Digital currencies are the new portals

Once described as “The Internet of Money”, Bitcoin is much, much more: it’s software, it’s a store of value, and increasingly it’s being recognised as a legal form of payment. In its wake have come a multitude of other crypto-currencies, alt. coins, digital tokens and programmable assets. Each of them built on one or other blockchain protocol or using distributed ledger technology (DLT), and each of them seeking to serve a specific use case or to drive disruption in traditional markets and business models.

Based on my work with Brave New Coin (a market data vendor for these new asset classes)*, I was recently asked my opinion on all these “Initial Coin Offerings” (ICOs – although I prefer to call them Token Issuance Programs). My response was that digital currencies are becoming the new portals.

How?

First, they are building dedicated communities of interest. Many of them are designed for a specific audience or for a particular purpose. They are leveraging network effects to drive engagement and participation, such as MobileGo, for the online games community.

Second, they are becoming “destinations” in their own right, such as Steem for publishing, or CalcFlow, a market place for mathematical models. They are acting as repositories and resources for specialist content. They are also curating this content, and enabling users to contribute to the community, and get rewarded for doing so.

Third, they are building platforms that support e-commerce and other online transactions, such as SPHRE’s Air solution, and its XID token. In Air’s case, they are creating a paradigm shift in digital ID management: in contrast to most social media and old-school portals that monetize our personal data, our content and our search behaviour through the sale of advertising, Air is giving individuals more power over the use of their own data.

Finally, token issuance programs are creating new registries and alternative distribution networks for a range of tangible and intangible assets, such as MyBit for energy, and bitNatura, for natural capital.

So, as well as supporting P2P payments, facilitating cross-border remittances and enabling the purchase of electrical goods in Japan, Bitcoin and the like are becoming key tools in the new digital economy, just as AOL, CompuServe, Lycos, Yahoo!, Google and MSN were once the main public gateways to the internet.

*Note: the opinions expressed here are my own, and do not represent the views of Brave New Coin or their clients.

Next week: #Blockchain heralds a new railway age?

Law and Technology – when AI meets Smart Contracts…

Among the various ‘X’-Tech start-up themes (e.g., FinTech, EdTech, MedTech, InsurTech) one of the really interesting areas is LegTech (aka LawTech), and its close cousin, RegTech. While it’s probably some time before we see a fully automated justice system, where cases are decided by AI and judgments are delivered by robots, there are signs that legal technology is finally coming into its own. Here’s a very personal perspective on law and technology:

Photo by Lonpicman via Wikimedia Commons

1. Why are lawyers often seen as technophobes or laggards, yet in the 1980s and 1990s, they were at the vanguard of new technology adoption?

In the 1970s, law firms invested in Telex and document exchange (remember DX?) to communicate and to share information peer-to-peer. Then came the first online legal research databases (Lexis and Westlaw) which later gave rise to “public access” platforms such as AustLII and its international counterparts.

Lawyers were also among the first professional service firms to invest in Word Processing (for managing and drafting precedents) and e-mail (for productivity). Digitization meant that huge print libraries of reference materials (statutes and case-law) could be reduced to a single CD-ROM. Law firms were early adopters of case, practise, document and knowledge management tools – e.g., virtual document discovery rooms, precedent banks, drafting tools.

2. But, conversely, why did the legal profession seem to adopt less-optimal technology?

The trouble with being early adopters can mean you don’t make the right choices. For example, law firms in the 80s and 90s seemed to demonstrate a preference for Lotus Notes (not Outlook), Wang Computers and WordStar (not IBM machines or MS Office Word), and DOS-based interfaces (rather than GUIs).

Some of the first CD-ROM publications for lawyers were hampered by the need to render bound volumes as exact facsimiles of the printed texts (partly so lawyers and judges could refer to the same page/paragraph in open court). There was a missed opportunity to use the technology to its full potential.

3. On the plus side, legal technology is having a significant a role to play…

…in law creation (e.g., parliamentary drafting and statute consolidation), the administration of law (delivery of justice, court room evidence platforms, live transcripts, etc.), legal practice (practice management tools) and legal education (research, teaching, assessment, accreditation). Plus, decision support systems combining rules-based logic, precedent and machine learning, especially in the application of alternative dispute resolution.

4. Where next?

In recent years, we have seen a growing number of “virtual” law firms, that use low-cost operating models to deliver custom legal advice through a mix of freelance, part-time and remote lawyers who mainly engage with their clients online.

Blockchain solutions are being designed to register and track assets for the purposes of wills and trusts, linked to crypto-currency tokens and ID management for streamlining the transfer of title. Governments and local authorities are exploring the use of distributed ledger technology to manage land title registration, vehicle and driver registration, fishing permits and the notion of “digital citizenship”.

We are seeing the use of smart contracts powered by oracles on the Ethereum blockchain to run a range of decision-making, transactional, financial, and micro-payment applications. (Although as one of my colleagues likes to quip, “smart contracts are neither smart nor legal”.)

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being explored to “test” legal cases before they come to trial, and more knowledge management and collaboration tools will continue to lower the cost of legal advice (although I doubt we will see lawyers being totally disintermediated by robots, but their role will certainly change).

There is further opportunity to take some of the friction and costs out of the legal system to improve access to justice.

Finally, and this feels both exciting and scary, is the notion of “crowd-sourcing policy“; some governments are already experimenting with hackathons to develop policy-making models, and even the policies themselves. But this does sound like we would be moving closer and closer to government by mini-plebiscites, rather than by parliamentary democracy.

Next week: Digital currencies are the new portals

 

The Future of Work = Creativity + Autonomy

Some recent research from Indiana University suggests that, in the right circumstances, a stressful job is actually good for you. Assuming that you have a sufficient degree of control over your own work, and enough individual input on decision-making and problem-solving, you may actually live longer. In short, the future of work and the key to a healthy working life is both creativity and autonomy.

Time to re-think what the “dignity of labour” means? (Image sourced from Discogs)

Context

In a previous blog, I discussed the changing economic relationship we have with work, in which I re-framed what we mean by “employment”, what it means to be “employed”, and what the new era of work might look like, based on a world of “suppliers” (who offer their services as independent contractors) and “clients” (who expect access to just-in-time and on-demand resources).

The expanding “gig economy” reinforces the expectation that by 2020, average job tenure will be 3 years, and around 40% of the workforce will be employed on a casual basis (part-time, temporary, contractor, freelance, consultant etc.). The proliferation of two-sided market places such as Uber, Foodera, Freelancer, Upwork, Sidekicker, 99designs, Envato and Fiverr are evidence of this shift from employee to supplier.

We are also seeing a trend for hiring platforms that connect teams of technical and business skills with specific project requirements posted by hiring companies. Many businesses understand the value of people pursuing and managing “portfolio careers”, because companies may prefer to access this just-in-time expertise as and when they need it, not take on permanent overheads. But there are still challenges around access and “discovery”: who’s available, which projects, defining roles, agreeing a price etc.

Contribution

Meanwhile, employers and HR managers are re-assessing how to re-evaluate employee contribution. It’s not simply a matter of how “hard” you work (e.g., the hours you put in, or the sales you make). Companies want to know what else you can do for them: how you collaborate, do you know how to ask for help, and are you willing to bring all your experience, as well as who and what you know to the role? (As a case in point, when Etsy’s COO, Linda Kozlowski was recently asked about her own hiring criteria, she emphasized the importance of critical thinking, and the ability for new hires to turn analysis into actionable solutions.)

In another blog on purpose, I noted that finding meaningful work all boils down to connecting with our values and interests, and finding a balance between what motivates us, what rewards us, what we can contribute, and what people want from us. As I wrote at the time, how do we manage our career path, when our purpose and our needs will change over time? In short, the future of work will be about creating our own career opportunities, in line with our values, purpose and requirements.*

Compensation

From an economic and social policy perspective, no debate about the future of work can ignore the dual paradoxes:

  1. We will need to have longer careers (as life expectancy increases), but there will be fewer “traditional” jobs to go round;
  2. A mismatch between workforce supply and in-demand skills (plus growing automation) will erode “traditional” wage structures in the jobs that do remain

Politicians, economists and academics have to devise strategies and theories that support social stability based on aspirational employment targets, while recognising the shifting market conditions and the changing technological environment. And, of course, for trade unions, more freelance/independent workers and cheaper hourly rates undermine their own business model of an organised membership, centralised industrial awards, enterprise bargaining and the residual threat of industrial action when protective/restrictive practices may be under threat.

Which is why there needs to be a more serious debate about ideas such as the Universal Basic Income, and grants to help people to start their own business. On the Universal Basic Income (UBI), I was struck by a recent interview with everyone’s favourite polymath, Brian Eno. He supports the UBI because:

“…we’re now looking towards a future where there will be less and less employment, inevitably automation is going to make it so there simply aren’t jobs. But that’s alright as long as we accept the productivity that the automations are producing feeds back to people ….. [The] universal basic income, which is basically saying we pay people to be alive – it makes perfect sense to me.”

If you think that intellectuals like Eno are “part of the problem“, then union leaders like Tim Ayres (who advocates the “start-up grant”), actually have more in common with Margaret Thatcher than perhaps they realise. It was Thatcher’s government that came up with the original Enterprise Allowance Scheme which, despite its flaws, can be credited with launching the careers of many successful entrepreneurs in the 1980s. Such schemes can also help the workforce transition from employment in “old” heavy industries to opportunities in the growing service sectors and the emerging, technology-driven enterprises of today.

Creativity

I am increasingly of the opinion that, whatever our chosen or preferred career path, it is essential to engage with our creative outlets: in part to provide a counterbalance to work/financial/external demands and obligations; in part to explore alternative ideas, find linkages between our other interests, and to connect with new and emerging technology.

In discussing his support for the UBI, Eno points to our need for creativity:

“For instance, in prisons, if you give people the chance to actually make something …. you say to them ‘make a picture, try it out, do whatever’ – and the thrill that somebody gets to find that they can actually do something autonomously, not do something that somebody else told them to do, well, in the future we’re all going to be able to need those kind of skills. Apart from the fact that simply rehearsing yourself in creativity is a good idea, remaining creative and being able to go to a situation where you’re not told what to do and to find out how to deal with it, this should be the basic human skill that we are educating people towards and what we’re doing is constantly stopping them from learning.”

I’ve written recently about the importance of the maker culture, and previously commented on the value of the arts and the contribution that they make to society. There is a lot of data on the economic benefits of both the arts and the creative industries, and their contribution to GDP. Some commentators have even argued that art and culture contribute more to the economy than jobs and growth.

Even a robust economy such as Singapore recognises the need to teach children greater creativity through the ability to process information, not simply regurgitate facts. It’s not because we might need more artists (although that may not be a bad thing!), but because of the need for both critical AND creative thinking to complement the demand for new technical skills – to prepare students for the new world of work, to foster innovation, to engage with careers in science and technology and to be more resilient and adaptive to a changing job market.

Conclusions

As part of this ongoing topic, some of the questions that I hope to explore in coming months include:

1. In the debate on the “Future of Work”, is it still relevant to track “employment” only in statistical terms (jobs created/lost, unemployment rates, number of hours worked, etc.)?

2. Is “job” itself an antiquated economic unit of measure (based on a 9-5, 5-day working week, hierarchical and centralised organisational models, and highly directed work practices and structures)?

3. How do we re-define “work” that is not restricted to an industrial-era definition of the “employer-employee/master-servant” relationship?

4. What do we need to do to ensure that our education system is directed towards broader outcomes (rather than paper-based qualifications in pursuit of a job) that empower students to be more resilient and more adaptive, to help them make informed decisions about their career choices, to help them navigate lifelong learning pathways, and to help them find their own purpose?

5. Do we need new ways to evaluate and reward “work” contribution that reflect economic, scientific, societal, environmental, community, research, policy, cultural, technical, artistic, academic, etc. outcomes?

* Acknowledgment: Some of the ideas in this blog were canvassed during an on-line workshop I facilitated last year on behalf of Re-Imagi, titled “How do we find Purpose in Work?”. For further information on how you can access these and other ideas, please contact me at: rory@re-imagi.co

Next week: Designing The Future Workplace

Gigster is coming to town….

Melbourne’s Work Club recently hosted Gigster Senior Project Engineer, Catherine Waggoner, in conversation with Venture-Store’s George Tomeski. Part of Startup Victoria‘s Fireside Chats, it likely herald’s Gigster opening an office in Melbourne, to service local clients and to tap into the local developer community.

gigsterFor the uninitiated, Gigster describes itself as the “world’s engineering firm”, that helps clients scope, design and build software, apps and digital products. Using an established product development methodology, and drawing on the resources of a 1,000 strong network of freelance designers, developers and product managers, Gigster is taking much of the pain out of the costing and requirements process for new projects, as well as building a growing client base of enterprise customers.

Not mincing her words, Ms Waggoner opened her remarks by commenting, “The software development industry model is f*#$ed”, because:

  • Requirements are poorly defined
  • Scoping is laborious
  • Development costs blow out, and
  • The whole process is not very transparent and not very accessible.

As a case in point, she mentioned the significant cost disparity between what some digital design agencies or app studios might quote for building an iOS product compared to what Gigster would estimate. By: breaking projects down into the distinct stages of scoping, design and pre- and post-MVP; only engaging the “best of the best talent”; using proprietary tools both to estimate fixed rate costs (rather than billable hours) and to define and source solutions; and re-using content from a library of “Community Software” resources, Gigster is able to deliver quality projects in shorter time, and on more modest budgets. For example, based on the large number of projects that they have fulfilled, their “Gigulator” estimating tool incorporates 5,000 possible features.

From an investor perspective, Mr Tomeski mentioned that the “VC inflexion point is getting much earlier” in tech startups. Meaning, with lower development costs (and potentially, reduced valuation multiples), investors are looking to get in sooner, with lower exposure, but still generate reasonable returns on exit, thanks to cheaper establishment costs.

Of course, Gigster sits at the heart of the gig economy, a huge issue when it comes to discussing the Future of Work. Interestingly, many of Gigster’s contractors are themselves startup founders, who freelance while building their own businesses. But such is the strength of the network, something like 35%40% of their contractors work full-time for Gigster – they like the flexibility combined with the continuity. Many of the contractors are referrals from existing team members, and a number of teams (known at Gigster as “houses” – presumably a frat thing?) have bonded to such an extent that they get allocated specific projects to work on together, even though they themselves may be working in different locations, based on previous projects.

Working for Gigster is probably a career choice for some contractors, because there is a variety of projects to work on, and the opportunity to be involved from start to finish. Which may be the opposite if working in a more corporate or enterprise environment, where work may be routine, repetitive and reasonably narrow in scope.

If Gigster does decide to set up shop in Melbourne (with encouragement from
InvestVictoria) they will be joining the likes of Slack, Stripe and Square, tempted by financial and other incentives. Such a move may challenge a number of local digital agencies, who will face even more competition for talent and customers.

According to Ms Waggoner, enterprise clients represent 40% of the business, and should comprise 60%-80% very soon. Not only that, but the average deal was initially $15k, now it’s more like $100k. However, enterprise clients have a much longer sales cycle. Plus, many innovation teams within enterprises are more like loosely formed groups of niche experts, so they need training on how to think like a startup. When you consider the greater dependency on legacy software by corporate clients (where it may make financial sense to retire some assets and build afresh, but the emotional disruption can be huge…), combined with the greater emphasis placed on after-sales service, Gigster has had to adapt its business model accordingly.

But Gigster must be doing something right. They’ve stopped outbound marketing and prospecting, relying on in-bound leads, repeat business and client referrals. There has been a shift from a sales focus to a customer focus, complete with a dedicated customer success team.

A number of audience questions related to getting VCs interested in your idea: What do they look for? How do they assess opportunities? How far should you go in building a product before you can attract funding? What’s the best way to validate an idea? etc. Much of this is about product/market fit, building the right team, getting customer traction, and executing on your strategy (aka Product Development 101.) As part of her closing comments, Ms Waggoner noted that unlike some of the high-profile VC funds (e.g, Y-Combinator, Techstars and 500 Startups) many VCs are becoming more sector specific, because they prefer to invest in what they know and understand.

Next week: Building a Global/Local Platform with Etsy