Marketing Portland is back this week from "Techmanity," a conference held in Silicon Valley for "innovators who imagine technology not just for profit but to improve the human condition." I thought I'd include a brief write-up of some highlights here, mainly by listing some of the personalities who presented during the sessions. I caught most of the sessions offered, but missed a few as I was browsing the small exhibition of startup businesses in the convention center lobby.
- Jared Leto. The opening session featured an interview with actor, musician, and entrepreneur Jared Leto (famous to most from his Best Supporting Actor Oscar win last year and/or his band 30 Seconds to Mars). Leto discussed a wide range of topics relevant to the ways in which technology is changing the world, especially informed by his perspective in music and film on a global scale. He shared a number of tales from the music business, in particular, illustrating how the landscape and business model have changed so dramatically with the growth of the Internet. While understandably critical of many business aspects of the entertainment industry, he was quite enthusiastic and optimistic about the ways in which technology has improved much else (e.g., the accessibility of film and music for consumers, and the widely available and numerous tools now available for artists). To learn more about Jared Leto, visit his web site at jaredleto.com.
- Adi Tatarko from Houzz. Houzz is a BIG web site -- 25 million monthly users, 4 million project photos 500k remodeling pros, and tip-top reviews of their major app for iOS and Android. It's a busy site, to say the least, that really does improve a lot of things for all players involved. I may be confusing this with another session, but I do recall a lot of conversation during Techmanity that was highly relevant to Houzz, which is the idea of a company actually spending time building and perfecting its platform before attempting to monetize it in some way. A believe Adi talked about this point in particular, discussing how they held off on monetization of the site in favor of really working out many of the basics first -- e.g., obtaining a better understanding of what users really wanted and responding to that above all else. Admittedly, I wasn't very familiar with this community prior to the conference, except for seeing it in search results for various things on Google. So, I assume that, while certainly there is a pretty intriguing "organic growth strategy" story here, there is also at this stage quite a bit of strategy involved in SEO and so forth to maintain a dominance of the design and remodeling space. To learn more about Adi, visit her web site at houzz.com.
- Gavin Newsom, the Lieutenant Governor of CA. I hesitate to comment much on any politicians here, as you're bound to anger half of any given audience by doing so. But, it was quite clear from this guy's session that he's one of the few truly informed politicians out there when it comes to technology. You name any stat out there about governmental waste with respect to outdated governmental systems, and this guy could likely one-up you on it. What I liked most about his talk was that he didn't seem to be simply regurgitating facts to please a technical audience; rather, he seemed to actually understand the implications of technology on government. Unfortunately for us, many of the best examples he offered about technological leadership in the public sector come from far overseas where some governments have had the courage and vision to implement state-of-the-art solutions instead of maintaining costly and unreliable legacy machines and processes. His book (I haven't read it) is called Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government. Probably worth a read if you're into the dovetail of government and technology. To learn more about Gavin, visit his web site at www.gavinnewsom.com.
- Catherine Hoke of Defy Ventures. Interesting presentation... Catherine is the Founder of Defy Ventures, a company that turns ex-cons into CEOs via a training program. she remarked that, as it turns out, there's actually quite a lot of entrepreneurial prowess sitting in our prison system. When you consider the skill set it takes to successfully run a gang and/or sell drugs on the street, it's not so different from Corporate America. She brought a long a panel of representatives from the program, all of which had done hard time, some for many years. Interestingly, she didn't hold back at all; she had them all reveal the details of what they did, how long they served, what made them change their path to "go legit", and what they were working on now. The session was surprisingly emotional -- at times eyebrow raising (e.g., when one man said he was making about $2,000 per day selling heroin), at times tear-jerking (e.g., when another described seeing his son in prison and how that changed him). To learn more about Catherine and Defy, visit their web site at wdefyventures.org.
- Rob Garza of Thievery Corporation. Rob Garza and Eric Hilton formed Thievery Corporation in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1990s. The band has been known in the world of electronica for most of its life (although they incorporate elements of many genres). Rob appeared in a session along with Thievery Corporation's manager, to discuss Thievery Corporation's take on all of this. Garza offered some interesting observations about the process. One I could relate to based on working with tech systems was that, in some ways, the old analog systems had their advantages -- one being that no matter how long you've had, say, a reel-to-reel master tape, you could always (and can still) go back to that for a source. However, if your master musical takes were all produced via a particular old release of Pro Tools (and never carried forward to new versions as that software evolved), then good luck getting it all back if it's needed again. (Well, something to that effect. In web-speak, it would be like trying to retrieve a working web site from a backup of an old Wordpress 1.0 site. Possible? ... sure, but not necessarily easy or straightforward.) He also noted a particular, rather sad, point of today's (largely positive) tech evolution -- the fact that, at state-of-the-art recording studios, artists are composing based on high-end, hi-fi systems, ideally listened to on decent speakers / systems. However, the norm is that most music is heard these days on laptop speakers or cheap bedroom speakers plugged into iPhones streaming low-fi versions from web services. Not exactly ideal, musically speaking. To learn more about Rob and the band, visit their web site at www.thieverycorporation.com.
- Marissa Sackler of BeeSpace. Naturally, a conference examining the convergence of technology and humanity would offer a good bit of content about and for nonprofit organizations. Her company, BeeSpace is a nonprofit incubator, that "provides the sort of hands-on financial, technical, marketing, and organizational mentoring normally associated with tech accelerators and applies it to helping emerging nonprofits." (From her bio on the Techmanity site.) For myself, having worked with and served so many nonprofits over the years, one relevant take-home message Sackler offered was that so many nonprofits today do not properly invest in their tech infrastructures. Instead, they perpetuate a highly myopic focus on the golden "perception rule" that suggests that 80% of revenues must always go toward programs, and only a limited 20% or less to operations. The outcome, in many cases, is that, you get a nonprofit that becomes a real mess tech-wise for fear of breaching that "rule". In fairness, if this is indeed such a widespread "rule", then it follows that some donors and funders are also aware of it and may make decisions based on it. So, there's no elegant solution, unfortunately. Although, in my opinion, nonprofits could likely handle these situations better by embracing technology more, learning more about the investment necessary for their situation, and actively communicating that to their boards, their donors, and their relevant funding communities. To learn more about BeeSpace, visit their web site at beespacenyc.com.
- Ido Leffler of Yoobi. The Yoobi session was a little different, as it had less to do with technology than the others. Instead, it was about a brand of school supplies sold by Target. The model is that, for each item purchased, Yoobi donates an item to a school in need. So, the focus was on this model of social assistance. Their reach is impressive, helping about 750,000 kids annually. I suspect a lot of the entrepreneurs in the audience were likely just as interested in the overall business model, as it seems like this model could be replicated for other causes by partnering with other big box stores in similar ways (although, I would suspect that most big box stores have plenty of giving programs in place already and thus may or may not be open to outside ideas like this). Perhaps the real "secret" to pursuing such a scenario is this: How does one get in the door at a place like Target to even pitch such a program? To learn more about Yoobi, visit his web site at Yoobi.com.
But wait; there's more! Continue on to Part 2 of this article.