If you’re interested in technology, it’s very easy to be seduced by the hype that surrounds the new, shiny product or service that everyone’s talking about that month. And whilst that’s mostly harmless for the consumer, it can be fatal for a VC. Not only are the companies that you invest in risky but by paying above the odds, you now need your winners to succeed on an even greater scale to have a chance of repaying the people who trusted you with their cash.
So I always find it interesting to hear VC’s explain how they make the decisions about what to invest in given that they focus only on sectors that they believe have tremendous growth potential. Fred Wilson is both a top VC and daily blogger who’s particularly insightful and his recent talk at Le Web on three key megatrends in technology is no exception. You can check out the full talk in the video below.
You See Better From Further Out
Fred’s approach is to move one step back from focusing on so-called hot areas in general (such as machine learning and big data) to try to understand the bigger picture. Don’t attempt to guess which technology will be the most important. Look instead at how society is developing and the gaps that are being created. And it’s on this basis that he sees three ‘mega-trends’ driving business over the next few years.
1. Transition from bureaucratic hierarchies to technology-driven networks
Business traditionally functioned from the top down. Management orders filtered down the levels whilst customer feedback would usually go directly to front-line (and often junior) staff. When the system worked, that feedback would have to travel back up through the various layers until management made the decision about whether or not to make changes. Inefficient yes but justified by the high costs of communication.
But now these costs have plummeted, traditional hierarchies are being replaced by technology-driven networks. Think about the disruption to the newspaper industry: vast newsrooms with armies of reporters directed by a publisher with stories being edited to meet deadlines before the publication of a physical daily newspaper. Cue the entry of technology-driven networks (and the advent of Twitter and blogs in particular) and now everyone can be a reporter.
The crowd on each network determines what is popular (by retweets, follower count and the like) and the news that is relevant is delivered to us instantly via our mobiles. The same disruption can be seen in film/television (YouTube) and the music industry (Soundcloud).
Consumers now have the power to clearly signal what they want and find useful. But Fred believes we’re still in the early stages of this process which is only now starting to ripple through other industries like hotels (Airbnb, OneFineStay), creative industries (Kickstarter) and learning (Codecademy). Most industries will be affected by networks over the medium term.
2. Everything is being unbundled
It used to be expensive to get products and services to market. That cost meant that businesses tended to bundle things together that the customers had to pay for, even if they didn’t necessarily want the full selection (think of the Sunday papers with News, Holidays, Finance, Fashion, Classified Ads & Sports sections). Yet technology makes it cheap for new companies to be built to deliver single parts of these products, with the result often being that the bit you actually want is now both cheaper and of a higher quality.
Banking is a great example of an industry that’s being unbundled. It used to be very expensive to open and run a physical branch so the banks offered all types of products, including mortgages, credit cards, small business loans and working capital finance. Yet new businesses are now able to use networks of individuals to provide more efficient, specialised and more effective products – through peer to peer lending for example (Lending Club).
University education is another area where the high costs of traditional delivery – sourcing a building, lecturers, expensive academic books in libraries, face-to-face lectures – are being disrupted by MOOCs and mobile online learning platforms. The network model is also changing the face of research, both with the growth of Open Access publications and by enabling people to collaborate across different locations to enable researchers to share expensive, scarce research resources (such as expensive medical equipment).
3. We are all now a node on the network
The mobile phone has changed the game forever. Whilst those in the developed world still have the option of choosing to use a laptop or desktop rather than our phone, in the developing world, mobile has already won that race for dominance. With the cost of a desk computer too high in such countries for general adoption, people just moved straight to cheap (predominantly Android) smart phones. But regardless of the location, the result is that we are all now connected to each other all the time. Cue a wave of opportunities for businesses who are able to build upon that knowledge of people, locations and photographs across the network – in transport/logistics (Uber), payments (Dwolla, Square) and dating (Tinder).
Where The Three Collide
Fred goes on to identify four key sectors in which each of these three mega-trends are making their presence felt in particular:-
It’s obvious that we’re heading for major change in the world of money. I agree with Fred’s view that Bitcoin (or similar) is going to be responsible for so much more than just innovation in payments. It has the potential to become the financial and transactional protocol for the internet that has always been missing. As the standard way in which financial value is exchanged across the web and one that is entirely free from the control of any one party, money will be able to flow as freely and easily as content does today. As a protocol, it will also act as a foundation upon which entrepreneurs can build a whole variety of products and services.
HEALTH & WELLNESS
Think of the growth of wearable technology with individuals wearing devices that can report back with details of their vital signs (Fitbit, Fuelband etc). In the future, some of this data will remain personal and private, some will be shared across networks and some will be exchanged solely between you and your doctor, caregiver or family member. Throw gamification into the mix (Fitocracy) and suddenly you’ve got a profound force for good with individuals making positive decisions about how to keep themselves fit and healthy.
When the industrial revolution arrived, the side-effect of such rapid development was the pollution that poured into our environment. By the time we realised and started the clean-up started, almost a century had passed and we faced a far harder task than it could have been had we dealt with it at the time.
Arguably we’re now facing exactly the same problem in the information age – only this time the pollution is data. Every digital activity we carry out leaves data exhaust which is, like it or not, letting other parties observe our activities. Fred’s view is similar to most people that I speak to: most of the time, he’s happy to let the government, Google, Facebook and others spy on him. However, sometimes the services that we’ve used end up recording our activities when we don’t want them to. Therefore, getting some control over this data leakage, both at an individual and a societal level is important.
TRUST & IDENTITY
Currently, many of us sign into services using our identities from other platforms (e.g. Facebook, Google, Twitter etc). Whilst it is extremely handy to use their authentication services, we are essentially giving these companies knowledge about everything that we do. Fred predicts the emergence of a standard protocol that will provide individuals with control over their own identity, trust and data which will be distributed (like Bitcoin, across many thousands of computers), free from any one party’s control and global.
Tick The Boxes
No matter whether you’re a VC, entrepreneur or just a citizen in the modern digital era, Fred’s talk provides plenty of food for thought. Using this framework provides a useful lens through which to watch just how the world will change in the next few years as a result of developments in the tech world.
We’re only just at the starting line: the pace of technological advancement can only accelerate from here on in as networks strengthen and the remaining friction that slows down the voluntary exchange of information between people anywhere across the world disappears completely. So if you’re looking to start up a new business or simply to future-proof the one you have, you could do far worse than take start to consider how to take account of all three.