HuffDuffer – The best tool that probably nobody knows

If you like podcasts, keep reading. If you don’t, you can stop here – the rest is probably not interesting for you.

Have you ever received a YouTube link to a talk that you wanted to watch, but never got around to it? Or did somebody recommend you this one episode of a podcast, but you didn’t want to subscribe to the entire podcast? HuffDuffer is a service that let’s you pinpoint interesting MP3 files so that they are automatically downloaded with your normal podcasting app. Here’s how it works:

  1. You find a link to the episode or YouTube talk that you’d like to listen to at a later time.
  2. You use a handy bookmarklet to pinpoint HuffDuffer to the file.
  3. That file is now added to your podcast and will be automatically downloaded by your podcasting app.

The service does a lot more and it does take a bit of time to set it up, but it is well worth the time investment. By the way, once you have set it up, here are the instructions to add the audio tracks of YouTube or Vimeo videos.

Give it a go here.

The Internet History Podcast

What an amazing treasure trove of goodness. The Internet History Podast is dedicated to telling the story of the Internet, organised in chapters like Netscape and the start of the Internet era, Microsoft gets the Internet, Online services, … The episodes are a mix of narrative (similar to audio books) and interviews with people of the era. 

I started somewhere in the middle with an interview with Jan Brandt, the lady who led AOL’s marketing. She came up with the idea to spread first floppy discs and later CDs to promote AOL. It’s an amazing interview giving insights into how difficult it was to convince non-tech people in the 90ies how amazing the Internet was. Little fun fact: At some point AOL used 50% of the global CD production capacity for their CDs. 

While I found it weird that I haven’t heard of this podcast before, I’m happy to be able to binge on more than 100+ episodes and I’m very much looking forward to it. 

AI, Apple and Google

Ben Evans writing a highly insightful piece on the current state of artificial intelligence, machine learning and how Google and Apple approach the topic. Evans offers a definition of the term  “technology”, that I find most helpful:

“That is, technology is in a sense anything that hasn’t been working for very long. We don’t call electricity technology, nor a washing machine a robot, and you could replace “is that AI or just computation?” with “is that technology or just engineering?””

It’s a very good read with and I recommend it to anybody interested in the field. If you don’t want to invest the time, just skip to the last paragraph, which offers a good summary.

Six great ideas from Above All Human

There are some very special conferences, where the actual conference-track is embedded into a much broader community experience with very deliberate choices of venue, speakers, code of conduct and support like day-care for children. It’s a celebration of the organisers’ superb sense of taste as if they imagined a great day that happens to be a conference. With Above All Human, Susan Wu, Bronwen Clune and Scott Handsaker created such a wonderfully curated event in Melbourne:

“Above All Human is a conference for startup founders, makers, designers and innovators who want to do great things, build innovative products, and be the most effective entrepreneurs they can be.”

I had heard very good things about last year’s first instalment and it single-handedly surpassed those high expectations.

Things that I really, really liked about the conference:

  • The quality and variety of speakers — a lot of people whom I’ve never heard of or whom I would not have actively sought out, but they shared such a great variety of topics and backgrounds. Who knew I’d be fascinated by the philosophical aspects of astrophysics?
  • The diversity of speakers — apparently is was no big deal to pull off 50% female speakers, but I think it was and think it should be highlighted as an example for other conferences to follow.
  • The tone of the conference — there was very little brouhaha and a lot of sincerity. As pointed out in the opening remarks, it was a heartfelt, inclusive and honest conference. Presenters talked openly about their struggles to share their hard-won learnings and present food for thought rather than half-baked solutions.
  • The venue — it easily hosted 1,000 people and never did I feel constrained, packed or uncomfortable, which is not a given for an introvert at conferences.
  • The food — plenty, good and easily available. Such a great idea to place food all over the place instead of having one central trough where everybody crams around.

So, what did I learn on Friday?

  1. JOMO — The Joy of Missing Out. Being so immersed in the moment and disconnected from everything else that you very deliberately avoid any distractions. That was not part of the conference itself, but it came up in a conversation with a stranger in-between sessions.
  2. There is still room for growth in the Australian venture capital (VC) ecosystem. $500m was invested amongst the Australian VC community in 2015 vs. $800m that were gambled just on the Melbourne Cup in one day alone. I found that an exceptional way to illustrate that the Australian VC community is way below saturation and Australia has a significantly higher tolerance towards risk that it currently admits to startups. In that same session, I liked Annie Parker’s version of know your customer intimately: “The best ideas at our refugee hackathon came from non-technical caseworkers and refugees themselves. Those ideas had little tech involved and a lot of impact.”
  3. A culture-first company (i) knows what it is willing to suffer for, (ii) builds on a promise (a brand is a promise to a customer and its culture is how it is going to deliver on that promise) and (iii) sees a world that others don’t. Didier Elzinga gave a great presentation about why culture matters and why it is not that soft and fluffy thing, but a hard-hitting tool to drive company performance. As Didier put it “moral makes the difference between whether you get on your dollar a return of 25 cents or $3.” I wish that talk had been longer with time for Q&A.
  4. Persistence come from purpose — if you have a strong purpose and can communicate it with passion, you will inevitably end up with traction with employees, customers and investors. Kate Morris of Adore Beauty told the unglamorous story of her startup and how she got to be as successful as she is now. Long story short: a lot of suffering and conviction — it’s not pretty (ironic for an online beauty business). It reminded me of the Parker’s law: “Running a startup is like eating glass. You just start to like the taste of your own blood.”
  5. The total amount of kids taught coding by Code Club Australia could now fill the entire Googleplex in Mountain View. Being one of their volunteers that visual made me very proud, especially given that we target a very specific niche of kids between 9 and 11. Just imagine the potential of a whole generation being able to understand how code works, its potential and its limitations. I’m looking forward to seeing us fill another Googleplex in the next year or two.
  6. Software is the ultimate infinite game. Ali Rayl of Slack gave a good reminder that in hardware businesses like construction it is very difficult to continuously improve your creations, whereas software can improve infinitely. It’s a way more optimistic view of the world where bugs are constantly fixed, features implemented and new functionality invented.

There were two other sessions by internet royalty at the conference, that were just too rich to put into a simple bullet of insight (fortunately, you can find their talks here and there). The first was by Mike Monteiro talking about the apprentice model and why it might be a good idea as a designer toget some experience before joining a startup (very applicable to other professions as well — you can see a version of the talk over at Vimeo). He’s a force on stage, very insightful and highly entertaining. If you haven’t seen him, I highly recommend checking out some of his presentations online.

The closing session was by Anil Dash talking about why we should get rid of the cynical notion of “don’t read the comments on the internet” and rather start transferring our learnings from 10,000 years of building a society into the online world. In his Q&A he gave one of my favourite quotes of the day: “These companies [Google, Facebook] have all the money in the world. They shoot rockets into space, design self-driving cars and work on pro-longing life. But once you ask them to make sure that the jerks on their platforms behave for five minutes, they throw their hands in the air and declare that it’s too hard.” Anil posted earlier this week his talk Against “Don’t Read the Comments”.

It was a great conference with very insightful talks and great people on stage. Thank you, Susan, Bronwen and Scott. You’ve done a fantastic job. I am very grateful for this conference and hope to have the chance to attend again next year.

Image by Scott Handsaker at Vimeo.

Susan Kare on her history with Apple and icon design

If you want to see an example of software with a truly long-lasting impact, go watch a talk by Susan Kare. She talks about her work at Apple where she designed “iconic” pieces like the original fonts and the original set of icons. You learn so many things like why the Apple-key’s icon is not an apple, how icons that were designed more than 30 years ago are still in use in applications like Photoshop today and the difference work ethic can make.

What makes this video great in particular is also the second half where John Gruber interviews her. (a) it’s great to see somebody like John being all giddy and excited about meeting one of his heroes and (b) it is in this part that you begin to understand how meaningful Susan Kare’s work is, because she was too humble to brag about it in the first half.

Go, have a look. With an hour, it’s fairly long, but excellent entertainment and a lesson in modern history.

Taking b/s out of innovation

Stewart Butterfield wrote last year We Don’t Sell Saddles Here, a great piece on Slack’s vision. It describes how one shouldn’t just look at the product or what the product can become, but rather on the impact a product can have on its customers as this will give a better north star for product decisions.1 I’ve now read it three times and still find new gems. This time I discovered his understanding of innovation, a term that only few people are innocent of having abused (cough, cough), and how tangible and intuitive it is:

The best — maybe the only? — real, direct measure of “innovation” is change in human behaviour. In fact, it is useful to take this way of thinking as definitional: innovation is the sum of change across the whole system, not a thing which causes a change in how people behave. No small innovation ever caused a large shift in how people spend their time and no large one has ever failed to do so.

1 See also Bruce Lee’s quote: “It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

Mega post on company culture

Evergreen is a fortnightly business newsletter by Eric Jorgenson compiling great articles around a specific topic. The current edition is around company culture. It contains so many great insights and anecdotes, including this bit

When Facebook first started to grow, Mark Zuckerberg spent time asking other CEOs about some of the things they did early on at Microsoft, Apple, and others to establish culture and explain to people what it meant to work there. One of the best pieces of advice he got was to write down a succinct list of what it meant to be “one of us.”

Source: Most Company Culture Posts are Fluffy Bullshit — Here is what you actually need to know

What’s for lunch? Software is still hungry

Last week Tesla released a software update that added an autopilot mode to its cars. Earlier this year they made their cars faster – again, through a software update. GoPro doubled the frame rate of its cameras and added new picture modes. Good times, and also a good illustration of the differences between hardware- and software-driven businesses.

If you work in an office, you probably have a phone on your desk. The functions may vary, but it’s essentially a piece of plastic, with 15+ buttons and a display. Each button has a function and the functionality of the phone hasn’t changed significantly since you first installed it. That’s pretty much a hardware-driven business: The product has been carefully designed, produced, shipped … and that’s it. Ship and forget. There are certain implications of this kind of business:

  • You need diligence in designing and manufacturing your product. Once you ship, there is no turning back. Mistakes are expensive, which is the reason Six Sigma is so popular in manufacturing industries.
  • The manufacturing process is fairly complex and involves either significant capital investment in plants or complex supplier relationships and coordination processes.
  • There is little chance that the functionality changes over time. If it does, consider it a bonus and the rare exception.

Now let’s compare that with the smartphone in your pocket, which is very different. First of all, the array of services it provides is much broader. It is an alarm clock in the morning, newspaper during commute, word processor in meetings, TV on the couch. Yes, there is pretty much an app for everything.

BestReview produced a video that illustrates how much gets replaced by software. The only thing missing is the move of the computer into the mobile.

Second, your phone changes constantly with automatic updates of apps. You wake up in the morning and realise that your note-taking app suddenly can scan business cards and automatically import those contact details into your address book. Or your sound system at home suddenly gives you access to a wider range of music. Only software can do that.

Most people think of applications like MS Office or Photoshop when they hear software. But software goes much further. It fundamentally changes the way business is done. There are several characteristics of software-driven businesses that are important to remember:

  • The barriers to entry are different. Capital is no longer a major barrier. If you know how to code, have a computer and a credit card, it is very easy and inexpensive to rent infrastructure from Amazon, Microsoft or Google to get going. The barrier to entry shifts towards talent.
  • As the competitive advantage of having access to capital diminishes, most incumbents struggle to compete with smaller software companies: (a) there’s just too many small companies and you don’t know who you’re competing with until it’s too late and (b) long-term access to engaged talent is not a problem to be solved by throwing money at it.
  • A shipping date becomes an interim milestone, not the end of a project. Once you ship (put your app on the app store) you continue improving and adding functionality. This gives you permission to experiment. If things don’t work out, you can change it. Speed gains importance, reaching six sigma loses relevance.
  • This accelerates what Clayton Christensen calls disruptive innovation: releasing a good-enough product that targets an un-served customer segment (which typically cannot afford the traditional products) and improve it until you capture not only the new market segment, but also traditional customer segments. You start small, continuously improve and in the process extend the market and take over the traditional market en passant.

A good example of a software-driven business (and probably the one that most people refer to) is Uber. However, the magic of Uber is less in its app. That is “just” the user experience – and make no mistake, it’s an excellent one. The magic is in a business model that is enabled by software. They figured out a way to create a transportation business without having to invest in vehicles. This allows them to be much more flexible and quicker to adapt than a traditional capital-based business. Again: Only software can do that.

Long story short: Marc Andreessen wrote in 2011 Software is Eating the World. It is still a must-read. Companies like Tesla and GoPro, that are on the surface hardware companies, succeeded in creating platforms that allow them to run their businesses as software-driven ones. The question is now: How many incumbents will manage to successfully shift their business from a hardware- to a software-driven one? Are you hungry or are you lunch?

Photo credit: Mário Tomé / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA