Tag Archives: TechCrunch

Can Stories be True When They’re False?

So it turns out that Jenny whiteboard quitting was a hoax. The Jet Blue guy with the chute exit and the beer wasn’t. I posted about both of them here Wednesday. Jenny Whiteboard CorrectedYou can read in that post that I suspected Jenny was fiction. I said so then, and I hedged my bets.

The two brothers who run thechive.com contrived the Jenny whiteboard story, hired an actress, scripted it, shot it, and put it on their site as a real thing. TechCrunch has all the details, with more on the actress and the brothers.

The Jet Blue guy, meanwhile, has been charged with a couple of felonies.

The coincidence of Jenny and Jet Blue together is a great example of stories: the power of stories, and the truth of stories.

William Blake wrote:

Anything which is possible to be believed is an image of truth.

And Harvey Cox wrote:

All human beings have an innate need to hear and tell stories and to have a story to live by.

So I ask: don’t you think Jenny’s story, although it was contrived, had useful impact?  Wasn’t it contagious media at its best? Doesn’t it have real meaning in business, a lesson about how and how not to treat people, a morality play, with relevant details like the part about the online snooper utility? Isn’t there a golden rule lesson in there?

And what’s the impact of the element of hoax? Did they lie to us, and does that make us angry, and make the story less true? I have no issue with that with Jenny because of the way it was presented. If I’d read it as fact in the  New York Times or Huffington Post I might react differently. We don’t like to be lied to. But if you go back and look at the original, nobody’s really lying there. They are not claiming it’s fact. And maybe I’m not all self righteous about it because I guessed it early and didn’t get burned.

And then there’s the Jet Blue guy: didn’t it strike a chord as well, in about the same way? I noticed CNN had a whole piece on flight attendants venting, which wouldn’t have been news without his spectacular exit. Would this one have been less valid as a hoax? Maybe, right? But this one actually happened.

And those two related flurries of attention: is the one based on story less valid than the one based on fact? There is a journalism element to this combination of stories, I believe. We expect truth, not stories, when it comes from professional journalists. Right? But John and Leo Resig, authors of the Jenny whiteboard story, don’t pretend to be journalists.

My point here: good stories told well communicate a very important variety of truth. That’s true for business and the rest of life too. Even if they aren’t true on the surface, they can be true in a deeper and more important way. Did The Godfather or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Moonstruck have to be documentaries to be true and useful? Are Othello or MacBeth only valid if they’re factually true?

(Image credit: thanks to TechCrunch.)

With or Without Paper, the News Lives On. I hope.

As the newspaper business seems to die slowly, I console myself with the idea that journalism isn’t dying with it. The Huffington Post is booming. The New York Times will bring in about $350 million this year. The new iPad shows us how we can spread the paper in front of us with coffee and a newspaper in the morning. There’s hope. They capped the stupid oil spill overnight. Maybe they’ll cap the journalism spill too. Eventually.

I wish I knew who I’m quoting here, but I don’t. Somebody mentioned this quote to me recently:

I don’t care about newspapers. I do care about journalism.

iPad NewsWhat if news didn’t come on mashed-up trees? What if it came online instead? What if the iPad is the future of the daily newspaper? I can still sit with my coffee and page through the news. Sort of.

Can we survive with a few big online news organizations, but no newspapers?

In that case, who’s going to cover the city council meeting? Who’s going to spend months doing investigative reporting? And who’s going to pay the salaries of the people spending months on investigative reporting?

Meanwhile the Huffington Post, by far the most successful news business of the last half decade, is paying journalists full time incomes to develop the news. They have a handful of their own correspondents. That’s not the answer to those questions, but it is a start.

And I read this morning on TechCrunch how Ex-Google News, Bing Engineers Set Out To Build ‘Newspaper Of The Future’. Oh the irony: my stream of consciousness goes from TechCrunch to blogs to declining print advertising to slow death of newspapers; and I read about it in TechCrunch.

And, then, without hesitation, I signed up for both the apps mentioned, Apollo and Pulse, to go with my New York Times, Huffington Post, CNN, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, NPR, and SkyGrid. So it’s not like I won’t have news. And local news? That icon in the lower left of my iPad picture above is the Eugene Register Guard, which is my local newspaper. Now, as long as the local paper can figure out how to survive on its online revenues … sigh…

No, I’m not suggesting the iPad is the big answer or magic solution. It’s mostly just a good illustration. This is a long-term change of worldwide news landscape, and the iPad is significant here because this is how things are going to be. The iPad will have good competition soon enough. Let’s hope it does, and that the competition generates money for news organizations, so that the journalism survives.

The Curious Paradox of Copying and Creativity

A couple of months ago I picked up this post on TechCrunch, which sort of accuses Apple of copying its iBooks application for the new iPad.

clonesI hate business copycats. Drives me crazy. As Palo Alto Software’s Business Plan Pro grew up, others copied our tag lines, our packaging, and the software. I hated that.

In the retail business you have some companies who live on copying packaging. They put imitation products inside imitation packages to fool people, so they get the wrong thing. I hate that. How do they live with themselves?

But it’s not illegal.

And it’s also the history of innovation. From VisiCalc to SuperCalc to Lotus 1-2-3 to Quattro Pro to Microsoft Excel, copying makes things better. From CP/M to DOS to Windows, copying makes things better. The original Macintosh operating system borrowed from an earlier mouse and window system developed by Xerox. The iPod was not the first MP3 player, nor is the iPad the first tablet computer. These were not new ideas, but they were improvements.

And all the cool new phones now are copying the iPhone.

Do we hate the people who copy ideas? We all do it. Kids learn their moves in sports by copying other kids. We learn to write better by copying writing we like. We learn to get along with people by copying people.

The entire history of human creativity is built on copying. What, if not copying, is the cause of those identifiable periods in music and art and writing, like the Baroque or Renaissance? What except copying makes Gothic cathedrals? Try to name a good movie that didn’t borrow from some earlier movie. Even Shakespeare was often redoing older classical themes.

And yet, when I look at all the stuff in the market that’s copying something else, it makes me mad. Do your own thing. Be original. Make it better. Don’t just copy my thing. Even if it’s barely legal, it’s still sleazy.

A lot of great art starts with copying, borrowing themes, ideas, and so on. But business, starting with one idea and adding to it, making it better, creating new things based on old things, that’s progress. Business copying, looking like somebody else just to steal some respect, is just bad business.

I’m glad cool new innovations based on existing stuff succeed. I hope all sleazy business copies fail.

(Images: galtiero boffi, Konstantin L/Shutterstock)

Immigrants, Job Creation, Good and Bad Politics

It’s about time. In the midst of cloudy partisan politics and shouting on both sides, with small business often in the middle like the foil for the arguments, here’s a federal government move that makes sense. TechCrunch has a good summary, called The Startup Visa: Create Jobs, Get A Green Card. As we used to say in the 60s, “right on!” Here’s a quick summary:

The Startup Visa Act of 2010 would create a two year visa for immigrant entrepreneurs who are able to raise a minimum of $250,000, with $100,000 coming from a qualified U.S. angel or venture investor. After two years, if the immigrant entrepreneur is able to create five or more jobs (not including their children or spouse), attract an additional $1 million in investment, or produce $1 million in revenues, he or she will become a legal resident.

Immigrants are by definition people who move themselves from where they were to where we are to improve their lives. I’m very glad to welcome them into our society and our economy with open arms. And entrepreneurs in the mix are good for all of us. More competition, sure, but bring it on. New customs, new languages, more mix, that’s great too. We all win. Variety is the spice of life, and xenophobia is pretty much a euphemism for some ugly bigotry.

If the merits of this idea aren’t completely obvious to you, I suggest you search Google for “immigrants create jobs” and read the first four or five hits that come up, as shown in my illustration here.

For the record, I don’t like writing about government small business policies in this blog. Almost all of it is just partisan politics, divided in the ugly and thoughtless way so much of our discourse is in this country. First you take sides, then you think. Put forth talking points instead of discussion. If I say something good about the current SBA it’s because I’m pro-Obama. If I criticize it’s because I’m against Obama. And so forth.

But this one seems so obviously good for all that I can’t resist posting about it. I hope they don’t screw it up with the politics around it.

Interesting Points, But Winning a Business Plan Competition is Still Better Than Losing One

This morning I can’t resist writing about Vivek Wadhwa’s Winner’s Curse post on TechCrunch last weekend. Odd combination: it’s interesting, thoughtful, well-written, about a subject near and dear to my heart, and, at least in the title, wrong.

In the full title of his fascinating post, he says losing a business school business plan competition is better than winning. imageThat title assertion is my only real objection. He makes several great points explaining how business plan contests can be good for people, and how the winner isn’t necessarily the best business, and how these contests should not be confused with reality. No argument from me on any of those points. However, even if it’s not much difference, even if it means very little, winning is still better than losing.

Maybe it’s just a blog post title thing: surprise gets better traffic. Contrarian gets better traffic.

I’ve frequently been a judge at business school business plan contests (Moot Corp, Rice University, University of Oregon, University of Notre Dame, and others) and some non-school contests too (Forbes, for example). I think they’re great fun, great experience, a real educational opportunity, and pretty much right in line with his summary on that post:

This is not to say that the contests are bad. Instead, they educate students in entrepreneurship and motivate them to come up with interesting ideas. But for all of you out there who think a biz plan victory is a ticket to the big time, think again. And for all the engineering students who think any outcome but victory is a waste of time, you also need to think again.

He goes on to say that losing is better because winning generates praise too early in the business life cycle:

I submit that losing in a business plan contest is actually more beneficial than winning. There is a growing body of research that children who are praised too early and too easily end up under-performing peers who are not praised but are told, in constructive terms, they can do better.

I don’t buy that argument. I’ve been judging these contests for 12 years now, and I see a steady progression towards more and more real businesses, out there in the real world, rather than imaginary or hypothetical business. And in that case, as soon as the awards ceremony is over, the winners are right back out there in the real world, fighting the real battles on the front lines, with no time to bask in any glow. It’s reality for all, winners as well as runners-up and also-rans and losers.

So agreed, winning doesn’t mean much; but it’s not bad.

I’ve seen some really good winners in these contests. Look for example at Klymit, or Qcue, just to name a couple. These are companies which won business plan contests and continued growing. Wadhwa says “not a single home-run has emerged from this now-omnipresent practice.” But hey, that’s placing the bar pretty high. We’re talking about a few dozen such contests per year. Is there nothing between home run and failure?

By the way, this is the second really good post by Vivek Wadhwa about entrepreneurship on TechCrunch in barely a week or so. I posted here on the first one. Good stuff. His work is a nice addition to TechCrunch.

(Image credit: Aleksandr Kurganov/Shutterstock)

Entrepreneurship, Savings, Education, and Luck

Frankly, I don’t normally associate TechCrunch, probably the world’s best-known high-tech-new-stuff blog, with thoughtful reflections on entrepreneurship; much less so with “God is your co-pilot.” Still, there it is: there’s an excellent post called God is Your Co-Pilot, and Stuff that Piggy Bank, on TechCrunch, with good information and food for thought about entrepreneurship.

The post is by Vivek Wadhwa, “entrepreneur turned academic,” who teaches entrepreneurship at Duke (and elsewhere). Early on, he says:

I’ve never been religious myself and have always believed that with hard work and determination, you can surmount just about any obstacles. But I also learned the hard way that you can do everything right and fail. Sometimes you do just about everything wrong and make it big. My belief: success is 51% luck and 49% execution. You need to execute with precision, but a little luck goes a long way. It is always good to have God on your side.

Writing about new research titled Making of a Successful Entrepreneur, he says:

Nearly all (96%) said that prior work experience was an important factor in their success and 58% ranked this as extremely important. The vast majority (88%) said that previous success and failures were important. But lessons from failures were judged as extremely important by more respondents than lessons from success. That’s right, those that had experienced failure valued it more highly than their successes.

Like all such studies, this one too is flawed, but nonetheless interesting. Flawed because, if for no other reasons, it’s about successful entrepreneurs with surviving companies, not everybody who tried (survivor bias, again, as in some of my recent posts on this blog). But it’s still interesting. Among some high points (quoting from the TechCrunch post):

  • Most of the businesses involved (70%) were financed with personal savings, not investment, and not bank loans.
  • Hardly any of the company founders ranked state or local government assistance as important.
  • 70 percent said their university education was important and Ivy-League graduates valued this more, with 86 percent indicating this was important. But only 20 percent of all entrepreneurs and 18 percent of Ivy-League graduates ranked university education as extremely important
  • The alum networks which are supposed to be really valuable for business contacts, weren’t ranked that highly. Only 19% of the entrepreneurs believed that university or alumni networks were important for their business.

So where does luck come in, you ask? Read the post. For my part, I’m superstitious, so I’m not going to deny luck for a second; that would be tempting fate.

(Photo Credit: Gary Yim/Shutterstock)

Apple Computer Role Reversal as Big Brother

What delicious irony. The champion of the little guy has become big brother.

Remember the groundbreaking first Macintosh television commercial, in 1984, with the young woman throwing a hammer into the giant video screen on an evil big brother, smashing it into bits? There’s a role reversal going on.

Apple Computer has taken the establishment role in the booming new iPhone application market. First the iPhone, then well-publicized stories of trivial iPhone apps making thousands of dollars daily, and then the application review process got swamped. And now there’s Apple Computer, the gatekeeper, protector of the establishment, standing between all those developers with stars in their eyes, on one had, and admission into the app store, on the other.

The original idea of review was a combination of protecting the software from crashing, and protecting the Apple store from embarrassment. Ever since the stories of iPhone application fortunes first broke — I fear it was with a fart app making $10,000 a day — the software developers are flocking to iPhone apps. Of course I have no special knowledge, but from the outside looking in, it would seem like the crush of applicants makes long waits, unfair rejections, and inconsistencies inevitable. I’m guessing Apple’s private-sector resources to manage the tidal wave are completely overwhelmed. Mobclix, which tracks iPhone applications with analytics, is reporting that there are more than 85,000 applications approved by Apple so far, and the wait has gone from days to weeks, and is rising.

On a Mobclix blog about the iPhone applications market, iPhone app developer Max Zamkow says:

iPhone developers live in constant fear of receiving an email from Apple with what can only be termed the ‘Death Sentence’: “We’ve reviewed your application and we have determined that this application…will not be appropriate for the App Store.”

He’s developed an app called FruitShoot Lite that lets unhappy iPhone developers (or anybody else) vent their anger by mock shooting at mock apples on their iPhones. But the default fruit target is a banana. And it passed the review.

It’s a couple of months ago now that Jason Calacanis, celebrity entrepreneur and blogger with a known taste for controversy, lashed out against Apple in The Case Against Apple–in Five Parts, in which he complained not just about the “draconian policies” of the iPhone app review, but also four other sins including “anti-competitive” practices with MP3 players, “monopolistic” dealings with telecommunications (a reference to AT&T’s lock on the US iPhone), “hypocrisy” of blocking competing browsers on the iPhone, and blocking Google voice on the iPhone.

TechCrunch highlighted a dumb-but-approved “upskirt” app last week, mocking the glaring inconsistencies:

Let me just get this straight: A hilarious satirical app made by the Someecards guys cannot get approved because it contains cards that, for example, mock Hitler. But an upskirt app is just fine? That is so ridiculous.

Yes, ironic indeed. On first glance, I look at the rising tide of complaints and I think they’re all delusional: Apple is a business, not a public service, and it owns the iTunes store, so it can do what it likes. Developers waiting weeks to get into the market, living in fear of rejection after all that work? It’s Apple’s clubhouse, so Apple can admit whoever it wants. However, as the whole thing starts to sink in, I have to add that Apple Computer has made this bed for itself, so it deserves to lie in it.

Not that I don’t like Apple. I’ve been a serious Mac user twice, first for about 10 years from the beginning in 1984 until the middle 90s, and again for the last two years. I like the Mac, love the iPhone, love Apple’s products in general. However, I’ve never quite accepted the odd phenomenon of Macintosh and Apple as crusade. The whole phenomenon of some connection between operating systems and good (Apple) or evil (Windows) has always seemed a bit creepy to me. After all, they’re just products for sale. Apple, IBM, Microsoft … they are all big companies.

Apple Computer, however, has actively catered to this odd canonization of brand throughout its history. It wasn’t for nothing that the Macintosh anti-big-brother image is part of our cultural heritage. It wasn’t for nothing that IBM became “big blue” and Microsoft “the dark side” … Apple spent a lot of thinking time, effort, and money on building that anti-establishment tinge to its brand. And it’s not totally crazy to suggest that Apple managed to change brand to aura, or halo.

Live by the anti-establishment brand, die by the anti-establishment brand. What we’re seeing, I think, with the rising protest of developers against Apple, is something akin to a jilted lover, or the famous Shakespeare epithet about a woman scorned. It seems like the backlash is whipped to a frenzy with Apple in a way that it might not be if it were some other big company, or, say, the US Patent and Trademark Office. Companies move slowly, government agencies move slowly, but not Apple Computer. The woman with the hammer in that 1984 commercial, crashing big brother and all. Say it isn’t so. Disillusion.

(Photo credit:wikipedia)

Journalism, TechCrunch, Stolen Information

This — the TechCrunch publishes stolen information flap last week — is why I worry about the gradual disappearance of Journalism as newspapers and traditional advertising disappear.

You may or may not have read about it. Somebody stole documents from Twitter’s computer and sent them to TechCrunch. They stole more than 300 memos, presentations, projections, and lots of private work about the business.

And TechCrunch, one of the premier blogs in the world, on just about everybody’s list of top blogs, decided to publish it. Not because the world needs it, not to defend anybody against anything, just for the fun of it. There’s no public good involved, not that I can see.

This is not Daniel Ellsberg and the New York Times with the Pentagon Papers, this is just business voyeurism. Publishing other people’s private stuff.

Why? Simply because they can. And I object. TechCrunch should know better.

I like the idea of professional journalism, with standards. Like what Wikipedia suggests, or, even better, the Code of Ethics of the Professional Society of Journalists. I know that a lot of journalists trashed ethics long before blogs came along. Still, at least there was a general understanding of right and wrong.

It seems to me inevitable that newspapers as we’ve known them, printed on paper, are going extinct. Blogs can replace a lot of what newspapers have been doing. So who says that ethics don’t matter in blogs? Not me. You don’t have to appear in print to be a journalist; but you do have to have a code of conduct. I hope.