Category economics

Has America lost it’s will to innovate?

I was having lunch with an SAP-buddy the other day. Our conversation skipped stones across various topics. We filled each others must-read-book list, tried to make sense of various trends around the globe and then he paused to ask the question:

Has America lost it’s will to innovate?

It wasn’t a random question… we had been talking about trends connected to upcoming generations, the stagnant state of seemingly everything on both sides of the political aisle and the oddly-geocentric pools of innovation in Silicon Valley (and the myriad of smaller tech-oriented regions around the US).

The question, as hard as it was to hear, is a logical extension of where it feels like our country is today. It feels like American culture has lost the will to commit to innovation. With the exception of the tech sector (which granted, is a massive exception) we act like we can jump to the enjoyment of success resulting from innovation without taking the actual risks inherent to innovation.

We think we can arrive without taking the trip.

James Dyson failed 5,126 times before finally succeeding with a new vacuum design. Now, as if he’s some kind of cultural change agent, he’s being tasked with changing the culture of England. Good luck with that… is there a harder task than changing a culture? At least they gave him some props for the Everest-Sized task… he’s been knighted, he’s now “Sir James Dyson”.

It seems like there is a “death of failure” associated with the United States. We’ve lost the will to risk. It feels like we currently believe that “failure = waste of time” instead of “failure = one step closer to success.”

The story of Solyndra offers a metaphor for this blog post. Americans talk about jobs and the economy… meanwhile China’s share of the U.S. solar panel market jumped from 8 percent in 2008 to 45 percent in 2011, and has risen further since. Why is this? It’s because we don’t invest in innovation the same way and at the same rate their government does. Instead of understanding that investments in evolving technologies need to include an appetite for risk, failure and innovation, our government, media and pop culture bandies the Solyndra story around like as a political hot potato.

We are literally (and tragically) branding investment in innovation as a political (thus highly divisive) tactic.

If we want to understand why we’re losing ground let’s look in the mirror… we’re all to blame here when we buy into the short-sighted, election-cycle jousting. Meanwhile… we (Americans) all lose. Innovation further shifts offshore.

Nothing new comes easy. Innovation takes commitment, will, drive and bad-hearing. Bad-hearing comes in handy so you don’t hear the endless chorus of people telling that you what you believe in won’t work and that you should give up.

When we call new products and services an “overnight success,” we are almost always incorrect. Overnight success is a myth.

  • Angry Birds was Rovio’s 52nd game
  • Pinterest had “catastrophically small numbers” in their first year after launch
  • WD-40 is called that because the first 39 experiments failed

This video, while not focused on innovation per se, speaks to these same issues.

If we are going to stay a leader in innovation, it’s going to take a will and the courage to do so.

Another brick falls; Encyclopaedia Britannica’s last act

A friend of mine worked at Encyclopaedia Britannica, he was part of a team tasked with the goal of bringing the effort online. The amazing related fact related to his story is that he was doing this in the pre-Netscape (pre-1995, pre-web) era.

Like many of us, I recently read about their demise after a 244 year run.

Two things hit me regarding the recent death of yet another legacy idea.

The first is that we shouldn’t be surprised.

Four years ago my daughter’s science fair project was a lesson in modern-day economics. Instead of building a spouting volcano she wrote a report titled “Why Netflix will put Blockbuster out of business.” Sure, like all kids doing these kinds of projects… there are some parental fingerprints on that idea. Still, that shift was apparent to all of us in our everyday lives. Our family would find ourselves going to Blockbuster and leaving frustrated or even angry. They we’d go on Netflix and leave satisfied and stoked. It would appear on the surface that we shouldn’t be surprised when we see the result of an idea running its course. Ideas that don’t shift, get deleted.

The second is that some people are surprised.

This point is the one I feel like I have a blind spot on. Sure, I understand when someone has performed an action for 50 years and thus find it hard to change their ways. American’s love affair with large cars and consumer behavior come to mind. But many things we’re surprised by or have a hard time changing are not based on long habits; single-use water bottles, Facebook interface evolutions and software upgrades come to mind.

My overarching point is that the cycle of massive, systemic change has mutated and shrunk. We all know this; we see it every day. Next weeks iphone becomes dated… next month. An ipod from a decade ago looks like the museum piece it is… and has been… for about a decade. It’s this dynamic shifting that keeps me coming back to words from a man who lived 2,500 years ago.

Πάντα ῥεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει” (Everything flows, nothing stands still)

– Heraclitus


The American dream cannot be as shallow as “home ownership”

It’s called marketing.

Somewhere along the way an enterprising person or group shifted what people previously viewed as the “American dream.” They shifted it into something that resembles a Memorial Day weekend sale.

Our founding fathers expressed their ideas in a statement of purpose; they captured their aspiration in the Declaration of Independence. The DNA of that document and other documents of that era shout “all men are created equal” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” which include “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Those are massive, planet-altering ideas. Hundreds of years later those ideas are still shaking the foundations of cultures around the globe.

I don’t see anything in those documents that resembles a complex financing scheme connected to the acquisition of a single-family dwelling.

I get it. People want to better their situations. We want to reinvent ourselves and provide a safe, growing, nurturing environment for our families. The bedrock ideas of our country DO include those concepts on the periphery.

Still… let’s not confuse buying stuff with democracy.

Co-opting the cornerstone ideas of this republic should be challenged by us. We should discount it as crass and shallow.

People believe in democratic, representational rule enough to die for it. Increasingly this is the case in every hemisphere. Let’s make sure we understand that means a whole lot more than “home ownership.”

John Adams, generational succession and globalization

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
– John Adams

I love this quote. It gives a hint to where our forefather’s heads were when they were alive but it goes further than that. This offers a brilliant blueprint for what they saw coming after them. Since they were the founders, the instigators, of a number of ideas they were hyper aware of the generational view of history. They were actively involved in planning their legacy, even within their own family tree.

Henry Adams, John Adams great-grandson understood this flow and followed it. He fell into that last layer and studied various forms of the arts.

As a father whose daughter is about to head to college I see this kind of thinking among many of my peers. Elements of what John Adams shared are present today and as is the case with everything… there are pros and cons.

My parents grew up as first generation Americans. In addition my parents were born after the Great Depression. Like all others shaped by that era they operate with a razor sharp focus on practicality. They chose careers that would deliver them from the challenges their parents lived through in the post stock market crash of the 1930s. The key phrase in that last sentence might be as simple as “they chose careers” (places they could work for 40 years, they didn’t look for a job).

They gave birth to the generation of baby boomers. This next generation, even though they were raised within the structure of practicality, has many characteristics that are quite different than their parents. In my opinion one overarching characteristic is being more self-centered. This generation is widely associated with a rejection or redefinition of traditional values, they think of themselves as being special. Further, one could argue that the very option to work at a single place for 40 years was killed by this generation.

The boomers created the generation coming up today. This group is much more informed due to instant access of massive amounts of information via the Internet. They are also much less pragmatic and practical. In the spirit of the Adams quote, this generation is much more likely to study (and potentially get a degree in) audio engineering or film. Part of the shift is due to a media landscape shifting dramatically (access to professional level media tools are in the hands of everyone) but part of the shift is related to what Henry Adams did as a great-grandson of John Adams. Henry Adams had more options than John Adams; our kids have more options than our parents.

Or do they?

The thread tracing this process through time doesn’t connect.

It doesn’t connect due to the fact that if you start with John Adams generation and successively move on to future generations you do NOT get a smooth line or even a unidirectional vector. If you did our parents would have studied something far less rigorous than what they did. Richard Florida’s Creative Class would have been invented well over a hundred years ago.

The reason the thread through time doesn’t connect is because of unplanned, large-scale disruptions.

Various forces caused re-starts. In the case of our parents generation it was the Great Depression and wars. In today’s case it’s globalization and technology.

Historically speaking, it’s quite hard to operate without being strongly influenced by the scale of disruptions we’re talking about here.

A person may have wanted to become an accountant or a painter as World War 2 kicked into gear but being drafted may have taken those opportunities away.

A journalism student may have written newsletters when they were seven, become Editor of the college newspaper but a job at a regional newspaper may simply no longer exist.

The inverse to fretting about globalization and technology is seeking to understand them deeply… even embracing them.

I believe that is the best strategy at this point in time. I believe this is even more valid for our offspring. If they are going to have anything even remotely close to an easier live or a life with more options we must prepare our kids to compete with kids from Bangalore. We should encourage them to study meaningful languages that they’ll use in the years to come because the job waiting for them might very well be in another country. We should push them to experience, even live, in places well outside the boundaries of this country.

John Adams was a first generation explorer of a new world.

So are we.

More :

John Adams by David McCullough

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough

Mass produced nothing

There is an… organization (I’m searching for the right word) based in Indonesia that has become a mico-movement.

Deux Ex Machina (God in the machine) is a group of people that make stuff.

The image to the left is one of their motorcycles. Regarding motorcycles they tear down local motorcycles and creatively rework them. In a way this part of their organization/business/collective is kind of like Orange County Choppers… but with a less cartoon-esque aesthetic.

What makes this group interesting is the fact that they also have fairly involved other segments to their compound. I’m not sure I could logically suggest something they wouldn’t do.

They design and make surfboards. They design and make fins. They design and make bikes. They design and make art of all types. They have a photo/fashion studio. They design and make instruments. They have a stage, a restaurant and sell a fair amount of soft goods (clothing).

Everything seems like it’s custom. Tiny runs, mostly one-of-ones.

Here is a quick run through the Indo compound.


Jefferson, France and the formation of America

I grew up in the Midwest, spent an ample amount of time on the east coast, have lived in New York, Chicago and San Francisco/Silicon Valley. For the last two decades I’ve resided in Southern California.

I share this to set up the following statement.

I truly did not start to understand America’s place in the world until I left its shores.

It’s hard to grasp something if you’re inside its bubble.

The more I travel the more I understand how much we’ve borrowed from other cultures. The deeper one looks the more they find that America is the result of our collective experiences and our historical roots in other countries.

When we think of technologies and innovation we think of Silicon Valley and perhaps emerging hubs in Bangalore and Beijing. Yet the roots of innovation, whether we segregate that to technology, or take a larger view, point back to places like Paris.

The literal foundations of this country were built on the technological advancements from other countries. For example, to understand the significance of the Brooklyn Bridge is to understand the role of Paris as a hub for creativity and engineering during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Another way to say that is no Paris, no Brooklyn Bridge.

But this goes well past technology and engineering. EVERY element of the New York art scene (museums, galleries, performance halls, bands, art and architecture schools) originated somewhere else and most have roots pointing directly back to Paris. One can make the same argument for medical schools, hospitals, culinary schools, etc. The list is long.

An umbrella metaphor for this is Thomas Jefferson’s time spent in Paris.

Before he ascended to Secretary of State and eventually to the Presidency he occupied the role of Minister to France for four years. When I think of the experiences and cultures he drew on for his last two positions and his legacy after… when I think of his love of architecture, agricultural techniques, writing and culinary exploration… I find myself pointing back to his time in Europe. It all points back Paris.

True, Monticello was started before Jefferson went to Paris but it was a shell. It was while he was in Paris that he integrated the ideas of the central dome, natural light via skylights and even indoor toilets.

Jefferson is celebrated as somewhat of a quintessential American due to his varied interests, overarching optimism and stirring rhetoric captured in iconic documents like the Declaration of Independence. Since he’s one of our founding fathers it’s important to understand where his inspiration came from.

I see Jefferson as a quintessential American BECAUSE he reached past what was available here, sought out the best of what was available elsewhere and brought the best back. In my opinion that is what being an American has come to mean.

America is a global mashup.

All of our roots point to other places. Our family trees have sampled the soil of alternative forms of government and reacted to those with the bedrock documents of this nation: the Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. More than three hundred years later we continue to attract people who risk their lives to get here because they believe the opportunity here is greatest.

Sure, America invented baseball, national parks, jazz and the internet. I’m sure others can extend that list. We should also recognize that a large percent of what “America is” hails from somewhere else.

If you want to go deeper, I recommend two books. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph Ellis and The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough.



Compromise is not a four letter word

I listened to President Obama last night and then I listened to House Speaker Boehner. As they finished their speeches I turned off the radio and thought about some of the word choices they made and themes they spoke of.

The single largest word that I heard either directly or indirectly was “compromise.” It was talked about as if it was a bad thing. I get that, compromise can be bad… but is it always bad?

Which of us goes a day without compromising? Can any of us go an hour without compromising?

As I drove to work this morning I thought about this word and felt myself compromising as I thought of it. I wanted to drive 90MPH but didn’t. I compromised and drove 78MPH. The essence of that simple act stayed with me. Driving requires awareness of others, adherence to driving standards and reaction to others actions. Driving requires compromise.

The word compromise, like so many in Washington, has been spun to mean something else entirely. That, by itself, isn’t a bad thing. But when the spin starts to risk our children’s future such spinning becomes reckless.

Very. very, very few things in life are so absolute that we get 100% of what we want 100% of the time. Marriage involves compromise. Working with and for others involves compromise. Raising children involves compromise. Etc.

Democracies involve compromise.

Or to put it another way… the form of government with no compromise is called a dictatorship.

The ongoing posturing from both sides is disheartening. Sure we can chalk up a large percent of it as partisan pandering and media grandstanding. But at some point my patience runs out.

Politicians are put in office to represent the populous and the interests of this country. As the world seems to be waking up to the value of democracy and representational government the United States’ flavor of democracy seems to be running on empty. Literally.

Shop for groceries while you wait for the subway (in South Korea)

Webvan, founded in 1999, was created as a virtual grocery store. It raised a ginormous amount of cash, $1.2B, and shut it’s doors in 2001. It was a massive idea, hugely capitalized and thus offered an atomic bomb of a death.

Idea, a billion dollars, dead.

That said… it had elements of being a good, perhaps a great idea.

Watch the below promotional video from Tesco. They’re picking up where Webvan left off and their approach makes perfect sense to me.

Sorry in advance for the soundtrack… I’m not sure a more uninspired soundtrack exists.

Tech is familar with death

What if you woke up tomorrow morning and you were out of business?

This happens in tech all the time.


Seriously, what if you woke up tomorrow morning and checked your messages and saw one in the midst of the gaggle of other messages you received while you were sleeping and one had the subject “Poof. Game over.”

That just happened to Flip. They were about to ship a new product a few days ago and today they are dead.

Two years ago the wise tech co Cisco snapped them up for a half a billion. All of us that had Flips loved them. I taped all of my videos on them… until I got an iphone4. In the days ahead they’ll layoff 550 people.

My sense is that this is such a deep cultural phenomenon in tech, and unique to that sector, that few will there will even pause.

The tech sector will turn the page and talk about the new Flipboard build (which is pretty solid). Much of the other business sectors won’t be able to process the speed of this kind of death. Retail orgs and manufactures die all the time… but not at the velocity they do in tech. The non-profit sector won’t even be able to fathom this kind of event. It’s so odd that it’s abstract. Non-profits think that since their cause is noble they deserve to live no matter what.

I think the death of a company or an idea is ok.

I think faster deaths can be the best way to go.

What the tech world knows, because they live it every single day, is if they don’t move the needle today by giving an excellent user experience they may be dead… and dead very soon. That makes them hum… the phrase “innovate or die” is not abstract, it’s tomorrow.

If you hate your job, you’re not listening to yourself

We’ve got one shot with this life.

Understand what you love, whatever that is, and then work to make a positive impact on it.

If you can’t do that via your paid job then do it elsewhere. If it matters to you, connect deeper to it.