Baeza and Ubeda or why I build global start ups out of Spain
Published by MartinVarsavsky.net in Spain with No Comments
We just spent a long weekend in Baeza and Ubeda in Andalusia.
I moved to Spain in 1995 and I thought that by now I knew this country very well. But then there is always something new to see. In this case these two beautiful towns in Northern Andalusia. Other than my family and friends here, what I love about my life in Spain is that I get to build global start ups, out of Spain. That I get to build Fon in Spain. That when I leave work, I am in Spain. I am not saying that California is not attractive, and it also has great weather. But to me, there’s something missing in California, or New York, or Florida. I love visiting USA but after spending 18 years of my life there I still feel better in Spain. And I feel better in Spain than in UK or Germany. Italy and France could be a contenders as they are beautiful countries as well. But the environment for start ups in those two countries is horrendous.
In any case here are two minor, further proofs as to why Spain is better.
What Larry Page should do as the new CEO of Google
Published by MartinVarsavsky.net in Fon with No Comments
After four years of working with Google as CEO of Fon (Google is our largest non financial investor) I would like to share what my experience has been like as a way to answer what I consider Larry’s biggest challenge as new CEO is. I write what follows in a spirit of friendship, with tremendous admiration for what Google has accomplished, and gratitude for its investment in Fon.
Google is an incredible company, a global giant that has just announced record financial results. A company that was built with a combination of great ideas coming mainly from its founders and amazing execution on the part of Eric Schmidt. But the biggest challenge I see at Google is that it still works like a university. This needs to change. At Google many managers come up with their own projects, frequently without a real connection to the whole enterprise and without real leadership from the top. As a result most fail. Google is a collection of brilliant minds, which is great for research but not for the execution of a visionary masterplan.
My concrete experience with Google relates to WiFi. In this field over the last four years I had the opportunity of watching Google hoping and failing to become globally relevant in WiFi connectivity. In the meantime 50 employee Fon has become the largest WiFi network in the world with over 3 million hotspots mostly in Japan and the UK, growing in other countries and hopefully soon in USA as well. But other than the investment for which we are grateful, everything else we tried to do with Google was a failure.
What I saw in Google’s WiFi´s effort were different “professors” running around with different ideas, trying to line up Google resources behind them only to end up with aborted projects. Initiatives like WiFi San Francisco, municipal WiFi throughout USA, never took off because of lack of company wide support. And WiFi is but one example. There are many areas in which Google has experimented and failed because of lack of vision, focus and consistency. For example the Orkut vs Facebook lost battle or the Twitter vs Buzz debacle. Googlers work for a great corporation but when they need company wide support for their initiatives most of the time they don’t get it. Sometimes they leave in frustration. Employee churn is now a big problem at Google and it needs not be. Churn comes from first making people believe they can do anything but then depriving them of the company support that is needed to succeed in their endeavors.
What Larry Page needs to do now is to change this situation and this can only be done by narrowing Google’s focus. Larry needs to spend weeks going over each Google project in detail. In this process he only needs to ask: Does this project make search or Android better? If it does not, kill it, and redeploy those talented employees into projects that do. And Sergey, in his new role as the head of business development needs to have the same discipline and only stick to new projects that enhance the two core areas of the company search which includes ads, and Android. Android is an incredible success so far and can be the computing platform of the future. Google TV should also be closely integrated with Youtube and in the end be part of Android. Youtube is another amazing but disjointed asset, add full length content and music to it and you have the iTunes that Android needs. Google Chrome is a huge success and that is good because those of us who use it (120 million of us) love to search off the browser box. If Larry succeeds in focusing, and I think he will, Google employees will work in projects that are backed by the company and are part of a common vision. Employee churn will decrease. Google will do even better.
As it stands today, in terms of management, Google is the opposite of Apple. Steve Jobs, who I had a chance to meet in private, is a genius dictator with a very strong vision. The whole company aligns behind him to execute. And lately, Apple’s Spartan style is winning over Google’s democracy. Larry and Sergey need to learn from Steve: to lead, to be tough and to say no (but hopefully without Steve’s ability to humiliate others when making a point). Google, like Apple, needs to adopt great design. I know that both Larry and Sergey come from the design school of “I don’t care how it looks so long as it works brilliantly”. Still I wonder how many people are not using AdSense because of how ugly the ads are. Apple has shown that both design and functionality are needed to succeed. For us at Fon, Apple, a company that is not even our investor, has been surprisingly easier to deal with than Google. Apple wants WiFi everywhere. That simple. In Japan, every iPhone is sold with a Fonera so there is more WiFi. We did a simple integration, it works well, and we have deployed millions of foneras in Japan together with Softbank. At Google, so far, we have been unable to integrate with Android regardless of the fact that we are partly owned by Google. We are millions of units ahead with iOS than Android. And every other project that we tried to implement with Google did not get off the ground. Failed to gain company wide support.
We all like democracy, but businesses, whether we like it or not, are more dictatorships than democracies. Even employees who like to debate issues outside of work prefer a clear sense of direction from those at the top at work. A clear mission. Google is not a start up that needs to find its destiny. Google has found its destiny and it is great. Time has come to focus on it and execute with a more forceful management style.
Disclosure: I am a happy Google shareholder and I am thankful to Eric, Larry, Sergey and all Google employees for their rising value.
Latin America can be a model for the Muslim world
Published by MartinVarsavsky.net in International with No Comments
I read this article from El País (in spanish) in which El Houssine Majdoub, a Moroccan journalist, blames the West and its “repugnant role” for the suffering of Muslim citizens in their own countries.
When I was growing up in Argentina these types of accusations were common. Whatever was wrong in our countries we only had the “yankees” to blame for. This theme was especially dear to military dictators who frequently played the nationalist card while trained in USA. But then look at what happened. Latin America, a region supposedly controlled by the US, liberated itself. In most countries a better, independent local leadership emerged. In others, such as Venezuela, the military rebranded itself and continued its “Arab dictator like habits”. But overall I would consider today the leadership of Latin America much better, more democratic than that of the Muslim world. And I think that the Muslim world is now, where Latin America was in the 70s. Latin America then was a region dominated by nationalist, dictators who invoked “patria”, “familia” and “religion” to stay in government. Now it is mostly democratic, not perfect but much freer and better.
So if Latin American could liberate itself from its own dictators, Arab countries can do the same. But first its citizens need to stop blaming the West for its problems and focus on their own dictators. Muslim nations are not dictatorships because EU and USA like them so. They are not democracies because their citizens put up with “repugnant” local leaders to use El Houssine Majdoub language. Leaders in EU and USA have to deal with these dictators because they have no other choice. Moreover EU and USA have historically tried to get rid of some of them such as the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi but the results were mixed. If you think USA liked collaborating with Ben Ali you are wrong. USA’s dislike of Ben Ali was made clear thanks to Wikileaks’ cables: “Tunisia is a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems”. In short, not an ideal partner.
So the solution in the Arab world has to be home grown and it is to get rid of their dictators as Latin America did in the 80s. To replace them with leaders who are honest, who govern transparently and who defend their country’s rights and needs. Leaders like Lula of Brazil or Michelle Bachelet of Chile.
Tunisians have finally rebelled on their own, but there are many, many other corrupt and barbaric dictators left in power in the Muslim world. These leaders are great at exploiting their people and telling them how they “protect” them from the West. These were common tactics in the time of General Galtieri in Argentina for example, Falklands invasion included. But just as Latin America nations such as Chile and Argentina, have gotten rid of populist leaders the Muslim world can do the same. The Muslim countries can do it on their own. They may try to export terrorism, as Latin America did, but that will fizzle out as Muslims earn their human rights and self determination.
Quoring is very similar to blogging. Indeed an open source clone of Quora will probably fork out of WordPress soon and already it is not hard to hack a Quora out of WP.
But Quora is better than blogging in one aspect. It addresses the key flaw of blogging, and that is fairness. In blogging, a lucky few who write get a significant number of readers. Blogging is frustrating for most others. The internet is littered with abandoned blogs that few read. Bloggers then lose interest. The way Quora addresses this is that it invites “blogger types” but forces them to behave differently, to take turns at blogging. Quora is like a blog in which, if you choose the subject, you can’t write the article, and if you write the article you cannot choose the subject. Quora has a teacher who does not allow one student to answer questions but actively seeks classroom participation.
Today I came accross the question of why aren’t many very smart people rich. And while blunt, I am sure many smart people who are not financially successful have asked themselves that question. Especially if smart is defined as having performed very well at school which is how most people find out they are very smart. But I can relate to that question in a different way. Not as to “why aren’t many smart people rich” but “why aren’t people who are not considered to be smart, rich”.
When I was at Columbia Business School I was in the bottom half of the class. I was not considered particularly smart or bright. All I got studying entrepreneurship was a B+ and that was supposed to be my best subject as I wanted to be an entrepreneur. But then, after graduation I built, 8 companies over 25 years, 3 of them worth over $700 million. My last start up, Fon, has become the largest WiFi network in the world. And it is not only me, I know quite a few entrepreneurs who were mediocre at school only to thrive in real life. Some did better than me. So school is not such a good predictor of real life performance after all.
While teaching entrepreneurship at Instituto de Empresa, I have given a lot of thought to this paradox. How can school performance be a better predictor of life performance? Especially in entrepreneurship. As a result one thing I stopped doing, is grading students. Now they grade each other. And from what I have seen, students who other students think are smart, tend to do better in life than students who professors think are smart. Especially many professors who teach but don’t practice entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is more an art than a science.
Having said all this, my comments refer exclusively to business studies. In business getting rich is a direct consequence of success. In other fields being smart needs not to equate with being rich and that is fine. People shouldn’t become judges, or military commanders, or legislators, or many other essential occupations with the aim of getting rich. And getting rich is not a great objective in itself. In general in life having objectives is more interesting than having achieved objectives. Success in business is no exception.
Quora’s growth is wild
Published by MartinVarsavsky.net in Internet & Technology with No Comments
I am planning to write a post on Quora but want to get better at understanding it before I do. Still here is a first observation. After 3 years on Twitter I have around 26,000 followers. On Quora I am getting around 200 per day and that is at the very start of Quora. At this rate it will take me less than half a year to have as many followers in Quora as I have in Twitter. Especially considering that the rate will likely go up as it did with Twitter. This I find shocking. Facebook had a slow start. Twitter had a slow start. Still they are both gigantic now. What is going on with Quora that is growing so fast so quickly? Will it be the next big thing? Will it fizzle out like Chatroulette? Should I ask that on Quora?
Both Joe Biden and Gaddafi agree in their hatred for Wikileaks. But they have different styles. Biden likens Wikileaks to a high tech terrorist organization. Now Gaddafi, a real terrorist responsible for the downing of a commercial jet among other deeds, has a more unusual way to speak about Wikileaks. He calls Wikileaks “Kleenex” and then goes on with a rant about the Internet in general that is just funny (so long as you forget that it comes from a bloody dictator). He says:
Even you, my Tunisian brothers. You may be reading this Kleenex and empty talk on the Internet.
This Internet, which any demented person, any drunk can get drunk and write in, do you believe it? The Internet is like a vacuum cleaner, it can suck anything. Any useless person; any liar; any drunkard; anyone under the influence; anyone high on drugs; can talk on the Internet, and you read what he writes and you believe it. This is talk which is for free. Shall we become the victims of “Facebook” and “Kleenex”* and “YouTube”! Shall we become victims to tools they created so that they can laugh at our moods?
This text comes from this article in Global Voices.
Why Chinese mothers are not superior
Published by MartinVarsavsky.net in Paternity with No Comments
In order to understand my post please read Amy Chua’s arguing why Chinese mothers are superior. Only after you are done please read my reply.
Chinese mothers are not superior Amy and here’s why.
Jewish Americans are more successful than Chinese Americans and therefore are “superior” in Amy Chua’s terminology (an absurdity of course). Here’s a link to an example of pure Jewish chauvinism that gives you a sense of how Jewish Americans who are only 2% of the population and Jewish people who are only 1 in 500 in the planet fare. Please only read this if you are not Jewish.
But never mind the debate. Amy Chua’s kids get superiority from both parents because Amy Chua is married to a Jewish American. For some reason however, he gets no credit as a father in the story of the two daughters education. This is wrong both from a moral point of view but also from a sociological point of view: Amy Chua’s conclusions are based on a sample of only two, and this sample is biased by the presence of a Jewish father. This father has contributed Jewish parenting which is very different from Chinese mothering and probably a good balancing act to what I see as an unnecessary brutal style that could very well backfire. Indeed China is the country in the world with the highest female suicide rate and the only country in which women commit suicide at a higher rate than men. That in itself would make Chinese mothers sadly not superior at one thing, facing adversity.
Now my credentials. I am a Jewish father of 4 kids ages 20 to 4 with the two eldest at Columbia University and NYU. As a Jewish father I can say that we are very different from Chinese mothers. Here are some highlights of what I would call Jewish parenting.
-we work jointly with mothers, both parents are very involved with the kids education, even in case of divorced and remarried parents such as mine.
-we never call our kids “garbage”, on the contrary, as the term JAP implies, for us they are….royalty. We spoil them, but it works. Our kids are the best simply because they are.
-we are our kids number one fans. We bore others with stories of how bright our kids are.
-if they get a bad grade we go and fight it out with the teacher. Jewish kids may get better grades because teachers are tired of dealing with their parents. We don’t do this to break the rules, we do it because we are truly convinced our kids are the next Einsteins and the teachers are just blind. Once my daughter Isabella got a D and I went to tell her Math teacher that no Varsavsky had ever gotten a D in Math, that my father was a PhD in astrophysics from Harvard, and whatever it took to make a point. While the British lady did not change her mind that time I think she got the message as that was the one and only D that we got as a family.
-we look for originality in our kid’s thinking, we want our kids to be funny, to come up with unexpected solutions to problems, to be almost irreverent. When they talk back we are secretly happy that they have a personality of their own. We rarely punish them. Instead we are quiet when we disapprove and celebrate their merits.
-we want them to be liked and appreciated by their friends, their peers, we want them to have a social life, to fall in love. When they are unhappy we suffer.
I could go on but I think you see where I am headed. And by the way, being a Jewish parent is also an attitude or culture and has little to do with religion. While I celebrate the Jewish holidays I believe that the world as described by the Bible is most likely imaginary. But it is a good Jewish story.
And in any case there is no such thing as being a Chinese parent or a Jewish parent or any parent as such. I am arguing in favor of being a nice, empathic, supportive parent, anyone can be that and I am sure many Chinese parents would be opposed, as I was, at Amy’s style of raising her daughters, no need to be Jewish!
My answer is also on Quora.
Wikileaks disclosures play key role in Ben Ali’s outing
Published by MartinVarsavsky.net in Middle East with No Comments
First of all I would like to say that I am sorry for the repression and the people who have died in Tunisia but excited about the unexpected overthrow of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali by its own people.
While I am no expert on Tunisia and defer to others for an in depth analysis I have visited the country a few times as well as many other Arab/Muslim countries (Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt and others). Most Muslim nations have rulers for life and I am happy to see that for once, a corrupt dictator who has been in power since 1987 was thrown out by popular rebellion. And as this article explains it took the American diplomats and Wikileaks efforts to reveal what many Tunisians suspected and that is the extent of the government’s corruption and abuse and ignite the overthrow. Now the paradox here is obvious. USA spends hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of human lives are lost in a bloody military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq with very little success in establishing democracies. And instead, diplomats telling a detailed story about corruption in Tunisia and a group of determined journalist at Wikileaks and a hacker (Bradley Manning) accomplished what a decade of military intervention in the Middle East could not and that is a popular uprising against corruption and dictatorship. Yes, the realities of Afghanistan, Iraq and Tunisia are different but as this New York Times article explains, many in the Arab/Muslim world are watching Tunisia and wondering how long will they put up with their own “Ben Alis”. Especially in nearby Egypt.
It is interesting though that it took a combination of Wikileaks, US diplomacy and a dissident soldier to ignite the rebellion. Most likely if it had been Hillary Clinton alone telling this to the Tunisian people how corrupt Ben Ali was, it would have backfired. I think the State Department should learn a lot from Tunisia and rethink Wikileaks, cellular networks, social networks, and the power of the raw truth when dictators lose control of the popular message.
Here’s a slightly different version of this article in the Huffington Post