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Masters of Scale: Reid Hoffman Tests His Theories of Success

Cross-posted from the Other Valleys:

The best way to communicate ideas is to tell a story. The most interesting storytelling format these days is without doubt the podcast, which was elevated to new heights by the first series of the quite aptly named Serial a couple of years ago.

One of the newest podcasts to hit the waves is Masters of Scale, an audio series with LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock Partner Reid Hoffman, no stranger to the startup/VC world. In it, he talks to successful entrepreneurs from companies like Facebook, Airbnb, Minted and Walker & Company to test his theories of success. What makes a business a rocketship, or more crucially, one that truly has impact in the world? It is published by WaitWhat, itself a new content company founded by two veterans from TED, June Cohen and Deron Triff – the two were responsible for creating and growing TED.com, the TED Open Translation Project, TED Radio Hour on NPR and TED in Cinema, amongst others.

I had the chance to ask June and Deron a few questions recently, to learn more about Masters of Scale. Here’s what they said – I hope you enjoy reading their responses as much as I did!

Both of you had long careers at TED before setting up WaitWhat. What is WaitWhat’s unique take on content in today’s world – how do you think you can make a difference in the deluge of content out there?

Our approach is really different from most media companies. The first is in the way we target our audience. We don’t tend to think a lot about demographics; instead we focus on how we want people to feel. We want everyone who takes in one of our programs to have a “wait, what?” moment — where they feel lit up and alive, filled with curiosity and wonder and awe. This is the kind of reaction that helps people realize their potential, and it also makes them want to share the content. Curiosity, awe, wonder — these are contagious emotions that make you want to share with other people.

We’re also different in how we think about format. Most media companies specialize in a single format – audio, video, written word — and then work to drive traffic to their own website / app / content. But we’re format and platform agnostic. As a content incubator, we’ll launch numerous media properties over the years ahead, and for each one, we’ll choose the format that’s best suited to the content, and then extend from there. Masters of Scale launched as a podcast, but will extend into other formats (short-form video, live events etc) over time.

Masters of Scale is the first ‘product’, so to speak, from the WaitWhat fold. I love the idea of Reid Hoffman testing his theories of success during the show. You describe it as a ‘music-infused detective story’. How did you come up with the idea of fusing those two genres in one show?

We’re passionate about creating new genres. So in everything we create, we think about how we can extend the formulas that others have created. Here, we wanted to create a program that surprised our listeners. From our days with TED Radio Hour, we became fascinated with the role of sound and music. We wondered what might happen to an ideas program if it were set to an original score, the way an independent documentary might be. Why shouldn’t an audio program surprise and delight you?

One of the things we love most about Masters of Scale is that the music — which is brilliantly composed for each episode by the Holladay brothers — is like a character in the show. A very surprising character!

Among other things, I’m a co-founder of Ada’s List, a global community for women in tech, and I was especially glad to hear that you’ve committed to a 50-50 gender balance for guests on the show. Why do you think that this has not been a big enough issue in American media so far?

We were genuinely shocked to realize that we were the first American media program to publicly commit to a 50/50 gender balance. To us, the benefits of balance are so clear, and the importance of a commitment is too. What we’re finding is that there is absolutely no shortage of extraordinary women business leaders to interview. We have a list 100-women long. They’re simply less recognizable than the male leaders, because they aren’t approached as much, and don’t put themselves out there. If you set a 50/50 commitment, it’s not a problem to fill the spots. But if you DON’T set a 50/50 commitment, your program will just naturally fill up with men, because they’re better known and more often recommended.

What was Reid Hoffman’s reaction when you pitched the show to him? How did that happen?

He loved it because we tailored it exactly to him. Reid is a natural mentor and teacher. He had wanted to become a philosophy professor; he gets great pleasure from sharing knowledge and he is SO DELIGHTFUL when he does it. He devotes a lot of his energy and time to mentoring others, and especially sharing his theories on how companies scale. So the idea of sharing his ideas on scale in a way that could, well, scale — was appealing.

Why did you decide on a podcast series for your first production, compared to other content formats? 

We were drawn to audio, because there’s a renaissance happening in podcasting right now. The extraordinary work that’s come out of the public radio world in recent years — This American LifeRadioLabAsk Me AnotherPlanet Money — is being pushed in all new directions, now that there are other players — GimletWonderyPanoplyAudible— innovating in the space. We’re obsessed with podcasts! We love Ponzi Supernova and Where Shall We Begin (which we helped originate) from Audible; we love Reply All and Heavyweight from Gimlet; we loved The Message; we loved Serial and of course S-Town. That just scratches the surface.

If you are plugged into the cultural zeitgeist, you have to be listening to podcasts right now.

What can we expect from the next few episodes of Masters of Scale? How long will it run?

You can expect to hear Netflix’s Reed Hastings reflect on the pillars of building a successful company culture. You can hear the extraordinary Nancy Lublin of Crisis Text Line prove to you that scale leaders aren’t only in for-profit companies (they run not-for-profits too). And you’ll hear Linda Rottenberg of Endeavor muse with Reid over what city in the world just might become the next Silicon Valley.

What’s next for WaitWhat?

We have some exciting projects in the pipeline that are currently in stealth mode… stay tuned!!

The first few episodes of Masters of Scale are now online:

Episode 1: “In order to scale you have to do things that don’t scale.” With Brian Chesky from Airbnb. 

Episode 2: “Always raise more money than you think you need.” With Mariam Naficy of Minted

Episode 3: “The best business ideas often seem laughable at first glance.” With Tristan Walker of Walker & Company

Episode 4: “If you’re not embarrassed by your first product release, you’ve released it too late”. With Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. 

Episode 5: With Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook. 

My favourites from the Designs of the Year 2016

I went to the Designs of the Year exhibition a couple of weeks ago at the recently-reopened Design Museum. The annual exhibition is something I’ve been visiting for a few years now. There’s always some extremely inspiring stuff -some commercial, some clearly not as commercial – but all worth knowing about. Here are my picks of the exhibition:

Lumos Helmet: To be clear, I’m not a bike rider, but the incidences of bike accidents on the roads of London have been alarming lately. The Lumos Helmet began, as many of these projects do, as a Kickstarter project, and ‘beautifully integrates lights, hard brake, turn signals, and helmet into a single cohesive whole’.

The Bottom Ash Observatory: I’ve never thought of municipal waste as a thing to spend time thinking about (beyond its sustainable disposal), but Christien Meindertsma has published a book showing the richness she was able to extract from ‘100 kilos of incinerated household and industrial waste: the “waste of waste.”’

The Smog Free Project: Daan Roosegaarde’s Smog Free Project is a 7-meter-high structure that effectively functions as the largest air purifier in the world, ‘creating a circular zone of clean air for citizens to experience and enjoy’. It cleans ‘30,000 cubic meters per hour using ozone-free ion technology and a small amount of green electricity’. Currently installed in Beijing and Rotterdam, I know many a city that needs multiple versions of this. Admittedly it helps clean up, instead of forcing people to acknowledge the issue in the first place – but maybe that can be an evolution of it.

Hello Ruby: I heard about this when it first came out (again a Kickstarter project, but back in 2014) so it was nice to reacquaint myself with it here. Hello Ruby is a children’s book for those aged 5 or over that teaches them to code in a fun way.

Joto: This is such a brilliant idea, and I know I sound like a parrot here but it also came from Kickstarter (public launch due in 2017). It’s an internet-connected Etch-a-Sketch, or in other words, you can draw or send messages from the web to a frame on your wall. Super creative.

Refugee Republic: Premiered at the Amsterdam documentary festival IDFA in 2014 and winner of a Dutch Design Award in 2015, Refugee Republic is an interactive documentary about life in a Syrian refugee camp in Domiz, Northern Iraq. A really immersive way to get your head around some of the human stories playing out even as we speak.

Design That Saves Lives, Bangladesh: When the Rana Plaza collapse happened in 2013 killing over 1000 people, I was only too aware of the risk of something like that happening multiple times a day in crowded cities that I’m familiar with, like Delhi. So I was immensely relieved to see the work of Arup’s Ireland office in Bangladesh in the months following the collapse: a structural safety assessment that now helps to save thousands of lives.

MTV’s Martin Luther King Day media campaign #thetalk: I missed this when it came out in 2015, but it appealed to my time in a media agency as one of the most creative ways to get an important message across using TV. On MLK Day, MTV telecast all their programmes in black and white, prompting discussion of race by their target audience, millennials.

Post/Biotics by Vidhi Mehta: A project by an RCA student in Innovation Design Engineering, this project aims to draft the public into helping to test natural substances that might be able to function as antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is becoming a huge challenge to scientists the world over – in fact it is also the focus of the £10 million Longitude Prize. Post/Biotics is a very low-touch way of working on this problem, and reminds me of campaigns like Cancer Research’s Genes in Space mobile game, where players were drafted to find a solution to cancer.

I did this podcast for the Disruptive Innovation Festival

Some of you may know that from November 2-20, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation is celebrating the Disruptive Innovation Festival online. Kavi Guppta, with whom I co-wrote ‘Disruption in the Developing World‘ earlier this year, and I were invited to host a podcast for the festival. It went live on their website yesterday, so if you missed it yesterday, have 20 minutes to spare and are interested in innovation, technology, emerging markets, governments and the like, have a listen.

Facebook’s vision for the future, as showcased earlier today

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I’ve just got a glimpse into Facebook’s vision for the future.

At a special installation in London, Facebook showcased their key future-facing projects to a lucky few this afternoon. These included demos of the Gear VR, using Oculus technology, and the latest version of the Oculus Rift. I’ve experienced the Oculus before, so it was interesting to see how it’s progressed: in depth lenses and multiple sensors across the head device mean a much more realistic experience. I also spoke to a Facebook representative about the Oculus Touch, which wasn’t on show but still interesting to hear about.

Internet.org was hands down my favourite bit, seeing as how I’m really interested in how the internet can impact populations across the world, even those without the near-limitless access to technology that we have in the UK. I didn’t know that Aquila, Facebook’s first solar-powered drone, is assembled in Yeovil in Somerset. It has the wingspan of a Boeing 737 but weighs less than a car, as I was told in a video showcasing the technology, and will fly above conventional air traffic for up to 3 months to provide connectivity to the most remote places on earth using lasers and radio frequency technology.

A Samsung with web connectivity as a user in the Philippines would experience it
A Samsung with web connectivity as a user in the Philippines would experience it

Facebook is also making moves in the Artificial Intelligence department, as are pretty much all of its competitors. The most impactful of the screens on display in this area was its work in describing photos to blind users, enabling them to experience Facebook in a very unusual way, and for many people their first ever use of something like Facebook.

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In terms of infrastructure, I learnt a bit about Facebook’s big data servers: Lulea in Sweden, and Prineville in Oregon, USA. Also, if you’re a heavy Facebook user, rest assured in the knowledge that the power needed by Facebook for one year’s worth of Facebook use emits less carbon than 1 medium café latte, 8 minutes of burning a kerosene lamp and 1 pot of tea.

All in all, an interesting afternoon.

If you’re interested in the broader topic, Fast Company today published a long read about Zuckerberg, Facebook and their vision for the future – and for more photos from this afternoon, Ars Technica was there too.

An e-book from @kaviguppta & me: Disruption in the Developing World

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Over the last decade or so, technology has changed all of us, some more so than others, and crucially, some parts of the world much quicker than others. Access to technology is a core part of this, with the steadily lower cost of production putting technology into the hands of those who never had this privilege. This has changed behaviours, relationships – and governments.

Last year, I  started a weekly newsletter called the Other Valleys to chronicle some of the inspiring creative and technology projects emerging from far-flung corners of the world that were not as familiar to the Western tech press as Silicon Valley might be. Kavi Guppta, who writes for Forbes amongst other things, thought this was a good idea too, and we got chatting online. That’s where the seeds of this project were sown: what are some of the best ideas that all of us, and people in public roles especially, should be paying more attention to? If we were part of a government in Asia, Africa or Latin America, most of whom are grappling with huge societal challenges, what kinds of tools might just help make life easier? Kavi and I decided to put some time and energy into exploring these ideas in a slightly more detailed manner.

‘Disruption in the Developing World’ is a short e-book that is the result of our collaboration. We’d like it to create awareness of some of the brilliant activities already underway across the world, and create debate about what might be able to be done better. If it then leads to even one person changing something somewhere to make life better for a group of people, we’d consider our time well spent.

You can download the e-book here for a recommended donation of $2 (or more – hopefully you will think it is worth it); money that will go to organisations engaged in Nepal relief efforts. If you can, please spread the word to your friends and colleagues on Twitter and LinkedIn too – much appreciated.

Behaviour, Experience and the new world of business

I read a bit about two fairly new C-suite roles this week: the Chief Experience Officer and the Chief Behavioural Officer. The former gets the company more heavily invested in thinking about the whole customer experience process, with a focus on design and development, and the latter does a similar role but with a focus on the psychology of the customer at the time of her experience with the brand.

The one thing I took from both pieces is that though both roles are more or less new to the industry, the best indication of their success will be when the entire leadership of a company is able to see these as crucial to day-to-day and not worthy of a callout. It’s the same thing with innovation today in businesses – I notice that companies that see it as a natural part of what they do are more likely to go through with it versus discuss and debate endlessly.

At the end of the day, a clear focus on the two key audiences for a company – customers and employees – are what will see businesses grow. It’s important to note how linked the entire team (CMO, CIO, CXO, CTO, CFO…) needs to be aligned to execute these well enough. If the people in charge of internal comms, both design & deployment, aren’t in tune with what’s going on in the market, then “if they have a choice, [employees] will go work someplace where the systems are easy, useful and allow them to be productive,” as Greg Petroff, CXO at GE, says. If the team isn’t in tune with with customers’ true feelings and behaviour, then those customers will not “get more of what they want” and, in turn, they will not “reward those companies with their business and trust”.

It’s always, ALWAYS, a team effort. As the Re/code article says, researching insights, scoping projects, engaging clients (and employees – my addition), building technology, designing tests and measuring results is rarely done by one person.

.@Kevin_Ashton on tenacity and underappreciated innovators (via @smithsonianmag)

Some really good points are made in this short interview with Kevin Ashton in Smithsonian Magazine, who is known as the person who coined the term ‘the internet of things’. One, the importance of patience and tenacity in an innovator, which I cannot overstate. Not that I am ‘an innovator’ but in my experience simply having the gumption to go on is 70% of the role. Alan Turing in the Imitation Game, for those who’ve seen it.

The other is this:

Who’s the most underappreciated inventor in history?

History overrates the role of individuals, especially individuals with power. As a result, history’s most underappreciated inventors are women, especially non-white women; and its most overrated inventors are men, especially white men. One example—there are many—Marietta Blau, a Jewish woman, made major advances in particle physics, while Cecil Powell, a British man, received the Nobel Prize for “adopting” her work.

Pretty damning that despite her contributions to Austria (her native country) and the world, Marietta Blau was not made a full member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Anyway.

Brainstorming, etc.

Thought I’d share a few of the videos I got to watch during the Coursera course I did recently that specifically focussed on that most coveted creative process, brainstorming.

First, want to know what a brainstorm to create the perfect printer looks like? Look no further:

(That reminded me of this Oatmeal take on printers that I have next to my desk, so read and guffaw if you haven’t seen it yet!).

Then, more brainstorming fun from Bud Light – their 2009 Superbowl commercial which I hadn’t seen before:

Frivolity aside, let’s look at the situations that precede some brainstorms that can make us approach them very differently. Two Apollo 13 clips:

In the end, my friends, failure is NOT AN OPTION.

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Making innovation work in organisations (based on @daveowens’ Coursera material)

Innovation Constraints, by Professor David Owens
Innovation Constraints, by Professor David Owens

Over the summer, I did an 8-week course on Coursera through Vanderbilt University, titled ‘Leading strategic innovation in organizations‘. Taught by Professor David Owens, it walked us through the material from his book Creative People Must Be Stoppedand gave me some interesting food for thought regarding things I do on a regular basis at work: how to approach business through the lens of constraints, how to overcome them, and suggestions for how to make innovation work within the constraints you have.

Professor Owens breaks innovation’s constraints into 6:

Individual constraints: People aren’t challenged to think differently because they don’t know how to. This is something I face with people I work with very often, and toolsets like Ideo’s Method Cards, even Willsh’s Artefact Cards are solutions to this. Very simply: start generating ideas, assess the concepts you come up with, and implement the best one.

Group constraints: While working in a group, the culture of the group doesn’t support risk. So you need to find ways to make risk OK. Solutions to this include developing a process that mitigates risk and makes people feel they are more in control. It also depends on the participants of the group, so they need to be chosen carefully at the outset; with an individual’s behaviours counting for more than their job titles. An energetic junior planner over a Chief Strategy Officer might actually be the right choice for a particular situation – we shouldn’t forget that.

Organisational constraints: This happens when an organisation doesn’t consider innovation strategic enough to pay attention to. It can be overcome if the organisation structures itself differently, in a way that prioritises innovation. Tips for this include knowing what your strategy is, telling the story to the people you work with, trusting ‘doers’, understanding the risks across the business, finding hidden stakeholders (as he put it ‘people who don’t necessarily have the power to say yes but who have the power to say no), following project logic, making innovation everyone’s job – not just a subset of the company, cultivating a mechanism for people to appeal decision to avoid groupthink, keeping teams aligned so you don’t go off-piste, trying not to over or under-fund it – both are problems, developing pilots & prototypes, and always – ALWAYS knowing who you’re innovating for in the first place; the audience.

Market constraints: This happens when industry fails to recognise an opportunity because they don’t see utility & value in it. Solutions to overcome this include: partnering to learn instead of to kill innovation (i.e avoiding the trap many tech companies fall into these days; Facebook bought WhatsApp to stop them becoming bigger than themselves. It’s still early days so I hope they have a plan to learn instead of sitting back after the acquisition), developing new tests for new ideas, sharing the returns to innovation with partners so you always sense-check your progress or lack of it, telling the market what’s new in advance so you prep them for your product, watching the market instead of the competition and starting at the low end of the market instead of the high end.

Societal constraints: This is when society doesn’t support the product’s values and aspirations.It happened with the Segway, for example – stellar team but it wasn’t the right time for people to accept it. The barrier can be overcome by making the product legitimate in their eyes. This can be done by accounting for different kinds of value systems in society, by getting stakeholders involved early, by making sure you’re not innovating just for yourself, and by understanding the wider issues in the world (economy, culture) and how they will affect your product.

Technological constraints: This is when you can’t really make your brilliant idea a reality because the technology to make it happen doesn’t exist yet. It can be overcome by knowing very clearly what you do and do not know – so where the knowledge gaps are, by thinking of sequencing the steps to build your product and co-ordinating arrangements, by leaving time for feedback after tests, by having a process to collect output and by being aware of the by-product of your innovation, both desired and undesired (maybe you produce a new kind of solvent that does a lot of damage to the environment even if it solves you problem; what is your solution to that in advance of your bringing it to market?).

Obviously some of this is more obvious than others, but I found it a useful lens to approach innovation through. Each week required students to do a diagnostic test to assess how impeded we were by our own constraints that fell into each of the above buckets. I was forced to think of the processes I was confronted with daily at work (and in an organisation like Omnicom there are many) as well as in myself, so I started thinking about how to improve them, and me. I don’t have all the answers yet but drawing on lessons from the course I hope to find some soon!

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Calling interesting media tech companies in the UK! Apply to be seen by Omnicom’s Innovation Group

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One of the things I’ve been working on with my colleagues for quite a few months at PHD, and Omnicom at a larger level, is a process to get interesting new media technology companies seen by senior stakeholders in the business. As anyone who has interacted with a big business will know all too well, there can be multiple entry points and a lot of wasted effort in just trying to get seen by the right people, forget the next step which is getting some business. The second step can’t happen without the first, so I’m glad to finally be able to say that the forum to make that happen now exists at Omnicom Media Group in the UK.

If you are a technology business that is involved in new ways of bringing content or creative to life, if you can add something useful to insight and analytics teams, or if you have a compelling e-commerce offering, then get in touch. We’d also like to hear from you if you don’t fit into any of the above categories and have something truly innovative in the media space to offer big and small businesses that help them improve their efficiency or bottom line.

Can’t promise all applicants will be seen but I can promise that your application will receive proper consideration by people who work with clients day in and day out. If the proposition is compelling enough then you’ll get face time with us to tell us why, and we’ll do all we can to help.

I want to make clear that one thing we are not looking for is businesses involved in re-targeting or programmatic buying as this is not the right forum for that.

But if you think you have something interesting for us, we’d love to hear from you.

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