On Grinding

Judas Priest…grinding it out since 1969.

Really enjoyed Fred Wilson‘s latest post “Grinding“. Everyone wants to talk about “hustle” when building a company. In reality it is usually more of a grind day in, day out until you figure it out – or die. I especially appreciated how he addressed the “magic bullet” theory to fixing company issues in this line:

But it is rarely one thing that a business needs to succeed. It is often a little bit of everything.

Lot of truth packed in that quote. Fred references his experience with Twitter’s early struggles with their fail whale and explosive growth and popularity. That is definitely one kind of grinding…managing a rocket ship as tries to reach escape velocity.

What I wouldn’t give for that kind of grinding. There’s another kind of startup grind, and it’s one our company has been doing for the past 3 years. We’ve been searching for product/market fit in Voice User Interfaces (VUI). When we started, we targeted smart speakers with branded services to catch the explosive growth and popularity of smart speakers like Alexa. Having watched how web and mobile changed how consumers interfaced with content and services, it felt inevitable that voice was the next big interface change and smart speakers were the next big wave.

But sometime it takes a while for waves to reach the shore. Here we millions of smart speakers units shipped and five years after the launch of Alexa, and we’ve had no break out VUI brands or companies. The biggest success story in smart speakers is a guy who works at Ford who bought a Tesla with cash with his Alexa skill he built on the side. That’s a nice side hustle that helps one developer and Alexa, not sure it’s a business that continue to grow.

So we stopped focusing on smart speakers and making a transition to mobile voice. We’ve been grinding over the last year to help mobile apps develop their own VUI, including a whole company rebranding. Making this change has definitely been more of a grind than a pivot. That’s because we are refining the value we create for VUI than completely giving up on it.

We’re excited about enabling the mobile voice movement. There are implications for better privacy, brand building and revenue streams that is available in smart speakers alone. Hopefully, our grinding will pay off and our efforts to “change a little bit of everything” about our company will help us find success.

Please keep your fingers crossed for us! And if you app needs a voice, please shoot me an email.

Think

You better think (think)
Think about what you’re trying to do to me
Think (think, think)
Let your mind go, let yourself be free

“Think” by and co-written by Aretha Frankin

So I was thinking about a bunch of stuff this weekend. I spent a lot of time thinking about Aretha. I even made my kids watch The Blues Brothers so they could see that she was more than an amazing singer, songwriter and activist. She was funny. For me, she stole the movie with this scene and I’ve thought that since I first saw it as a kid…about my kids age.

Let’s go back, let’s go back
Let’s go way on way back when
I didn’t even know you
You couldn’t have been too much more than ten (just a child)
I ain’t no psychiatrist, I ain’t no doctor with degrees
But it don’t take too much high IQ to see what you’re doing to me

I’ve also been thinking about social networks (along with a lot of other people) and how they are having a negative affect on me and those around me. The negativity is mostly coming from a small group of people and millions of bots who are spewing a bunch of vitrol in their posts and videos and it’s hard to figure out what to do about these bad actors on these platforms.

The debate concerns who and who shouldn’t get banned for saying hateful things or what  should be considered offensive. I worry about asking the folks who run these networks to make decisions on these issues that impact our society and culture is a bad idea. Don’t get me wrong, these are really smart people. I’m just a bit weary of business people setting cultural and societal contracts instead of folks who dedicate their lives to public policy and service. I’m sure people are on the payroll at these companies that have dedicated their lives to such issues, but I’ve rarely seen internal policing go well. Maybe it will.

Ten or so years ago when I started on Facebook and Twitter the services were shortcuts to get information on my friends (on FB) and on tech, music and sometimes sports news from Twitter. It seemed like they were mostly link services that like my RSS reader, made it a bit easier to track a lot of things. Hyperlinks are powerful and I’d bounce around from source to source. The signal was distributed and un-algorithmed. Somewhere along the line that changed…at least for me. Pre-Twitter, I got my the majority of my information from visiting blogs and large media companies directly instead of quick-take tweets. Then I noticed I let the quick take replace reading the original piece altogether. I purposely had to make an effort to subscribe and visit a few publications and blogs every day after the election to change my news consumption habits. 

With a lot of people frustrated with Twitter’s take on censorship, some folks were floating quitting Twitter or trying other services like Mastodon as an alternative. I tried Mastodon a year or so ago, but it was a bit too much of a headache to use and it didn’t seem like that many people were using it. On Friday, I tried it again and found it much easier to use. And there were a lot of people using it, at least on the instance I joined. Does it feel like it could replace Twitter tomorrow? Nope. But Twitter didn’t seem like it would replace the news for me either when I first joined.

I’m not going to quit Twitter as there is still content value being created for me. I doubt that the network value of Twitter will go away for several years. But maybe Mastodon will pull out my “music Twitter” so there’s a place I can go that is higher signal on music and not crowded out by tech, politics or the people who conflate Twitter posts with Facebook posts of their personal lives non-stop. Twitter may not being growing significantly, but the noise has increased for sure.

I do think Mastodon or some distributed variant has a legitimate chance now to pull attention away from Twitter. Or at least some of the more interesting contributors, especially when I see two of the first people I followed on Twitter, Andy and Anil, are there and posting regularly. You can also kind of see the potential for some new community/publication thing forming when you see people like Will , Gary and Jeff playing around with Content.Town – their own Mastodon instance. Sure it’s a joke. Twitter seemed like one at first too.

So back to what Simon tweeted yesterday. Why don’t we just start blogging and rolling again? Why not go back to making content on my own, er leased, servers? It was never that hard to make a blog and it’s even easier now. Within a few minutes, good ‘ol Dreamhost (proud customer since 2001) and WordPress had me back up again. So I’m going to start cranking out blog posts again even if only two people read them. I’ll tell you, it’s much easier to write and read a blog post than a tweet storm

And to Simon’s point about subscribing to each other’s Atom/RSS feeds. We can still do that with services like Feedly, even if Google Reader is gone. Or maybe we should call Mark Fletcher to stand up my original fav Bloglines again. Or maybe there’s something new that sits on top of Twitter, Mastodons and blogs that is distributed and free of algorithmic feeds that more evenly distribute our attention and dollars to creators.  Anyway, you can find my RSS feed in the menu or I’ll keep plowing links on Twitter. 

Finally, thanks for reading my post. I so wanted to title it Back to the Future, but I had too much Aretha on my mind not to bring her into it. If you want to read a great piece on Aretha, my favorite is from Patterson Hood on The Bitter Southerner. Which is a great independent blog you should be reading.

It’s Not A Two Horse Race For Voice Assistants And Chatbots Aren’t Dying

Our early virtual assistants are kind of janky. That’s okay!

Three predictions on virtual assistants in a week full of predictions — from folks like us who actually build them.

As voice assistants dominated CES last week, people are asking “is every toaster, microwave and car really going to talk to me now?” Or are virtual assistants just a fad since many are being shutdown or proclaimed dead?

It’s hard to tell from the news this week. Having spent the last 1.5 years building virtual assistants (and 20+ years building consumer tech), here’s the bets I’d make:

Prediction #1: Google and Amazon will be in a lot of devices, but neither will “own” the voice entry point to customers.

That’s because the data and brand interactions created by conversations with customers will be so valuable that companies will not want to share this data with potential future competitors. Companies might experiment with Alexa and Google, but they are not going to totally give up on building their own voice platforms as Ina Fried at Axios observed this week at CES:

It’s a fierce battle between Amazon and Google to get their assistants included on other companies’ devices. At the same time, hardware makers including Samsung, LG and Roku are (also) putting their own voice assistants into their products.

As these companies watch their users interact conversationally with their hardware, they may find that the verboseness required to be a “smart speaker” like Alexa that can answer everything may not be required to enable useful conversational navigation of, say, a microwave. A smart speaker needs to be an omniscient service that can answer everything for everyone. Often a few basic user intents like ”Yes”, ”No” and some base navigational phrases can help the user accomplish most tasks — especially if the device has a screen that can convey information as well.

I’m completely biased on this idea, but I believe companies will start turning to dedicated (plug!) conversational developers to build holistic voice and chatbot features for their businesses outside of just embedding inside the big tech NLU platforms like Alexa or Google. To be clear, I believe these proprietary services will have interoperability with the major NLUs, but will be something more than “just an Alexa skill” in the near future.

Also, the companies that are experimenting with their own services now will be way ahead of the curve when their customers expect having a personalized conversation with a brand as a primary feature. Experimentation while the market is still growing and the bar to wow the end user is low is important.

That’s because even though Google, Amazon and Apple have a huge ASR lead on most speech recognition services, the most practical assistants do not need to understand a massive vocabulary to accomplish most tasks. Again, that’s because a single domain application can manage to handle the recognition of limited entity names (cocktails, movie names, etc) within a reasonable amount of time. It can be a bit rough at first, but better to work out these issues now while the number of total users is small. If you were late to the web or mobile, don’t blow it this time by waiting to find out how to present your brand in the conversational internet. Do it now while the stakes are low.

So expect even more voice and chat platforms outside of Amazon, Google and Facebook to exist and thrive in the marketplace over the next few years.

Prediction #2: The conversational internet will expand and interoperability between conversational platforms will accelerate as consumers demand consistent, state-aware conversational relationships with their favorite brands across platforms.

Even if I’m wrong and there are not dozens of successful conversational platforms and only 3–5 conversational platforms dominate, the consumer will demand that the relationship with their favorite brands transfer state to whatever platform is convenient for them. Think streaming a movie on Netflix on multiple devices for conversations.

For example, I may start talking to Alexa about a recipe in my kitchen in the morning, but I may want to pick back up the conversation on a Slackbot while at work to confirm I want to make that recipe. Then I might want to pull it up on my phone when I’m shopping for ingredients later. If I have to start the conversation over again or the AI doesn’t remember what we last spoke about — even if that’s on another device or platform — that user will be irritated with the brand and think it is dumb.

There’s no reason for the consumer to ever feel like a brand is dumb just because it can’t remember what the last interaction was on a different platform. Platform lock-in will not work on the conversational internet, much like it didn’t on the web or mobile. Brands and their consumers will force openness onto these conversational platforms. The platforms that try to keep brands locked in to their platform will ultimately fade while the open ones expand…as usually happens. Can you imagine how pervasive Siri would be if it was launched as an open platform? MBA’s will be writing cases about that missed opportunity for years.

The thing that is really missing for conversational services to explode is an open standards body that will enable developers and companies to build interoperability for the conversational services. More on that in another post.

Prediction #3: Conversational assistants and chatbots are not overhyped or dying.

Sure, conversational assistants and chatbots have been kludgy (or downright offensive) in this first wave, but that doesn’t mean they are “dead” or dying. It means they are evolving. Yep, this is evolution and we’re seeing the extinction of things that aren’t quite right or fully baked.

Our early virtual assistants are kind of janky. That’s okay!

Every major platform change starts with weird experiments or just plain bad ideas. 98% of startup products deserve to be evolutionary fodder. Another 1.5% were genius ideas that were too early. The other .5% that survive become monster businesses.

In Wired’s reporting on the “death” of Facebook’s M assistant, they lopped in “and so are chatbots” in the headline. In the vicious hype cycle of new technology, it wouldn’t be a cycle if chatbots and voice apps didn’t suffer a bit of a blowback after last few years of exuberance for those technologies. But to say that virtual assistants and chatbots are dead because the first wave of these applications are a bit wonky would be short-sighted.

The Wired article by Erin Griffith and Tom Simonite actually lays out the real issues with not only M, but Siri and the whole first wave of all-in-one “Pangea” assistants:

M's core problem: Facebook put no bounds on what M could be asked to do. Alexa has proven adept at handling a narrower range of questions, many tied to facts, or Amazon's core strength in shopping.

Another challenge: When M could complete tasks, users asked for progressively harder tasks. A fully automated M would have to do things far beyond the capabilities of existing machine learning technology. Today's best algorithms are a long way from being able to really understand all the nuances of natural language.

These two paragraphs completely wrap up both the promise and the problem with assistants. As users, we so want them to work! The user immediately goes to superuser mode with conversational assistants -whether chat or voice-based and ask them to solve all kinds of problems out of the scope of what’s currently possible. Inevitably, the user then curses the assistant when it fails and claims “this is stupid”.

I remember the feeling the first few times I tried to get a modem to connect to the internet or using my first cell phone. You gotta look past a lot of fail to see the future.

So while the Pangea “all things for everyone” assistant phase ends, I believe we will move to a “continental drift” phase of assistants where smaller assistants will breakout and tackle complex domain-specific problems successfully for end users. There are already quite a few productivity and work-related chatbots that are effectively solving problems for customers. As more companies have their assistants focus on domain-specific or single purpose assistants we will see more consumers asking “why can’t I do that for (X problem)?” in their lives. Once this happens, I really believe every website, app, device and brand had better be conversational — or start the slow fade to oblivion.

A lot of these predictions came from the work we are doing at Pylon ai. Our first two beta products, Tasted and The Bartender, are popular voice apps on both Alexa and Google. Our apps are built to work across voice and text platforms, so they also work on FB Messenger and Slack. Our apps are also “multimodal”, which means you can use them with a screen when it’s easier than talking to them. You can see a video of how that works here. If you would like your own cross-platform, multimodal assistant for your business, please email me.

And… if you made it this far, we owe you some schwag or a Google Mini! If you’re interested, send us your address! Or if stuff is not your thing, please sign up for our newsletter here for updates on conversational assistants, Elixir, React and other stuff we talk about at Pylon. Thanks!

The Best of Everything

So many people have written great posts or tweets about Tom Petty and their favorite Tom Petty moments. I’ve loved reading how Tom Petty moved them or was a part of their life. Thought it might feel good to share a few of my own.

I’ve never not appreciated Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ role as musical soundtrack provider and milestone marker through my adolescence to adulthood. Here are a few of my favorites moments:

One of the very first 45 records I bought with my own money.

MTV hit my house in 1982 and pretty much dominated my television viewing until I left for college. One of my favorite early videos was “You Got Lucky”. Looking back, it’s easy to call the sci-fi themed video’s production hokey. But if you were 11-years old and just coming off obsessions with first generation Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek reruns and Star Wars, it was a signal that these guys were simpatico with your current sense of awesomeness. Plus Tom got out of the space mobile with cowboy boots on! From that moment on Tom Petty and Mike Campbell were space cowboys from the future in my mind. I never thought of them as classic rockers. As a tribute, I am half entertaining the idea of buying old boomboxes, putting Tom Petty tapes in them and burying them in the ground so future space cowboys can stumble across them and discover Tom Petty a la the “You Got Lucky” video.

A few weeks later I went back to the Record Bar in the mall to buy Long After Dark, the album that contained “You Got Lucky” with some birthday money. With birthday level dollars, I could step up and buy whole albums instead of just singles. I had pretty much wore out the 45 by that time, so I wanted to dig in further.

I already had Queen’s Greatest Hits (w/ “Under Pressure”!) under my arm and was walking up with Long After Dark to the counter. These were big important purchases that would take most of my birthday $20, so I asked the clerk who was shelving stock if the rest of Long After Dark was as good as “You Got Lucky”. I remember her saying something like “It’s pretty good, but I would go with Hard Promises.” Without another word, she went back to the P’s, pulled Hard Promises and showed it to me. I can’t remember much else about the exchange other than I agreed to go with Hard Promises and she put Long After Dark back in the featured rack. Side A of that album is still one my favorite A-sides ever. Backing up “The Waiting” with “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)” is just killer. It also began my love of record stores and the people who work in them.

I went back a few months later and got Damn the Torpedoes too. I had figured out that he did “Don’t Do Me Like That’, which I had loved as well. I never did buy Long After Dark for some reason.

The next Petty album I bought was Southern Accents which will always be important in my musical development. I almost didn’t buy it because I didn’t love the “Don’t Come Around Here No More” single or its video. What got me was the title track and the song “Rebels” which was played on KZ-106, our classic rock “hot rockin’” radio station in 80’s Chattanooga, TN. It was the first time I became aware that being “southern” was a thing you could be proud of in some way that didn’t feel completely redneck. Lots of my friends really identified with the Hank Williams, Jr. type of southern identification…huntin’, fishin’ and football. I tried that stuff but it didn’t fit me well. I realized that’s not who I was was or wanted to be. Before Southern Accents, 15 year-old me wanted to be from the U.K. or California. That’s because my heroes at that age were from one of those two places: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Black Sabbath, etc. Those people were cool! After this album, I could point to other southerners as culturally cool too.

Like Petty, I didn’t know too much about the Civil War, being a “rebel” or what the confederate flag really meant at the time. I didn’t think it was something that even existed in “modern society”. That’s because I grew up in Chattanooga which has a lot of Civil War History. There are tons of old Civil War monuments here that have New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other northern states names on them. It was always clear to me who lost that war and who the losers were. Being a confederate just didn’t seem like something you wanted to be or celebrate. Later on, we both learned a lot about those terms and symbols and how they meant something other than just “being from the south”.

The album and its subject matter immediately started me down a path to a different kind of southern culture and a new take on southern music. One that would lead me to R.E.M., Gram Parsons, the Byrds and a whole bunch of alternative country artists that made me think differently about a southern culture that was more open to art and different ways of thinking than was offered to me before it.

I could write a whole other post about memories I have around the Full Moon Fever and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Greatest hits albums. They were literally the soundtrack of my college years. I didn’t buy either album as they were played non-stop in my college apartments, car trips, parties and events throughout that time. I know every song and lyric by heart on both those albums, and there are literally too many memories to recount.

The next seriously meaningful Petty moment for me was buying this Wildflowers cassette in New Orleans as I drove cross country to move to California in my 1988 Hyundai Excel. It sounded like freedom and I think I listened to it 3 or 4 flips in a row before I took it out. I remember the production sounded so good! Even on my cheap Hyundai speakers, this album sounded like a road dream. Put it on the next time you are on a road trip and see what I mean. I’ve probably listen to this album at least three or four times a year since. It’s funny, some of the songs that I thought were weak at the time, I love now. For example, “Honey Bee”. Of course, Dave Grohl already knew that song slayed in 1994.

A few years after I moved to San Francisco, the Heartbreakers did a residency at the Fillmore. I didn’t live far from The Fillmore, so I would go down and try to get a ticket from a fellow fan at face value. I got to go to four shows which were amazing. Tom and the band looked like they were having a blast too. I remember thinking how cool it was to see an older cowboy-looking guy from Petaluma rocking out next to a Haight hipster on some Petty staple or choice cover and it didn’t feel weird. Petty really did cross the cultural divide with people. I also remember there were great openers as well. I saw Bo Diddley open!

Over the next 20 years, I would see a few more of their shows, one at festival. I would listen to the new albums over streaming services. Whether a show or a new album, the product was always good and was never a disappointment. As it goes in life, moments in adulthood are harder to remember, capture or reference musically than those from your formative years. But I was still a fan and there are tracks on The Last DJ and Mojo that I love.

My last Petty moment was seeing him with Mudcrutch in Boston after a Red Sox game at the House of Blues last Fall. There were no TP & the Heartbreaker staples, but the crowd still loved it. You could feel that he was doing it just for fun. Like he was still looking for that magic after all these years. And when he locked in with Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, you could still see they had “their thing”. It was great to watch.

So there you have it. These were some of my favorite moments that Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers provided a soundtrack to over the years. Thanks for everything Tom.

Wherever you are tonight, I wish you the best of everything. And I hope you found whatever you were looking for.

To Jeff Bezos: Please Consider Chattanooga for HQ2!

Chattanooga, TN, future home of Amazon HQ2?

Dear Jeff,

Super excited that you are going to open the second Amazon headquarters!

I know this is a new project for you guys, so I’ll keep it brief and follow Amazon new project protocol. Below is the press release for when you announce Chattanooga, TN as the location for Amazon HQ2 below:

Amazon Opens Second Headquarters in Chattanooga, TN– The City With The Country’s Fastest Internet and Rated Best Outdoor Town

New headquarters will bring 50,000 employees, attracting talent from across the East Coast, Southeast and Midwest.

Amazon unveils $5 billion new headquarter design plans for Amazon HQ2 in the South’s “Scenic City” that is equal parts modern and beautiful

SEATTLE — (BUSINESS WIRE) — Sep. 7, 2018 — (NASDAQ: AMZN) — Amazon today announced plans to open Amazon HQ2, a second company headquarters in Chattanooga, Tennessee after a year long search. Amazon expects to invest over $5 billion in construction and grow this second headquarters to include as many as 50,000 high-paying jobs. In addition to Amazon’s direct hiring and investment, construction and ongoing operation of Amazon HQ2 is expected to create tens of thousands of additional jobs and tens of billions of dollars in additional investment in Chattanooga as well as the surrounding metro areas.

Amazon decided to open the second headquarters in Chattanooga based on several unique attributes of the city, specifically the combination of technology infrastructure, quality of living and proximity to talent across the East Coast, Southeast and Midwest. While Chattanooga’s metro population is approximately 550,000 and under the initial 1 million metro area population requirement, it is within a day’s driving distance of 50% of the United States’ population as well as major technical universities such as Duke, Georgia Tech and Carnegie Mellon.

Chattanooga Facts:

“After visiting many wonderful cities across America that would have made a great home for Amazon HQ2, our team fell in love with the combination of outdoor beauty, forward-thinking technology investments and the kindness of Chattanooga’s people,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO. “We think Chattanooga is the right choice financially for our employees as well as our business. We look forward to HQ2 being close to so many of our customers and partners. Honestly, the closer for me was all the great rock climbing and microbrews!” (note: I totally wish you would say that last line.)

Amazon is adding to its existing presence in Chattanooga, which is a distribution center it opened in 2012. The expansion of Amazon’s headquarters to the Southeast will dramatically impact the economy of the region and it’s people.

— — — — — — End of Release — — — — — — —

Ok, that’s my pitch press release for HQ2 coming to Chattanooga. The really smart leaders of our community will reach out through official channels I’m sure. I really hope you’ll give us a chance, even though we’re a wee bit under the metro population requirement. Some times big ideas look small at first.

If you do visit, please come by my office so we can show you the AI’s we’re building for Alexa! My company Pylon ai, built The Bartender and Tasted skills for Alexa with a team based here in Chattanooga. Turns out, we have a lot of great startups here, many focused on transportation. And one that might change the world according to NASA. Happy to show you around and meet everyone.

Thanks for the consideration!