Author Archives: jjamison101

The IRS Debacle

IRS building on Constitution Avenue in Washing...

IRS building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Light is now shining on the IRS’s practice of slow-rolling applications for tax-exempt status by groups perceived as anti-government, and more specifically, anti-Democrat.  In the run-up to the 2012 election, cries of foul are everywhere.  Even the President is getting in on the action, as the Wall Street Journal points out this morning, “President Obama fired acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller on Wednesday, two days after claiming it was an “independent” agency. That was certainly a rapid re-education.

Heads should roll.  When our Government uses its bureaucratic powers to single out groups it views as dissenters, it smacks of abuse and perversion of power.  Especially when we are talking about a tax authority, which has the undeniably strong powers to garnish wages, seize property and so on.  According to early reports from the Treasury Inspector General of Tax Administration, the IRS did indeed use its bureaucratic powers to single out groups, “the political cases took the IRS some 574 days on average to process compared to 238 days for other nonprofit applications.”   This is unfair and to have it occurring in the run up to a tight Presidential election heightens the cynicism and suspicion of my reaction.  Certainly the IRS never took 574 days to tell me that it thinks I owe them more money on my taxes… It will be interesting to watch this continuing investigation.  Transparency is needed here, and I’ll be watching closely this process.

It is also interesting to watch the spin machines getting rolling.  In particular, I’m now reading editorials seeking to blame groups like the Koch brothers and court decisions like the US Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision.  The transparency of the blame shifting is breath-taking. It’s like a child trying to blame the dog for eating all the cookies.  Sure, perhaps big spenders on both sides of politics–the Koch brothers or George Soros–need greater restrictions placed on them.  Yes, reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom of the USSC in Citizen’s United.  And of course, the IRS does need to take reasonable steps to verify that groups seeking tax-free status actually qualify.  But none of that justifies the approach the IRS took here.

The IRS abused its power.  And as an agent of the executive branch, it’s important to investigate how this occurred and whether others in the executive branch were in on it.  It’s that simple.  All the other stuff, campaign finance reform and dealing with Citizens United, all that’s work the Congress is and has been welcome to take up for years.

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Welcome to the NFL, Fwd.Us

Having spent a long time now in the software industry, I find politics and Washington, DC a curious, mystifying place.  Avoid lobbying, and you’re playing with fire.  Engage in lobbying and expressing a view, and you’ll take the standard slings and arrows that come with engaging with this pit of vipers.

Today’s New York Times Tech Section calls out the outcry from the left that tech-backed lobbying group Fwd.Us has the temerity to use traditional political advertising tactics to promote its pro-immigration reform agenda.  Welcome to the NFL.

The current themes on immigration and what to do with ‘illegal immigrants‘ has been going on in my recollection since at least the early 80s.  Its a stupid, dysfunctional political debate.  The right views illegal immigration as a shibboleth to rally up its base, so no leadership will come from this side.  Unions own the left on this issue, so door #2 doesn’t help at all.  Serious political minds on both sides will state flat out that our lack of an approach on H1B visas etc is brain dead.  But we’re stalemated, so we just have to deal with it.  In the meantime, our crumby education system is failing to turn out enough qualified graduates for the US to remain a long-term leader in a high growth knowledge and information centric economy.

In this environment, Fwd.Us is stepping in, and good on them in my view.  The fact that there’s flack from the left that the NYT points out is, if anything, a sign that Fwd.Us is probably doing something right.

 

 

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Death Knell to the NCAA? Here’s to Hope.

English: National Collegiate Athletic Associat...

18 months ago in the New York Times Magazine, Joe Nocera wrote the stark and useful, “Let’s Start Paying College Athletes.”  In it, Nocera rightly calls out the hypocrisy in college sports as “[taking] your breath away.”

College football and men’s basketball have become such huge commercial enterprises that together they generate more than $6 billion in annual revenue, more than the National Basketball Association. A top college coach can make as much or more than a professional coach; Ohio State just agreed to pay Urban Meyer $24 million over six years. Powerful conferences like the S.E.C. and the Pac 12 have signed lucrative TV deals, while the Big 10 and the University of Texas have created their own sports networks.

The article is absolutely worth reading for any fan of college sports.  What really blows my mind about college athletics is that the schools don’t have to cover the health care insurance of it’s players.  So for example, when Louisville’s Kevin Ware suffered his famous leg breaking against Duke, it turns out Louisville is off the hook for expenses related to the injury after he leaves the institution.  The core reality is that as purely unpaid volunteers, “college athletes aren’t employees, so there’s no workmen’s compensation.”  This is terrible and I consider it immoral.  College athletes under scholarship for sports like football, hockey, even basketball, should have access to some type of longer term assistance for chronic injuries and chronic care.

Also, as a capitalist with libertarian leanings, I favor college student athletes being able to get paid for their skill and value.  This is purely on a freedom basis.  These athletes are 18 and over in most cases.  They also undeniably create value, as the NCAA’s revenues clearly show.  In any other field, they could get paid.  There’s no good reason they shouldn’t be paid for the value they are creating here.

In the NCAA’s response to Nocera’s article, NCAA General Counsel Donald Remy argues that Nocera’s proposals “fail to make ‘walking around sense.’”

 They are based on an illusion that the NCAA is somehow restraining trade. In fact, if anyone in America wants to start a sports league under the Nocera plan, they are free to do so.

I, for one, would love to see someone in America start a sports league under this or a similar proposal.  Specifically, I’d love to see the SEC do it.  Last week, the SEC & ESPN announced the launching ot the SEC Network, a new 24/7 network with a 20 year agreement.  Maybe this is nothing.  But I’d sure love to see it pave the way for the SEC to break free of the NCAA and become the first college athletic conference that pays its athletes.  Fairly, transparently, but paying them.  I think it’d put in the open what’s already happening.  And I can’t imagine it woudl do anything but improve the quality of SEC football.

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This above all: to thine own self be true

Recently, my favorite professor from my time at Duke, Professor Jody McAuliffe, invited me to speak to a group of Seniors who are graduating with a major or minor in Theater studies.  I put the following speech together.  I would like to thank all my friends who provided great perspective and thinking as I prepared this talk.  

Intro

Thanks for having me tonight, I’m honored.  Also, loyalty is an important thing for me, and I’ll tell you right now that I’d run through walls for Jody, so when she asked, I wasn’t going to miss it.  It is great to visit Duke and to get a chance to speak to you graduating Seniors who are majoring or minoring in theater.  Congratulations.

In business, you learn early that it’s important to give people a quick headline of what you’re talking about.  So here’s my headline, my executive summary.  Of all the great lines in Shakespeare, my favorite is this, from Hamlet: “This above all, to thine own self be true.” Impossible to argue with, it basically covers everything you’d ever need to know in under 10 words.

I suspect that I’ve got a very different background from the types of speakers you generally have here talking to you.  I’m no longer involved in theater.  I’m in the technology business.  At one level, this is totally different.  At another level, there’s more relevance to the two efforts than you’d think.  And that’s really the lens through which I’m going to talk: namely how did I go from doing all this theater at Duke to what I’m doing now? And what, if anything, was relevant from Duke and theater that remains useful to me today?

And I hope it’s relevant, as there is this question that’s out there when you major in theater in college.  Perhaps you have had it asked of you.  It certainly was asked of me.  And the question is this: what can you do with a degree in theater or English or whatever liberal arts major you may have taken?  Well, my view is, quite a bit.

I’m excited to speak with you tonight to share my experiences and perspective, with really two goals in mind.  One is to offer a perspective that says all roads remain open to you—if someone asks you what you can do with your education or degree, your first response should be thinking instead why couldn’t you do anything.  You might not become a professional athlete, and you might be a bit behind on becoming an astronaut.  But literally any other route is either open to.  Or it can become so, if you work hard enough.

My other goal is to share some of the key learning I took from doing a lot of theater and going to Duke.  Much of the benefit of this learning wasn’t obvious to me at the time, so hopefully highlighting it now will be useful to you as you sit here tonight getting ready to graduate.

About me

Here’s a little about me.  I did a lot of theater while I was at Duke—I acted in a bunch of plays, directed and wrote one, stage managed a few, and worked on student film projects.  And I was so passionate about becoming a professional actor that I graduated after my Junior year so I could move to New York and get started.  I performed in several small productions there, joined an improvisational troupe at the New York Comedy Club, and joined Actors’ Equity.  But after a few years, I decided that I needed to make a switch, and switch I did.

Now I work in technology, as a venture capitalist.  In theater terms, I think the right analogy is that I’m a Producer.  If you’ve ever seen the terrific Tom Stoppard movie, “Shakespeare in Love,” there’s a great exchange between Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck’s character) and Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson’s character), where Ned asks Hugh, “Who are you?”  and Hugh responds, “I’m, uh….  I’m the money.”

That’s one way to think about what I do, I’m the money.  We invest money into technology companies when they are very, very early in their development, maybe not even a script on the page, so to speak.  And our goal then is to do everything we can to help that company turn into something that is sustainable, important, impactful—a great performance.  On one level, yes, I’m the money.  But I say that tongue in cheek, as it turns out that there’s a lot of work involved beyond just writing checks.   Before I became a venture capitalist, I had worked for about 10 years at Microsoft, in sales and marketing. I worked for Microsoft in Seattle and in Japan.  I also started my own company.

Reflecting on all this, here are some of the important lessons and perspectives that I have found valuable based on my time as a theater guy at Duke.

This above all, To thine own self be true

The first play I was in at Duke was Hamlet, which I started working on about a week after I arrived fall of my freshman year.  I played Bernardo, the castle guard at Elsinore in Act I, scene 1 who is famous for having the first line of Shakespeare’s masterpiece.  Bernardo starts the play by yelling “Who’s There?”  Then with his partner, Fernando, the two characters do a Shakespearean equivalent of the start of a Law & Order episode—two police officers out on a quiet night of partrolling the castle walls, before all hell breaks loose when the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father shows up.

Not a lot of dialogue for me in Hamlet, but what was great is that I heard the play so many times through rehearsals that I knew almost all the lines of Hamlet by the time we went to production.  It was awesome.

“This above all, To thine own self be true.”  Polonius, Danish King Claudius’ chief counselor, kind of a Donald Rumsfeld type, is giving a bunch of fatherly advice to his son, Laertes, before Laertes heads off to France.  And he drops this gem.  It’s actually kind of unfortunate that such an important piece of advice is delivered by Polonius, as he’s such a windbag.   But I guess a blind squirrel catches a few nuts every now and then.

Irrespective of the messenger, the message is an important one.  And I think this being true to self is one of the most important benefits of dedicating time and study to theater here at Duke.  Namely, you are building a habit around prioritizing doing something you love.

As you go out into the world, you will very likely find that pressure is going to increase immensely to follow a crowd, to fall in line.  Student loans need to be paid.  A career needs built.  Etc.  And you are going to be presented with choices, and you’re going to have to live with the choices you make.   I don’t know how you think about prioritizing become a performer or writer and waiting tables in New York for potentially a decade or more, versus say, becoming an talent agent, or heading to medical school or teaching yourself to code or becoming a teacher or a chef or joining the Peace Corps.  Any of those paths are fine, you just have to weigh in your own head and heart how you balance priorities like the importance of doing something you love, supporting yourself and making an impact.

Any path is fine, so long as it works for you.  What is not fine, and what can happen, is you make choices that aren’t true to yourself.  You do something for the money, for the status or prestige, not because you are passionate about it.  This is problematic.  Because once you go into any career as a Duke grad, you’re going to be competing with a bunch of other people just as smart and talented as you, all able to work hard, in whatever field.  And you want to know who stands out when it’s you and a bunch of other smart, talented people?  The person who stands out is the one who loves what they do.   It’s obvious.

And I don’t say that to be a downer at all.  I say that to encourage you to embrace and nurture the habit of following your passion.  Know that there are opportunity costs—right out of school, Chekov won’t pay the bills the same way a company like Cisco will. But you are the only person who’s going to have to live with the choices you make.  So my advice is, be aware that you’re making a choice.  Weigh your options, and in general follow your heart.   “Tthis above all, to thine own self be true.”

Now I’m extremely fortunate that I make a living doing something I love doing.  I work hard in terms of hours spent.  But most days, the time flies.  In all honesty, on most days, it hardly seems like what I do is “work”.   It seems more similar to what I’d do if you just let me do what I’d do naturally.  Which is a pretty powerful experience.  And once you find a fit like that, its amazing how unstoppable you’ll become, how hard you’ll work—because, no surprise, once you find yourself making a living doing what you love, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else.  Everything just kind of fits together.

Be unstoppable

One of the great sayings in theater is that the show must go on.  Whatever disaster befalls you onstage, you adjust, you improvise, and you get things back on track.  You don’t stop.  Whatever happens, whatever you do, you can never stop.

And what a great philosophy that is for life.  In whatever you do, theater, business, anything, you are going to encounter adversity and rejection.  That’s a constant, a given.  The question is whether you can keep getting back up each and every time you get knocked down.

I call this quality being unstoppable.  And this is such a key, key quality to develop.  I wish at Duke we’d talked about its importance more.  The best story of unstoppability is one that I heard recently.  It is about Sylvester Stallone.  The story, briefly, is this.  When he was starting out as an actor in New York, he was turned down by something like 150 agents.  He ended up going back to one who had rejected him and asked for a meeting, and the agent agreed to meet him at the end of the day.  Sly showed up at the office and the guy either never came out and blew him off.  The agent arrives at the office the next morning to find Sylvester Stallone asleep in the chair.  He’d spent the night, waiting for the guy.  The agent then gets Stallone a gig as an extra in some movie, and Sylvester Stallone does it, but realizes that working bit parts as an extra won’t really get him to his goal of becoming a movie star.

To achieve his goal, he decides that he’s going to have to write and ultimately star in a movie.  Fast forward some time, he sees a boxing match that inspires him to write the script for Rocky in a fury or writing.   He tries to sell the script, and for many more months, he’s rejected again and again and again.  He’s broke.

After a lot of work, he gets someone willing to buy the script.  The opening bid is $100,000, which in the 70s was a ton of money, especially for a guy who’s broke.   He refuses to sell the script unless he can be the star in the movie.  The buyers won’t let him star in the movie, and eventually they raise the price to $400,000.  But he continues to refuse, because they won’t let him star in the movie.

At this point, he’s so broke that he can’t afford to feed both himself and his dog, so he sells his dog, by standing outside a liquor store asking people if they’ll buy his dog.  He finally finds buyers who buys his dog for around $50.  Think about that for a minute.  He sold his dog instead of taking money for a script.

Eventually, he was offered $25,000 from someone who wanted the script and would let him star in the movie.  He accepted this, and the first thing he did was go back to the liquor store to find the guy who had bought his dog.  3 days later the guy who owned the dog came to the liquor store, and Rocky offered him $150 to buy the guy back.  The guy refused.   Sylvester Stallone ended up having to pay $15,000 to the guy and offer him a part in the movie to get his dog back.  And he did.   And the rest is history.

I think about this all the time.  In my work, I’ve had so many rejections, made so many mistakes.  I’d like to think that I’m good at ignoring rejection and just continuing to keep coming.  But I’m always asking myself what else can I do to become more unstoppable?  Have I let some obstacle block me from what I want to do?  Have I given everything I can to make the reality I want come true?  If not, what else can I do?  And why aren’t I doing it?

Basically, if you refuse to give up, you will make it.  In whatever you do in life.  It’s just that simple. So the message is this: be unstoppable.

Work really hard

The other great thing about “the show must go on” is that it implies that you’ve got to do whatever’s needed to get the show up and running in time for opening night.  I think that doing as much theater as I did while I was at Duke instilled terrific work habits.  Theater was a major commitment for me, from the time I arrived at Duke until I left.  I recall the summer after my junior year here, I was finishing up my degree, and I was directing a version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm that I’d adapted from the novel.  To finish the script, I had to write for about 48 hours straight.  There was a 72 hour sprint before the opening performance, where I was working around the clock to get everything done.  But to see the curtain go up, and to feel the adrenalin—the excitement and fear that goes with seeing all that work as a writer / director leap out of your control and into the reality of a staging—what a payoff.

For any of you who’ve performed, directed, written, stage managed or whatever at a high level here, you’ve had those long nights.  Those nights have served me for a long, long time—when I need to get work done, I know how to hunker down and stay up until it’s done.  This too is a great benefit to the work you’ve been doing in theater at Duke: when you have to get the work done, you’ll know what it takes to deliver.

Push your comfort zone

Another skill from theater that I lean on is the mental toughness that comes from getting out there and stepping onto the stage.  So many times in my working career, I’ve had moments where I know that I’ve got to push myself beyond my comfort zone and I’ve got to make the investment pitch, I’ve got to close the sale, I’ve got to recruit the candidate, do a press conference.  So many times, its 5 minutes until I’ve got to go in and do something—whatever it is, it is so clear that right here, right now, I’ve got to bear down, lock in, and deliver.  And it is so similar to the excitement and nervousness I got before heading on stage.  Working in the theater gives you skills here, trust them.

Treat people well

I read a story when I was in high school about a former president of one of the big movie studios, I think it was Paramount Pictures.  It’s always stuck with me.  One of the things he was famous for was being nice to everyone.  Here was this huge mogul, super powerful guy in Hollywood, and he knew the names of everyone down to all the receptionists, all the valet parking guys, and he was always really polite to them.  Someone asked him once, basically, what gives?  And his answer was, hey, there’s no upside in treating people badly, especially in an industry where you never know who’s going to be the next Tom Cruise.  I couldn’t agree more with this approach: it’s good business.

It’s also just a better way to live.  And I’d say, that if there were one thing that I experienced in my time in the drama program here at Duke that I’d be critical of, it’s that we weren’t quite as supportive of each other as we could have been.  There was a lot of gossip, drama and intrigue.  We should have been more like a team or a family: more supportive, more helpful to one another, in my view.  Because when you get to New York or LA or wherever you go, whatever you do, believe me, it’s going to get a whole lot more cut-throat.  The road will be bumpy and challenging.  Having smart and talented friends here from Duke to lean on will be important in whatever journey you go on.  Cherish your friends, keep them close, and treat them well.   Support each other.

Take care of yourself

Finally, and then I’ll get to Q&A, I’d like to close out by saying take care of yourself.  We say that a lot to each other.  But to me what I mean is concrete:  Stay fit.  Eat right.  Don’t smoke.  Try to always save some money, no matter how small an amount.

There was a period a few years back when things were really, really challenging for me.  It felt like walls were closing in on all sides.  Personally, professionally, it was really dicey.  And I wasn’t taking care of myself.

And all hell broke loose, not just physically—ballooning up on weight, crazy back pain.  But mentally too, I was scared, anxious.  Not really knowing what to do, I just knew that things were wrong, I got myself into fitness, joining a Crossfit gym.  And after about 45 days, I can remember the moment, all the stress seemed to melt away, and I said to myself,  “I got this.”  Everything since is just a matter of working whatever challenge is in front of me at the time.  I’ve faced challenging times since, but with a more firm foundation, it’s not a problem.  I’ve got this.

Stress, rejection, nerves—those are part of the game, sorry.   It’s not whether you experience those, it’s whether you can respond to them. Take care of yourself.   It will keep your energy high and your mind clear.

Conclusion

So that’s basically it.  I hope that you’ve had a great ride at Duke.  As you head onto your next steps in life, I sincerely hope that you stay true to yourself.  Start there, mix in some unstoppability, some hard work, some risk taking, and treating people well, and you’re going to be just fine.  You’ll be better than fine.  You’ll be great.  Thanks and take care of yourself.

 

 

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Do’s & Don’t's from SXSW

End of a 2 block line of pilgrims waiting to g...

I just got back from another “South By,” always a fun time.  I spent the weekend there, which given SXSW‘s total boondoggle nature, is I think about the right period of time to be there.  Having caught up with other folks who attended and having traded notes, and now having attended for 3 years, here are a few Do’s and Dont’s for SXSW.  Pro Tips (alright, potentially only semi-pro tips).

  1. Wear comfortable shoes.  SXSW is a place where you should be spending a lot of time walking and standing.  Wear the most comfortable shoes you own.  For me, I bring and wear a pair of Brooks running shoes.  I could walk to Arkansas in them, they’re that comfortable.
  2. Avoid conference sessions (unless I’m speaking ;) . Every year I make this mistake…  I get my badge, and I think, wow I should do something useful like go to a conference session.  This year, I did this and I ended up at a session where a guy had as his powerpoint slides pictures of kittens… talking about what I parsed to be the evolution of work and questioning why our normal workday was roughly 8-5.  Snooze fest.
  3. Do make sure your app works.  Highly touted mobile app Highlight launched a new version of its app prior to SXSW.  They garnered press on their cool ice cream truck.  I thought I’d reinstall Highlight to see how it had evolved since the last SXSW.  Unfortunately, for me at least, I couldn’t get Highlight to work after installation.  When I click the “Sign in with Facebook” button to actually use the app, nothing happens.  So other than a splashscreen, Highlight doesn’t really offer me anything. I’d be interested to learn whether anyone else ran into this problem. (A few disclosures .. First, BlueRun Ventures, where I work, is an investor in Banjo, which is often positioned as a competitor.  Two, I reinstalled Highlight twice to try and overcome this issue, unsuccessfully–user error may be at work here, but I’m dubious.)  Robust testing pre-launch, especially for mobile apps where Apple will take weeks to approve updates, is an absolute must do.  Quick plug: check out mobile testing platform Appurify (disclosure: I’m an investor), when you want to put your mobile app through a rigorous QA and testing regiment.
  4. Drink a lot of water.  Next year I’m bringing a Camelback and just wearing it.  SXSW does have a lot of partying.  At the same time, Austin restaurants are pretty weak at getting you water.  Get water every chance and place you get.
  5. Always be charging.  ’nuff said.

 

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Sublime Text 2

Ruby on Rails

I’ve started teaching myself Ruby on Rails on nights / weekends.  I’ve been using Michael Hartl‘s great resource, the Ruby on Rails Tutorial.  I recommend it if your interested in picking up web development from scratch or if you’re interested in learning Rails in general.  It’s accessible, efficient, and useful–a lot like Rails itself.  I got the ebook / screencast bundle for $125, and I’ve definitely thought the screencasts were worth every penny.

There are several angles I could and probably will write about over time.  Definitely there’s a longer post to continue some of my discussion on the disruption of the higher education market.  For $125 (the highest end offering Hartl sells btw, you can go on the cheap and go $26 for just the ebook), I’m getting a practical and detailed course with screencasts, exercises and resources that enable me to get a broad introductory education with pointers to other areas of the web to investigate and deepen my learning.  It may not be the same as doing 4 years at MIT.  But for $125 bucks, it’s hard to argue with.  But this is a topic for when I might have more time, a post for when I’m on an airplane or something.

Today I want to call out how awesome Sublime Text 2 is, exposure to it has been a nice second order consequence of diving into Rails.  I used to be a TextMate man, and I still think that’s a very good editor.  But holy Moses Sublime Text is terrific.  Everything from the color scheme to the auto-complete to the integration of RubyTest makes you so much more dialed in and efficient.  If you’ve not looked at it, do.

The one critique I have of Sublime Text 2 is what a pain in the neck it is to get configured and setup.  Michael Hartl’s useful repo on Github on how to set it up is a great resource, but I definitely ran into trouble with Sublime Text 2.

The first issue was around installing Sublime’s text command line tool ‘subl’ in terminal, where I got a “Permission denied” error.  (I suspect this because I’d installed the Heroku toolbelt prior to setting up this command line tool, so this impacted my PATH file I suspect.)  The two resources that helped me were this Gist file helped me get this figured out, as did this note from StackOverflow.

The other pain in the neck, which I still run into, is the integrated RubyTests will sometimes flake, leading to an error in which the test suite fails to run and you get a “/bin/sh: rspec: command not found” error.   The solution is to fix by setting "check_for_rvm": true in RubyTest.sublime-settings, found thanks to rltrent.

I’d definitely give the community a lot of kudos for the support around propping up Sublime Text 2 with ProTips and support.  Sublime Text’s own support info wasn’t really all that useful, truth be told.  But I guess so long as their product rocks and so long as their community pitches in with support, subl will continue to thrive and grow.

 

 

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University of Ritz Carlton

New York University sophomore Josh Hoffman takes a limousine to class on Sept. 1, a ride courtesy of the moving company that shipped his belongings to college.

New York University sophomore Josh Hoffman takes a limousine to class on Sept. 1, a ride courtesy of the moving company that shipped his belongings to college.

I recently wrote here about thoughts I had on the value of the MBA education, in light of the recent Hack Your Education / Un-College movement forwarded by Dale Stephens.  I have some thoughts about college education.

There’s no question in my mind that college, as defined as a four-year residential institutional experience, is ripe for change and disruption.  Press often talks about the burgeoning student debt load and how this has mushroomed in recent years.  The reason for this is simple–college costs are growing sharply, well above the rate of inflation.  For students pursuing STEM degrees, no worries, the present value of lifetime earnings for those degrees is going to  surpass the costs associated with getting the degree. For degrees less in demand, the payback is more suspect and is indeed questionable.

Posing the question to rising college students and their families of whether one is really getting value for the money spent is a useful one.  So too is the question of whether there are ways to gain substantial value through alternative means–for example, learning how to program a computer.

A question that I think needs asked more, particularly of the four-year residential colleges with ever rising costs, is what can be done to slow or reverse the inexorable rise of a college education.

The thing that sticks out to me is reading about college dorms these days, as they make undergrad seem like living at a Ritz-Carlton.

“When students get to campus, they already have an expectation of having their own room, a bathroom in the room, a whole lot of privacy, and a whole lot of technology and connectivity,” says Ann Bailey, housing director at Mississippi State University. “They want, they expect a hotel, or a condominium, or a resort-type experience.”

Whoa.

This is widespread.  I was chatting recently with a Stanford University alum.  He’d taken a call from his alma mater for a fund-raising campaign seeking money in order to guarantee that ever undergrad could have his or her own private room.  His response: thanks but no thanks, roommates are fine.  When you drive by the University of Washington in Seattle, you can see right next to the stadium a recreational athletic complex that could house an Olympic program.

Much is written about the impact that technology and distance learning is going to have on the undergraduate college experience.  This is certainly true.  And I believe there is healthy discussion to be had around investing wisely in an undergraduate degree, in order that the benefits justify the investment.  http://www.nbcnews.com/id/14836425/#.UTeDcNFASBgBut with these shifts — technological, demographic, etc. — it would seem wise and necessary for universities to start really drilling in on slowing or reversing what is an unsustainable growth in costs.

 

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300px-PPTMooresLawai

Good Things on a Tuesday

3 quick observations this morning from the land of tech, all fueling a sense that a fun and relatively rosy future is ahead in the industry.  All from the tech section of the NYT.

At a basic infrastructure level, it was neat to read about Violin Memory’s launch of its data storage cards being made available for individual computer servers.  If you spend any time in this industry, you know that  the march of Moore’s Law is going to increase the capacity and capabilities of computing technology, you just need to give it time.  But it’s always fun to see a discontinuity in things like storage, at least it is to me. :)  I’m not sure what I’d need to buy an individual server iwth 1.4 terabytes of flash memory, but man, would I like to see it.  What Moore’s Law giveth, we all find ways to taketh away.  It’s a Good Thing to read about Violin Memory’s launch, hope they do well.

Second, it seems the disruption of Old World Media by technology continues, with the NYT report that TV Pilots are turning to Netflix, Amazon, Microsoft’s XBOX division and others, as opposed to TV networks.  For a while now, traditional media of TV, movies, and music have all been victims of tech’s massive disruption.  They’ve had to respond, with anything.  To a drowning man, everything looks like a raft.  And it’s awesome to see these new channels and customers coming online.  Netflix’s House of Cards was terrific content, and while there’s always a lot of dreck on the tube, you can find a lot of gems–Justified, Breaking Bad, The Wire, etc., etc.  More distribution channels over the web for better content–nom nom nom.

Third, fun to see a headline calling out the “Cult of Evernote.”  I’m a total Evernote Fanboy.  Not necessarily a cult member, I don’t think, as I’ve not yet found a way to use anything in the Evernote “Trunk,” but I’ve got to hand it to them.  An absolutely fantastic product that’s never let me down, Evernote has built a great franchise.  Let’s hope the recent security scare from the weekend is handled well (so far, so good), as a breach of Evernote would be absolutely disastrous to me, and I assume others.

All in all, 3 Good Things on a Tuesday morning, a nice way to start the day.

 

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Mobile : Big Wheels Keep Turning

It seemed just a few months ago that many in the Valley were griping that the mobile app ecosystem was dying.  Looks like that might have been overblown.  Today’s WSJ online has right at the tippy-top two interesting articles on the continuing growth of mobile generally, and mobile apps in particular.  There was a lot to digest.

First, revenue from mobile apps continues to surge–according to Gartner, app store revenue is expected “to rise 62% this year to $25 billion.”  At the same time, the battle to attract and retain new users is definitely getting more challenging, with the WSJ citing “double digit year-over-year” growth in the cost of acquiring users through advertising.  Big growing market, and an increasingly maturing and sophisticated ecosystem of marketing and promotion services gaining hold.

My view: this market is nowhere near saturated and new entrants have opportunities.  The data support this, as only 63% of apps used daily now differ from those used a year ago.  Beyond this quantitative signal, the WSJ provided I thought an interesting qualitative look-see at what a dozen or so business leaders, athletes and entertainers saw as their key go-to apps.  What struck me here is how relatively homogenized the choices were: a few users of Notes (the iPhone bundled note-taking app), Evernote, Uber, a few different news readers.  (Interestingly, Angry Birds was cited by several as being so addictive that these users had to delete the app from their phones.)  This to me speaks to the increasing opportunity for developers to continue to build and deliver valuable services via mobile smartphones and tablets.  Of course, with 700,000+ apps on the Apple and Google stores, discovery will remain a challenge.  But given the continuing growth and the fact that so many daily use apps weren’t used a year ago, the opportunity environment has upside.  Big risk, big potential reward.

The second theme in these articles in the WS was what it called the “evolving economics” of apps. The basic thrust was that app developers are experimenting with different price points and monetization schemes across different app ecosystems, Android, IOS, Windows Phone, etc.  This trend is one I absolutely see.  It’s also one that I think has a lot of room left to run.  The WSJ discussed mainly purchasing price points from an app store.  That’s kind of basic, obvious.  What’s coming is, I think, price testing and discrimination based on different usage in the app.  Power packs, premium features, etc, will get tested and offered at different price points for different user types.  Also, expect new developer infrastructure, offering real-time testing and debugging, A/B routing and others to evolve to improve the flexibility in offerings that developers have on this front.  Early stage startups like Appurify and Leanplum are examples to watch in this space.  Others in the continuing integration (CI) and the platform as a service (PAAS) will help here too.

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The MBA: To Skip or Not to Skip?

Average MBA Salary Progression from 1998

Average MBA Salary Progression from 1998 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I read in today’s WSJ, Dale Stephen’s article, “A Smart Investor Would Skip the MBA.”  For the most part, I think Stephens makes a strong case.  The value proposition of the MBA, as with other professional non-science degrees (e.g., law), is coming under increasing pressure.  While I agree with the general thrust of Stephen’s argument, there are some places I would disagree.  Here’s my take.

The MBA is a two-year investment of both time and significant money.  What I think most MBA grads who have found this investment a positive, valuable return describe 3 core elements as to what they received.  First, they built a network of classmates who were smart, ambitious, diligent, etc.  Second, they get a good job coming out of B-school.  And third, they got some academic knowledge–some accounting, finance, stats, marketing–though most MBAs I talk to don’t really cite this knowledge acquisition as detailed or really as valuable as the network and the job.

I do think the element of the network is a relatively strong value proposition for many who attend b-school.  More mature than high school students, more single-minded on a business career than undergrads, B-school students tend to bond pretty cohesively.  Mutual professional interests keeps  these network bonds relatively tight.

The job out of B-school is also an important element of value, though to me, the marker is how does the B-school grad do over the first 5-10 years of her career, as that’s where earning power leverage is really going to get established.   The academic knowledge gained, while useful, is I think increasingly exposed as differentiated–you can teach yourself accounting, finance or stats a variety of ways, for vastly cheaper.

So if that’s the core value of the business school education, is it worth the cost?  Though Stephens says no and encourages us to go to Developer Boot Camp (a great idea), I think the answer is more nuanced…  It depends, really on just a few key factors.

One, is the school one of the top 5 or 6 schools: Wharton, Harvard, Stanford, Kellogg, Chicago, Tuck?  Those schools have the most accomplished alumni networks and attract the strongest candidates.  When you assess the long-term earning power of alums from these programs (on a NPV basis), the costly investment still adds up.  The flip side to this is that once you’re out of these top 5 or 6 programs, the ROI on the investment starts dropping fast.

Two, do you have a specific idea of what you want to get an MBA degree for?  If you want to be an entrepreneur or a film producer, then even a top business school may not really provide a competitive investment.  If, on the other hand, you got a CPA in undergrad, and you now want to leverage deeper grad level finance and accounting to extend or expand your career platform, then you are likely going to make the MBA cost / benefit  pencil out.  If you know what you want to do after you get the MBA, then really dive deep into what the MBA offers from a benefit standpoint, before sinking the cost in.

Finally, if you only have a general view of what you want the MBA for, then two thoughts.  First, stick to point one above–only go if you can gain access to a top 6 school.  Second, while you can explore a little bit during B-School what you want to do when you grow up, work to figure out a plan and a path.  This will help you drill in on building the strongest and broadest network possible, it will help you figure out which job would give you the best start post MBA, and it will help you get the most from the investment costs.

 

 

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