Thursday, March 8, 2018

Down the Rabbit Hole - Issue 2: Elton John

The incomparable Elton John announced his retirement from touring last month through a crazy VR experience that was simultaneously broadcasted to viewers headsets. (Wired has a great piece on how this came together and the technical complexities of it).

I finally had the chance to watch the half hour event.
The first 5 minutes is the VR video, followed by 10 minutes of Elton performing, followed by an interview with Anderson Cooper.

Naturally this led me down one of the most dangerous rabbit holes for me: music.
Once I start, I need to look up everything relating to the subject of my interest; the history of the song or artist, supporting or related artists, watch music videos and documentaries, search the latest news on the artist, and on it goes.

YouTube is also particularly dangerous for this because their algorithm for suggested videos is very good at getting you to stay on the site and watch more.

This BBC documentary is one that was suggested and I watched the whole thing:

I also came across this cool YouTube campaign inviting people to create music videos for Elton John music that previously didn't have one: Elton John: The Cut
My favorite of the three is 'Tiny Dancer', but it's also one of my favorite songs so I'm probably biased.

This led me to think about my favorite Elton John songs...
In (partial) order, Top 5 Elton John Songs:
    1. Tiny Dancer
    2. Your Song
    3. Mona Lisas and Madhatters
    4. Levon
    5 (tie). Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
    5 (tie). Bennie and The Jets

A lot more Wikipedia and I came across this random Elton John/Bernie Taupin tribute album: 'Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin'

The tracks and artists are eclectic and I'm not sure I like the results:
  1. "Border Song" - Eric Clapton 4:21
  2. "Rocket Man (I Think It's Going to Be a Long, Long Time)" - Kate Bush 4:57
  3. "Come Down in Time" - Sting 3:38
  4. "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" - The Who 4:32
  5. "Crocodile Rock" - The Beach Boys 4:21
  6. "Daniel" - Wilson Phillips 4:03
  7. "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" - Joe Cocker 3:57
  8. "Levon" - Jon Bon Jovi 5:27
  9. "The Bitch is Back" - Tina Turner 3:38
  10. "Philadelphia Freedom" - Hall & Oates 5:12
  11. "Your Song" - Rod Stewart 4:49
  12. "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" - Oleta Adams 6:02
  13. "Madman Across the Water" - Bruce Hornsby 6:10
  14. "Sacrifice" - Sinéad O'Connor 5:12
  15. "Burn Down the Mission" - Phil Collins 6:58
  16. "Tonight" - George Michael 7:23

I will end the post with something I never thought I'd hear:
(Apparently 'Levon' is one of Jon Bon Jovi's favorite songs)

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Down the Rabbit Hole - Issue 1: Blade

I have an annoying habit of getting distracted and lost down rabbit holes of useless (but interesting!) information, learning about things I will never need to know in daily life.
The internet is a blessing and a curse; endless, instantaneous knowledge that must be consumed.

Rather than keep these journeys to myself, I thought I'd share some.

First up is the movie franchise 'Blade'.

This all started after watching the always funny Honest Trailer for it:

I had forgotten Guillermo del Toro directed the second one, so naturally I had to look it up to confirm. (Yes, it's true).

Which then got me doing a basic search on 'Blade' and seeing if there was any progress on a 'Blade 4' now that Wesley Snipes is out of prison. [Side-tracked on Snipes' tax evasion conviction and prison time...]
Answer: Snipes is up for it if Disney/Marvel want him. (Please, yes!)

Another small digression on Salon tweeting:
"“Black Panther” is the first blockbuster-format release featuring a black hero front and center"
(Then backtracking)

And I arrived at this interview with Wesley Snipes talking about 'Black Panther' and black superheroes.
In it he casually mentions:
"Eddie [Murphy] did a black vampire movie, which was interesting."
I had no idea, but it's called 'Vampire in Brooklyn' and on that alone, my interest is highly piqued.
The trailer certainly delivers and now I have to see it:

Any that's where my tangent on 'Blade' stops. I couldn't possibly go on after that. Nothing will top it.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Uber's Biggest Rat is Abandoning the Ship

It was announced last week that Travis Kalanick, Uber's former CEO and founder, would be selling 29% of his shares in the latest round of funding by SoftBank, a move that will net him around $1.4 billion. While this may seem like a founder finally getting paid after 10 years of grinding, the timing seems very suspect and may foreshadow the decline of the world's most valuable startup.

1. SoftBank's investment comes at a 30% discount, valuing Uber at $48 billion, down from $68.5 billion last round.
Sure there are limited options for cashing out of a startup so, if you need the money, do it when you can. But Uber's new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, stated plans for the company to go public in 2019. 
If you're confident in a company's strategy and prospects going forward, why not wait for the IPO and/or higher valuation?

2. Kalanick offered to sell up to half his shares.
Kalanick is selling almost a third of his shares for over a billion dollars. Maybe he wants to but a few toys, but do you need an extra billion dollars? (50% of his shares would be worth approximately $2.4 billion).
He may be short on cash after not taking much of a salary for a decade, but why offer to sell so much when even 1% would be more than enough to sustain him?
And again, why cash out if you think it'll be worth more in the future?

2b. Benchmark and Menlo Ventures have also expressed interest in cashing out.
This is a bit different because both were early investors with shareholder interests to consider. Taking almost ten years to get a return on their money, considerable as it is, pushes the limits of how long most VCs want to wait.
But again, what's another year to wait for the IPO, if Benchmark and others believe it would push the valuation even higher?

3. Kalanick's fight to retake control of Uber has gone silent. After a wild attempt to make a Jobs-ian comeback and going rogue by appointing two directors to the board, little has been heard of Kalanick.
This is likely in part because he did not wanting to disrupt the SoftBank deal, but he may have resigned himself to a nominal role at the company.
Of course, he may be laying low, trying to plot a comeback, but SoftBank's investment significantly reduces his influence, as we as that of many other shareholders, and makes it much harder to do so.

This all points to Kalanick, and others, believing in a poor outlook for the future of Uber. The days of hypergrowth and expansion are over. Maybe things improve a little, but they're cashing out when the valuation is at or near the new peak.

After reports of Uber's awful, male-dominated culture surfaced, most of them pointing to Kalanick as the ring-leader or fully compliant to events, I felt almost immediately negative on the company's future.

As reports of sketchy business practices continue surface, my views are even more solidified and it will be hard for the company to shake that perception to the public. Perhaps more importantly, is the negative culture so ingrained into its employees and processes that you can't burn it all out?

Even after a Arianna Huffington-led crusade and replacing Kalanick with Khosrowshahi at CEO, righting the ship is a monumental task that may not be possible.

Maybe it's best to follow the rats off.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Crowdfunding Product Review: Globe

Browsing the interwebs, I came across this fun Kickstarter for an LED sphere, called Globe.

It's not a particularly flashy product, but I thought the campaign itself was interesting because it looks like a classic DIY project that Kickstarter was originally made for.

These days, many of the high-profile campaigns are just marketing and sales devices for larger companies. A lot of products are already developed and are just using crowd-funding for advanced sales.
While I can't object to the opportunism of using the platform for this purpose, I still lament what it has become and get excited when I see a true DIY project.
Also, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the development timeline is very reasonable for a new hardware product and expect the creator, Edward Catley, to be able to deliver on time.

With 5 days to go, the campaign has raised £20,427 of its £60,000 goal (at the time of publishing), so I don't think it'll make it, but I admire Catley's initiative to try and make some money off his hobby.

At its most basic, it's a spinning disk with blinking LEDs.
However, having a spherical display is pretty cool and isn't just limited to the Earth or other planets.

I mean... Nyan Cat

There are dozens of spinning LED kits out there, but the most prolific are the basic 2D displays.
I'm sure many of you have seen the LED clocks:

A 3D sphere is not something I've seen before, but apparently they're already commercialized.
Still, pretty cool that the creator made one himself.

£595 (about $770) is a pretty steep price, but on par with the others I saw.

Most vendors are positioning them as marketing devices. This makes sense as I can't imagine too many individuals paying for one to sit on their desk
But apparently at least 33 people have on this campaign (at the time of publishing).

So it's not very flashy or particularly original, but again, I admire Catley for trying to do something with what I'm guessing is a hobby.
$26,000 is nothing to sneeze at, but didn't reach his all-or-nothing goal. Because it's a pet project, I bet Catley could still sell one-offs to backers, so maybe he could contact backers to do so after.

Side Note: If you're interested in hearing about side projects that turned into significant sources of revenue for people, I recommend listening to the podcast: Side Hustle School.
While not every project is going to be successful or make money, its encouraging to hear about success stories to motivate you to continue hustling.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Amazon should buy Zara... or not, and put them out of business

At the suggestion of my friend Josh, who also publishes a great food newsletter, I gave this recent Recode Decode episode a listen.

I'm typically a fan of Kara Swisher, but not a huge podcast listener. There is a lot of  content out there and it's hard to find the nuggets among all the noise, so if you have any suggestions for good podcasts/episodes, send them along!

In this episode, Swisher speaks with Scott Galloway, a professor at NYU and futurist of the tech scene. Swisher noted his prediction of Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods just a few days before it happened.

They discuss a lot of fun stuff, at one point mocking Mark Zuckerberg and noting his oddities, but one of the things that caught my ear was Galloway taking out his crystal ball again and suggesting that Amazon should buy Nordstrom next. He noted the relatively low price and strong branding as reasoning, but both Galloway and Swisher agreed that Amazon is not likely to make another big purchase. Instead, it will probably digest the Whole Foods acquisition and see what they can learn from it first.

I agree that Amazon will likely make another retail purchase, but I don't think it'll be a department store like Nordstrom (if anything, maybe Sears). Instead, I think they're more interested in a business that more closely mirrors their own and has equally impressive logistics knowledge: Zara.

Zara has been case studied to death by business schools and drooled over by logistics professors for years. Their "fast fashion" expertise and time to market is unparalleled; often they beat designers to market with their own copycat pieces.

Zara's low inventory strategy would play well with Amazon's logistics management system. Using limited supply and exclusivity, Amazon could drive faster purchasing and delivery quickly to customers who want the latest designs. However, Inditex, Zara's parent company, has a market cap of over $100 billion; and Zara has been bucking the retail tailspin and is actually growing; so a buyout is unlikely.

Oddly enough, this article came out a couple days ago while I was contemplating this. Worth a quick read (only two paragraphs), but it highlights a new Amazon initiative where you can purchase clothing you see during a fashion show and get it via one-hour delivery.

This could hint at Amazon's actual strategy: not buying a brand, but developing their own reputation within the fashion community and become a go-to retailer for designers. This would also eliminate the retail middle-man, something it has done consistently across industries.

To become successful in fashion, I see Amazon needing to do three primary things:

1. Get product to customers quickly. Obviously, Amazon has this and can do it better than anyone in the world.
2. Get products in inventory quickly. In order to sell quickly, they'll need the inventory in stock almost instantaneously. They're not there yet, but it could acquire or partner with companies and manufacturers to streamline this. Possibly consider niche companies like Ministry of Supply for their IP.
3. Get access to designers. Amazon could follow Zara and hire their own designers to quickly replicate whatever's seen on the runway, however I suspect they will more closely replicate what Target has done and partner with designers to get designs before they're presented and get exclusives.

There are certainly barriers, but if Amazon is serious about fashion and clothing, they're not anything it can't overcome and quickly take over the market.