Maybe it is because of my grey hairs, but I feel a bit awkward writing about start-ups. I want to write about an end-up.
This week I was at a conference on ‘The Next Web’: TNW Europe. Because I have this problem nagging me, I thought I visit it, even though as a pre-IT nerd I do not speak the algorithmic lingo. It was instructive and amusing to be there together with something like 2000 people all trying to destroy the way things are done now and thinking they can improve on it. I will give you some highlights – or shadowlights, depending on your view. All this although I am not really interested in any start-up. It is an end-up that I have in my sight. And end-ups are what most others have in their sight too.
Let me start with the name of the conference: The Next Web. What will this web look like? What I took with me are two things: 1) Web pages will no longer be ‘read only’ pages with a small backdoor where you can crawl through to change things. In the future you can write on pages like I am doing now on a Word page. 2) Central servers will no longer be as essential as they are now. One of the presenters wrote a few lines of code while on stage, and the next moment he had ‘pulled’ all the computers in the conference room together in order to turn it into a shared server. A shared server not connected any other server, it must be said. In other words: safe and not as hackable as it is now. If one of the key problems of the Internet is its endless connectivity, this ‘block technology’ puts an end to it, with many consequences for flexibility and privacy. Which brings me to the issue of my occasional senior moments when it comes to passwords.
As someone who hates the whole business of passwords – especially the fact that you cannot use passwords you have used before but happened to have forgotten – I am happy with the way everyone is trying to find alternatives. The most interesting alternative for passwords is the one in which your ‘wearable’ technology (in wristbands and clothes) tells tour phone of computer that you are who you say you are. I am weary, though. The same person telling us about this was also the one who showed what happens with the heart rate of tens of thousands of people when there is an earthquake going on. A graph showed the heart rate going up at 3 AM, only to decrease slowly afterwards, depending on your distance to the fault line. If your wearable gives the data with your unique heart rate to some server somewhere, how safe is that data?
I loved walking though the halls and exhibition spaces of the Westergasfabriek, drinking it all in: the bearded creative types, the semi casual investors, the nerdi developers. They came from everywhere. Most spoke their English very well, challenging me to guess from their accent where everyone came from (except for one time. The American host of a meeting asked the Dutch in the audience to pronounce the street where the afterparty was to be. About 300 Dutch visitors shouted ‘Reguliersbreestraat’ all at the same time to the foreigners around them. Great moment.) At the same time I tried to assess what the impact of it all really is. Let me first give a few examples of ‘apps’ that appealed to me for some reason or another, or were just crazy enough to merit a mention.
Animo’s – a nice concept for scheduling group meetings.
Storygami – a way to add content and context to videos, in stead of the other way around (do hope my street will finally get better upload by bloody Caiwai and KPN).
Drupe – As they claim: a way to reach your contacts faster than you can do now. As the presenter says: I want to see people, not apps (nice movie too).
There was much more. I guess the one I liked the most is an app that makes it possible to transform a child’s electric toothbrush into e remote game controller. I have no doubt it turns brushing your teeth into much more fun than I had when I was a small kid – on the other hand it seems like will turn a child even more into a game addict. No gain, no pain, they say.
Which is quite my point. Take the (almost) last one I will mention:
Bokio – an app that helps SME’s to do their administration on the fly, Bokio is in itself not that much more than one of the many mobile accountants through which administrations are now digitized. In this case it was the young Swedish guy presenting it that made me sit straighter in my chair. He really knew what he was doing. He was the first of whom I thought: ah, here is someone trying to create an end-up, not a start-up. He wanted to end the old ways of doing business – and he did it for a guy like himself: an independent small entrepreneur with big dreams.
Schumpeter called it ‘creative destruction’. It means that in almost any case true change comes through the breakup, the end, of old things. From a wider perspective, there is nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. But from a closer perspective – say, when your job depends on some part of the old economy, your perspective will be different. So how to decide weather it is worth it and the benefits outweigh the costs? Ultimately that is a question about added value. Not all ‘apps’ have that added value.
At this moment of writing I am listening to a guy who says you can write a book without actually being able to write a book. Oh, horror. He starts out by saying that writing about business is not the same as writing literature. It is enough that your ideas come across. Everyone has ideas, there is a book or three in all of us. He has this app or method that sort of helps you record your thoughts and turn it into a book. After all, our brain is not hardwired for writing. Please, let me help you, he says? Please? Please save me from quacks like these, I say. Even though he makes some valid points, he is fundamentally wrong in trying to turn writing in something less than it is: damn hard, but because of that it so worth the while. Crap will crawl its way through apps like these. I will Schumpeter guys like that, even if it is the last thing I do.
But it will not be the last thing I do. I guess I am saved by a remark someone else makes. He simply states that this whole business of start-ups is not about ideas – it is about problems, and how to end them. Your own problems, mostly. That is what drives invention.
I have a problem too. I am a trainer by profession, an educator. My own company, Northedge Education is a nice vehicle for that, but most of my trainings I do for others. I feel there is an enormous need for good training out there. However, the market is badly disciplined and in the hands of rather anonymous educators. If you consider yourself a (independent) professional with good ideas, you will find yourself in some difficulty to translate your great ideas into a group of people wanting to hear about it. You first have to take part or invest in an infrastructure that does not help you or your prospective clients. Things take to long, marketing is too expensive. Speaking for myself: I have that problem. So this is my problem, my challenge and my source of energy: to end the old way of organizing training. It is NOT about start-ups, stupid. It is about end-ups.