Article / Enterprise

A People-First View of Investing in Innovation


As the first institutional investor in Lyft, a serial entrepreneur, a hands-on ex-engineer and a lifelong tech enthusiast, I have been fascinated by the promise of the world of autonomous transport. However, as the conversation at a recent Mayfield-hosted event on the topic turned to the complexities that autonomous cars might introduce to the urban thoroughfare, I had an insight.

Participants at our event were voicing concerns as well as enthusiasms — and smart ones at that — about cybersecurity and the environment, about safety and public space, about the sharing economy and an incipient oligarchy.

Something, though, seemed to be missing. It was as if the autonomous cars had circled us and we couldn’t see past them.

We talked at times about people, certainly, but almost always as the source of a problem. In the form of pedestrians, people meant safety concerns. In the form of professional drivers, people meant employment issues. In the form of government officials, people meant over-regulation. In the form of longtime drivers, people meant long-held societal norms about ownership and freedom of motion.

I wanted to step back and think about what automation in general means for humans.

“What,” I asked the group, “does it mean for a person to interact with a robot?”

Sure I was thinking about cars, but I was wondering aloud about how my family responds to an Alexa speaker on the kitchen counter, and how bots had come to suggest themselves as the middle managers of online interaction, and the role that non-player characters serve in virtual reality games, and how pedestrians navigate around the beta-stage delivery robots popping up on sidewalks.

And I realized that my question was not just about autonomous cars, not by a long shot. I was also thinking about enterprise security and next-gen healthcare, about financial technology and marketplaces. My thinking applied to just about every aspect of the businesses of the future. All of these realms involve humans — and far too often, humans are taken for granted.

Which is to say, we need to think of people not just as consumers but collectively as the society that shapes technology just as much as technology shapes society.

Thinking about people merely as consumers is a dead-end

These are bright days. There is no doubt that change for the good (the current political climate notwithstanding), technological innovation and a spirit of curiosity and exploration are all hallmarks of our time.
However, when people in the business of technology talk about the future, they talk about an ever-shifting slate of similar line items. It’s almost always about the software and hardware that will yield opportunities for investors, businesses and consumers.

Technology isn’t the only thing changing. Society is changing.

What is almost always missing is the human element: How does human behavior shape business opportunities? How is human behavior changing, and what does a projected change in human behavior a decade from now mean for a product we’re starting today but that won’t fully penetrate its market for another 10 years?

What I’m describing is the feedback loop: Technology isn’t the only thing changing. Society is changing. These things influence each other. By looking ahead to those behavior adjustments — not just “millennials don’t like owning stuff,” but deeper, wider swaths of pan-generational change — we should be foreseeing the road ahead in a far more complex manner than is the norm today.

Most entrepreneurs spend time talking about competitive white spaces and breakthrough innovation and the like. It’s as if humans are standing still while technology just happens to them. I believe strongly that reality is far more dynamic. I think taking the people-first approach I’m proposing reveals a lot of what today is accepted as strategic to be, in fact, fairly tactical by comparison.

The six major social opportunities ahead

Certainly there are plenty of emerging technologies I am keeping a close eye on, from the projected end of Moore’s Law, to fog computing, to microservices, to blockchain, to AI-enabled applications, to conversational interfaces, voice as a platform, to machine learning and big data, to computational biology. What interests me more — and what I think investors need to think about more — is the human angle: these emergent social changes.

What follows is a list of six fundamental human behaviors that will change the very landscape into which we are launching new products. If you don’t consider the impact of these (and other) trends on society, then by the time you get to market you won’t recognize society.

The post-ownership economy: Preferring to lease rather than to own isn’t just about saving money or maximizing personal space, or being concerned about the environment. Everything you rent rather than own comes wrapped in some sort of experience, and smart companies, like Lyft, are benefiting from this trend.

From e-commerce to me-commerce: Amazon may have changed retail, but the war of minimizing margins is only going to take companies so far. People aren’t just focused on the bottom line. They are looking to connect with brands, and for the stories that fuel the products they buy and use daily. An era of me-commerce is emerging where vendors are delivering highly curated and personalized products and services to their customers. Society is becoming a colorful Venn diagram of self-organizing tribes, and the companies that recognize and act on this are going to lead their respective markets. Poshmark, a company that has built the leading social-mobile marketplace for fashion, is a good example of this.

The future of work: Full-time employment continues to decline, not because of rising unemployment, but because of the growth of independent contractors, also known as the 1099 economy. Changes in how people work — for themselves and together — are changing the very nature of society, from insurance, to life/work balance, to commutes, to city planning.

If you don’t consider the impact of these trends on society, then by the time you get to market you won’t recognize society.

The right to attention in the social age: Everyone complains about declining attention, but what are they doing about it? From multitasking to depending on automation when making decisions, it’s becoming ever more difficult for businesses to measure attention and engagement in a meaningful way, especially in an era of social media, where the metrics have evolved beyond clicks and views. “Viewability” — a metric measured by Moat, which was recently acquired by Oracle — demonstrates that content that’s tailored to users in engaging formats will rule, and the storytellers who create that content will continue to be the kings of the hill.

Democratization of financial services: Government isn’t the only institution facing a historic level of disrespect. Incumbent financial service companies also are held in low regard, and in turn the financial world is being democratized by startups with an eye on access for all. This often means an emphasis on mobile-first experiences and on marketplace models that connect supply and demand, such as pools of financial capital and home-buyers, or loan-givers and student borrowers.

Personalized health and wellness: And finally, with advancements in computational biology and genomics, society is entering into an era of precision health and wellness. People will soon know more about their bodies, at a molecular level, than has ever been imaginable. As a result, we believe that the way people work, live and play will change for the better — but first we need to know what it means when anyone can recite their own DNA from memory!


This article originally appeared in TechCrunch.

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