Welcome to the Metaverse

From the distance of the future, we will remember 2021 as the year the metaverse began to take shape. As the building blocks of this new world come into focus let’s begin with the obvious and timely.

The ultimate Web 2.0 company, Facebook, rebranded itself as Meta this past month to signal that it intends to lead the charge into Web 3.0, aka the metaverse. Meta owns not only Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, but also importantly virtual reality firm Oculus. So they’ve got a nice head start on building this around us. 

One the one hand, the metaverse still feels quite science fiction-y. Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, author of the 1992 novel Snow Crash (which I have not yet read) gets credit for inventing the word.

For a glimpse at this future, who among us did not love the movies Tron and The Matrix? And the books Neuromancer by William Gibson, or more recently Ready Player One by Ernest Cline? Sure, there were a few teensy-tiny issues in these fictional metaverses, but surely Zuckerberg will solve these problems on our behalf.

From the perspective of metaverse dwellers, what we might call “in real life” or “IRL,” this “flesh and blood” existence has a name. Our corporeal world, as distinguished from the metaverse, shall henceforth be known as the “meatverse.” Is this not perfect? Please, please, can we make the meatverse a thing?

The key transformation from meatverse to metaverse (besides the movement of 1 letter) can be captured by the concept of dematerialization. Future production of goods and services need not be physical or material. They will be digital. We will mostly and increasingly live our whole lives in this digital world. 

Long before renaming his company Meta, Zuckerberg was already on an acquisition tear to build our metaverse. He’s got not only a head start, but maybe has built a near-monopoly already. In 2021, Facebook/Meta bought virtual-reality game-maker BigBox VR, and game platform Unit 2 Games, which resembles the Roblox platform, a competing metaverse builder.

In 2019 Facebook bought Beat Games, the maker of the most popular virtual reality game on Oculus. In 2020 they bought Giphy, thought to be useful for building digital advertising. The company also acquired two other virtual reality game-makers Sanzaru Games and Ready at Dawn. 

It’s not just the roll-up of VR businesses, but also the deepening and adoption of new technology in 2021 that mark the trend toward the metaverse.

Semi-buried beneath the 2021 hype about cryptocurrencies (which I hate) is the more significant application of blockchain technology (which I acknowledge is probably important.) Blockchains may be crucial infrastructure powering the coming metaverse.

Non-fungible tokens, better known as NFTs and based on crypto and blockchain technology, allow for permanent, private ownership of digital assets in the metaverse. This already means metaverse-ready artwork, which exploded in popularity and prices this past Spring. 

All of the hype around extraordinary prices paid for digital NFT artwork indicate that the very real human need for social status and social connection will likely drive construction of the metaverse. 

Status acquisition in the metaverse feels poised to only grow exponentially from here. For example, paying $4,000 for a digital (not physical) Gucci bag in the game Roblox isn’t cool, because it can’t be taken out of that single game. But maybe getting an NFT of a Gucci bag in the metaverse will be cool, because it’s transferable across platforms and can be permanently owned for life?  

To your question, apparently yes, somebody did pay more for a digital Gucci bag in the Roblox game than the cost of a real-life Gucci bag. This is only the beginning of the fun we’re going to have in the metaverse.

This will soon mean metaverse real estate. Will I be able to purchase the coolest meta-mansion and host the coolest meta-parties at an extraordinarily high cost in crypto? Undoubtedly, soon, yes. 

But also, do I get to explore Mordor with the realest orcs and achieve my dream of climbing Mount Doom, all while laying safely on my couch? You’re darn right I’m going to do that on a Saturday night surrounded by all of my favorite hobbits. I’ll probably pay a lot in cryptocurrency for a live elven guide too. In a related story, a videogame company just bought Peter Jackson’s visual effects studio for $1.6 billion last week, explicitly to facilitate the building of the metaverse with Lord of the Rings nerds like me in mind.

As you read this, are you under the mistaken impression that none of this applies to you? 

Once you understand the narrative and the trend, you will recognize more key elements of the metaverse are assembling before our very eyes. This past year in particular.

The metaverse took a great leap forward in 2021 because COVID forced everyone to interact virtually for months at a time. You wanted to see your friend? You needed to collaborate with your colleague? You had a therapy appointment? Everything we needed to do in person we realized we could do through our screens, virtually. And we have all adapted more or less quickly to it.

I bought a new car in September, a 2022 model Hyundai Elantra. It’s not even close to a high-end car, but the self-driving proto-metaverse features are actually amazing. Automatic steering-wheel nudges when I drift out of my lane. Automatic braking if I come up to close to the car ahead. Immersive sound. I play podcasts that take me anywhere in the outer world. That outer world is represented by a constantly changing 3-D street map on my screen. It’s just a whole different driving feel than my 2009 car of the same make and model. It is not a far leap to think that automated driving or semi-automated driving is just around the corner, extending the metaverse from my computer screen to my windshield.

Soon I will hardly need to interact with the meatverse at all.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.

Please see related posts:

Teaching my kid about stocks by talking about Roblox and the Metaverse

My Hyundai Elantra and talking about fund fees.

The NFT Revolution

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Transparency Part III – Salaries! All We Have To Lose Is Our Chains!

Ready for another crazy, but great, money idea that could change your life for the better?

Transparency
I’ve got one word for you, kid: Transparency

Salary transparency. At your workplace. Meaning: everyone knows what everyone else gets paid, every year. No, wait, stick with me here. I know you suddenly felt a little ill. But salary transparency works to your advantage.

Salary transparency is an idea most commonly discussed as an ideal in recent years among Silicon Valley tech companies, but it shouldn’t begin or end there.

San Antonio-based software engineer Nancy Hawa of DevResults a data-organization and data-visualization company based in Washington DC, pushed for salary transparency in her 12-person company earlier this year. DevResults decided to take the plunge.

As a result, her CEO and COO released to employees a completely open set of data around not only what all employees make this year, but the entire history of everyone’s compensation.

The initial feeling among Hawa and her colleagues with that disclosure, she admits, was dismay. She described the higher-paid employees in the office holding their heads at their desks in a kind of awkward embarrassment. Lower-paid employees, like Hawa, held their breath to find out what would happen next.

To the credit of DevResults’ leadership, they announced that despite what appeared to be “unfair pay” then, nobody would be paid less as a result. Over time, Hawa reports, lower-paid employees received a bump up in pay to put them in line with their colleagues. Transparency for Hawa meant she will be paid a lot more, not only this year, but in the future.

I learned from my conversation with Hawa a bunch of the nuances around salary transparency, a topic about which she is passionate.

The first nuance is about the “Why?” of salary disclosure.

The two best reasons to want financial transparency are to fight corruption and to ensure fairness.

I wrote earlier about income tax transparency, which is mostly about fighting corruption, and somewhat less about fairness.

Salary transparency is an even more radical departure from current norms than tax transparency. I’m increasingly convinced good business leaders should institute it as a matter of setting company culture.

Now, before you all freak out, salary transparency actually is somewhat normal in certain circumstances. As Hawa notes, “The State of Texas is not a progressive or radical organization, but they decided they needed salary transparency.”

Texas believes strongly in salary transparency as a public policy value, presumably for both anti-corruption and fairness reasons.  I did an experiment, moments ago, to answer the question of how long it would take me to figure out Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s annual salary. The answer, in my case: 46 seconds. He makes $153,750 per year.

But immediately, I realized the next important nuance about transparency.

Partial Transparency

One of Hawa’s main warnings is that ‘partial’ salary transparency is actually destructive. With ‘partial’ disclosure she points out, you move quickly from no salary information to salary misinformation.

For example, an online search would tell you that Texas legislators earn $7,200 per year. But that number totally overlooks the generous pensions they can accrue over years of service, as I wrote about earlier in the year. So ‘salary transparency’ can be done well, but it can also be done badly.

It took me 41 seconds to find that my wife has part of her salary disclosed online as well, as she is paid part-time by a State of Texas entity. That partial disclosure, however, is misleading because it’s only part of the story. Again, partial disclosure can obscure rather than illuminate.

Hawa also cited companies that release “salary bands” rather than all salary data. All that does is potentially hide big differences in total compensation within wide ranges, like $40,000 differences, as she has observed elsewhere. Also, releasing general information about characteristics of employees, like “new hires receive $X in salary, but with some exceptions” can actually deceive.

Why the exceptions? And why the non-identifiable descriptions? Selective disclosure, Hawa argues, is often worse than no disclosure at all, because it misleads.

I wondered if only a relatively “flat” organization would want to radical transparency. Hawa doesn’t think so. Companies should be free to pay for star performance, as long as management can justify it.

“The company doesn’t have to aspire to flatness, but does have to aspire to fairness,” says Hawa. “Unequal is not the same as inequitable.” Those seem to me important points as well. Pay as much as you want or need to, as long as you wouldn’t be embarrassed by everyone knowing everyone’s pay.

If you’re a business owner who would be embarrassed by full salary transparency at your firm, what does that say about your method of paying folks? In an important sense, Hawa believes, the discomfort is the point. Hawa described her colleagues’ initial discomfort as a positive rather than a negative.

From Hawa’s perspective, transparency challenges leadership to be introspective. That’s where the hard conversations, and maybe some learning, can begin.

Says Hawa, “If you are leader, give yourself the opportunity to be challenged by your employees. If your salaries are fair, you’re good. If they are not, you [the manager/owner] have something to learn.”

Who Benefits from Opacity?

I’m pretty interested in the thought experiment. This all got me thinking about the fact that salary transparency is really not considered ‘normal’ in most workplaces. But why? Why are we unwilling to be transparent? What are we uncomfortable with? Who benefits from the secrecy?

For competitive reasons, we can all agree it makes sense not to publish your data to your competitors. But to ensure fairness within your own organization, wouldn’t full disclosure for current employees reduce mistrust?

I asked Hawa if she thought disclosure helped managers run her business better.

“I think there’s a business value in taking this off of people’s minds.”

And if you are a worker at an organization and the idea of salary transparency makes you uncomfortable, you should probably realize that secrecy isn’t your friend. You might have some initial shock and resentment upon disclosure, sure, but after that you would likely benefit. Secrecy is a tool in the hands of management.

As Siskel and Ebert once said: All You Have To Lose Are Your Chains

I think if you’re a worker worried about salary disclosure, you should remember the words written by a couple of German guys who became famous in 1848: All you have to lose are your chains!

A version of this post previously ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.

Please see related posts:

Tax Transparency – I’m a fan

City Economic Development Transparency – SA and Houston failing grades

San Antonio and Houston need transparency taken to 11

TX Legislative Salary transparency and opaqueness

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Education for Entrepreneurship

testing

testingI wonder about the following question: are entrepreneurship and traditional education totally at odds? Can practical business skills only be learned on the job? Or can we teach this at school? And if at a school, how do we teach the key skills of launching, running and succeeding in business in a school setting?

In early March, I attended my first Pitch-A-Kid competition, which struck me as a highly plausible learning tool for school age students to gain insight into startups.

Equally important to this plausible experiment in business skills-building was the setting, the open presentation space within CAST Tech, a project-based learning school founded in 2017 to address precisely my questions above.

Amir Samandi, Mentor Coordinator and Partnerships Director for CAST Tech, the in-district charter school in San Antonio ISD focused on business, tech, and design, invited me to this Pitch-A-Kid competition.

pitch-a-kidI sat directly behind Timiera Jackson and MaryJo Armas, aged 15 and sophomores at CAST Tech. They, along with four others from their tenth grade class in Entrepreneurship, formed the judges for Pitch-A-Kid.

Pitch-A-Kid takes the traditional venture capital model – young startup founders pitching to older capitalists – and flips it on its head.

Instead, seven startup founders – adult entrepreneurs in their first few years of business – compete to win over the high-school age judges. Like most startups, these seven businesses still seek the right mix of concise pitch, customer experience, staffing, and of course capital and a steady path to profitability. These startup founders don’t have it all figured out yet. But that’s ok. They are pitching to the high school kids – the judges in the contest – to develop their own skills.

We heard pitches from:

Some pitches I understood the unique value proposition and potential path to profitability. Some pitches I just couldn’t see it. I was just happy none mentioned Cannabis or the Blockchain, the buzziest buzzwords of the 2018 startup scene. Thank goodness for 2019. I guess AI is still the third buzziest word.

The high school sophomore judges made their own evaluations and scored the pitches themselves, to determine the contest winner. Ideally, as well, they absorbed the importance of public speaking, organizing complex ideas while sticking to plain language, and the startup problem of metaphorically flying the plane while simultaneously building it at 30,000 feet.

Cast_TechThe questions and comments from high school judges echoed my own thoughts.

“Have you considered outsourcing, to bring costs down?” one judge asked the meditation-cushion manufacturer.

“What are your profits?” another judge asked the customer-service app founder. Great question.

“I don’t understand your business,” I heard one of the sophomores query the AI-driven lead-generation company. I had to agree with her.

Mike Millard, the founder of Pitch-A-Kid, kept the presenters to their strictly enforced 5-minute pitch, followed by another time-limited Q&A session afterwards.

Perhaps true to his mission and style, Millard’s chief timekeeper for the event was his primary-school age daughter Audrey, who he credits with inspiring the idea for Pitch-A-Kid through her own inquisitiveness around one of Millard’s own startup plans.

The benefits flow in both directions from Pitch-A-Kid. Startup founders get a chance to hone their pitch for a critical audience. They get to learn, directly through questions from teens, which part of their story is the weakest, and which part resonates.

CAST Tech

The fact CAST Tech brought in Pitch-A-Kid is no accident. Samandi described the challenge traditional schools face in teaching business and entrepreneurship. His mission, and that of his entire school, directly addresses that.

Says Samandi: “In my experience, I was in a classroom for 6 years.

testingThe public school environment can be a bit bureaucratic. For example, if a kid wants to sell a candy bar, that breaks the rules. That stifles creativity and entrepreneurship. It makes it hard in that environment for entrepreneurial thinking to thrive. The environment really promotes conformity.”

Samandi mentioned that many of the sophomores in the Entrepreneurship class judging at Pitch-A-Kid had participated in Startup Week in October, themselves pitching adults in the local tech scene. But as Samandi says, much of CAST Tech’s approach by necessity is to “flip the script” on traditional learning, to foster entrepreneurship.

Samandi told me: “CAST Tech reimagines school from the bottom up. We are asking – how do we make school an entrepreneurial environment? If we’re going to make business, tech, and design the focus, you’re really going to have to open up.”

It’s a cliché – that probably has some truth to it – that the traditional school process discourages entrepreneurship. Breaking the rules? Thinking outside the standardized test? Trying something that very likely will fail the first few times? Specifically disregarding received wisdom and undermining the old way? These are all keys to succeeding in entrepreneurship and fast-moving businesses, but these behaviors are total transcript-crushers in a traditional educational setting.

On the other hand, traditional schooling rewards skills that would be career-destroying in many businesses: Stay in neat rows, stick to your own lane. Remain silent. Work alone for long periods of time, quietly producing long-form texts based on classic ideas from 20, 50, or 150 years ago. What are doing – training kids for a monastic life?

You won’t learn the “move fast and break things” mantra of Silicon Valley in a traditional school.

A project-based learning school like CAST Tech trying to “flip the script” strikes me as a difficult and worthwhile, project.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle.

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Elements of a Tech/Startup City

closer_to_fineHere’s my thesis, which won’t make me popular in some parts: My city’s no tech startup hub. Not even close. So the question is: What’s the missing thing that would make a city a tech hub?

I asked a bunch of experts. Do you remember that Indigo Girls song “Closer to Fine?” I was an Indigo Girl last month, asking everybody my question. Maybe I can put that earworm inside your brain for the rest of the day. “I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains…” You’re welcome.

I collected six answers from as many experts, which I’ll summarize and let them expand upon: Proximity, Practice, Leadership, Unique Advantages, Real Problems, and Patience.

Those were the answers, and clearly are some of the ingredients. Combining them to make a tech city probably takes a dash of luck and a bit of magic as well.

The UT San Antonio Dean of Engineering Dr. JoAnne Browning proudly showed me the architectural plans for her department’s key ingredient to building a tech startup city: Proximity. Outside of her office window, trucks moved earth in preparation for constructing a 17,000 square foot “Maker’s Space,” intended to bring together under one roof engineers, entrepreneurs and industry experts – a tech lab to launch the next generation of startups, and startup founders.

Meanwhile, on another part of the university campus, Diego Capeletti, Coordinator at the Center for Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship (CITE) runs an annual startup competition to give undergraduates startup practice even before leaving university. Twenty teams typically enter the annual CITE competition, teams made up of both engineers and business students, paired with industry mentors. They are winnowed down to 10 teams that receive funds for building prototypes, and then a final group of 5 teams make a pitch to a Tech Symposium. Winners receive a $5,000 cash prize plus generous in-kind services such as legal, public relations, office space, and patent help. The big idea here is that a startup city needs to produce young people with practice in startups.

I asked Michael Girdley, who wears many hats as the founder of a software coding school CodeUp, co-founder of investment firm Geekdom Fund and startup incubator Real Co about the city’s key missing ingredient. He added the third element beyond the UTSA’s folks’ proximity and practice.

When I pushed for the tech startup city’s most important single missing piece, Girdley settled not on training undergraduates but rather on the dearth of business leadership.

“There are not enough startup founders. We need the experienced professionals, in particular, who can start companies and swing for the fences.“

cyber_securityCongressman Will Hurd (R – 23rd District) brought an intelligence agency and cybersecurity professional background to serving the district which stretches from northwest San Antonio all the way nearly to El Paso. When I asked about San Antonio’s key missing ingredient, he immediately pointed to one of the city’s natural, unique strengths – cyber security.

“It requires us to understand why San Antonio is Cyber Security City USA. Very simply, the 24th [LINK: http://www.24af.af.mil/] and 25th [LINK: http://www.25af.af.mil/] Air Force in SA, TX. This is what’s driving the talent,”

he commented, naming the two cyber warfare groups stationed at Lackland Air Force Base. The first key to building a tech startup city would be building on that unique strength, to retain people leaving those jobs who want to remain in the city, but also to build private companies to serve the Air Force groups’ needs.

And that, according to Hurd, requires the second ingredient: the need to solve specific, real problems.

“To create an ecosystem…you‘ve got to have problems to solve, and you’ve got to have people that can solve them.“

If the Air Force cyber units can identify and make specific problems available to the private sector through something called the Cyber Proving Grounds [LINK: http://www.24af.af.mil/CPG/] Hurd argues,

“then we get everybody like all these smart private sector entrepreneurs in a room, and tell them ‘Here’s our problem, give us a 30-day, 60-day, 90-day solution.’”

The big idea here is that local startups shouldn’t focus on solving Silicon Valley problems, but rather San Antonio-specific problems, as posed by the city’s unique cyber security strength.

I called Dr. Ben Jones, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago, who independently echoed Congressman Hurd’s key messages, and amplified them. It sounded to me like they’d been reading the same books on startups.

“We think in innovation that it’s easier to work back from real problems. By being close to a real problem you can pivot and innovate toward real solutions.

You might have a company that has a real problem they are trying to improve on, and you need to bring those problems to people who can work on that.

Why do clusters of innovation happen? Because it’s a thick market on both sides. There’s a large variety of needs and a large group that can meet those needs.”

 

Jones’ theory echoed Hurd’s focus on San Antonio’s unique advantage – cyber security – and the identification of real problems that need solving, as the basis for startups and innovation.

For one more element, I turned to one of the original three Rackspace founders, Dirk Elmendorf, for his unique perspective as an entrepreneur who helped build the city’s only recognizably large tech company.

His pitch for the one missing piece for everyone eager for a tech and startup city: patience.

“The real challenge of being a tech city is that unlike technology itself, cities don’t change overnight. So the challenge is sustaining the ambition, to be willing to stick it out even if you’re not sure the plant is going to grow.”

He also urged a two-track approach to encourage patience.

“Our idea is to continue to build small things that may survive, because small achievable things sustain excitement, but also aim for large ambitious things that make a bigger impact.”

So proximity, practice, leadership, unique skills, real problems, and finally, patience.

There’s more than one answer to these questions, pointing us in a crooked line.

 

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.

 

Please see related posts:

 

Getting started – Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurs – Pack twice the luggage, half the money

Entrepreneurship and its Discontents

 

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