No. 194: Zoom | Sony Gets in the Ride-Share Game | Can’t Be a One-Trick Pony

Zoom, Zoom, Zoom! The Exclusive Inside Story Of The New Billionaire Behind Tech’s Hottest IPO

While reading this piece, all I could think about was how different Zoom was from other Silicon Valley unicorns-turned public companies that are more well-known. The company registered to go public with a profit after having already turned a profit. Contrast that with companies like Uber which has had one profitable quarter and is pushing for a $120B valuation at its upcoming IPO.

Apparently, the CEO Eric Yuan reimburses the company even for smaller expenses like swag. Contrast that with Evan Spiegel who recorded $900k in security costs when Snap filed to go public. Yuan recorded no other compensation from Zoom, granted Snap was/is a cultural phenomenon and Zoom is far from that.

Further, there’s so much talk about the mercenary culture in Silicon Valley and how startups need to have all sorts of perks in order to retain talent. I’d be really interested to hear what it was about Zoom that enabled it to grow to 1,700 employees despite not having the flashiest office space.

The startup world has built this calculus around growth trumping profitability. Zoom seems to knock against that. I look forward to seeing how it’s IPO impacts the culture across the valley, particularly with its newly minted set of millionaire employees investing some of their capital in fledgling startups.

Sony becomes Uber’s newest rival in Japan

This can’t be too exciting a development for Japanese e-commerce Rakuten, also the largest investor in newly public Lyft. Rakuten’s CEO Hiroshi Mikitani has talked about his company’s investment in Lyft as more research than competitive move, but with a nearly $3B stake in the company they have got to be itching for Lyft to expand beyond the U.S. and the few Canadian cities where it operates.

It’s time to rethink oil and gas as a funding source for development

The extent to which resource-rich African countries are still placing their bets on oil and gas being the primary driver of their countries’ development induces anxiety. Kurt Davis does an effective job providing cases on Angola, Sudan, South Sudan, Angola, Mozambique, and Tanzania and how they’re probably going to find themselves stuck with their current approach to meeting their budgets and developing their countries. He goes on to map out how the thinking of policymakers needs to shift in order for these sort of countries to begin diversifying their economies. As I think about the rapid changes in technology and how software is driving so much change in how the world works, I really hope policymakers wake up.

No. 188: W.E.B. Du Bois |5G Rollout |Oil’s Future

W.E.B. Du Bois and the American Soul

This is a compilation of three beautiful set of conversations on W.E.B Du Bois’ life and impact on society during and after his life. I first understood that a black American living in Africa was an option when I learned that he finished his life in Ghana.

I had a fantastic conversation with friends that covered a range of topics, including the stories black people tell ourselves about where we come from and the impact of those stories on how we live our day-to-day. I’ve long been of the mind that black folks need to connect with our African story. A friend pointed out the importance of learning the complexity of our story here in the U.S. and wherever else in the Diaspora our people have been.

I look forward to spending more time on that, particularly in thinking about my mother’s family history. I learned details about my grandmother and how she grew up just a few months ago and look forward to gaining a deeper understanding of my heritage on that side of the family.

The 5G revolution is coming to Africa

There has been much conversation about the impact 5G technology will have on the ability for applications of self-driving technology, augmented reality and more due to increased speeds. We’ll have to wait a few years for proof of this and I’m curious to see what 5G deployment looks like across Africa. Will carriers like MTN and Vodacom choose to install a bunch of cell sites across a city or put a bunch more antennas on their existing towers? Helios Towers announced it was building 1,000 towers in South Africa to prepare for 5G, so I imagine they anticipate carriers are going for the latter.

I’d be interested in how carriers who plan to deploy dense networks across cities engage with local governments to plan that type of work out. My understanding of these ultra-dense heterogeneous networks is that you essentially have a bunch of pizza box-sized cells that bring the cellular base stations signal closer to users. A constraint of 5G is that the signal doesn’t travel that far and struggles to get through buildings. This kind of network is supposed to improve that. That requires a lot of planning for right-of-way, where in the city is demand greatest, how do you protect the cells, and more. Apparently, more carriers will be rolling out the technology over the next couple years. We’ll see how they deploy the technology and whether African markets serve as a laboratory for innovations in 5G deployment.

Norway Is Walking Away From Billions of Barrels of Oil

When Ghana learned that it had lots of oil off of its coast, officials pointed to Norway as the model for how they would manage the resource. They would avoid the challenges the resource has brought to other African countries that had grown dependent on the cash cow. Nigerian governments have talked for years about how the country needs to diversify its economy to depend on more than oil to drive the economy.

I wonder how African oil officials are responding to this news that the government is choosing not to explore an area that could have significant oil reserves. In addition to this, the Norway’s sovereign wealth fund announced not too long ago that it was selling off its stakes in oil exploration stocks. I don’t know that this is the path for African oil countries right now, but I’m sure it could be a proxy for laying out hard questions about an economy’s relationship to oil:

  1. When is enough enough?
  2. How do we sequence pulling resources away from oil to invest other sectors?
  3. Whose voice will be most important in making the decision on how long we rely on oil?

These sort of questions are probably a generation away. Let’s see how the conversation plays out if it happens.

No. 181: 3 Thoughts: Cashless| Amazon|Masayoshi Son

Smaller institutions should embrace, not oppose, fintechs

I’ve been increasingly bothered by the specter of establishments going cashless. We’ve all had opportunities to give some cash to folks who don’t have money at the time for their next meal. Where do they use that cash in a world where it’s not just SweetGreen or ShakeShack going cashless, but it’s also Starbucks, 7-Eleven, and the mom-and-pop corner store going cashless?

While Nathaniel Hoopes’ piece focuses on fintech lenders and how smaller banks shouldn’t be fighting them, it brought to mind community banks and credit unions as potential good partners for fintechs in solving the access problem for folks without resources to get the tools they’ll need to navigate that world. A couple solutions that could work are debit card dispensary kiosks or Lifeline phones to have near field communications. Here’s to not boxing folks further out of society than they already are.

What is Amazon?

Fascinating piece that crystallizes one of the four or so defining companies of this technological era. The piece starts with Wal-Mart which perfected the art of putting the bounds around its marketplaces aka Wal-Mart stores and optimized everything inside of them. With the onset of the internet, Amazon didn’t need to make that optimization. It rather optimized for eliminating bottlenecks to satisfying the customer. Now, it’s gotten so big that has a growing problem of optimizing for sellers who don’t have the same incentives Amazon has internally to be hyper-focused on the customer. This is a must-read if you think about platforms and/or customers.

My job is to work with government agencies in elevating the voice of their customers into their decision-making so I did take some umbrage with Kanter’s assertion that the DMV would remain in stasis, at best. With Deloitte’s new customer strategy & applied design offering in the mix, that’s not a foregone conclusion. **Steps down from soap box**

SoftBank’s Masa Son: We’ve already invested $70B in Vision Fund

Masayoshi Son has carved out a space to shape the future of technology and it’s worth spending time understanding his worldview. This interview is helpful in that effort, though David Faber tosses a wiffle ball soft question on the Vision Fund’s relationship with the Saudi Arabian government.

One worldview I think needs examining is what the world looks like when the Singularity arrives. More than a few technological optimists including people like Kai-Fu Lee argue that the onset of mature artificial technology will enable us to focus on art or work that requires caring like nursing. I don’t see historical proof of this. With broad onset of new technologies, more often than not, policy has had to come into play to ensure folks were well taken care of. What makes us think artificial intelligence will foster all of this benevolence?

No. 178: What Happens When AI Meets Africa’s Demographic Boom?

Africa is projected to have more people at working age than the rest of the world’s population by 2035.

By 2045, artificial intelligence is projected to reach the singularity, where it will be self-improving rapidly rather than being dependent on human inputs.

On their own, these two developments are concerning. For years now, policymakers have braced themselves for what could happen once there’s this critical mass of working age folks in countries like Nigeria and South Africa with no jobs. I’ve heard the term “tinder box” more than I care to.

Artificial intelligence learning on its own is something very hard to envision unless you want to leave that to your pick of scariest movie about AI. All of the advances we see in AI currently are still in the realm of supervised learning where humans input enormous amounts of data. Yet, AI is already able to some pretty incredible things. My Google Home is in constant use in my home for music, information, games, story time, and more.

What happens at the intersection of these two shifts? They’re supposed to happen within a decade of each other. Are African policymakers thinking about curriculum that could prepare their populations to be able to work alongside a robot?

For example, Rwanda, Kenya, and South Africa are investing a lot in growing their automotive manufacturing industries. The price of industrial robots is dropping rapidly and could make the development of those industries a lot more realistic. Just this year, Volkswagen and Nissan have launched assembly plants in Rwanda and Kenya respectively. Are the workers at these plants ready for an increased use of robots?

If you’ve seen examples of analysts and policymakers thinking through this issue, I’d appreciate you sending that info my way!

No. 169: Facebook to Get an African-American Board Member…Soon?

Facebook has been on the hot seat as more information comes to light about the role it played in Russia’s meddling in the November 2016 election. The hot seat treatment brought the company’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, to DC for an exclusive interview with Axios co-founder Mike Allen to discuss the situation and what Facebook was going to do about.

While in town Thursday, Ms. Sandberg visited with the Congressional Black Caucus. Apparently, one of the points of conversation was when Facebook was going to appoint an African-American director. CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond said after the meeting that Ms. Sandberg had committed to adding an African-American to Facebook’s board soon. It doesn’t make sense that no person of color sits on Facebook’s board, granted this applies to much of corporate America. That said, the question now is who would be a good candidate to join Facebook’s board?

Some would immediately think of Michael Powell, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. He has been the flag-bearer for the internet and television industry for the past several years. Before that, he was a member of the FCC, and chaired it for four years. He has a wealth of knowledge on navigating the regulatory landscape and would add a ton of value to Facebook in this vein.

The problem is that Mr. Powell serving on Facebook’s board while heading up the NCTA would be a conflict of interest, and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t step down from his super powerful position just to be able to join Facebook’s board. Further, Mr. Powell doesn’t have the experience leading diversity initiatives at the scale with which Facebook needs experience. So, Mr. Powell’s not a fit.

There are two things this director needs experience with to move the needle forward at Facebook:

  1. The director needs to understand the media landscape and the regulatory system around it. Increasingly Facebook is being looked at as a media company rather than a social network. Because of that and the outcomes of the Russia-Facebook issue, Facebook could find itself facing increasing regulation to align the company with the rest of the media industry, so they will need someone who knows how to navigate that.
  2. Facebook needs someone with experience pushing diversity at a large organization and who can guide Facebook’s management as it continues diversifying its workforce. Facebook’s annual reports on its diversity numbers show that the company has quite a ways to go and having someone in the boardroom who knows how to get that done is key.

Payne Brown would be a strong fit to join Facebook’s board. He’s currently a managing director at Highbridge Capital Partners, which is a minority partner in Diddy’s RevoltTV. Mr. Brown was a vice president at Comcast where he led strategic initiatives, while overseeing program content, managing relationships with industry counterparts and governments, and standing up the company’s diversity council and leading the development of the company’s diversity philosophy.

While there is government experience on the board in Erskine Bowles, having someone like Mr. Brown who has been successful on the lobbying side of the table in dealing with Congress would be helpful as Facebook’s dealings with Congress on Russia’s election meddling and whether it needs to be regulated like a media company increase.

A counter to Mr. Brown joining the board could be that he’s not a household name and could perplex investors who are trying to put a value to the impact he could have on Facebook’s business. Well, Payne has worked on Wall Street for several years now and I’m sure analysts would easily be able to ask around and get a better sense of the impact he’s had on the media industry. If they don’t get answers on Wall Street, they could just ask Diddy!

A bit of an aside to all this is that it’s fine that Facebook has made a commitment to adding an African-American individual to its board, and that Congressmen like G.K. Butterfield are focused on getting more African-Americans into executive roles in Silicon Valley. But, we have a lot of work to do to build an ecosystem within the black community that could support my daughter building a $100 billion business.

I believe there is enough wealth within the black community today to do this along the startup venture path – pre-seed, seed, series, A, B, C, D, initial public offering, and beyond. That’s what makes the work the folks at Black Girls Code, Precursor Ventures, Cross Culture Ventures, Backstage Capital, Black Wall Street and more exciting because they are more likely to find these folks and get them started along the path.

It would be nice to have a concerted effort from black policymakers, high net worth black people, and black players in the tech space to build an ecosystem around black technology entrepreneurs and provide them with the resources they need to build the future and billion dollar businesses along with it.

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Additional Reading for the Weekend:

  1.  Shonda Rhimes Just Became the Third Black Woman in the TV Hall of Fame
  2. Charles Hudson of Precursor Ventures Filed to Raise $25M for the pre-seed venture firm’s second fund
  3. African startup founders can finally start looking for big-ticket funding nearer home
  4. Lightspeed Welcomes Tara Nicholle-Nelson as Entrepreneur-in-Residence
  5. Backstage Capital acquires The Door to continue funding underrepresented founders
  6. Issa Rae Built a Hollywood Career on Her Own Terms. Next, She’ll Build an Empire

No. 138: How Does Africa’s Innovation Economy Tap Into Africa’s Wealth?

Yesterday, I had lunch with a friend who is raising a fund for her Lagos-based startup. At one point in our conversation, she shared the effort she has had to go through to get people she has met with in Silicon Valley up to speed on what is happening in Nigeria’s tech space.

This has been a refrain from a number of entrepreneurs and investors who are already tuned in on what is happening in Africa’s innovation economy. Fortunately, the tide seems to be trending towards Silicon Valley getting more hip to what is happening in Nigeria, Kenya, and to a lesser extent South Africa (Cape Town-based Naspers has led some massive investments that I am sure Silicon Valley investors have noticed.)

While we chatted, my mind went to some research I saw this weekend on Africa’s high net worth individuals. Capgemini’s annual World Wealth Report pegs the wealth of the 150,000 high net worth individuals across Africa at $1.4 trillion for 2016. These are people who have at least $1 million in investable assets, excluding primary residence, collectibles, non-durable goods like sweet potato pie, and durable goods like automobiles.

This is serious capital. I wonder what percentage of this wealth has gone into Africa’s innovation economy since 2009. The Capgemini report highlights three industries that are going to drive wealth accumulation globally through 2025 – financial services, technology, and healthcare. There are startups across Africa doing interesting things in all three of these areas, yet the challenges of getting Africa’s wealthy to invest in the continent’s startups has been a conversation for several years now. I think we’re trending to those conversations being fewer and fewer.

There are several people working to build a critical mass of wealthy investors across Africa committed to investing in Africa’s innovation economy, and these initiatives are gaining real traction. Further, some African governments have developed initiatives to support innovation economies within their borders. Two years ago, I watched Something Ventured, and it really got me thinking about how African governments could level up their involvement in Africa’s innovation economy. I’ll share where I’m at on that at some point.

In the meantime, what is your assessment of Africa’s wealthy investing in Africa’s innovation economy?

No. 132: Bill Janeway Knows a Lot about Technology and Economics

Barry Ritholtz did a fascinating interview with Bill Janeway, Managing Director at Warburb Pincus, a private equity shop whose name you may have seen when Timothy Geithner joined as President a few years ago.

Side note: Warburg Pincus is the largest shareholder in Kosmos Energy, the exploration company that was part of the discovery of the Jubilee oil field in Ghana nearly a decade ago. Wow. Time flies. Check out Big Men if you’re looking for a movie to watch this weekend. 

Janeway draws on economic theory and the history of the US technology sector over the course of the interview. This is one of those interviews I will listen to a couple more times to be sure I caught all the events, people, and companies I should look up, such as Ferdinand Eberstadt. Check out the interview below.