One year of advisory

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The Daily

A year ago today, I launched my advisory business. It’s been really great. The independence, flexibility, diversity of client work – all in all a very pleasurable working experience. And one that I’m intending to continue.

Five months in, I wrote a brief update about what I actually have been doing. I thought I would do the same now. I can’t mention any client names since some of the work is confidential. You’ll get the general idea though.

Some of the projects mentioned earlier are still ongoing, but this is a selection of the new projects I’ve been working on lately:

  • I wrote an extensive report on voice assistants and smart speakers for a Nordic media company. It was a combination of market data, strategic analysis, and case studies.
  • I did a full week workshop in New York that produced a new business concept together with a very interesting group of people.
  • I helped an XR company from Israel go to market.
  • I joined the team behind the chatbot Shim to help create a new product, Enjo, and reposition the company towards American parents. Earlier this week it was announced that the healthcare company KRY/LIVI had acquired Enjo. There’s a longer story to be told here, but that’s for another day.
  • I wrote a strategic overview of the kids app market for a new startup in Sweden.
  • I started working with the femtech company Clue (my first seed investment) as their acting VP of Special Projects.
  • I went to Denmark and spoke about how to create components of corporate culture.
  • I helped a California based edtech company with marketing and App Store Optimization.
  • I prepared a report on trends in corporate venture capital for a company in that sector.

Quite a year. A great balance between loads of interesting projects while still having time to read and learn more than in many years. If you have a project you’d like to work on together, please get in touch.

The Curse of the Modus Operandi

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In any business there’s a series of rules to follow. Most of them aren’t explicitly stated, but follow a type of common (business) sense. A general modus operandi (MO) develops.

Both as a founder or an employee it’s easiest to stick to this MO. It feels sensible and like it saves time. But by doing so, you are recreating the same issues that these structures have created for all companies before you. To make it worse, people have a higher level of tolerance for these types of issues. They’re annoying but also implicitly accepted as “that’s just what office life is like“.

This is lazy. These commonly accepted problems are holding you back. And a lot of them make no sense. You want to buy a few books for $100? Ask your manager. Maybe expense it. You want to invite six people for a two hour meeting? That’s free. (Except it’s not. It actually costs $840, assuming $100K salaries).

As I wrote in The Strategy Tax, “doing the same thing as last year requires no preparation and little effort”. Your modus operandi starts to own you. It dictates rules that you can’t be bothered to challenge, or even think about.

Questions to ask yourself:

Why is it okay to lie in a budget, but not in a meeting?

Why does it matter how many hours someone works?

Why is an upward trajectory for your title assumed to be good?

No one knows. It just is.

The systems that you use to run your business, shape it too. Break the curse of the modus operandi and you’ve unlocked a new way to run and differentiate your business.

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Two Types of Strategy Tax

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There are two different types of strategy tax in a company. One for product strategy and one for corporate strategy. The former is what people usually refer to, and it often comes up when describing Microsoft and its strategy in the 90s. Blogging legend Dave Winer wrote a good explanation of this in 2001, for instance.

In more modern times, Ben Thompson from Stratechery has defined it like this:

A strategy tax is anything that makes a product less likely to succeed, yet is included to further larger corporate goals

Dave explains Microsoft holding back functionality from Internet Explorer to not cannibalize Word. Ben describes Google requiring Hangouts users to get a Google+ account. These are both good examples, albeit a bit dated now of course.

Expanding the definition
But there’s more to it than that. For me, The Strategy Tax illustrates not only questionable choices within existing product but also general strategic inaction. I think about it as an inevitable duality of the choices you make as a company. You cannot have a strategy without having a strategy tax. But the amount varies. And how you manage it varies too.

In my last post, I defined it like this:

It’s the cost of not taking a new opportunity, or passing on an acquisition. 

This makes for two different categories of a similar phenomenon. That would mean a definition that looks like this:

Product Strategy Tax
Suboptimizing new products to not inversely affect current ones.

Corporate Strategy Tax
Indefinitely postponing change, regardless of the world around you.

Both are relevant and useful models to apply when understanding a company and its choices. They are lenses through which you can analyze company’s choices to better understand why they do what they do – and what they don’t do.

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The Strategy Tax

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Scene: the board room. You’re presenting a new idea for investment. Your CFO is concerned. How much will it cost? How many FTEs will you need?

It’s predictable, but not unreasonable.

What is unreasonable is the asymmetry of continuing with business as usual. Doing the same thing as last year requires no preparation and little effort. But it represents the largest hidden cost of all big companies.

The cost of status quo
This hidden cost is the tax you are paying for your current strategy. It’s the cost of not taking a new opportunity, or passing on an acquisition. Since it can’t be immediately quantified, it gets ignored.

Identifying your strategy tax is hard. It poses the question how to account for things that have not yet happened. That sounds impossible, but a budget is supposed to be just that too. Except of course it isn’t. It’s cognitive dissonance stemming from the finance department. Budgets and forecasts are, at best, partially wrong. But a map which is half wrong becomes all wrong if you don’t know what part of it can be trusted.

You know that part where you just extend whatever you did last year into the following budget year? It’s wrong (and lazy). Your 10% growth multiplier is enough to not cause your CFO to choke on their morning coffee, but small enough to not matter if you miss it. Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. Nobody ever got fired for projecting 10% revenue growth either.

Budgets have no answers
What to do? Stop looking to your budget for answers about the future. It’s not in there. Instead, file a strategy tax form to your CFO annually. It should state what it is going to cost if you do not change what you’re currently doing. You’ll need to guess, but you’re doing that in your budget anyway.

Things like meeting calculators are crude, but serve the purpose of illustrating an otherwise hidden cost. The absence of action has a cost that must be shown. Compare that cost to the investment cost and the board can favor the bold. Today they favor the ones who play it safe. And without knowing it, they pay a hefty strategy tax while doing so.

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Startups and Unions

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The political cliché in Silicon Valley is that everyone is a libertarian (and that they want to be seen as a contrarian). The first part is in fact a myth, as disproven by this Stanford study. Actually most people here are some form of Democrat. But a Quartz article stated that this political leaning came with two big exceptions:

There were two key areas where the entrepreneurs’ views diverged from Democrats, hewing much more closely to most Republican donors and voters: strong opposition to labor unions and government regulation

This caught my eye a little. How many Silicon Valley CEOs have even dealt with a unionized workforce? And how much is this just an orthodoxy? In the spirit of offering a different perspective, I thought I would share my own experiences. I ran a startup and I thought working with unions was no problem at all. Let me tell you why.

Before I start – there are some caveats. My experiences of this was in Sweden where the unions work differently than in the US. Employer acceptance of them is also different, since the overall union membership in the whole country is 71% (the equivalent US figure is 11.1%). Unions obviously also differ a lot among themselves depending on trade category, but come along with me for this oversimplification anyway.

Here are three good things about having your startup employees unionized:

  1. You get a framework for compensation
    • We ran Toca Boca under a collective bargaining agreement which means that the unions and the representatives for the employers negotiate the overarching framework for salary increases and things of that nature. This may sound like socialist hell to some perhaps, but the reality is that is saves you an immense amount of time.
    • Generally, the agreement sets the lowest salary increase and then the employer can choose to go higher. Say it is 1.8%. While employees can still negotiate for more, it also sets an expectation across the whole company. It’s going be around 1.8% – not 15% or 30%. The collective agreements take inflation and a whole bunch of variables into consideration.
    • As a startup CEO, you now have a framework to work with which has been deemed and fair from both parties. You think it sounds expensive giving everyone a certain set wage increase? Disgruntled employees’ productivity loss is way more expensive.
  2. It creates a formalized outlet for change at work
    • Unionized workers create a structured group to handle issues and changes at work. As an employer this might sound like a bad thing. However, as most CEOs know, formations will undoubtably take place anyway. And they don’t necessarily act, meet, or run, in the most formalized of ways. This creates unpredictability for you as a leader, and that you do not want.
    • In having an existing structure for discussions with union representatives, you can decrease the amount of ad hoc meetings that come up. There is already a body through which to organize and have these discussions. It is streamlined, structured, and relatively efficient.
    • I should add that I very rarely had any issues with things that were brought up from the staff (whether it was through a union or not). The vast majority of suggestions were completely reasonable and improvements to what we had. These experiences go against the antagonistic nature that the image of employer and employee can sometimes have. It doesn’t have to be like that.
  3. It helps you avoid unnecessary mistakes
    • Labor disputes are hardly new. It is safe to say that most issues that you’re dealing with a startup CEO have been dealt with before, at least with one additional layer of abstraction. Similarly, the modus operandi developed between employer and union has been tested many times. There’s – generally – a reason why things work the way they do.
    • What I found was that having to stick to these rules, actually helped me avoid some unnecessary mistakes. It could be situations around letting someone go where I would have easily overlooked the risks and taken a shortcut. Instead, I had to do it by the book. And it turns out the book is pretty useful. It lowers your risk significantly.

Are there difficult or bad things dealing with unions from startups’ perspective? Sure. But they are are obvious, and the understanding of them is prevalent. There’s no need for an additional blog post about that.

I know my experiences constitute a focus group of one. As such it is unreliable as a data source. It is, however, real life experiences from a situation that clearly many have strong opinions about. See it as an opportunity to challenge your own orthodoxies. And who knows – perhaps adopt what would genuinely be a contrarian position in Silicon Valley: the pro-union CEO.

(Thanks to Peter Rojas who encouraged me to blog about this a long time ago.)

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Three acquisition predictions

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I love a good prediction. For it to be good, it should be specific in time, detailed, and the more unexpected the better. Scott Galloway does a great job with this. Boring predictions are vague and don’t specify a time frame. Things like “consumers will increasingly want to be part of a conversation”. That’s the kind of thing Nostradamus would have said if he was still around.

Simply because I enjoy it, I’m making three predictions myself. They’re all rumored IPOs in some capacity. I don’t think either of them will make it to the market. I don’t have any inside information or knowledge that’s not publicly available, so take it for what it’s worth.

Microsoft will acquire Unity

Microsoft have almost abandoned the consumer space over the last few years. The clearest focus areas now are Azure (Cloud) and Office 365 (Word & Excel online). But there are also other things going on. Microsoft owns Xbox and bought two new studios this past November. They now own 13 game studios in total (Mojang/Minecraft being one of the more prominent ones). Aside from this, they made a huge bet on Github in October. It fits with their focus on B2B developer tools. Also, it was a refreshingly agnostic move in how it supports more than the Microsoft coding languages of choice.

Add these two together: a belief in gaming as a growing macro + the interest in underlying B2B tools for developers. Add the bonus of the overall importance of 3D for developing AR/VR. To me, that says Unity. They are rumored to go public in 2020 but they’re not going to get there. Microsoft will pick them up before that and establish themselves firmly as a key player in the developer tools ecosystem.

Who else could it be: Adobe. Unity is not just a receptacle for code, it is a part of the workflow for creatives too. This should be in Adobe’s interest. But I think they will think it is too tech heavy and miss the opportunity.

Naspers will acquire Adevinta (part of Schibsted)

My all-time favorite media company Naspers (which arguably has very little to do with media anymore) is a gigantic player in marketplaces and classifieds already. This is a highly competitive space where the market leader has a disproportionate advantage. You’re either #1 in the market, on your way to becoming #1, or you should probably get out. A few weeks ago they looked at Avito (#1 classified site in Russia) and bought the remaining shares of it in a billion dollar deal.

Classified marketplaces don’t often go across geographic borders. This means that you can have different market leaders in neighboring countries. But as the market dynamic dictates, there’s really only room for one major player per country. This means it is the perfect field for M&A.

In September, the Norwegian media house Schibsted announced that it was splitting their operations into two. Nordic Media & Growth Companies in one company, and International Marketplaces in another (I’m oversimplifying somewhat – more exact details here). The Schibsted name will stay with the media properties, and the marketplaces will be known as Adevinta (previously MPI – Marketplaces International).

Schibsted are the classified market leaders in France, Spain, and have strong positions in several other European and Northern African markets. They already have a joint venture together with Naspers through OLX in Brazil. All in all – Adevinta will never be spun out. Naspers will buy them and become the unthreatened world leader in online classifieds. Schibsted will be an exceptionally well capitalized media company. Win-win.

Who else could it be: Ebay. But it’s very unlikely. They are a large classifieds player, but this would be out of context for how they have been operating. Naspers is the given player here.

Salesforce will acquire Zoom

Video conferencing – every company’s pet hate. The true unfulfilled promise of seamless remote meetings. Microsoft bungled Skype. It’s main selling point now is that IT-departments can have it as an integrated part of their overall MSFT software stack. Google had Hangouts, then Meet, now Hangouts Meet(?!). It’s their equivalent within the G Suite. Fair enough. But the one player that I keep hearing about – and one that is still independent (albeit with a unicorn valuation) – is Zoom.

For this to happen, Zoom needs a buyer with some specific traits. An acquisitive B2B player that is big enough to write huge checks, interested in integrating a variety of B2B services into one platform, and one that preferably doesn’t already have a good video service in place. This means it is Salesforce. They’ve already gone after document collaboration when they bought Quip a few years ago. It’s their Google Docs. They’re very acquisitive. They don’t have their own video communication service in place. Done.

Who else could it be: Dropbox. If – and this is a big if – Dropbox wants to build out their offering to businesses, then communication outside of file and document management would make sense. Both Microsoft and Google could easily do it, but that would require them scrapping their current services. Which they won’t do. So Dropbox is an unlikely wild card here.

Three IPOs that won’t happen. Three billion dollar deals coming up this year. That’s my prediction. Let me know what you think in the comments.

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Sans-serifs as comfort

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Design parameters for branding have changed a lot. Screen legibility and name suitability for Instagram weren’t exactly top of mind for Paul Rand. Last year this caught up with the fashion industry. The effects yielded this wide-spread image below.

From Bloomberg

Bloomberg wrote a good round-up of the discussions around these design changes. They were divided, as expected. The first camp said that it was dull and generic. The second camp said that it was classic and indicative of luxury. Bloomberg quoted Armin Vit that called it “like wearing a black-tie tuxedo” which is a good, albeit generous interpretation.

The startup scene has a less glamorous past and design heritage. Less to lose, I suppose. Instead, they’ve skipped straight to the sans-serifs. Eliza Brooke at Vox put this elegantly back in 2017:

If there is one style of corporate branding that defines the 2010s, it is this: sans-serif lettering, neatly presented in black, white, and ultra-flat colors.

From OH No Type Co’s Twitter.

She is right. And it has been a very consistent design trend since (although there’s a slight indication of change happening). While reading Lean Luxe, I found an article in Fast Company that poked at this, calling it blanding:

The formula is sort of a brand paint-by-numbers. Start with a made-up-word name. Put it in a sans-serif typeface. Make it clean and readable, with just the right amount of white space. Use a direct tone of voice. Nope, no need for a logo. Maybe throw in some cheerful illustrations. Just don’t forget the vibrant colors. Bonus points for purple and turquoise. Blah blah blah.


You’ve seen it too. So, why is it like this?

Sidestepping the obvious critique of companies being boring and unwilling to take risk, I think there’s something else at play. There’s a global corporate aesthetic developing that implies a set of values and perceived modernity. Look at Sildenafil and how differently it can be packaged. It’s the same product.

Roman Health

The aesthetic implies that it is young, modern, quick, delivered to your door, available on your phone, cheaper. Even if it isn’t necessarily any of those things. It feels like you’ve bought things like this before. And in the case with Roman, it also turns one of the least desirable packages to have in your bathroom cabinet into something you could leave on your nightstand.

We’ve seen this before, but in interior design. Coffee shops now look the same everywhere in the world. Exposed brick walls, industrial chic, and the odd (often knock-off) design classic here and there. It isn’t exactly original. But it is familiar and comforting. And that serves a purpose in its own right.

Brooklyn? Paris? Actually Bandung, Indonesia. Photo: Unsplash.

The Economist defended this development as being less about the world going generic, and more about making connections to a grander collective of people and values:

For the people who live in towns and cities far from the top-tier of globally-connected metropolises, these spaces signal membership of the world beyond the narrow boundaries of their homes. The Ukrainians who hang out at the Molodost Bar in Odessa don’t look around and complain that their neighbourhood looks like Brooklyn. […] On the contrary, the global aesthetic that these establishments bring to their towns contribute to a sense of connection with their peers in Copenhagen and San Francisco.

I think this is what is going on with the sans-serif branding too. It plays to a familiarity of experiences that your customer has already had – or felt like they’ve had – before. And while it does little for differentiation, the branding serves the purpose of charging your brand with a long set of values and traits that otherwise would be difficult to attain. Just like the exposed brick and the Kees Van Der Westen espresso machine does in a coffee shop.

Branding should serve a purpose. Originality can be one of them. But there are others too. It’s lazy to assume that the choice of certain colors and fonts means the designer hasn’t considered the options. They may simply have opted for a different purpose. Like offering the comfort and familiarity of a sans-serif font.

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2018 without review

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Years in review

For the last seven years, I have written an annual review of the year that past. It’s been a summary of what I’ve done, music I’ve listened to, places I’ve visited and so forth.

I won’t be doing that this year. During 2018 I’ve found myself wanting to share less in public forums. I feel distinctly different about it now compared to previous years. Sometimes it feels like I’m contributing to a bigger whole that I don’t agree with, and don’t want to encourage. Taking a slight step back has been unexpectedly liberating. Which in turn has posed more questions around how I’ve been using these channels before.

What I’ll be looking for in the new year are ways to increase the serendipity that the social sharing has offered. I’m not sure turning things off completely is the way to go. Perhaps it’s rather to change the way I use and think about them. Or find other tools that can help. I still miss Dopplr that helped with the serendipity of travel, for instance. There’s room for innovation in this space.

Onwards to 2019 then. I’m curious to see how I feel about this at the end of it.

Introducing: Enjo

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The Daily

Along side my practice, I have spent the past few months working together with a great team to create a new type of product in the mental health space. Since I spent seven years working with kids, it seemed only right that I should work with parents this time around.

The app is called Enjo, and we are launching today.

Enjo offers instant emotional support to parents. It does that by helping you reflect on the positive – and often overlooked – parts of your life as a parent. And then it listens, learns, and can help you change perspective and feel better when you’re feeling down. The best part is that it actually works. The predecessor that Enjo is based on has a published scientific study that shows that using it for just two weeks can lead to a 24% reduction in stress. Quite something.

If you’re parent, please try it out. Give it a few days and see what it can do for you. Enjo is free and available on the App Store now.

Edit: As of April 2019, Enjo was acquired by the healthcare platform KRY/LIVI.

The Techlash

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The Daily

San Francisco, 2012. I had just moved from Sweden to set up the US office for Toca Boca. Part of the reason for choosing this part of the US was the proximity to Apple. We needed to get to know them, and we needed them to know us.

On one of my first visits to Infinite Loop, I visited the store. As a long-time Mac user, this was an exciting moment. I bought a water bottle with the Apple logo on it.

Since then, much has changed. But I wasn’t ready for my reaction the other day when I was about to take a walk, and reached for a water bottle to bring. The Apple one was there, and I hesitated. I instinctively didn’t want people to see me with merchandise from there.

The Techlash is real. The Economist wrote a good run through in the beginning of the year, and even the promoter-in-chief Techcrunch wrote that their own industry was full of “hubris and hypocrisy”. But while it has been a topic in the media, the aversion to tech is creating a rift that seems overlooked by the industry at large. My sense is that they think it will blow over and/or become the new normal. Facebook releasing Portal in a flurry of hacks and privacy intrusion says just this to me. Either they don’t think consumers care that much, or that there’s never a better time than now anyway (of course, Portal has already had its own issue with data privacy). I think they’re wrong – people do care – but the big wave hasn’t hit yet. If you’re looking, you can see it.

Interestingly, they don’t seem too concerned about their number one priority either – their own self-interest. Where the talent will go and what brand names look good on a resumé. After endless and contrived “we’re changing the world” mantras for companies that are essentially ad servers, it is an increasingly hard story for employees to tell themselves. They’re making a lot of money, they have a comfortable work environment, but they are not changing the world. At least not in the way that they intended.

I have personally experienced so much arrogance from these companies. Heard so many stories too. I can’t help but think of another industry that was arrogant, looked down upon people who were on the outside, and the dealings of which put society at risk. That industry crashed in 2008 (but seemingly learned nothing). It’s not a bold prediction to say that the similarities indicate this coming to a head in tech too.

I didn’t leave the house with the Apple bottle in the end. And while there’s still an iPhone in my pocket, I wonder how many others are hesitant in Silicon Valley right now. People asking themselves if they’re in the right place, working on the right side of the issues, changing the world in the way they wanted to.

When they’re ready to pay the price to abandon ship, change could come quickly. As with the consumers at large.