Lost in Noise is Learning

We are so bombarded by noise at times it’s hard to think. The raging debates around coronavirus public policy, racial injustice, and the presidential election form a perfect storm of noise. A cacophony of this magnitude only naturally sends us to seek shelter from the storm.

Don’t give in to the temptation of numbness. Where there is noise there is a signal. Sometimes you have to listen hard for it, but it’s worth the effort.

Where there is crisis there is learning.

During the entirety of the Covid-19 crisis, my own company has been digging deeper into data, questioning every one of our prior assumptions, revisiting foundational convictions that have proven to be upended by circumstances. It’s been meticulous work, exhausting in many ways, but every bit of analysis has been worth the long hours of difficult discussion. Through a highly Socratic process, we have reinvented our business model for the better.

All of that has me thinking: What else might these crises be telling us? What else can we learn from the turmoil all around us if we don’t allow ourselves to hide from the rhetorical barrage?

Here are a few ideas penetrating my consciousness in the realms of global warming, trusted communications, and government core competency.

Everyone Doesn’t Have to Drive Every Day

I live in Los Angeles. I look outside and the air is clear. The freeways are empty. Coincidence? An accidental moment without significance? Perhaps that’s the case, as some have argued the temporal reduction in emissions and anecdotal benefits of fewer cars on the road, but what if it were sustainable? Could one of the answers to climate change be so obviously right before our eyes? I’m not a scientist with the credentials to make such an assessment, but I certainly would like the problem studied objectively.

Until a few months ago, we woke up daily with the habit of getting in our cars and driving to work no more questioned than brushing our teeth. It was just something we did. In no previous discussion of environmental distress did I hear anyone credibly propose getting more than half our cars off the road, because the proposition would have been a non-starter. Then one day a bunch of us stopped getting in our cars. Poof, just like that, we were working from home. We also got the commute time back for more productive work, and while I’m at it, how about all of those car accidents that stopped because people behind the steering wheel weren’t texting. We will go back to the office regularly at some point, but does it have to be every day, for every person? Not in my world. The benefits are yet to be understood. Let’s understand them.

Media Desperately Needs Reinvention

We don’t understand fake news. We don’t even have a common definition of fake news. Some of us define fake news as the biased reporting of a media brand. Others identify it as the blatantly false information peddled to the public for effect without fact-checking. I remain a fan of journalism and consume branded media daily with my own filter for accuracy, but my litmus test for truth will never be yours. Until we can agree on some form of objectivity, we will continue to debate the source of our information rather than the implications of the information’s validity.

This is not healthy. If we can’t agree on what constitutes an empirical fact, the clear and present danger to our decision making is likely to have a catastrophic impact. No source, however reputable, is without fault. The New York Times isn’t sure what belongs on its op-ed page. Facebook as a public platform of democratic exchange has become an unmitigated disaster in its inability to parse purposely placed disinformation in unending disguises, free or paid. Elections are won cynically on ad volume, fueled by cash, fueled by special-interest investment in yet more noise. We know we need journalism, but given how few people want to pay for it and how compromising its ad base has become, its business model has failed. Whoever reinvents this business model is going to change the world. I believe this will happen, because accurate information is not a luxury but a necessity.

Readiness Is Pragmatic

Perhaps my most troubling observation is how flat-footed the United States has been caught with the ramifications of the pandemic. Of course no one knew any sooner than late 2019 that Covid-19 could interrupt every aspect of our lives, but we’ve been around long enough to know pandemics exist. How could we have so few of the necessary medical supplies or personal protective equipment in stockpiles for such a calamity? How could we not have a clear chain of command between federal, state, and local authority? How could we shut down the nation for three months and not make strides on healthy measures to address the next semester of student education?

We are a pragmatic nation known to focus our vast resources on innumerable global crises throughout our history, but have we become so focused on the here and now that we aren’t paying enough attention to scenario planning and game theory? If we don’t think carefully about reallocating resources to planning for the unknown, the chances we will be struck down even harder by the next surprise attack would seem to be 100%.

Do yourself a favor: Tune out the noise, but tune in the learning. Opportunity is always around us if we muster the discipline to trade demoralization for inspiration. That’s how we get better.

The alternative is to stick with what we’ve got. I hope we’ve learned that’s not much of an option.

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Image: Pixabay

More Fallout from the Zuckerberg Files

Should the unintended consequences that emerge in the course of a company’s evolution be a primary concern of management?

Is the exponential creation of shareholder value still the overriding force when a wildly successful company grows even faster than its own outsized vision?

Are the naive philosophical aspirations of under-experienced entrepreneurs a get-out-of-jail-free card from the ramifications of otherwise noble intentions?

In answering these and similar questions, is Facebook somehow a different animal?

These are some of the issues examined by a new Frontline documentary recently aired on PBS that frames a deeply damning critique of Facebook and its leadership team. While purposefully steering past the warm-and-fuzzy aspects of Facebook’s innocent exchanges of family photos and recipes, The Facebook Dilemma dives into Facebook’s structural roots.

The critique presented is strident but not unfair: Why didn’t Facebook as an enterprise heed the many early warnings of the pervasiveness of its influence and more strongly consider mitigation strategies, and now that the political chaos has been unleashed, is there any possibility of getting the bad genie back in its bottle?

When Facebook launched, founder Mark Zuckerberg braved a bold and curious global community manifesto:

“Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.”

That sounds good on the surface, and it sounded so good to so many of Facebook’s early employees that they rallied around the life-affirming purpose. They believed they were building a platform toward the betterment of humanity.

Simultaneously, the size of the audience embracing the platform created a media opportunity unlike any other in history. No company has ever thought about achieving monetization of a billion (heck, now two billion) individuals. To make sure no money was left on the table, Zuckerberg hired Sheryl Sandberg from Google to build that side of the equation.

The inherent conflicts soon became apparent. Facebook claimed to be a technology company, not a media company, even though its business model was selling advertising, which is what a media company does. To be the most valuable media company it could be, it needed two things: the world’s most in-depth data warehouse, and a rule set of utilizing that data with the fewest possible restrictions.

As a business, this all made sense. As you can see every day in the public company’s enterprise value, it worked beyond all expectations. The problem remains, it was initially fueled by another slogan:

“Move fast and break things.”

This ethos is not unique to Facebook. One of the tenets of Silicon Valley is to drive value from what is called an MVP, a minimum viable product. The point is to get a functional offering in the market quickly, find where it is successful, worry little about its failings, and start to iterate while building cash flow. Success is defined first by penetration (audience reach) and second by monetization (lifetime customer value). When things go sour, startups try to fix them, but because success is winner take all, most teams unapologetically expect there will be a lot of sourness to sweeten.

The question Facebook has encountered is unsettling: Is its very business model antithetical to fixing the byproducts of its success?

The Frontline documentary illustrates many of the ways Facebook has gone sour. Arab Spring. Fake news penetration in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russian intervention in media buying in the same election and outrageous exploitation of privacy by Cambridge Analytica. Violence in Myanmar.

Even Roger McNamee, a celebrated early investor in Facebook, took it upon himself to act counter to his own financial interests and ask Facebook management to step back and rethink the implications of its mindset. They did not heed his warnings. They were either too optimistic, too idealistic, too hooked on winning, too greedy, too ambitious, too arrogant, too busy to see the light of day, or a combination of all of those.

Facebook management has been reactive on all these fronts and done what it can to play whack-a-mole as crises emerge. Executives and managers there admit repeatedly they have been “too slow” to address the ramifications of their global viral adoption. The “too slow” apology parrots Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress. It was a well-played chess move. It reveals no ethos of a fundamental commitment to a proactive playbook of innovative solutions. It’s a cost center, not a profit center.

Traditional media companies work under the direction of a qualified, responsible editor. When a journalist makes a mistake, the media brand runs a retraction. Facebook doesn’t want to be a media company, and it doesn’t want to be an editor, but any way you slice it, the algorithm that sits under News Feed is a robotic editor more likely to show you what it thinks you want to see than what is true or real. Then a perfectly targeted ad is inserted. That is how the game has been won at Facebook. It’s a winning formula. Any risk to changing that is far riskier to the company’s stock price than a few incidents of political unrest.

The real question remains: If Facebook’s mission requires that the company remove most obstacles to the free flow of information, the result of which is to facilitate unfiltered speech, the result of which is chaos, can it both stay true to its values and smooth over the chaos? And if the company is selling some of the most valuable ads in the world because the vast archive of privacy data is what makes those ads click, how can it impose limits on the interests of its ownership?

It’s a greater good question, one that capitalism believes is best left to the free market to solve, but in this case, it’s almost impossible to see how that gap is bridged.

Zuckerberg likes to say that Facebook is an “idealistic and optimistic” company. He said it when we was hauled before Congress to address the breach of privacy trust. When he was a younger man, it was a quaint proclamation I could have believed were it not for the true origin of Facebook as a college hook-up site. When he says it today, it sounds cynical. People who work for him might still be drinking the Kool-Aid. He’s selling advertising, justifying it, and trying to dodge regulation. To wit, he’s doing his day job as CEO.

Part of the problem might be social media itself. Its greatest strength is its greatest weakness. While pure democracy of publishing without a filter is liberating, audiences can easily be misled and mislead each other in chaotic exchanges of raw opinion. Add in bad actors buying access for covert agendas and the danger can become uncontainable.

Shortly before Zuckerberg testified earlier this year, I wrote a post entitled Is Facebook the Next AOL? At that time I wasn’t sure. Now I am. The byproducts of Facebook are so pernicious and likely unresolvable, I do think at some point the vast audience will abandon the platform. The cost of trading one’s privacy for family photos and recipes is too high. I don’t know when that will happen, and Facebook has a ton of cash so it can last a long time, but I expect the devoted masses will eventually exit their loyal addiction in self-defense. I don’t think this invention can adequately address the inherent conflict of interest it has created to thrive. Creative destruction will replace it with a better, more respectful product.

A brand is a promise. When trust is eroded, a brand dies.

I remain active on Facebook, but the broad notion that the world would be better as an open and connected place has always troubled me. Maybe it’s because I grew up as a kid learning of Nixon’s enemies list. Privacy to me always seemed to matter. Today’s political climate almost makes the Nixon era seem welcoming.

I’ve long subscribed to the notion that technology is advancing much faster than our ability to understand its implications. I saw that in my early career with the addictive nature of computer games. We see it all around us with people’s attention glued to mobile screens as they bump into each other and fall into fountains. We don’t really know what this stuff is doing to us. We buy it and use it and another tech company goes public.

Silicon Valley moves fast and breaks things because it’s good for business. Collateral damage is expected and as long as a company survives and grows few real tears are shed. Expecting it will change is unrealistic. It’s a form of realpolitik. Expediency wins over ideology because of the vast money at stake.

Since you’re probably staying on the social media playing field indefinitely, protect yourself. No one else will.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Image: Pixabay

Whose Ad Is It Anyway?

Investors and company executives are cheering of late for the resurgence of Facebook above its IPO price from about a year ago.  Mobile growth is the story at Facebook, and many are pleased with the associated revenue progress.  I wish everyone well tallying their riches.  I am still not sure how much significant value is being created, particularly as it applies to the company’s core advertising business.  And hey, I was a very early believer in this business model and all the promise it held as the definitive interactive media platform of a generation — kind of like the first time as I kid when I saw a movie on HBO, a complete movie on television with no commercials, I just  knew something good had happened and someone was going to get rich as a result.  Uh, that was for taking the ads away.

If you are active on Facebook, particularly mobile, you probably weren’t surprised by the earnings improvement.  You’ve seen the ads — oh, have you seen the ads — you can’t miss them, right there in your news feed, as intrusive as the interface mandates.  Recently an ad for a salacious French maid’s costume was offered to me with the following copy — pretty much full screen — and I was kindly given the opportunity to Like the page:

“This five-piece At Your Service set from Dreamgirl comes with a sexy babydoll with apron, maid’s hat, ruffle back thong, and feather duster.”

Curiously this clever bit of sponsored media appeared above a friend’s timely post on racism and below a post from a financial journal I follow on how to avoid manipulated options.  I suppose under certain circumstances this might be considered targeting, but I can honestly assert I was not in the market for such an outfit, either for myself or as a gift, nor had any click stream I created left a trail for the behavioral targeters.  Perhaps they could have offered me a nice bottle of Bordeaux, which would have made sense since I am a wine enthusiast and often post articles about my favorite varietals on Facebook, and I’m guessing their database knows I have a Pinterest board on the subject of value excellence (“Good Wine, Good Price“), but no such luck.  I am a middle-aged male, heterosexual, and married, so maybe that’s the profile they sold to the advertiser.  I would guess that the CPM (in ad-speak, that’s “cost per thousand” impressions, where the M is the Latin numeral) was very, very low, offset by volume that was very, very high.  Again in ad-speak, we sometimes call that “dollar-a-holler.”  In these cases, maybe a nickel.

Just so it’s clear that I am not picking on Facebook, my friends at AOL Mail where I have maintained the same email account for about a quarter century, now offer a curious feature: After I send an email, the confirmation screen is filled with singles looking for a date.  It’s nice to see that the advertiser is not presumptuous; sometimes they offer me women and sometimes men.  The fact that the advertising delivery system is ambivalent toward my preference is unusually progressive.  It also is quite genially unconcerned that my wife continues to see my email send pages resolve to these artifacts on our shared monitor.

Note to New Media Companies, with love, from Old Media Companies: Some things have not changed, including that there are still four key constituents in the advertising equation:

1) The manufacturer or seller of products and services.

2) The ad network or agency.

3) The media delivery vehicle or platform.

4) The viewer of the ad.

For full value to be created, all four have to be satisfied by the results of the supply chain.  For real ongoing business, it is most essential that #1 and #4 are happy, so that #2 and #3 can speak to a job well done.

Let’s look at all four in the French maid and available-singles ad examples and see who is happy working backward:

4) Me: Not happy, except that it gave me an idea for this story.

3) Facebook and AOL; Happy (except if they read this post); they got paid by #1.

2) Agency or network: Happy; they found plentiful inventory in the form of my news feed and mail page, and they also got paid by #1.

1) Advertisers: Should not be too happy; they paid the bill, and I am making fun of them for it.

So the owner of the bill and the receiver of the message are not happy (#1 and #4), but the middle-folks are just fine with it (#2 and #3).  Oh, they’ll tell you they are working on it, improving their targeting technology and all that, but they aren’t losing sleep, because they got paid.  They should be losing sleep, lots of it.

There is also an implicit fifth constituent, the expanded community surrounding the nucleus of the supply chain, particularly of significance in our interconnected world of social media.  When an offer is useful and enticing, like many of the tested e-coupons on RetailMeNot, pleased customers will gleefully pass them along.  That’s free evangelism from existing fans to unlimited prospects, making ad dollars work even harder through leverage.  When ads are garbage, they are terminal, mercifully so.  In fact, bad-vertising can hurt a brand through negative association — poor word of mouth is difficult if not impossible to combat.  Wonder if your would-be customers are laughing at you?  You may not know until the community turns on you, then it’s costly to recover, or perhaps too late.

When advertising works — the right, relevant message in front of the right, engaged human being — it can be an excellent experience.  Absent concerns about privacy, you might embrace the very respect involved in not having to see ads you don’t care about.  But all this posturing about collecting intelligence on customers to deliver better leads — how come I’m still getting ads for reverse mortgages on My Yahoo homepage, which has every financial feed coming through loud and clear to tell them I’m a reasonably well heeled owner?  That page is still sold as remnant inventory (in ad-speak, leftovers) at bargain-basement prices, maybe less than the French maid costume or the singles ads.  Some money being left on the table there?  They’ll probably tell you no.  They would be wrong.

As the national dialogue on privacy invasion is reaching fever pitch, even POTUS has been dragged into the ruckus with a defensive “Don’t worry, we respect you while we protect you” mantra.  That dialogue is likely to resolve itself in the dialectic, because it is a civil rights discussion grounded in our cherished democracy.  I actually think that problem is going to get solved before the ad targeting starts to get it right, because there is too much money at stake for annoying and disrupting us that no one really wants to give back.  Like the story goes, always follow the money — the real today-money, not the theoretical long-term-value, someday-we’ll-get-this-right money.  Why would you want to do that?

Maybe I’ll just watch HBO.  The price has skyrocketed, but the shows are pretty good, and it is still ad free.  I am always willing to pay for that.

HBO Image

Built to Launch?

I aspire in this post to be among the elite—one of the few business bloggers on the planet currently not commenting on Marissa Mayer becoming CEO of Yahoo. I have never met Marissa, but her reputation speaks strongly for her. I wish her well because I always want good people to succeed, and in this case I also want to see Yahoo succeed. I hope she reads my article about Yahoo from last year that predated her last two predecessors and figures out a way to restore much-needed competition to the landscape of search. Hmm, seems I’m writing about her. Okay, enough said. Got get ’em, Yahoo! Stop.

Now my real topic for the week—not surprisingly, also about succession.

Venture investors Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz have been steadfast in their support for keeping Founder/CEOs at the helm of the companies they back, from early blog posts on their site that state their philosophy to more recent comments in the Wall Street Journal that reinforce their sometimes contrarian assertions. Not only do they believe most deeply in the Founder/CEO success model, they have championed multiple class shares that keep CEOs in authority with majority control even without majority ownership. Their point of view is clear, consistent, and well-argued—and thus far their financial returns in aggregate have been extraordinary. They want vision, they want independence and long-term creative thinking, and they want continuity.

I am not sure I have an absolute opinion yet on absolute power for a start-up CEO; we’ll have to see how those play out over the next ten or twenty years. I do worry that without senior team loyalty and continuity, it may not matter whether a CEO stays or goes. Teamwork is what matters in today’s intellectual property centric companies, and if your team is not stable, I wonder if your company can remain so. Surely new blood is a great infusion when parsed appropriately, but it needs to be in balance, at equilibrium with a set of players we can count on.

What about the top-tier executives, perhaps a level down, who seem to jump freely from ship to ship, following their own personal muses, particularly after liquidity gives them the ability to set themselves free? Is this good for companies and long-term shareholder value, for companies with massive capitalization that are taking on investment—public or private—ostensibly with some hope of being Built to Last?

Clearly within our pressured and fragile economy, the bonding relationships between employers and employees have become increasingly tenuous. “At-will employment” is not just boilerplate in an offer letter, it means what it says, that jobs are temporal. Employees not under contract may depart a gig when they wish without much obligation, and employers may equally freely dismiss them (to the extent those decisions are not discriminatory) without much warning or explanation. Companies are predisposed to protect earnings and cost-cutting can be a tactic to achieve those goals, the favor of which gives employees good reason to always be in the market. Although there are any number of topics I can extract from that thread and will do so in the future, that is not my key focus here. This is not about everyday turnover and the anxiety it creates, it is about senior level turnover as a litmus test for investors.

Reality is, a lot of high-profile employees in high-profile start-ups seem to jump ship early these days. I am not so sure that they are cashing in as much as their attention spans or personal desires lead them from one thing to the next. Some examples:

• Two of Twitter’s co-founders who served as CEO left the job and their day-to-day roles, although one returned, not as CEO, but as head of product. The third co-Founder also left day-to-day responsibilities.

• Facebook’s most recent CTO, who joined the company in 2008, departed voluntarily almost immediately following the IPO. Facebook also lost an extremely high-profile CFO in 2009, and a number of other prominent C-level executives have churned through in the years leading up to the IPO.

• Groupon’s former COO, a Silicon Valley veteran brought in to steady the ship, spent about a year on the job day-to-day before moving to an advisory role.

• Yahoo continues to make headlines with five CEOs in five years, although the situation here is different. The last one to leave on his own timeline was media veteran Terry Semel, who preceded the five. Perhaps more curious at Yahoo is the level below CEO, where the turnover has been even more active, voluntary or otherwise.

• Google is now being celebrated as iCEO University, for which it has reason to be proud with strong executives like Sheryl Sandberg, Tim Armstrong, Dick Costolo, and now Marissa Mayer all willingly accepting significant challenges. My sense is this is sustainable as long as founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin stay on the job (guided by the advice of Eric Schmidt), but at some point the spinning off of entrepreneurs may take a toll as it did at once great legendary giants like Sun and Silicon Graphics (also keep an eye on HP).

It is hard to fault someone with talent and wealth for leaving a position with an “old company” to tackle a brand new start-up concept. They have the creativity, they have the yearning, and they can absorb the personal risk. Yet these aren’t exactly old, mature companies they are leaving, even in internet time. If talent retention is critical to continuity and leadership is demonstrated by example, what does it say about loyalty to the “rank and file” millionaires of Silicon Valley hungry to pursue their dreams when so many of the top dogs or near top dogs are endemically antsy?

Can you build a company that is Built to Last when many of your brightest employees—especially those made wealthy with capital they can reinvest—are thinking Built to Jump? Should shareholders in emerging high-valuation private and public companies be concerned with the New World of high turnover that is largely viewed as the way things are? There is already risk enough in holding stakes at the high valuations these companies will need to grow into, but if these are essentially knowledge-based companies where the key assets go home to their families each night, how much should owners worry whether they come back tomorrow or start a new company that’s more fun? Are these companies Built to Last or Built to Launch—launch themselves to early prominence, and launch the careers of the stars who emerge from their ranks?

Retention and the war for talent are surely talked about a lot, but I wonder if these are just buzzwords now, if key stakeholders really are losing sleep over the next spun-off employee or just prepared to roll with the punches. For anyone who has ever led a company, the notion of culture is no small issue, and companies where the culture is strong have a heritage of continuity that gives them a shot at longevity. Do we now assume Creative Destruction is such a powerful force that short-lived companies are a norm, regardless of culture and continuity? I wonder, and look forward to checking the Fortune 500 again for a few more decades to see how this plays out—not to mention the long-term trend on aggregate net job creation we so desperately need for our economy to go the distance.

I am not suggesting that employees should stay past their welcome or interest level, and in no way would I ever want (or tolerate as a manager) any form of stagnation in the form of tenure-based retention or retention for continuity’s sake. The case I am trying to make is for a tiny bit of balance in an Old World concept known as loyalty—which has been very good to me on both sides of the desk for most of my years on the job. It has been said that in today’s world loyalty is between individuals, not within companies, and there is every reason to understand how that has come to be. Yet if companies are not loyal to employees and employees are not loyal to companies, can these kind of companies really be long-term investments for shareholders? Said another way, if the system and talent are not demonstrating loyalty and commitment, should investors?