Category Archives: Media

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

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

Weak Signals

The following is a post I recently wrote for CMEA’s blog. You can also see it here.

At the World Economic Forum this past January, there was a two-hour session of the program devoted to the topic of “Weak Signals.”  This didn’t turn out to be a warning about bad communications infrastructure (as the crackberry addict in me feared), but instead addressed the concept of:

incipient and invisible changes of activity in a given area that are bound to have broader consequences in years to come.

In other words, a weak signal is something that is beginning to happen and could lead to a larger trend. The session explored weak signals across economics, science, and society; from the potential effects of restrictive immigration policy on America’s status as a research powerhouse, to the implications of global connectedness enabled by new communications infrastructure. The purpose of the program was to amplify the weak signals around the group, and by doing so to identify future opportunities while also recognizing possible pitfalls.

As someone who has the privilege of regularly interacting with many of the entrepreneurs, technologists, and designers creating the future, it got me thinking about activity and changes happening now that may point to interesting trends to watch in the months and years to come. Some of these may be things that we witness everyday but deserve more reflection; others may be relatively new additions to our lexicon.

I thought I’d start the conversation and introduce seven of the “weak signals” that have my antennae at attention. I’ll be expanding on them in future posts.

1. Free at last … Entrepreneurs are free at last

Much has been written about the “lean startup” and the ability of companies that leverage Internet technologies to be highly capital efficient. Fundamental enablers of this phenomenon include open source infrastructure, cloud resources, global talent, and new platforms that are available for viral growth and distribution. Extrapolating current trends, it’s clear that launching a software product will eventually approach “free”. What are the economics of this freedom and its implications for the venture capital industry?

2. The rise of “Micro-work”

The Internet is becoming an API onto the world’s most valuable resource, global talent. The ability to access not just the wisdom of the crowd, but increasingly the labor of the crowd has the potential to disrupt business models in every vertical where on-demand talent pools can fulfill the work that used to be delivered by traditional employer arrangements. This phenomenon will also enable an entirely new class of products and services that take advantage of this mode of work. How will the rise of micro-work impact business and the culture of labor?

3. Game Mechanics rule the world

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. My hammer for many months now looks a lot like a video game. The social games phenomenon is a testament to the power of well-designed systems to create massively engaging experiences, and provide a window into where the future of media may be headed (the video game industry has been bigger than Hollywood for some time now). Great game designers are experts at exploiting innate social drivers such as status and competition to motivate human behavior and create addicting experiences. These same principles are now being applied to a host of new and unexpected areas far outside the realm of traditional entertainment.

4. Social Data Mining

In addition to being one of the most efficient engines of communication and viral propagation, the social web has a power that’s only just beginning to be understood. The social metrics and behavioral exhaust of the social web, including the country-sized Facebook and countless others stitched across Twitter, MySpace and the Internet is the mother lode of the social gold rush. Embedded in all that data is Nostradamus-like potential to understand the collective activity, preferences, and even predict the behavior of nearly 1/6th of our planet and counting. This data is being mined to inform all kinds of real world applications, with some heady implications.

5. Intelligent Design

As many of our startups in the Valley and around the country will attest, one of the hardest hires today is a strong designer (think UI people, front-end engineers, product designers). In an era of infinite consumer choice, increasingly what separates the winners from the losers isn’t measured in megabits and terabytes, but in the usability that creates unprecedented experiences. But the question remains, what is good design?

6. Digital goes Analog:

Today digital technology for most people still means something that happens behind a backlit screen, whether 50 or 3 inches in diagonal. Increasingly, digital is moving out into our analog world, and becoming the mediating lens through which we experience reality. What opportunities will be created when technology shifts from a tethered and passive tool to a catalyst in the real world?

7. Platforms for the future (and the future of platforms)

It used to be a new platform would come around every 10 years, but these days announcements about a new API spring up every few weeks. These new platforms represent incredible opportunities for businesses to increase distribution and create new customer value. Yet many of these will never achieve critical mass. Is this frenetic activity sustainable and what will be the platforms of the future?

These are some of the things that have me thinking. Would love to hear about the weak signals that have your attention.


Filed under Design, Media, Technology, Trends