Living in “interesting times”

Would you rather be a dog in peaceful times? Or a human in chaotic times? When asked this, most people of course pick “human in chaotic times”.

But when offered to pick one of two — risk or uncertainty — most pick “risk” over “uncertainty”. To an extent, risk is definable, quantifiable, often tangible, possible to plan mitigation of.

Brexit is a risk. We know the British public will make its choice on June the 23rd, 2016. Both “remain” and “leave” campaigns are trying hard to get people on their side. The “remain” side is trying to mitigate the risk by highlighting possible losses Britain can incur if Brexit happens. The “leave” campaign calls their mitigation strategies fear-mongering and baseless.

But a juicier example affecting us all this year is from across the pond.

That Trump could become President of the United States is a risk, as he inches closer to the required delegate count. What he will do, as President, about foreign policy, international trade, immigration, job creation etc is an uncertainty. As on the date of writing (April the 27th, 2016), his policy positions are at best unclear, at worst rhetorical. That may change. Or not. Further, all of the members of the Congress and a third of the members of the Senate are also up for elections this year. So it is hard to say what the balance of power will look like in the final outcome. That exacerbates the uncertainty.

My startup clients seem unfazed by Brexit although Jeff Lynn’s warning about how Brexit will damage the UK’s startup ecosystem should give them pause for thought. Folks at larger company client firms are adopting a wait-and-watch stance. In practice, this means there is much inaction around. Countrywide has sounded a warning bell over housing prices. All said, the economy in limbo is slowing down and Brexit is expected to hit the UK’s growth numbers.

It is, however, an altogether different discussion when it comes to the US presidential elections. Almost everyone I speak to, both in the UK and the USA, is secretly wishing for Mrs Clinton to become President, even though the GOP is traditionally seen as the party good for business and business people. I rarely have occasion to call a situation brimming with bathos. This is one such. I am also not unaware of the filter bubble effect in this finding, because I overwhelmingly speak with people who are educated and in well-paid white collar jobs.

But that is how we often deal with uncertainty. We try and wish it away. We conjure favourable scenarios. We discuss fine detail over which we have no control.

Mostly, we bide time till the uncertainty crystallises and transmogrifies into a risk – risk we can delineate, measure, plan to mitigate for, or just accept.

Back to my dog v human question. “Better to be a dog in a peaceful time, than to be a human in a chaotic (warring) period.” This is the Chinese curse we have bastardised for the Anglophone world as: “May you live in interesting times.”

As political chaos goes, I cannot recall a year more “interesting” than 2016 in my entire career of over two decades. Can you?

Answers on a postcard, please.

Never “just business” for female founders

Apparently female entrepreneurship events are “weep fests”, according to this opinion piece published by a media startup. “Why can’t we, for once, stop looking at the whole gender thing whenever we have a roomful of women, stop talking about how tough it is to be women and businesswomen at the same time, and just talk about how tough it is to do business, period?”, the columnist asks.

Why ever not?

There is no point regurgitating data that continually show how women’s startups are funded less often and at lower valuations, with age sometimes a barrier too; how women, regardless of their standing, face sexual harassment and innuendo in the course of every work day; how, regardless of how well-oiled their relationships are or what their qualifications are, women do more work at home and “office housework” at work.

No point, because the screed is a narrow point of view that fails to acknowledge that women entrepreneurs — I prefer the alliterative “female founders” — the world over seem to have many shared experiences and many common themes in their lives. And that many of those experiences and themes have little overlap with problems that male founders face. Even where both bring similar business related competence and capabilities to the table.

I advise a number of female founders from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds — from eastern Europe to Indian to British to any number of hyphenated-identities — in the UK, India and the USA. Here is what I know about women’s entrepreneurship around the world today.

Women are creating startups, because they are ambitious. Most female founders I see are on their second or third careers; their ages range from the 20s to the 50s; some or more have partners; some or more have kids; some or more are also main decision makers for the care of elderly parents. But they share one thing in common — a burning ambition to realise their creative and wealth-generative potential, while juggling everything.

Then something called reality intervenes. Kids fall ill, partners leave, domestic crises arise, elderly parents get sick, funding is hard to find, co-founders are even harder to find and keep, employees need to be paid. In the absence of funding being on tap, many female founders are bootstrapping their businesses. It is at these points I see many female founders review their goals. What I find is not a weep fest. Far from it. I find determination and resolve. I find that these women acknowledge that life is tough but they want it all. Who am I — or someone not in the fray with them — to say what their desires and ambitions should be?

When women discuss issues and challenges — as they do in many closed, some secret, female founder groups that I am privileged to be part of too, aside of my one-to-one discussions with my advisee founders — they find validation. They find they are not alone. They learn that the magnitude of some problems is smaller or bigger than they thought. They get pointed to sources of help and resources. They get support, respite, and encouragement to pursue their ambition with renewed vigour.

That conversation is what these female founder events are for. They are safe spaces for female founders.

These female founder events celebrate the simple fact that many women founders like to live their life in fulsomeness — from heating breakdown at home, to kids teething, to squabbling partners, to communities they live in, to managing the burn rate and knowing how much cash there is in the bank account of the business. Indeed there is research that shows people bring their whole selves to work, not just some thin-sliced, compartment of a person. Hell, people bring their spouses to work with them, whether they like it or not!

These events also provide a place to understand how one can frame one’s tradeoffs, given one’s very specific circumstances. This can be aided by hearing others’ stories. One founder shares details of her divorce settlement to make certain decisions about salary. Another finds a way to balance her childcare needs by working different hours from her co-founders, who sign up willingly to the gig knowing her specific needs for the next few years. Yet another knows she has a roof over her head so she can experiment because her parents won’t throw her out.

If trading both troubles and coping strategies be seen a “weep fest”, I would take that any day over false machismo based on the pretence that it is “just business”.

To dismiss the wholeness of a female founder’s life is to miss the point of entrepreneurship. For entrepreneurs, it never is just business. It is all personal.

And in that “personal” their whole lives are wrapped. They will weep if they want to, but as long as they are forging ahead with their plans, it is all good.

Four For Friday (23)

A reason behind this series was for me to keep track of my own varied reading. Everything, while appearing disjointed, really is connected. Often there is a unifying theme too. Can you see this week’s?

Much has been written lately about terminology. An “immigrant” has fewer rights than a “refugee” but has exercised more autonomy in arriving in a country that promises her a better future. To an alien, especially one reading European press it would seem immigrants remain just a smidgen more welcome than refugees. Should Europe be worried as much as it is? Click here to see where the refugees come from and where they go.

Should Europe instead worry more than the USA constantly gets high quality immigrants, as Scott Sumner writes here?

One of the reasons why the US is more unequal than a place like Germany, especially at the very top, is that the US is host to economic engines like Wall Street and Silicon Valley and Hollywood. I suppose you could throw in fracking. There’s no particular reason why continental Europe couldn’t have its own Wall Street, or Silicon Valley or Hollywood or fracking industry, but they don’t. Britain has “the City” which is sort of the Wall Street of Europe, and that adds to inequality in Britain. But Europe failed to attract the other engines of wealth creation and inequality that are as dominant as the US examples. Europe’s industries tend to be less of the boom/bust variety that often lead to great wealth, although they certainly have their share of billionaires.

From self-driving cars at Google to teaching and learning at Udacity, Sebastian Thrun outlines the problem with technology.

“Because of the increased efficiency of machines, it is getting harder and harder for a human to make a productive contribution to society.”

In a week when Apple announced more new products — and a plan (in some countries) for annually leasing iPhones — there is no need to wonder about what happens to our old mobile phones. In the EU, the manufacturer must take back end of life electric and electronic goods. Everyone from Mercedes to Apple offers recycling returns; if in working order, Apple devices recycling earns you a neat sum too. But we don’t know what happens to our best intentions & their regulation compliance.

We reached the shore, and looked across the lake. I’d seen some photos before I left for Inner Mongolia, but nothing prepared me for the sight. It’s a truly alien environment, dystopian and horrifying. The thought that it is man-made depressed and terrified me, as did the realisation that this was the byproduct not just of the consumer electronics in my pocket, but also green technologies like wind turbines and electric cars that we get so smugly excited about in the West. Unsure of quite how to react, I take photos and shoot video on my cerium polished iPhone.

It being Friday and New York Fashion Week, let’s finish with a note on style.

“On having his own style icons: “Why should I . . . I am one!””

Of subtractive creativity

In an earlier monograph, I wrote about transformation and emergence, the kind of inspiring creativity that everyone thinks leads to beautiful products.

But emergence isn’t intentional. It has a magic that is hard to understand and often replicate.

Intentional creativity and beauty however can come from removing things. But in any such intentional design process, we must begin by asking: what is our goal? What are we trying to achieve?

I have been contemplating subtractive creativity while I soak up some sunshine in the land of Tesla and self-driving cars. So naturally we are going to talk about cars! And since wall-to-wall sunshine makes me miss Britain and all things British, talking of a British car will be the perfect story to ponder.

Cars really just take us from A to B. We want them to do it fast. We want them to look pretty while doing that. And we want them to embody something magical in all that.

Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus Cars said: “Adding power makes you faster on the straights, subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.” There in a few words is the philosophy of design — subtractive creativity — at Lotus cars, who also power the Lotus F1 team.

Some high grade engineering and creativity goes into removing weight from a car to make it that noticeable bit faster. Some of that weight subtraction was made to serve a market for a two-seater car and some was powered by innovation in materials.

But as some of you may know, Lotus suffered financial difficulties which may raise the question I often ask about sustainable – which includes profitable – creativity.

Graham Nearn, the founder of Caterham Cars, bought the rights to Lotus Seven, which despite some regulatory challenges in the global markets, continues to be a popular — fast — car for the enthusiast. (Yes it is not for everyone. Just like any other luxury product!)

As environmental concerns become central to how we think about the transportation problem, subtractive creativity wins again. Lotus is a lead player in thinking about the environmental impact of their cars at every component level.

Indeed Tesla, which seems now to be everyone’s dream car, collaborated with Lotus in the creation of the Roadster. The relationship didn’t work out best for various reasons and now fewer than 7% of the components are common between the Tesla Roadster and Lotus’s EV. But as discussions abound about the weight of the Tesla S, mostly due to its battery, Tesla may yet have to rethink some of its design.

It isn’t, in the end, about Lotus or Tesla but about the homage they both pay to subtractive creativity. And by extension, to sustainability – of the creativity, of the environment, and of the human being’s quest for movement, speed and beauty all at the same time.

Best stated in the words of Colin Chapman, Lotus’s founder: “Simplify, then add lightness.”

What would China do?

After yesterday’s post, Google’s China Game, several lively discussions ensued. On Twitter, on emails with friends around the world, and on the telephone. The topic?

What would China do? And what will it mean?

While there was no consensus, three distinct possibilities were identified.

Nothing/ business as usual

This one is the simplest. In financial muscle comparison, Google, a business with a market capitalisation of approximately US$ 186 Billion and US$ 14.5 Billion in cash is a flea compared to the mammoth, the juggernaut called China, with a GDP of approximately US$ 4.33 Trillion with about US$ 1.6 Trillion cash reserve.

China does not really have to react to Google’s announcement from yesterday.

Denial/ business as usual

Even so, Google’s announcement and allegation of hacking is a public humiliation for China. The US State Department expressed its concern and asked for ‘an explanation’ from China. The White House too is waiting to hear from China. Ooh, remember the cultural cross-wires I mentioned yesterday?

So China responded. With a denial. Worded as follows:

“China’s Internet is open… China has tried creating a favorable environment for Internet. China welcomes international Internet companies to conduct business within the country according to law. China’s law prohibits cyber crimes including hacker attacks.”

There we have it. The denial which may provide a way for Google to salvage its quest for profits in China. And for the US to save face and carry on trading with China. Or which may not. Either way much will be discussed on radio, television and of course, the web.

Trade and technical retaliation/ business as unusual

This is the one to watch. Because this is the long-term game. Not only is the current world order in flux, but the western countries, hitherto world leaders in economic terms, are also in financial dire straits with large deficits.

China meanwhile is the largest exporter, mainly of manufactured goods to the USA, Hong Kong, Japan, Germany and South Korea amongst others. Its cash reserves aside, even the partial list of holdings of its sovereign wealth fund is impressive. China’s main buyers are faced with ailing domestic manufacturing sectors, rising unemployment at home, and aging populations.

Even so, as importing nations feel the pressure to keep standards of living at a level pegging, it seems China really has the importers by the short and curlies. Or does it (read the link in entirety)? If demand for its goods drops, can China keep exporting at the same prices? If it drops prices, the buyer nations can take it to WTO for dumping, the same forum where China has recently complained about the USA. And so on.

The possibilities are endless. It is no longer a one-time game, it is an ongoing game of chess.

Copyright: ๑۩۞۩๑~OTH~๑۩۞۩๑/

Copyright: ๑۩۞۩๑~OTH~๑۩۞۩๑/

It is plain to see that this game goes beyond what individual companies may or may not experience as non-technical or technical (pun intended) trade barriers.

It is about governments, it is about political hegemonies, it is a war of values  and freedom (May be! I am not so sure), it is the tug-of-war between the imperatives of the domestic industrial recovery and the obligations to world trade, it is (as my friend Alan wrote yesterday) about the RealEkonomik. It is about the new world order as the financial crisis, the new policy imperatives, the recovery plans and the electorates of democratic countries may drive.

I will go a step further and say: the realpolitik is the realekonomik.

Let battle commence.