Lecture Notes

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Lecture Notes

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Brought to my attention by a reference in a ZDNet article I was reading this weekend was an event Oxford's Saïd Business School hosted on Monday, curiously titled event called Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford. Chaired by the FT's Enterprise Editor Jonathan Guthrie, the event gathered together a varied group of Valley experts to look at how innovation and entrepreneurship can be better fostered in the tech sector.

The article linked to a webcast of the evening panel session which featured a number of luminaries including Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, Matt Cohler from Facebook, Chris Sacca from Google and Allen Morgan from Mayfield. This is well worth a look for anyone interested in building Internet technologies, businesses or both.

Some interesting business-y points that came up:

  • As Matt Cohler pointed out, HE institutions need to find a compromise between pure theoretical research favoured at for instance Yale and Oxford and the more applied approach taken by Stanford (and drawing similarities myself, Warwick) in order to give people the right skills they'll need as entrepreneurs.

  • Anecdotal evidence presented by the panel suggested that this year's students have a lot more confidence and entrepreneurial energy than in previous years, but turning their ideas into a reality may be challenging. Most of the time it comes down to having the right contacts, which in turn relies on having the kind of culture that encourages that.

  • VC isn't dead, but there's a lot of 'scar tissue' around, according to Morgan. People are still investing in start-ups, but they need to have a solid model behind them. Encouraging stuff, given that Alfresco is one of the companies that Mayfield have funded in the last year.

  • Guthrie came up with some interesting comparisons between the technology sector over the last ten years and investment in the railways and canal infrastructure in Britain in the 17-1800's. Unlike the canals, the railways at least lasted longer than fifty years, but in both people lost a lot of money that they'd poured into flawed and ill-conceived projects in both. Sound familiar?

  • The failure of a business can be a positive thing in some cases, if you can spot when it's going wrong before it's too late.

And on technology:

  • Everyone talked of how social networks are increasingly important on the web and will become even more significant over the next few years. Most communities are based on users gaining some form of notoriety or reputation for themselves, such as on LinkedIn and MySpace. The best way to build a community is by giving it's members something in return , i.e. there must be some form of self-interest.

  • Matt Cohler talked about how monetising a community online requires you to focus on a particular demographic, but while still making that target group as big as possible. Maximising value requires that you find the right balance between the generality and specificity of a service.

  • Chris Sacca looked at how users can be divided by either their generation or their age group and the distinction between the two. Services can be designed across these divides, and Google Talk was given as an example.

  • There was agreement that we're still in the early days of the web and we need to develop more advanced systems of authentication and accountability in order to build trust between people. Morgan summed this up well when he said that 'Anonymity doesn't always bring out the best in people'.

  • As ZDNet discussed in their analysis, Sacca referred to the 'gated communities' that currently exist on today's wireless and mobile networks, comparing this with the net neutrality issue in the US. There was general speculation (mostly gloomy) on what will happen to the providers once IP finally becomes ubiquitous on mobile devices, with lots of analogies contributed about dams coming down and various techies in Silicon Valley trying to work out how to take them down faster.

Update: There's also a webcast of the lunchtime panel sessoin available here.