Teams that build continuous customer discovery into their DNA will become smarter than their investors, and build more successful companies.
Awhile back I blogged about Ashwin, one of my ex-students wanted to raise a seed round to build Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) with a Hyper-spectral camera and fly it over farm fields collecting hyper-spectral images. These images, when processed with his company’s proprietary algorithms, would be able to tell farmers how healthy their plants were, whether there were diseases or bugs, whether there was enough fertilizer, and enough water.
(When computers, GPS and measurement meet farming, the category is called “precision agriculture.” I see at least one or two startup teams a year in this space.)
At the time I pointed out to Ashwin that his minimum viable product was actionable data to farmers and not the drone. I suggested that to validate their minimum viable product it would be much cheaper to rent a camera and plane or helicopter, and fly over the farmers field, hand process the data and see if that’s the information farmers would pay for. And that they could do that in a day or two, for a tenth of the money they were looking for.
Fast forward a few months and Ashwin and I had coffee to go over what his company Ceres Imaging had learned. I wondered if he was still in the drone business, and if not, what had become the current Minimum Viable Product.
It was one of those great meetings where all I could do was smile: 1) Ashwin and the Ceres team had learned something that was impossible to know from inside their building, 2) they got much smarter than me.
Crop Dusters Even though the Ceres Imaging founders initially wanted to build drones, talking to potential customers convinced them that as I predicted, the farmers couldn’t care less how the company acquired the data. But the farmers told them something that they (nor I) had never even considered – crop dusters (fancy word for them are “aerial applicators”) fly over farm fields all the time (to spray pesticides.)
They found that there are ~1,400 of these aerial applicator businesses in the U.S. with ~2,800 planes covering farms in 44 states. Ashwin said their big “aha moment” was when they realized that they could use these crop dusting planes to mount their hyperspectral cameras on. This is a big idea. They didn’t need drones at all.
Local crop dusters meant they could hire existing planes and simply attach their Hyper-spectral camera to any crop dusting plane. This meant that Ceres didn’t need to build an aerial infrastructure – it already existed. All of sudden what was an additional engineering and development effort now became a small, variable cost. As a bonus it meant the 1,400 aerial applicator companies could be a potential distribution channel partner.
The Ceres Imaging Minimum Viable Product was now an imaging system on a cropdusting plane generating data for high value Tree Crops. Their proprietary value proposition wasn’t the plane or camera, but the specialized algorithms to accurately monitor water and fertilizer. Brilliant.
I asked Ashwin how they figured all this out. His reply, “You taught us that there were no facts inside our building. So we’ve learned to live with our customers. We’re now piloting our application with Tree Farmers in California and working with crop specialists at U.C. Davis. We think we have a real business.”
It was a fun coffee.
Build continuous customer discovery into your company DNA
An MVP eliminates parts of your business model that create complexity
Focus on what provides immediate value for Earlyvangelists
Our Lean LaunchPad for Life Science class talked to 2,355 customers, tested 947 hypotheses and invalidated 423 of them. They had 1,145 engagements with instructors and mentors. (We kept track of all this data by instrumenting the teams with LaunchPad Central software.)
This post is one of a series of the “Lessons Learned” presentations and videos from our class.
Sometimes a startup results from a technical innovation. Or from a change in regulation, declining costs, changes in consumers needs or an insight about customer needs. Resultcare, one of the 26 teams in the class started when a resident in clinical medicine at UCSF watched her mother die of breast cancer and her husband get critically injured.
One of the great innovations of the 21st century are products that are cloud-connected and update and improve automatically. For software, gone are the days of having to buy a new version of physical media (disks or CD’s.) For hardware it’s the magical ability to have a product get better over time as new features are automatically added.
The downside is when companies unilaterally remove features from their products without asking their customers permission and/or remove consumers’ ability to use the previous versions. Products can just as easily be downgraded as upgraded.
It was a wake up call when Amazon did it with books, disappointing when Google did it with Google Maps, annoying when Apple did it to their office applications – but Tesla just did it on a $100,000 car.
It’s time to think about a 21st Century Bill of Consumer Product Rights.
Google – Well It Looks Better In July 2013 Google completely redesigned Google Maps – and users discovered that on their desktop/laptop, the new product was slower than the one it replaced and features that were previously available disappeared. The new Google Maps was worse then one it replaced – except for one key thing – its User Interface was prettier and was unified across platforms. If design was the goal, then Google succeeded. If usability and functionality was a goal, then the new version was a step backwards.
Apple – Our Code Base is More Important than Your Features In November 2013 Apple updated its operating system and cajoled its customers to update their copies of Apple’s iWork office applications – Pages (Apple’s equivalent to Microsoft Word), Keynote (its PowerPoint equivalent), and Numbers (an attempt to match Excel). To get users to migrate from Microsoft Office and Google Docs, Apple offered these iWorks products for free.
Sounds great– who wouldn’t want the newest version of iWorks with the new OS especially at zero cost? But that’s because you would assume the new versions would have more features. Or perhaps given its new fancy user interface, the same features? The last thing you would assume is that it had fewer features. Apple released new versions of these applications with key features missing, features that some users had previously paid for, used, and needed. (Had they bothered to talk to customers, Apple would have heard these missing features were critical.)
But the release notes for the new version of the product had no notice that these features were removed.
Translated into English this meant that Apple engineering recoding the products ran out of time to put all the old features back into the new versions. Apple said, “… some features from iWork ’09 were not available for the initial release. We plan to reintroduce some of these features in the next few releases and will continue to add brand new features on an ongoing basis.
Did they think anyone wouldn’t notice?
Decisions like this make you wonder if anyone on the Apple executive staff actually understood that a “unified file format” is not a customer feature.
While these examples are troubling, up until now they’ve been limited to content or software products.
Tesla – Our Problems are Now Your Problems In November 2013 Tesla, a manufacturer of ~$70,000 to $120,000 electric cars, used a software “update” to disable a hardware option customers had bought and paid for – without telling them or asking their permission.
One of Tesla features is a $2,250 “smart air suspension” option that automatically lowers the car at highway speeds for better mileage and stability. Over a period of 5 weeks, three Tesla Model S cars had caught fire after severe accidents – two of them apparently from running over road debris that may have punctured the battery pack that made up the floor pan of the car. After the car fires Tesla pushed a software release out to its users. While the release notice highlighted new features in the release, nowhere did it describe that Tesla had unilaterally disabled a key part of the smart air suspension feature customers had purchased.
Only after most of Telsa customers installed the downgrade did Tesla’s CEO admit in a blog post, “…we have rolled out an over-the-air update to the air suspension that will result in greater ground clearance at highway speed.”
Translation – we disabled one of the features you thought you bought. (The CEO went on to say that another software update in January will give drivers back control of the feature.) The explanation of the nearly overnight removal of this feature was vague “…reducing the chances of underbody impact damage, not improving safety.” If it wasn’t about safety, why wasn’t it offered as a user-selected option? One could only guess the no notice and immediacy of the release had to do with the National Highway Safety Administration investigation of the Tesla Model S car fires.
This raises the question: when Tesla is faced with future legal or regulatory issues, what other hardware features might Tesla remove or limit in cars in another software release? Adding speed limits? Acceleration limits? Turning off the Web browser when driving? The list of potential downgrades to the car is endless with the precedent now set of no obligation to notify their owners or ask their permission.
In the 20th century if someone had snuck into your garage and attempted to remove a feature from your car, you’d call the police. In the 21st century it’s starting to look like the normal course of business.
What to Do While these Amazon, Google, Apple and Tesla examples may appear disconnected, taken together they are the harbinger of the future for 21st century consumers. Cloud-based updates and products have changed the landscape for consumers. The product you bought today may not be the product you own later.
Given there’s no corporate obligation that consumers permanently own their content or features, coupled with the lack of any regulatory oversight of cloud-based products, Apple’s and Tesla’s behavior tells us what other companies will do when faced with engineering constraints, litigation or regulation. In each of these cases they took the most expedient point of view; they acted as if their customers had no guaranteed rights to features they had purchased. So problem solving in the corporate board room has started with “lets change the feature set” rather than “the features we sold are inviolate so lets solve the problem elsewhere.”
The result is that consumers in the 21st century have less protection then they did in the 20th.
What we can hope for is that smart companies will agree to a 21st Century Bill of Consumer Product Rights. What will likely have to happen first is a class-action lawsuit establishing consumers’ permanent rights to retain features they have already purchased.
Some smart startups might find a competitive advantage by offering customer-centric products with an option of “no changes” and “perpetual feature rights” guarantee.
A 21st Century Bill of Consumer Product Rights
No changes to content paid for (whether on a user’s device or accessed in the cloud)
Notify users if an update downgrades or removes a feature
Give users the option of not installing an update
Provide users an ability to rollback (go back to a previous release) of the software
The product you bought today may not be the product you have later
Manufacturers can downgrade your product as well as upgrade it
You have no legal protection
Update: a shorter version of the post was removed from the Tesla website forum
The online world can be a dangerous place for the unprepared. And it’s just going to get worse. It’s time to teach Cyber Security as integral part of the high school and college curriculum and to all corporate employees.
I grew up in New York City and for a few years heaven on earth for me was going to Boy Scout camp in the summer near the Delaware River. The camp had all the summer adventures a city kid could imagine, hiking, fishing, canoeing, etc. But for me the best part was the rifle range. For a 12-year old kid from the city shooting target practice and skeet with a 22 rifle meant being entrusted by adults with something you knew was dangerous – because they were beating gun safety into our brains every step of the way.
From the minute we walked onto the shooting range to even before we got to touch a gun, we learned basic rules of handling weapons I still haven’t forgotten. You screwed up and you got yelled at and if you did it again you got escorted out of the rifle range.
While target practice and skeet shooting were fun, safety was serious.
Over the years I would learn how to shoot an M-16 in basic training in the military, go through a basic combat course to go to Southeast Asia (when we acted like this was a lark, our instructor stopped our drill and said, “For your sake I hope the guys shooting at you were screwing around in their combat course.” It got our attention.) When I bought the ranch herds of wild boar still roamed the fields. While we were putting in the miles of fencing to keep them out, I bought much heavier weapons to deal with a charging 400-pound boar and hired an instructor to teach me how to safely use them. Each time gun safety was an integral part of training with new weapons. For me, guns and gun safety became one and the same.
Hacking and Cyber Security For consumers, online surfing, shopping, banking and entertaining ourselves have become an integral part of our lives. And with that has come identify theft, hacking, phishing, online scams, bullying, and predators online. As well as a loss of privacy.
But for businesses, the threats are even more real. Go ask RSA, Northrop, Lockheed, Google, Amazon and almost every other company with an online presence. Intellectual property stolen, customer data hacked, funds illegally transferred, goods stolen, can damage a company and put them out of business.
I think we’re missing something.
In the last 20 years 3 billion people have gained access to the web. Yet for most of them safety online remains a problem for other people. It pretty clear that for a company going online today is equivalent to playing with a loaded gun. The analogy of comparing the net with guns might seem stretched, but I think it’s an apt one. Guns have been around for hundreds of years, to provide food as well as wage war, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that gun safety rules were codified and taught.
I think we need the equivalent of gunsafety training for online access.
We now know the basic tools online hackers use. We know enough to harden sites to stop the simple hacks and to educate employees about basic social engineering and phishing attempts. It’s time to teach Cyber Security as integral part of the high school and/or college curriculum – not as an elective. Companies need to make Cyber Security education an integral part of their on-boarding process.
The Air Force Academy basic Cyber Security course is a good place to start (Stanford and other schools have a similar syllabi.) The class consists of basic networking and administration, network mapping, remote exploits, denial of service, web vulnerabilities, social engineering, password vulnerabilities, wireless network exploitation, persistence, digital media analysis, and cyber mission operations.
The web is not a benign environment
Companies, high schools and colleges ought to make a basic Cyber Security course a requirement of getting online access.
I just spent a few weeks in Japan and China on a book tour for the Japanese and Chinese versions of the Startup Owners Manual. In these series of 5 posts, I thought I’d share what I learned in China. All the usual caveats apply. I was only in China for a week so this a cursory view. Thanks to Kai-Fu Lee of Innovation Works, David Lin of Microsoft Accelerator, Kevin Dewalt and Frank Hawke of the Stanford Center in Beijing, and my publisher China Machine Press.
Land Rush For the last 10 years China essentially closed its search, media and social network software market to foreign companies with the result that Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Dropbox, and 30,000 other websites were not accessible from China. This left an open playing field for Chinese software startups as they “copy to China” existing U.S. business models. Of course “copy” is too strong a word. Adapt, adopt and extend is probably a better description. But for the last decade “innovation” in Chinese software meant something different than it did in Silicon Valley.
The Chinese Social Media Landscape diagram below from Resonance does a great job of illustrating the players in the Chinese market. (Note that the inner ring shows their global equivalents.)
The downside is that with so much venture and angel capital available, investors have been willing to fund the 10th Groupon clone. For the last few years, there really hasn’t been a demand to innovate on top of the ecosystem that’s been built.
New Rules for China Not only is the Chinese ecosystem completely different but also the consumer demographics and user expectations are equally unique. 70% of Chinese Internet users are under 30. Instead of email, they’ve grown up with QQ instant messages. They’re used to using the web and increasingly the mobile web for everything, commerce, communication, games, etc. (They also probably haven’t seen a phone that isn’t mobile.) By the end of 2012, there were 85 million iOS and 160 million Android devices in China. And they were increasing at an aggregate 33 million IOS and Android activations per month.
It was interesting to learn about China’s digital divide – the gap between East China and Midwest China, and between urban and rural areas. Internet penetration in Beijing is greater than 70% while it’s less than 25% in Yunnan, Jiangxi, Guizhou and other provinces. While there are 564 million web users with 420 million having mobile web access, 74% of Chinese Internet users make less than $500/month and are students, blue-collar workers or jobless.
Unlike U.S. websites that are sparse and slick, Chinese users currently expect complicated, crowded and busy web pages. However, there’s a growing belief that the “design preferences” of Chinese consumers are just bad design. TenCents WeChat, (designed for an international market) is the first incredibly popular app in China to dramatically raise the bar for what a good user interface and user experience looks and feels like. WeChat may change the game for Chinese U/I and U/X experience. The one caveat about online commerce is that while Chinese users will buy physical goods online (Taobao is huge), they seem to hate to pay for music or software, and the model for games seems to be moving to free play with in-app-purchases for accessories and powers. An interesting consequence of the rigid censoring and control of mainstream media is that blogging – reading and writing – is much higher than U.S.
My guess is the current wave of “copy to China” will burn itself out in the next few years as the smart money starts to move to “innovate in China” (i.e. like WeChat.)
Competition If you’re a software startup competing in China, the words that come to mind are “ruthless and relentless.” The not so polite ones I’ve heard from others are “vicious, unethical and illegal.” Intellectual property protection is great on paper and “limited” in practice. The large players like Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent historically would be more likely to simply copy a startup’s features than to hire their talent. The large companies strategy seems to be to cover every possible market niche by copying successful models from others.
The slide below from the Zhen Fund shows the breadth of business coverage of each of the Chinese Internet incumbents. Each column represents a company (QQ, Sina, Baidu, Netease, Sohu etc.) and the rows indicates their offerings in open platform, group buying, online games, microblogging, Instant Messaging, BBS, Q&A and E-commerce.
Small startups act the same way, simply cloning each other’s products. Sharing and cooperation is not yet part of the ethos. I can’t imagine a U.S. company setting up some subsidiary here and expecting them to compete while they were following U.S. rules. In some ways, the best description of the market dynamics would be “imagine you were competing with 100 companies who are as rapacious as Microsoft was in the 1980’s and 1990’s.” Eventually, China’s innovation-driven economy needs intellectual property rights and anti-trust laws that are enforced.
Sea Turtles and VPN – the connections to the rest of the world Entrepreneurs in Beijing were knowledgeable about Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship and the state of software and tools available for two reasons. First, there are continuous stream of “sea turtles”—Chinese who have studied or worked abroad—returning home. (The Chinese government must be laughing hysterically over U.S. immigration policy that’s forcing Chinese grad students out of the U.S.) Many of these returnees have worked in Silicon Valley and startups or went to school at MIT and Stanford. (There is a huge difference between the Chinese who have never left and those who went to school abroad, even for a few months – at least a difference in their ability to relate to me and have a conversation on the same wavelength. It’s clear why families try so hard to send their children abroad. It changes everything for them.)
Second, most websites that a non-Chinese would use are blocked including Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Google Docs, Scribd, Blogspot, Dropbox, New York Times, etc. Almost every entrepreneur I met was using VPN to circumvent the Great Firewall. When the Chinese government censors (run by their propaganda department) shutdown access to yet another U.S. web site, they create another 100,000 VPN users. And when the government tools to detect encrypted VPN’s get more sophisticated, (as it did last year), Chinese users just use stealthier tools. It’s an amazing cat and mouse system.
(Note to Chinese Communist party – the best name for your propaganda department should probably not be the “Propaganda Department.”)
Beijing’s Academic Hub Right next door to Zhongguancun are China’s top two universities, Peking University and Tsinghua University. Northwest of Beijing is also home to other universities, including technical universities like USTB, BIT, BUPT, and Beihang. Like Silicon Valley, Zhongguancun also has a critical mass of people who are crazy enough to do startups. Equally of interest is a good number of them end up in the PLA’s GSD 3rd Department (the equivalent of our National Security Agency. ) And some of their best and brightest have ended up in the organizations like the 2nd Bureau, Unit 61398 tasked euphemistically for “Computer Network Operations.”
While I didn’t get much time with the academic community, in talking to students, education seems to still be one of China’s bottlenecks – rote lectures, passive learning, follow the process, exam-based performance, etc. And while startups and entrepreneurship courses are now being added to the curriculum, “How to write a business plan” seems to be the state of the art. China’s education system needs to give more attention to fostering students’ innovative thinking, creativity and entrepreneurship.
Fear of Failure Though they’re familiar with technology in the valley, I picked up some important cultural difference from students and startup engineers I talked to. Even though they’re next to Zhongguancun, the hottest place for startups in China, there seems to be a lower appetite for risk, a lack of interest in equity (instead optimizing for a high salary) and very little loyalty to any one company. The overall culture still has a fear of failure. Most of their parents still tell them to work for the government or a big company.
Talent I heard from a few investors that as the startup ecosystem is relatively new, there’s a battle for experienced engineering talent and lack of experienced C-level execs. The lack of a previous generation of successful startup CEOs means the current pool of mentors to coach this generation is almost non-existent.
Because salaries are cheap, startups seem to try to solve every problem by throwing bodies at it. Startup teams feel like they are 2-5x the size of American teams. There seems to be little appreciation or interest in multi-skilled people.
Turnover of employees in capital in Beijing is very high. Employees work here for a few months and are suddenly gone. There’s a noticeable lack of tenacity in young, new entrepreneurs. They start a project, and if it isn’t a home run, they’re gone. Perhaps it’s the weather. Silicon Valley has great weather and lifestyle, and nobody wants to leave. Beijing has awful weather and pollution, it’s a temporary place to get rich and then leave.
Management 101 The board/CEO relationship still isn’t clearly understood by either party. I’ve talked to entrepreneurs who view the investors as a “boss.” A good number of startups in Beijing seem driven by the VCs – and not the founders. This might also be a hangover from the command and control system of a state-driven planned economy. Ironically investors told me that the reverse has been true as well. Some startups acted like the VC was a bank. They took the money and then ignored their board. Over time, as investors add more value than writing checks, this relationship will mature.
Creativity I was surprised that startup teams ask what seems like the kind of questions Americans learn at their first jobs.
Team: “We keep spending money trying to get people to our web site but they don’t come back. We are almost out of money.”
Me: “Ok. Why are you still spending money?”
Team: “long…silence…we need people to come to the website.”
On the other hand, for most of them it probably is their first job. And the educational system hasn’t prepared them for executing anything other than a plan. Iterations and pivots are a tough concept if you’ve never been taught to think for yourself. And challenging the system is not something that’s actually encouraged in China.
They also ask questions I just don’t know how to answer. “How do you know how to be creative? What do we have to do to be creative?” “You Americans just seem to know how to do things even if you’ve never done them – can you show us how to do that?” This seems to be an artifact of the Chinese rote educational system and its current system of government.
Innovation Ecosystem On the plane ride home I started to think about the similarities and differences between the innovation ecosystems of Silicon Valley and the TMT segment I saw in Beijing. The motivations are the same – profit – driven by entrepreneurs and venture finance. And the infrastructure is close to the same – research universities, predictable economic system, a path to liquidity, a stable legal system and 24/7 utilities. But the differences are worth noting – it’s a young ecosystem, so startup management tools are nearly non-existent. But there’s a difference in the culture of failure and risk taking – the current cultural pressure is to “work for a big company or the government.” Outward facing Universities are just starting to appear, and while there’s a free flow of information inside China, it suffers from the constraints of the Great Firewall.
But there are two striking differences. The first is the lack of creativity. The Beijing software ecosystem I saw has spent the last decade in a protected market copying successful U.S. business models. “Copying, adopting and adapting,” is not the same as “competing, innovating and creating” in a global market. Perhaps products like WeChat, designed for an international market, might be the beginning of real innovation.
The second difference in ecosystems – the lack of freedom to dissent – goes deeper to the difference between the two systems. In the U.S. entrepreneurs are encouraged to “Think Different.” Our touchstone for creativity is the Apple ad that said, “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers,… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things….” This spirit of rebellion against the status quo got us Steve Jobs. In China the same attitude is likely to get you jail time. Unless you can speak truth to power, you’ll never have an innovation economy.
Conclusion China is astonishing. The country has risen. Their economy is the envy of the world. The entrepreneurial and “can do” spirit reminds me of what the U.S. was known for. Chinese citizens are proud of their country and believe the world is theirs in the way Americans did in the 1950’s. Their leadership has shown incredible foresight in engineering an amazing economic engine and formidable military. They come so far, and yet…
To take nothing away from what China has accomplished, a visit to Beijing had all the subtle reminders that this version of capitalism has come without democracy or justice; the guards in the Forbidden City armed with fire extinguishers in case more protestors try to set themselves on fire, the security around Tiananmen Square to prevent protestors from gathering, and the “black jails” to keep rural petitioners out of Beijing. And of course the “great firewall,” attempting to keep information about the outside world from reaching inside China.
The bet the government is making is that if they can keep the economy cooking and distract the masses with ever increasing consumer goods and foreign adventures, maybe it can survive.
All of these are signs of a weak China not a strong one. They are the signs of a leadership frightened not by external enemies but by their own people.
It usually doesn’t end well.
all five China blog posts available as a download here
I just spent a few weeks in Japan and China on a book tour for the Japanese and Chinese versions of the Startup Owners Manual. In these series of 5 posts, I thought I’d share what I learned in China. All the usual caveats apply. I was only in China for a week so this a cursory view. Thanks to Kai-Fu Lee of Innovation Works, David Lin of Microsoft Accelerator, Frank Hawke of the Stanford Center in Beijing, and my publisher China Machine Press.
The previous post described the evolution of the Chinese Venture Capital system. The next two posts are about what I saw and learned in my short stay exploring Beijing’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Entrepreneurship in Beijing In the few days I was in China I met with several VC’s, angel investors, business press and spoke to hundreds of entrepreneurs. I was blown away by what I saw in Beijing. First, I was amazed by the physical impact of the city itself. This was a modern city in a hurry to make a first impression – think of what Rome looked like in the time of the empire or New York in the 1920’s – now it’s Beijing announcing that China has arrived.
However if you scratch the surface, you can still find a bit of the old Beijing in the hutongs. Drive 50 miles outside the city into the surrounding villages and you see the distance China has to travel to bring the rural areas into the 21st century. In Beijing we hadn’t seen air so badly polluted since we had been in Agra in India in the winter where I swear there was a day you could wave your hand in front of you and see traces of it in the air (and their excuse was they burn dung for heat.)
Kai-fu Lee of Innovation Works was equally generous with his time. We had a fireside chat with a room full of eager entrepreneurs. And he was generous in sharing his insights about the current state of entrepreneurship and investment in China. And through it all Louis Yuan my patient and wonderful publisher from China Machine Press kept me moving through the events.
But what made the overwhelming impression for me was finding an entrepreneurial software cluster on par with the Internet software portion of Silicon Valley. The physical heart of the Beijing startups is in Zhongguancun in the Haidian District, located in the northwest side of Beijing. Startups here are primarily in what they call the TMT (Technology, Media and Telecommunications) segment. Not only does Zhongguancun have Chinese startups, but global technology companies (Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, Microsoft, IBM, Sun, Oracle, BEA, Alcatel Lucent, Google) all have offices here or elsewhere in Beijing.
If there ever was any question about the value of China’s Torch Program walk around Zhongguancun. It was the first of the 54 Science and Technology Industrial Parks.
China Venture Capital An entrepreneurial ecosystem is driven one of two ways; either by a crisis (i.e. innovation in the U.S. during World War II,) or during peacetime by profit.
If it’s driven by profit then the ecosystem needs both entrepreneurs as well as Venture Finance.
China now has plenty of both.
China has the biggest Venture Capital industry outside the U.S. To compare the two, in 2011 U.S. venture capitalists invested $26.5 billion in all deals. Out of that total, they funded 967 Internet deals with $6.7 billion.
By comparison, in 2011 Chinese VC’s invested $13 billion in all deals. Out of that total, they funded 268 Internet deals with $3.2 billion. About 1/3 of all China’s Venture Capital investment is made in Beijing and the majority of those investments are in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) sector I’ll describe shortly.
As vibrant as the China venture business has been, 2012 was a different story. VC’s pulled back and only invested $3.7 billion in all deals, funding just only 43 deals with $563 million.
Closed for You, Open For Us First a bit of context in what the VC’s in Beijing are investing in. China has essentially closed its internal search, media and social network software market to foreign companies who wouldn’t play with the government rules on the Great Firewall. (China blocks “objectionable” website content and monitors everyone’s Internet access.)
Google retreated to Hong Kong and Baidu took its place. Facebook was too frightening to Chinese censors, so Renren is the leading social media player. Email? Working professionals/white collar use emails, but most users grew up instant messaging on TenCent’s QQ and most are moving to Weixin/WeChat. Twitter? No, it’s Sina Weibo, and if you want games with your chat – TenCent. Amazon and Ebay? Nope in China it’s Alibaba’s Taobao or 360buy.com. If you’re outside of China, you never hear about these companies or interact with them because they’re geared to serve only Chinese users.
This closed but very large market means that greater than 90% of Chinese software startups focus exclusively on the Chinese market. (The <10% that decide to go global early do so by starting outside of China. Another 10% may try to go global when they’re larger and have the resources for two languages, cultures and regulations. )
This has resulted in a completely different consumer software ecosystem than found elsewhere in the world. Given the closed market to U.S. Internet companies, VC’s in China have guided startups to execute the “copy to China” model. Thinking, if it worked in the U.S., copying a known model is less risky than trying something new and untested. The problem is that this space is getting really crowded – from the bottom up as everyone tries the 200th clone – and from the top down, as the major incumbents try to fill every possible market niche.
The table below maps the type of software in China to their global equivalents in each product category in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) sector.
A Huge Market Is Finally Real For a hundred years the fantasy of global marketers was, “ if only everyone in China would buy one…” That day is final here. The numbers of mobile subscribers are staggering – 1.18 billon, 260 million are 3G. Chinese Internet companies live in a large closed, self-contained ecosystem with 564 million web users with 420 million having mobile web access. 309 million use microblogs and 242 million shop online. (BTW, market research, financial and other statistical informationare usually unreliable in China, but even taken with a grain of salt these are staggering numbers.)
The table below from web2asia.com shows the number of users of online social networks as of 2009. Did I mention this is a huge market.
Investment in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) sector The charts below from David Lin, Microsoft Accelerator detail investments in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) sector – almost all of it is centered in Beijing. (Note that these numbers differ from the Zhen Fund data -welcome to statistics in China – but they both provide an overall sense of the market size and direction.)
45% of all Venture Capital Investment in China went into the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) sector.
The number of deals in Technology, Media and Telecommunications more than doubled in 2011 over the previous five years and slowed back down dramatically in 2012. More than 1,600 VC investments in TMT have been made since 2007, with a record high of 436 in 2011.
Internet investments makes up more than 50% of all the deals in Technology, Media and Telecommunications made since 2011, while, E-commerce investments, in turn, accounts for nearly 50% of the investment deals in Internet. Investments in Mobile Internet makes up roughly 11% of all the deals in Technology, Media and Telecommunications, and have been on the rise since 2011.
Series-A round investments dominates Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) deals, making up 60% of all.
Beijing, Guangdong (including Shenzhen) and Shanghai came out as the most dynamic spots for Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) investments.
Beijing Venture/Angel Ecosystem While Beijing has VC’s and Angel investors happy to write a check there aren’t as many angels/VCs in China versus US per capita. Several VC’s mentioned that there’s a funding gap for seed stage investments. The Angel/Seed network in Beijing feels fragmented and mostly inexperienced (as are a good number of the China VC’s). Kind of reminded me of the drivers in Beijing – they were all driving in a way that made me think they all just got their drivers license – until I remembered that they did. Car sales in China went from 1 million in 2001 to 14 million in 2011.
Other Beijing ecosystem issues I heard about were the things we take for granted: the lack of knowledge sharing (“pay it forward” isn’t part of the culture,) limited mentoring (few experienced mentors,) and a lack of open source education, and no AngelList model. In the U.S. it’s easy to share and browse ideas and deals, but in China there’s a long legacy of guarding knowledge as power, and the justifiable paranoia of someone copying your idea prevents sharing.
Liquidity Unlike the U.S. there are almost no mergers or acquisitions in this market segment. It’s much easier to just steal their ideas and hire their employees. So big companies rarely acquire startups. Liquidity for most Internet startups happens via IPO’s. 70% of exits in China are via IPO (in the U.S. on NASDAQ or the NYSE or on ChiNext, China’s equivalent of NASDAQ) compared to the 90% of exits in US via mergers or acquisitions. Alibaba (commerce), Tencent (games/chat) and Baidu (search) all have market caps over $40 billion.
I just spent a few weeks in Japan and China on a book tour for the Japanese and Chinese versions of the Startup Owners Manual. In these series of 5 posts, I thought I’d share what I learned in China. All the usual caveats apply. I was only in China for a week so this a cursory view. Thanks to Kai-Fu Lee of Innovation Works, David Lin of Microsoft Accelerator, Frank Hawke of the Stanford Center in Beijing, and my publisher China Machine Press.
The Rise of Chinese Venture Capital China’s move away from a state system that solely depended on a command and control economy started in the 1990s. The first wave of startups began when R&D centers and universities began to provide the technology and seed capital for new startups that were spin-outs or spin-offs. This could be a group of individuals leaving a university or research center or an entire department leaving. For example, in the 1990’s 85% of the start-up funds of the new technology companies founded in Beijing came from the research center or university they left.
The second wave of technology investors were Chinese banks, who provided the majority of the later stage investments in the Torch Program. By 1991, 70% of the Torch funded startups were getting bank financing for expansion and later stages of the new ventures, with local governments acting as guarantors. Like the U.S. SBIR and STTR programs, the Torch Program’s funding for new ventures was limited to seed funding the front end. Being designated as a Torch Program startup gave banks comfort to provide loans to these ventures for technology commercialization.
Technology zones with Science and Technology Industrial Parks were the third source of support for new ventures. Inside the zones were Torch Technology Business Incubatorswith startups licensed by the local governments. These local governments financially supported the startups because, by locating in these zones, the new ventures were seen as contributing to local economic development. This helped the startups qualify for funding from banks and venture capital firms.
By the mid-1990s, Chinese leaders realized that the Torch program couldn’t be the source of all capital for startups. At the same time neither banks nor local governments had the cash to finance startups on the scale the country needed. The problem was that in China the government didn’t recognize venture capital firms as a legitimate organizational type. The founding of domestic VC firms began with the establishment of local government-financed venture capital firms (GVCFs), followed by university-backed VC firms (UVCFs). (The State Science and Technology Commission and the Ministry of Finance formed the China New Technology Venture Investment Corporation in 1986, but it was a government agency supporting national technology venture policy objectives, rather than a profit-oriented private enterprise. It went bankrupt in 1997.)
A few foreign VC firms like IDG Capital Partners entered China in the early 1990s. Gradually, from the mid-1990s, the perception of venture capital shifted from its being a type of government funding to being a commercial activity necessary to support the commercialization of new technology. But it wasn’t until 1998 that corporate-backed VC firms could be established, and that started a wave of VC funds backed by government, corporate and foreign capital.
Investing in China Today Fast forward a decade, today the Private Equity and Venture Capital business is booming in China with over 1000 firms actively investing. Most of the early deals were done by offshore venture funds – with their fund registered in countries outside China and using dollars. The latest trends are as Renminbi (“RMB”) funds (the Renminbi is the official currency in China.) In the past foreign funds who wanted to invest in China had to set up funds using dollars with complicated offshore structures with exits through offshore listings. The Renminbi funds have fewer restrictions on what industries the fund can invest in, less regulatory oversight and access to listing a portfolio company in China. There are two types of Renminbi funds: domestic funds and foreign-invested funds. Domestic Renminbi funds are fully owned by Chinese investors, while foreign-invested Renminbi funds may be partially or fully owned by non-Chinese investors. Both types of funds are organized under Chinese law and use Renminbi to invest in Chinese companies.
The other big change was the creation of ChiNext, China’s equivalent of NASDAQ stock exchange for start-ups, in 2009. The market was created to provide startups and their investors liquidity. Over 100 startups were listed on ChiNext the first year of its launch at sky-high valuations (average of 66 times earnings.) About 60% of the startups listed on ChiNext were backed by Renminbi funds, making the investors of these funds one of the main beneficiaries of the exchange.
I just spent a few weeks in Japan and China on a book tour for the Japanese and Chinese versions of the Startup Owners Manual. In these series of 5 posts, I thought I’d share what I learned in China. All the usual caveats apply. I was only in China for a week so this a cursory view.Thanks to Kai-Fu Lee of Innovation Works, David Lin of Microsoft Accelerator, Frank Hawke of the Stanford Center in Beijing, and my publisher China Machine Press.
The previous post described how China built its science and technology infrastructure. This post is about the how the Chinese government engineered technology clusters.
The Torch Program In size, scale and commercial results China’s Torch Program from MOST (the Ministry of Science and Technology) is the most successful entrepreneurial program in the world. Of all the Chinese government programs, the Torch Program is the one program that kick-started Chinese high-tech innovation and startups.
In the last decade Torch managed to break free of China’s state central planning bureaucracies. Of all the Chinese innovation programs, Torch is the one that was run like a startup – iterating and pivoting as it learned and discovered. This enabled Torch to evolve with China’s rapidly global economy.
Torch has four major parts: Innovation Clusters, Technology Business Incubators (TBIs), Seed Funding (Innofund) and Venture Guiding Fund.
Innovation Clusters Industries have a competitive advantage when related companies cluster in a geographical location. Examples are Hollywood for movies, Milan for fashion, New York for finance and today, Silicon Valley for technology entrepreneurship. The early clusters occurred by happenstance of geography or history. But the theory is that you can artificially create a cluster by concentrating resources, finance and competences to a critical threshold, giving the cluster a decisive sustainable competitive advantage over other places. Israel, Singapore and now China are the three countries that have successfully put that theory into practice.
The Torch program created Innovation Clusters by creating national Science and Technology Industrial Parks (STIPs), Software Parks, and Productivity Promotion Centers.
The first Science and Technology Industrial Park was Zhongguancun Science Park in Beijing. It has become China’s Silicon Valley. (This was the area I visited in this trip to China.) In addition to the one in Beijing, China has set up 53 additional industrial parks and in them are ~60,000 companies with 8 million employees. Industry or technology specific versions of these clusters have been set up; for example Donghu in Wuhan – specializing in optoelectronics, Zhangjiang in Shanghai – focusing on integrated circuits and pharmaceuticals, Tianjin – biotech and new energy, Shenzhen – telecommunications and Zhongshan – medical devices and electronics.
The Science and Technology Industrial Parks contributed 7% of China’s GDP and close to 50% of all of China’s R&D spending.
In addition to the 54 Science and Technology Industrial Parks, the Torch program also set up an additional 32 Torch Program Software Parks.
Another key part of China’s cluster strategy was collaboration between research and business, as well as between large enterprises and tech-based small and medium enterprises. It did so by building a national network of a 1,000+ Productivity Promotion Centers. They provide consulting, promotion, product testing, hiring, training and incubation services to startups.
Technology Business Incubators (TBIs) While the Innovation Clusters designated specific areas of the countries where high tech was to occur, it’s the Technology Business incubators located inside these clusters where the startup companies physically reside. Much like incubators worldwide, they provide startups with office space, free rent, access to university technology transfer, etc.
By 2011, there were a total of 1034 Technology Business Incubatorsacross China, including 336 as National incubators, hosting nearly 60,000 companies. (20% of the National Incubators were privately-run and their percentage is steadily increasing.) In recent years Business Incubatorshave developed into diverse models. For example, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science and Technology teamed up to put 45 incubators in universities. There are close to 100 specialized incubators for companies founded by returned overseas Chinese scientists and engineers. There are a dozen sector-specific incubators (a Biomedicine Incubator in Shanghai, Advanced Material Incubator in Beijing, a Marine Technology Incubator in Tianjin, etc.) These incubators are mostly clustered in the eastern coastal regions, and disproportionately target TMT (Technology Media and Telecom) and Biotech.
Some of the startups coming out of these incubators have become large international companies including Lenovo, Huawai, Suntech Power, etc.
Seed Funding (Innofund). The best analog for China’s InnoFund is the U.S. government’s SBIR and STTR programs. Set up in 1999, Innofund offers grants ($150 – $250K), loan interest subsidies and equity investment. Innofund is designed to bridge early stage technology companies that have innovative technology and good market potential but are too early for commercial funding (banks or VCs.) Innofund applicants have to be in high-tech R&D, have less than 500 people, at least 30% of the employees have to be technical and the majority of the company owned by Chinese. The ultimate goal of Innofund is to get the startups far enough along in technology and market validation so other sources of financial capital (banks, VC’s, corporate partners) will invest.
Since its establishment, there’s been over 35,000 applications with 9,000 projects approved and close to a $1 billion allocated.
Most Venture Capitalists in China viewed the Innofund the same way most U.S. VC’s treat the SBIR and STTR programs – they never heard of it, or they think it takes too much time to apply for too little money. And with the same complaints; tedious, relationship driven application process, bureaucratic reporting requirements, and outcomes often measured in quantity and not quality. However, for startups who have gotten an Innofund grant, it does provide the same positive cachet as an SBIR and STTR grant – the government has reviewed your technology and thought it was worthy.
Venture Guiding Fund In 2007 the Ministries of Science and Finance raised the stakes to get VC’s focused on funneling more VC money into growing startups – they set up a Venture Guiding Fund. The Venture Guiding Fund invests directly into VC funds, co-invests with VC’s, and covers some VC bets. It does this with four programs: 1) A fund of funds, holding < 25% equity in VC firms, requiring only a fixed rate return; 2) the fund will co-invest with other VC firms matching up to 50% of other VC firm’s equity investment or a maximum of $500K; 3) Risk subsidies for VC firms, where the fund will be compensated for the cost and loss of VC firms which have made investments in technology-based startups; and 4) Grants for portfolio reserves, where the fund will provide grants for technology-based startups which are being incubated and coached by VC firms.
Part 3, the next post describes the rise of Chinese venture capital.
The Torch Program is the worlds largest “lets engineer entrepreneurial clusters” experiment
Torch has four major parts: Clusters, Business Incubators, Seed Funding, and Funds to support Venture Capital firms
Torch was the rare government program that was run like a startup – iterating and pivoting as it learned and discovered.
I just spent a few weeks in Japan and China on a book tour for the Japaneseand Chinese versions of the Startup Owners Manual. In these series of 5 posts, I thought I’d share what I learned in China. My post about Japan will follow. All the usual caveats apply. I was only in China for a week so this a cursory view. Thanks to Kai-Fu Lee of Innovation Works, David Lin of Microsoft Accelerator, Frank Hawke of the Stanford Center in Beijing, and my publisher China Machine Press.
Summary: I’ve lived in Silicon Valley for 35 years, I’ve taught in entrepreneurial clusters in New York, Boston, Helsinki, Santiago Chile, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Prague, and Tokyo, but the visit to the heart of the Beijing startup world Zhongguancun has truly blown me away.
Each of these clusters has wondered how to become the next Silicon Valley. Beijing is already there.
What a long strange trip China has been through. After the creation of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, all industry was nationalized, agriculture was collectivized, and the private sector was eliminated. All companies were owned by the state, all planning was centralized, and the state determined the allocation of resources. This was the China I grew up with – the one where private enterprise was a crime and marketing wasn’t a profession.
To say China has transformed itself is perhaps the biggest understatement one can make. China has embraced state capitalism in a way Wall Street can only dream about.
Startups, Venture Capital and the Communist Party: how did this happen in China? The best analogy to describe the relationship of science and technology and the Chinese startup scene is to understand its parallels with the United States during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. During World War II, the U.S. mobilized scientists in a way no other country had. For 45 years – post World War II until the fall of the Soviet Union – the U.S. viewed science and technology as a strategic asset. We made major investments in it, understanding that establishing basic and applied science leadership was necessary for us to build advanced weapons systems to defend our country and deter and if necessary, wage and win a war with the Soviet Union.
These investments took the form of building national research organizations, several for basic science (NSF, NIH) and others for applied weapons research (DOD, DARPA, DOE, etc.) Research universities also became an integral part of the military ecosystem as the federal government pumped billions into supporting science.
Startups, entrepreneurship and commercial applications are happy byproducts of those military investments. For example, as the semiconductor business started, the largest customers for Fairchild’s and Texas Instruments new integrated circuits were the Apollo Guidance Computer and the guidance system for the Minuteman II ICBM.
China is following the same path...
Over the last three decades, to achieve strategic parity with the United States and to construct a modern military, the Chinese have made massive investments in building their science and technology infrastructure. China has gone from a land-based army to one that can support its territorial claims to the South China Sea and Taiwan with anti-access/area-denial weapons. This evolution required a transition, moving from a reliance on the numerical superiority of its land army toward a force boasting sophisticated aircraft and naval platforms, precision- strike weapons, and modern C4SIR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capabilities. Its Second Artillery Corps not only controls China’s ICBMs, but also its short range missiles pointed at Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, and U.S. bases in Guam and Okinawa. And its new terminally guided ICBMs have put U.S. aircraft carriers in harms way in any regional confrontation. Its air force and navy have gone from a self-defense force to one that can project regional power effectively to the first island chain and beyond.
Building China’s Science and Technology infrastructure Science and startups have come a long way since the 1980’s when the Chinese government owned everything and controlled it through a central planning system. But before startups could happen, China’s basic science, technology and finance infrastructure and ecosystem needed to be built. Here’s how a national policy for science and technology emerged.
The majority of the science and technology programs are driven by MOST (Ministry of Science and Technology) and NSFC (National Natural Science Foundation). As we’ll see later, the MOF (Ministry of Finance) also has had a hand in funding new ventures.
The diagram below from OECD’s Report on China’s Innovation Policy puts the ministries involved in science in context. (Note that it does not show the military technology ministries.)
Science research infrastructure: National Key Laboratories Program, and the MOST program for the construction of research facilities, R&D databases, and a scientific research network
Development of human resources in science and technology: Programs for attracting returnees or overseas Chinese talent: from the Ministry of Education – the Seed Funds for Returned Overseas Scholars, Chunhui Program, and the Cheung Kong Scholar Program. From the Ministry of Personnel – the Hundred Talents Program. From the National Science Foundation – the National Distinguished Young Scholars Program.
The U.S. has spent the last 70 years making massive investments in basic and applied research. Government funding of research started in World War II driven by the needs of the military for weapon systems to defeat Germany and Japan. Post WWII the responsibility for investing in research split between agencies focused on weapons development and space exploration (being completely customer-driven) and other agencies charted to fund basic and applied research in science and medicine (being driven by peer-review.)
The irony is that while the U.S. government has had a robust national science and technology policy, it lacks a national industrial policy; leaving that to private capital. This approach was successful when U.S. industry was aligned with manufacturing in the U.S., but became much less so in the last decade when the bottom-line drove industries offshore.
In lieu of the U.S. government’s role in setting investment policy, venture capital has set the direction for what new industries attract capital.
This series of blog posts is my attempt to understand how science and technology policy in the U.S. began, where the money goes and how it has affected innovation and entrepreneurship. In future posts I’ll offer some observations how we might rethink U.S. Science and National Industrial Policy as we face the realities of China and global competition.
Office of Scientific Research and Development – Scientists Against Time
As World War II approached, Vannevar Bush, the ex-dean of engineering at MIT, single-handledly reengineered the U.S. governments approach to science and warfare. Bush predicted that World War II would be the first war won or lost on the basis of advanced technology. In a major break from the past, Bush believed that scientists from academia could develop weapons faster and better if scientists were kept out of the military and instead worked in civilian-run weapons labs. There they would be tasked to develop military weapons systems and solve military problems to defeat Germany and Japan. (The weapons were then manufactured in volume by U.S. corporations.)
OSRD divided the wartime work into 19 “divisions”, 5 “committees,” and 2 “panels,” each solving a unique part of the military war effort. These efforts spanned an enormous range of tasks – the development of advanced electronics; radar, rockets, sonar, new weapons like proximity fuse, Napalm, the Bazooka and new drugs such as penicillin and cures for malaria.
The civilian scientists who headed the lab’s divisions, committees and panels were given wide autonomy to determine how to accomplish their tasks and organize their labs. Nearly 10,000 scientists and engineers received draft deferments to work in these labs.
One OSRD project – the Manhattan Project which led to the development of the atomic bomb – was so secret and important that it was spun off as a separate program. The University of California managed research and development of the bomb design lab at Los Alamos while the US Army managed the Los Alamos facilities and the overall administration of the project. The material to make the bombs – Plutonium and Uranium 235 – were made by civilian contractors at Hanford Washington and Oak Ridge Tennessee.
OSRD was essentially a wartime U.S. Department of Research and Development. Its director, Vannever Bush became in all but name the first presidential science advisor. Think of the OSRD as a combination of all of today’s U.S. national research organizations – the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Department of Energy (DOE) and a good part of the Department of Defense (DOD) research organizations – all rolled into one uber wartime research organization.
OSRD’s impact on the war effort and the policy for technology was evident by the advanced weapons its labs developed, but its unintended consequence was the impact on American research universities and the U.S. economy that’s still being felt today.
National Funding of University Research
Universities were started with a mission to preserve and disseminate knowledge. By the late 19th century, U.S. universities added scientific and engineering research to their mission. However, prior to World War II corporations not universities did most of the research and development in the United States. Private companies spent 68% of U.S. R&D dollars while the U.S. Government spent 20% and universities and colleges accounted just for 9%, with most of this coming via endowments or foundations.
Before World War II, the U.S. government provided almost no funding for research inside universities. But with the war, almost overnight, government funding for U.S. universities skyrocketed. From 1941-1945, the OSRD spent $450 million dollars (equivalent to $5.5 billion today) on university research. MIT received $117 million ($1.4 billion in today’s dollars), Caltech $83 million (~$1 billion), Harvard and Columbia ~$30 million ($370 million.) Stanford was near the bottom of the list receiving $500,000 (~$6 million). While this was an enormous sum of money for universities, it’s worth putting in perspective that ~$2 billion was spent on the Manhattan project (equivalent to ~$25 billion today.)
World War II and OSRD funding permanently changed American research universities. By the time the war was over, almost 75% of government research and development dollars would be spent inside Universities. This tidal wave of research funds provided by the war would:
Establish a permanent role for U.S. government funding of university research, both basic and applied
Establish the U.S. government – not industry, foundations or internal funds – as the primary source of University research dollars
Establish a role for government funding for military weapons research inside of U.S. universities (See the blog posts on the Secret History of Silicon Valley here, and for a story about one of the University weapons labs here.)
Make U.S. universities a magnet for researchers from around the world
Give the U.S. the undisputed lead in a technology and innovation driven economy – until the rise of China.
The U.S. Nationalizes Research
As the war drew to a close, university scientists wanted the money to continue to flow but also wanted to end the government’s control over the content of research. That was the aim of Vannevar Bush’s 1945 report, Science: the Endless Frontier. Bush’s wartime experience convinced him that the U.S. should have a policy for science. His proposal was to create a single federal agency – the National Research Foundation – responsible for funding basic research in all areas, from medicine to weapons systems. He proposed that civilian scientists would run this agency in an equal partnership with government. The agency would have no laboratories of its own, but would instead contract research to university scientists who would be responsible for all basic and applied science research.
But it was not to be. After five years of post-war political infighting (1945-1950), the U.S. split up the functions of the OSRD. The military hated that civilians were in charge of weapons development. In 1946 responsibility for nuclear weapons went to the new Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). In 1947, responsibility for basic weapons systems research went to the Department of Defense (DOD). Medical researchers who had already had a pre-war National Institutes of Health chafed under the OSRD that lumped their medical research with radar and electronics, and lobbied to be once again associated with the NIH. In 1947 the responsibility for all U.S. biomedical and health research went back to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Each of these independent research organizations would support a mix of basic and applied research as well as product development.
Finally in 1950, what was left of Vannevar Bush’s original vision – government support of basic science research in U.S. universities – became the charter of the National Science Foundation (NSF). (Basic research is science performed to find general physical and natural laws and to push back the frontiers of fundamental understanding. It’s done without thought of specific applications towards processes or products in mind. Applied research is systematic study to gain knowledge or understanding with specific products in mind.)
Despite the failure of Bush’s vision of a unified national research organization, government funds for university research would accelerate during the Cold War.
Coming in Part 2 – Cold War science and Cold War universities.
Large scale federal funding for U.S. science research started with the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) in 1940
Large scale federal funding for American research universities began with OSRD in 1940
In exchange for federal science funding, universities became partners in weapons systems research and development
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…
John F. Kennedy, September 1962
Innovation I teach entrepreneurship for ~50 student teams a year from engineering schools at Stanford, Berkeley, and Columbia. For the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps this year I’ll also teach ~150 teams led by professors who want to commercialize their inventions. Our extended teaching team includes venture capitalists with decades of experience.
The irony is that as good as some of these nascent startups are in material science, sensors, robotics, medical devices, life sciences, etc., more and more frequently VCs whose firms would have looked at these deals or invested in these sectors, are now only interested in whether it runs on a smart phone or tablet. And who can blame them.
Facebook and Social Media Facebook has adroitly capitalized on market forces on a scale never seen in the history of commerce. For the first time, startups can today think about a Total Available Market in the billions of users (smart phones, tablets, PC’s, etc.) and aim for hundreds of millions of customers. Second, social needs previously done face-to-face, (friends, entertainment, communication, dating, gambling, etc.) are now moving to a computing device. And those customers may be using their devices/apps continuously. This intersection of a customer base of billions of people with applications that are used/needed 24/7 never existed before.
The potential revenue and profits from these users (or advertisers who want to reach them) and the speed of scale of the winning companies can be breathtaking. The Facebook IPO has reinforced the new calculus for investors. In the past, if you were a great VC, you could make $100 million on an investment in 5-7 years. Today, social media startups can return 100’s of millions or even billions in less than 3 years. Software is truly eating the world.
If investors have a choice of investing in a blockbuster cancer drug that will pay them nothing for fifteen years or a social media application that can go big in a few years, which do you think they’re going to pick? If you’re a VC firm, you’re phasing out your life science division. As investors funding clean tech watch the Chinese dump cheap solar cells in the U.S. and put U.S. startups out of business, do you think they’re going to continue to fund solar? And as Clean Tech VC’s have painfully learned, trying to scale Clean Tech past demonstration plants to industrial scale takes capital and time past the resources of venture capital. A new car company? It takes at least a decade and needs at least a billion dollars. Compared to IOS/Android apps, all that other stuff is hard and the returns take forever.
Instead, the investor money is moving to social media. Because of the size of the market and the nature of the applications, the returns are quick – and huge. New VC’s, focused on both the early and late stage of social media have transformed the VC landscape. (I’m an investor in many of these venture firms.) But what’s great for making tons of money may not be the same as what’s great for innovation or for our country. Entrepreneurial clusters like Silicon Valley (or NY, Boston, Austin, Beijing, etc.) are not just smart people and smart universities working on interesting things. If that were true we’d all still be in our parents garage or lab. Centers of innovation require investors funding smart people working on interesting things - and they invest in those they believe will make their funds the most money. And for Silicon Valley the investor flight to social media marks the beginning of the end of the era of venture capital-backed big ideas in science and technology.
Don’t Worry We Always Bounce Back The common wisdom is that Silicon Valley has always gone through waves of innovation and each time it bounces back by reinventing itself.
[Each of these waves of having a clean beginning and end is a simplification. But it makes the point that each wave was a new investment thesis with a new class of investors as well as startups.] The reality is that it took venture capital almost a decade to recover from the dot-com bubble. And when it did Super Angels and new late stage investors whose focus was social media had remade the landscape, and the investing thesis of the winners had changed. This time the pot of gold of social media may permanently change that story.
What Next It’s sobering to realize that the disruptive startups in the last few years not in social media - Tesla Motors, SpaceX, Google driverless cars, Google Glasses - were the efforts of two individuals, Elon Musk, and Sebastian Thrun (with the backing of Google.) (The smartphone and tablet computer, the other two revolutionary products were created by one visionary in one extraordinary company.) We can hope that as the Social Media wave runs its course a new wave of innovation will follow. We can hope that some VC’s remain contrarian investors and avoid the herd. And that some of the newly monied social media entrepreneurs invest in their dreams.But if not, the long-term consequences for our national interests will be less than optimum.
For decades the unwritten manifesto for Silicon Valley VC’s has been; We choose to invest in ideas, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. Here’s hoping that one day they will do it again.
The quickest way to create a billion dollar company is to take basic human social needs and figure out how to mediate them on-line.
(Look at the first wave of the web/mobile/cloud startups that have done just that: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Match.com, Pandora, Zynga, WordPress, LinkedIn.)
It’s your turn.
Hard-wired This week I’m in New York teaching a 5-day version of my Lean LaunchPad class at Columbia University. While the class teaches a process to search and validate a business model, it does not offer any hints on how to create a killer startup idea. So after teaching several hundred teams in the last few years, one of my students finally asked this question – “So how do we come up with an idea for the next billion dollar company?”
Is It a Problem or a Need? I’ve now come to believe that the value proposition in a business model (value proposition is the fancy name for your product or service) fits into either one of two categories:
It solves a problem and gets a job done for a consumer or a company (accounting software, elevators, air-conditioning, electricity, tablet computers, electric toothbrushes, airplanes, email software, etc. )
Or it fulfills a fundamental human social need (friendship, dating, sex, entertainment, art, communication, blogs, confession, networking, gambling, religion, etc.)
Moving Needs to Bits = a billion dollars Friendship, dating, sex, art, entertainment, communication, confession, networking, gambling, religion – would our hearts still beat and would our lungs still breathe without them? Of course. But these are things that make us human. They are hard-wired into our psyche. We’ve been doing them for ten’s of thousands of years.
Ironically, the emergence of the digital world has made us more efficient yet has left us with less time for face-to-face interaction. Yet it’s these interactions that define our humanity.
Facebook takes our need for friendship and attempts to recreate that connection on-line.
Twitter allows us to share and communicate in real time.
Zynga allows us to mindlessly entertain ourselves on-line.
Match.com allows us to find a spouse.
At the same time these social applications are moving on-line, digital platforms (tablets and smartphones) are becoming available to hundreds of millions. It’s not hard to imagine that in a decade, the majority of people on our planet will have 24/7 access to these applications. For better or worse social applications are the ones that will reach billions of users.
Yet they are all only less than 5-years old.
It cannot be that today we have optimally recreated and moved our all social interactions on-line.
It cannot be that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pandora, Zynga, LinkedIn are the pinnacle of social software.
Others will do better.
Others will discover the other unmet and unfilled social needs that can move on-line.
It could be you.
Value propositions come in two forms: they solve a problem or they fulfill a human socialneed
Social Needs are friendship, dating, sex, entertainment, art, communication, blogs, confession, networking, gambling, religion, etc.
They have always been fulfilled face-to-face
They are now moving on-line
The market size for these applications equals the entire human race
63 scientists and engineers in 21 teams made ~2,000 customer calls in 10 weeks, turning laboratory ideas into formidable startups. 19 of the 21 teams are moving forward in commercializing their technology.
Watching the final presentations it was clear that the results were way past our initial expectations (comments from mentors as well as pre- and post-class survey data suggested that most of the teams learned more in two months than others had in two years.) So much so that the NSF decided to scale the Innovation Corps program.
In 2012 the NSF will put 150 teams of the best scientists in the U.S. through the Lean Launchpad class. And to help teach these many teams, the NSF will recruit other universities that have engineering entrepreneurship programs to become part of the Innovation Corps network.
Congress Gets It
In-between the 2011 pilot class and the first NSF class of 2012, I got a call from Congressman Dan Lipinski. He sits on the House committee that oversees the NSF - the Science, Space and Technology committee (a place where his engineering degree and PhD comes in handy.) He had read my blog posts about the NSF Innovation Corps and was interested in how the first class went. He wanted to fly out to Stanford and sit in the Lean LaunchPad class about to start in the engineering school.
While I’ve had visitors in my classes before, having a congressman was a first. He showed up with no press in-tow, no entourage, just a genuine search for understanding of whether this program was a waste of taxpayer money or good for the country.
He asked tough questions about why the government not private capital should be doing this. I explained that the goal of the Innovation Corps was to bridge what the NSF calls the “ditch of death” – the gap between when NSF research funding runs out and when a team is credible enough (with enough customer and market knowledge) to raise private capital or license/partner with existing companies. The goal was not to replace private capital but to help attract it. The amount of money spent on the Innovation Corps would be about 1/4 of one percent of the $7.373 billion NSF budget, but it would leverage the tens of billions basic research dollars already invested. It’s payoff would be disproportionately large for the country. It’s one of the best investments this country can make for keeping the U.S. competitive and creating jobs.
After class the Congressman joined the teaching team at our favorite pizza place for our weekly post-class debrief.
If you like science, technology or entrepreneurship, this guy is the real deal. He gets it.
“Innovation, jobs and entrepreneurship” have become popular buzzwords in an election year. But it was pretty amazing to see a congressman jump on a plane to actually find out if he can help the country do so. He issued this press release asking Congress to fully fund the Innovation Corps when he came back to Washington.
The National Science Foundation Innovation Corps combines the best of what the U.S. government, American researchers in academia and risk capital can do together. If we’re correct, we can compress the time for commercializing scientific breakthroughs and reduce the early stage risks of these new ventures. This means more jobs, new industries and a permanent edge for innovation in the United States.
The 3-person teams consisted of Principal Investigators (PI’s), mostly tenured professors (average age of 45,) whose NSF research the project was based on. The PI’s in turn selected one of their graduate students (average age of 30,) as the entrepreneurial lead. The PI and Entrepreneurial Lead were supported by a mentor (average age of 50,) with industry/startup experience.
This was most definitely not the hoodie and flip-flop crowd.
Part one of the posts on the NSF Innovation Corps is here, part two here. Syllabus for the class is here. Textbook is here.
Here are some of the final Lessons Learned presentations and team videos:
Akara Solutions: Flexible, Low Cost Cooling Technology for LED Lighting
Principal Investigator: Satish Kandlikar Rochester Institute of Technology
By the early 1920’s General Motors realized that Ford, which was now selling the Model T for $290, had an unbeatable monopoly on low-cost automobile manufacturing. Other manufacturers had experimented with selling cars based on an image and brand. (The most notable was an ad by the Jordan Car company.) But General Motors was about to take consumer marketing of cars to an entirely new level.
Market Segmentation General Motors had turned the independent car companies acquired by its founder Billy Durant into product divisions. But in a stroke of genius GM transformed these divisions into a weapon that Ford couldn’t match. With the rallying cry “a car for every purse and purpose,” GM positioned its car divisions (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac) so they would cover five price segments – from low-price to luxury. It targeted each of its brands (and models inside those brands) to a distinct economic segment of the population. Chevy was directly aimed at Ford – the volume car for the working masses. Pontiac came next, then Oldsmobile, then Buick. The top-of- the-line Cadillac offered luxury and prestige announcing you had finally arrived at the top of the conspicuous consumption heap. Consumers could announce their status and lives had improved by upgrading their brands.
GM had one more trick to make this happen. Within each brand, the top of the line was just a bit less expensive than the lowest priced model of the next expensive brand. The goal was to convince the consumer to spend a little more to trade up to a more prestigious brand.
Market segmentation by price was something no other automotive manufacturer had ever done. While other car companies could compete with one of GM’s divisions, few had GM’s capital and resources to compete simultaneously with the onslaught of car models from all five divisions.
Planned Obsolescence While market segmentation allowed GM to use its divisions to reach a wider market than Ford or Chrysler, this didn’t solve the problem of market saturation. By the late 1920’s, most everyone in the U.S. had a car. And cars lasted 6 to 8 years. Even worse, the market was now filled with used cars that provided even lower cost basic transportation. Sloan, the General Motors CEO, faced two seemingly unsolvable challenges:
How do you get consumers to abandon their perfectly fine cars and buy a new one?
How do you turn a product that competed on price and features into a need?
In another stroke of genius, GM invented the annual model change. Sloan borrowed this idea from fashion where styles changed every year and applied it to automobiles starting in the 1920s. General Motors would change the external appearance of cars every year. Sloan preferred to call it “dynamic obsolescence.”
Styling and design became an integral part of GM’s strategy. Sloan hired Harley Earl to set up GM’s in-house styling staff. Earl would run it from 1927 to 1958.
Before Earl, cars were designed by in-house body-engineers who focused on practical issues like function, costs, features, etc. Each exterior component was designed separately to be functional – radiator, bumpers, hood, passenger compartment, etc. Some companies used 3rd party bodymakers to set the style , but GM was the first to take car design away from the engineers and give it to the stylists.
The concept of yearly “improvements”, whether styling or incremental technology improvements, every model year gave GM an unbeatable edge in the market. (Henry Ford hated the idea. He had built Ford on economies of scale – the Ford Model T lasted for 19 years.) Smaller car makers could not afford the constant engineering and styling changes they had to make to keep competitive. GM would shut down all their manufacturing plants for a few months and literally rip out the tooling, jigs and dies in every plant and replace them with the equipment needed to make the next year’s model.
GM had figured out how to take a product which solved a problem – cheap transportation – and transform it into a need. It was marketing magic that wasn’t to be equaled until the next century.
By the mid-1950′s every other car company was struggling to keep up.
Mass MarketingStarting in the 1920’s and continuing for the next half century, automobile advertising hit its stride. Ads emphasized brand identification and appealed to consumers’ hunger for prestige and status. Advertising agencies created catchy slogans and jingles, and celebrities endorsed their favorite brands. General Motors turned market segmentation and the annual model year changeovers into national events. As the press speculated about new features, the company’s added to the mystique by guarding the new designs with military secrecy. Consumers counted the days until the new models were “unveiled” at their dealers.
Results For fifty years, until the Japanese imports of the 1970’s, Americans talked about the brand and model year of your car – was it a ’58 Chevy, ’65 Mustang, or 58 Eldorado? Each had its particular cachet, status and admirers. People had heated arguments about who made the best brand.
The car had become part of your personal identity while it became a symbol of 20th Century America.
After Sloan took over General Motors its share of U.S cars sold skyrocketed from 12 per cent in 1920, until it passed Ford in 1930, and when Sloan retired as GM’s CEO in 1956 half the cars sold in the U.S. were made by GM. It would keep that 50% share for another 10 years. (Today GM’s share of cars total sold in the U.S. has declined to 19%.)
How the iPhone Got Tail Fins
Over the last five years Apple has adopted the GM playbook from the 1920′s – take a product, which originally solved a problem – cheap communication – and turn it into a need.
In doing so Apple did to Nokia and RIM what General Motors did to Ford. In both cases, innovation in marketing completely negated these firms’ strengths in reducing costs. The iPhone transformed the cell phone from a device for cheap communication into a touchstone about the user’s image. Just like cars in the 20th century, the iPhone connected with its customers emotionally and viscerally as it became a symbol of who you are.
The desire to line up to buy the newest iPhone when your old one works just fine was just one more part of Steve Jobs’ genius – it’s how the iPhone got tail fins.
It’s one more reason why Steve Jobs will be remembered as the 21st century version of Alfred P. Sloan.
It was the most advanced consumer product of the century. The industry started with its innovators located in different cities over a wide region. But within 20 years it would be concentrated in a single entrepreneurial startup cluster. At first it was a craft business, then it was driven by relentless technology innovation and then a price war as economies of scale drove efficiencies in production. When the market was finally saturated the industry reinvented itself again – one company discovered how to turn commodity products into “needs.”
They opened retail outlets across the country and figured out how to convince consumers to flock to buy the newest “gotta have it” version and abandon the perfectly functional last year’s model.
No, it’s not Apple and the iPhone.
It was General Motors and the auto industry.
In the Beginning
At the beginning of the 20th century the auto industry was still a small hand-crafted manufacturing business. Cars were assembled from outsourced components by crews of skilled mechanics and unskilled helpers. They were sold at high prices and profits through nonexclusive distributors for cash on delivery. But by 1901, Ransom Olds invented the basic concept of the assembly line and in the next decade was quickly followed by other innovators who opened large scale manufacturing plants in Detroit – Henry Packard, Henry Leland’s Cadillac, and Henry Ford with the Model A.
The Detroit area quickly became the place to be if you were making cars, parts for cars, or were a skilled machinist. By 1913 Ford’s first conveyor belt-driven moving assembly line and standardized interchangeable parts forever cemented Detroit as the home of 20th century auto manufacturing.
Feature Wars The automobile industry was founded and run by technologists: Henry Ford, James Packard, Charles Kettering, Henry Leland, the Dodge Brothers, Ransom Olds. The first twenty-five years of the century were a blur of technology innovation – moving assembly line, steel bodies, quick dry paint, electric starters, etc. These men built a product that solved a problem – private transportation first for the elite, and then (Ford’s inspiration) – transportation for the masses.
Market Saturation Ford tried to escape the never-ending technology feature wars by becoming the low cost manufacturer. Fords River Rouge manufacturing complex – 93 buildings in a 1 by 1.5 mile manufacturing complex, with 100,000 workers – vertically integrated and optimized mass production.
By 1923, through a series of continuous process improvements, Ford had used the cost advantages of economies of scale to drive down the price of the Model T automobile to $290.
When the 1920’s began there were close to a 100 car manufacturers, but the relentless drive for low cost production forced most of them out of business as they lacked capital to scale. For a brief moment, half the cars in the world were now Fords. To make matters worse, the long service life of Ford and GM cars (8 years for Fords Model T, 6 years for everyone else) retarded sales of new cars.In 20 years, U.S. car ownership had risen from 0 to 80% of American families – the market was approaching saturation.
Now cars would have to be sold almost entirely to people who already owned a car.
The Crazy Entrepreneur After success as a leading manufacturer of horse-drawn carriages, Billy Durant was one of the few who saw the writing on the wall and got into the car business. Although he wasn’t a technologist, he was an entrepreneur with a great eye for acquiring car companies run by technologists. His keen insight was that several carmakers combined under one company umbrella would have more growth potential than one brand on its own. Like most founders, he was great at searching for a business model but terrible at in large company execution. When his board fired him, Durant bought a competing company called Chevrolet, built it larger than his last company, and used Chevy stock to buy out his old company – General Motors – and threw out the board. Yet a few years later under his brilliant but reckless leadership GM was again on the brink of financial disaster and his new board fired him. (Durant would die penniless managing a bowling alley.)
Durant’s ultimate replacement – an accountant named Alfred P. Sloan – would turn GM into the leading and most admired company in the U.S.
Relentless Over the next decade Sloan would implement a series of innovations which would last for over half a century. And catapult General Motors from the number 2 car company (with a ¼ of Ford’s sales) into the market leader for the next 100 years. Here’s what he did:
Distributed Accounting Unlike Ford, GM was originally a collection of separate companies. Distributed Accounting turned those fiefdoms into product divisions each of which, could be focused like Ford’s mass-produced lines. But Sloan went further. He figured out how to centralize financial oversight of decentralized product lines. His CFO created standardized division sales reports and flexible accounting, and allocated resources and bonuses to the GM divisions by a uniform set of rules. It allowed GM to be ruthlessly efficient internally as well with its dealers and suppliers. It got the division general managers to fall in line with corporate goals but allowed them to run their divisions freely. GM became the prototype of the modern multidivisional company.
Car Financing. Realizing that Ford would only accept cash for car purchases, in 1919 GM formed GMAC to provide new car buyers a way to finance their purchases through debt.
Consumer Research. Every since his days at Hyatt Roller Bearing, Sloan, and by extension GM, was relentless about getting out of the building – they had an entire department that studied consumers, dealers, suppliers. More importantly, Sloan led by example. He visited dealers and suppliers, listened to customers and was tied tightly to his head of R&D Charles Kettering.
All this would have made General Motors a well-run and well-managed company. But what they did next would make them the dominant company in the U.S. and eventually put tail-fins on the iPhone.