Bob Metcalfe to Keynote at Gigaom Change in Austin

metcalfeOne of the nice things about the Internet Age being relatively new is that many of its earliest pioneers are not only still around, but still doing interesting new work. Among these titans, few loom as large as Bob Metcalfe. Inventor of Ethernet. Coiner of Metcalfe’s Law. Founder of 3com.
Bob was there in the early days at PARC, and today you can find him at University of Texas promoting entrepreneurship and startups, and keeping his eyes open for the next big thing.
When considering keynote speakers for Gigaom Change, an event about the present disruption of business through new technology such as AI and robots, I wanted to find someone who had seen a new technology arrive at the very beginning and then ushered it through to commercial success, and finally helped to make it impact the entire world.
I had a short list of candidates and Bob was at the top. Luckily, he said yes.
I caught up with him Monday, April 25, and all but ambushed him with a series of questions about the kinds of changes he expects technology to bring about next.
Byron Reese: So I’ll ask you the question that Alan Turing posed way back: “Can a machine think?”
Bob Metcalfe: Yes, I mean, if human beings can think then machines can think.
And so, you believe we’ll develop an AI.
Yes, absolutely. The brain consists of these little machines, and eventually we’ll be able to build little machines and then they’ll be able to think.
Do you have an opinion on what consciousness is?
It has something to do with attention. That is, focusing the activities of the thinking machine; focusing them in on a certain set of inputs, and that’s sort of what consciousness is.
Do you think we’ll make conscious machines?
Yes. An interesting case of consciousness is when the selected inputs, that is the ones selected for attention are internal, that is self-consciousness—being able to look down on our own thoughts, which also seems to be possible with some version of a neural net.
Would a conscious machine have inalienable rights?
Whoa! Do human beings have inalienable rights, I’m not sure.
We claim we have a right to life and it’s generally regarded there are things called universal human rights.
That’s a conflict of interest because we’re declaring that we have our own rights. Actually, it worries me a little how in modern day life, the list of things that are ‘rights’ are getting longer and longer.
Why does that worry you?
It just seems to be more a conflict of interest. Sort of a failure to recognize that we live in a reality that requires effort and responsibility, and ‘rights’ somehow is a short-cut, as in we have a ‘right’ to stuff as opposed to having to work for it.
Do you believe that robots and AI will be able to do all the jobs that humans can do?
I think so, I think that’s inevitably the case. The big issue as you well know is whether it’s man-versus-the-machine or man-and-the-machine, and I tend to come down on the ‘man-and-the-machine’ side of things that is, humans will be enhanced by their robots not replaced by their robots.
So, some kind of human-machine synthesis like augmented memory and all of those sorts of things.
Well, we have that already. I have the entire Google world at my disposal, and it’s now part of my habit when something comes up that can’t be remembered, I quickly take out my iPhone and I know what it is within a minute. You know, like, ‘Who was Attila the Hun,’ that came up the other day, and they can read the entire life of Attila the Hun within a minute. Although the interface between Google and my thought process is awkward between typing and reading. I can imagine eventually that we’ll have Google inserted in our head more efficiently. And then it won’t take 10 years to learn French, it’ll take just a few minutes to learn French because you’ll just ‘plug it in’.
What do you think people will do in the future if machines and AI’s are doing all the things that have to be done.
I don’t know. I guess, you know, a hundred years ago everybody knew how to milk cows—well, 40 percent of the population knew how to milk a cow. And now, you know, the percentage of people who know how to milk a cow is pretty small and there are robots doing it. And somehow all of those people managed to get employed in something else, and now they’re UX/UI engineers, or they’re bloggers or they’re data scientists. Somehow all those people stopped milking cows and they started doing something at a higher-level in Maslow’s hierarchy.
There’s two potential problems with that though. One is if the disruption comes too quickly to be absorbed without social instability. Or, the second problem is in the past we always found things to do because there were things we could do better than machines could do. But, what if there’s nothing we can do better than a machine can do? Or are there things only people can do.
You’ve wandered out of my area of expertise. Although, on the ‘happened too quickly’ front, as we’re seeing in Austin this week, the status quo can slow things down like the Uber-Lyft slow-down initiative here in Austin. We like taxis here in Austin rather than Uber and Lift apparently because they’re safer.
What are you working on? Enough about the big issues, how do you spend your days?
I spend my days on the big issues, and the big issue is innovation as a driver of freedom and prosperity; and the tool of innovation that I’ve settled on perfecting and promoting and professing is startups. Startups as vehicles—as innovation vehicles—and mostly coming out of research universities. So most of what I do is focused on that view of the world.
Why did you choose startups as the mechanism of innovation?
Because startups, in my experience, have been the most effective way to innovate. Everyone loves innovation as long as they’re not being innovated upon, and then as soon as they’re innovated upon they become the status quo, which is resourceful and nasty and mean. And, so the most effective tools in my experience against the status quo have been these startups, which at their core are champions of innovation. I got the word champion from Bob Langer at MIT; he believes these new technologies need champions, which is why he likes startups. A startup is a place where champions go and gather resources, coordinate their efforts and scale up. So, I guess it’s their effectiveness in having real impact with innovations that causes me to admire and profess startups.
It’s interesting though that as much as what you call the status quo can slow down innovation, nothing can really ever be stopped can it? I mean, big whale oil didn’t stop kerosene and big kerosene didn’t stop electricity.
The rate of advance can be slowed. The internet is old now, it started running in ’69. Just think how many years have passed, 50 years, to get where we are today. Is that fast or slow, by the way?
I would say that’s very fast. We’ve had recorded history, and by that I mean writing, for 5000 years. We have only therefore had the Internet for 1% of recorded history. Are you overall optimistic about the future that all these new technologies and startups are going to usher in? Do you think it’s going to be a better future, or not?
I’m a better-future believer, an optimist, and enthusiast. I think cynics are often right but they never get anything done. Just as a matter of choice, without assessment, I choose to be optimistic.
Last question: Aren’t startups fundamentally irrational in the sense that the likelihoods of success are so small and the risk so high that one has to be somewhat self-deluded to undertake one? I ask this, of course, as someone who has done several.
Maybe that circles us back to your big question before, maybe that’s what makes us humans, is that we need to delude ourselves to thereby make progress. Maybe robots won’t do startups because they’re too rational.

Three tips for young startup founders from a guy who’s been there

A lot of startup founders today are launching companies fresh out of college (if not earlier). That’s what I did a little more than three years ago when I launched Glassmap, a mobile, location-based social network. I subsequently saw the full lifecycle of incorporating, going through Y Combinator and raising some capital, launching product, and eventually negotiating the sale of my company.

Here, I want to discuss the biggest pitfalls and cognitive dissonances that a student founder will likely face. My goal is to give people who might be in my situation a sense of what the environment is like, and help current and future young founders navigate their new ventures.

Mindset: Don’t get schooled

The default of deferring to the wisdom and knowledge of a teacher is drilled into a student’s head for the first two decades of life. Deferent is pretty much the exact opposite of what a founder should be. You, theoretically, are a world expert and have some unique insight into why the status quo is not good enough in whatever domain you’re building a company. I still remember making the first few pitches to investors in the middle of my senior year and walking out feeling schooled. After a couple tough questions, I’d start instinctually reverting back to being a student seeking advice.

Instead of thinking of investors as world experts in your specific domain, think of them as sharp laymen with finely tuned BS detectors. Remember, their job is to listen to the best storytellers and hustlers in the world, day in and day out. Obviously, you won’t have all the answers about the space, but you should have an educated and defensible opinion about it. And one of those defensible opinions is what you bet your company on: “Yes, people want to share disappearing photos.” “Yes, people want to crash on other people’s couches instead of a hotel room.” “Yes, companies want to store proprietary, sensitive data on the cloud instead of in their in-house data room.”

Going into our Y Combinator interview a few weeks after those initial pitches, I told my co-founders to put on war helmets and likened it to trench warfare: nothing is crossing the trench (the table between us and the YC partners) without us firing something back. 

Focus on the gritty details

Partial credit — the practice of getting some credit for showing some understanding of an exam question — has saved more than a few college students’ grades. 

Our first instinct at Glassmap, as a team of engineers, was to code more and build more and more features – partial credit by spamming features. This usually makes the product worse. It’s better to either have a strong thesis of how the future should be, and be super focused on that singular use-case (fat startup), or try a bunch of independent products and see what sticks (lean startup). 

Searching for ever-faster user growth on Glassmap, we started kludging on random social features. It took a lot of time and a lot of code to realize that we were just spinning our own wheels. Our edge was developing best-in-class, battery-efficient location tracking software and algorithms. From there, we realized we could help local businesses target location-based ads – a much crisper mission than trying to manufacture virality on our social network by adding more social features.

Furthermore, I’ve found that given a team with solid engineering pedigrees, investors will assume that product execution will get there. They’ll give you credit for that. The biggest sticking point I’ve seen in pitches from young technical founders is that they lack mastery over the gritty details for a distribution strategy to grind up customers, users and/or sales. 

That’s because, for the vast majority of startups today, the real challenge is fundamentally a sales and distribution one. For example, Uber the app isn’t hard to make (in fact, the first version was outsourced to a mobile development shop). Building out the operations side of a double-sided market of drivers and passengers is.

With the rise of more commodity APIs and infrastructure services like Parse, Firebase and Meteor, it’s easier than ever to build a reasonable product offering. So instead of focusing on which incremental feature to build, focus on the channels you have to foster and develop to sell one more unit or acquire one more user. When the user growth and sales channels start working themselves (true product–market fit), you’ll know you’re on track to “full credit.”

Using investors and advisers

Help comes in two main categories:

  1. Operational — how to design a product or how to best structure some mechanism in your business.
  2. Social — connecting you to the right people.

It’s bad if an investor or adviser is able to blow your mind on operational topics like fixing your user interface flow or restructuring your sales collateral. Yes, they’re smart and have seen a lot, but if they’re constantly coming up with ideas for you, you’re not doing a good job of being at the forefront of your space.

Instead, use your investors and advisers as connectors. Have them connect you to people who can give you money – other investors, new customers and new sales channels. That’s where investors have the biggest advantage over you. They’re older, they have more developed reputations, and they have had more years to network and make friends and acquaintances. This is where you really want to be leveraging your investors. 

Ironically enough, the people who I’m writing this for are the sorts of people who will discount experience and venture out to do it and see for themselves. I know that the 21 year-old version of me wouldn’t have taken the 25-year old version of me too seriously. That’s okay. Just accelerate the learning process: life – and your startup’s seed round runway – are too short to make all the mistakes yourself.

Geoffrey Woo is co-founder and CEO of Nootrobox, an ecommerce nootropics “smart drugs” company. He’s also an entrepreneur-in-residence at Foundation Capital. He was formerly co-founder and CEO of Glassmap, a member of Y Combinator’s summer 2011 class that was acquired by Groupon in 2013.

Will calling Boston “CEO City” make it so?

John Cullinane, who co-founded what many characterize as the industry’s first standalone software startup back in 1968 near Boston, thinks the city could do itself a favor in attracting corporate headquarters if it markets itself as “CEO City.”

Cullinane, the exec behind Cullinet, posed that suggestion in BetaBoston last week and the idea is intriguing given the greater Boston area’s inferiority complex vis-a-vis Silicon Valley and San Francisco when it comes to launching successful tech startups and keeping them around as they grow. Most famous example: Mark Zuckerberg left Harvard to found [company]Facebook[/company] in the Valley. Oh, the ignominy.

free snow 2While Boston-Cambridge remains home to a good number of tech and biotech startups, it’s seen as pretty much a feeder system for gigantic tech companies based somewhere else. [company]IBM[/company], Facebook, [company]Google[/company], [company]Microsoft[/company] have all bought local companies and in some cases leave them here, but as satellite offices.

Even such local non-tech corporate stalwarts like Gillette and John Hancock Insurance, which were once headquartered here, are now cogs of bigger companies based elsewhere. Gillette is now part of Cincinnati-based Proctor & Gamble and Hancock, is now owned by  Manulife, a Canadian company for goodness sake!

This is galling to a certain faction of homers.

To fix that, Cullinane suggested that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh woo CEOs with tales of Boston as an attractive, livable city with great transportation; world-class universities and research institutes; great hospitals, the usual pitch really. But if Boston is able to win over a couple of CEOs, there will be a network effect because, he said, CEOs like to hobnob with other CEOs whether they’re with startups or huge companies. The fact that new governor Charlie Baker, is a former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare,  is probably a boon in this scheme of things.

Per BetaBoston:

[Cullinane] added that Boston is also strategically located, with an increasing number of direct international flights out of Logan. “When you put this message to a CEO that is thinking about where to locate headquarters, these things could tip things,” Cullinane said.

Hey, he’s got an idea here I guess, but this is probably not the week to start pitching it given the 62 inches of snow that have piled up and pretty much shut down all that great transportation. Just saying.

Y Combinator doubles down on hardware startups with new resources

Citing a growing number of investments in hardware companies, Y Combinator announced today it will integrate two prototyping labs and expert hardware partners into its startup accelerator.

Y Combinator will build a small electronics shop in Mountain View, but the bulk of hardware work will happen at Autodesk’s Pier 9 space. Pier 9 is home to millions of dollars worth of equipment for metalworking, woodworking, 3D printing and even biochemistry.

Just one room in the massive Pier 9 prototypnig space.

Just one room in the massive Pier 9 prototyping space.

The accelerator’s startups will work out of Pier 9 with the help of Bolt, a venture capital firm that specializes in product design and manufacturing. Other prototyping studios and past Y Combinator startups are offering up further expertise, service discounts and equipment.

Hardware startups must take a more arduous path than new software companies, as it is a long and expensive process to go from idea to prototype to product. Hardware accelerators like Highway1 and Lemnos Labs have cropped up in the Bay Area in recent years to provide startups with basic tools and help them locate resources and factories in China.

As the internet of things begins to meld hardware and software and Silicon Valley grows more interested in more challenging “moonshots,” formerly software-centric accelerators like Y Combinator are taking notice. President Sam Altman wrote in a blog post that Y Combinator will be putting out requests for more hardware startups.

“We don’t shy away from expensive hardware,” he wrote, citing Y Combinator’s investments in startups like UPower, which focuses on nuclear fission. “We’re happy to see all sorts of hardware companies, but we especially like the ones that are fundamentally new ideas that Kickstarter might not support.”

Startup founder offers free legal help to startups hit by patent troll

Chris Hulls got mugged on payday. The founder of Life360 had just raised $50 million to expand his business, a social network app for families, when a patent troll came calling with an invitation to discuss how Hulls could hand over a cut of that money.

According to the patent troll, Life360 was infringing on its “method of establishing a cell phone network of participants with a common interest” — a description that Hulls believes would apply to anyone using location-based social networks.

Despite the seemingly absurd claim, the economic asymmetries of patent litigation would still have led most companies in this situation to pay the plaintiffs to go away. Hulls, however, took a different route and told the troll what he thought of the claim in a missive that opened “Dear piece of shit.”

That letter was sent in May of last year, and since then Law360 has been battling the troll tooth and nail in court, racking up some victories. Now Hulls wants to help other startups facing the same situation by offering a model he hopes will reduce trolling directed at startups in the first place.

On Tuesday, Life360 announced “free legal support” for anyone else facing patent claims from the same troll, an entity called AGIS. Hulls told me by phone that he thinks AGIS was once a viable business, but that it’s now no more than a shell being run by patent lawyers working on contingency.

The nature of legal support will come in the form of access to lawyers and, importantly, the trove of motions, prior art research and other legal documents that Life360 has used to win key rulings on claim construction, and stop AGIS’s early advance.

Hulls hopes that this might be a model for fixing what he sees as a prisoners’ dilemma problem that arises when startups are confronted by a patent troll.

This version of the dilemma is that even though one startup may have a good chance to defeat the patent claims, the founders don’t want to take on the cost and consequences singlehandedly — with the result that the troll wins, imposes a non-disclosure settlement and moves on to other startups.

If the Life360 model catches on, however, the economic model for patent trolling would be much more perilous since the trolls, which typically target dozens of companies, could face the combined strength of all the startups.

It’s unclear if this will work but it does adds to the emergence of creative models the tech industry is using to roll back patent trolls; another one is partnerships between law schools and startups.

Meanwhile, Life360 will continue striking back at AGIS, including through a novel false-marking counterclaim. (“False marking” under patent law lets a company seek damages if a competitor asserts claims based on an outdated or nonexistent patent).

Cloud texter ZipWhip raises $5M Series B

ZipWhip, a startup that is extending SMS beyond the mobile phone, has raised a $5 million Series B round led by Chicago private equity firm Ronin Capital. ZipWhip has a cloud-based messaging platform that’s able to route text and multimedia messages to and from any landline number, whether it’s linked to a home phone or business. Consumers or businesses can then access those messages from a browser or app.

Ringly scores $5.1M for future wearables and collaborations

Ringly, which makes a line of connected rings, has raised $5.1M in Series A funding led by Andreessen Horowitz with participation from High Line Ventures and Silas Capital. The funds will help the New York City-based startup expand beyond offering connected rings and enable collaborations to bring its technology to other brands. It will also expand its research and development efforts to pack more sensors and sense into the tiny form factors that wearables demand.

This round brings the company’s total investment to $6.1 million and includes previous investors such as First Round Capital, Social+Capital, Mesa+, BBV and PCH. The company was created in 2013 to build a connected ring that would let women know when their phones were ringing or they had text messages while keeping their phones in their bags. It’s a common problem, but most of the solutions were bulky or ugly.

For example, I wear a Pebble watch, but it’s not something that goes well with a little black dress or even a cute tank and pair of strappy heels for a night on the town. Ringly is one of the first devices I’ve seen that gets the fashion and the tech right, by cramming in a tiny Bluetooth radio, a microcontroller, and LED and motor to offer some haptic feedback into a tiny package that fits behind a large stone in a cocktail ring. It wasn’t easy.

It’s that same package of tiny tech that Ringly CEO Christina Mercando says the company will be looking at bringing to other designs and perhaps other companies in the coming year. “We are looking at new styles and form factors using the existing technology,” she said. “The tech is so interesting and we’ll be adding new features from the software side to help you stay more connected.”

She said that Ringly will “definitely” be collaborating with other designers and brands over the coming year, but it won’t be as a white label technology package, rather as a more formal collaboration that will include the Ringly brand. So maybe we’ll see a Tory Burch for Ringly design or something a bit more fun. David Yurman appreciates a chunky hunk of jewelry.

Finally, the money will also go toward R&D for new products that will require new sensors and hardware that will open up new product possibilities for 2016. Given the plethora of new sensors and what people are trying to do with them, this could be amazing or a huge letdown. I’m going to hope for amazing since Mercando spent her time designing a ring while it seems most other companies were out there designing a smart watch.

It’s not that the market doesn’t need a smart watch, but it’s so clear that when it comes to wearables that the market will need infinite variety, and Mercando seems ready to think about form factors that others are ignoring. With plans to integrate her tech into more places and different devices, Mercando’s view of wearables is one where the technology slips seamlessly into fashion as opposed to trying to make technology the fashion. For the mainstream audience, that’s the approach I’d bet on for the long term.

For more on Ringly, check out Mercando discussing how she built the device at our Structure Connect event from October in the video below:

UK hotspot startup Purple WiFi raises $5M

Purple WiFi is a wireless hotspot company that doesn’t own any hotspots. Instead it has built a virtual network of business Wi-Fi access points available to the public for free – as long as they’re willing login with their social media credentials.

Now the previously self-funded U.K. startup has raised its first outside money, announcing Wednesday a $5 million round led by former Tessco CEO Terry Leahy and the William Currie Group with participation from Juno Capital. Purple said it would use the funds to hire more staff and expand outside of the U.K.

Purple basically offers a trade-off between businesses and their customers: Cafes, stores, restaurants, hotels and even museums will give their customers free Wi-Fi access with minimal login fuss in exchange for analytics and the right to market their wares at those same customers. Businesses who sign up use their existing Wi-Fi routers, tying them to Purple’s managed service in the cloud, which handles logins and tracks customer data as well as hosts Purple’s marketing platform.

From a consumer’s point of view, when you enter a Purple business you use whatever social media credentials you choose to login into the Purple WiFi portal and then get free wireless internet access. That idea isn’t new. [company]Facebook[/company] and [company]Google[/company] are trying to build virtual Wi-Fi networks using their user IDs as the keys to unlock public hotspots and in exchange getting access to valuable consumer data.

Purple is a bit more consumer friendly on the credentials side, though, as it doesn’t tie you down to a specific social network. Right now it supports Facebook, [company]Twitter[/company], Google and Instagram as well as China’s Weibo and Russia’s VKontakte.