An ethical code for disruptive startups



Coadec Executive Director Guy Levin wrote an interesting piece on Wednesday calling for a clearer view from government about positive disruption in the start-up space. Now I’m sure that government needs to have a view and encourage entrepreneurship, but this is a two-way street. There seems to be an almost “autistic” nature of the way in which tech startups can operate that fails to understand that just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should do something.

Let’s take an example – the well-publicised taxi-cab disruptor Uber. In most developed cities, taxi services are pretty heavily regulated. In London, for example, to be licensed to pick up without regulation a driver needs to have been authorised by the Public Carriage Office, and have passed the “knowledge” test of the streets of London. Uber flies in the face of most of that (and of the regulated fare structures that drivers must also follow).

On the one hand there is a public safety and protection nature of all of this that (hopefully) ensures that we don’t get ripped off or murdered by cab drivers and they get us to where we are going pretty quickly. On the other hand the traditional “knowledge” is pretty much obsolete as I found last week when I needed to use my phone to direct a black cab driver to a pub within half a mile of Waterloo Station.

Is Uber acceptable disruption into a regulated market? Who knows. My personal view is probably just about, but we shouldn’t ignore the public protection offered by current structures.

Let’s take another example – AirBnB. A service that in some countries is leading to significant legal challenge because the letting of properties for short stays is a licensed and regulated activity. But moreover in some other places is leading to really weird distortions of the housing market.

Is AirBnB acceptable disruption into a (sometimes) regulated market? Who knows. And I don’t know that I have a view (although housing in London and the UK is distorted enough at the moment).

So let’s get more extreme. What about recruitment services? Or legal services? Or what about financial services? Or guns? Or drugs?

The answers lie on a continuum. And there are no black and white answers – only a series of greys. However, you can be sure that legislation and regulation won’t be able to keep up in “start-up” time, so it’s not enough just for Government to have an agenda here. It strikes me that the start-up community needs to develop its own ethical code within which it works that isn’t merely “If it’s legal”.

The role models of past-decade start ups (particularly the big US ones) don’t set a great example here. Whether it’s Facebook’s skirting around data privacy and protection or most of them skirting around international tax boundaries, despite the “Don’t be evil” placards of old it seems that ethics run the risk of being seen as the merely the county bordering Suffolk.

(Thanks to Paul Taylor for the Twitter conversation that led to this post.)

Weeknote 209: plate spinning


Things I have learned this week:

- layers of intermediaries add exponential layers of bureaucracy
– never put off for tomorrow what you’re scared of doing today
– starting a business, building a business and scaling a business are very different parts of the same whole

Next week: a long weekend, and then my last peripatetic week for a while (and my last Friday with the boys for a very long time)

Replacing paper

I’m currently writing a report. It’s something that is going to be being published next month. Because we are “publishing” the report, I want it to be delivered in a format that is identifiably a thing, an object. But because the report is about digital transformation, I want the report to live to those values and be digital. I have a format problem…

The simple option is to produce a PDF. But PDF’s are rubbish (quite frankly) on screen. If you focus on delivering to a traditional PC then you have to basically do a slide presentation (because the screen’s the wrong size for portrait). If you focus on tablets or phones then PDF’s are terrible because they don’t adapt to screen size… they’re a print document in digital form.

I could produce a website, but a website isn’t a “thing” quite in the same way that a document is. And because of that you don’t get into reciprocity (which is important if the report is being given away for free).

I could produce an App, but that’s a world of cost and pain, and means a whole new stack of learning and production. It also locks out the desktop/laptop market (yeah, I know, Windows 8 apps blah blah…)

How to encapsulate a set of information into a digital entity which can be authored in simple tools, that doesn’t cost the earth to produce, is authentically digital, and also platform independent so that it can be consumed on PC, tablet or phone of whatever flavour without complicated installations… well, that seems to me to be a nut still to be cracked.



Confidence in confidentiality


At the beginning of next month I’m going to be starting a significant piece of work for a new client. At the moment I don’t know how much I’ll be able to talk about it. That makes me somewhat unsettled.

Suffice to say the client is someone that you will have heard of, and the work will be surprising to some. More than that I can’t say.

What this is making me realise is that my blogging and tweeting and status updating isn’t just about me doing some “content marketing”. This is actually how I work these days.

I like openness. I like to share. Sometimes it’s, yes, about seeking validation from others. But that’s I hope not a needy thing, just a sensible approach of soliciting advice and guidance. But by being open I hope I’m making it easier for people to do business with me. I also hope I show that I can make sound judgements about what can be open, and what should not.

This is all very counter-intuitive to many. Knowledge-based work has traditionally been about giving away as little of it as possible. I start by laying most of the cards out on the table and implicitly saying “and then imagine if I were to apply this type of thinking in your situation”. Last week two new potential clients appeared on that very basis (of course there is a world between potential client and paying client, as my main shareholder keeps telling me)

But within all of this there is a need to protect client confidentiality. That’s their right. I just hope that my new client can allow me to be able to work in a way that allows me to be effective whilst protecting information that cannot be disclosed. Those are some of the early conversations to be had…

Innovate or disrupt?

innovation continuumIn email conversations yesterday with my Innovation Engine co-conspirator Richard Hale, he noted that increasingly he’s seeing the word “disruption” being used by the people that he is working with.

Maybe you should do a blog on the theme of disruptive/disruption

he said.

Well, here goes.

For me, this is all about a continuum of change, as illustrated above in my trusty Moleskine. At one end of innovation you have incremental change that is about improving the way in which you do things. Whilst continuous improvement is common currency these days, it’s not to be forgotten that it’s only really in the past 60 years that it has come to be so ubiquitous a concept. And there are a few industries that seem to plod on as if nothing needs to change.

Step-change innovation is about doing new things. This is much harder because, as I’ve suggested in the past, the nature of corporates is in many ways to protect from things that might damage them, and change can be seen in that way. Corporate stems from the Latin “corpus” – the body – and corporates tend to have a metaphorical immune system through bureaucratic structure and culture that reacts to prevent change.

There are a number of ways in which a company might try to innovate, and the challenge is usually not in coming up with ideas, but in the execution to actually make them happen.

And if you think it’s hard to do new things that are adjacent activities to what you currently do, it’s really hard to do new things that actually erode or destroy the value of the bulk of what you do today. That’s my definition of disruption.

Xerox’s PARC is a case study in how hard this can be. Through the 70s and 80s the boffins at PARC invented or made significant steps towards laser printing, ethernet, WYSIWYG computing and object-oriented programming. It’s well documented how Steve Jobs and others at Apple were “inspired” by ideas seen at PARC to go on to create the Lisa and the Macintosh. Meanwhile Xerox plodded along as a photocopier company, unable to see how to bring anything to market that didn’t look like a photocopier.

(That’s a bit of an abridged history. For more you could check out this.)

The thing is that, particularly for a US publicly-listed company, the opportunity to become self-cannibalistic which is at the core of disruptive activity is next to impossible. If your company is turning good revenue you need by law to protect that – a problem (in my opinion) facing the legacy giants of technology like Microsoft and Oracle. It’s why Michael Dell turned his company private again… Usually the attempts at disruption come as the body corporate is twitching, snatching it’s very last breaths.

At the end of the day, Innovation, Disruption… it’s all just words.

At the core, do you want to do things better, do you want to do new things, or do you want to do things that will make you current things pretty pointless?

The further you go down that continuum (if you are a bigger organisation) the more challenges you will be setting yourself.


Weeknote 208: Four More Years


25 years after receiving my own A-Level results my rusty maths tells me that Weeknote 208 equates to four whole years-worth of weeknoting. Actually the first one I ever wrote was back in May 2010, just as I was about to depart on a trip to see colleagues in Sydney, Hong Kong and Shanghai in my role back at Imagination.

The discrepancy in time comes from the weeks I’ve missed because of holidays. Holidays, ah yes.

Anyway, it’s surprised me that I’ve been able to make this into a habit, and I know a few folk use it as a way to check in as to what I’m up to, and it’s a great thing to reflect back at the end of a week and ask yourself so, what did I learn this week?

given it never rains but pours, you’d have thought more people would pack an umbrella
– social networks really come into their own when you get to meet people in the real world…
– … although Thursday provided me a little boost of social network ego with a Twitter mention from Black Swan Nassim Taleb and getting followed by The Wedding Present’s David Gedge
– the opportunities presented by tech city to a teenager with half an idea are mind-boggling
– death of email? I’m now juggling six accounts…
software resellers are a mystery to me

Next week: some plate spinning begins in earnest.

Inside the box

I’ve developed a new approach to finding new books to read. In one of my more progressive acts of parenting, I tend to take the boys to the local library once a week. Whilst there, I’m also looking out for something to pick up myself. No longer am I relying on Amazon recommendations – I’m now back to my tried and trusted “judging a book by it’s cover” approach. And it’s free.

At the moment, as a result, I’m reading Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg’s Inside the Box – a book about creative thinking that starts on the premise that all of that wide open canvasses, free-wheeling, every idea is a good idea stuff of ad land is a load of old tosh.

Whilst I’m not a believer in there being one perfect method to achieve any particular task, there are some really interesting techniques in the book that have sparked my creative mind.

One of these is the Subtraction Technique. They way it works? List out all of the core features of one of your products or services, and then reimagine it without one of them.

I tried this in passing with an acquaintance earlier this week who works for a company that provides technology and services to support people in care homes and the like. “What would your emergency alarm systems look like if you didn’t have a panic button?” I asked, to illustrate the idea.

“Ooh – you could do it through the television…” she immediately responded.

It’s an compelling technique.

Yesterday I was chatting with a chap who is facing a major office relocation, and looking at how that might provide the catalyst to introduce more flexible office provision. The challenges of moving to hotdesk environments are many and complex, but often start with questions like “how do we make our workforce more creative?” or “how do we provide office space more effectively?”.

It’s got me thinking – maybe starting with the question “What would office space look like if we didn’t provide an office?”, whilst in many ways totally counter-intuitive, might start some really creative approaches. If you could imagine provisioning services in such a way that there was absolutely no need for an office in it’s traditional form, then what could you then do with shared working spaces?

It might offer some interesting alternative designs to the common “provide most people with 4/5ths of a desk but some people get one permanently for business or political reasons that turns it all into a massive bunfight” approach that I’ve seen more than a few times in the past.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading more, and also to putting some it into practice.

Matt Ballantine's thoughts about technology, marketing, management and other stuff…


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