I don’t publish a ton of content. I don’t have a normal writing cadence, nor do I tweet everyday. I don’t really post to Instagram, and I don’t crave the social affirmation of others. Even though I don’t Tweet a lot, I think Twitter is one of the best places to engage with people much smarter than myself.
Yesterday I saw this tweet by Jeff Morris Jr. outlining his prediction for future social products and consumer behaviors:
Looks familiar, right? I linked my previous post, ‘What’s next for consumer social‘, and got some love from random internet strangers and even Jeff himself! It felt good to be recognized and to know that me and a product leader share similar thoughts on how the world works (maybe I do crave social affirmation?).
While my 15 seconds of fame was fun, a new thought popped into my head: 1) Jeff tweeted mid COVID-19 quarantine. 2) I posted my article one month before any sort of pandemic hit the United States. Despite our different leading indicators, we were both inspired to think about how consumer behavior is changing from online>offline>online.
All of this led me to question whether tech people conflate short term events with long term paradigm shifts? Even though I like reading Twitter threads with smart people debating in public, there’s a lot of pontificating and soothsaying that goes on in the Twitterverse. I’m not a fortune teller and don’t know if social products will move from online>offline>online for sure, but this pandemic’s audience seems to think so.
We’ve been social distancing for a little over a week and people have moved happy hours to Zoom calls, group hangouts to Twitch, and the ‘failed’ startup, Houseparty is now the #10 app in the U.S. overall, and #1 in social networking.
I’m not sure if these consumer behaviors will endure beyond 2020’s COVID-19 quarantine, but it sure seems like people like to predict the future based on immediate events (or at least some VCs do).
To get a better idea on how to think about the future, I reached out to the OG thesis-driven investor, Fred Wilson.
With a looming paradigm shift from open sharing to closed networks, there’s currently a fragmentation of the consumer social sector where large, ubiquitous products like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, etc. are no longer delivering the same value to users. Instead, they are leaving holes for challenger networks and products to emerge. Behaviorally, people are becoming less inclined to engage and share to these overarching and hyper-connected networks, and instead are leaving for newer, semi-private-communities where like-minded people can collaborate over their shared interests, current life situations, desire for new media, etc.’
Once in an arms race with Instagram, Snap has reclaimed its spot in the consumer social market as a social network where friends can communicate without the self-conscious fear of other’s judgment. Coupled with its ephemeral product features, this idea of private sharing has given way for the public market’s appreciation of Snap, and subsequent 81% increase in share value YoY.
In the same vein, tech founders are carving unique niches in the consumer landscape by separating the ‘social’ from the ‘media’ and identifying gaps in large incumbents’ product suites.
Founders are able to build companies around key themes like:
Interest Driven: Low barrier to entry, opt-in networks driven by trust and information distribution.
Online to offline and back again: Akin to Chris Dixon’s saying, I’m claiming my own: come for the knowledge, stay for the network. These can be either IRL, online, or both.
Challenger networks: Attacking the gaps in incumbent social networks with new content distribution and formats.
Below are just a few examples of startups taking advantage of this shift in consumer behavior:
It’s easy to think about consumer social as a quasi-hierarchy. Instagram, Facebook, and Snap are unlikely to go anywhere. These large platforms make the market by serving as high value advertisement platforms for other companies, acquisition channels for startups, and the guidelines for proving what consumer interests are already in the market. Startup founders assess what products and features are missing from these companies and quickly build better versions.
Reddit, the self dubbed front page of the internet, was one of the first contemporary private networks, but has since given way for startup companies to create more personalized experiences across multiple subreddits. There are a bunch subreddits garnering well over a few million subscribers that serve as an interesting place for budding entrepreneurs to look to for inspiration in regard to what types of future digital products could make sense.
Aside from consumer social fragmentation, I’m excited about advancements in other consumer technologies and the network effects that can come from the increasingly high-quality photo capabilities of the iPhone camera, constant usage of headphones, democratization of fintech, verticalization of marketplaces, and future of work. These technologies can make way for new startup companies to steal market share from incumbents and ultimately change consumer behaviors.
I had the pleasure of listening to Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz speak to a room full of people last night at FirstMarks’sData-Driven event. His presence alone was palpable. When he entered the room, the only thing you could hear was people’s jaws dropping to the floor. It’s kind of lame to say, but I haven’t been that star struck since I met Mark Tatum, Deputy Commissioner of the NBA. Ben is a living legend and also sounded like a pretty regular guy all at the same time.
He went on stage to speak with Matt Turck right after the VP of Developer Relations for Google Cloud & former CTO of Cloudera, Amr Awadallah. Amr presented Anthos, a hybrid cloud offering from Google. Since Ben’s a busy guy, he wasn’t able to make Amr’s presentation. Without knowing what the other guests presented, he kind of dissed Hadoop right in front of Amr. Amr wasn’t too happy, but everyone in the audience thought it was kind of funny. Ben later apologized.
Anyway, what I found most entertaining was Ben’s conviction and relentless attitude toward creating an unbiased view of the world. He told story after story about how culture develops in companies, families, and friendships. He spoke about folks being blind to talent in favor of seeing ethnic and groupthink demographics instead. He talked about a16z’s search for a partner to lead the Cultural Leadership Fund.
Here’s a little bit about the CLF:
He told a story about an unnamed person who was leading the search for a new CLF Partner. For some reason, like many funds do, the unnamed a16z employee only looked at candidates with an investment banking background. The CLF was started as a means of connecting black leaders in pop culture with black technologists. Nowhere did Ben say there had to be a bullpen full of ivy league history majors turned IB. After hearing that this guy was only looking for people with an IB background, Ben asked, “since when did anyone like investment bankers, let alone black people with no ties to wall street?” That’s not to say that there aren’t any cool IBers, or that there aren’t any black IBers, but the CLF didn’t need any DCFs. The CLF needed someone who fit in culturally, someone who could make relationships with some of America’s most influential folks.
After hearing Ben’s response, the guy running the search stumbled and tried to back up his criterion with the fact that IB churned out people who were detail-oriented, quant-minded, boar, boar, boar… In reality, a16z didn’t need someone who could bang out a pitchbook, or someone who could do an LBO on paper. They needed someone in-tune with pop culture, and someone who could connect with the Kevin Durants, Will Smiths, Beyonce’s of the world. They needed a relationship-driven person who could connect with black leaders the way no IBer ever could.
In fact, the guy they ended up hiring, Chris Lyons, was previously a music consultant and worked in the restaurant world. At one point, he even worked at the Cheesecake Factory. Cheesecake Factory employees have a quasi-NPS score calculated by total tips/total bill ratio. The higher your ratio, the better you were ranked against your peers. Chris had one of the highest scores in the national Cheesecake Factory franchise. Nobody really likes their waiter, but people loved Chris.
The point is, I imagined that Ben was going to speak about something like whether AI should be a product or as a feature. Instead, we got to listen to something much cooler. He spoke about meeting people halfway and understanding what talent looks like without a preconceived notion or bias in mind. You can’t fit a square peg in a round hole.
My biggest takeaway from the night is that as cliche as it sounds, your virtues are not what you say or think, but they’re what you do. VCs can say they respect entrepreneurs and want to be founder-friendly, but a16z values an entrepreneur’s time so much that they’ll fine their own investors $10 for every minute they’re late to a meeting.
My mom’s been recovering from ankle reconstructive surgery. It’s going to be a really painful next few months and I really feel for her. Since she’s laid up in bed, she’s been reading everything she can while I try my best to be on her good side. The other day, after apparently googling our whole family, she called me on the phone with bitterness in her voice. She told me she was ‘pissed off’ I never told her about this blog.
Which reminded me, I started this blog as an online home for my thoughts, ramblings, and weird ideas as a sort of journal to come back to. I never used it for it’s worth. In 2019, I think I published 2 posts. People have created followings and digital personas on the internet that have helped them tremendously in their careers. I don’t intend to do that. Instead, I want to do what this blog was originally set out for. I want to start sharing my thoughts, ramblings and weird ideas. Most importantly, I want to exercise the part of my body that hasn’t been getting enough attention, my writing muscles.
Growing up, I wasn’t enamored with technology. I was usually outside playing sports, or running from friends backyard to backyard. Playstation and xbox sat idly by while I perfected my free throws and curveballs. Books were common, but only until I attended college did the internet, cloud, and tech make a breakthrough in my life. Before meeting some more tech-minded friends, I was certain I would work at the intersection of the arts and something profound. I prided myself on my writing ability and persuasion with the pen and paper. Nowadays, I notice those skills fading.
Even though I get to write my fair share of emails and more short-form twitter literature, I miss exercising my creative and more eloquent writing muscles that have been neglected by limiting myself to only produce what needed to be completed for work.
So let’s hope that this isn’t the only post I make in 2020.
On May 5th, 2018, The World Surf League (WSL) held a tournament in a peculiar place. Landlocked and over 100 miles from the sea, the top competitors in the world gathered in Lemoore, California for what would go on to create a unique surfing-only type notation system. Since I haven’t seen anyone else coin this phrase, I’m going to make it my own: B.K.E – Before Kelly’s Era.
Kelly Slater is undoubtedly the king of surfing. He’s both the youngest and oldest person to win a world title, amassing an astounding 11 world championships. It’s safe to say his bald head has seen a lot. Kelly is a polarizing figure in the world of surfing – he’s been the driver behind much of surfing’s recent comeback, as well as the sports commercialization and prior downturn. Like Kelly, there are two sides to everything. Surfing is no different. With the advent of high-priced surfing technologies in the form of boards that make wave riding easier, wetsuits that keep surfers warmer for longer, and even earplugs that offset surfers’ ear, technology is segmenting the surfing population.
Traditionalists believe in an old-school view of a wave-riding hierarchy where those who’ve surfed the mush should have priority over visitors when the stars align. To them, surfing is a holistic, spell-binding ritual where surfers interact with an ever-changing wave that evolves with the ocean floor and wind. The boards they ride come from shapers who spend hours meticulously crafting every inch of the foam.
On the other hand, contemporary surfers, believe in almost nothing. There’s no rhythm or rhyme to when someone is supposed to drop-in. Beaches are littered with massively produced assembly-line boards with Go-Pro cameras stapled to the nose. There are meme pages associated with novice contemporary surfer. Often times you’ll see the newest Rip Curl wetsuit on someone holding a board with the fins on backward. It seems like surfers of today resemble a cutout of what technology has done to much of America.
There’s nothing wrong with either segmentation. Often times, traditionalists are assholes and contemporary surfers are dangerously ignorant just trying to have fun. The main point is that technology is impacting surfing in an unprecedented way. However, the debate among surfers as to where they should buy their boards from, or whether or not they were tough enough to last in the cold ocean is over. The new debate is no longer man vs. man, but instead, man vs. machine.
Flashback to December 5th, 2015 when Kelly unveiled his ten-year-long experiment to the world. A video was released showing him surfing a perfectly shaped artificial wave being ridden in none other than Lenmoore, California. The quest for the worlds perfect wave has ended. It’s not in Tavarua or Teahupoo, but in Lemoore California, and it could be coming to your backyard.
When Kelly unleashed the video back in 2015, the world flipped on its axis. The traditionalists condemned it – the contemporaries loved it – but everyone wanted to try it.
Here’s how the wave works.
A 100-ton hydrofoil – named “The Vehicle” – run down a track with the help of more than 150 truck tires and at around 18 miles per hour (30 kilometers per hour);
When the swell hits specific areas of the lake’s bottom, the wave starts to break thanks to the influence of the contour reefs
Giant lateral gutters mitigate the bounce-back effect that occurs on the pool walls forming the wave
It takes three minutes for the surf pool water to calm down and return to a completely static state
Today, the wave pool costs about $9,500/hour, plus an additional
$288 booking fee. A high price for retail, but this is just the beginning. Have
the stars all of a sudden aligned for surfings newest innovation? Or was it
strategically positioned for global distribution? The 2020 Olympics will be
held in Japan, and with surfing on the docket for the first time as an Olympic
event, Kelly Slater’s Wave Pool technology is ripe for the masses.
Normally, surfers head to event locations weeks in advance to
prepare for the upcoming tournament. Similarly, tournaments could last weeks at
a time because of the sports unpredictable X factor – the waves. In surfing,
scoring is subjective and with each wave, rides are incomparable – up until
Now, surfers can be scrutinized on a fair playing field, one in which every rider has the same course. Along with its technical predictability for unadjusted scoring, the artificial wave comes with a massive pool – one that’s ~700 meters long and 100 meters wide. At the recent WSL event, spectators came to what could be easily confused as a soccer stadium with big screen televisions publicizing every angle of the event.
Still, the International Olympic Committee, International
Surfing Association and Tokyo 2020 maintain that surfing’s debut will take
place in the ocean.
Despite being acquired by WSL Holdings in 2016 for an
undisclosed price, kswaveco was an arduous project to undergo. It took $30M,
ten years, and multiple iterations. Kelly brought the passion, and Adam
Fincham, Associate Professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering at the
University of Southern California brought the brains. There were no feedback
loops, UAT, or product market fit analyses. It’s now up to the consumers to
decide whether or not this is something that will complement ocean surfing, or
disrupt it. There will either be kswaveco country clubs, or just the infamous
I’ve been fiddling with the idea that tech enabled products will empower experiences for both enterprise and consumer. People will use tech enabled products to enhance their lives, rather than have tech be their lives.
Whether it be employees using AI to search and categorize unstructured data for insights regarding a customer inquiry, or something as simple as ordering a Sweetgreen salad, the world is moving towards tech enabled empowerment. The above examples illustrate how tech enables consumers to execute ordinarily mundane tasks, quickly and efficiently allowing them to spend time on high value activities.
It’s not all about speed when it comes to the future of consumer tech. There’s value in data-driven products. An already tested hypothesis, but some of the biggest winners of today have taken data to create a unique end product for users. Stitch Fix, Rockets of Awesome, and other retailers like MM.Lafleur have already incorporated data science into their core platform – something previously thought to be too farfetched when pitched to investors.
Between data and efficiency, experience can’t be compromised. Every transaction, purchase and service must be unique, drawing consumers back for repeat sales. Having a sleek and sexy design is a good start, but to truly reach the coveted Unicorn status, startups must create an experience-enabled [whatever] that draws a competitive moat in and of itself. Airbnb is a marketplace driven by experience. Spin classes were around long before SoulCycle, yet they created an addictively immersive experience.
In today’s digital age, marketplaces have been commoditized with D2C retailers, pop-up poké stops are on every street corner of NYC, and just about every app has built in recommendations claiming ‘AI’. Competitive marketplaces fuel innovation and the biggest winners of consumer tech will be those that have fully integrated and innovated upon today’s top business models.
The next generation of category defining consumer tech will come from Data + Efficiency + Experience = ?
Data to understand. Efficiency to execute. Experience to make it real.
I’m curious if the big consumer media companies of today strategically set out to create these competitive moats, or if they stumbled upon them.
Chris Dixon argues that Instagram is one of the easiest examples to understand. At the time, Instagram was the best place to get free filters for photos. He argues that users came for the filter, but stayed for the network. What started as a tool (the filter) turned into a network (feed). The network enabled a premier online marketplace for programmatic advertising and retail sales.
Snapchat, on the other hand, hasn’t made it there yet. With their recent UI overhaul to cater to third party publishers, and a prophecy to remain loyal to its original MVP; knowing where and communicating with your close friends, I think they’re poised for market differentiation. I’m a big fan of Snapchat’s product and think it has merit in the market, but would love to see it change a bit.
First off, they should focus on creating the one place users can go to communicate with their friends. I’ll often hear my cousin talk about how she only uses snapchat to message and call her friends. Why? Because of it’s ephemeral nature!
Snapchat isn’t going to have the same scale as Instagram, but it could have a unique niche that a larger fragmentation of social media would cater to. Hell, I don’t really use IG, but sometimes am known to send my friends the funny snap…
To answer my own question, I think, as many things, it depends. I don’t know the Instagram story nearly as well as I know what’s happening with Snap. SNAP, if you’re reading this, please invest product time and $ into messaging and keeping snapchat the best small community out there.