over time be superseded by new technologies.

Both were great men, but our perspective is out of balance. I have given talks on the histories of the movie, airline, auto, retailing, computer, and some of the media industries. Reviewing all the great products, ideas, and buildings they created, I realized that the things most likely to still be of value and of use in 200 years are the movies and other “cultural products.” The magazine, the fast food restaurant, and the discount store are important innovations right alongside the latest tech breakthrough. Their impact on us and our society can be immense.

These observations lead me to thinking more broadly about the role of science and technology, and beyond that to our emphasis on left-brain, logical, analytical thinking. I serve as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of Texas School of Information, which is the modern evolution of the school of library and information sciences. We focus, like librarians and card catalogs, on the role of humans in information – how data is used and understood. We go beyond algorithms and machine learning to focus on human psychology and behavior. This is a very different mindset from that of most computer scientists and even business students.

Peter Drucker in a 2001 magazine interview said, “I can say that no financial man will ever understand business because financial people think a business makes money. A company makes shoes, and no financial man understands that.” In the book Poor Charlie’s Almanac by Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s brilliant investment partner, psychology is referenced 140 times in the index; return on investment none.

I have come to believe that this left-brained focus has also limited our thinking about health and longevity. Many of my friends seem to think health is determined entirely or overwhelmingly by diet and exercise. But eating and exercising are complex parts of human society. I think that our health and longevity are in large part determined by our social and cultural environment, the friends and loved ones we are with, when and where and how old we are, and most importantly our own mental attitude.

The physicist Cronin and I are not alone in these concerns. Daniel Pink wrote an excellent book called A Whole New Mind about the importance of balanced education and thinking. The great entrepreneur Nolan Bushnell touches on many similar ideas in his intriguing book, Finding the Next Steve Jobs. Perhaps a better grounding in the liberal arts, from design to history, from music to philosophy, from economics to social psychology, would serve all of us better.

written by Gary Hoover of Texas Enterprise. see more.


What Kills A Startup



1 – Being inflexible and not actively seeking or using customer feedback

Ignoring your users is a tried and true way to fail. Yes that sounds obvious but this was the #1 reason given for failure amongst the 32 startup failure post-mortems we analyzed. Tunnel vision and not gathering user feedback are fatal flaws for most startups. For instance, ecrowds, a web content management system company, said that “ We spent way too much time building it for ourselves and not getting feedback from prospects — it’s easy to get tunnel vision. I’d recommend not going more than two or three months from the initial start to getting in the hands of prospects that are truly objective.”

2 – Building a solution looking for a problem, i.e., not targeting a “market need”

Choosing to tackle problems that are interesting to solve rather than those that serve a market need was often cited as a reason for failure. Sure, you can build an app and see if it will stick, but knowing there is a market need upfront is a good thing. “Companies should tackle market problems not technical problems” according to the BricaBox founder. One of the main reasons BricaBox failed was because it was solving a technical problem. The founder states that, “While it’s good to scratch itches, it’s best to scratch those you share with the greater market. If you want to solve a technical problem, get a group together and do it as open source.”

3 – Not the right team

A diverse team with different skill sets was often cited as being critical to the success of a starti[ company. Failure post-mortems often lamented that “I wish we had a CTO from the start, or wished that the startup had “a founder that loved the business aspect of things”. In some cases, the founding team wished they had more checks and balances. As Nouncers founder stated, “This brings me back to the underlying problem I didn’t have a partner to balance me out and provide sanity checks for business and technology decisions made.” Wesabe founder also stated that he was the sole and quite stubborn decision maker for much of the enterprises life, and therefore he can blame no one but himself for the failures of Wesabe. Team deficiencies were given as a reason for startup failure almost 1/3 of the time.

4 – Poor Marketing

Knowing your target audience and knowing how to get their attention and convert them to leads and ultimately customers is one of the most important skills of a successful business. Yet, in almost 30% of failures, ineffective marketing was a primary cause of failure. Oftentimes, the inability to market was a function of founders who liked to code or build product but who didn’t relish the idea of promoting the product. The folks at Devver highlighted the need to find someone who enjoys creating and finding distribution channels and developing business relationship for the company as a key need that startups should ensure they fill.

5 – Ran out of cash

Money and time are finite and need to be allocated judiciously. The question of how should you spend your money was a frequent conundrum and reason for failure cited by failed startups. The decision on whether to spend significantly upfront to get the product off the group or develop gradually over time is a tough act to balance. The team at YouCastr cited money problems as the reason for failure but went on to highlight other reasons for shutting down vs. trying to raise more money writing:

The single biggest reason we are closing down (a common one) is running out of cash. Despite putting the company in an EXTREMELY lean position, generating revenue, and holding out as long as we could, we didn’t have the cash to keep going. The next few reasons shed more light as to why we chose to shut down instead of finding more cash.

The old saw was that more companies were killed by poor cashflow than anything else, but factors 1, 2 and 4 probably are the main contributing factors to that problem. No cash, no flow. The issue No 3 – the team – is interesting, as if I take that comment ” I didn’t have a partner to balance me out and provide sanity checks for business and technology decisions made” and think about some of the founders and startup CEOs I know, I can safely say that the main way that any decision was made was by agreeing with them – it was “my way or the highway”. I don’t therefore “buy” the team argument, I more buy the willingness of the key decision makers to change when things are not working (aka “pivoting” – point 9).


About the Author

This article was produced by Broadsight. Broadsight is an attempt to build a business not just to consult to the emerging Broadband Media / Quadruple Play / Web 2.0 world, but to be structured according to its open principles. see more.

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Callum Connects

Jasmine Tan, Director of Stone Amperor



Jasmine saves her clients time and effort when doing kitchen fit outs with her biz Stone Amperor.

What’s your story?
I started working in the industry in 2003. I was in a marble and granite supplier company for 5 years. Even though I left the company, I still had customers calling me for my services. I referred them back to my previous company but they refused to because they loved the fast response service that I offered. I realised that customers do look at prices, however most of them prefer quality over quantity. Thus I have decided to establish a sole proprietor company also known as 78 Degrees which later rebranded as Stone Amperor in 2014.

What excites you most about your industry?
The kitchen countertop industry is a very confusing market. There are many brands, materials and prices to choose from. What excites me the most is my ability to help clients choose the best materials and brands within their budgets, whilst saving them time and effort.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I have been in Asia all my life and I love Asia. No matter where you go there is no place like home.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
I love Singapore. This is because Singapore has always been a stable country and it is great for doing business. However as it is a small country, it can be really competitive. I believe that if just do your best and give your best to your customers, you can overcome this.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Take actions. Learn and improve continuously. An idea without action is just a dream.” This was really good advice that I received from my partner.

Who inspires you?
A very down to earth billionaire from Malaysia, Robert Kuok

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Property is the foundation of every business.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Own instead of renting property for my business.

How do you unwind?
I enjoy going shopping, watching movies and hanging out with friends. I am quite a simple being.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
I love going to Taiwan as I love the culture there. Everyone is so polite and the weather is great.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Sun Tzu, Art of war

Shameless plug for your business:
Perfect top, Perfect price, Perfect life from Stone Amperor

How can people connect with you?
Email me at [email protected]

Twitter handle?

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
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