Join our Techonomy Roundtable on The Death (and Future) of Venture Capital

On November 18, join Techonomy and the Observer in an enlightening, video roundtable discussion with VC industry experts.

Recently the Observer and The Information have published essays arguing that venture capital as practiced over the last half century is becoming obsolete (even while there is more of it available than ever before). What forces are at work that are compelling venture capital to adapt? What ways will startups in the future find the funding to grow their businesses?

On November 18, join Techonomy and the Observer in an enlightening, video roundtable discussion with VC industry experts. 

SPEAKERS:

  • James Ledbetter, Chief Content Officer of Clarim Media and editor & publisher of FIN 
  • Blair Silverberg, Founder and CEO of Hum Capital
  • Sam Lessin, General Partner of Slow Ventures and Columnist at The Information
  • Moderator: Meg Marco, Editor-in-chief of Observer 

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Robin’s Rules of Order: New Models for the Workplace

Right now, companies are fumbling. It’s time to apply a new set of metrics to how work is measured, how it’s compensated, and how much of it can be done remotely.

Now that we’ve bitten into the forbidden fruit of the work-from-home apple we have, as the biblical tale goes, seen each other naked.  And once you’ve seen the makeupless faces, the shoddy t-shirts, the adorable/annoying pets and kids, and that big reveal–the inside of a co-workers home–there’s no going back. Plucking people out of their natural habitat, gussying them up, and sticking them in a context-less office chair seems downright abnormal.

As we wrestle with how to return some sense of normalcy to the workplace, we’re not likely to forget all we’ve learned from our year and a half of working from anywhere. It’s time to apply a new set of metrics to how work is measured, how it’s compensated, and how much of it can be done remotely. And it’s also time to put a new set of metrics in place to allow workers to grow their careers while balancing their lives.

Historians will look back on this post-pandemic reconstruction as something as monumental as the Industrial Revolution.  That historic shift demanded that we leave our homes and head to factories and offices. The post-pandemic era will similarly demand a reassessment of work and how and where it’s done. Dawn Pratt, who runs Tech Up for Women and does corporate human resources training, told me that HR folks are pulling their hair out trying to come up with equitable, out-of-the-box solutions that make sense of work.

It’s time for new bold models. The major impetus for the change stems from technology.  Cloud-based applications, video conferencing, shared documents, and whiteboards are just a few of the technologies rendering those old gatherings in conference rooms as anachronistic as a two-martini lunch. (Though granted, plenty of big deals were signed during two-martini lunches.)

Right now, companies are fumbling. They give lip service to the concept of valuing what workers accomplish, not where they accomplish it. But they are struggling to make those words functional. Facebook and Google are both allowing employees to work remotely for the foreseeable future. Facebook is even encouraging workers to consider working from remote places, even other countries. In May, Google announced that some 60 percent of Googlers will spend a few days per week in the office, 20 percent will work in new office locations and another 20 percent will work from home under an expected future hybrid-work model.

Amazon has one of the most specific return to work policies, spelling out a hybrid arrangement even once workers come back in January 2022:

“Our new baseline will be three days a week in the office (with the specific days being determined by your leadership team), leaving you flexibility to work remotely up to two days a week.If you would like to work in the office less than three days a week and are still able to commute into your assigned office as needed, you can apply for an exception from your VP. If the exception is approved, you will be considered primarily a remote worker, and will have an agile workspace (not a dedicated one) that provides space to collaborate with your team. Separately, corporate employees (for whom working away from the office is an effective option) will have the choice to work up to four weeks per year fully remote from a domestic location (without the expectation that you will commute into an office during that time).”

Some companies like Virbela in the US and Chargebee in India have never had a physical office. According to Global Workplace Analytics, just 3.6% of the US workforce worked from home in 2018. Now, they report, “Our best estimate is that 25-30% of the workforce will be working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.”  The data is followed by a list of companies that are touting “remote-first,” including Quora, Dropbox, Hubspot and Pinterest, along with quotes from their management on reasoning behind those decisions.

How do you get started on the re-invention? I’ve created a blueprint — let’s call it Robin’s Rules of Order.

Step 1:  Task analysis

Dissect your team’s workflow and responsibilities, identifying which tasks are best done alone, and which ones rely on group think.  And which group think activities will be more successful in person rather than virtually?

Step 2: Identify the Office’s Uniqueness.

If you’re going to ask an employee to leave home and come to the office,  what will they want to see in the office?  A gym?  A 3D printer?  A recording studio producing high-end audio and video? A daycare area? Maybe even a token foosball table?  The office needs to have benefits beyond the water cooler and the Keurig.

Step 3:  Step up your virtual meeting strategy. 

We’ve had nearly two years of remote meetings, but they can become more effective.  Engage the more silent members of the group with direct engagement.  “I haven’t heard much from Susan but I know when she speaks it’s important.”  “Sally, you’re the youngest member of the team, attuned to what’s happening with a new generation, what do you think we should do?”  And make meetings shorter — way shorter.

Step 4:  Identify talents you learned about your team members during pandemic

“John, did you paint that photo that hangs in your Zoom background?  Maybe we should think about putting those artistic skills to work for the team.”

Step 5: Set deliverable metrics.  

More than ever before work is more than just showing up. Specific tasks and timetables need to be established.

Step 6: Break down the silos.

For too long marketing, sales, engineering, and HR each had their own hierarchical fiefdoms, often unresponsive to group goals at large. Think less about having a meeting and more about who are the right people from across the organization to be there.

Step 7: Set the Stage

A good manager will cultivate a knack for involving the whole group and demanding attention. Cameras on with mobile phones out of reach are two basic rules that help. Articulate standards for other distractions like private chat channels, too. A meeting leader needs to have the same skills as a classroom teacher–a bit of showmanship and a talent for engaging the students.

Step 8: Assign New Roles.

Identify new talents and roles to meet the occasion–running spotlight features, Googling for more information about a topic you’re discussing, operating the whiteboard, monitoring chats, even providing a fun interlude. The rise of virtual work will mean new jobs and job functions. 

Step 9: Create a Path Forward.

Your teams need to keep their skills sharpened. Each employee should have an individual education plan as part of their job. Learning is part of the job description now, whether it’s attending a seminar, getting a degree, or getting micro-credentialed…

Step 9: Create a Scout Team.

It should investigate new technologies that your work-from-anywhere team can use, as they arise.  Innovation in remote work technology is rife. Don’t just rely on your IT department to innovate (but do consult with them). Streaming solutions, shared white boards, transcription, and analytics tools — all of these belong in the arsenal for work-from-anywhere productivity.

The brass tacks of the transition will be complicated. Benefits, tax implications, empty real-estate (I’ve written about this for Techonomy before) will all need to be reckoned with. It will fall to product managers and team leaders to write rules of engagement for their teams. And workers will generally choose where they want to work based on the culture that best suits their workstyles, at least in progressive and aware companies. Job titles, salaries, home-office stipends, performance tracking, and methods of managing will all require major overhauls. But the workplace that we all end up with is likely to be far more satisfying, and even more productive, than the one we left behind back in March 2020.

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Zoom Wants to Be the Center of Your Universe. What Could Go Wrong?

Apps are likely to end up a great way to take rigidity and sameness out of Zoom meetings.  But for the moment, to have better meetings you need fewer tools, not more.

On August 24th Zoom experienced a significant worldwide outage. The Washington Post reports that it’s unclear how many people were affected. Information points to some sort of “authentication” problem. The initial problem was reported on DownDetector, a site that tracks outages on major platforms, apps, and devices. Zoom now reports 300 million daily participants so a little authorization trouble goes a long way.  My purely speculative hunch is that some of Zoom’s newly announced expansions, especially its new apps marketplace, may be contributing to the problem.

This past July Zoom announced the marketplace. Instead of asking users to exit Zoom to use an app like Calendly, Slack, DocuSign, a whiteboard, or a game, users can now launch such apps directly within Zoom. The idea is that you run virtual meetings with a full set of built-in apps, to call on as you need them. Previously the company had something called ZAPPS, apps that worked with Zoom, but this new marketplace lets apps access Zoom’s APIs, making it in theory your platform to launch just about anything you can imagine, without ever leaving a meeting. (As if there weren’t enough time already spent in Zoom meetings. But I digress.) As of launch, there are well over 50 apps in the marketplace and the number is growing quickly.

I’m hopeful Zoom will smooth out these integrations over time, but if there was an app for tearing out your hair, I would have been using it during my recent foray into this world of Zoom apps. And if I were an IT manager, I’d issue a No Zoom Apps policy until the system matures.

App integration has become the holy grail for productivity, but it’s not easy for either developers or users. Each app (not unlike app integrations anywhere) follows its own set of permissions and rules about how it will use your data. And it will use it! Each app works differently depending on whether your Zoom attendees have the app installed or not. And, you’d need your head examined to use these apps in a public Zoom meeting without prior rehearsal — something Zoom makes hard to do. I practiced by acting as host and inviting my long-suffering husband to be an attendee so I could at least see what one attendee was seeing.

Here’s a whirlwind tour of the Zoom App Marketplace.

Installation

If you’ve opened your Zoom meeting and have no idea what I’m talking about, that’s because you don’t have the latest release. On it you’ll see a new “apps” menu on your dashboard at the bottom of the Zoom screen, just to the right of the fabled “Reactions” menu.

To install an app you just click on the apps button. It shows you apps you’ve already installed and lets you go to the marketplace to discover others.  You can even install an app in the midst of a live meeting. (But that, IMO, qualifies as Zoom-icide.)

Next, you’ll notice that some apps are meant to work with Zoom meetings, some with webinars, and some with rooms, and also that each app has a level of permissions for authorization.  If you’re just a Joe Schmoe like me you can simply ask to be personally authorized.  Select  “authorize” and “add app”. The installed app will appear in your app tab. Some app approvals take a bit longer. I’m still waiting to get a beta invitation to Warmly, a Zoom app that acts as a private investigator and digs up information in real-time on whoever you’re with in a Zoom meeting. 

Office workers will need to suck up to their network admins if they want to use a Zoom app. Judging from a Reddit thread I perused, IT managers have been quite vociferous about not wanting to open up this Pandora’s box just yet.  And when administrators are ready to approve Zoom apps it’s likely to be ones already used in their workplace. Zoom apps most likely to be selected for approval include Miro (for drawing), Asana for managing projects, Slack for messaging, and Google Workplace.

Curious as to whether this was simply a free-for-all (there are tools to build your own Zoom app as well) I called Danny Stefanic, who just released his MootUp for Zoom. He told me the process to get approval was pretty stringent, requiring apps to divulge a lot of privacy and security information and to adhere to strict guidelines. And while no one from Zoom responded to my requests for more information, the guidelines page states clearly that “All apps on the Zoom App Marketplace have been reviewed for security and data compliance as part of the process to publish the app to the Zoom App Marketplace.” Comforting.

In my multi-hour experiment, I installed eight different apps with eight completely different sets of rules for how they operate in Zoom. To play the game HeadsUp I sent an invite to my co-participant, who was told to install the app. (It now cannot be uninstalled. Plus, after one free game question they want $11.95 a month.) I tried Miro, which sent me out of Zoom to register. I shared Miro. My participant could watch, not interact. In most cases, once you finally do get an app opened you have two options: “share” and “send”.  Share simply uses screen share, but I could have done that without the Zoom app even being involved. Send, on the other hand, forces your attendees to install the app, which causes total meeting disruption unless you give them a heads-up before the meeting.  Some newer apps are both ingenious and “WTF” simultaneously, like Dots, which offers feedback and rewards to meeting participants, or Circles, which takes the squares out of Zoom and puts people instead in circles. Is that something you’ve pined for as you’ve been stuck in the grid?

To be a serious app marketplace, Zoom needs uniform, specific instructions for exactly what to expect when you use its apps.  As of now, the information is pretty barebones and seems to be supplied by each app developer.

I don’t want to sound like the grinch who stole Zoom apps. They’re likely to end up a great way to take rigidity and sameness out of Zoom meetings.  But for the moment, to have better meetings you need fewer tools, not more.

Extra Viewing: This week, my company, The Virtual Events Group, featured the two of the creators of Zoom Events. It’s an events platform, totally independent of Zoom that lets you manage registrations and ticketing. You can watch their presentation here.

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