I Actually Love Targeted Ads

About ten to twelve years ago, I found some free Tower Defense game on the App Store. It was challenging enough to keep me interested, but not so difficult I’d bang my head against the wall, and it became my goto game when waiting in the airport or when I wanted some mindless downtime.

It was free, but supported by advertising. This was the heyday of games like FarmVille. Fun Fact: In 2011, the developer of FarmVille, Zynga, made up 19% of Facebook’s entire revenue! So ad supported games were not only common then, they were considered the best way for mobile games to monetize.

After every Tower Defense level I completed, an ad would show as the next level loaded. Except these weren’t your normal ads. They were awesome. They marketed stuff that I actually wanted to buy. With each ad displayed, I could mark it as relevant or not, and as I fed back to the ad network (whose name I can’t remember anymore), the ads became even more tailored. I ended up buying more stuff from that game than I’ve ever bought from any advertising medium, ever. All of the stuff I bought was relevant, high quality, and I was pleased with every purchase. And here’s the thing – I actually enjoyed seeing the ads! Kind of like how I enjoy the ads in hyper-targeted magazines I subscribe to like Model Railroader – they’re all super relevant and help build awareness about products I might like.

At some point, the ad network folded, and the developer of the game went bust, and while I’ve moved on to other tower defense games, I often think about that ad network. I was using an ad blocker on my web browser even back then, and today, the the only real exposure to web ads I get is via YouTube, Instagram, and a couple newspapers I subscribe to like the New York Times. Everything else is blocked.

I have two YouTube accounts, and two Instagram accounts, and both have very focused personas and interests, but the thing is – the ads I’m served there just completely suck. They’re not relevant (marking them as such does nothing to change this), and at least half of them are retargeting from websites I’ve already bought something from (the ad shows up AFTER I’ve converted, for the first time). Perhaps worst of all, they are shown at a frequency that is just insane – like back to back or multiple times in a 2-3 minute scrolling session.

1.5 Billion in market cap and 163,000 employees between them, and Google and Facebook can’t even get my profile right. Perhaps most bizarrely, they don’t even ask me what I’m interested in apart from maybe inferring my interests based on the accounts/topics I follow or the videos/posts I like..

Why?

This reminds me of the age-old comment proffered by Folks Who Don’t Like Ads on the Internet. Why can’t we just pay a fee to get rid of ads on Facebook or Instagram or <insert social network here>? I used to ask this question, and it’s a good one. The answer is that in 2015, a Facebook user was worth $3.73 per quarter (roughly $15 bucks a year). Well, I’d happily pay fifteen bucks a year to get rid of ads and disincentivize all of the rampant fake news and destructive political advertising that channels through social media! Except there’s a problem – by the end of 2017, the value was up to $6.18 per user per quarter, an increase of 165% in to years.

In 2021 a Facebook user is projected to be worth $56 per quarter ($226 per year) and an Instagram user is worth $31.5 ($126 per year).  Note the vaguely disappointed tone of that article when discussing the fact that Instagram just hasn’t managed to generate as much value per user as Facebook yet. Tsk tsk!

That’s a growth rate of 15x in four years, and oh by the way, has significantly outpaced my desire (or ability, and, I’m guessing, yours too) to pay to remove those ads. Paying to remove ads will actually lose Facebook money, because their overall audience would get smaller, and they’re forfeiting the future growth they could generate off your account. In other words, you are just one single customer representing one sale of your account, but they can almost-infinitely sell you to almost-infinite ad buyers out there, so your account’s value will, over time, asymptotically approach infinity. Or so the well-vetted financial model somewhere says. Not understanding this dynamic, by the way, is probably why my beloved (yet forgotten) ad network went bust.

Back to the original point – the reason none of the major ad networks allow us to actually feed in our preferences is driven by the same desire – if I told Facebook/Instagram that I only wanted to see ads about Lego or model trains, I would have removed myself from the pool of folks who might potentially be interested in jeans or a TV show or whatever. In other words, I limit down the potential buyers for myself, and that’s the last thing they ever want to happen.

What’s the point of all this? Well, I think this is an increasingly dangerous game to play – intentionally introducing a bit of old fashioned friction and obfuscation between users and advertisers, for the sole purpose of maximizing future revenue growth. Ad blockers are now more common and available on more platforms (including mobile) and the reason is that all the ads suck! Advertisers don’t push the envelope here and demand well qualified eyeballs because that would skew their metrics too, and the reality is that online advertising is about the only real solid metric most marketers have. It’s a combination of “it’s in budget” and “it’s better than the alternative” thinking.

As we head into the worst global recession since we, uh, understood that we lived on a globe, I can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen when ad budgets get cut everywhere. Will some upstart come out of the woodwork that can actually show us some ads we want to watch, that take curation cues from us directly, and make everyone’s life on the internet better (except of course for Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the like)?

Probably not, but I wish they would. In the meantime, the great cat and mouse game continues between ad blockers and social media networks, and the internet just continues to get a little worse each day.

I guess in that way, it’s kind of like a game of Tower Defense.

Hello Turing Fest!

I still remember the first time I went to a Turing Festival event – Steve Wozniak was speaking at the Edinburgh Playhouse Theater. What a treat! I paid for my ticket, walked the few minutes from my flat (we didn’t have an office at that time at Administrate), and spent the next hour hearing from one of the pioneers of computing.

Since that afternoon in 2012, the festival has been an annual highlight on my calendar. I’ve also been able to get involved as a host, moderator, interviewer, and speaker, and have even managed to suggest speakers to the curation team from time to time. I’m really proud that based on some of my recommendations Edinburgh was able to welcome Michael Pryor (Trello and Frog Creek Software), Fred Destin (Stride.vc) and Eric Yuan (Zoom). I’m still holding out hope for the Dalai Lama and Eddie Vedder too.

Over the years, the Turing Festival has evolved substantially. Originally founded by the Coleman brothers, (the same duo that founded the CodeBase, one of Europe’s largest tech incubators), the event rebooted in 2016 with a new CEO, and a slightly adjusted moniker – Turing Fest. Now benefitting from full time, dedicated attention year round, the event began to grow into what it is today. This evolution mirrors the advancement of Edinburgh as a tech ecosystem more broadly, and underscores just how important Turing Fest is to the community here. For tech, this event is where Edinburgh specifically, and Scotland more generally, meets the world.

As a part of our growing community, Administrate has consistently sponsored the event every year, which is something we feel is important in and of itself, but it also means we can send a good portion of our team to participate and learn. This kind of learning opportunity is rare enough, but even more-so for it to be on our doorstep. I’ve recommended Turing Fest to countless local startups and if you’re in Europe and in the tech industry, I consider it irresponsible not to attend.

I have a love-hate relationship with the stage of the Turing Fest. Mainly because that’s where I’ve debuted some of my most challenging talks, discussing topics such as mental health, and the often unspoken challenges required to build a tech company. During last year’s talk on mental health, one which I was apprehensive to give, I knew the CEO of Administrate’s at-the-time fiercest competitor would be in the audience, which didn’t help the jitters! Afterwards he emailed me a heartfelt and touching note of encouragement, something I won’t forget.

One of my favorite memories was moderating a panel that included Gareth Williams of Skyscanner, Ed Molyneux of FreeAgent, Damian Kimmelman of DueDil, and Or Offer of SimilarWeb – I asked the question of how many WFIO (We’re Fucked, It’s Over) moments each of them had experienced. All of them talked candidly and vulnerably about the their experiences with multiple WFIOs, and a couple mentioned they’d had one within the last couple of months! Those responses were important for the audience to hear, but they were also important for me to hear, and I’ve reminded myself many times that failure is a normal part of the journey for every startup.

The atmosphere around the Turing Fest also includes many fond memories. I remember escorting Morten Primdahl, the CTO and a cofounder of Zendesk, through the streets of Edinburgh heading towards the speaker’s dinner, pummeling him with questions about their tech stack, their growth, and whether he liked this new product from Amazon called “Aurora” (he did, we do too, and we still use it!). I’m sure he was relieved to finally arrive and be rid of me! The impromptu drinks, dinners, and amazing stories that have been shared around Turing Fest have been opportunities to meet new friends, deepen relationships, learn, reflect, challenge myself, and grow.

I mention these anecdotes because all of them draw on key threads that make Turing Fest both unique and meaningful. Access to inspiring people, opportunities to share and broaden one’s horizon, and the power of serendipity when you bring a diverse group of people together are core to what Turing Fest is about. All of this set against the stunning backdrop of the city of Edinburgh is something that cannot be rivaled by any other event.

I was therefore thrilled when my good friend Brian Corcoran asked me to join the board of Turing Fest. We’ve already shared hundreds of hours of discussion about the event, and in some ways this seems like the formalisation of something that’s been happening for years. Brian has built an incredible team and a truly outstanding event, and I’m excited to help as we continue to build for the future. As usual, I’ve included my annual resign-every-year demand.

We’re on the eve of TuringFest 2019, and I can’t wait for another year of learning, connecting, and growing. I hope to see you there!

Moving On

Over three years ago, a good friend of mine asked if I’d consider joining the board of a local startup. They were very early stage, in the healthcare space, they’d raised a bit of funding, and were looking to grow.

Great. I meet with a lot of startups, mainly trying to help and provide a sounding board. Many of the founders are inspiring, many have reasonable ideas, some of them will go on to be successful, but it’s really rare that I personally get excited about any particular company. Certainly not enough to join and invest time, money, and energy!

But I owed my buddy a favour, so we met at the closest pub to my flat, and I prepared my gracious-decline speech. Except something strange happened. As Chris talked about what they were building, I became increasingly interested.

Current Health (at the time named Snap40) had designed a clinical grade (requiring FDA approval) wearable intending to replace most of the normal monitoring equipment found within a hospital ICU. This device could then be linked to a phone or tablet, and could help identify patient deterioration, perhaps even before a human would notice. There were other applications too – for example, my mid-sixties father crashed his bike recently, blacked out, went to the hospital and got an MRI, then was held for a further 24 hours for “observation.” In this scenario, perhaps he could have been sent home earlier as long as he was monitored for deterioration. Plenty of conditions could benefit from proactive monitoring at the home linked to a healthcare provider, and even more mundane challenges like medication monitoring (ie, did they take their blood pressure medication? Lets see!) could be significantly improved.

A major challenge for sales within the healthcare industry is dealing with a sophisticated and opinionated Decision Making Unit. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, administrators, and technical people all factor in, and in a new category educating this market can be really time consuming and expensive. Would healthcare professionals get this? I called a few physicians I knew and asked. They immediately got it, several of them referenced having this idea themselves, and one of them spent more than an hour telling me all the different ways it would save their hospital and health network money. So that seemed promising.

One of the key things that attracted me to this implementation is the wearable is a “dumb” device. Raw signal is sent to the cloud where it’s analysed and processed using a combination of machine learning (yes really) and other algorithms. This means a couple of things – the algorithms can be tuned using all data ever collected from every device out there, and new algorithms can be shipped without replacing the devices. In other words, the more data collected, the higher the accuracy.

This is a crucial distinction: Current Health isn’t a medical device company, it’s not a software company, it’s a platform company.

I joined the board in March of 2016, with one condition – I would resign every year in March. Chris could accept or reject my resignation. While I’ve been a member of the board at Administrate since I joined in 2011, I’d never held a board position on another company before. Maybe I’d suck at it. Maybe the company would outgrow my expertise. In any event, they wouldn’t have to wait too long to get rid of me if that became necessary.

“Is it going to work?”

For the first two years, this was the major question. Pilots at local hospitals were really promising, and we obtained a European CE mark which meant we could sell it within Europe, but we needed to get certified by the FDA to tackle the USA. This was tricky, because the FDA had never certified a hybrid device like this before.

The next three years (and three resignations) passed quickly, and I’m super proud of what we achieved. A CE mark, multiple pilots, FDA certification for use in both the hospital and home environments, recruitment of a fantastic team, an office move, a rebrand, and multiple funding rounds, including one of the largest seed rounds ever raised in Scotland.

But perhaps the achievement I’m most proud of happened recently during an extended pilot project in the United States – we identified a patient’s vitals slipping, and alerted staff to the issue. The traditional monitoring machines didn’t notice, and we saved a life. The first of many I’m sure.

The traditional monitoring machines didn’t notice, and we saved a life. The first of many I’m sure.

Current Health is going to fundamentally transform how we receive and provide healthcare. I’m super excited for the future, but I also realise that the time has come to step down from the board and make way for the next stage of growth. To the disappointment of most, there’s no drama here, it’s simply time to move on.

I remain deeply thankful to Chris (and my pal who introduced us!) and the team at Current Health for giving me this opportunity. I learned a ton, got to work alongside some incredible people, and I believe this experience made me a better CEO – sitting on the other side of the table can be really enlightening! I am extremely excited to watch how Current Health will grow and I couldn’t be more optimistic about their future.

The Magic of Vinyl

About a year ago, I put a Sonos sound system in my flat.  It had been more than 15 years since I’d had a stereo of any kind, and while I’d enjoyed being able to carry around my music collection on my phone for years, I never really listened to music at home, unless I was in front of a computer.  While it sounds incredibly cheesy, it really did help me fall in love with music again – I could listen while walking around the flat, working on something not in front of a computer, cooking, etc.

One of my favourite features of Apple Music (yes, lets not get into the Spotify vs. Apple debate) are the variety of radio stations and the playlist discovery, but I realised (after a year of listening to way more music than I’d ever managed before) that I’d gravitated to this almost anonymous way of interacting with artists, albums, and music.  One of my personal policies with the iTunes Store over the years was I would always buy the entire album of an artist.  I felt like an album was a sacred thing.  But here I was guilty of not having listened to a complete album in over a year.

I had lost something.  I had lost the ceremony of music.  I missed the experience of looking at the album artwork and liner notes (remember that?) and focusing on music the way the artist intended.    What to do?

I decided to get a record player.  Nothing fancy, and I’ve committed the sacrilege of hooking it up to my Sonos system which would horrify any analog purist, but I don’t care.  I also don’t care about audio quality that much either, and I’m not going to pretend that records sound better or that they’re warmer or any of the other stuff Vinyl Geeks will obsess over – that’s not the point.

The point is, the last couple of weeks I’ve sat down, dimmed the lights in the living room, put on a record, and experienced the album and artist in a way I haven’t since I was in high school.  Back then I would spend hours listening to music and intently study every piece of art and lyric that came with a new CD.

I still listen to playlists and radio stations my massive digital music collection while I’m walking, working, and running around the house.  But I now have a new avenue for music, and it was something that’s been missing.

I know I’m late to the party, but I’m glad I finally made it!

P.S. Sonos is my nominee for “company most likely to become like TiVo and squander a massive opportunity”.  Their hardware is great, their idea was revolutionary and visionary when they launched, but they’ve spent years coasting and delivering crummy software.  I don’t see them pulling out their tailspin anytime soon and Google, Apple, and a bunch of other companies will be eating their lunch over the next 2-3 years. Just like what happened to TiVo. It’s sad, really, but when your latest big feature (Alexa integration) takes you more than a year to ship AND it’s completely terrible, you kind of deserve it.

How to Solve Sonos Playbar Speech Issues with the Apple TV

A couple months ago, I purchased a Sonos Playbar to replace a Bluetooth Samsung Soundbar I had, as I wanted to integrate the living room audio setup with the rest of my house, which is all Sonos.

Probably due to over-exposure to loud music from playing in rock bands through highschool and college, I really struggle to hear conversation in noisy environments like pubs, and this issue extends to hearing speech in movies unless I’ve got a dedicated speech channel. My hearing seems fine overall (famous last words I guess), just differentiating speech within noisy backdrops is annoying.  Modern flat screen TVs really exacerbate this issue as their speakers aren’t great anyway, let alone for pushing out a nice clean speech channel.

The sound you get from the Playbar (and two Play 1s for surround sound) is great for music, but the results I’ve had regarding speech during movies have absolutely sucked.  It’s kind of surprising when you start seeing threads like this one where there’s dozens of people complaining for years, with no real response / solution.

Here’s how to solve this situation:

You need to bypass any potential pre-processing that might happen to the audio signal.

If you have a receiver it’s probably a safe bet your signal is clean, but like most people, I just have a TV and a bunch of HDMI inputs.  I had them plugged into my Samsung 4k Smart TV and I had the optical audio connected from the TV to the Sonos Playbar.  I had the TV correctly configured to bypass any audio processing and it was only shunting the audio out to the optical port.  Except it wasn’t.

To inexpensively solve this issue:

  1. Buy an HDMI splitter with an audio optical out, like this one.
  2. Hook your AppleTV (which doesn’t have an optical out) and any other devices (BluRay, etc.) into the splitter.  Hook the optical from the splitter into the Playbar.
  3. Turn on the Speech Enhancement on the Sonos App and Night Mode.
  4. You’re done! You now have clean audio and a functioning Dolby 5.1 signal that has clear dialog.

I’d like to point out here that the true villain of this story is Samsung for essentially lying about the pass-through capability of the TV.  Sonos should bear some blame here too – it could easily better educate customers and include some common troubleshooting advice either online or in the documentation.

Hope this helps!

Resignation

A few weeks ago I resigned. I drafted the email, proofread it, and sent it in. It was pretty standard – I thanked the company for the opportunity, mentioned I was proud of what we’d achieved together, and wished them well.

No, I didn’t resign from Administrate – I resigned from my post as a Non-Executive Director (sometimes abbreviated NED, sometimes NXD) on the board of Snap40, one of Scotland’s most promising startups.

I love helping out startups, mainly because I’ve received so much help myself over the years from others. I know first hand how hard it is growing a company, and some of the advice, time, and mentorship I’ve received has come at critical points along the journey.

Just over a year ago I was asked to join the board at Snap40, and while initially surprised that I was asked and skeptical of the company, I was ultimately impressed with the market, product, vision, and team. I thought I could learn a lot as well! But before I agreed to join, I made it clear that I would resign every year, and the company could either accept or reject my resignation.

Why?

In a fast growing startup, particularly when things are at an early stage, the type of advice and support a company and CEO requires changes quickly, just like everything else. I’ve seen other founders struggle with the awkwardness of how to ask board members and advisors to step aside when they no longer had anything to add, and it was important to me to demonstrate that I viewed my appointment to the board as a fixed term, renewable every year. If the resignation is accepted, no problem! If not, I’m here for at least another year (unless I need to be replaced before then).

I’d encourage other startup CEOs and board members to consider this model for board and advisor appointments. In my view, it’s important that the board members resign proactively as it demonstrates a willingness to step back and acknowledge that their time has potentially come to an end. Nobody likes to think that they’ve been outgrown, but it’s a fact of life, so lets not ignore it.

As for me? My resignation from Snap40 this year was rejected. I’m really excited about the company, the team, and the progress we’re making. I’ve learned a lot already and can’t wait to see what this coming year holds.

Now it’s back to work!

The Problem of Homelessness

Like most people, I used to have very little interaction with the homeless.  I’d see them every now and then on a street corner, or sometimes sleeping sheltered against a doorway if I was out early in the morning or late at night, but that was about it.

A couple years ago I started helping out with an operation that provides a meal for the homeless once a week, run by a local church here in Edinburgh.  They do a fantastic job of providing a really good meal in a nice, warm, safe setting, and the thing I like most about it is they encourage their members to bring their families and attend and eat alongside the guests.  It leads to some really interesting situations where you’re never really sure who is homeless and who isn’t, and it’s a dynamic that I really enjoy.  It’s non threatening and they don’t evangelize, they’re just providing a community and a meal.

One of the things I learned through this experience is that the edge is often very fine – many of us are just a lost job, divorce, or mistake away from being out on the streets, and once that happens, it can be very difficult to get back into normal life.  Another thing I learned is that most of these people are invisible.  I see them a lot on the streets of Edinburgh, and they look like you or me.  It’s quite nice seeing a guest and stopping for a quick chat, even if sometimes it takes a few tries calling their name because they’re not used to being spoken to while walking around.  While the safety net in Scotland is fantastic, particularly when compared to America, there are still people who fall through and there are an estimated 35,000 homeless here.  Often they’re afraid of something, running from something, or have mental health issues.  Providing these people a way out is difficult, and that’s why we’ve been proud to support SocialBite for several years at Administrate – they often provide our weekly team lunch, lunch for our board meetings, and have catered various events for us, and they do so staffed mostly by the formerly homeless.

This year, I’m choosing to join a couple hundred other business leaders to sleep outside for one night in December in support of those of us who often have no choice.  Money raised will go towards the construction of homes for those who have none.  If you’d like to donate to this effort you can do so here, and you can read a bit more about this over on the blog at Administrate.

Thanks!