Thursday, 9 December 2010

Proxies for Happiness

There’s been a lot of talk recently from the government about measuring happiness to use it as a metric of success. Now perhaps the ultimate aim of all governments ought to be to increase happiness, but given that it’s such a hard thing to measure objectively, most settle for some economic measure (GDP or GDP per capita) as a proxy.

This raises many questions about whether GDP is a good proxy for happiness (for one it ignores income disparity), and whether some alternative measure would be better suited, say by conducting some kind of happiness survey. Rather than answering this thorny question, I want to take a look at a somewhat simpler problem - measuring career satisfaction for new graduates.

Earlier this year whilst doing some research for a potential new startup, I spent some time looking at university careers services. These are the departments within universities that are responsible for helping students find jobs once they graduate. These departments all seem to be driven by one key statistic - the number of graduates in employment 6 months after graduation (of those looking for employment, so excluding those pursuing postgraduate study etc). This is often published in prospectuses and university websites as a means of attracting students, and presumably is also used internally to measure the success of the careers departments. The use of this statistic is also reinforced by the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) which conducts an annual survey on the destination of graduates 6 months after graduation.

Now this certainly isn’t a bad statistic to measure, and combined with the salary distribution information most careers departments also publish, it should give any potential students a fair idea of what to expect from a given university. What these statistics completely fail to measure is whether these students have ended up in jobs they are happy with. You could argue that in the current economic climate, students might well be happy to have any job, but in the longer term its probably better for both employers and employees if they’re not tied together solely by economic necessity.

So this takes us right back to the problem of measuring happiness. Except that in the case of jobs there’s a very simple proxy for happiness. Namely, the length of time a person stays with their employer. Or to make it a bit easier to digest, the percentage of people that remain in their job 2 years after graduation (or whatever time interval you choose). There’s an assumption here that the majority of people who leave their jobs do so because they’re unhappy (for whatever reason), which seems reasonable. Maybe they’re unhappy with pay, progression, location, flexibility, hours etc - but clearly something makes them move on. It’s possible that they might not have left of their own volition, but again it seems reasonable to assume that redundant or fired employees aren’t filled with joy at their situation. The time interval needs to be reasonably short since we’re effectively also assuming that happiness when they leave is representative of the whole period of employment, which won’t be true for longer periods (e.g. somebody who leaves after 5 years may well have been very happy for 3 years).

There’s obviously a cost associated with universities tracking this kind of data as it would require them to contact all their alumni two years after graduation (though doing this online would reduce costs). However, given the increasing squeeze on funds at universities, might it not be prudent to stay in regular touch with alumni as possible future benefactors? Using a hapiness metric would incentivise career services to place students in jobs that they’re likely to be happy in, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they find happy alumni are more inclined to reach for their chequebooks when the alma mater comes a-calling.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Techcrunch Europas 2010

What was good
Techcrunch Europe’s annual awards evening, The Europas, took place last Friday. Around 300 people gathered at Paramount, on top of the Centre Point tower. As promised, the views were indeed spectacular, and the turnout seemed to attract a good mixture of people from across the tech startup scene.

Image: Sarah Rowlands/Miller Hare

In particular it was great to be reminded of the great startups that are right on our doorstep like Moshi Monsters (someone mentioned 1 in 3 kids in the UK are users), Flattr, Tradeshift, Whipcar, Wonga, Spotify, and many others, check the TC article for the full list. Nice to see startup friendly law firm Winston and Strawn getting recognition for their great efforts.

It was interesting to hear founder Tariq Krim talk about the newly released Jolicloud notebook given that I'm in the market for a netbook at the moment. Not sure I'll be rushing out to buy the Jolibook just yet, but might be interesting to install Jolicloud as a second OS for dual boot on whichever netbook I do end up getting.

I was quite impressed to see that the toilets (well the gents at least) were covered with guerilla marketing stickers from the various startups in attendance keen to use every opportunity to get free publicity. Perhaps not too surprising given the crowd...

Awards ceremony or party?
Although the event was a great opportunity  for the community to recognize successes, I do wonder whether the format could be improved upon a little. There seemed to be a two-fold purpose to the event, as an awards ceremony and also as an end-of-year party. That’s absolutely fine of course, except the two seemed to be happening simultaneously, with people talking over the announcements and awards. Not really the fault of the attendees, since the long thin shape of the venue meant that a lot of people were quite removed from the stage in the middle of the room.

The awards part also seemed very rushed, almost in a “lets get this out of the way so we can get on with the party”, with award winners asked not to give speeches as they rolled through the award conveyor belt. The main issue I have with this approach is that in any given month (even week) there are usually plenty of parties/networking events/meetups going on in London which provide plenty of opportunity for people to socialise over drinks. But the Europa awards are a bit more distinct - they only happen once a year, so why not put the focus on them and make it more of an awards show, followed by a party, Academy Awards style?

That way we could have a seated venue, which would encourage people to pay attention to the presentations. We could have speeches from the winners - it would be great to hear what these people have to say and any wisdom they have to impart, as well as offering them a platform to ask for anything they need (money, employees etc). I realise this means the presentations part would run a lot longer, but given that the event was on a Friday night and started pretty early, there’s not really a big shortage of time. Have an intermission or two to allow people to eat/move around in the middle if necessary.

Finally, I must admit there were several startups mentioned that I’d not heard of before - a short video clip/pitch of the winners (or maybe top nominees + winners) would be a great way of educating the audience and getting some free publicity.

Of course it’s very easy to say all this as an attendee, and this shouldn’t take away from the fact that it was an entertaining evening which obviously had a lot of hard work and preparation go in to it. Mike opened the proceedings by saying how fed up he was of the constant comparisons to the US and the Valley in particular, but in truth if we want to build an ecosystem for tech entrepreneurship in this country, and Europe more generally, then these kinds of events are important in raising awareness of all the great work going on around us.

See you all there next year!

Friday, 22 October 2010

Tips for Launch48

Having participated in two Launch48 weekends, I can highly recommend the experience. With more of these coming along in the near future, I thought it would be useful to jot down some advice for people planning to give it go. For those who haven't heard of it, the format is a simple one - people pitch ideas for startups on a Friday evening, everyone votes to decide on the best ones (the number of ideas getting through will depend on the total number of participants), teams form around these ideas and you then spend the next 48 hours trying to build the business. Business being the operative word. Launch48 takes a holistic approach that makes the event different from your garden variety tech-focussed hackathon. The expectation is that in addition to producing an application that can be demoed on Sunday night, you will also have given thought to how you will acquire customers and monetize.

Although it certainly is possible to launch a fully fledged business using the Launch48 weekend as a starting point, I suspect the real value for most people comes from two things:
  • LearningUse the opportunity to teach and learn from others on your team (about online marketing, web development, financial modelling etc)
  • Networking. Launch48 is a great way to meet entrepreneurially minded people (both the participants and mentors), and it's also a great way to see people under "realistic" work conditions which will tell you a lot more about them than any coffee chat.

Two things worth mentioning are intellectual property (IP) and equity arrangements.

Who owns the work created by the teams? Regarding IP, the most sensible approach seems to be to agree amongst the team that anything created during the weekend belongs to everyone on the team so that everyone is free to do what they want with it after the weekend. Realistically, there's a good chance that if anyone takes the project forward, they would need to rewrite a lot of what was done over the weekend anyway. If there's any pre-existing IP then things might get more complicated, but this isn't generally the case. Last I heard there were some thoughts about providing standard IP assignment forms to each team which seems like a good idea.

As for equity, I'd strongly suggest that it has no place being discussed during the weekend (other than to say it won't be discussed). Any kind of agreement binding together the 10 or so strangers that you team up with sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. If you wanted to do it properly you'd need to think about things like vesting (e.g. what happens if somebody disappears after the weekend and then comes back 2 years later to claim their share), not to mention the painful (but necessary) discussion of who should get how much. If there's a real business to built, that will happen after the weekend, and those that are left with a genuine interest in committing to it (and each other) can sort out equity arrangements amongst themselves with appropriate legal advice.

Finally, for those of you planning to a pitch an idea, my advice (worth exactly what you paid for it), would be as follows:
  1. Have a good think about your idea before turning up to the event. Clear and articulate presentation goes a long way, and you won't get phased by "obvious" questions about competition etc.
  2. Pick an idea where it's feasible to make decent progress in a weekend. This doesn't mean the whole thing should be completed in a weekend, but you should be able to produce some kind of prototype.
  3. If you have something that presents an interesting technical challenge, it will be easier to attract developers to your team.
  4. Understand that pitches are selected by voting. It won't necessarily be the best ideas that get through, but the best pitches and pitchers.
  5. (Arguable) Only pitch if you're prepared to lead the team and have a genuine interest in taking the project forward, or make it clear if this isn't the case. 48 hours isn't very long, so the teams really need somebody with some vision to keep things going. Don't confuse vision with inflexibility though.

Have fun, and blog/tweet your progress as the day goes on so the rest of us can follow along!

Thursday, 14 October 2010

WiFi networks for local advertising?

Car rental company SIXT ran an interesting ad campaign a couple of years back where they advertised special offers to airport travellers by using the text in wi-fi network names.

There's no reason why any bricks-and-mortar store couldn't use a similar approach. You could broadcast an offer, or some other call to action which would lead to people connecting to your network. Once people are connected you could direct all traffic to a locally hosted webserver or proxy which could then offer a landing page, access to your website, or if you're feeling particularly generous (and have faith in the common carrier defence), free access to the internet. You could even marry up the free internet access with a bit of Ad Jacking if you fancied.

If there were enough people interested in doing this, it wouldn't be too difficult to come up with some kind of simple hardware appliance to take care of most of the hard work. Just plug it in the wall and wait for the customers to beat a path to your till.

So why aren't people doing this? Well possibly it's not that great a channel since most people don't go round scanning for free wifi. I usually only do it if I'm abroad to avoid being gouged on data roaming, or when Orange's 3G network is proving elusive (which for me appears to be around 80% of the time). So maybe you might pick up some tourists and the odd wardriver.

Also the strength of your wifi signal will be limited so it's probably only really going to attract people who are practically on your doorstep anyway. However if this were to be used in shopping malls or any other large private space (where multiple wifi transmitters were an option) then it could possibly be effective.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

When Social Media turns Social Mob

What is it about online comments that turns otherwise civilised (I assume) people into attention seeking trolls? Probably the best known example of this phenomenon is the comments section on YouTube videos. On pretty much any popular video, you can see the comments descending into anarchy with random arguments erupting on any number of subjects, often completely unrelated to the video.

Is this due to the pseudo-anonymity of YouTube users? The surprising thing is that you’ll find this kind of behaviour even on Facebook, when generally people use their real names. Check out any group discussing a controversial topic and you find your fair share of offensive and bizarre commentary. Now possibly these people are like this in real life, but I suspect they’re probably a bit more careful about mouthing off their opinions when faced with flesh and blood people.

In an increasingly open web where people are unlikely to go to the extra effort of maintaining multiple identities online, are we going to see higher quality debate, or are we going to drop to the lowest common denominator and learn to accept that’s just how people behave? The rise of 3rd party authentication via facebook, twitter etc along with 3rd party commenting services like Disqus mean that more and more of us will end up putting our real name down next to what we write and establishing an online reputation which we might be hesitant to tarnish.

One site that hopes that using real names will improve the quality of user generated content is question and answer site Quora. The current king of question sites, Yahoo Answers, can be a mixed bag, and certainly at the moment Quora appears to be producing higher quality content. Of course this may just be because it’s less popular, and once it hits the mainstream it’s possible that we will see the quality drop off in the same way.

I suspect the main reason we don’t behave like YouTube commenters in real life is because of community enforced norms, and perhaps this is the key to high quality comments. Back in the day, long before YouTube, there were some usenet groups which had high quality discussion and content, whilst others suffered from a low signal to noise ratio, and typically this was due to the presence of a strong user community to enforce norms and teach newcomers the rules. In hit-and-run comment sites with widely dispersed content (as on popular YouTube videos), there is no such community, whereas sites which are focused on a particular subject are more likely to attract a stable body of core users who can establish the ground rules for acceptable behaviour.

Reputation and community appear to be the key to maintaining high quality comments, and hopefully the trend of merging web content with social graphs and gaming will produce a better experience for us all.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Social Media Marketing gone wrong

Techcrunch are running a guest article I wrote about a promotion run by Secret Sales that didn't go quite according to plan. You can check it out here.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Ad Jacking

For as long as we've had adverts on the web, there have been ways to get around them - most browsers have pop-up blockers built in to stop the most annoying, and there are plenty of ad blockers out there that will save you from having to look at another ad again. You can even replace banner ads with works of art should you be so inclined.

Ad blockers have prompted some debate around the ethics of using a device which reduces the revenues that fund the content being consumed. Some regard this as equivalent to theft, with some content owners implementing technical solutions to block the ad-blockers.

Anyhow, all of this got me thinking (dangerous I know), about what else you could do with adverts. If you can block the adverts, then the same technology would easily allow you to replace the adverts with something else - say other adverts. In one fell swoop you could own all of the best ad spots across the net.

Let’s think what you’d need to do to make this work as a business. There are two sides that we need to think about - how do we get advertisers, and how do we get consumers to view the ads.

This would probably require you to set up your own ad network, since it’s likely that once the existing ad networks got wind of what you were doing, they’d been unlikely to co-operate with you and canabilise their own trade. Of course if you were successful enough they’d have little choice but to work with you.

So why on earth would consumers download an ad-blocker that just replaced adverts with other adverts. Well, possibly you could make this work if you could make the ads more relevant to them (by collecting profile data), but it’s unlikely that you could make adverts so focussed that consumers would be willing to go to all that trouble. You could offer to split the revenue from the ads with them - i.e. pay them to use your ad-blocker, but I doubt you’d get enough people to do this to make a worthwhile business out of it. Not to mention that people willing to do that would probably also be willing to install another ad-blocker over yours.

Okay, so a browser add-on probably won’t do it. We could move one step up the chain and produce our own browser, but this would then require us to produce a browser which is better than all the others which could be a little tricky.

So, no plugins, no building your own browser, well then I guess then we need to move further down that tech stack, and take a look at ISPs. If you ran an ISP (or partnered with one), you could easily catch ads at source and replace them.

Voila, all we need to do is build our own ISP and we’re done. Depending on the ad revenue, you could offer your customers free or at least discounted internet access.

Unfortunately there’s one more roadblock along the way. Google is one of the larger ad networks and also the de facto gateway to the internet. They probably won’t take too kindly to you replacing all the adwords text ads with your own and could easily retaliate by just blocking your ISP. I’m guessing an ISP without google is an ISP that won’t attract many customers. So at the very least, you’d couldn’t block their ads.

Like the ad-blocker-blockers, individual publishers could block your users from their content too, and this is probably the biggest unknown. Would enough of them bother to do so to cause you to lose customers?

I’m not sure if you’d run into legal problems with this idea. Effectively you’re making money from other people’s content, but one could argue (as Rupert Murdoch does) that google does exactly that too.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Hello there!

Welcome to Zedscore. I suspect the frequency of posting will be sporadic, depending on ideas and time. Let's see how it goes!