The modern workers union needs to embrace the very technology they are resisting

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As ‘platforms’ gain more and more power in the market, as secure employees become ‘uber-ized’ into casual labour, we need a new wave of ‘platforms’ to serve the needs of workers. These ‘modern unions’ would harness the collective bargaining power of labour through the very same means as the (demand side) tech-led disruptors the unions need to respond to.

Imagine the following scenario. A next-gen drivers union requires all workers to provide their location (while working) to the union’s platform. It also asks them to report who is providing them work, and potentially at what wage / unit price.

One of Uber’s core assets is its network of driver relationships and its knowledge of their location. In the above scenario the union can now enfranchise any new provider willing to offer better terms at the flick of a switch (or the sending of an ‘install this app’ email). The union removes the fixed cost of building the supply side relationships. Competition can be facilitated and drivers leverage increased.

The ability to withhold labour would be greatly increased as workers can be (digitally) co-ordinated in real-time. Uber could be brought to a standstill on a Saturday night and Hailo supported instead. To stop less committed members crossing the (digital) ‘picket lines’ union ‘penalties’ could be applied (for example, lack of insurance cover under a collective scheme when working for ‘non-approved’ networks). Union support could also be provided, paying out a top-up premium (from membership fees) to workers on ‘approved’ platforms during strike action.

Elements of the above may come about as supply side aggregators emerge to help drivers optimize their income by comparing different sources of work in relevant locations (e.g. should I drive for Green Flag or Uber tonight in my area – based on historic trends and current piece rates). Such aggregators may start to take a cut, much like a Chain in the hotel industry. If unions can modernise, they may spot the same opportunity and make sure that the ‘cut’ available for supply aggregation accrues to their workers. The commercial leverage a fully casual commercial relationship brings needs to be made to work both ways (and at present appears only to be favouring the demand side, as the supply side lacks the resources and technology skills to co-ordinate themselves effectively).

To create red-hot competition instead of red-tape we need tech savvy regulation

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The idea of Cookie Laws requiring millions of websites to self-declare their use of profiling* techniques should have been passed-over in favour of promoting/requiring easy-to-use client side anonymity settings within** the handful of browsers on the market. I believe things are moving this way now, but they should have started this way. The ‘bad tech’ of profiling (something I’m a big fan of so apologies for the term) should have been fought with the ‘good tech’ of client side anonymity protection (like cookie-denial and the more extreme, anti-fingerprinting approach of a virtual machine per session). Requiring ‘good tech’ to (be allowed to) serve the needs of consumers, not only leads to a better user experience, it is also delivers a far more robust system – one which doesn’t depend on self-regulation and manual audits.

Financial services regulation has identified the need to ‘crack open’ the data assets of banks (via PSD2 and APIs) to bring about a wave of innovation and competition. The mandating of a ‘good tech’ layer (in the form of APIs) is truly enlightened. I’d like to see a similar approach introduced to help protect against the current giants of the internet economy resting on their laurels and achieving/maintaining hyper-profitability (with all the social issues this creates – something which is now being talked about more and more as technology owners [and not technology workers] lay claim to an ever greater share of the economy). So what might this look like?

Lets take the example of Location Data …

Google knows where you’ve been. With this they can enhance the experience their products deliver to you, and I like many of you am willing to make the trade-off of less privacy for greater functionality. I have no problem with this. However with every passing year, any new entrant faces ever greater barriers to entry. And this is not good for competition. But, if my phone (or personal cloud) stored by location history (for me), and could, upon a request from a new provider allow me to share my location history with a single click – then the playing field is suddenly a lot more level. The user would always be in control. And crucially the user would now know themselves as well as others do, enabling them to capture/offer the value of this to whomever they chose. Most probably not in terms of selling it for direct monetary reward, but rather by facilitating a competitive market delivering better functionality and lower prices.

I should be able to let the next competitor to Uber, the one that hasn’t spent billions trying to create a monopoly, get a leg up when I join them by sharing my past activity. They can then offer me an equivalently tailored service – but at a 10% take-rate rather than 20% (I’ll split the difference 50:50 with the drivers).

Regulation that allows consumer loyal technology services to emerge would do more to fight oligopolies and protect privacy than legislation aimed at making the big players ‘behave’. Red-tape would give way to a red-ocean of competition.

What would the regulation for the above look like?

 

Intelligent defaults would be used to neutralise the need for future (profit margin reducing) market entrants to spend billions (that they wouldn’t / shouldn’t need or have) on consumer marketing to promote the idea of data portability. Legislation would see consumers default opted-in to a data portability standard.

Device manufacturers would be denied sole access to data assets. For example, all location logging would be mirrored to a portable data standard. This does not mean 3rd parties would be granted access to location logging functionality, but rather the location logging allowed by the manufacturer (limited perhaps for battery performance reasons) would be made available to both the user (for future use via the portability standard) and the manufacturer.

Regulation would then be outlined to help layout how data once stored should be able to be shared. For example, users should have the option to share all, or only a limited time window or data. Or users should have the option to share exact locations, or ‘rough’ location data no more granular than 5km grid squares.

Manufacturers of devices would be required to deliver the technology to support the logging of the data – consumers would be responsible for providing a 3rd party cloud data store if they wanted to keep data beyond the life/or (allocated) capacity of the device.

This would essentially see ‘connection requests’, much like we see now from services wanting access to our Google or Facebook Accounts, coming directly to us. New services would ask to connect with our data, and not the data Google or Facebook hold on us. The experience should/could be just as simple, but the market structure implications would be huge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* And some non-profiling use-cases that got caught it the same net

** The settings may be in the browser, or a service that the browser is required to call

In store profiling – future dystopia or return to the good old days?

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Many fear increased ‘profiling’ – viewing it as both new and inherently bad. Done correctly, profiling simply restores to the retail experience what we always used to have – an attentive assistant who uses their eyes and ears to make sensible suggestions (to the customer and the store manager).

Lets take an example:-

Old World:- An assistant observes a man in his mid-40’s with big feet walking into his shoe shop. The man is wearing expensive, but worn, shoes and look like he’s in a hurry. The assistant can tell the man is a conservative dresser based on his attire. He asks whether he’d like the same style again and hazards a guess in size 10. The man nods and pays on account.

New World:- A man enters a store. He’s told his now 2 years old shoes are available in store if he’d like to replace them. He clicks yes and collects them from the counter (he’s already paid).

His app knows this based on:-

1) Reading past electronic receipts from his inbox – which tell the purchase date, model/style and shoe size (based on this, for how long will retailers continue to deliver plain text receipts?).

2) Observing the fact that past purchase behaviour has been tightly coupled to ‘conservative’ repeat purchases of very similar styles (e.g. 5 pairs of beige trousers and 10 blue shirts).

3) Observing past in-store behaviours. Low browse times, limited shopping around etc… + knowing the man has been walking quickly (and not in a relaxed manner, which correlated tightly with his more ‘adventurous’ shopping trips).

4) Knowing that the man is in the ‘formal’ shoe section of the store and not currently considering sandals / trainers etc… (which he also owns).

5) Leveraging stored payment details, or auto-provisioned store credit based on soft or hard credit profiling (NB: in the X.com view of the world attributes like shoes size etc… might also be stored just like preferred delivery address etc…)

In all of the above, very little data is revealed that could not be observed by a human shop assistant. From the pace of your gait as you enter a store, to the value of the clothes on your back – all these can be gauged currently – and bringing back the ability to do so, simply restores to the shopping experience what was lost through (a lack of) technology as we took people (and cost) out of the retail experience.

It should be noted that in the above scenario, data on shoes size, past purchases, gait etc… can all be withheld from the merchant and only used to ‘filter’ suggestions ‘broadcast’ by the merchant to the consumers client side app. For example, the store can say it has (UK) size 9,10 and 11 shoes available, and the store need only know anything about the shoppers shoe size if the app spots a match and the consumer decides to purchase. While there are many factors that will drive who’s app you let guide you around a store, it will be interesting to see to what degree data privacy concerns drive peoples’ choice of ‘shopping partner’.

How Retailers can avoid war between online & offline P&L holders …

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Looking back, I can see that many business projects start out as follows …”Putting aside the fatal flaws, let’s discuss details A,B,C”. Huge issues like conflicting incentives never get resolved, and the inevitable result is failure. It strikes me that traditional retailers have one such big issue they need to address – how to make the online and offline P&L holders play nicely together (for as long as these P&L’s stay split). In-store digital requires these P&L’s to dance vigorously on each other’s feet, and leaving it up to executive altruism to reconcile this is not a viable strategy.

This problem has been solved before – the concept of ‘assisting’ a sale is well understood, tracked and remunerated in the online world already. Affiliate sites act as virtual ‘showrooms’ with the transaction happening elsewhere. TradeDoubler and Affiliate Window have built the ‘honest broker’ infrastructure to track this and enable everyone to play nicely together. I suggest we need to implement something similar to sit between real world showrooms and online stores – enabling both to act as ‘affiliates’ for the other. In such a solution one would not just track ‘clicks’ as one does in the online world, but physical presence in store (browsing the shelves), use of returns facilities etc… to track leads and ‘attribute’ value. Services that ‘recognise’ your presence in store (rather than at the checkout) will be particularly useful in this regard (e.g. Pay With Square, ShopKick etc…).

I believe such a service is needed to manage the P&L tension within a single retailer (between stores and online). But one can imagine a world also where physical ‘showroom-ing’ also links to 3rd party online stores, with appropriate ‘affiliate’ commissions being paid for the leads generated.

In time the P&L split between online and offline may dissolve, with physical stores treated as just another marketing channel in a unified P&L. Even in this case however, we will still need/want a way to track how these channel contribute and inter-play with each other. Extending online into offline analytics (and vice versa) is a huge growth area … and one I’m keen to be involved in.

The Perfect Mobile App

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If you’re going to have a proper mobile App, versus just a mobile website (or thin App shell), you may as well make best use of all that client side access. Now you’ll have to win the right to ask for all this access – but done right, with the right reassurance, I’ll let you in.

[Quick aside: you may wish to architect the following to minimise data transfer back to servers, for reasons of data protection and consumer trust]

1) Get access to my email. Past order confirmation emails, promotional subscriptions and triggered emails will let you know what I like and what I’m doing. You should know who my insurance is with, when it is due for renewal. You can tell what I bought in the past and infer brand preferences, price brackets etc… You can also see any emails sent by websites to draw me back to their sites – giving you insights on transaction not yet closed.

2)  Get access to my Calendar. You can see where I want to travel to, where I’ll need to be and where it might suit me to visit / stay. You can offer to book me a cab to the airport, or a discount on luggage delivered to my house in time for my next big trip. Like Google Now you have the perfect excuse to have a conversation with me, we’ll get to like each other and maybe chat about other things …

3) Get access to my location. I think everyone gets this, but do it in a power efficiency way so I don’t have to ever shut you down! Also, think before you act on my current location. I may be moving at 60mph away from the area you’re just about to tell me about – guess where is truly relevant and not just what’s under my nose.

4) Know what mood I’m in. Listen to my surroundings (use the microphone), am I watching TV or standing on a bus? Am in warrior or potato mode. Know when and when not to interrupt me, and tailor what you say based on what I’m doing.

5) Be my working memory. I don’t want to have to ‘cut’ and ‘paste’ – it is so explicit and old school! If I’ve just read something, distill all the unique entities in it and line them up as a timeline of my reading/browsing. If I’ve just looked at a phone number on a webpage 2 minutes ago, show it as an option in the Dialler.

Just some ideas (feel free to add) …

Bitcoin, the Baby and the Bathwater

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Bitcoin, as Marc Andreessen recently blogged (and others responded), is both a technology platform and a currency. I hope the merits of the technology platform are not lost to the world by the ‘boiler rooms’ surrounding the currency. Whether one can survive the crash of the other I’m not sure (nor can I be certain it will crash). The current hyper appreciation does have all the hallmarks of a pyramid scheme, with my friends keen for me to join this ‘no brainer’ bet (cue some adage about cocktail parties and stock tips etc…).

There are two points in Marc’s article that I’d like to elaborate on:-

The inherent weaknesses in the Card Schemes (highlighted so well by companies like Target recently) are well known – but also scheduled to be addressed. Currently you essentially hand merchants your wallet and hope they don’t take too much money (you also grant them the ability to keep taking long after you think you have taken your wallet back). The concept of ‘pushing’ a fist full of dollars to the merchant is much safer – you know how much your giving, and the merchant has no ongoing access to you wallet. Payment systems like Zapp (in the UK) are designed this way from the outset, and Tokenization more widely should solve this for the existing card schemes.

The security of payment provided by Bitcoin I believe is somewhat overstated. As with any system, you can make things very secure – but then humans get involved. The Bitcoin system is very good at ensuring you have the right credentials – but not necessarily that you should have control of those credentials. Stored value on a card (like Mondex) is open to theft – and there is no (commercial) 3rd party to run crying to. I can see people wanting to store Bitcoins in hosted Cyber Vaults accessed by Verification credentials [you could call these credentials CVVs  – nod/wink ]. Once again you now have persistent access credentials floating around the web and the risk of Target like leaks again. Things once again boil down to ‘Authentication’ at the heart of payments, and the best placed to provide this are those who ‘recognise’ you, rather than those who confirm the credentials you supply. It is this Authentication layer where I believe the multi-billion dollars of disruption lie, and not the back-office mechanic for keeping the ‘transaction ledger’. ‘Recognising’ someone means knowing what is normal, and it those who profile us daily for advertising etc… that are very well placed to make this judgement.

Atomizing the store

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Imagine if products were free to wander, popping up in people’s blogs, twitter feeds, App notifications, or celebrity collections. Each product brings with it the checkout, able to sell itself to whomever without the need to drag you to a ‘store’. To save you the torture of price comparison, it carries a (3rd party service ) badge guaranteeing you the price shown has been checked and is good. If you buy, you’re preferred shipping and payment details are used. All you have to say is ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

The ‘store’ experience is determined by whatever collection of products collide, be that Lilly Allen’s blog or her favourite things, or my friends twitter feed. Products in this world, could also have ‘friends’, complementary items that like to ‘hangout’ together (if invited in). ‘Shelves’ can be created outside the scope of any one ‘curator’ (blogger, twitter feed etc…) or ‘retailer’ (merchant of record, logistics provider).

The ‘atomization of the store’ in this way would be especially suited to mobile. Imagine if that Samsung Ad where the guy has forgotten their wedding anniversary was truly only one click to purchase and ship flowers to his door and not 10 clicks and 50 characters to get the job done). ‘Yes’ / “No’ purchasing in response to contextual prompts and social queues is something I’d welcome – and a reality I believe will be arriving soon.

Wanelo mixed with X.com’s vision would provide some of what I’m describing above (the X.com bit removing the need to link-off, without having to become a ‘traditional’ retailer and front every transaction as the Merchant of Record).

The tech to do this now is all in place, we just need the business deals to make it a reality …

Making a bridge interesting – when it’s only half built!

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If you’ve met me you’ll know I’m addicted to analogies … a bit like an X on Y. Anyway, in one of my recent monologues I happened upon a rather decent analogy for building a startup.

When starting a business it is very easy to envision a compelling end-state. Functionality that will be really useful once everyone is using your site/service. However, it is much harder to come up with something that anyone cares about day-one. Great examples of this can be found in any plan that involves a marketplace, reviews, chat, dating, benchmarking, P2P etc… the first customer gets very little. It is important to know where you are going with a business, but it takes relatively little genius  to imagine a service if you assume you can start with several million users day one. The real cleverness, and where startups need to focus, is the stepping stones from A to B (and not B).

With this (not so original insight) in mind here is my analogy (somewhat revealed by the title of this post):-
Building a startup is a bit like building a bridge. Once complete, its value is clear, but along the way you need to be very clever to make people use it. How does one get early adopters for a half-built bridge?
Step 1) Your 1/4 built bridge is a marine observation platform – it gives people an excellent viewing station to observe fish
Step 2) Your 1/2 built bridge is an urban bungy jump –  it provides an excellent extreme sports thrill
Step 3) Your 3/4 built bridge is a ‘Dukes of Hazard’ leap –  allows anyone willing to pay to play action hero in their car
Step 4) It is a bridge! – everyone one can see it – it takes no explanation!

The Post-Portal world … or Twitter for Industry

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There are a number of ideas/themes, some new and some old, that point to a very interesting potential disruption of the current Internet ecosystem. These include:-
– The sematic web
– Twitter (as a messaging platform with open access)
– Apps (as client-side software made as easy as websites)
– Social recommendations (as a new form of advertising)
– Embedding eCommerce into Ads (as portal/retailer bypass)

By way of a quick history re-cap, the Internet promised to remove ‘intermediaries’ from the global value chain, thus making everything cheaper as there are less mouthes to feed between the ‘manufacturer’ and you (the end consumer). At the moment, in complete contrast to this vision, we are seeing the emergence of ‘Super Intermediaries’ in the form of Apple, Google and (to a lesser extent) Microsoft. These Super Intermediaries pose a macro threat to the current crop of ‘Web Portals’ (e.g. Expedia and Amazon), but don’t represent a fundamental collapse in the value claimed/charged in getting product to consumers.

The Semantic Web concept, put very simply and perhaps a bit incorrectly, pointed to a vision of ‘my robot’ chatting to ‘your robot’ in order to find things I’m interested in. In this world, the idea of a shop-window doesn’t exist, you buy direct from the ‘manufacturer’ and the intermediary role is displaced by an algorithmic ‘negotiation’. Brand/’Manufacturer’ advertising/promotion remains very important in creating desires for the products I search for in the first place. ‘Manufacturers’/Brands still need a logistics partner to get product to you, but the idea of Retailer brands and ‘shopping malls’ declines. Social Recommendation and exhaustive algorithmic search displaces the art of shelf-placement and product buyers. Clearly this vision has not happened yet. Certain elements of it have, but these have simply been presented as new forms of Portal with a functional speciality (e.g. Kelkoo, Priceline)

So what do I mean by ‘Twitter for Industry’. Twitter is many things, but viewed from one angle it is a ‘message bus’, filled with noise that you extract points of interest from based on filters. You could view it a bit like Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) ware (if you are a deep SI geek). In the Semantic web-vision, ‘Manufacturers’ would ‘publish’ their products to a ‘Twitter’ like message bus (a bit like rich-snippets being published on the web). Robots, or ‘shopping apps’ would then trawl this Twitter-sphere, using the product pointers identified in the stream to initiate ‘negotiations’ with the publisher. Publishers who lie to attract unwarranted attention would be ‘punished’ by having their ‘reputation’ marked down. A third party (either an entity of agreed code-base) would exist to keep the system ‘honest’. A world of permission based advertising would open up, but with ‘robots’ acting as your first filter. You state what your interested in (either directly as product, or people who’s product taste you respect) and the world comes to you with click-to-buy suggestions. Given the open nature of the ‘message bus’ any shopping app could exploit it – it is in this way that the Portal role is ‘destroyed’ and displaced with client side code you ‘trust’ or ‘train’. Retailer/Portal brand equity (and the value in commands) is displaced by ‘open source algorithms’ operating on client-side software (whose deployment is now made easy in the form of Apps).

Fancy (www.thefancy.com)  is an example of someone potentially exploring this vision, but still very far from what I’ve described. All of these visions require ‘Manfacturers’ to be willing to sell direct and upset their existing channels (many of which do so already, as Portals are actually only ‘standing in front of them’ on the web). It also requires (for physical goods) the existence of logistics companies to provide product delivery – something the mailing giants are already moving into. The big question in my mind is, who has enough money and power to bring this concept to life, who doesn’t already profit from maintaining the status quo?

A payments startup worth backing …

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You didn’t ask, but I’ll tell you anyway – here’s my view on payments startups worth backing.

First off, payments is a tough space. Consumers like innovation a lot less than people think, and in the area of payments and personal finance people are even more risk averse. Often the perceived risk of trial vastly outweighs the immediate benefits (e.g. I’ll pay 5 seconds faster, but may have all my money stolen).

Second off, payments is a heavily regulated industry dominated by a large oligopoly. You have to ‘dance with elephants’ and may easily get crushed if you choose the wrong part of the value chain. In general there are very few startups that have succeeded in payments – the odds seem worse than other industry areas.

Thirdly, payments is less interesting than you may think! At least the handling of the money is. People look at high percentage fees and instantly assume this is valueless profiteering by a monopoly system. I’m not saying it is fairly priced, but there are hidden costs in payments which drive/require fees (e.g. fraud/insurance).

So, all that said, what would I invest in. I see a few themes, each with different merits:-

1) Increase consumer Point-of-Sale conversion
– 1.1 Increase the addressable market to those without debit/credit cards (unbanked, youth …)
– 1.2 Reduce PoS hurdles by reducing the time-to-pay (stored details, NFC)
– 1.3 Reduce the effective price (by channeling back payment fee savings)
– 1.4 Offer ‘easy’ credit at the Point-of-Sale (storecards, BillMeLater)

2) Deliver better merchant service levels
– 2.1 Reduce barriers to acquiring an initial MID (the first step to accepting card payments)
– 2.2 Deliver ‘betters. faster, cheaper’ payments processing (a matter of scale and attitude)

3) Payments as Identity based plays
– 3.1 Customer identification and behavioural profiling (with possible linkage to PoS data)
– 3.2 Consumer facing loyalty and discounting schemes

Of the themes above I would say that 2) is best suited to growth capital/private equity. You need a modicum of technology, but you mainly need funding to build and buy a large merchant customer base. Number 1) is increasingly difficult, but if I were to place a bet it would be on the PoS credit concepts – big plays like Klarna and BillMeLater can still be improved upon and rolled-out wider. Number 3) is where the garage start-up may yet unsettled the status quo. Depending on how rules & regulations are amended, it may be possible for the treasure trove of payments data to be exploited by players outside the existing ecosystem.

In general, I think payments will trend towards enabling big companies to do what you see happening everyday (in a very low tech way) in your average ‘cafe’:-

1) You’ll pay after you’ve consumed/seen your goods (* but based on a ‘soft’ credit check you may be asked to pay up-front if you look a little rough around the edges – the check won’t ask any questions!)

2) If you’re a regular you may get a secret discount at the till if the owner thinks its important to you (* so as not to upset other customers who pay full price, nor embrassas you with vouchers etc…)

3) When you walk in they know you, and know what you like – you’re coffee may even be waiting for you (* over time the staff pay attention to what you like, and if they haven’t seen you in a while – they make you feel extra special [and a little guilty])

4) If you’re a really good customer, you’ll be allowed to ‘settle up tomorrow’ – not because you need the credit, but because they know it makes you feel special – and makes you come back tomorrow!

All of the above are being worked on, with various degrees of buzz-wording around NFC, Mobile, SMB, Card Readers etc…. I think the winner is likely to be the company that attaches itself least to the new technologies, and makes the maximum use of existing data and existing tech.

Topic continued over a coffee/beer …