The Web and Society

Post ImageThe second keynote of the morning is with Rob Hyndman and Dr. Michael Geist, who will be chatting about the web and society. Here are my notes, with my comments again in italics. I think Michael looks a little like Billy Crystal.

  • Oooh a slidedeck! Michael Geist is opening with a presentation, and he’s using pictures on slides just like we saw at Northern Voice. Seems to be a popular format. He’s talking about Sam Bulte and the copyright fiasco that happened over the holidays. He’s an excellent speaker. I guess the bloggers defeated Bulte in the last election. Or did they?
  • Three lessons we can draw: new voices, new stakeholders, new copyright.
  • There is a tendency at times to focus on the negativity of what’s taking place (spam, porn, etc). There is some remarkable stuff taking place: content creation, content sharing, good news story.
  • Readership of papers is flat in Canada, in decline in the US.
  • Canadian retail sales of books remain constant. Records for vide games. Declines for music.
  • “What is more long tail than Canadian content?”
  • Michael’s question is what’s the policy to ensure this great stuff continues, and in fact, to encourage it?

Now we’re getting to the conversation.

  • Rob says “after hearing Michael speak, I feel like going out to run a marathon, the world is gonna be okay.” Agreed.
  • We’re looking at new legislation being introduced probably this fall. Michael says that US-style law is protection for things like DRM. The tools and laws don’t work.
  • What about iTunes, it requires DRM, doesn’t that tell us something? Michael says it tells us something about the labels, only willing to do it when DRM came around. It will be unfortunate if we end up in a world with only iTunes.
  • Where is the Canadian content? Apple doesn’t need to negotiate deals with the smaller companies, so these things are missing.
  • We saw some movment in France to try and rollback DRM, are there signs that there is some flexibility? Michael says users already have control over content, the question is whether we’re going to lock them up for it. A growing number of countries are recognizing that policies put into place in the 1990s are outdated, and don’t reflect the current state of the web.
  • We’re seeing a move to a more collaborative method of content creation. What does this tell us about the ideal model of intellectual property protection? Rob says he isn’t anti-copyright, but we need to understand that some of the reforms are not about copyright, but protecting markets. DVD region encoding, for example, has nothing to do with copyright.
  • Question from the floor: do we need new copyright policy in Canada or not? Michael says the starting point is “do no harm.” There are some opportunities: we have a fairly limited fair use right, which is stifling to new business, for example. There is an opportunity to do good, but we can do a lot of harm along the way.
  • What is the current political reality? The Canadian Recording Industry is about as good a lobbying group as there is. When musicians finally speak out, it’s a breath of fresh air, but you can’t undo twenty years of lobbying in two weeks. Matthew Good and the Barenaked Ladies are leaders in this space. There’s a new coalition of artists.
  • Question about the SOCAN levies: Michael says their vision of levies really went to liabilities. It’s unlikely we’ll see a lot of people push in that direction.
  • Another question: Do you see young people getting more politically active if their fun is limited? Michael says it is tough to say, but if there is an issue, this is it. More and more people are starting to see this as their issue, for example, the musicians.
  • Michael says there will unquestionably be infringements, but that’s why we have a system, so that we have a set of rules and we have certain abilities when someone clearly violates. This may be a very smart room, but none of us is smart enough to see what the world will look like in a few years. But I would argue that all of us is smart enough, the wisdom of crowds!
  • This is not just a copyright issue, net neutrality plays a big role. Michael says it is absolutely an issue here in Canada, for example, what happened with Telus during the lockout. If you have economic incentive to block content, and no laws in place to say you can’t use market power to do that, then we’ve got problems.
  • Michael says we need to rethink policies that are developed with the idea that everyone will want incentive (say getting paid for blogging).

The Future of Media

Post ImageHere are some notes from the first keynote of the day, featuring Om Malik and a discussion between Om and Mark Evans of the National Post. Items in italics are my thoughts and comments. They are discussing the future of media:

  • Kind of cool, two green couches up on stage for this conversation.
  • Can the old world of media survive, and if so, how do they adopt? Om says he doesn’t see the difference between old world and new world at all. As long as the information is delivered.
  • Traditional media faces challenges because some people simply shouldn’t be in the traditional publishing business Om says. He thinks it would be impossible to replace things like the NY Times or National Post or WSJ.
  • Are bloggers journalists? Om says people in that debate have too much time on their hands.
  • Mark says a lot of newspapers are still struggling with the online business model. If they haven’t been able to embrace the web, how can they embrace blogs and podcasts and things? Om says if they don’t, they face a bigger problem, which is a whole new generation that only consumes their news online (sounds a lot like me).
  • Om says that Forbes.com is really saving Forbes’ bacon right now.
  • The hundreds of newspapers that will disappear are probably bad newspapers, Om thinks. It won’t be papers like the New York Times – “that said, I’ll be glad to see a lot of newspapers go.”
  • Om says blogs are killing off the trade press more than anything.
  • Mark asks about television, watching what you want when you want? Om says the mainstream market doesn’t really care, there haven’t been that many Tivos sold. He says TV is still a passive medium, people just want to sit there and watch whatever’s on, for the most part. Regular people don’t care about Tivo’s.
  • Apparently Mark Evans likes The Sopranos, and has a bunch recorded on his PVR, ready to watch. I’ve still never seen an episode of that show.
  • Mark asks about the Three C’s – credibility, content, and cash.
  • Om says getting discovered is harder than attaining credibility. People can make judgement calls if they find the blog. Credibility comes from the content you create, and in the end, people recognize what’s good and what’s bad.
  • Mark thinks newspapers can survive in local markets, for local advertisers. Om thinks there is an opportunity for local-focused startups.

And now, some questions from the floor.

  • Are we underestimating the capacity of the day-to-day world of print, where you basically have a free license to spam?
  • What about Craigslist? Om says the newspapers are up against free classifieds, but otherwise, Craigslist is a different kind of beast.
  • “When information is free, the only thing of value is point of view.” Do you think that’s a helpful paradigm? Om says context is more valuable, you have to put everything in context, and most of the time, people fail to do this. People confuse opinion with context. Om says context is the single biggest thing missing in the news today.
  • Imagine a future in which you get the news on a digital paper. How far are we from that world? Om has no clue.
  • About the economics of blogging – how is one to establish themselves financially? (Boris Mann beside me says, join a network, next question! Agreed.) Om says he is part of Federated Media, which is an aggregated network. What we need is a new kind of advertising paradigm. Om says advertising is seriously lagging in the blogging space. Mark remarks that many reasons people blog now are not financial, they just want to get their point of view out there.
  • Question about net neutrality. Om says from a blog publishing point of view, its not much of an issue. Mark wonders if it is a way for traditional media to protect themselves online, because they can pay. Om says there is room for independent media, they don’t need to be streaming high def!
  • Question about transitioning from tradtitional newspaper to online. Om says lifestyle, sports, and business support the paper. In the online world, you can finetune things, maybe using AP or Reuters for international news instead of your own team. Om says the concept of magazines is not going away anytime soon.
  • How do we effectively change that paradigm of advertising. I can turn off my ads on a website using Firefox – how do advertisers deal with that? Om: Internet Explorer, 85% market share. I would say that since Google pretty much owns Firefox, and their business is advertising (not search!), I wouldn’t expect it to get any worse than it already is. Om says he can’t believe the number of people that click on his Google ads. Mark: “who are these people?!”
  • Om says the blogs that provide value with stick around, and the ones that don’t will go away. “Every user comes with their finger poised on the back button.” Boris remarks that RSS hasn’t come up once yet. How many people in this audience visit Om’s blog on the web? Probably most use RSS.
  • Ah what do you know, the next question comes up, and Om answers with RSS. The question was about monetizing information, can we actually do it? Om says in reality, there is a fundamental change happening, with a new format of information distribution and consumption, and the business model needs to be worked out.
  • What does it look like in three years? Om says it will look pretty similar. NYTimes or WSJ might hire some bloggers, but things aren’t moving as fast as people think. You will see the biggest media experiment.
  • Boris gets to ask a question: he says he only uses RSS, he never visits the websites. Blogs are conversations, Boris can’t have a conversation with the National Post! So no question, but just comments, but he made a good point, and Om agrees. Om says RSS is a challenge, but its a huge opportunity. Whoever can figure out a new advertising model right now stands to make a lot of money. Mark says old media is failing miserably at creating a conversation.
  • Om says Web 2.0 is a new way of thinking, not some fancy new javascript bits. Is it really all about advertising? I think there’s so much more to Web 2.0.
  • Seems people get their news mostly from the same services. Are you concerned about how that affects the conversation? Om says the real intelligence of blogs is in the comments.

Not surprisingly, this session went slightly over time.

Opening Remarks

Post ImageStuart MacDonald is on stage welcoming everyone to the conference. He says they want the event to be a two-way conversation, full of meshing, instead of the typical “we talk you listen” kind of conference. “Think of yourselves as participants, rather than attendees,” they say.

Introductions to the organizers, thanks to the sponsors, etc, etc. Housekeeping stuff, there is free WiFi, and there is power in the floor (though we can’t figure out how to open the panel). Please turn off your BlackBerry’s (apparently they make a clicking noise?). On with the show!

Let’s Mesh!

Arrived at Mesh

Post ImageJust arrived here in the auditorium for Mesh 06, and I’m ready to go! I’ve got my Oilers jersey on, sticking out like a sore thumb amongst all the khakis and dress shirts, but that’s cool. I’ll have lots of pictures to post throughout the day, so check out Flickr. There’s lots of people here already, with more and more coming in.

I haven’t seen as many people I know as I did in Vancouver yet, but that’s to be expected, as most of the attendees here are probably east coasters.

It wasn’t looking good last night after I went to sleep – I woke up coughing and ended up being seriously ill. Fortunately it only lasted for about an hour. I felt fine before, and I felt fine afterward, so maybe it was something I ate? In any case, I’m back to normal.

VenturePrize Mentor Breakfast

Post ImageI just got back from the VenturePrize Mentor Breakfast presented by MacEwan, which I mentioned we were attending in my previous post. Fortunately, we called one of our mentors this morning to find out where it was, so we made it on time, and everything worked out okay. Dickson and I were invited to speak at this event by the MacEwan organizers, to share our experience with and thoughts on the mentorship program that comes as part of VenturePrize. To sum up our presentation:

A mentor’s only obligation is to provide honest, altruistic advice regarding the business plan to the business team they work with during the competition. In our experience, the business team ends up receiving much more than just advice in the mentorship program – they essentially gain another team member – making it a truly invaluable resource. As far as we’re concerned, VenturePrize simply wouldn’t be the same without the mentorship process that comes from the business plan screening, judging, and presenting, the seminar series, and of course, the mentors themselves. We’re truly grateful we were able to take part!

The breakfast this morning was quite good, both the food and the people! We sat with and spoke after Grant MacEwan College CEO and President Dr. Paul Byrne, as well as TEC Edmonton CEO Dr. David Cox. Talk about some tough acts to follow! Both of them are excellent speakers, extremely well-versed in what they do. It probably sounds kind of corny, but events like the breakfast today are all part of that mentorship process we talked about, and we keep learning more and more with each event.

Corel buys WinZip

Post ImageThe last time I wrote about Canadian software company Corel, I mentioned that they struck me as a company “without focus, or at least, too many different focuses.” But don’t take my word for it, just look at their most recent announcement. Larry Borsato explains:

Corel, the makers of all of that once great software that nobody uses now like WordPerfect, has acquired WinZip. I must have a sixth sense about this sort of thing because I stopped using WinZip a couple of months ago and switched to WinRAR.

I just got my new computer all setup this week (more on that later) and what do you know! Like Larry, I too only have WinRAR installed, no WinZip for me. Whew, that was a close one. Any idea why Corel would buy WinZip? I don’t see how it fits with their company…but maybe its just me.

Read: Larry Borsato

Published in the National Post

Post ImageI was asked a few weeks ago if I’d be interested in writing something for the May issue of the Financial Post Business Magazine. I guess the editor is a happy subscriber of this blog 😉 Of course, how could I refuse such an opportunity?! So I happily put together an article, which was included in the special report on telecom in this month’s edition, on podcasting and how it affects business and communications:

Business could be using podcasting for everything from audio press releases to customer relations. What’s it waiting for?

It’s easy to see why podcasting could revolutionize day-to-day communications. The tools and services that make it easy to create a podcast are coming, from companies like Paramagnus and our competitors. Online directories and software applications like Apple’s iTunes already make it simple to find and subscribe to podcasts. And the simpler it gets, the more people will take advantage of this powerful tool.

Beyond that, podcasting has business applications ranging from audio and video press releases, to offering tips and tricks on using the company’s products, to internally podcasting company news for employees. Podcasting is more than just the new millennium’s version of ham radio; it is a complete communications solution. When you think of it as something other than a new and geeky technology, the many different ways podcasting can affect your daily life become not only extremely obvious, but awfully exciting.

The entire piece is about 800 words, so the two paragraphs I posted above are just a snippet (but are the main idea behind the article). I had fun writing it, so I hope you enjoy reading it too!

Read: FP Business

Featured in ExpressNews

Post ImageDickson did an interview recently with a reporter from the University of Alberta’s ExpressNews, and the article featuring Paramagnus and our business plan competition success is now up:

A couple of University of Alberta students are starting to hear the sweet sounds of success.

The business world has been tuning in to Mack Male and Dickson Wong ever since the duo’s innovative podcast technology earned a place in the VenturePrize finals.

The article borrows heavily from the recent Journal and Sun articles, but is still very well written. And to be honest, it’s nice to be recognized by your school!

Read: ExpressNews

The History of Apple

Post ImageAs you may or may not know, 2006 marks the 30th anniversary of Apple Computer, and yes I find it amusing that they still have “computer” in their name (seriously, the iPod is not being represented)! Anyway, via Derek Miller I came across this rather amusing history of the company, with entries starting 4-15 billion years ago. It really puts things in perspective:

With the celebration of Apple’s 30th anniversary wrapping up, it seems like the perfect time to take one last look back at the company’s storied history. Now, anyone can put together a timeline that tells you what year certain Macs were released or which kitty code-named version of OS X came out when. But Apple’s 30th anniversary demands a concerted effort from a reporter not afraid to dig deep to discover the untold story of Apple’s history. Sadly, none of those reporters were available, so Macworld turned the project over to the editor of Crazy Apple Rumors Site instead. Here are some key moments in the history of your favorite fruit-themed technology company as best he could remember them.

It’s definitely worth a read!

Read: Macworld

Raising Money for Tech in Alberta

Post ImageAn incredible number of tech startups have been created in the last year or so, as evidenced by the existence of blogs like TechCrunch and The List to track them all. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, some people are starting to get turned off. Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr, recently suggested that it’s a bad time to start a company. She outlined six reasons:

  1. Everybody else is starting a company.
  2. Your competition just got funded too.
  3. Talent is scarce again.
  4. You can’t operate in obscurity anymore.
  5. Web 2.0 isn’t all that.
  6. There’s too much going on.

With the exception of number five, I have to respectfully disagree. And judging by the comments she received on that post, many others do as well. More and more companies are being launched every day, and while not all of them will succeed, some will.

The vast majority of these companies are located in Silicon Valley, or at the very least, in the United States. For a while it seemed that Canada was missing out on this time of growth in the tech sector, but thanks to conferences like Mesh and the odd VC deal, that perception is starting to change. We still have a long way to go though, before Mark Evans will be satisfied:

What I want to know is when is Canada’s Web 2.0 party going to start? When can I start writing about super-cool start-ups strutting around with a multi-million dollar VC deals? When do I get to attend parties with an open bar, a great band and a nice “loot bag” when you finally decide to leave?

I have been wondering the same thing, especially given the fact that I have been creating a “cool startup” here in Canada. Through VenturePrize, Wes Nicol, and all of the people and organizations we have met along the way, I have learned a lot about investment and raising money, both here in Alberta and elsewhere.

If you can raise money for a tech venture in Alberta, you can raise it anywhere.

The main thing I have learned about where to raise money is that in Alberta, raising money for a technology based venture is next to impossible. Alberta sees something like 3% of all tech funding done in Canada, which doesn’t jive with our incredible economy. The problem is that the Alberta economy is really a one-trick pony – we’re almost entirely dependent on oil and gas (and real estate which becomes valuable because of the oil and gas). And with generous tax and royalty programs like the Innovative Energy Technologies Program and the Generic Oil Sands Royalty Regime (more on these here), why would an investor put money into anything but oil? They can get a significant portion of their investment back through these and other royalty programs. I have been told that in some cases an investor can get almost half of what they invest back in credit!

One advisor I spoke with suggested that the way our provincial economy is setup is really “punitive” for technology based firms. It’s bad news for the future of our province too, as oil and gas are simply not sustainable over the long haul.

This web page appears to have been written in 1996, and yet the three issues identified at the very top still affect technology commercialization in Alberta (not to say that nothing has been accomplished in the last decade):

  1. The shortage of financing for SMEs, primarily for seed or early stage companies with a capital requirement of less than $500,000.
  2. The lack of financing options related to commercialization and early growth situations, where public offerings or other forms of institutional financing may not be appropriate.
  3. The lack in Alberta, relative to other jurisdictions, of tax related incentives, to stimulate investment in the technology sector.

They match up with everything I have learned thus far anyway. More recent publications seem to confirm things as well, such as Ernst & Young’s Alberta Technology Report from 2004:

“Limited funding is an issue that needs addressing,” says Ian Robinson, who as team leader of Ernst & Young’s Technology, Communications and Entertainment group heads up the report. “Locally based angel investors are improving the picture-in 2003 we saw a quarter of companies supported by angels, an increase from 17% the previous year. But few Alberta companies are receiving support from venture capitalists, and small companies-the majority of Alberta’s technology sector-are not able to access funding from these sources. Not surprisingly, perhaps, 38% of companies suggest a willingness to leave Alberta, in part to gain better access to capital,” he says.

So what can you do to raise money for a tech venture in Alberta? Turns out there are still a few options, one of which is of course to simply look elsewhere! In addition to personal or family and friends capital, debt funding, and the other traditional methods of raising money, here are some of the programs available in Alberta:

  • Alberta Deal Generator
    “Alberta Deal Generator (ADG) has established the largest network of accredited investors in Canada who are actively pursuing opportunities in Alberta’s early and growth-stage companies. We work to facilitate investment in high-growth Alberta technology companies.”
  • VenturePrize
    Having gone through the competition, I can confirm that it is a reasonable way to attract investment. At the very least you will likely be introduced to some of the individuals and groups in Alberta that might be interested in investing.
  • Scientific Research and Experimental Development Program
    “The federal government provides income tax incentives to Canadian taxpayers that conduct scientific research and experimental development (SR&ED) in Canada. The program encourages industry, including small business and start-up firms, to develop technologically advanced products and processes in Canada.”
  • Industrial Research Assistance Program
    We have consulted with IRAP here in Edmonton, and it turned out that we just weren’t at the right stage for funding (though they have helped us in other ways). If you’re getting started with a technology based company, make sure you talk to IRAP early so you can plan to use their services and funding.
  • Tech Focused VC Firms
    Organizations like Venture Alberta and SpringBank TechVentures are focused on technology based firms, though I have no idea how successful they have been.
  • Venture Forums
    There are lots of forums that are open to any company in Canada, no matter where you are located, such as the Canadian Venture Forum. There are some local ones too, like the Keiretsu Forum for Calgary and Edmonton.

Hopefully that gives you a good overview of the funding situation for technology companies here in Alberta. There is lots of room for improvement, and until things do improve, I would not be surprised if we end up losing some good technology firms to other locations.

That said, I guess I should point out that starting a company in Alberta is not all bad. There are many advantages to being here, such as excellent access to labor, reasonably good tax rates, and very little threat of natural disasters (such as flooding destroying your data center or something).

In terms of funding though, if your venture is oil and gas related, Alberta is the place to be. If instead your venture is technology based, you might be better off elsewhere unfortunately.