Will the recorded music industry ever grow again? Since 1999, the industry has been in rapid decline as CDs became unbundled into downloaded singles. The digital download market never came close to the size of the physical music market. Now we are in the midst of another format transition, this time from downloaded singles to streaming. The question many people ask, like the thoughtful Marc Geiger, is how big will the streaming market be? I think the answer lies not in consumers’ appetite for streaming songs but in the price services charge consumers for streaming.
At the 1999 peak of the recorded music market about $40 billion of recorded music was sold. How much did the average consumer spend per year on recorded music? Hundreds of dollars? Nope. According to IFPI at the time, across the total 18-and-over population (both across many countries or individually within one), the average amount spent came to $28 per consumer. But that includes people who did not buy any music that year. If we look at just the consumers who bought music, they spent $64 on average that year. And that was at a time when one had to buy a bundle of 12 songs in the form of a CD in order to get access to just one or two. What has happened since?
Once the bundle broke, the average spending per consumer decreased. This is predictable, since bundles artificially raise the amount of total dollars a consumer spends. The chart below shows the average spending per capita in various countries according to IFPI (note UK Pounds):
Another study by NPD Group in 2011 found similar spending, about $55 per music buyer per year on all forms of recorded music (they note that this spending is slightly higher among P2P music service users.)
But the one retailer on the planet who would really know what consumer are willing to spend on recorded digital music today is Apple. They are the largest music retailer in the world. Their data is very consistent, about $12 per iTunes account per quarter is spent on music, or about $48 per year. Note that this figure declines year by year as iTunes users are confronted with many more choices on which to spend their disposable income like apps and videos. Also note that total disposable spending, on average, is decreasing per account as iTunes gets bigger and bigger. As a service becomes truly mass market, it reaches fewer and fewer consumers willing to spend as much as previous consumers.
So, the data tells us that consumers are willing to spend somewhere around $45 – $65 per year on music and that the larger a service gets, the lower in that range the number becomes. And these numbers have remained consistent regardless of music format, from CD to download.
Curiously, the on-demand subscription music services like Spotify, Deezer, Rdio and Beats Music are all priced the same at more than twice consumer spending on music. They largely land at $120 per year (although Beats has a family member option for AT&T users at $15 per month.) This is because the three major record labels, as part of their music licenses, have mandated a minimum price these services must charge. While it may seem strange that suppliers can dictate to retailers the price they must charge end users for their service, this is common practice in digital music. The services are not able to charge a price they believe will result in maximum adoption by consumers. The data shows that $120 per year is far beyond what the overwhelming majority of consumers will pay for music and instead shows that a price closer to $48 per year is likely much closer to a sweet spot to attract a large number of subscribers.
For this reason, I believe the market size for these services is limited to a subset of music buyers, which in turn is a subset of the population. This means that there will be fewer subscribers to these services than there are purchasers of digital downloads unless one of two things happen:
(a) consumers decide to spend more than two times their historical spend on recorded music or
(b) major record labels allow the price of subscription music services to fall to $3 – $4 per month
I think the former is highly unlikely given the overwhelming number of choices competing for consumers’ disposable income combined with the amount of free music available from YouTube, VEVO, Pandora and many others. The data shows consumer spending per category decreases in the face of many disparate entertainment choices. The latter is the big question. My experience with the major labels when I was CEO of eMusic was that they largely did not believe that music was an elastic good. They were unwilling to lower unit economics, especially for hit music, to see if more people would buy. Our experience at eMusic taught us that music *is* in fact elastic and that lower prices lead to increased sales. If the major labels want to see the recorded music business grow again, I believe the price of music must fall.
As the viewer trend data make clear, legacy TV is undergoing a dramatic transformation, led by the many alternative ways of watching video. Cable subs are in decline, network TV viewership has tanked, and now even cable TV viewership is eroding. We frequently discuss the new streaming providers (YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu) and the on-demand show/movie retailers (iTunes, Amazon, Vudu), but a new model is emerging and worth discussing — the over-the-top (OTT) TV network. Our recently-exited investment in Crunchyroll provides a prime example.
Crunchyroll is the largest provider of Japanese anime online. They license scores of hit and long tail anime shows from Japanese media companies for streaming throughout the world ex-Japan. They offer a free ad-supported viewing option and attract millions of unique monthly viewers. They also offer a paid commercial-free offering at seven dollars per month which makes available a deeper selection of shows. They are available on the web for PC streaming, and have an app available on every mobile and connected TV platform available (iOS, Android, Roku, AppleTV, PS3, Xbox, etc.).
Crunchyroll has amassed hundreds of thousands of paying subscribers and is profitable with net margins many internet and legacy media companies would envy.
While they don’t benefit from the incredibly rich we-will-pay-you-a-fee-even-if-no-one-watches-your-network affiliate fee model of legacy cable TV, they enjoy a more accountable dual advertising/consumer subscription model. While most of us would consider this content niche, their total active actual viewers are considerably larger than most cable networks on your cable grid. Perhaps most impressively, like most technology companies, they are highly efficient, employing fewer than fifty employees.
This model benefits from many of the advantages of the web. An embedding/link-sharing culture helps Crunchy, as everything viewable can be shared and discussed throughout the web. The product is highly mobile and feeds our preference for snackable media consumption on phones and tablets. Non-subscribers get easy access and a thorough chance to experience the content without paying. And the team is staffed by fantastic technologists who rapidly adopt and optimize the service for every new platform that emerges. The team has already started expanding their successful model to new content verticals.
Their success, I think, points the way for niche programmers to deliver great video services directly accountable to their viewers and advertisers alike, and not polluted by the MVPD indirect affiliate fee model nor the antiquated Nielsen people viewer/sweeps model.
For these reasons, Peter Chernin’s The Chernin Group is the new owner of this impressive company and team. I look forward to watching the continued success of Kun, Brandon, James, Brady and the whole team. Without much fanfare, they have pioneered a way forward for much of the video programming world. We are honored to have been investors since 2007 and to have watched you succeed.
I was fortunate enough to be asked to deliver the keynote address at this year’s Sustainable Scholarship Conference, put on by ITHAKA. Here, I attempt to review how the internet has disrupted bundled industries and consider the question of whether it will unbundle higher education too.
ITHAKA is a not-for-profit that helps the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways. They run the popular JSTOR service, a growing digital library of more than 2,000 academic journals, nearly 20,000 books, and two million primary source objects provided to colleges, universities and scholarly communities. I serve as a trustee of ITHAKA.
My slides from the presentation are here:
Thank you to Kevin Guthrie, ITHAKA’s CEO, for the invitation to speak and for the overly-generous introduction!
One of the most valuable characteristics of venture investing is that sectors go in and out of favor. Certain sectors, no matter the investment climate, have perennial long-term value. At least, that is my view. And I hold that view strongly about the AdTech sector.
More than 60% of the enterprise value created by internet companies comes from companies whose business model is primarily the selling of ads. Since the internet is both a communications medium and a transactions platform, I believe it will always create massive value through advertising. The internet, unlike most traditional media, is inherently a performance-oriented medium and it delivers on the promise to make advertising and marketing more accountable and more efficient. Underlying the delivery of better ad performance, in a world filled with big, quantifiable data, is an ever-increasing slate of sophisticated technology operating on massive datasets in real time. If you advertise on the internet, and eventually, every brand and service in the world will, you need exposure to these technologies or you will underperform your competitors. The AdTech sector, fundamentally, is the delivery of these advanced advertising technologies to all advertisers.
In my previous posts on the evolution of online advertising, I painted a picture, like so many observers of the space, of a world where all impressions are traded on exchanges. That inevitable transition is happening at light speed now. More than 17% of display impressions on the web are traded on exchanges and the forecasts are bullish on this trend. In that world, online advertising looks much more like trading stocks than the buying of ads over lunch meetings. In 2008, we believed that significant value would be built in this exchange layer. It was this thesis that supported our Series B investment in AppNexus. That company continues its incredible run and is one of the largest global ad exchanges in the universe. We believe AppNexus will remain one of the most important companies on the internet.
While a huge amount of buying has moved to the exchanges, the level of sophistication of many advertisers taking advantage of these RTB platforms is still rudimentary. It turns out, just like outperforming the stock market year in and year out, it’s hard to do it well. The amount of data available to buyers is enormous. The number of parameters available in tuning and targeting your audience is almost limitless. And, most importantly, there are always better data scientists down the road doing a better job than you can at building proprietary targeting models. For all of these reasons, in our opinion, the second-most valuable layer in AdTech is the data-driven ad network layer. (Not to be confused with the inventory driven ad networks.) Data-driven ad networks employ either large proprietary data sets or proprietary targeting models on top of very large data sets. The sophistication of the data scientists within these companies delivers a sustainable performance advantage over their less well-equipped peers. Two examples of these companies in our portfolio are Dstillery (formerly Media6Degrees) and Bizo. Both Rocket Fuel and Criteo are two additional companies in the space. Rocket Fuel’s recent IPO fetched it a market cap of more than $1.7B and Criteo is now over $2B. Many are asking themselves, “Why?”
[As an aside, Zach Coelius, the CEO of Triggit, points out that these companies should no longer be called ad networks because they no longer amass large amounts of inventory. They are instead more accurately “algorithmic media buying” companies or “data-driven targeting” companies…not really sure, but they aren’t traditional ad networks.]
The reason these companies are so valuable is that buyers on the exchanges are dominated by performance-oriented marketers today. Their dollars seek the best performance. The data-driven ad network layer is increasingly a case of the haves and have-nots. The better you perform relative to your peers, the more ad dollars you receive. These four companies significantly out-perform their peers, and their incredible revenue growth (and enviable media margins) indicate this.
The reason these companies have bright long-term futures is that this layer is increasingly necessary, hard to replicate, and experiences tremendous network effects. In the early days of AdTech, some believed the traditional media buyers would be able to build their own technology stacks and deliver better performance and value than independent companies in the market. This has not turned out to be true. The best performance can be found elsewhere, largely within technology companies, and so that is where the dollars are flowing. This presents enormous long-term challenges for the incumbent media buyers and will continue to pressure them to flow more and more of their client’s dollars to the better performing AdTech companies.
I believe this layer will eventually see tens of billions of dollars of media buying flowing through it. Of course, the exchange layer benefits from all of this too. For these reasons, there will be additional public AdTech companies which will fetch multi-billion dollar valuations coming to market. AdTech is back. Except it never left.
I’m going to Venturescape, the NVCA Annual Meeting May 14 and 15 in San Francisco and you should too. I haven’t been to one in many years, but this year is different.
The NVCA is the National Venture Capital Association. It’s much more than just a trade organization, and this year’s annual meeting demonstrates that.
My friend Jason Mendelson from Foundry Group is on the NVCA Board of Directors and he is running Venturescape. That being said, if the meeting was going to suck I wouldn’t go. But it looks quite good.
I’m excited about the agenda, as this is the best lineup I’ve seen at one of these events. Included in the mix are:
Dick Costolo, Twitter CEO
General Colin Powell
Ginni Rometty, IBM CEO
Anne Wojcicki, 23andMe CEO
There is also the world’s largest VC Office Hours. And for the first time, “fun” is part of the meeting in the form of NVCA Live! — a great concert featuring Pat Monahan from Train and Legitimate Front, a band in which I’m staring as the drummer and main groove man.
If you are a VC, I hope to see you there. If you are an entrepreneur, ask your VC funders for tickets to NVCA Live!, as that is open to everyone, although tickets are only purchasable by NVCA members.
If you are coming, especially to NVCA Live!, let me know. See you there.
Here is the video of a panel I hosted at NATPE in Miami on January 28th. It features Rich Greefield from BTIG, Betsy Morgan CEO of The Blaze, Chet Kanojia CEO of Aereo, Alex Carloss from YouTube and Kevin Beggs CEO of Lionsgate. Great conversation about the disruptions facing the TV industry.
It’s a good thing Facebook is thinking of redesigning the News Feed. Because I think a funny thing is happening to Facebook. For me, the news feed no longer surfaces anything of interest. The opaque algorithm behind it is just not able to produce anything relevant and, more important, timely, at least to me. Facebook appears to be turning back into what it once was: a way to research people in non-real time. A look back into the past. A people-stalking product. It’s back to being a personal LinkedIn.
People publish stuff on the (increasingly mobile) web that is timely and relevant. Sharing baby pictures isn’t really one of those. Sharing pics of how you are experiencing life, which is the Instagram use case, is a great example of this. But my News Feed does not have anything like that in it. My Instagram feed does.
People share highly informative and timely links to news articles and blog posts on Twitter all day long. But my News Feed does not contain any of those. And when I share these types of posts on Facebook, I get no engagement. When I share pics of my kids, I get a lot.
People share bookmarks of products and apparel they want to buy on Pinterest all day long. People don’t do that on Facebook.
Facebook started as a non-real-time service. It was a way to check people out. In the face of the rise of Twitter, they responded aggressively with a News Feed product that showed promise. But now I feel they really screwed the filters up that govern that feed, which creates feedback to those of us who post into it and it feels like a vast river of noise and irrelevant posts from people and events who aren’t really relevant to me. Perhaps most importantly, I can’t tune it. The tuning mechanisms are either too subtle (“hide”) or too crude (“report as spam”). I feel powerless.
The irony is that LinkedIn is moving to increase daily engagement by syndicating highly informative posts from influencers. They are trying to become more real-time just as Facebook seems less so.
It’s finally happening. The Internet is taking over TV. It’s just happening differently than many of us imagined. There are two major transformations underway.
The Rise of The Internet Distributors. Led by Netflix, the group of new distributors includes Amazon and Microsoft now, but maybe Apple and Google later. They are largely distributing traditional TV shows in a non-traditional way. All the content is delivered over IP and usually as part of a paid subscription or per-episode EST (electronic sell-through). Important to note that all of this content contains no advertising and is available entirely on-demand. This content falls into the “non-substitutional” cotent bucket. To watch it, you don’t need to be a cable TV subscriber.
The Rise of Alternative Content Producers. Thanks to YouTube’s Channel strategy and investment in hundreds of content providers, new producers of content are emerging and offering non-traditional programming, usually in shorter form. This content is marked by dramatically different production economics than traditional TV content, taking advantage of an expanded labor pool and low-cost cameras and computer editing. This alternative content is chipping away at long- and mid-tail viewership on traditional networks (the “filler” and “nice-to-see” buckets.)
Both of these transformations are successful to date and will only become more-so. Rich Greenfield has a nice summary of why the TV industry suddenly loves Netflix. (Disclosure: I am long NFLX and have been a stockholder for some time.) The first transformation takes advantage of the massive pressure MVPDs place on traditional cable nets to not offer their programming direct-to-consumer. In this case, the HBO’s and AMC’s requirement that you authenticate your existing cable subscription in order to watch their programming over IP successfully persuades the cord-nevers to just avoid the programming on those networks until the hit shows are offered through Netflix or EST. Netflix, once again, looks like the hero. Those empty threats by Jeff Bewkes that he will never work with Netflix turned out to be, well, empty. The second transformation will take longer to fully prove out, but I believe it will happen. As more of our viewership takes place over IP, we lose our allegiance to networks as the point of distribution and allow new distributors to guide us towards content choice.
There is a third budding area of transformation, but I don’t yet see evidence that a business exists: trying to re-package cable TV bundles and sell them over IP. Companies like Aereo and Nimble.TV offer versions of this. I believe we live in a show-based world. Consumers aren’t looking for networks (with the exception of ESPN and regional sports nets) so much as they are looking for shows. Shows delivered over IP allow for the slow unbundling of television. One of the many challenges about this model for traditional broadcasters is that there is no advertising in this world. The traditional cable net business model enjoys two great revenue streams: affiliate fees and ad dollars. In IP-delivered shows, there are no ads.
Who are the winners and losers in this model? Well, show creators continue to flourish. The new distributors enjoy great success. Of course, ISPs, who are often the same companies as the MVPDs, do fine in the ISP business, but I believe the decline in total cable subs will continue. In a world where shows do not contain advertising, why do we need Nielsen? They have been a measurement standard for decades largely because advertisers needed a third-party validator of viewership. You can see why they have a vested interest in insisting TV ad viewership is not on the decline (despite everyone’s experience to the contrary.) I don’t think cable nets are in immediate trouble. They enjoy a great business model now, and also get to reap EST or licensing benefits after the shows air. But the Netflix House of Cards effort shows that consumers will now expect to be able to watch shows whenever they want and not be bothered by inconvenient broadcast schedules. The day is coming when the cable nets will have to respond.
For startups, one of the wide open spaces seems to be in cross-provider discovery. Now that my shows are spread among Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and on my DVR, I would prefer one interface to reach them all. Companies like Dijit’s NextGuide, Peel, Squrl, and Telly are taking cracks at this important space.
It was an honor to be asked to address the 2007 Penn Engineering class as their commencement speaker. The video has been posted on YouTube for years, but I was recently asked to post the text. While it is several years old, I don’t believe the message is out of date.
Good afternoon. I know exactly what you are thinking; what is a guy that you have never heard of doing up here delivering your commencement address? Well, truth be told, I am wondering the very same thing. In fact, when Dean Glandt asked me to be here with you, my fist reaction was, “No. I have not accomplished enough to stand in front of such a distinguished crowd. What wisdom do I have to empart to them?” Well, I will do my best today to share something meaningful with you. Let me assure you though, this is not where I expected to be when I was sitting in your seat 16 years ago, thinking, “now what?”
When you got into Penn Engineering, your parents, like mine, probably breathed a sigh of relief. “At least he’ll have valuable skills and a career – and not just some vague liberal arts degree.” Well, I have some bad news for your parents. Engineering is the new liberal arts. It is the lingua franca of the next generation. Technology has become so pervasive, particularly in western cultures, that we engineers are no longer the geeks in the corner – we are now responsible for nothing less than the economic, media, and communication underpinnings of society. But the good news is, if you speak this new universal language – and all of you do – then your opportunities to contribute – not just to your own success but to society at large – are limited only by your drive, your desire, and your ideas.
When I sat in your seat 16 years ago, I of course knew exactly where I was headed. Had it all mapped out. I wanted to be a rock star – a drummer in a rock and roll band. Granted, that is not the most expedient path to becoming a CEO of a digital music company. But please don’t be misled by my title. Yes, I realize being a CEO opens some doors. It gives me the platform to accomplish things that I might never otherwise do. But CEO is the least important aspect of my career trajectory. It is representative of the fact that I have merged my two passions into my career. And that’s what I’d like you to think about today.
What are your passions and how can you incorporate them into your career? How can you utilize these newfound skills? How can today become a jumping off point for tackling the things you deeply care about?
When I graduated from Penn Engineering, I had two passions: I was really into computers and I was really into music. Like many of you, I was tuned in constantly. I played in bands around campus and here in the greater Philadelphia area. I left the engineering lab as often as I could to practice and play gigs. Yes, I was a musician. But I was also an early adopter of technology. Penn helped open my eyes to that. It was clear where the music was headed – computers – to compose and mix, electronic drums, all the new tools of the trade. But I think I knew then that making a career out of my rock and roll aspirations was a long shot.
I came away with a couple of takeaways from this experience. For one thing, I learned that I had somewhat radical intentions from a very early age. The straight and narrow probably was not going to work for me. But the biggest lesson – and the most empowering one of all – was that it is possible to do what you want to do. Maybe not play Madison Square Garden to 20,000 fans. But I was hopeful that I could combine my passion for music with my keen interest in technology.
So I took the same degree that you are receiving today and I went to work at Apple in California. At that time, Apple was still a huge underdog and its future was by no means certain. I fit in with the culture perfectly. Apple embodied the rebel mentality. It was, pardon the expression, marching to the beat of a different drummer. Working for an underdog and innovator like Apple was a great influence. I learned to “think different.” I learned that consumers will reward you for innovation. And most importantly, I learned that technology could be terribly disruptive to incumbent industries.
Remember the phrase “desktop publishing?” Because of the Macintosh and laser printers, an entire business was upended. Apple (and eventually Microsoft) reaped the benefit. It turned the print industry on its head. I saw a chance to take that very same disruptive psychology and apply it the music industry.
When I was a student here, Penn was an early contributor to the development of the Internet. It was clear that as information and entertainment became digitized, the businesses of distribution and retail of entertainment would be transformed. I already knew that music was my true north. So I devoted my career toward working to accelerate, and hopefully reap the benefits of this transformation in the music business.
After joining the first digital music company and then founding another, and trying multiple times to build a business which would be pivotal in the transition of the music industry, eventually, with some partners, we bought eMusic, an abandoned dot-com company in disarray. Long story short? We turned it around to become the number two digital music service in the world. Second only to my old company, Apple. It’s success is due to the fact that consumers, not the music industry itself, forced a format transition from physical goods to digital goods. All enabled by technology. While the incumbent music industry feared, and even ran from this inevitability, I welcomed the disruptive nature of technology and knew it would fundamentally alter the entertainment industry,
However, I don’t want to set up false expectations that if you stick with the drums, you’ll end up CEO of a music company. Dean Glandt did not ask me here today to talk to you about playing in a rock and roll band. So I asked myself, what can I possibly share with a group as educated and informed as you that would be original and have any possible value whatsoever? I labored over this and as I did, it struck me. It’s not about technology or engineering. It’s about the disruptive nature of it.
You see, you all are sitting in the catbird seat for the next industrial revolution. You can join existing industries and work to build them bigger — or you can be the disrupters. The shapers. The policymakers. Every last one of you can land a job in any technology role. At the biggest and most successful companies! You already speak the language. But is that enough? Do you want to get out of bed every day just to log on? Or do you take this incredible genius you possess – this mastery of bits and bytes – and use it for something that matters to you? Something transformative?
There is an ambassador who comes to mind who also got his start like I did, in music. His name is Bono. You’re probably sick of hearing about him. Why does a scruffy singer from a small country in the North Sea have so much clout on the global stage? Because he took a common language, mastered it, and made it his platform for change. It begs the simple question. What is your platform for change going to be? How will you disrupt?
I understand – you might be scratching your head and saying, “C’mon, it’s happened already. The billions have been made – with Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, MySpace, YouTube. All the big bets have been placed. Everything has already been disrupted.” But in fact I don’t think that’s true. Those companies are just the building blocks for the next wave. These companies, these web players did not exist 30 years ago. No one knew where it was going back then and honestly, we don’t know, today. That’s where you come in.
How do you take these Goliathan companies and their all-encompassing technologies and turn them on their head? How do you wrap your arms around this knowledge and do something that no one has thought of yet? How do you take this “language” Penn Engineering has taught you and make it stand for something you care about?
My understanding of the digitization of music gave me an inkling that someday the songs I grew up with would be available in formats we could not imagine as kids. The model was changing and I saw that and embraced it and tweaked it and now I get to wake up every morning and spend my days guaranteeing that people can buy it. Any kind of music on any kind of player. Period. That’s what I believe in. That’s where I staked my tent.
Although I’m a computer scientist by degree, I am no quantum physicist or nanotech engineer. I didn’t invent something that is going to save the world. I foresaw a market trend in a field I was passionate about and was fortunate enough to get on board at the cusp of the transition. Sniffing out market trends? This is a very good skill to hone. And you’re not going to find it in any book. Turn to your instincts on this one.
Here are some more examples: Sergey Brin and Larry Page – the guys who figured out how to do “search” better? They got it. Andreas Pavel? How many of you know THAT name. He and his girlfriend tested a new musical device he’d invented, on a snowy day in the Swiss Alps, listening to a Herbie Mann/Duane Allman composition – outdoors! – while they walked! The Walkman was born. Transformational! The way we listen to music has never been the same. And Steve Jobs can’t take all the credit on this one.
Nick Negroponte from MIT media Lab? One laptop Per Child! He is going to change the way children learn and he aims to do so one laptop at a time.
And it won’t just change the way children learn and think. It will change the way countries pull themselves out of poverty. The way emerging markets become self-sustaining. One man’s vision – and the language of technology – is going to change the lives of kids who never dreamt of having a chance – from Angola to Myanmar to Kazakhstan. These people are all using technology to disrupt the natural order, and making something better for consumers – for people – at the same time
Does this mean you have to invent the next big idea? if you have it, fantastic! But I think your mission is greater. You see, as I said at the outset, you are the new liberal arts generation. Technology is now omnipresent in society and you speak the common language. However, there are a lot of you speaking that language and believe me, the pack is closing in. You’re going to need more. You’re going to have to be aggressive, disruptive, and visionary.
I know many of you are thinking about the jobs you will start tomorrow. If I could spark one thought in you today, it would be to look five years out. Ten years out. Ask yourself, what are your kids are going to be listening to? What are they going to read, and watch? What’s their world going to look like? And how are you going to shape it? What industries are going to be completely disrupted by the inventions of today, and how can you, and society, benefit?
So I offer you a challenge. Look at yourself today, and ask what’s going to matter to you tomorrow. Which one of you is going to use your remarkable talent to feed Africa? Who’s going to tackle global warming? Does any one of you really believe, 20 years from now, that we’re going to still be running our cars on thick black crude pumped 2 miles out of the ground from a desert?
You are the 2007 graduating class of Penn Engineering. But engineering is merely the platform for the future. You will be more than engineers. You can engineer the shape of our society and shape the destiny of our lives. You will be inventors. Designers. Architects. Engineers. But through your ideas and design and architecture, you will become the de facto policymakers of the 21st century. You will define our society, all because you understand technology better than everyone else.
Call it a grave responsibility, or the greatest road trip you’ll ever undertake. Either way, you are empowered. There is no turning back. You are truly on the launching pad.
In closing, I offer these words. Follow your passion. Question the status quo. Bang a few drums. Don’t be afraid to make some noise. Take this awesome new language you speak and use it. Put it to work. We truly are on the cusp of a revolution. Get out there and be disruptive. Be responsible and give a damn. And lead. Show us where we’re headed next. It really does matter.
With my mind fully stretched in various different directions, a bunch of thoughts are coalescing, coming out of another fantastic TED. Three main points are loosely stitched together in my mind and they point to a bunch of future opportunity.
First, we heard convincingly from economists like Robert Gordon, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee that America’s manufacturing jobs which, for so long, powered our healthy middle class, are not coming back in any big numbers. Many of us scratch our heads to understand how to fill this enormous hole. At Venrock, largely informed by a similar Hunter Walk observation, we believe this dirth of fruitful middle class employment is leading to so much of the activity in the shared resources sector (AirBNB, etc.), in the peer to peer marketplace sector (PoshMark, etc.) and in the digital labor market sector (Uber, TaskRabbit, etc.) as income supplementation. This will help and is a highly investible opportunity. But still, is this enough?
Second, we marveled at Elon Musk and his unrivaled appetite to tackle the planet’s largest problems through commercial endeavors filled with enormous risk (SpaceX, Solar City, Tesla). He is an international treasure and it simply begs the question…why aren’t there more of him? Of course, there are many fantastically successful entrepreneurs and we celebrate them all. But how many Elon Musks are there on the planet? One hundred? One thousand? Ten thousand? Why aren’t there ten million? What are the specific experiences, personality traits, education paths, parenting, and DNA necessary to produce the planet’s super humans driven to defy the odds on such interplanetary scale? It is clear the planet needs more of them, and so why aren’t we unlocking the answer to the question of how to make more? A speaker reminded us of the Chinese proverb…
If you want one year of prosperity, grow wheat. If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want one hundred years of prosperity, grow people.
We need to grow more Elons (and Steves and Bills, etc.)
Finally, Sugata Mitra delivered a compelling argument that our schools are simply obsolete for the task of turning out the kind of people we now need in our modern society. He argues for far more self-organized small learning groups of kids with cloud-based tools and light direction from a teacher. That may be part of the solution, but it is likely only a part of it. If our future doesn’t need line workers but needs more inventors, creators, risk-takers, builders, and makers, where will they all come from? Surely there is no natural limit on the number of people with these strengths in our species, right? Surely we can teach and encourage more people to excel in these areas, right? In order to do that, just how much of our society needs to change? Isn’t it more than just our schools? Isn’t it the goals we set for our kids as parents? Is the over-whelming emphasis on organized team sports in our suburban communities part of the problem? When we reward kids at spelling bees, perhaps the ultimate test of rote memorization, are we not helping? Shouldn’t every kid on the planet be playing Minecraft? How deep must we dig to get at the real root here?
I suspect this is perhaps the greatest issue we face as a society. How do we produce more entrepreneurs?