The Status Update Heard Round the World

In the next few hours, days, and weeks, the financial and media establishment will be abuzz. Something unprecedented is happening — Facebook is going public, the largest IPO in the history of IPOs. Endless discussions are ensuing about pricing, speculations on performance. “But Q1 was slower than expected.” “How will they monetize?” “What about mobile?” “Of course the stock will pop, but can they sustain value.” Social media “experts” will be paraded around our screens (no offense to my friends :)). There will be navel gazing, chip counting, epic tales of massive fortunes won and lost.

And yet they’ll all be missing the point.

A couple of weeks ago, a good friend of mine changed his status. It went from “in a relationship” to “single.”  My phone and email absolutely blew up. “Did you hear??” “What the hell happened?” “You know, I totally saw it coming.” Emails traversed the globe. Even my parents were sending their concern. From Pakistan.

And here is the point: for 900 million people, the world just got smaller. Serendipity accelerated. We’ve all been tethered into the most epic game of telephone ever invented.

It’s an unprecedented feat.

As to what happens next? I think Neo from the “The Matrix” said it best:

I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin..A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries; a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.

Now if only I could fit this into 140 characters. :)

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The Anti-Advisory Board

Last week I did a guest post for VentureBeat on building an Anti-Advisory Board. I’ve included my original (unedited) post below.

Your anti-advisory board: Leverage for lean startups (and life)

Umberto Eco, encyclopedic Italian author, philosopher, and semiotician is known, among other things, for the size of his private libraries. Just one of them is thought to contain over 30,000 books – and among private collections, is generally the stuff of legend.

When asked if he has read each of these tomes, Professor Eco is said to have explained that the value of such a collection was not in the books that he had read, but in fact in his assortment of unread books, his “anti-library.’  “A private library is not an ego boosting appendage but a research tool.” writes Nassim Taleb author of the induction-defying Black Swan. In other words, knowing what you don’t know can be even more valuable than what you do.

Sounds to me like Umberto Eco was building an awesome Advisory Board.

Your Company’s Advisors

I’ve been fascinated for some time by the leverage that comes from distributed expertise. Building a board, whether of the Advisor or Director variety, is about finding the experience outside of your four walls that help you know what you don’t. And done well, this can mean the difference between life or death for any venture.

Take for instance a company like Evolution Robotics (one of our investments). Evolution Robotics is the creator of the award-winning Mint, and focuses on bringing state of the art robotics technology to consumer products. Early in the company’s existence, this meant partnering with consumer brands to augment their existing products. If you wanted to take your phone or vacuum cleaner or mobile device and give it the brains to autonomously interact with the real environment, you’d leverage technology from ER.

But the company also wanted to launch their own consumer products — and it was in that context that having the right advisors was critical. To help with design, Evolution tapped award-winning industrial designer Yves Behar, designer of the Jawbone headset and One Laptop per Child. To help with retail and CPG, Evolution reached out to people like Michael Merriman, former CEO of Royal Appliance, maker of the Dirt Devil vacuum. The talent and expertise of these and other strong advisors ensured the company could think through the unknown elements of a new consumer product launch, and help the engineers invent an entirely new consumer product category: autonomous hardwood floor care.

Your Personal Advisors

Advisors aren’t just for companies, though. They’re useful for any anyone. A few years ago I found myself having trouble executing on the “important but not urgent” things I wanted to accomplish. I was passionate about social entrepreneurship and film, two interests outside of my day job that just kept getting pushed off.

A friend and peer who understood my enthusiasm (and was tired of my whining) finally suggested that I put together a “personal board” to hold myself accountable. The idea was to assemble a group of people I respected, and with whom I’d check in on a regular basis to make sure I was staying on track with my personal goals. In my case, that meant spending more time to work with awesome social ventures and with film projects that I found meaningful. My personal board has also helped nurture my career and guided me through some of my toughest negotiations.

It’s something I’ve sworn by ever since.

Your Crowdsourced Advisors (aka your anti-graph)

There is a new frontier in the world of distributed expertise. We share our status with them on almost an hourly basis. They’re virtual, often consist of thousands of people, and they give us feedback immediately. They’re our social graph.

Anyone who’s asked a question to their Facebook friends or Twitter followers, or been floored by the responsiveness of the Quora community, can appreciate the power of virtual, distributed brains to help give you immediate feedback on vast array of topics.

A couple of weeks back I asked a very mechanical question to my Facebook friends and the Twitterverse related to data around venture-backed startups. While the information I was looking for didn’t actually exist in any one place, someone in my network actually wrote a script to mine the data from CrunchBase and other sources (thanks Oussama!).

I’ve used my social graph in real-time to share cab rides from airports, to connect with people when I’m visiting a new city and even to test ideas for articles. But a far greater power is to keep you accountable and ahead of the things that really matter. And in that respect we’re just getting started.

Umberto Eco is clearly a man ahead of his time. I can only imagine the size of his anti-social network. :)

Saad Khan is a partner and anti-VC at CMEA Capital. He’s a seed and early stage investor in Blekko, Pixazza, Jobvite, and Evolution Robotics. He occasionally blogs at SaadWired and tweets the anti-verse @saadventures


Filed under Business, Media, Social Entrepreneurship, Technology, Trends, venture capital

Hacktivism: Lean Startups for Change

I recently wrote a guest post for Mashable about Hacktivism: Lean Startups for Change. Let me know if I’m talking about you.

(my original text below)

Hacktivism: Startup Mentality for the Non-Profit Sector

A young hacker is holed up alone in his apartment. His face is lit by a laptop screen, monitor split between a live video stream and a text editor filled with code. Fueled by Ramen Noodles and caffeine, he codes away through the night, monitoring the latest hashtags on Twitter, never a few seconds behind the newest exploding meme, instantly transmitting the latest news to others in his social graph.

This is a scene that is played out in the rooms of countless hackers and their “lean startups” around the world. Only for the past few weeks, it could have just as easily described an entirely new, organic, philanthropic phenomenon: Hacktivism.

Hacktivism is the use of hacking and the startup mentality to tackle and support social good. Here’s a look at some of the minds behind hacktivism and ways that it is helping causes worldwide.

Welcome to the Hacktivism Era

I was invited to Washington, D.C. for the Tech@State: Open Source event hosted by the Office of e-Diplomacy at the State Department. Rather than besuited C-SPANers, geeks from around the world had descended on D.C. to intermingle with practitioners of statecraft. It was also unusual for another reason — a hemisphere away, a million Egyptians had descended on a main square in Egypt and demanded of their government and the world that their voices be heard. A couple of hours into that Friday morning, they got just that when Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down after 30 years.

In a cosmic coincidence (the event had been planned for weeks), I was on a panel two hours later discussing the political implications of new media with people like Habib Haddad, one of the many volunteers involved with the AliveInEgypt initiative and recently vindicated friend of Wael Ghonim (the Google employee who had, until very recently, been incarcerated). The panel also included Katherine Maher, ICT program officer at the National Democratic Institute, and Mark Toner, deputy spokesperson for the State Department.

Consider the propagation of organic efforts like AliveInEgypt. When Internet activity had been shut down in Egypt, volunteers from Google and Twitter launched international lines that one could call to leave voicemails that would then be tweeted out with location hashtags. The creators of AliveInEgypt set up a crowdsourced translation service to take those mostly Arabic voicemails and convert them to text in as many languages as possible in the Twittersphere. Loosely organized, geographically dispersed, and entirely volunteer-driven, hundreds of people contributed.

This Visualization of the Egyptian Twitter Sphere helps put into context the various efforts. Its designer, Kovas Boguta, called me a few days before I went to D.C. saying he wanted to do something useful for the Egyptian cause. We discussed what was possible over the phone, and three days later I was showcasing his #Egypt visualization on a big screen at the State Department.

Another interesting example is the OpenMesh project. It’s a virtual collaboration with the objective of developing a communication solution for when Internet and/or mobile communications are shut down as they were in Egypt recently. Among the many options being explored are ad hoc mesh networking solutions that enable peer-to-peer communications.

These are just a few examples of how entrepreneurial creativity has been unlocked over the past few weeks to respond to a higher cause. Blekko launched a new slashtag on Egypt; others are creating Gov 2.0 apps. I suspect countless ideas and plans are hatching in cubicles everywhere.

A New Kind of Activism

The events of the last few weeks have clearly galvanized a new kind of lean entrepreneurial activism. It’s enabled by the same drivers as lean startups: Free software, pay-as-you-go data centers and social distribution channels. But these entrepreneurs aren’t trying to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. What drives them is the desire to effect change, a sense of digital empowerment and an intuition that we are at a unique moment in history, one where generational transfers of leadership are at stake and increasingly possible.

Underlying much of this energy is an unprecedented global solidarity among people traditionally separated by thousands of miles of physical space and cultural artifacts. It’s forged by a very visceral empathy that comes with directly shared images and personal connections that today’s technology enables. Tens of thousands of people followed the unfolding saga of Ghonim’s capture and redemption on Twitter and Facebook. They saw what he saw and read what he was thinking. They watch. They connect. And then they want to do something about it.

Make no mistake, these people are entrepreneurs. They are agitators, opportunists, and catalysts for change. They measure success one follower at a time. I for one, think it’s time to get behind them. Let’s start activist hackathons, organize Startup Weekend “.gov Edition,” and engineer for a higher cause. We just might start a new kind of revolution.

Saad Khan is a hacktivist and Partner at CMEA Capital. He’s a seed and early stage investor in companies like Blekko, Pixazza, Jobvite, and Evolution Robotics. He blogs at SaadWired and conversates on Twitter @saadventures. If you’re a hacktivist, reach out to him — he wants to help connect all of you.


Filed under Business, Media, Middle East, Social Entrepreneurship, Technology

Why the Arab World needs Heroes

As a number of friends may know, I’ve been on a pretty aggressive travel schedule over the last couple of months. Its been a blur, but I finally put some thoughts together about my most recent trip to the Middle East.

The folks at Forbes were kind enough to let me share it in my third guest post for them. It’s a little longer than usual, but I’m anxious to hear what you think about it.

(text of the article below)

The Arab World Needs (Entrepreneurial) Heroes

Jan. 20 2011 – 8:23 pm | 345 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments
Posted by Eric Savitz

Saad Khan: We can be heroes.

Written By Saad Khan

Dubai is a city that defies the laws of physics. It is a place where architects are regularly commissioned to build the Dali-esque. Tallest building in the world? Check. Islands in the shapes of Palm Trees? Done. Want Whistler-like ski conditions in a shopping mall or an underwater hotel? Double check. It has more cranes than any city in the world today with the exception of Shanghai. Its airport terminals are a microcosm of the city-state:  epic in size, unabashedly commercial and catering to a cross-section of humanity that is simply unparalleled (how exactly do Seychellois communicate with Ethiopians?)

In the middle of the barren desert, Dubai has built one of the most impressive balance sheets of hard assets in the world. It is the showcase for entrepreneurial vigor (and renewal) in the Middle East. Yet in 2010, it was barely rescued by its neighbor Abu Dhabi from the verge of bankruptcy. So what gives?

Simple. Dubai, like much of the region, needs heroes.

A few weeks back I presented at the 2010 Celebration of Entrepreneurship conference, hosted by Arif Naqvi’s Abraaj Capital. The conference was a first of a kind Pan-regional unconference (a cross between TED and TechCrunch for the Middle East). Over 2,000 entrepreneurs, innovators and stakeholders in the region’s were buzzing to connect, share and hear the stories and lessons learned from entrepreneurial practitioners from around the world. Silicon Valley personalities like Mike Cassidy, Joi Ito, and my colleague Jim Hornthal, talked about their experiences, alongside regional innovators like Osman Sultan, CEO of du, a telco in the United Arab Emirates. Everyone shared pages from their playbook and themes that are all-too-familiar for Silicon Valley types, including embracing lessons from failure, failing forward, and nurturing a culture that encourages risk-taking.

My own talk was entitled “Why Entrepreneurs are the New Asset Class,” a follow-up to a meme I’ve written about before for Forbes. I discussed the characteristics that I’ve seen in people, some of whom I’ve invested in, that personify great entrepreneurs. I mentioned the stories of Rich Skrenta, Tim Westergren, Renaud Laplanche, Salman Khan, and Leila Janah – all of whom embody the spirit of entrepreneurs for me in different ways. Yet I realize now that their stories, while instructive, fail to stir local imaginations in one distinct way — they aren’t homegrown.

The new Archetype

But there are many stories that are. Take conference co-host and entrepreneur turned uberangel investor Fadi Gandour. His is a story of a local Jordanian boy who made good. Fadi is the founder and CEO of Middle Eastern logistics company Aramex, the “FedEx of the Middle East.” Gandour’s prominence as a local entrepreneur is now only eclipsed by his role as an angel investor and enabler for young entrepreneurs across the region. Walking the conference floor with Fadi is an unending sequence of high-fives, broad smiles and a friendly arm around countless young entrepreneurs seeking advice from his playbook and funding from his checkbook.

As an angel investor, his story intersects with another local success, Jordanian Internet pioneer Maktoob, the leading Arabic language portal, which was acquired by Yahoo in 2009. Virtually every local entrepreneur I meet, digital aficionado or not, knows the story by heart: two local Jordanians Samih Toukan and Hussam Khoury, bootstrap their way from consulting company to web developers, to an Arabic web email service. They expand the vision to build the Yahoo of the Arab world, and after years of lean-living, Yahoo completes the endorsement and buys the company in a deal rumored to be somewhere north of $100 million. As a mentor and investor, Fadi tells the story on his blog. Young entrepreneurs use this as their fuel to be the next success story from the region.

Then there are the stories of ex-pats coming back to the region. Take Usama Fayyad, formerly Chief Data Officer at Yahoo. Usama came to the U.S. to earn his PhD in data mining, now perhaps the most coveted expertise for anyone in the web business. Usama joined Yahoo through an acquisition of his former company, the DMX Group, a data mining and technology company, and then became the executive responsible for Yahoo’s data strategy and much of their research organization.

He recently launched a startup incubator in his hometown of Amman, Jordan, called Oasis500. I had a chance to visit Oasis500 to meet some of their entrepreneurs. What struck me most was how each entrepreneur I met had a distinct, plausible vision. They are clearly self-assured, fueled by the transitive property of success – if their benefactor can do it, so can they.

Creating the next origin myth

One local entrepreneur has taken this notion of Arab heroes to heart. Naif Al-Mutawa, Founder and CEO of the Teshkeel Media Group, is the creator of “The 99,” a comic book about super-heroes that are derived from local cultural motifs. “The 99” is a reference to the 99 Names of God, attributes that are commonly used in Islamic literature to describe the Almighty. Most recently characters from the 99 have teamed up with their seasoned compatriots across the Atlantic from the Justice League of America – Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman – to take crime fighting globally. One of many firsts for Muslim superheroes.

Yet the majority of the conversations I had with young entrepreneurs touched on one of the main challenges to forging new paths, namely a culture of convention. It came across from a young lady who had recently moved to Dubai from Pakistan. An established marketer by training, she was now struggling with how to leave her well-heeled job to create her own brand identity firm. From a cushy job at a multinational firm to now sleeping on a friends couch, it was clearly as much a social struggle as a financial struggle to make the shift from the gainfully employed to the gainfully happy.

In a region where nearly two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30, an emerging generation is struggling to reconcile convention with a unique vision for their future. They are about to enter the workforce, and they need new examples. They also need jobs: by some accounts 80 million new jobs have to be created to accommodate their entry in the next 20 years.

This is the very real challenge facing Arab governments. Regional leaders have publicly and privately expressed an agenda to move their economies into the next era, an era beyond oil dependence – and that requires embracing change.

The good news is that the Arab World has a rich and ancient tradition of innovation. From this unique confluence of geography and peoples have emerged some of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs and innovators including the creators of the first civilizations in Mesopotamia, mathematicians (Al-Khwarizmi for example, was the creator of ‘algebra’ and the term ‘algorithm”), the inventors of optics (“The Treatise on Optics” was written by Hassan Ali Aitan), pioneers in medicine (Rhazes, Avicenna, and Averoes, authors of “Havi”, “The Book of Healing”), and astronomers (Al-Biruni introduced the possibility of the earth‘s rotation on its own axis 500 years before Galileo). The oldest surviving universities in the world today are in the region, such as Al-Azhar in Cairo, and polymaths from Edward Said to the inventor of ice-cream cones can be traced there.

So rather than embark on the next real-estate development, or free trade zone, or embellishing the regional balance sheet with the next physical asset, perhaps it’s time to reclaim this legacy. It’s time to celebrate homegrown iconoclasts.

It’s time to celebrate your heroes.

Saad Khan is a Partner at investment firm CMEA Capital and leads their seed initiative and investments in the heroic entrepreneurs behind  Pixazza, Blekko, Jobvite, and Evolution Robotics. You can follow him on Twitter @saadventures or read his blog at


Filed under Business, Middle East, Technology, Trends, venture capital

The Like-ification of 2011

Earlier this week, I wrote a guest post on VentureBeat on the Like-ification of 2011 and start-up opportunities for entrepreneurs that can figure out how to leverage what we “like”.

The piece was picked up and re-posted in the New York Times. Ironically, you couldn’t “like” it in either place. Feel free to do so below. :)

(text below)

The Like-Ification of 2011

By SAAD KHAN of VentureBeat

A few weeks ago, I was listening to my car radio and had a surreal moment. Driving down Highway 101, I heard my jam, and reached for my iPhone to press a “like” button. I quickly realized the absurdity of my action — this was, in fact, my very analog car radio.

Nonetheless, I proceeded to spend the rest of the day “like-ing” stuff I came across in the real world: someone brought cupcakes into a meeting — “like”; I heard an awesome company pitch — “like”; I colluded with marauding investors on seed valuations for Y Combinator companies, “like” (and tweet cc @arrington). Every time, it was as if I had given myself a virtual high-five and couldn’t wait to share it.

Clearly Facebook has trained me well.

Do I sound crazy? Maybe, but I’m not alone. According to All Facebook, last July more than 65 million people were “like-ing” stuff on a daily basis. That’s more than 17.5 billion “likes” over nine months (assuming a constant rate and no growth of Facebook traffic). In September, Mashable reported that the “like” button is now present on over 2 million sites around the Web. That’s a lot of new data about user intent, and it’s growing. Not bad for a feature that rolled out only nine months ago.

If 2010 was about gamification, then 2011 will belong to people who can figure out what to do with what we like.

Like-ification of the Web

“Likes” and the social graph that creates them represent a new contextual layer on top of the existing web. It’s a layer that brings new opportunities for discovery and personalization in a world where noise is expanding much faster than signal (see last week’s fire in the blogosphere about Google’s losing battle against spam). This has significant implications in areas like search. Bing and Blekko have already announced integration of “like” data into search results to help improve discovery and relevance. Expect better utilization of this data and new discovery services to follow suit.

Like-ification of advertising

The holy grail in advertising is when the content is the advertising and vice versa. “Like” data gives advertisers the ability to personalize their message to an audience of one and target messages only to those that have expressed intent and interest. While Facebook itself is in pole position to leverage this data, in the rapidly expanding display advertising business, like-ification also has big implications for other stakeholders in the space. Retargeting vendors like AdRoll, Retargeter, and TellApart are already using your click history as a proxy for consumer intent, and data vendors like BlueKai and eXelate are building intent data about consumers all around the web.

While I expect to see continued vigorous privacy debates as consumers lobby for the proper controls over their data, imagine the value of explicit social expressions of consumer interest as the display ad market continues to heat up in 2011.

Like-ification of the real world

Finally, “likes” are coming out of their digital cage and into the analog world. Digital metadata is being layered onto the physical world. And ubiquitous access to sensor-laden mobile devices means that user data and intent is now being captured about physical locations like “check-ins” on Foursquare and Facebook Places, personal activity with Nike Fit and FitBit, the things we buy on apps like StickyBits, and even the stuff we see (it’s not just TV — remember this awesome Word Lens translation demo?).

Smart devices are growing in number and even more stacked with real robotics capabilities (Near Field Communications chips, image recognition) embedded at consumer price points. Our personal devices can increasingly perceive the physical world, and it’s not hard to imagine the physical world increasingly recognizing us. My Xbox Kinect already authenticates my face and pairs it with my player profile. Imagine what that could mean for your status updates.

Big changes are afoot in 2011. I think entrepreneurs are going to heart them.

Saad Khan likes his day job as a seed investor at CMEA Capital and giving love to his portfolio companies Blekko, Pixazza, Evolution Robotics, and Jobvite. You can  follow him on Twitter @saadventures


Filed under Business, Media, Technology, Trends, venture capital

Entrepreneurs are Still the New Asset Class (I didn’t forget)

I’ve been overwhelmed by the responses I received to my Forbes piece a few weeks back, Entrepreneurs are the Next Asset Class, where I discussed the prospects of investing in entrepreneurs directly, not companies.  Many thanks to all the people who took the time to read, tweet, and comment.

While the post is based on some general sentiments that I’ve internalized for some time, I’ll be the first to admit that on the mechanics of investing directly in people, I’m several pivots away from a nugget. Having said that, I do think it’s possible and am going to be writing a number of posts on the topic in the coming weeks.

In the meanwhile, I had to share this email I received over the weekend:

“Imagine investing in the future of Lebron James when he was 10, or K rod , or any highly paid sport star. I have a 12 yr old boy in Florida that plays baseball all year. He weighs 150 pds, hits a ball 210 ft, throws left and very accurate. Do the research on left handed pitchers in MLB and what the earning potentials are. If you would like to know more, or just know someone that invest in the future of sports players, please e mail me. Thank you.”

150 lbs at 12? Man, I barely cracked 150 after I got married. :) If anyone has any ideas for him, let me know and I’ll be happy to connect you.

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12 hour contest — Why I have to See “The Social Network” (winner(s) get ticket for Private Screening this Thursday)

OK. So I’m having so much fun with this arbitrary contest on Facebook, that I decided to bring it to my blog as well.

The clock is ticking on an capricious 12 hour Contest I’ve dubbed, WHY I HAVE TO SEE –The Social Network–".

Best responses to that question get free tickets to a private screening I’m co-hosting this Thursday with StartupDigest at 6:30pm (I’ve saved a handful for my morbid pleasure :) )

Details below:

Join us for a Private Pre-Release Showing of "The Social Network"

“The Social Network” is one of the most anticipated movies for geeks this year. If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, watch it here.

The movie officially comes out to the public on October 1st, but we worked out a deal with Sony Pictures and AMC Entertainment to get a private pre-release showing of the movie just for StartupDigest subscribers on September 30th at 7pm at the Metreon Theater in San Francisco.

Thanks to Matt Bartus and Ted Hollifield of Dorsey & Whitney and Saad Khan of CMEA Capital, we have an entire theater to ourselves and all of the movie tickets are free. UberCab is hooking us up with a discount (use code SDSF10) on sweet rides to and from the theater too. We have 200 tickets available and we need everyone attending to register.


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