Building Startup Stories and Crossing the Freaky Line
Robert Scoble, Tech Blogger at Rackspace
Tech evangelist and blogger Robert Scoble, of Rackspace and Scobleizer, rocked his soapbox last week. Not only was Robert entertaining, dropping a few F-bombs, he shared his insights from years of studying startups and how they build their products, their companies and their stories.
Robert also couldn’t stop taking about an app he discovered at South by Southwest that crosses what he called the Freaky Line. That’s because it lets you learn a lot about other people around you that are also on the app, whether you know them or not. But it wasn’t just the Freaky Line that caught Robert’s eye, it was how the app was a good example of how small philosophical differences can make or break a startup.
Besides talking about the app, Robert told us how the Silicon Valley network can help spread the story about your startup or product more than a tech blog. Feel free to listen to the podcast below as you read through some of the takeaways from the event.
The Freaky Line
The Freaky Line, as Robert called it, is when something, like an app, makes you go, “man, that’s freaky.” And Highlight goes beyond the Freaky Line. Or as Robert put it:
Highlight is like f--k the Freaky Line.
Locator apps that provide users with information on other users all know that they are way over the Freaky Line. But Highlight pushes the envelop even further. It’s connected to your Facebook, connects you with people based on your similar likes and occupations. It’s so far over the Freaky Line, Robert said.
That’s not the only way Highlight stands out from its competitors. Unlike other locator apps, Highlight only shows you people within 100 yards while others show people within 10 miles. That’s “the chicken and the egg” problem, said Robert. If no one is on the app, it’s boring. However, that small philosophical difference that could make all the difference in the world.
Robert said locator-app rivals Gowalla and Foursquare are a perfect example of how small philosophical differences can make or break a startup. For Gowalla, said Robert, it was all about the game play. It wouldn’t let you check in exactly where you were because it was so tied into GPS, which isn’t always reliable. But Foursquare let you check in where ever you wanted no matter what GPS said and didn’t care as much about the game play.
In the end, that small philosophical difference is what doomed Gowalla, said Robert.
The Silicon Valley Network
Highlight caught Robert’s eye at SXSW after going to its launch party. However, Robert doesn’t have a magic formula for what gets his attention. When it comes to startups building their stories and catching the eye of a reporter or blogger, it’s not just in the hands of one person. It’s a whole flood of things that builds that story.
Some of it is luck, like winning a lottery. But you have to be keyed into the startup network. It’s like being a musician trying to catch the eye of a hot music producer, he said.
If you’re Adele in a bar, somebody is talking about that. And he’s going to hear about that because his network is so good. And that’s what Silicon Valley is. If you’re Adele, if you have something that’s brilliant, that’s cool, that’s like Highlight ... that’s going to a party ... other people are going to talk about it. And it’s going to show up.
That’s why you go to parties, demos, VC pitches and buy the biggest booth at SXSW, he said.
If you’re two guys at a table, you don’t want people to know you are two guys at a table. You want to appear like you have your s--t together.
Building a Parachute as You Fall
A startup has to build its story and it’s not going to do that by going to Techcrunch or some other tech blog. And that takes time, like it did for Airbnb, which took 1,000 days to finally get going. Imagine if they gave up on 999 days?
Entrepreneurs have to be crazy. Can you imagine? It’s like walking through the desert for 999 days.
You have to a wild-eyed commitment, like Robert's friend who has been plugging away at the same concept for 10 years despite people telling him to give it up.
It’s like jumping off a cliff and building a parachute on the way down and assuming that you’re going to figure it out while you’re falling.
And that’s why Robert is really keyed into those who are building companies, not just cool technologies.
When someone says they’re building a company, they’re usually unique. There’s something different about them. And they have an approach like I’m building something of value that should last something deeper than just a cool technology that’s going to get bought by Google and flipped.
Our chat with Robert continued as he talked about the doubling effect of companies and why he watches them closely. He also told the story of how when he told 15 people in a room that he was leaving Microsoft. The story spread like wildfire on the Web, all before he told his boss. 15 people quickly turned to 15 million. We’d like to thank Robert for dropping by ZURB HQ and giving us his insights on the importance of building company stories.
Ryan: Super excited today to introduce Robert Scoble, Scobleizer Rackspace. We're all familiar with him. You know he worked for Microsoft. He's been in this industry for quite some time reporting on all the good stuff in Silicon Valley. When he left Microsoft he told 15 people in a room and that suddenly blossomed into 15 million in 3 days. I want him to tell that story. I don't want to tell it. I want him to tell that story. So let's give a warm welcome to Robert Scoble.
Robert: All right. So I told 15 people at this conference and I said don't tell anybody until Monday because I haven't even told my boss yet. And somebody who I didn't even know at the time Andy Plesser was the one who leaked it and the story just started doubling. This was in the early days of Twitter, actually was Twitter even around? It might have just been blogged. This was 2006, so it was early days of Twitter. And the story just kept doubling every few minutes and somebody called me at dinner and said hey, it's out. And then I just started doing searches and then oh, shit. It is out and it's going. So I knew it was going viral and I called my boss right there on Saturday night and said hey, I quit, before you read it on Techmeme. Waggener Edstrom said that it hit 15 million media impressions within three days. It was in the Wall Street Journal and The Economist and everything else. But it just all spread by word of mouth. That's a good example of how fast stuff can happen if you have something that people want to pass along.
Ryan: Right. Right. In kind of thinking about that, what was your boss's reaction?
Robert: Well, he knew it was coming because we had been having these discussions. I mean my boss back then was Vic Gundotra who now is at Google. And when I told him I'm thinking of quitting he said oh, I have a $5 million check from Google in my pocket. And I go, you dog! So you know that was his signing bonus to move over to Google and now he runs Google Quest and stuff like that. So I don't know what we want to talk about today.
Ryan: Well I do have a few questions.
Robert: Well, hold on to the questions. Let me see if I can go down a path and see because there were a few things I wanted to talk about. Last night I had dinner with Sergey Brin and he had these new glasses on and that's fucking with my head about what the future's going to be. How many people are on Highlight for instance? A couple. Yeah. Three people. So Highlight and these Google glasses and there's an Israeli company called Face.com. So I study startups. I go around the world and interview startups and innovators and I study them publicly with my video camera so you know what they're doing. But behind the scenes I'm studying company builders. The people who really interested me are people who are building not just cool technology because the cool technology's fun. I grew up here in Silicon Valley and I always liked technology. But I'm really keying in on the guys who are building companies at this point.
There's something that separates them. When somebody says I'm building a company, they're usually unique. There's something different about them. They have an approach like I'm building something of value that should last or have something deeper than just the cool technology that's going to be get bought by Google and flipped. And so a couple of nights ago I was hanging out with some of the famous VCs and they were talking about IPO's and they were talking about that too. Going IPO means you've built something of value and you're planning on building something of even greater value and you need the capital and you need to have that transparency to build a company and Rackspace has been through that recently. And now we're seeing lots of examples of that.
So this Highlight thing is really interesting. For people who don't know, Highlight shows me other people who are on Highlight within 100 yards of us. So like David Hassle, is David here? Brenton Gieser? Right here. And Forrest. There's several people on here. Now it has five or six competitors. And this is where I wanted to set it up and then we can get into questions.
Robert: But I noticed when there's a competitive space like this that it's small philosophies that separate ... you know when Gowalla and Foursquare were going at it. It was a very small philosophy that doomed Gowalla. And there's a lot of designers here. I loved the design of Gowalla. They had better icons. They had better user interface. But they made a philosophical choice that doomed them. And it was a very subtle one. Anybody have any idea of what doomed Gowalla?
Audience Member: I think it was an over complicated game dynamics
Robert: The game dynamics is really close. She said overly complicated game dynamics. Gowalla thought that the game was sacrosanct. That the game was what people were going to use these apps for. And I couldn't check in ... so I went to Bi- Rite Ice Cream in San Francisco, really small place. It's 30 by 30 right? It's a small little store. And I couldn't check in there? And why couldn't I check in there? Because they had a philosophy that the game mattered more than anything else and they wanted you to be where you said you were going to be. Well the problem is GPS isn't all that accurate. So it said Bi-Rite is 30 yards down the street and it wouldn't let me check in the restaurant, or in the ice cream store.
And Foursquare if you talk to Dennis he goes, the game ain't what Foursquare's about. Foursquare's about improving cities and giving you data about where you are, right? And he let you check in anywhere. In fact in the early days it was so loose you could check in in Africa while sitting here in Campbell because he's like I don't care if you cheat in the game. I'm going to let you check in and get value out of that check in, whatever it is. And that little philosophy just took the two companies into separate areas. So right now, I'm studying Highlight and Glancee and Banjo and Sonar and Kismet. There's about six or seven of these companies that are trying to figure out this new space of serendipitous people discovery and thing discovery around you. And there's some real subtle differences. And if you talk to Paul Davidson who wrote Highlight, he has a slightly different philosophy than Andrea, who's the guy behind Glancee. And here's a couple of examples. All these guys know that these apps are way over the freaky line, right?
Ryan: Wait, what's the freaky line?
Robert: Well most people when they . . .
Ryan: So we all know where the freaky line is.
Robert: Most people . . . if you go to my dad and you go hey, this app will show you to other people. It's like that's freaky. Right? And there is not privacy on this thing. When Jack walks by my door at Rackspace I see it. And I start chatting with him. Hey Jack what's up? You're in my neighborhood now. The people who are on this thing's crazy. And so normal people when they hear about this idea and even ideas like Foursquare and stuff, they freak out. I mean we saw this in the press where there was an app called Find Girls Near You, something like that, which is just using Foursquare public data to show who the girls are in your city who are checking in around you. So Foursquare shut it down because there was this PR backlash because everybody in this industry is sensitive that there's a freaky line and most of these apps are over the freaky line.
So Highlight is like fuck the freaky line. And here's an example. They put a map on everybody, right? So in other words, I know this app is so far over the freaky line let's just push it all the way. And you opted in. First of all you have to hook up your Facebook just to get on the app so that's over the freaky line. A lot of people are pissed off about that. You have to be on an iPhone and that pisses off all the Android people. It'll be on Android within three months anyways because it's just so obvious. But he puts maps on every check in. The Glancee guy is like I want to make it so that normal people feel not freaked out about this where Highlight guy's like I know everybody's going to be freaked out about this app so I'm just going to take you as far as I can over that line. And it's a better user experience. Being able to look back through your feed and see where we crossed paths is really cool, if you get over that freaky line.
I think this is part of entrepreneurship is getting people to do something that they didn't know they wanted to do. Talking to Woz who started Apple, he said I kept asking Atari and HP to build my computer. I didn't want to leave HP. He's very consistent about that. He goes I just wanted to be an engineer and work at HP. It was a great company. I never wanted to leave there. And nobody would believe in him. Nobody thought that the personal computer was going to be a trillion dollar industry and that everybody was ... because back then that was the freaky line. I was like there's 200 freaks in Stanford meeting every month at that Home Brew Computer Society and the rest of us are like what? We don't get that. And now Highlight is that new thing that is pushing it.
So some other things. He only shows you people within 100 yards. Banjo and Sonar and Glancee show you up to 10 miles away because they know that there's a chicken and egg problem here. If there's nobody on the system, it's boring. If there's people on the system, it's really cool. Like right here there's five people and next year there will be 100 people on an app like this. It gets more and more utility as more and more people join it. But Glancee made a choice, we're going to show you more people because we want you to have some utility. If you come to Half Moon Bay by the way, there's three people on Highlight in the entire city. So there's not much utility in a normal place, right? You go to Kansas, there ain't nobody on Highlight. That's changing because I actually had a friend who went to Indonesia and he said man there was people on Highlight and it's like that blew me away. He said now I know that this thing's going to go but it's slow. Doubling effects take a long time to kick in.
Ryan: Is there something that started out slowly like that that's ubiquitous that we use today as an example?
Robert: Well, Twitter was a great example. I remember Twitter took six months to get to 13,000 users. In today's world if you don't hit 13,000 users in the first day you're done.
Ryan: It's that fast nowadays right?
Robert: I mean there's companies that hit a million users in the first week. You know it's just crazy how fast and how that changes our expectations. I was talking to Alexia at TechCrunch. She goes if you pitch me an adoption and you try to brag that you have 30,000 users, I laugh at you because an ... an adoption story. And this gets into storytelling to press people. You have to understand where the bar is and the bar keeps going up and up and up. If you can say I have a million users in the first week, they'll listen to you but in 2006 it took Twitter six months to get to 13,000 people because I joined it in late October and it came out in March and I was the 13,500th user. So that was another example of how these things slowly build and double.
When Nokia would come, and Raymond's doing this to me right now, saying well we have 100 million users. I go it doesn't matter. If that mattered we'd all be using Nokia phones. Market share does not matter in this world. It's doubling effects. Are you doubling faster than your competitor? And if you are doubling slower they're going to catch you eventually and they're going to pass you by. That's why we all knew MySpace was doomed long before Facebook even got close to passing them because we could see the doubling effect. We saw that the numbers were doubling at n rate and MySpace was flat. And we said that dooms MySpace until they change that. Why are we writing Yahoo off? Because they haven't changed the doubling effect. And we know everybody else is doing this. So I don't know where that's going.
Ryan: I want to ask a follow up question but I want to segue into some other stuff. How do a lot of these apps and startups, how do they get to that doubling effect?
Robert: That's a tough question. If I knew how to do that, I would start a company. And a lot of people confuse the two. A visionary is somebody who creates doubling pennies. I'm just a guy who counts that penny is doubling and I want to notice that something is doubling by the fifth day. If I can do that I'd beat almost everybody. Now with Highlight I was very lucky. I was at the first party where he launched the product. The first party. And I saw that my reality coefficient of this thing was three. He told one percent one side and he just let it go and each person told three other people about the app. And I was watching this. People were going you've got to get on this app it's so cool. Look at what it does. This was like when there was 30 people on his app. There was nobody on it. And it caused that kind of virality coefficient and so I took a picture of him, because he asked me to keep it quiet and I said watch this guy. This guy's on fire. And sure enough at South By it accelerated three. I collected 600 people at South By who were incredible people. I had breakfast with the head of Al Jazeera because of Highlight. Just crazy people on Highlight. And so that's what I do. I just sit back and watch the doubling effect. And sometimes I'm late. Sometimes I get fooled by my own biases. Like I knew Pinterest was doubling but it was all women so I just said damn, I'll let somebody else cover that one. I'll let the mommy bloggers get on that site.
Ryan: That kind of gets me to some of the questions that I want to ask. You know we wrote a guest post for Mashable entitled "How Startups Can Build Lasting Relationships with Journalists" where we talk about dating a reporter before pitching an idea. What is it that captures your eye? What do you look for when a startup pitches to you and what are some of the mistakes startups make when pitching their ideas?
Robert: You know I wish I knew. I put up a video today with an app called Karma and when I saw the email I was like, that's the lamest thing I've ever heard of. Why do I need a mobile app to help buy gifts for people? But you know they were funded by Kleiner Perkins. So part of this is building a story and it's not just one person that's going to build that story. It's going to be a whole flood of things that builds that story. Sometimes I get lucky, like with Highlight. That happens very rarely when I just see something in the wild and it's doubling and I'm the first one to see that. Most of the time there's all sorts of social proofs. This is why VC's say I only want to hear about things from my friends.
In fact to take it out of the tech industry, I spent some time last summer with Steve Greenburg who is a music producer and discovered Jonas Brothers and was the dog on Who Let the Dog Out. He's the woof sound on the ... and I asked him do you ever find a band just by going into a bar and seeing somebody totally undiscovered and just randomly finding something. Or do you ever get sent a CD out of the blue and it's great? And he said no, in my entire career that's never happened. He said that at one point in his career he was trying to encourage people to just randomly send him stuff. It never was good talent that came through that way. He said if you're Adele and you're in a bar, somebody is talking about that and he's going to hear about that within a day because his network is so good.
And that's what Silicon Valley is. If you're Adele, if you have something that's brilliant, that's cool, that's like that highlight that's going through a party, other people are going to talk about it and it's going to show up. That's why I watched so many people on Twitter and talks like this because it's the network that's so strong. And that's a hard thing to fight. So don't fight it. Use the network. This is why you go to parties. This is why you go to demos, why you buy conference tables, why you do so many VC pitches, because you're feeding that network a story and you're building a story. You're not just going to have one thing. You're not just going to get on TechCrunch and all of a sudden have a great company.
You have to take a . . . the companies that I really like, like Flip Board or Instagram, they build stories. Or eBay. eBay made up a myth about how it was formed. The myth was it was for selling Pez dispensers, that's what the CEO was pushing as his story and it wasn't true. But it made a good story and he was building a company and he was trying to build a marketplace and he had to have a way that everybody understood what it did. Airbnb is another example. It took a thousand days before that business started working and imagine if they had given up on the 999th day. This is what I use. Entrepreneurs have to be crazy. I mean can you imagine.
It's like walking through the desert for 999 days and eating cereal that you did as a marketing campaign and living poor and living in a one-bedroom apartment and working it. And you just keep trying, keep trying it. And they joined [Con Air] and Paul Graham said get the fuck out the valley. Go meet some real customers and that's what they did. And then they started tweaking the engine and the engine started working. But it took that thousand days of doing that to get there. And if you don't have that kind of passion, don't start a company because you're going to quit on 990 days and you're going to miss the good stuff. You've got to be crazy and committed to this thing so you're just going to do it.
I mean I have a friend who runs Active Words and it's not kicking over and he's been doing it for ten years and he's still that committed. And it's like dude, give it up. And he's not giving it up. It's like you're an entrepreneur and nobody hears about you because you haven't been the success, but that's what it takes. Maybe next year he gets a contract from Microsoft and everybody understands what he was doing. But it takes that kind of wild-eyed commitment. And that's why I've never started a company because I've never said .... I can't do that right? I've got a family.
Ryan: Are you saying you're not that crazy?
Robert: I've got a family and a mortgage and I keep looking at that cliff. And starting a company is like jumping off a cliff and then building a parachute on the way down and just assuming you're going to figure it all out while you're falling and it's like no, that's not me. And I love people like that because they're fun to watch but . . .
Ryan: Well you're in a room full of them right now.
Robert: I love it. I love it. This is my career. I saw Mark Pincus last night too and he tells a story that he got fired from every cool company in the world. He couldn't do it, so he had to do it. He had to make his own company work otherwise he would get fired. And he probably will get fired from that one too eventually.
Ryan: That brings us to another point is that these companies that are building these stories, they're trying to get people's attention, what is it that you look for when you get an email from a marketer or a PR spokesman. How do you filter that? How do you choose what to . . . what catches your eye?
Robert: I don't know. I try to take random pitches. The Karma one sounds interesting. I forget how it was pitched to me. But FlipBoard was pitched to me. I put it on my out of office message even. It's just. We stayed in line with you at the iPad launch and we know you care about the iPad and we have something that we think you should see that would be cool for the iPad. That was the pitch. I was like well I can't really turn that down. I had no idea who they were. I interviewed [Mike McHugh] and I had no idea that he had started an $800 million dollar company and sold it to Microsoft. I had no idea. Sometimes I take things just randomly. So some of it's just winning a lottery. This is why you have to be so committed because you're going to hear no so many times. Or you're not going to get an answer from somebody. Just keep pushing the story until people start listening. And make your own story. If nobody will listen, who cares, it's customers that matter anyways. It's not us.
There's plenty of examples of successful companies that have never had press. Groupon said they didn't want to be in the Silicon Valley press because they didn't want to be copied by Silicon Valley. Maybe that was a little mythology. Maybe the reality was that he couldn't actually get listened to by any of the press so now you turn it around to a positive. But he's in Chicago and he's not part of the network here. But that's the way to do it. If I was starting a company I would be doing a blog, I would do my own videos, I would be out talking to customers trying to push the story along and push the business along until it starts taking off. Usually if you do that and if you have a product that people are willing to tell other people about, the doubling effect eventually kicks in and then TechCrunch starts paying attention to you. We're all good at counting the doubling effect at some level.
I mean why did Skrillex and the music take off? Why did I discover Skrillex before a lot of my friends? Because I went to the Austin City Limits music festival. You have six bands out on the field all at one time and I was there for two days and Skrillex was the only one that had 10,000 people jumping up and down. And if you do that with your product, it doesn't matter. The press will pay attention to you. The VCs will start paying attention to you because we're all good at sitting on the field and seeing which company has 10,000 people jumping up and down going yeah this is cool. So the new world starts with 15 people. This is where my Microsoft story is, if you can get 15 people crazy about your product, you can take off overnight because people will keep passing it along and go hey check this out. This is cool. You got to have this on your phone. And eventually the world pays attention to that. That's where it's all about. It's hard to find that. It's hard to get to that point where you can get even 15 people to be crazy about your product and go man this thing is rocking.
Ryan: Speaking about building these companies their stories, you've spoken many times on the power of companies to personalize their stories. You took a video camera turned it on Microsoft employees humanizing what had been seen as an evil monopoly. How do companies use these platforms like logging and such to actually communicate and personalize their own stories?
Robert: Big companies have a marketing challenge and that is to appear small. And that's what I tapped into there. By using a $200 camera and blogs and non-PR controlled conversations. I was one of the five guys who started Channel 9 at Microsoft and we broke all sorts of rules. We didn't have a Microsoft logo on the home page. That right there is a fireable offense. We didn't use the Microsoft color scheme. We used orange instead of white and made it look different. We put customers right on the home page and we let customers write whatever they wanted to. They could say Microsoft sucks, Linux rocks, right on the home page. That was not done. And my part of it was taking around a $200 video camera and interview people with a shaky blurry video camera and most corporate PR machinery would never let that happen because it doesn't represent the company as a slick big company with really nicely produced video. Microsoft had a $10 million studio for video. That's what the expertise was and still is at most big companies. You go into the studio and you have your messaging and you get in front of the lights and we'll edit it and make sure it looks perfect and everything. But it's cold.
Ryan: It's boring
Robert: It's boring. And the world had shifted to this You Tube thing where anybody could put up a little blurry video but if the content was interesting, and I knew it was interesting to me because I had lunch with people who were showing me mind blowing things. The guy who started what now is Silverlight was showing me the prototype and it's like why can't I put this lunch conversation out on the web. This is cool. And I know other people like me are going to find it cool and now it's more accepted that companies will do that but back then it was pretty mind blowing. So anyways, big companies have to appear small. Small companies have to appear big. If you're two guys at a table like Highlight is right now, you don't want people to know you're two guys at a table. You want to appear like we have our shit together and we have all the marketing and we're happening because that's how you recruit people. People don't want to work for guys that don't have their shit together. They want to work for something that's happening and has momentum and everybody's talking about and appears really big. And it's hard to make that happen when you're a small company. That's why you hire ZURB, right to do your design?
Ryan: Exactly. That's why you hire ZURB. Talk to us afterward.
Robert: Why do you do that right? To have great design so that your design is better than the competition. Why do you hire a great PR person? Because they'll get you into the right conversations to cause your company to appear big. Why do you go to South by Southwest and buy a huge booth and hire people to man that booth? To appear big. Because if you have biggest booth at South by Southwest, even if you're just two guys at Dogpatch Labs, the world thinks your big and therefore they take you seriously and think oh that company is the company that's hot.
Ryan: Well we've got about ten minutes left. I want to open it up to audience questions. So who wants to go first?
Audience Member: The question was, if you were doing business exposure, consumer exposure, how would you go about doing PR for it?
Robert: Well, you talk to David Sacks at Yammer and he says I'm just going to change the way that the business happens. I'm going to go in the back door. Because he knew he couldn't talk every CTO in the world to adopt Twitter for the enterprise which is what Yammer is. So he said well, I'm not going to have very much success at going in the front door and going to the CEO or the CTO or the CIO and saying you should adopt this new social thing that looks like Twitter and all your employees are going to be more collaborative. What the fuck are you talking about? Get out of my office. Things don't happen that way right? But you talk to the employee on the line, hey you're already on Twitter, try this Yammer thing out at work and get your three friends on to it and wow at Rackspace it went from three people to more than 1000 of our employees in a couple of weeks because he built a viral distribution system which was basically word of mouth again. This word of mouth thing.
That's one thing is change the rules. Don't assume that you have to do business as a B to B. Now if I was Boeing selling planes they have a blog, they have video, they invite bloggers up to Boeing to see the new planes. Why do they do that? There's only 15 people in the world that buy these planes, right? Because they have the same thing that anybody has which is get the message out that these planes are the cool ones. That the customers want Wi-Fi on the plane so that they get another $1 million out of a plane or whatever. And that they want the more comfortable seats so they buy the 787 instead of going to Airbus and buying a piece of shit from France.
Business is people and whether it's Red Bull or Boeing planes or some plumbing supply company, I look at it the same way. We're now changing how we find businesses to deal with. We're walking around with these phones so what does that mean for business? I'm going to search for plumbing supply here if I'm a plumber and if you're not appearing here and why don't you appear here? Because you're hoarding information? Did you put up a video that gets into Google Search? Did you get all your plumber friends on Facebook to like your page so that you start showing up on searches when people start doing plumbing? Because Facebook's becoming how we satisfy intent on a lot of things. Are you thinking about LinkedIn and how people are going to find your business, because that's where I get a lot of business questions about Rackspace? Are you building a network there of other plumbers? Are you sharing information with them? Are you building a club there? A group? Are you getting people over to talk about plumbing? Are you doing meetings? Why didn't ZURB do this? Because you guys are on top of the world. You understand that you get people to talk about you and into the network. Now when somebody needs a design consultancy they ask the network well who's the coolest design consultancy? Well I don't know if ZURB is really the good one, but they keep having these cool lunch meetings.
Ryan: Well we are the good one.
Robert: But on Facebook somebody asked me, I don't know. I really don't know if your work is good. But they have these cool lunch meetings that are packed and people are sitting on the floor. And there's something going on there so you should at least consider them, right?
Audience Member: I will say by the way their work is very good.
Robert: I figure it is.
Audience Member: I'm not a customer; I've seen work they've done. So question I'll put basically both ways. You're exposed to tons of applications. I mean every week you're using new stuff or trying new stuff. What tools do you wish you had that you don't have right now, number one.
Robert: Never ask a customer what they want. Never. Did you not learn anything from Steve Jobs?
Audience Member: And number two, you see a lot of company [inaudible 34:50] , with their various reality distortion fields and their craziness and what do you think they could most use that they don't have right now?
Robert: I keep asking that question of VCs and people in the press and a very consistent answer is understanding customers, getting closer to customers. Paul Graham did this with the Airbnb guys. Go and meet the customers, go and talk with them, go study them. I think that's what Steve Jobs really did was that he understood how people reacted to things and he had an innate sense about that. But he never listened to a customer when they'd say I want a feature or I want this. Henry Ford would say if I asked everybody what they wanted they would say a better horse and carriage, a better horse and a better carriage. So you need to understand what people really want, which is better transportation and then design that.
The reason I have spent eight hours with the guy that's going Highlight is he's seen something. And he's studying the problem in a deep way and by talking to people he's understanding a new world. Why is Sergei wearing those glasses? And why did he put the video out so that everybody would know what those glasses do? Because he wants to have conversations with people about what these could do and then he'll build something for the future. But if you ask me what feature do I need in these new glasses? I could give you some vague answers but they would probably be bullshit.
Audience Member: [inaudible 36:37] tools to do your job better?
Robert: Yeah, find me some way to not answer email. This is problem right? Any way you deal with that and take me out of the equation is never going to work because I'm the one that has the pattern and I have this innate sense of what I want to do tomorrow and if you take that control away from me I'll hate it. So people will never tell you what they really want. You sort of have to sit with me for a couple of days and watch what I do and then see oh can we build systems that will augment what you do. And that's the hard part about building anything. Did Woz or Jobs really know what people wanted in a personal computer?
No they sort of built it for themselves at first and then it got into 200 other people's hands and they used it and they gave feedback, hey this isn't working right or why don't you have a better monitor on this thing or why don't you have a better case or my mom thinks it looks ugly. That kind of feedback and then the next version they would fix that. And then it grew to 1000 users and the 100,000 users and million users. It was that early work that I don't know that they ever went up to someone and said what do you want in a personal computer? Nobody knew. What do we want in Google glasses? I really don't know. I can dream about some things and most of those dreams are informed by what's happening in the world.
Like there's an Israeli company called Face.com where you can aim your iPhone and it shows me your name and your Facebook page on my iPhone and it will do face protection. So my dream is being influenced by things I've already seen. So yeah, I want that face detection in these glasses. Highlight and Glancee have informed . . . I want to know things about people who are nearby me. And so I want to look at you with this face detection and know things about you and be able to have a conversation. Here's a good example. I was at Davos and I was talking to this guy and he had a badge on that said Peter [Piett], Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. That's all I knew about it. And I knew after talking with him for a minute that he had a very high IQ because you can tell when people are lit up upstairs. You can tell that. You could tell that this guy's a really extraordinary human being.
And that's the social proof of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates doesn't hire idiots. He's on top of the world. He has enough money to hire whoever he wants so he's hiring good people. So it all was messing with my head but I couldn't figure out by talking with this guy for a minute who the fuck he was. Sure enough I get away from him and I Googled him and he discovered the Ebola virus. Now if I had known that while talking to him our conversation would have been dramatically different and I would have a much better story to tell you. But that's what I want in these glasses. To be able to instantly tell who you are so that we don't have to go back and forth for 20 minutes trying to figure out what makes you cool?
Ryan: We have time for one more question. I'll let Robert pick the person.
Robert: I saw him.
Audience Member: The question is if you were to encounter someone at an event, how do you discover things about them even though you're kind of directed by the setting or the situation you're in to kind of have this particular conversation?
Robert: It was like one of my job interviews at NAC. They had all my blogs printed out and highlighted and that was the most interesting interview I'd ever had because we got right to the meat. We didn't waste time doing chit chat trying to figure out who you are and what you stood for and what you cared about and what talents you have. They already knew that. And now we got right to the meat of what you were going to do. And if I was out to dinner with you I'd love to just go right to the meat of the conversation rather than have to figure out so what do you do? Who do you know? Fuck all that. Give me that. That's on Google and Facebook. Now we can have a really interesting conversation about what you are passionate about or what I'm passionate about and we'll have a much better conversation. Plus I'll know what kind of wine to bring if you like wine, if you're in Alcoholics Anonymous maybe I won't bring wine. And it's better to know that up front so I can make the experience really magical for you.
This is why Zuckerberg is doing so well. He's building a new media company where the media comes to you and he's freaking everybody out because they don't understand what he's doing. But what he's doing is he's building a company where he's bringing you media because he knows who you are. And the freak out is he's forcing you or asking you to give information about your sexual persuasion, your relationships, your politics, your religion, your sports teams. The more he knows about you the better he is at bringing media to you. The better Highlight is at getting over that freaky line the more utility it will have. And so that's why it's interesting that these guys are pushing the freaky line so far because they understand there's utility if they get the users to go there.
And when you talk to Paul at Highlight, he knows this. He goes man, I have so much data on you that if I misuse it in any way, my company will disappear overnight. This thing is studying me and my ant trails through life. It's reporting right now where I am to a server and storing that data. He has all the data from when I first logged on to the system and I can scroll through it and look at it. I know everybody I have come into contact with on this thing and this is just the beginning because he knows where I sleep, where I work; he knows my favorite design consultancy already, right?
Ryan: Right. ZURB!
Robert: He knows if I go to church. He knows what gas station I stop at every three weeks with my Prius, right? Now he doesn't really know anything about that because he doesn't have an overlay of the place, he doesn't know about places yet. But his databases have that information that I stopped at this gas station for 15 minutes at this location and soon he's going to be able to place that together. Now this stuff is way over the freaky line and his job is to bring us utility without freaking us out because the minute we get freaked out we delete this app and his company is gone.
Ryan: Well on that note, I know Robert you've got to hop on a call here.
Ryan: It's one on the dot. So I want to get everyone to just give a round of applause to Robert. I enjoyed it. I had so much. It was so cool.
Robert: Thank you. Thanks.