Posts on culture, business and doing things the right way

I like to collect ‘required reading’ from people of the blogs and books they think everyone should read. I find it’s a good way of understanding what materials have shaped a person’s view of the world, and what empowers and inspires them. It’s also a kind of short-cut to understanding someone’s values and how they think, and subsequently learning from them.
I often find these correlate pretty well to articles that people find themselves referencing a lot on conversation.

These are the 10 blog posts I recommend  the most often when I’m discussing businesses, working culture, and how to do it right.

Paul Graham: Wealth
“There are a lot of ways to get rich, and this essay is about only one of them. This essay is about how to make money by creating wealth and getting paid for it. There are plenty of other ways to get money, including chance, speculation, marriage, inheritance, theft, extortion, fraud, monopoly, graft, lobbying, counterfeiting, and prospecting. Most of the greatest fortunes have probably involved several of these.”

Mark Leslie: The Arc of Company Life – and How to Prolong It
“No matter what excuses are made or exceptions declared, it’s the rule that companies at one time viewed as clear winners will ultimately experience the threat of decline and extinction at the end of the Arc of Life. No organization is immune to this fate. Only a select few have demonstrated their ability to undertake enough transformative shifts to extend their life decades beyond their competition.”

Ketan Jhaveri: Elon Musk: The Role of Analogy and Reasoning From First Principles in Disruptive Entrepreneurship
“First principles” is a physics way of looking at the world…what that really means is that you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there…that takes a lot more mental energy…

Nilofer Merchant: Innovation Isn’t Tied to Size, but to Operating Rules
“The key for every firm — regardless of size — is to figure out how to consistently create value in a demanding, ever-changing market. That is hard no matter what size you are, no matter what industry you’re in.”

Justin Rosenstein: Do Great Things
“We have a greater capacity to change the world today than the kings and presidents of just 50 years ago.”

Obama’s Way
“One of my most important tasks,” he’d said, “is making sure I stay open to people, and the meaning of what I’m doing, but not to get so overwhelmed by it that it’s paralyzing.”

Going Long: How LinkedIn Became a Wall Street Juggernaut
“In the wake of the Facebook IPO debacle and recent resurgence, I’m often asked about how companies should plan for Wall Street. My answer: the more you can emulate LinkedIn’s approach, the better.”

Sam Altman: The days are long but the decades are short
“I turned 30 last week and a friend asked me if I’d figured out any life advice in the past decade worth passing on.  I’m somewhat hesitant to publish this because I think these lists usually seem hollow, but here is a cleaned up version of my answer:”

Yancey Strickler – Resist and Thrive
“Number 1: Don’t sell out.
Number 2: Be idealistic.
It’s not about conquering the world, it’s about doing the right thing. When done correctly, this creates the ultimate product-market fit.”

Travis Kalanick at Big Omaha 2011
Whatever it is you’re afraid of go after it. Fear just slows you down.

Dan Rogers: Be Aggressive or Fail
Good luck getting out of the forest.

Music Discovery – Pt.2 …and where are we going?

Where are we going? and who’s listening anyway?

Firstly we should remember who we are pointing at here.
There has already been some great work identifying the kind of fans who are already spending a lot of time and money on music as summarised in a nice blog post by Paul Lamere, Director of Developer Community at The Echo Nest.
The studies note that music listeners can be split in to 4 groups;

Savants – for whom everything in life is tied up with music and on average they spend $1000+ a year on it.
Enthusiasts – Music is a key part of life but is balanced with other interests they spend about $100 a year on average.
Casuals – Music plays a welcoming role, but other things are far more important, their average spend is a quite a lot lower at $10.
Indifferents – Would not lose much sleep if music ceased to exist, these guys are paying close to jack-all a year.

Although these personas are very useful when we are segmenting the market it’s important to remember, as Paul notes,  that personas are fixed states that individuals move between depending on anything from age to employment situation, “listener categories change as life circumstances change”.
I think it’s also important to note that the savants and enthusiasts only made up 30% of the market together.
That’s important because even in the world I live in it’s easy to imagine that number is a lot bigger. From that we can see two challenges, one that concentrates on the 30% who are already fully engaged with music and then other is looking at engaging the 70%, beacause a lot of ‘nearly jack-all’ is worth a lot more than a large portion from 30%.

I see the challenge here sits across all of the Savants, Enthusiasts, Casuals and Indifferents.
 We need to help the savants and enthusiasts find even more artists to get excited about (I’m sure they are willing to do the leg-work but a little extra won’t hurt), while at the same time reeling in some time from the casuals and indifferents away from whatever else they were doing.

Paul also has some thoughts on this that he gave in a presentation at SXSW titled ‘Beyond the Play Button‘.
Here he notes the challenge for the web and online music services is to make something ‘better than radio’ by which he means  something that engages casual and indifferent listeners by understanding the listener’s “demographics, music taste and the context [in which they are listening]”.

To think about this from a different angle, I really like a slide Benedict Evans used in a his InContext keynote as a model of how discovery currently happens.
In his talk Benedict was discussing how discovery doesn’t work very well for mobile just yet. He mapped out the services we use on the internet for different states of requirement like this:

Benedict Evans InContext2014 keynote slide

It’s a fairly simple observation. It describes looking for the thing “I didn’t know that I wanted but having known that it existed I’m really glad I did” and it makes a lot of sense.
What I also like is if we take this slide and point it at recorded music things get a little easier:

Benedict Evans discovery slide for music

For the music discovery heads I’ve added some the crazy things they do in the middle slide, but for the most part the people listening are using the radio and in the US quite possibly Pandora for the final two states.

Why Radio? Well one simple explanation could be the same reason that 58% of Americans still have a VCR in their home, physical technology has a much, much longer half-life than wed-based services. But I’d like to think not.

I’m sure it’s because radio is still the best way for all 4 of the music listening segments to discover new music at the same time with the least amount of effort, while also being entertained.

So how are people discovering new music and why do I think that radio is the still the best form to do so?

The landscape

Well we are currently seeing the rise of predominantly ‘listener-focused’ recommendation services alongside streaming services, a good example is Beats which uses human recommendations as well as algorithms to work out what to play you.  I would label this as the more automated approach to music discovery because even if Beats are using humans, if I as the end-user aren’t able to identify that human than the recommendation may as well have been a computer. There is a lot of interesting activities here including seeding playlists with a few of a listener’s favourite artists and working out the similarities, or assessing whether a fan will like a song based on their previous listening history.

This approach of concentrating on ‘the listener’ and their data is both personalised and scalable. But it also has the potential to introducing a filter bubble to music listening. Because we’ve already seen that left to our own devices and  algorithm-based recommendations we become a bit insulated in things we currently agree with. And although part of the job of providing a music discovery service is to make sure the fan likes what they hear, it is also to challenge them to listen to something they might not like and leave it up to them to decide.

Another form of music discovery currently being digitised is word-of-mouth recommendations. We’ve already seen this in some great services including This Is My Jam and the late Plumspotter all the way back to Last.fm’s ‘musical neighbour’ opportunities. Despite their promise these services are yet to start turning on the casual and indifferent listener to new music for a number of reasons, partly because it could be too early, partly because they rely on you bringing in your own offline friends whom you get recommendations from anyway, but also because for the casual listener, signing up to these services is already too much work.

So what is this thing that is better than radio? and why do I find all of this exciting?

Well because right now you have Spotify and Beats building smart recommendation services based on your listening habits and human recommendations, Shazam partnering with the record industry to help understand what music the general public are discovering, while This is My Jam holds a pool of digitised peeer-to-peer recommendations, and guys like TastemakerX having a crack at co-opting the part-time music discovery heads into sharing the new gems they are uncovering.
All of this together feels like we are tantalisingly close to what I’m sure will be dubbed ‘Radio 2.0’.
But we’re not yet, and it’s very exciting to watch.

Music Discovery – Where are we?

I have always cared deeply about finding new music.

At some point fairly early on I realised how deeply emotional music could be and it’s an excitement that I’ve been searching for and discovering over and over again ever since.

The problem is; discovering that music is tough. It requires investment, it requires listening to 20-odd tracks that really aren’t that great just to find that one that blows your mind, and that’s an investment a lot of people aren’t willing to make when they could be doing 1m other things. And that’s why filters for music discovery are so important.

I often set myself the challenge –  if I were to sit down and design a new music recommendation service how would I do it?

Here’s how I’d try;

1a) I’d tap in to all the crate-digging music discovery heads who find new music for fun (like me)
1b) and all those people who do it because they also believe other people will like what they find and will pay for it in some way in the future (promoters, agents, indie record labels, a&r scouts) and find out which artists they are excited by.

2)  I’d then take all these artist recommendations and try to work out what their influences are, what’s going on in their local scene and generally understand what makes the artist make that kind of music. In short give it some more context.

3) Then I’d wrap this all up in a way that helps the casual listener, (who doesn’t want to do the hard work of finding music to listen to), easily sample the best song from each of these new artists and provide some of that contextual information alongside.

And then I realise – that’s Radio.

Or more correctly, that’s curators using the platform of radio.

That’s Gilles Peterson, that’s Tim Westwood, that’s Zane Lowe, that’s  shows on NTS radio, that’s Jo Wiley (yes, BBC Radio 2!), that’s MaryAnn Hobbs introducing a wider world to dubstep in 2006, that’s DJ Semtex… that’s all the stations and presenters who have a passion for new music and a big enough sense of self to build a community around them, but also crucially have the ear of the 70% of people who just don’t care enough to fire up a web browser or go in to a record shop, as well as the ones who do.

And when done right it is the alchemy music discovery.

There is one final very important feature I would add in to my new theoretical music service. It is somewhat counter-intuitive in the streaming word although we are seeing it more and more: there’s no skip button.

The reason for this is that liking a piece of music can take time. There are many tracks who on first-listen I wasn’t sure about, only to find that on next listen or even by the end of the song I was digging it. From also observing that in others I’ve learned that we are much more willing to give songs a chance when the effort it would take to not listen is more than just pressing skip.

So that’s why I love radio, and yet at the same time I’m excited about someone finally cracking the next radio.

Direct Messaging is exciting

One of the things I’m most fascinated by at the minute is the continued rise of app-based messaging services. This is for two reasons;

1 – Internet messaging services have always been heavily used (flashback to AOL and MSN messenger as a teenager anyone?). Their transition to the world of apps is therefore a good leading indicator of our comfort around mobile as our primary device,  potentially pre-empting a shift towards more mobile activities such as payments, in fact Line is already providing a platform to purchase, with great success.

2 – It’s a stark lesson to look at exactly how much of a lead Blackberry had and then lost in this race.

A few years ago I was paying my rent between internships with a call centre and I noticed that a lot of my colleagues would have two phones in front of them when making calls, their iPhone and their Blackberry. I made a point of asking different people on different shifts why they needed two phones and every time the answer was the same; “this one is just for bbm”.
This to me sums up the growth of WhatsApp far better than as a way of avoiding overseas fees. The first time I heard people talking about WhatsApp it was as “bbm for iPhone”. Finally my call-centre friends could be unshackled from their squat second phones without losing touch with those in their social circles who couldn’t or wouldn’t make the jump in to Appletopia.

Since then we’ve seen everything from HeyTell to the breaking-out of Facebook’s Messenger and recently three more-curious indicators of the breadth and growth of messaging; Snapchat, Stickers and One Direction.

Snapchat
When you ask people about Snapchat their answer is normally somewhere between $3bn and rude pics. However the vision on CEO Evan Speigel is something much more compelling; friendships are made by sharing and trusting people with your uncensored good and bad moments (rather than posting an edited version of yourself in  a status) and pictures are the best way to do it. It is a great understanding of how mobile instant messaging services can be used to advance communication and help establish real friendships rather than what could be considered hollow ones and it’s a sentiment he expanded on this in his recent AXS Partners keynote.

(As for the rude pictures, without wanting to sound crass; wasn’t a lot of Polaroid use initially by couples to take/share photos that they didn’t want the photo developers to see?)

Stickers
Stickers are concept that has grown with apps like Line and WeChat and is immediately arresting just because of how much money it is making. There has been some good writing on how stickers have exploded as a revenue source for Line, giving users a way to quickly express nuanced emotions that are otherwise difficult to convey through the written form. I’m sure this isn’t the whole picture but again we see how being able to convey emotions, rather than text messages, is compelling enough for people to pay for.

One Direction
I’d bet if we were playing a 7 degrees of separation ‘1D’ would fit almost every time, however here once again we find Blackberry or more specifically the Canadian messaging service Kik that grew out from it and after some initial legal issues has has already surpassed the former in registered users.

Kik is interesting as it has built itself up almost as a ‘communication platform’ where friends can play games, customise and send memes to each other and even have their own brand of Snapchat called ‘Photobombs’. A whole social interaction platform all tied together with messaging.

The interesting thing here is that Kik allows other developers to create their own apps (or ‘cards’) and recently announced a high-profile partnership with the One Directon[al] floppy-haired masters of the teen universe where fans could chat, share and unlock exclusive content from the band.

Kik has taken the peripheral activities that were always part of online messaging services (playing virtual chess over MSN or scrabble over Facebook) and brought them to the fore.

Given the diversity of products available and the average persona’s social sphere, mobile messaging is unlikely to be a winner-takes-all game but however it shakes out, the messaging wars of 2014 will be compelling to watch.