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The Risk of Our Obsession with Technology

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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.

Callum Connects

Malcolm Tan, Founder of Gravitas Holdings

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Malcolm Tan is an ICO/ITO and Cryptocurrency advisor. He sees this new era as similar to when the internet launched.

What’s your story?
I’m a lawyer entrepreneur who owns multiple businesses, and who is now stepping into the Initial Coin Offering/Initial Token Offering/Cryptocurrency space to be a thought leader, writer (How to ICO/ITO in Singapore – A Regulatory and Compliance Viewpoint on Initial Coin Offering and Initial Token Offering in Singapore), and advisor through Gravitas Holdings – an ICO Advisory company. We are also running our own ICO campaign called AEXON, and advising 2 other ICO’s on their projects.

What excites you most about your industry?
It is the start of a whole new paradigm, and it is like being at the start of the internet era all over again. We have a chance to influence and shape the industry over the next decade and beyond and lead the paradigm shift.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m Singaporean and most of my business revolves around the ASEAN region. Our new ICO advisory company specialises in Singaporean ICO’s and we are now building partnerships around the region as well. One of the core business offerings of our AEXON ICO/ITO is to open up co-working spaces around the region, with a target to open 25 outlets, and perhaps more thereafter.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore, since it is my hometown and most of my business contacts originate from or are located in Singapore. It is also a very open and easy place to do business.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be careful of your clients – sometimes they can be your worst enemies. This is very true and you have to always be careful about whom you deal with. The closest people are the ones that you trust and sometimes they have other agendas or simply don’t tell you the truth or whole story and that can easily put one in a very disadvantageous position.

Who inspires you?
Leonardo Da Vinci as a polymath and genius and leader in many fields, and in today’s world, Elon Musk for being a polymath and risk taker and energetic business leader.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Early stage bitcoin investors would have made 1,000,000 times profit if they had held onto their bitcoins from the start to today – in the short space of 7 years.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Seek out good partnerships and networks from day one, and use the power of the group to grow and do things together, instead of being bogged down by operations and going it alone from start.

How do you unwind?
I hardly have any time for relaxation right now. I used to have very intense hobbies, chess when I was younger, bridge, bowling, some online real time strategy games and poker. All mentally stimulating games and requiring focus – I did all these at competitive levels and participated in national and international tournaments, winning multiple trophies, medals and awards in most of these fields.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Phuket – nature, resort life, beaches, good food and a vibrant crowd.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Richard Kiyosaki

Shameless plug for your business:
Gravitas Holdings (Pte) Limited is the premier ICO Advisory company and we can do a full service for entrepreneurs, including legal and compliance, smart contracts and token creation, marketing and PR, and business advisory and white paper writing/planning.

How can people connect with you?
Write emails to [email protected], or [email protected]

Twitter handle?
@malcolmABM

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:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Pam Weber, Chief Marketing Officer at 99Designs

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Pam Webber is Chief Marketing Officer at 99designs, where she heads up the global marketing team responsible for acquisition, through growth marketing and traditional marketing levers, and increasing lifetime value of customers. She is passionate about using data to derive customer insights and finding “aha moments” that impact strategic direction. Pam brings a host of first-hand startup marketing experiences as an e-commerce entrepreneur herself and as the first marketing leader for many fast-growing startups. Prior to joining 99designs, she founded weeDECOR, an e-commerce company selling custom wall decals for kids’ rooms. She also worked as an executive marketing consultant at notable startups including True&Co, an e-commerce startup specializing in women’s lingerie. Earlier in her career, Pam served in various business and marketing positions with eBay and its subsidiary, PayPal, Inc. A resident of San Francisco, Pam received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MBA from Harvard Business School. Pam is a notable guest speaker for Venture Beat, The Next Web, Lean Startup, and Growth Hacking Forum, as well as an industry expert regularly quoted in Inc., CIO, Business News Daily, CMSwire, Smart Hustle, DIY Marketer, and various podcast and radio shows. You can follow her on Twitter at @pamwebber_sf.

What makes you do what you do?
My dad always told me make sure you choose a job you like because you’ll be doing it for a long time. I took that advice to heart and as I explored various roles over my career, I always stopped to check whether I was happy going to work every day – or at least most days :). That has guided me to the career I have in marketing today. I’m genuinely excited to go to work every day. I get to create, to analyze, to see the impact of my work. It’s very fulfilling.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
I had a penchant for numbers and it helped me stand out in my field. This penchant became even more powerful when the Internet and digital marketing started to explode. There was a great need for marketers whose skills could span both the creative and the analytic aspects of marketing. I capitalized on that growth by bringing unique insight to the companies I worked with, well-supported with thoughtful analysis.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup?
I’m not sure this is relevant to my situation as I had been a marketing leader in various start-ups and companies. I took on the role at 99designs because I was excited by the global reach of the brand and the opportunity the company had to own the online design space. I especially liked the team as I felt they were good at heart.

The challenge I’ve faced in my time at 99designs is how do I evolve the team quickly and nimbly to address new challenges. The work we do now, is very different than the work we did a year ago and even the year before that. There is a fine line between staying focused on the goal ahead and being able to move quickly should that goal shift.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industry or did you look for one or how did that work?
There is no one I’ve sought out or worked with over my entire career as my “mentee” needs have changed so much over the years. There are many people who have helped me along the way. For example, one of my peers at eBay, who was quite experienced and skilled in marketing strategy and creative execution, taught me what was in a marketing plan and how to evaluate marketing assets. As I have risen to leadership positions over the years, I often reach out to similarly experienced colleagues for advice on how they handle situations.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
I learned early in my career that it rarely hurts to ask for advice. So that is what I have done. Additionally, there are people that are known to be quite helpful and build a reputation for giving back to others in advisory work. Michael Dearing, of Harrison Metal and ex-eBay, is one of those people. I, as well as countless others, have asked him for advice and guidance through the years and he does his best to oblige. Finding mentorship is about intuiting who in your universe might be willing and whether you are up for asking for help.

That being said, generally, I have found, if you are eager to learn and be guided, people will respond to the outreach.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I generally look for a good attitude and inherent “smarts”. A good attitude can encompass anything from being willing to take on many different types of challenges to working well amongst differing personalities and perspectives. Smarts can be seen through how well someone’s done in their “passion areas” (i.e. areas where they have a keen interest in pursuing).

I try to hire those types of people because in smaller, fast-growing companies like many of the ones I’ve worked in, it’s more often than not about hiring flexible people as things move and change fast.

Once those people are on my team, I try to keep them challenged and engaged by making sure they have varying responsibilities. If I can’t give them growth in their current job or in the current company, I encourage them to seek growth opportunities elsewhere. I’d rather have one of my stars leave for a better growth opportunity than keep them in a role where they might grow stale.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I consciously support diversity. When I am hiring, I am constantly thinking about how to balance the team with as broad a range as possible of skill sets, perspectives, etc. to ensure we can take on whatever is thrown at us, or whatever we want to go after.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I’m going to assume a great leader in my industry to mean a marketing leader in a technology company. I think a great leader in this industry is not afraid to learn new tricks no matter their age – it’s the growth mindset you may have heard about. I have a friend who inspires me to do this – she purchased the Apple Watch as soon as it was available, and was one of the first people I knew to use the Nest heating/cooling system. She’s not an early adopter by most definitions, but she adopts the growth mindset. This is the mindset I, too, have sought to adopt. In my field of marketing, it most recently has meant learning about Growth Marketing and how to apply this methodology to enhance growth. Independent of your industry, I think a growth mindset serves you well.

Advice for others?
I have been at 99designs for 3.5 years. During that time we’ve invested in elevating the skills and quality of our designer community, we’ve rebranded to reflect this higher level of quality, and have improved the satisfaction of our customers. Our next phase of growth will come from better matching clients to the right designer and expanding the ability to work with a designer one-on-one. We have the best platform to find, collaborate, and pay professional designers who deliver high quality design at an affordable price, and it’s only going to get better. I’m excited to deliver on that vision.

Pam Webber
Chief Marketing Officer of 99designs
Twitter: @pamwebber_sf

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