Our Top 16 Posts of 2017

We’ve shared our top podcasts of 2017; now here are 16 of our top written posts, including listicles (but not including slide decks and videos), from this year. One was a guest post, one of them appeared in The Atlantic, another was included in a major university’s syllabus of reading material for an entrepreneurship course, and more…

How Aristotle Created the Computer

The history of computers is often told as a history of objects, from the abacus to the Babbage engine up through the code-breaking machines of World War II. In fact, it is better understood as a history of ideas, mainly ideas that emerged from mathematical logic, an obscure and cult-like discipline that first developed in the 19th century… Mathematical logic was initially considered a hopelessly abstract subject with no conceivable applications. And yet, it would provide the foundation for a field that would have more impact on the modern world than any other.

Cars and Second Order Consequences

“There are two foundational technology changes rolling through the car industry at the moment; electric and autonomy. Electric is happening right now, largely as a consequence of falling battery prices, while autonomy, or at least full autonomy, is a bit further off… Both electric and autonomy have profound consequences beyond the car industry itself… However, it’s also useful, and perhaps more challenging, to think about second and third order consequences.”

How to Tell the Truth

“The truth about telling the truth is that it does not come easy for anyone. It’s not natural or organic. The natural thing to do is tell people what they want to hear. That’s what makes everybody feel good… at least for the moment. Telling the truth, on the other hand, is hard work and requires skill. If you lead an organization, being dishonest can be fatal, because the quality of the organization’s execution is a function of the quality of its communication and the key to communication is trust.”

The End of Smartphone Innovation

“The PC curve has been completely flat for years and smartphones are now starting to flatten out as well… This means that the questions change. We don’t ask ‘will this work?’ or ‘who will win?’… Rather, we ask what can we do now that there are 2.5bn people with a smartphone, growing to 5bn in a few years. There’s a paradox here, perhaps: slowing innovation in the iPhone and in Android doesn’t mean weakness (‘Apple doomed!’ ‘Android falling behind!’) but strength: it reflects the fact that we are in a phase in which they’re unassailable… Of course, that is only true until the next S curve comes along and resets the score, just as the iPhone did to both Microsoft and Nokia.”

12 Things about Product-Market Fit

“Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.” Too often the focus is on latter part of the sentence (a product that can satisfy the market) and not the former (in a good market). But even though tight product-market fit and product-market scale help beat out the competition, that doesn’t mean that the struggle stops there. Markets and the actions of competitors in that market are always changing; constant adaptation is required to retain PMF.

Distribution

“What is a sales channel? It’s a route to market for a product or set of products. It can range from your website to a sophisticated sales force. The sale itself must be supported with the right marketing, process, and optimization strategy. Selecting the right channel is critical for any business — and products often fail because the company chose the wrong route to market. When designing a distribution strategy, one should never begin with the sales channel itself.”

It’s Never Too Early to Fire

“Of course I’m being a bit provocative to open this post with, ‘I have never fired anyone too early.’ I have almost always given people a chance to correct course, and suggest you do too… The big question is, how long do you wait to allow someone to correct course? This depends, of course, on the role, and the scope, the numbers, and many other factors. But the key is to decrease the timing of the correction and increase the person’s response to the intervention.”

Asking the Wrong Questions

“There’s no prediction for when everyone on earth would have a pocket computer connected to all the world’s knowledge (2020-2025). These aren’t random gaps — it’s not just that they thought X would work and didn’t know we’d invent Y. Rather, what’s lacking is an understanding of the structural impetus of computing and software as universal platforms that would shape how all of these things would be created. We didn’t make a home newspaper facsimile machine — we made computers.”

16 Ways QR Codes Are Being Used in China

We’ve talked a lot about the rise of QR codes in Asia, but they may now finally be moving from being a joke to being more widely adopted in other places as well. Simply put, QR codes let you hyperlink and bookmark the physical world; they’re a barcode-like vector between online and offline information and enable everything from online to offline (O2O) marketplaces to augmented reality… But there are also a number of less-obvious (or not as well covered) uses in China that show the range of what’s possible everywhere.

Artificial Intelligence: The Promise and the Playbook

We’ve met with hundreds of Fortune 500/ Global 2000 companies, startups, and government agencies asking: “How do I get started with artificial intelligence?” and “What can I do with AI in my own product or company?” So we’ve launched a microsite to help newcomers begin exploring what’s possible with AI; it’s aimed at people who aren’t only studying AI in universities or labs and just want to get their hands and heads around it as they explore options for their own companies. Much like databases are inside just about every important piece of software we use every day, we’re in the early years of putting AI in all our software, an important trend we believe will unfold over the coming years and decades.

Hire a VP of Engineering

Understanding the role only in terms of logistics oversimplifies its scope, missing the many other nuanced functions a star VP of engineering provides — including setting the right culture, which is critical for retaining engineering talent that would otherwise go elsewhere. A good VP of engineering would own all those things, while also shipping quality product and giving the rest of the organization transparency into the process.

Hire a CFO

It’s easy to see the CFO as a glorified “scorekeeper” reporting arrears on things like revenue, expenses, profit/losses, and cash flow/burn. But this work is actually a very small part of a CFO’s larger value: A good CFO doesn’t just keep the “score” — he or she puts points on the board. Like the CEO, CFOs have a company-wide view on the business: they operate in the middle of all the data flows in and around the business. A good CFO uses this vantage point to make a good company great.

Hire a Head of Sales

“As a former software engineer and CEO, I used to hold the “engineer-centric” view that sales is not a critical function in an organization. I believed that product excellence and market fit obviated the need for a formal sales function: Build a great product, and customers will come. That view was short-sighted, to say the least. The technology companies that are able to both build great products and integrate a strong sales function are the ones that succeed, whether consumer or enterprise — from Microsoft to Salesforce and yes, even Apple and Facebook.”

Century of Biology

“When engineering, biology, and computer science come together it elevates bio to a ‘read/write’ paradigm. That is, you don’t just read the code of biology but you can also write, or design, with it. Take genomics to begin with; ‘read’ is already happening at an unprecedented speed and scale there. When I started in the space about 10 years ago, next-generation sequencing was starting to come online… What the next-generation sequencing platforms did was let us do this better and cheaper. But more importantly, we can now generate that data in a day or so. That timescale is definitely more engineering than science.”

16 Things CEOs Should Do Before an IPO

“Here’s what I said to the OpenTable team a couple of years prior to our IPO: ‘Our aspiration is to be a public company so that we’re in control of our long term destiny. And we think we’re building a business that will be attractive to public market investors. So we’re embarking on a concerted plan to be ready to be a public company when we think the timing is right. We’ll likely ask for the help of some of you in doing this. Everyone else, please keep your heads down and focus on continuing to deliver results. Oh, and keep these plans confidential, as leaks could have a negative impact on our potential timing.’ Why avoid specifics? Because shit happens.”

Ears: Use Them

“It’s reframing sales as listening: Starting from a place of listening to your target customer’s needs, and then carving out the space to continually listen and observe any signals throughout… Instead of saying, ‘Look at these X data points, and these Y outputs from our product (They will make you very happy! And no one else can do it)’, start by asking the audience what their goals are, the way their organization works, and what they hope to understand from you or solve for.”