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Thank you Clive Thompson. At last I have a word for something that has long bugged me: elements of digital design that are based on old-fashioned, analogue, physical objects. Skeuomorphs. My new favourite word. In the latest issue of Wired, Clive talks about classic examples of Skeuomorphs such as digital calendars which (in month view) force you to look at greyed out past weeks when this is completely unecessary.

Clive also mentions one of my own bete noires: digital 'page-turning' technology which mimics analogue paper page-turning and as a format is stubbornly refusing to go away despite being a universally nonsense way to navigate digital content. Compare the typical corner page-peel with something like Flipboard which pivots in the middle of the page in a far more pleasing way.

It might seem harmless but, as Thompson says, despite in some circumstances helping to orient us to new technologies Skeuomorphs are "hobbling innovation by lashing designers to metaphors of the past". Enough already. We should be bolder in our thinking.

Image courtesy The Nerd Code

Google Firestarters 4: Entrepreneurship - The Event

Google firestarters

Tuesday evening saw the great and the good of UK planning come together for the fourth Google Firestarters event, themed loosely around entrepreneurship. I used a quote from Howard Stevenson of Harvard Business School in the preamble to the event:"Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled". This, as Simon said in his write up of the event, might be considered to be a somewhat aspirational definition and yet it was one that was captured exceptionally well by all the speakers.

Someone said to me just before the event that I was quite brave getting three such eclectic speakers on the same bill, but it worked brilliantly well (phew) with several common strands weaving their way through the talks, the most notable of which, as John has written about in his excellent write up, was (perhaps surprisingly) the theme of Love. 

So first up was David Hieatt, founder of Howies, The Do Lectures, and an ex-adman who worked under the legendary Paul Arden. David told the very personal story of the origination of the company he is literally on the cusp of launching - Hiut Denim - and began by talking about luck. Despite being something of a serial entrepreneur, it took two years from selling Howies before he was ready to begin Hiut. What had been missing in that time was one thing: the 'why' ("you need the wind in your sail. 'Why', is the wind in your sail"). The luck, in David's case was the discovery that his town used to have Britain's biggest jeans factory before it shut down some years ago. When it goes away, manufacturing rarely comes back. Malcolm Gladwell talks about how it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something - the people who worked in that factory had 50,000 hours behind them. He used the story of how Steve Jobs insisted that the original Macintosh engineers each sign the inside of the first Macs even though no-one would ever see it. He recognised that those engineers were artists. So David had his mission - to start a jeans company for the town and get 400 people their jobs back. We don't plan for luck, he said (which is an interest thought in itself), but we need to recognise when we have it, and act on it.

In speaking about the development of this idea, David then talked about how objects can tell stories too, and how jeans are one of the few products that get better with age. The internet hasn't yet been used that well to tell stories for products, so David's idea is to create the world's first jeans brand where every pair has a History Tag (like a barcode but updateable from a website or app), that tells the indvidual story of that product. Imagine photos and updates being associated with a favourite product, building up over time into the story of that object. It's a rather fascinating idea.

Google firestarters 3

Toby Barnes followed David with a talk about the changing nature of hobbies. How the internet has brought an active audience to the practice of hobbies. How the partcipation and feedback of that audience changes that practice (he used John's ongoing Arduino diary as an example). How hobbies can start fires, create new projects, lead to new ideas. That led to an interesting thought about designing products for one person (using the example of the rather cool Arrivals app, which he created originally just for his son) and scaling from there, as a way to ensure we stay true to a simple vision. Just as David had talked about how you've got to love your product and love your customers, Toby asked the question about how we can best support products that are built with love.

Google firestarters 4

Adil Abrar picked up nicely on the theme opening with the mantra that sits at the heart of his social innovation business Sidekick Studios: "Do something you love with the people you love". He talked about the story behind the amazing Buddy project, a digital tool that enables mental health workers to help their clients by using simple text messaging to reinforce positive behaviours. The process of creating the app involved risk and failure but it was only by "heading for the ditch" as he put it that they were able to get truly honest feedback about what really mattered and create a product that made a real difference. Key to that was a realisation around "just enough tech" (or Minimum Viable Technology as Antony calls it in his write up of Adil's talk) - keeping the technology simple was the breakthrough to delivering a better product. Along the way, he talked about how vision changes, but values do not and about the importance of solving problems that really matter.

When curating this event I was keen to try and bring a different, and personal aspect to our loose theme of entrepreneurialism, and I think we really acheived that. The speakers were wonderfully honest and inspiring. So my thanks to them, and of-course as usual to Google for hosting. And thanks to everyone who came and was a part of it. 

I have Storified the event, there are some more snaps of it here and as usual, the event and talks were brought to life through the rather wonderful work of Scriberia (below). You can view a larger version of the visual here.

Google Firestarters 4 small

*Update* Adil has an excellent write up of his talk up on the Sidekick blog.

Perceptive Media


I've been using Zite for a number of months now. It's the personalised magazine app for iphone and iPad that 'gets smarter as you use it'. Zite's personalisation engine is super-smart. Behind the app is a quite mind boggling level of social and algorithmic modelling and curation (created, they say, over 6 years of product development) that blends and refines a unique media experience for every individual user. It works by "mining content from your social web, modelling that content, modelling the community that interacts with it, modelling your interests, matching your interests to the content and your community to help you discover content you'll want to see." Have a read of this 'under the hood' blog post on how the system works. It's quite astounding.


Proof of the system of-course is in the user experience and I have to say that every time I open it these days there is stuff I want to read, which is keeping me coming back to it perhaps more than most other apps I use. Seems like I'm not the only one. Zite's own figures indicate that on a daily basis, 20% of users save or share at least one article and 8% of total opened articles are saved or shared. I'm willing to bet that that is considerably higher than the norm across most magazine-type sites.

The idea of dynamic generation of content using data is nothing new of-course. Each time we load the Amazon home page into our browser it pulls on hundreds of different elements to create a page that is unique based on what it knows about us (location, data on our purchase history, wish list and so on). Yet it feels like many media owners have been quite slow in developing these kinds of dynamic personalisation techniques. But here's an interesting write up of a talk given by Ian Forrester of the BBC's R & D department about some early experiments in what he calls 'Perceptive Media' - the concept of using APIs to transform TV 'on the fly', which takes personalisation to another level still. The thinking is still in it's early stages as Ian is at pains to stress, but it's a rather fascinating idea, and one that is not without its challenges. 

My broader hope though is that we will see far more experimentation around customisation of content using machine learning, modelling and APIs, as part of a wider mix of curation techniques. There seems to be a disappointing lack of it from many parts of the media industry so some would say it's about time.

Image courtesy

System Failure

Everything is a Remix Part 4 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

"Our system of law doesn't acknowledge the derivative nature of creativity. Instead, ideas are regarded as property, as unique and original lots with distinct boundaries. But ideas aren't so tidy. They're layered, they’re interwoven, they're tangled. And when the system conflicts with the reality... the system starts to fail."

The fourth and final installment of Kirby Ferguson's excellent 'Everything Is A Remix' series eloquently deals with the inadequacies of the modern intellectual property and copyright system. The nonsense, for example, of a system that encourages patent trolling and exploitation of its weaknesses in the form of lawsuits which are associated with an average of $80 billion per year of lost wealth to defendants, with very little of this lost wealth being transferred to investors. A system that increasingly seems to be akin to a sandcastle on a beach being washed over by the oncoming tide. It's well worth a watch. If you haven't seen them, it's also worth taking a look at Part One, Part Two, and Part Three in the series.

Kirby is patently an extremely adept and entrepreneurial filmaker. His next project, This Is Not A Conspiracy Theory, is up on Kickstarter right now. Having enjoyed his work thus far, I've just funded him a few dollars.

Is The Average Age of Entrepreneurs Getting Older?

 Mid-life crisis

Steve Jobs once said: "It's rare that you see an artist in his thirties and forties able to really contribute something amazing". Yet in his forties and beyond he went on to reinvent the music industry model, mobile phones, computers (again) and books.

When we think of entrepreneurs (and particularly tech entrepreneurs) we tend to think of young, restless agitators in their twenties. Y-Combinator have previously pegged the average age of their founders at 26. Mark Zuckerberg was 19 when he started Facebook. Bill Gates was 20 with Microsoft. Steve Jobs was 21, Max Levchin (Paypal) 23, Larry and Sergey 25, Jerry Yang 26, Chad Hurley 27. Fred Wilson once observed how unprecedented was the volume of younger entrepreneurs he was seeing (though at the time, the average age of those that they funded was older). Some have even suggested that (consumer internet) entrepreneurs are like athletes in that they peak around 25, or questioned whether 30 is too old these days to start a company.

Perhaps so-called 'digital-natives', unemcumbered with legacy thinking and habits acquired from years in corporate-world, are at a natural advantage when it comes to the kind of digital thinking that disrupts markets and creates entirely new businesses. Perhaps having less responsibilities in earlier life really matters when it comes to risking your livelihood. 

But then Niklas Zenstrom was 36 when he launched Skype. Chris deWolfe 36 with My Space. Reid Hoffman 35 with LinkedIn. Evan Williams the same age with Twitter. Mark Pincus was 41 when he launched Zynga. Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post was 54. Research published a couple of years ago by the Kauffman Foundation showed that the number of company founders older than 50 was double the number of founders younger than 25, and the number of founders over the age of 60 was twice the number of founders under the age of 20. Data analysed by The Founder Institute indicated that older age correlated with more successful entrepreneurs (alongside three other traits: strong fluid intelligence, high openness, and moderate agreeableness) up to the age of 40, after which it had limited or no impact. They theorized that a combination of good project completion skills with real world experience helped older entrepreneurs "identify and address more realistic business opportunities".

There may well be differences by sector of-course, but I do wonder if the combination of large numbers of older, experienced people losing their jobs, and the empowerment that technology brings is changing the ratios at all. I undoubtedly have something of a skewed personal perspective on this from doing my own thing for a couple of years now and over that time meeting significant numbers of people of all ages who are out there creating value with their ideas, talent and people that they know. But then, this should be something of an irrelevant question of-course. Restlessness is ageless. And age is a mindset afterall.

Image courtesy