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.

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!

 

 

Do Not Buy a Bike From Canyon

Don't buy a Canyon bike!

Hopefully this will save some time for cyclists who are considering buying a bike from Canyon. Do not, under any circumstances, buy a bike from Canyon!

Back in 2012, myself and a friend both bought entry level Canyon aluminium road bikes.  The ordering process was mostly smooth, although they did make a mistake on my friend’s order which was quickly rectified, to their credit.  I’ve ridden more than 3,000 miles on my Canyon since then, and it’s a great bike which I feel had fantastic value.  I’ve been asked numerous times about the bike and company, with most cyclists being understandably nervous about the mail-order-only way that they fulfil their orders, and in all cases I’ve been positive.

Positive that is, until I ordered a second bike (mountain bike) from them, back in May.

At the time of ordering, the website was saying it could take up to three weeks to ship.  That was fine as I had some travel coming up, so I placed the order.  Months later, the bike still hadn’t shipped, with no word at all, and here is the ultimate reason to not buy a Canyon.

The company combines the worst elements of German and British customer support.

Their customer support:

  1. Is only available 9-5, Monday to Friday.
  2. There is no ability to check on the status of your order, or even see your order on the website.
  3. They offer an online chat facility, but they employ robotic agents who do not care about the problem and seem to be instructed to lie about anything in order to get you to go away.
  4. They charged my credit card immediately upon placing the order, then claimed they never do that, then said they had proof (they didn’t), when they had absolutely taken the money.
  5. They were unable to give me an estimated shipment date, and made vague reference to a missing part, and it was only after I asked why I hadn’t been told the reason behind all the delays that I received a canned email that looks to have been sent to what I can only assume are hundreds of other customers who are waiting for their purchases.
  6. I was finally (after I demanded to speak to a supervisor) offered 48GBP off my order (shipping fees, essentially).
  7. However, I had ordered a Canyon T-Shirt and no longer felt like supporting the brand.  When I asked for the T-Shirt to either be made free or removed due to this reason, they removed it, then put the 48GBP charge back on.
  8. The only way to refund the 48GBP was to give them bank details via an insecure email.  A call was refused.
  9. Then, after I complained on Twitter, a call was promised, but they never followed through.  The reason they couldn’t call was because they were “replacing their phone system.”
  10. I did copy their CEO, Roman Arnold, in the last few emails.  He hasn’t replied.
  11. Finally, they shipped the bike (yesterday) but as I’m leaving for a week of travel, I wouldn’t be able to receive the order.

Ultimately, this isn’t the first time someone’s been disappointed by this company, and their tone-deaf and completely callous support team is something that just can’t fly with a mail order only company.  So I’ve decided to not support this kind of mess, and have cancelled the order.  It will be probably be a small miracle if the refund gets processed.

I was also looking at buying another road bike this fall, so not only has the company lost a huge brand advocate, but they missed out on two sales (and more over the next few years).

It’s always a sad thing when a great brand dies.

How to Ask for Advice / Feedback About Your Startup

One of the things I’m passionate about is helping other startups and the community of entrepreneurs we have here in Edinburgh (and in Scotland).  Since becoming more intentional about “taking the pledge“, I’ve been meeting with lots of folks locally, and been surprised by the amount of requests!

So much so that other team members here at Administrate are helping me shoulder the load, according to areas of expertise (thanks Mike and Patrick!) and time constraints, and I know of many others in the community who are donating their time and expertise.  Helpfulness and support has always been a hallmark of the Scottish startup scene, so this isn’t anything new, but there’s so much more activity now, so many more companies, and so many more entrepreneurs now!  It’s great to see!

I’ve found that sometimes people don’t know what to expect, so I thought I’d lay out a brief framework to help everyone get the most out of the time.

  1. Remember that most advice is delivered within a context vacuum.  Don’t take my advice (or anyone else’s) without fully thinking things through and satisfying yourself.  Bad advice can come from really great people.
  2. In order to be at all helpful, I need context.  Things I usually ask about are: the problem you’re trying to solve (as a company), your business model (SaaS, etc), your market, some metrics around revenue, customers (people paying you money), team size, how long you’ve been going, growth, and churn.  It’s ok if you don’t have all of this information, but the quicker we can rattle through these items, the faster we can get up to speed.
  3. It’s totally cool if you just want to chat, but I’ll usually ask you what you’re biggest challenges are – we have these at Administrate and sometimes they feel cyclical (first we’re worried about sales, then tech, then support, then sales again, etc.).  Even if everything is going well, the question will often be “ok, how do we double down and make it even better?”
  4. I probably can’t help you too much with hiring (particularly “line” staff) – my network is mainly in the USA (so not local), and we’re in high growth mode here at Administrate, so if I know of any devs or whatever we’re probably going to hire them!
  5. Expect me to be very, very blunt.  If you’re British it may come across as almost hostile sometimes.  Sorry.  When I get into problem solving mode or analysis mode, I tend to interrupt, ask lots of questions, and don’t filter much.
  6. Expect me to play devil’s advocate.  Expect me to really push you on a few things.  Expect to be challenged.  The best advice I’ve ever received was from someone telling me they thought I could be a lot more ambitious, which annoyed me at the time, but really made a difference.
  7. One thing you won’t get from me is griping about raising money in the UK, finding a team, or complaining about Scottish Enterprise or Scottish Development International.  If you’re annoyed about these things, fine, but expect an argument from me!
  8. I’m not going to be very helpful to you with introductions to angels, VCs or syndicates.  These people all make their own decisions and won’t look at you in any different light if I make an intro for you.
  9. I won’t share anything about our conversation unless you specifically tell me you don’t mind.  I also expect the same in return.  This means I don’t mind if you want to ask me about challenges I’m facing now, etc.  We like to be transparent, and often it can be comforting to hear that someone else is going through something you’re struggling with.
  10. The majority of my experience and expertise is in high growth Business-to-Business Software-as-a-Service.  So be aware I’ll bias towards that style of company.  I don’t like most B2C ideas because they are riskier, require more funding earlier, require a lot of traction to be successful and are often harder to build and/or monetise.
  11. A couple of times things have gotten emotional (really!).  That’s OK! Building a business can be really hard.  Relationships are involved. It can feel overwhelming.  That’s normal.  Don’t be embarrassed.  It’s not the first time.
  12. Unfortunately, you may have your appointment changed around a few times.  Sorry, but Administrate comes first!  Also, it may be awhile before we can meet, and depending on what you’re looking to talk about, we may provide someone else from our team to give you a better perspective.

Hopefully that helps you get an idea of what to expect and makes everything run just a bit smoother!  I’ve enjoyed all of the conversations I’ve had and am always encouraged by the amazing people we have in Edinburgh working away on building things and solving problems.