Bill Gates on Richard Feynman

Two and half minute video on Richard Feynman by Bill Gates – worth the time.

I’ve been a bit quiet

I’ve been a bit quiet due to work and life intervening.  Alongside my work in looking at strategy through a data-centric lens I have also taken on a content strategy role on a project.  This isn’t about:

  • Coming up with a few social ideas
  • Editorial direction

But a much wider approach that takes a systems approach to content. What it is, where should it be and how it should be refreshed. With this in in mind I can thoroughly recommend The Content Strategy Toolkit: Methods, Guidelines, and Templates for Getting Content Right by Meghan Casey.

Meghan also provides a set of downloadable template to make your life even easier. I found the book relatively easy to digest but still have it about as a reference book on my current project.

I can also recommend the current British Museum exhibition: The American Dream – pop to the present. I really liked the works from the NASA art programme by Robert Rauschenberg that celebrated the Apollo programme.

Jump Around – 25 years later

It’s hard to believe that the House of Pain’s Jump Around turned 25 last week. The iconic intro from ‘Harlem Shuffle’ used to be a call to the dance floor when I used to play it on Wednesday night sets at a late closing wine bar in the North West of England.

The video fired my love of American workwear, previously I’d only really seen this worn on African-American  artists. I loved the form follows function, timeless style and burly nature of the garments. I hunted down supplies of Carhartt and Dickies in Leeds and Covent Garden – it’s kept me warm and dry ever since.

More importantly it was emblematic of an Irish blue collar swagger that the UK Irish community just didn’t have. The closest thing we had was the shambolic Pogues or wit of Dave Allen which he welded like a katana in the hands of a samurai. We were much more heads down as the troubles in Northern Ireland and sectarianism impacted our lives.

This was a spectacularly mean-spirited time; where the government used the police to beat the miner’s strike into submission and wilfully demolished the weak industrial base to build the financial services sector. Acid house and rave were created partly because the youth wanted to escape through hedonism.

The post Good Friday Irish experience of Irish emigrants just a few years later was rather different. Britain was on its way to Cool Britannia liberalism – when being in an Irish pub, no longer meant keeping an eye out for Special Branch agent provocateurs or well-known grasses.

Oprah Time: The World as Design: Writings of Design by Otl Aicher

Aicher was a German designer most famous of his graphic design and typography. His most famous font is Rotis  His impact was far wider. Aicher was a co-founder of the short-lived Ulm School of Design. Over its 15 years it developed a legacy that continues to echo through design education.

He worked with prominent German brands including Braun, Lufthansa and ERCO the lighting firm.

Aicher’s design language for the Munich Olympics was ground breaking. He designed the first Olympic mascot: Waldi a dachshund with multicoloured bands on his body. The posters for the Munich Olympics were hyper coloured designs that still had a system wrapped around them and now trade for hundreds of pounds.

You can blame him for single handedly kicking off the use of stickmen pictograms on public signage in buildings like airports.

Aicher and his colleagues at Ulm were about more than making things look pretty on their medium of choice, they thought about systems. Aicher’s holistic approach to systems influenced modern brand design.  Mark Holt, a co-founder of 8vo; who worked on everything from Factory Records to billing systems for mobile carrier Orange cited Aicher as a major influence.

otl aicher

Aicher’s book The World of Design collects a series of his essays across a wide spectrum of topics. Culture and political essays sit alongside examinations on the process of design and typography. Design and art do not exist in isolation but as part of the wider world. Something that you become keenly aware of as being central to his thinking – alongside his advocacy of reinvigorating modernism.

Probably most striking is Aicher’s delivery and style of writing. He writes with absolute confidence as each item has been thought about, despite feeling like a stream of consciousness in the way those mulled over thoughts are put down. He also completely dispenses with capital letters, sentences flow into each other from a visual perspective. This gives his work a sense of urgency and authenticity – but doesn’t make it any easier to read.

Theses essays felt as if they were born on the internet not written sometime before Aicher died in 1991, which says a lot about how fresh and contemporary his work still is.

 

I like: Carl Cox final mix on Global Radio

For the best part of two decades Carl Cox has been syndicated to a number of radio stations around the world. He is hanging up his radio shoes and put together a mix covering some three decades of house music. Its a great two-hour long mix.

Have we reached peak streetwear?

At the end of January I wrote a blog post about the landmark collection by Louis Vuitton and Supreme.

I delved into the history of streetwear and the deep connection it shared with luxury brands. This linkage came from counterfeit products, brand and design language appropriation.

This all came from a place of individuality and self expression of the wearer.

obey

I reposted it from my blog on to LinkedIn. I got a comment from a friend of mine which percolated some of the ideas I’d been thinking about. The comment crystalised some of my fears as a long-time streetwear aficionado.

This is from Andy Jephson who works as a director for consumer brand agency Exposure:

The roots of street and lux that you point to seem to be all about individuality and self expression and for me this is what many modern collabs are missing. To me they seem to be about ostentatious showmanship. I love a collaboration that sees partners sharing their expertise and craft to create something original. The current obsession with creating hype however is creating a badging culture that produces products that could have been made in one of the knock-off factories that you mention. Some collabs that just produce new colourways and hybrid styles can be amazing, reflecting the interests of their audience. But far too many seem gratuitous and are completely unobtainable for the brand fans on one side of the collaborative partnership.

The streetwear business is mad money

From Stüssy in 1980, streetwear has grown into a multi-billion dollar global industry. Streetwear sales are worth more than 75 billion dollars per year.

By comparison the UK government spent about 44.1 billion on defence in 2016. Streetwear sales are more than three times the estimated market value of Snap Inc. Snap Inc., is the owner of Snapchat.

Rise of Streetwear

It is still about one third the size of the luxury industry. Streetwear accounts for the majority of menswear stocked in luxury department stores. Harvey Nichols claimed that 63% of the their contemporary menswear was streetwear. Many luxury brands off-the-peg men’s items blur the boundary between luxe and streetwear.

The industry has spawned some technology start-ups acting as niche secondary markets including:

  • Kixify
  • K’LEKT
  • THRONE
  • StockX
  • SneakerDon
  • GOAT

Large parts of the streetwear industry has become lazy and mercenary. You can see this in:

  • The attention to detail and quality of product isn’t what it used to be. I have vintage Stüssy pieces that are very well-made. I can’t say the same of many newer streetwear brands
  • Colour-ways just for the sake of it. I think Nike’s Jordan brand is a key offender. Because it has continually expands numbers of derivative designs and combinations. New Balance* have lost much of their mojo. Especially when you look at the product their Super Team 33 in Maine came up with over the years. The fish, fanzine or the element packs were both strong creative offerings. By comparison recent collections felt weak
  • The trivial nature of some of the collaborations. This week Supreme sold branded Metro Cards for the New York subway
  • Streetwear brands that sold out to fast moving consumer products. This diluted their own brand values. While working in Hong Kong, I did a Neighborhood Coke Zero collaboration. The idea which had some tie-in to local cycling culture and nightscape. Aape – the second-brand of BAPE did a deal wrapping Pepsi cans in the iconic camouflage

Hong Kong brand Chocoolate did three questionable collaborations over the past 18 months:

  • Vitaminwater
  • Nissin (instant noodles)
  • Dreyer’s (ice cream)

By comparison, Stüssy has a reputation in the industry for careful business management. The idea was to never become too big, too fast. The Sinatra family kept up quality and selective distribution seeing off Mossimo, FUBU and Triple Five Soul. Yes, they’ve done collaborations, but they were canny compared to newer brands:

“The business has grown in a crazy way the past couple of years,” says Sinatra. “We reluctantly did over $50 million last year.”

Reluctant because, according to Sinatra, the company is currently trying to cut back and stay small. “It was probably one of our biggest years ever — and it was an accident.”

Sinatra characterises Stüssy’s third act as having a “brand-first, revenue second” philosophy, in order to avoid becoming “this big monstrosity that doesn’t stand for anything.”

The Evolution of Streetwear. The newfound reality of Streetwear and its luxury-like management academic study uncovered careful brand custodianship.

It’s not clothing; it’s an asset class

Part of the bubble feel within the streetwear industry is due to customer behaviour. For many people, street wear is no longer a wardrobe staple. Instead it becomes an alternative investment instrument. Supreme items and tier zero Nike releases are resold for profit like a day trader on the stock market.

Many of the start-ups supported by the community play to this ‘day trader’ archetype. It is only a matter of time for the likes of Bonham’s and Sotherby’s get in on the act.

A key problem with the market is that trainers aren’t like a Swiss watch or a classic car. They become unusable in less than a decade as the soles degrade and adhesive breaks down.

There is the apocryphal story of a Wall Street stock broker getting out before the great stock market crash. The indicator to pull his money out was a taxi driver or a shoe shine boy giving stock tips.

Streetwear is at a similar stage with school-age teenagers dealing must-have items as a business. What would a reset look like in the streetwear industry? What would be the knock-on effect for the luxury sector?

More information
USA Streetwear Market Research Report 2015 | WeConnectFashion
Louis Vuitton, Supreme and the tangled relationship between streetwear and luxury brands | renaissance chambara
New Balance Super Team 33 – Elements Collection | High Snobriety
New Balance ST33 – The Fanzine Collection | High Snobriety
1400 Super Team 33 (ST33) trio | New Balance blog – the infamous fish pack
How Stüssy Became a $50 Million Global Streetwear Brand Without Selling Out | BoF (Business of Fashion)
The Evolution of Streetwear. The newfound reality of Streetwear and its luxury-like management by de Macedo & Machado, Universidade Católica Portuguesa (2015) – PDF

* in the interest of full disclosure, New Balance is a former client.

Online ethics in a time of unreasonable behaviour

Much of my social channels are filled with outrage and discussion about what is perceived as unreasonable behaviour.

Tea Party Express at the Minnesota capitol

On one hand we had filter bubbles that allowed audiences to stay isolated, apparently only seeing the content which broadly fitted their world view. For the metropolitan elite, its a steady diet of virtue signalling. For the right it is the Illuminati / New World Order view of an aloof elite.

On the other hand we have voices that break through and are generally viewed as abhorrent by those in my social sphere.  The archetype of the breakthrough voice would be Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos is a complex character who has gone from post modern poet who borrowed from pop music and television without attribution, to technology journalist and a libertarian who has become a figurehead of the alt-right. Along the way his wardrobe has changed from a preppy sloan look to a supporting character from the original version of Miami Vice.

Yiannopoulos is very adept at provoking a response from his opponents that rallies his supporters since they think it is evidence of the backlash from an omnipotent elite.

Those on the right would point to figures like Kerry-Anne Mendoza, the editor in chief of The Canary – who has been accused of sensationalist or irresponsible journalism.

The underlying element is that everyone cannot agree on what the problem actually is. Silicon Valley is lining up to filter out the worst excesses of the right; partly because engineer political views and advertiser views are largely aligned.

Generally engineers are degree educated so tend to be libertarian and socially liberal. They will support diversity and often work in multi-national teams. They are acutely aware of the power that their technology has which is why privacy tends to be most politicised amongst the tech-literate. Whilst large corporates would like to do what made the most commercial sense, there is a tension in Silicon Valley between this desire and the ability to hold on to engineers to do the work.

At the other end of the spectrum right wingers are trying to crowd fund a lawsuit against Twitter for for discrimination against conservatives and violations of antitrust regulation. WeSearchr – the crowd-fund platform equate Twitter making a call is equated to discrimination in the American South during the 1960s.

Ken White, attorney at Brown White & Osborn LLP and blogger on First Amendment issues, disagrees.

“WeSearchr’s claims of censorship and discrimination are frivolous,” he told me in an email. “Twitter may be ‘censoring’ in a colloquial way, but it’s a private platform and not governed by the First Amendment. It’s free to kick people off for speech it doesn’t like unless doing so runs afoul of a particular federal or state statute, and WeSearchr hasn’t cited a plausible relevant one.”

“Antitrust law is very complicated and it’s pointless to speculate about what WeSearchr thinks it means by citing it,” he said. “But antitrust law doesn’t say ‘it’s illegal to be a big company that dominates a field.’ Generally it restricts anti-competitive practices, and WeSearchr has never credibly identified any.”

Secondly there is research done by Demos to suggest that those of use with more liberal values have a looser social bubble and are likely to be more aware of inflammatory commentary by those with more populist views.

People with more polarized political affiliations tend to be more inward-facing than people with more moderate political affiliations. In short, the echo chamber effect is more pronounced the further a group is from the centre.

Conversely, those who hold more extreme views will feel emboldened as part of an enclosed community of like mined people.

What should be done?

Demos suggests that the mainstream news as a point at which the different opinions are most likely to meet. However, the very subjective viewpoint of different mainstream news outlets imply that this isn’t likely to happen.

The technology companies have made it clear that they will try and curb the worst excesses of the populist faction online. My sense is that it will fuel their sense of persecution  and provide a point to rally around.

Should anything be done?

More information
Canary in the pit | Private Eye
The Alt-Right Is Trying to Crowdfund Twitter’s Destruction | Motherboard
Talking to ourselves | Demos

Great interview with Adam Curtis

I’ve been watching a lot of Curtis’ work recently. HyperNormalisation, The Mayfair Set, The Trap, The Century of the Self, Bitter Lake and Pandora’s Box.

More information
Just Adam Curtis channel on YouTube – has curated many of his documentaries.

Louis Vuitton, Supreme and the tangled relationship between streetwear and luxury brands

The recent collaboration between New York’s Supreme and Louis Vuitton seems like a natural fit.  The reality is that luxury and streetwear have been dancing around each other for a good while.

Snide started it all

Snide was slang in the 1980s for fake or counterfeit. Hip Hop and the Caribbean-influenced Buffalo movement in the UK each used counterfeit and real luxury in their own way.

Daniel Day, better known as Dapper Dan was a was a Harlem-based craftsman and business man who dressed a lot of New York based artists from the golden age of hip hop. Dan’s first hip hop client was LL Cool J back in 1985. Dan’s style was luxe, the finest silks and furs were standard issue – think Puff Daddy before Puff Daddy. They went for customised outfits with their branding on which Dan provided. As the scene took off Dan incorporated suit lining material (which replicated the likes of the Fendi, Bally  or MCM brands) and Gucci or Louis Vuitton branded vinyl to make one-off products.

He customised trainers, clothing and even car interiors. Dan’s own Jeep Wrangler had an interior retrimmed in MCM branded vinyl.

Much of the luxury branding Dan used was coming in from Korean factories which at that time supplied the fake trade. Now similar products would have come out of China. I took a trip to the South China City complex in 2010 where fabric suppliers would offer Louis Vuitton labels and Supreme tags side-by-side.  I can only imagine that the Korean suppliers of the 1980s  had similar markets in textile industry centres like Deagu. Outside of hip hop, Dan was the go-to tailor for all the hustlers in Harlem – so you can see how he could have got the hook-up into the counterfeit suppliers.

At the time hip hop culture was not in a relationship with brands who where concerned about how it might affect them. LL Cool J was the first artist to get a deal with Le Coq Sportif. Run DMC got a long term deal with Adidas after their single ‘My Adidas’ became successful. But these were the exceptions to the rule.  So with Dan’s help they co-opted the brands to try and demonstrate success.

Over in the UK, the Buffalo collective of stylists, artists and photographers including Ray Petri, Jamie Morgan, Barry Kamen (who modelled for Petri), Mark Lebon and Cameron McVey. Buffalo was known as an attitude, which threw contrasting styles together and filtered into fashion shoots and influenced the collections of major designers including Yohji Yamamoto, Jean Paul Gaultier and Comme des Garçons. Even if you didn’t know what Buffalo was, you would have recognised the aesthetic from the likes of i-D, Blitz, New Musical Express and Arena. 

Buffalo mixed Armani jackets with Doctor Martens work boots, or a Puma bobble hat. Petri used music to sound track his process and this was pretty similar to the kind of stuff that influenced street wear pioneer Shawn Stussy over in California. Motown and hip-hop to dub reggae was the sound which explains the Feeling Irie t-shirts created by the white surfboard maker.

If you thought Bros looked cool in their MA-1 bomber jackets and stone washed Levi’s 501 jeans – there was a direct stylistic line back to Buffalo – rehabilitating the items from their link to skinhead culture.

Buffalo permeated into the street style of the decade; influencing the likes of Soul II Soul. Meanwhile over in Bristol The Wild Bunch were yet to morph into Massive Attack. Two members headed to London; producer Nelle Hooper and Miles Johnson (aka DJ Milo who went on to work in New York and Japan). A shoot was organised by i-D magazine and they turned up wearing their street clothes alongside DJ Dave Dorrell and model / stylist Barnsley. At the time, it was considered to be ‘very Buffalo’ in feel, but Dave Dorrell admitted in an interview that they had just came as they were. Dorrell wore his t-shirt as ‘advertising’ for it.

buffalo

The Hermes t-shirt and belt were snide, the Chanel Number 5 t-shirt sported by Dave Dorrell were being knocked out by a group of friends. Young people in London co-opted brands just like the hip-hop artists heading to Dapper Dan’s in Harlem.

Homage

From 1980, surfer Shawn Stussy had been growing an clothing empire of what we would now recognise as streetwear. Stussy had originally came up with the t-shirts as an adjunct and advertisement of his main business – selling surfboards. But the clothing hit emerging culture: skating, punk, hip-hop and took on a life of its own. It went global through Stussy’s ‘tribe’ of friends that he made along the way.

Stussy is known for his eclectic influences and mixing media: old photographs alongside his own typography. In a way that was unheard of in brand circles at the time, Stussy manifested his brands in lots of different ways. The back to back SS logo inside a circle was a straight rip from Chanel; the repeating logo motif that appeared in other designs was a nod to MCM and Louis Vuitton.

All of this went into the cultural melting pot of world cities like Tokyo, New York, London and Los Angeles. Stussy went on to do collaborations from a specially designed party t-shirt for i-D magazine’s birthday party to the cover art of Malcolm Maclaren records. Collaboration with mundane and high-end brands is backed into streetwear’s DNA.

Coke Zero x Neighborhood limited edition cans

(Neighborhood x Coke Zero was something I was involved with during my time in Hong Kong.)

Japan with its engrained sense of quality and wabisabi took the Buffalo mix-and-match approach to the next level. Japan’s own streetwear labels like Visivim, Neighborhood, W-Taps, The Real McCoy and A Bathing Ape (BAPE) took streetwear product quality, exclusivity and price points into luxury brand territory. That didn’t stop BAPE from making a snide versions of various Rolex models under the ‘Bapex’ brand.

Bapex

Some two decades later Supreme came up in New York. The brand takes design appropriation and homage to a new level. Every piece Supreme seems to do is a reference to something else. The famous box logo rips from Barbara Kruger’s piece ‘I shop therefore I am’. From taking a snide swipe at consumerism to ending up in the belly of the beast took Supreme a relatively short time. This heritage of appropriation didn’t stop Supreme from using legal means against people it felt had appropriated its ‘look’.

In an ironic twist of fate, Supreme was sued by Louis Vuitton in 2000 and yet the 2017 collaboration looks exceptionally similar to the offending items…

The last time I shared this story the page was just at 2k followers. With the collaboration officially announced today- and the page having 40k more followers since then- I figure it’s time to re-share. The year was 2000, and a 6 year old Supreme took their hands at referencing a high fashion brand as they did early on (Burberry, Gucci,) this time with Louis Vuitton. Box Logo tees (and stickers), beanies, 5 panels, bucket hats, and skateboard decks all featured the Supreme Monogram logo (pictured right). Within two weeks, Vuitton sends in a cease and desist and apparently, ordered Supreme to burn the remaining available stock. Clearly, many of the products from 2000 are still in the resell market, circulating today. Now we arrive at today’s FW Louis Vuitton fashion show. As most everyone is aware by now, Supreme is in fact collaborating with the luxury brand for a July- into fall collection. I’ve seen quite a few pieces from the collaboration (20+, check @supreme__hustle @supreme_access and @supreme_leaks_news for more pics) and it’s panning out to be Supremes largest collaboration to date. It’s interesting to see the references of both brands within the collaboration- from old Dapper Dan bootleg Louis pieces, to authentic ones, to Supremes monogram box logo and skateboard desks (pictured left). 17 years later and @mrkimjones proves that time can mend all wounds (amongst other things). Excited to see what all will release alongside this legendary collaboration. #supremeforsale #supreme4sale

A photo posted by Supreme (@supreme_copies) on

The new customers

North East Asia’s fast growing economies had been borne out of learning from developed market expertise, state directed focus on exports and ruthless weeding out of weaker businesses. Intellectual property was cast aside at various points. Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and China went from making knock-off products to displacing Europe and the US as the leading luxury markets.

Asian luxury consumers, particularly those second generation rich in China were younger than the typical customer luxury brands cater too. These consumers bought product as they travelled taking in style influences as they went. First from nearby markets like Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore and then Korea. This drew from a melange of hip hop, streetwear, Buffalo styling and contemporary western designers like Vivienne Westwood – as well as the more matronly styles of the traditional European luxury houses.

The luxury brands had to adapt. They brought in new designers who themselves were drawing from similar influences.  These designers also collaborated with sportswear brands like Alexander McQueen and Puma or Jeremy Scott and Raf Simons for Adidas.

Luxury brands got seriously into new product categories making luxe versions of training shoes that could be charitably called a homage to the like of Nike’s Air Force 1.

Bringing things full circle

As the supreme_copies Instagram account notes the collaboration with Supreme and Louis Vuitton brings things full circle with the pieces having a nod to Dapper Dan’s custom work as well as Supreme’s own ‘homage’.  Luxury brand MCM (Michael Cromer München), which Dan borrowed from extensively in the 1980s was restructured in 1997 with shops and brand being sold separately. The brand was eventually acquired eight years later by the Korean Sungjoo Group. Korea now has its own fast developing luxury fashion and cosmetics brand industry. Textile city Deagu which was the likely source of Dapper Dan’s fabric is now a fashion and luxury business hub in its own right. The Korean entertainment industry is a trend setter throughout Asia. For instance, Hallyu drama My Love From A Star drove breakout sales for the Jimmy Choo ‘Abel’ shoe.

The only question I still have is why did a move like Louis Vuitton’s collaboration with Supreme take so long? The luxury brands spend a lot on customer insight, they were using social listening far longer than they had been on social media. They know that a customer wearing their jacket could have a Visivim backpack slung over the shoulder and a pair of Adidas Stan Smiths on their feet. Customers mix-and-match Buffalo style for all but the most formal occasions. For streetwear brands, collaboration is in their DNA and they get an additional leg-up in the quality stakes.

More information
Ray Petri
How Buffalo shaped the landscape of 80s fashion – Dazed
Dave Dorrell interview part one | Test Pressing
Dapper Dan
Barbara Kruger Responds to Supreme’s Lawsuit: ‘A Ridiculous Clusterf**k of Totally Uncool Jokers’ | Complex
Volume and wealth make Chinese millennials a lucrative target market: GfK | Luxury Daily
Just why are Louis Vuitton and other high-end retailers abandoning China? | South China Morning Post – although Chinese shoppers consumed 46 per cent of luxury goods around the world, their purchases in their home market accounted for only 10 per cent of global sales, falling from 11 per cent in 2012 and 13 per cent in 2013
How a Jimmy Choo Shoe Became a Global Best Seller – WSJ

Technology companies, we have to talk about China

Uber has been cited as an example of how US technology companies can’t succeed in China, but the wrong lessons are being learned. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Facebook

Facebook is viewed as having ‘failed’ in China. There are two parts to this. First of all lets talk about Facebook’s business model, simply put it monetises consumers attention by selling advertising and related services to businesses.  In order to get consumers in a relevant market, it has to comply with local laws. In the EU it has a relatively easy ride as it is policed by the Irish government for compliance with EU regulations.

China has taken much more of hands on regulatory approach to the internet, like all media. Much of this is down to keeping a ‘harmonious’ society. You might not like the way they do it, but the party views internal pressures in a similar way to Western views on terrorism. Whether that terrorism in the name of Islam or black bloc anarchists.

China has an extensive censorship mechanism, it is a part of doing business there. Whilst the content maybe different, it is similar to the censorship structure for the UK in many respects:

  • Government steered industry practice
  • Legislation

One of the big differences in the UK is site blocking to protect commercial rather than government interests such as sporting event rights. Facebook chose not to implement systems that would make it compliant in China – so it isn’t available to ordinary Chinese consumers. Facebook does sell advertising in China to companies who want to reach western consumers. It has been successful in its advertising sales, sometimes to the detriment of western consumers. State-owned enterprise (SOE) Air China features as a case study for Facebook’s advertising business. San Francisco-based Papaya Mobile has built a successful business providing an online portal that allows Chinese businesses to target Facebook users abroad. I’d argue that Facebook isn’t failing in China.

If Facebook wanted to get Chinese consumers on board it had three market entry routes:

  • Build a separate Chinese product. This is something that US companies generally don’t do, they may localise the product but they avoid forking the product
  • Build infrastructure that complies with Chinese regulations. Google had done this in the past, before they chose not to
  • Have a local partner do the relevant work. Skype successfully entered the Chinese market with Chinese partner TOM. The Chinese client of Skype is known to allow government listening and weaker encryption. But in a post-Snowden world that shouldn’t be too surprising, the Chinese lack the subtlety of other countries security apparatus in their implementation but the goals are similar

Facebook somewhere along the line decided that they didn’t want to enter the Chinese market for consumers as is; but may do in the future if market dynamics change.

It is notable that Facebook’s growth in both Korea and Japan was slower than comparable western countries. Local platforms addressed the market better (KakaoTalk) and social norms of ‘nick name’ identities allowed to Twitter to become a comparative success in Japan.

Google

Google had entered China in 2005. They hired a local executive to run the business who had previously worked at Microsoft. Four years later they were third in the market behind local firms Baidu and Soso (Tencent subsidiary). Google had an estimated 29% market share.

So Google was in third place before it had legal issues in China. Why was it in third place? Google is thought to have under-estimated the growth rate in terms of number of web pages of the Chinese internet. In the same way that Yahoo! and Bing under-indexed the western web and paid for it by losing market share to Google, Google lost out to Baidu. This was about localisation and agility rather than the system being gamed against it. Google hasn’t indexed non-Roman languages as well as English, French etc.

Google was particularly beloved of those Chinese who had a more international life; scientific researchers, journalists, bankers, marketers and the more cosmopolitan members of the middle class. But for the average Chinese consumer, other search engines did a better job.

Google services ran into trouble with a YouTube video showing security forces and protestors in Tibet. Google took action in the Chinese market when Chinese dissidents had their Gmail accounts hacked. Again in a post-Snowden world this isn’t the shocking scandal it would have once been. Complaints in the US together with this incident meant that Google was prepared to give up on Chinese consumers. The business still has an R&D team in China and works with manufacturers on Android.

So why do American companies succeed elsewhere?

The simple answer is one of scale. The US is a single country with largely the same regulatory framework, a single language, good infrastructure and access to large amounts of capital. It is a market for approximately 324 million people. This allows businesses to grow rapidly to a scale that is internationally competitive.

By comparison although the EU has an addressable population of just over 510 million people, you have different legal systems (though it is becoming more harmonised by the EU). You have 24 languages, a common currency but diverse banking systems.

This comparative lack of scale in EU technology start-ups has two effects:

  • They are harder to grow as there isn’t a comparable domestic market to incubate businesses. If they do grow, the better access of capital allows an EU start-up to be bought out. Look at last.fm, DeepMind or ARM as examples of this.  Some businesses have managed to break like Spotify as they tapped into US funding. It is also pertinent to point out that Spotify isn’t make money
  • With some noticeable exceptions like Spotify, getting capital to grow a business internationally is much harder. It isn’t realistic for a European start-up to pursue the Amazon / Uber model of betting against competition by assuming that they will always have access to cheap plentiful capital

This has meant that Facebook, Google and the like have risen largely unopposed in Europe. They have found it so easy that they’ve gained monopoly levels of market share. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. At best Europe acts like a ‘feeder team’ of talent and IP to US start-ups. Where Europe is successful is largely based on past dominance in legacy industry sectors like vehicle manufacture and pharmaceuticals. This also partly explains Europe’s stagnant growth.

China is different

China is the polar opposite of Europe. It has an addressable market for 1.4 billion people. Whilst there are many dialects in China the party railroaded Mandarin as the lingua franca and simplified Chinese as a common written language.  Live and incomes in the tier one cities would be comparable to parts of Europe. Economic growth has slowed to 6 per cent a year, but the economy is still flush with capital.

A huge population means a huge pool of qualified staff. You combine this with a large amount of capital and you have a business than can out-Uber Uber.

The culture of China is different. Chinese consumers like to go to Starbucks and KFC, use Apple products and wear luxury fashion brands; but only because these fit into Chinese cultural constructs. That means that products need to be optimised for the local market.

China has been through huge change since the rise of the party, which means that the owner executives of these companies have have a greater desire for risk to capitalise on ‘the now’.

This means that most of the advantages Silicon Valley has: agility of action, talent and capital are negated in their competition in China. In addition, since they committed to an approach that already works, adaptation to local market needs are limited. This is interpreted by the Chinese counterparts as hubris; the reality is more subtle.

China does have strategic interests which means that it regulates ‘state secrets’ very carefully. Mapping technology is carefully controlled. It has tried to use its size to benefit its businesses. In the same way that the EU through ETSI defined the GSM standard, the Chinese government tried to do the same with TD-CDMA. The reality is that favoured companies like Huawei have managed to allow their clients to get cheap funding for purchases via Chinese state-owned banks.

Like the US government, the Chinese government uses research funding and infrastructure spending to direct some aspects of technological development. Since the administration of Hu Jintao, the Internet of Things (IoT) has been a government focus.

The danger of the invincible China myth

Whilst China wants to have a world-beating successful technology sector. There are problems that comes with a perception of invisibility, China will find it hard to keep open markets. Trade negotiations will become intractable as the other party sees no upsides to working with China. An eco-system where foreigners have a modicum of success is a better outcome for the Chinese government.

Uber’s problems were entirely of their own making, their choice to go into China was likely their first error. Not because it is excessively gained against them, but because they didn’t have any comparative advantages over Didi.

More information
Uber has destroyed the Western myth that companies can grow huge in China without being Chinese
Content filtering by UK ISPs | Open Rights Group Wiki
Facebook “Will Do Everything We Can” To Address Shady Dress Retailers | Buzzfeed News
Facebook for Business | Air China
Papaya Shoptimize | Papaya Mobile
China listening in on Skype – Microsoft assumes you approve | GreatFire.org
Spotify financial results show struggle to make streaming music profitable – The Guardian

Oprah Time: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body Problem like all the best science fiction is multi-layered. It has a complex story which gradually weaves together a large set of characters across time as the story is told in a non-linear manner. It is also multi-layered in terms of genres:

  • It is a space opera as rich as Asimov’s Foundation books, except it is the aliens who will be doing the interstellar travel
  • It has a conspiracy at the heart of it that reminded me of James Bond novels and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps
  • It is the tail of of hard-bitten detective work as if Raymond Chandler had been in Beijing; complete with film noir levels of smoking and drinking

But most interesting of all is the mirror it offers on the modern China from the cultural revolution onwards. Liu is unflinching in his depiction of Cultural Revolution excesses.

Like all good authors there are hints of Liu’s early life in a rural part of Henan province during the cultural revolution. He has managed to spin the complex web of a story. The Three Body Problem is the first book in a trilogy – I am looking forward to reading The Dark Forest – the second book.

Out and about: Independence Day: Resurgence

Independence Day was one of the benchmark blockbuster movies. It has cheesy Americana, Will Smith and an aerial dog fight that left my butt cheeks numb as my body had flinched to hold my body in the chair. The illusions on screen temporarily fooled my senses.

Twenty years later, Independence Day: Resurgence was bigger and darker. There was less of the knowing ironic humour. The film tried to take itself seriously. The CGI was impressive, but felt prosaic as we are more used to it now. Destroying London? Yawn.

For a film aiming to take advantage of 3D sales at the box office it offered precious little in terms of visual engagement.

The film did a better job at laying out its stall to take advantage of the Chinese market. A Chinese dairy brand was featured prominently as ‘Moon Milk’. The characters use video chat on QQ (a sister brand of Tencent’s WeChat) with its iconic penguin logo.  One of the film’s prominent stars is Angelababy a staple of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema who came to prominence as a model and promotional spokesperson.

I get why Chinese audiences will like the film, their ‘token’ characters fit in better than transplants sewn into Transformer films – and its apparently done well at the box office there.

The plot took some more twists and turns than the original, but it missed a crucial ingredient. I didn’t care if the characters lived for died, it all felt rather academic – for the future stars of tomorrow like Liam Hemsworth, that must terrify his representation. Hemsworth is a great actor in previous outings like Black Hat, but all of the cast feel flat due to poor character development.

Oprah time: Velvet by Brubaker & Breitweiser

In a world of Marvel-dominated culture, it is hard to imagine more realistic material. Ed Brubaker got the freedom to publish Velvet after several years at DC, Vertigo and Marvel.

Velvet is a welcome antidote to the superhero genre of graphic novels. Instead, you get a cold war era spy drama with modern storytelling. Velvet tells the story of a middle-aged Anne Bancroft-like secretary and one-time agent. The story gets going when she is set up for murder by persons unknown.

In this respect, it outlines the kind of spy plot that would be familiar to readers of Len Deighton or Alistair Maclean. Brubaker’s choice of the early 1970s goes back to a pre-cellphone and computer age. This provides him with a broader canvas to work with.

The story feels modern in its non-linear narrative that moves back and forth between 1956 and 1973. The story zips through Europe across both sides of the Iron Curtain as Velvet tries to find who set her up. The comic features highly kinetic action reminiscent of Matt Damon-era Jason Bourne.

The first two volumes of Velvet are available here and here. Volume three is due out in September.

The Gawker | Peter Thiel Post in a wider context

Silicon Valley veteran financier Peter Thiel was behind the financing of a court case that Terry Bollea “Hulk Hogan” filed over a sex tape. An extract of the video was published by Gawker Media.
Hulk Hogan
What Bollea did was stupid. As a veteran celebrity he must have realised that any kind of compromising position would be a tempting pay check for even his closest friends. The behaviour ran of the risk of endangering any commercial endorsements or media deals that he may have had in place. Usually commercial deals of this nature come with a good behaviour clause – I’ve had these clauses in every celebrity and influencer endorsement I’ve been involved with.

Bollea does have a family who would be caused considerable embarrassment by his actions. And it could be argued that secretly filmed sex between two consenting adults isn’t really newsworthy or pertinent for public consumption.

Gawker Media did what growing media empires have done in the past  and conduct ‘yellow journalism’.  Content of a puerile or sensational nature had been the stock in trade of William Randolph Heart, Joseph Pulitzer, Rupert Murdoch or William Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook). It isn’t morally defensible and it isn’t clever, it is an indictment of the audience.

Gawker did do the public a service, shining a torch on Silicon Valley in a way that hadn’t been done since the early days of InfoWorld’s Notes From The Field column and the book Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date. The problem was that both of those were pre-smartphone and pre-Internet era portraits of the ‘Valley; back when it really did have foundries manufacturing microprocessors.

As an external observer and someone who has done PR for similar companies in the past. I would argue that the relationships between journalists and the Silicon Valley technology beat had become sufficiently docile that media didn’t provide the reader with insightful analysis of what was really going on.

It is the kind of relationship that the US military struggled to have in Iraq and Afghanistan through the embedding process. Instead of MREs and sharing the emotional highs and lows of action; San Francisco journalists got executive access and invites to the same social mixers and conferences.

Valleywag shook up media practices. Although editorial teams won’t admit it; the likes of Recode, TechCrunch and The Information took note.

Peter Thiel is the most interesting person in the cast of the Hulk Hogan court room drama. Thiel is known for his wealth and unique take on libertarianism. I won’t go into is Thiel right or wrong as none of the parties including Mr Thiel deserve our unreserved sympathies.  It all just makes me want to re-apply hand sanitiser before using the internet.

What I find most interesting about Thiel’s actions is the way it signifies a cultural shift in Silicon Valley that I have talked about for a good while.

It is hard to believe that within living memory San Francisco was a port city with fish canneries that attracted drug addled misfits drawn by everything from its freewheeling culture and access to drugs. The Santa Clara valley to the south was fertile farm land that grew apricots and prunes. Fruit brand Del Monte started right here. The area grew up as Stanford University and the scientific developments of the late 19th to mid-20th century science revolutionised the US military.

Silicon Valley had a reputation for doing things differently. The mix of academia, counterculture and defence expenditure created a unique culture that evolved over time. The collegiate work environment founded by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard had much to do with their background in education at Stanford. The HP Way, a set of values guided the company for over 60 years until Carly Fiorina’s tenure as CEO.

Bob Noyce came to Silicon Valley to do pioneering work at Shockley’s lab, however poor man management meant that he became a last minute member of the traitorous eight and went on to found Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel. In both of these businesses he founded a relaxed culture that was decades ahead of its time and similar to a modern day worker. If you work in a cube farm rather than offices – you can likely blame that on Noyce.

Whilst the enterprise software businesses like Oracle and chip companies like AMD mirrored the hard driving sales teams of their East Coast counterparts at IBM, many Bay Area companies were made of something different. Counterculture had seeped into the industry. The hacker culture of sharing software and the transformative nature of technology brought forth the Home Brew Computer Club and a missive from a nascent Microsoft CEO complaining about early software piracy. Steve Jobs had talked about how his LSD experiences had helped him do the things he did at Apple. Wired magazine was founded by former hippies like Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly. There was a very good reason why The Grateful Dead were one of the first bands with a website.

I interviewed with a H-P employee back in the late 1990s who told me how had bought his ‘dancing bears’ tie and Jerry Garcia mouse mat from dead.net

The hippies in Silicon Valley brought their ‘back to the land’ ethos and doing their own thing. It is a form of libertarianism, but not one that Thiel or Uber’s Travis Kalanick would likely recognise as their own.

This was the libertarianism of the pioneer who ventured westward or the outlaw biker gang that yearned for the same freedom. The key difference is that the hippy technologist build their frontier to carry onwards, not having to worry about the Pacific ocean and instead going to new realms in code and network infrastructure.

The counterculture ethos could be seen even in web 2.0 products like Flickr which freely allowed customers to move their data or build their own apps on the APIs that the development team used.

Facebook is a marker in time for when the cultural tone of Silicon Valley changed. The hippies were out and the yuppies had taken over. Brogrammers and zero hour working for ‘Uber for’ applications that provide labour as a service.

The Gawker court case marks a similar milestone event in Silicon Valley culture. Thiel’s actions brought a number of his peers out in public to support him. Silicon Valley stops sounding like yuppies and more like the titan’s of the gilded age that would brook no disrespect and governed riches in the face of massive inequality. The Bay Area version of the American dream is dead for the secretaries and engineers who will no longer become financially independent on share options.

Customer service, once seen as a a way into start-ups is now a purgatory. I used to have a client in the late 1990s who worked their way up through a chip company from being in admin when the business was a new start-up to running marketing communications and PR across EMEA in the space of 10 years or so. That progression just wouldn’t happen now, the gilded class have their compliant (if at times resentful workforce) and now want a more respectful media.

The seeds of destruction are already sown for the gilded class. Innovation has moved East to the other side of the Pacific. Baidu is likely to be a leader in deep learning, driverless vehicles and innovation. The leading drone brand is DJI based in Shenzhen – rather than being designed in California and just assembled in China. Networks infrastructure leader Huawei are showing the kind of smarts marketing Android smartphones that Silicon Valley hardware makers would have had a decade ago.

Tencent has shown how dangerous it could be with the right marketing smarts. It already has as good software design chops as the Bay Area. Facebook Messenger bots have been on WeChat for years. If you haven’t done so give WeChat a try, just to see what the application looks like.

A compliant sycophantic media won’t help the gilded class build the financially successful future Silicon Valley in the same way that an inquiring body of journalists could do.

More information
The changing culture of Silicon Valley
Barbarians in the Valley
From satori to Silicon Valley by Theodore Roszak
A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace
Tech Titans Raise Their Guard, Pushing Back Against News Media – New York Times
Those Entry-Level Startup Jobs? They’re Now Mostly Dead Ends in the Boondocks — Backchannel — Medium