Data companies fall in four quadrants: Truth verses Religion and Data verses Application
If you are thinking of starting a data company, you have to make a very important choice: what kind of company will you be? There are four basic types of data companies and all can be very successful … but the biggest mistake data companies make is that they try to do more than one at a time.
First let’s define the x and y axis…
Truth verses Religion
Truth companies are backward looking. They tell you what happened or when something happened or something about a person, product, or thing. The main objective of these companies is to have true data. Good examples of truth companies are a credit bureau (like Experian, Equifax, and Transunion), middleware (like LiveRamp, Segment, Improvado, and mParticle), and financial services data (like large parts of Bloomberg). These companies are usually very long on data engineers.
Religion companies predict the future. They tell you what will happen based on a set of data. The main objective of these companies is to accurately predict the future. Good examples of religion companies are credit scores (like FICO), fraud prevention (like ThreatMetrix), and measurement (like Nielsen, Market Track). These companies are usually long data scientists (and sometimes machine learning engineers).
Religion companies often purchase data from truth companies. For instance, FICO uses the data from the credit agencies as the core ingredient for its credit score.
Data verses Application
Once you have a valuable set of proprietary data, you have to choose if you will be a pure data company or if you will build an application on top of your data.
Data companies just sell data. The best way to know if you are a data company is if you have no UI or a very limited UI. Data companies sometimes sell direct to end buyers but often also sell to applications (which is why it is so important they do not become applications as you do not want to compete with your customers). Good examples of data companies are in financial services (like Yodlee, Vantiv), a pure data co-op (like Clearbit), location (like SafeGraph), wealth predictions (like Windfall Data), and others.
Applications make data sing. To really get benefit out of data, you need an application. These companies will have nice UI and more front-end engineers. Good examples are query-layers (like SecondMeasure), refined datas co-op (like Verisk and Abacus), integration layers (like Vantiv, Plaid), B2B product usage (like G2Crowd) and others.
Winners and lowers and winner-take-most markets
For a “truth” company to dominate its field, it has to be clearly better than everyone else. And “better” means its data needs to be the most true AND the market needs to believe it is the most true. In addition to truth, breadth and price are very important to dominate.
For “religion” companies, the most important factor is brand. When predicting the future, ideally you want to believe that the Nostradamus within the religion company is making accurate predictions. And while some people may dive into the Bayesian logic, most will trust the market perception. That’s why there are so many poor predictive analytics companies, because one can buy brand with money.
Series beats parallel
The biggest mistake data companies make is that they attack more than one quadrant at once. For the first $100 million in revenue, you should be focused on just one type of business.
Summation: Older people (over 50) are getting more advantages from computers than younger ones. We should expect to see a huge renaissance the productivity of older business people in the future.
In business, there are advantages of being younger and advantages at being older. And historically there has been tensions between the two.
Many advantages of Being Younger
Fearlessness: Youngers people have less fear of older ones. They have less to lose, less social status, no mortgage. If they fail, they will not be lower on the status ring. The best soldiers are usually those in their 20s.
Older people have much more to lose and that means they are often quite poor at calculating risks.
More time: The older you are, the more time commitments you gather. You eventually get married and have kids. You volunteer at a non-profit. You get involved in your church. You pick up golf as a hobby. You go to the Sundance Film Festival and Burning Man every year.
When you’re younger, you have not yet accumulated the debt of these commitments. That allows you to spend more time working. Of course, not every young person spends a great deal of time working (many spend an equal amount of time socializing) … but those that do concentrate on work have a massive advantage because working hours compound. Almost all super-successful people worked insane hours in their 20s. In fact, people who do not work insane hours in their 20s are at a massive disadvantage for the rest of their lives.
More raw brainpower: Younger people have better working memory, they have more stamina, and they have more calculations per second. They have a much faster CPU. It seems unlikely that we will have a 55 year old chess champion. And most Physics Nobel prizes went to work that was done by people in their 20s or early 30s.
More ignorance of “what works”: Older people are more likely to get stuck in their ways. They have a hard time seeing that the Emperor really has no clothes. So they are more likely to do things the way they have been done before. The old saying “science advances one funeral at a time” applies to business innovation as well.
But there are also many advantages of Being Older
Money: Older people are a lot richer than younger ones. Many older people gain leverage by hiring younger people and telling them what to do. They are often able to rent the time, fearlessness, and brainpower of younger people.
Cunning: Cunning is the ability to work with people and also work against people. It is something one gets better at over time. It is not something people are just born with. A 55-year-old can often play two 25-year-olds against each other.
Wisdom: While young people benefit from ignorance, older people benefit from wisdom (which is the opposite side of the coin). Older people have had more time to read, learn, and compound knowledge.
Connections: While “What-You-Know” is now more important than “Who-You-Know”, who-you-know is still important. Older people have had more time to develop meaningful connections. And many of those connections will be other very successful people. I did not know any major CEOs, U.S. Senators, world-renowned authors, etc. when I was 22 (but many of the people I met when I was 22 turned into these people).
Stature: Older people have a history and a brand. And while that history can work against them (like a voting record for a member of Congress), it gives comfort for others to work with them. People with a brand have an advantage in recruiting talent, raising money, etc. If an entrepreneur sold their last company for $300 million, it will be a lot easier for her to recruit people to her next company than a first-time entrepreneur.
Less competition: Weirdly, older entrepreneurs have a lot less competition than younger entrepreneurs. At least in Silicon Valley, it seems there are 100 times more entrepreneurs in their 20s than entrepreneurs in their 50s. Most successful people in their 50s have no desire to go through the rigor of starting a company again. They usually opt for less stressful lives (like deciding to be a venture capitalist or running a winery). That means that those 50+ people that do decide to start companies have a pretty big advantage because there are a not a lot of wise, well-connected, monied people who they are competing with.
Young vs Old: Who Wins?
To summarize the post thus far:
Ability to buy brainpower and time
The advantages of being young seems to equal the advantages of being old … at least when it comes to starting companies.
Historically young people have a way higher failure rate … but they also have a much higher rate of creating an iconic company (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, etc.).
In the past there was a tension between young and old. The young having big advantages in some societies and the old having big advantages in others. If I had to pull a number out of my butt, I would say that the best age to start a company has been 34 (not exactly “young” but definitely not old).
The best age to start a company will get much higher as computers are becoming a bigger part of our lives …
How the age advantages shift with computers: advantage to the older
Computers significantly change the advantage calculation.
Computers give younger people more access to wisdom through easy access to knowledge. The compounding advantage that older people have had in the past is going to be less important in the future. Computers also make it easier to find people and get in touch with them — so the Who-You-Knows are going to be less valuable in the future — and younger people, while still having less access to connections, are at less of a disadvantage here.
But computers help older people IMMENSELY.
Computers are the world’s best way to get access to raw brainpower. And as more brainpower tasks are getting taken over by computers, people with money (older people) will have a significant advantage over those that don’t (younger folks).
The proliferation of tech services also advantage older people. You can get access to the best APIs and services with dollars. Of course, most people (especially older people) will have trouble selecting and managing vendors. Most people (especially old people) are going to be trapped in the 20th century paradigm (one that rewards hiring and growing people). The most important business skill in the 21st century is the ability to select and manage vendors. But the older people that can successful navigate the new world will have an advantage.
As computers get stronger, it gets easier and easier to buy time and brainpower. We already have compute-on-demand (AWS) and people-on-demand (UpWork).
The biggest disadvantage that remains for older people is being trapped in an old way of thinking. If science really advances one funeral at a time, innovation could be significantly slowed as older people have more advantages (and are living longer).
One of the advantages that older people have that seems to be not going away is lack of competition. It used to be that very few 24 year olds ever thought about starting a company (especially those that had lots of opportunities). Even when I started an Internet company in college in the 1990s, it was really strange to have a student entrepreneur. Today it is becoming easier and easier to for 24 year olds to start companies — easier to get training, knowledge, and seed capital. YCombinator and other institutions have significantly promoted entrepreneurism among the young. My guess is that the number of amazing twenty-somethings starting companies has gone up at least 5 times in the last decade … and that trend is happening all over the world.
But people over 50 are still not starting companies in large numbers. It never was big, and I see no anecdotal evidence that it is growing. People that have been successful in the 30s and 40s are rarely opting to get back “in it” in their 50s. Instead, they are opting for easier and less stressful lives. So the few 50-somethings that do start companies could have increasing advantages. Especially those that still put in the long hours. (Even Bill Gates, one of the best entrepreneurs ever, hung up his business cleats before he turned 50).
More people in their 50s SHOULD start companies. It is actually a great time to start a company. Many people in their 50s are empty nesters (or at least no longer have super young kids). They can actually travel more and work harder than those in their 40s because they have fewer family obligations. They are usually more financially secure (maybe have paid off their mortgage already) and potentially more willing to take some sort of financial risk. And people in their 50s have so much more energy today than in years past — people live healthier, are more active, etc.
What are the societal implications of computers giving older people advantages?
The most obvious implication is wealth inequality. If older people get more advantages as they age, their wealth will compound faster. Coupled with living longer (and being active longer) means more wealth inequality.
Since the person in their 50s is more likely to build a one-to-N business than a zero-to-one business … it could mean less innovation for society and more incrementalism.
But it also could give hope to millions of people who are over the age of 50 and still have big dreams and ambitions. Ambition shouldn’t end at 45. Computers can keep ambition going way longer than in the past.
This also means that MORE 50-year-olds should start companies. However, I don’t think they will. So the few 50-year-olds that do should see very big advantages.
Summation: They advantage of getting older is growing. Computers are getting better at doing what young people do.
For the last 2000 years, one of the most important skills someone could have was the ability to plan ahead. Those that could plan ahead would reap massive awards, those that didn’t would starve in the winter.
But there has always been a tension between the forgetful creative genius (the absent-minded professor type) and the Planner. Of course, the most successful people were the combination of the Planner AND the Creative Genius (like Bill Gates and like Warren Buffett) … but that is a real rarity. For the last 2000 years, you were MUCH better off being the planner than the creative-type unless you were the BEST creative in your field. The 1,000,000th best planner still did very well.
The Planner is typically someone who is really good at seeing the likely future and making plans to address it. For instance, 2000 years ago, it was really important to plan for winter. Things did not grow in the winter so one needed to store food. In fact, thinking about food was extremely important because harvests were not certain so you would need to save grain from a good harvest to cover an eventual shortfall year.
The forgetful creative genius (the absent-minded professor) was at a big disadvantage in society because of their lack of planning skills. At the same time, the Planner (less creative but very good at logistics for the future) was needed for most tasks.
While both skills (planning and creativity) are important, the future will need more creatives types and less planners.
A history of the Planner advantage
Being a Planner 25,000 years ago (as a hunter gatherer), while important, did not pay huge dividends. You mostly wanted to avoid being eaten by lions or bitten by poisonous snakes. And you had a limit to how much you could succeed because humans where generally confined to small tribes of people.
But as the farming revolution spread and we domesticated, planning became more and more important. By the time the Renaissance and (later) Enlightenment hit, Planners could rule vast lands or get very wealthy.
Then came the industrial revolution and Planners became even more in demand. Alfred Sloan, the famous CEO of General Motors, was an incredible planner.
But planning was not just important in becoming a successful business person. Planning was ESSENTIAL in every-day life.
In 1990, the people with great social lives were the planners. If you did not not plan to meet your friends, you might not be able to meet them. In the pre-mobile phone era, you needed to be constantly planing ahead. The rewards, both economic and social, went to the planners.
And yes, there were still some extremely successful forgetful creative geniuses like Einstein. But Einstein had a brain like Einstein. He was an exception.
Even the most famous 20th Century artists were Planners
People think that “creative geniuses” are not planners. But in the 20th Century (the century were planning mattered most), most of the great artists were planners.
Warhol was a planner. Picasso was a super Planner. And other “artists” are planning machines. The successful comics like Seinfeld and Chris Rock were always planning. Most of the best actors, musicians, etc. have been Planners. Planning was how you got ahead.
In fact, we’ve reached Peak Planner.
Today, it is easier than ever to do something in the last minute.
Want to watch a TV show? Not that long ago you’d have to plan to watch it. Seinfeld was available to watch only on Thursday at 9p. Later, when DVRs came, you’d still have to plan by setting up your DVR. Non-planners often had to resort to watching infomercials. Today, you just go watch the great show whenever you want.
Want to go on a good vacation? It is actually possible to plan the whole thing that day.
Need a ride to the airport? You can call a Lyft or Uber a minute before.
Want food? The biggest problem is picking from one of the 400 apps that help you do that.
Want to meet a special someone? Swipe right on Tinder.
Even businesses need less planning. When I stated LiveRamp in 2006 I had to plan ahead to buy servers. I remember the day when we moved our colo to a new host and we had a checklist of over 250 items. I fondly remember the celebration when we completed the move. But need more compute power for your application today? Simple to spin up more instances on Amazon Web Services.
You don’t even need to plan for office space — WeWork gives you office space on demand.
And you can even get workers on demand through UpWork and Mechanical Turk.
On-demand services are built by Planners to give non-Planners an advantage
The best planners are working themselves out of a societal advantage because they are spending their time planning logistical companies that give small benefits to other planners … but very large benefits to the absent-minded professors.
Coordination is getting easier and easier
Coordination … especially between 2–10 people … is getting easier and easier. Not that long ago, if you wanted to meet someone you’d have to spend a lot of time coordinating it. You’d break out a map and plan your route. You’d call them a few days ahead of time and meticulously plan where to meet.
Today your mobile phone takes care of all of this in real-time. No need to coordinate. It is Planning for Dummies.
The Marshmallow Test will not be as important 50 years from now
The famous Marshmallow Test predicted that people who were good at delaying gratification would be more successful. These are people who better appreciated the value of compound interest. But in a future world where planning is not as needed as today’s world, delaying gratification may not be as important.
I’m a planner and I benefitted from it.
And yes, you can still get big economic benefits if you plan. I pay half price when I buy my GoGoAir Pass on the ground instead of in-the-air. I can save a lot of money by packing a chocolate bar rather than buying one at the airport. But the benefits to planning, while significant, ain’t what they used to be.
Yeah, I plan meticulously to queue up my reading so that I always have something good to read. I save book and movie recommendations from people. But while this lack of spontaneity has generally served this Generation Xer well, it is likely not a core skill that someone born in the last decade should be focusing on.
Summation: While people that do well on the Marshmallow Test will still have an advantage … that advantage will be much smaller 50 years from now as it was 50 years ago.