LeWeb is one of the most popular international conference for startups and web entrepreneurs. Touted as the place where ‘revolutionaries gather to plot the future’, the just-concluded LeWeb in Paris deliberated upon the future and invited speakers and attendees to imagine ‘The Next 10 years’.
Gathering some of the brightest technological innovators and visionaries, this universal theme explored several market segments like mobile, hardware and social, and what the next 10 years might hold.
With a stellar array of speakers, including Guy Kawasaki, Fred Wilson, Travis Kalanick, Nick D’Aloisio and Dina Kaplan, the show had very few dull moments. With rapid improvements in access to information, labor and markets, the entrepreneurship space in high-technology has truly come of age in many ways.
From the talks, it was clear that rapid innovation is equally informed by understanding the trends and putting one’s heart, soul, intuition and sweat behind the idea. In my summary of this conference, I will focus on what I learned or re-affirmed about innovation, intellectual property and clichés.
On innovation: In the past two decades, technology has slowly crept into every aspect of our daily lives. Without detailing all the reasons, I will stick to summarizing the drastic evolution to a combination of Moore’s Law and a growingly connected world. When Fred Wilson pointed out that the new generation of entrepreneurs need to understand that a major trend was the disintegration of hierarchies (within governments, think Uber) and a growth of networks – I thought that the adage, ‘It does not matter what you know, rather whom you know,’ still applies, just in a different setting. Influence is the new currency of our generation.
Second, the unbundling effect is taking on a whole new dimension in finding newer verticals to manifest itself in. Taking a more California(n) view of the world, Guy Kawasaki did not delve into trends, rather he spoke about building a prototype that demonstrated the utility of a product, loud and clear. He also spoke about the lack of towels in Paris, but I assumed this was a reference to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, perhaps he missed the memo – always carry a towel!
The sessions presenting big-ticket products, including Uber, brought with them the knowledge of the fact that non-market forces, specially governmental policies to protect their own, were here to stay. For example, in Seoul, they are considering passing a law that allows anyone to use Uber, unless they are Korean nationals! I don’t entirely believe that hierarchies are dead, if so, Flipkart would have had a far easier time right here at home or even some local hardware companies that touted the next big home-grown tablets.
However, no matter what the political ecosystem might dictate, innovation is definitely a function of faster knowledge sharing and the ability to source from literally the entire world. Is the entrepreneurship world still very Silicon Valley biased? Probably so to some degree, as America has a great culmination of factors for budding businesses and a lot of informed investors, with a lot of personal mileage in technology development, which sets them apart.
Need for intellectual property: One of the questions I raised repeatedly to entrepreneurs and investors alike was the importance of Intellectual Property. Guy Kawasaki had a clear answer that IP was great if one were to be acquired at some stage but cannot be the only line of defensibility (in the absence of hard work, a great product and incredible desire to deliver). My own opinion is that IP is vastly a defence mechanism (but not as a scalable, “I will sue anyone who gets in my way” business model). Listening to this, Guy definitely re-affirmed my own opinion on IP.
Nick D’Aloisio, the 18-year old wonder kid, whose product Summly was sold to Yahoo! for several million dollars (where he now works as a product manager), quickly pointed out that IP was an important part of his journey as an entrepreneur. A quick lookup confirmed his having filed patents and MIT’s researchers having verified Summly’s algorithms to provide 30% better summarization than most academic algorithms. I was very impressed by the alacrity with which he handled questions ranging from his reasons for wanting to finish school to how he likes his new job at Yahoo!
Tony Fedell of Nest Labs confirmed that having an IP portfolio was a key part of the company’s strategic toolbox. Nest has, however, gone down the road of licensing from the world’s best known patent trolls, Intellectual Ventures, to keep infringement lawsuits from Honeywell at bay, which is a questionable decision in the long-term for the innovation pipeline.
While design was not a big part of LeWeb 2013, it is on the forecast for coming editions. Design is key IP for several wearable tech companies, including FitBit, Instabeat, OMSignal, etc. There was a whole session on Branding, where several techniques, including digital marketing were discussed. Having a well-recognized trademark is an imperative first-step to any company, no matter what its key offering.
Taking a critical look at the question, ‘why bother with IP?’ the answer is simple – bother with it if you can see that it is purely a defence mechanism and not an offense mechanism (other than to create a nice retirement plan for some lawyer somewhere). Bother with it if you understand it to be a tool for arbitrage – a developer that is doing outsourced work for $x per hour can potentially create IP and charge $x+2 per hour. Finally, definitely bother with it if you consider going public and understand valuation also lists intangibles.
To address the issue of Open Source Software, I am a great admirer of Richard Stallman – he would be the first to tell you that Open is not necessarily a synonym for free. If you consider having good strategy Red Hat is Open Source but sells for $y per CD, their business model rocks, in my books. One can easily argue that IP is a choice – understand what works for you, find a service provider that adds value to your thought process and avoid moral high grounds.
Cliches that were: There are few gaps in the messages we hear about entrepreneurship – it’s not all shits, giggles and first-class venture-funded frequent flier miles. There is a hard road behind every success, a big element of luck and a lot of good attitude to keep a team together. Remembering that a team is bigger than the 10 minutes of prime time for a CEO on a big stage under the lights is perhaps one way to avoid the all-too-common rush of adrenaline from big events.
Additionally, it’s not just about the million/billion dollar companies several smaller companies build great products, which with some luck can turn a profit. I don’t believe that hierarchies are dead – in fact, far from it. I would say the Indian investment fraternity is partially hierarchical, without wanting to be that way. I also feel that uniquely in India, IP has to be more than a 10-minute clip on Three Idiots, where Phunsukh Wangdu’s patents are the aces in the crown.
The gap between innovation and converting that into IP as a strategic tool, is a cultural shift that has to be espoused by the investment fraternity. Also, the fact that of a billion people in India, the percentage that have access to a low-cost, high-quality smartphone, the know-how to use applications and connectivity to be able to deploy them makes me wonder whether programming for the common case is not “a” trend to look into – India is not represented by simply New Delhi or Bangalore.
Finally, clichés about women entrepreneurs: I had the privilege of meeting some very smart women at this conference, including a close friend, Hind Hobeika. I frankly do not think that playing the woman card is a valid substitute to building great products – the other women entrepreneurs agreed.
When PatNMarks built search engines for Indian IP, we took the trouble of establishing the market before seeking funding. In a three-year time-period, we realized that in the Indian economy, where filing patents is a premium, selling a search product was a far stretch. Similarly, with other technology products, doing one’s homework is the main aspect of the game, not being a woman.
When questioned about whether investors look to invest in women entrepreneurs, Guy Kawasaki had a clear answer – “If you have a great idea, I will not be looking at your gender, height or other frivolous parameters.” Amen to that.
On being asked what their opinion was on the paucity of women in the entrepreneurship space, one great answer came from a Swedish Entrepreneur, Annika Lidne of Dramatify, who mentioned that one common trend in women entrepreneurs was the heavy focus on profits, rather than big vision. While I am not sure I entirely agree, I see her point. The clichéd question to a woman entrepreneur would be ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ The better question would be ‘What are your upcoming challenges in five years and what is your plan?’ I certainly like being asked the second question, more often than the first because it makes me believe that my existence is more a question of how rather than if.
A quick run through the very seedy strip outside the Moulin Rouge, changing hotels at 8 am and three days in very chilly Paris made this entire experience worth attending, thinking about and writing for posterity’s sake – the big English phrase I learned at LeWeb 2013 was ephemeral content – I hope that innovation, IP and clichés will not fall in that category, for now!