Sunday, November 17, 2013

Alfidi Capital At K-TECH Conference For Latest In Software Innovation

I attended the K-TECH Silicon Valley 2013 conference this month.  The organizers had a full agenda of exhibitions and speakers for me to check out.  They also had free food, which I never turn down.  I had to see what South Korea's KOTRA and NIPA wanted us all to learn.  I managed to capture myself in the hallway mirror as I snapped my traditional self-aggrandizing conference photo of my name badge with the conference banner.  I must be getting twice as good at everything I do.

The introductory speakers announced the results of the US-ROK ICT Policy Forum.  I'll bet this will make it even easier for Samsung to sell Android smartphones here.  Samsung is also building an R&D center in San Jose, which means we can look forward to even more H-1B Indian tech workers taking jobs that American engineers are qualified to fill.  I like Korean FDI in the US if it means more hot Korean women come here to manage the assets.

The Samsung keynote on innovation in a connected world reminded everyone of something I already knew, namely that battery capacity isn't keeping up with smartphone performance and that batteries can't scale up because of their obsolete chemistry.  My regular readers know that I have already identified mobile device power management as a pain point begging for disruption.  Samsung pays attention to the potentially disruptive research from academia.  I do too, which is why I attend technology transfer conferences and subscribe to TVC's Innovation magazine.

Microsoft's keynote on the future of software development was understandably silent on the disappointing sales of its own mobile devices.  They must know Android owns this market but I heard no hint of a new mobile strategy.  Their new search strategy is to have Bing display results from algorithms, machine learning, and friends' opinions in different panes but I can't see how well that translates into a mobile display.  I just don't believe Microsoft is capable of truly embracing the disruption that further progress in mobile and cloud integration will bring.  Their product managers are notorious for killing ideas that threaten to cannibalize their sales and Microsoft's acquisition strategy partially reflects these internal politics.

VentureBeat moderated a panel of Asian hands on the future of Big Data and cloud.  I like this quote the best:  "Data is the new oil because you can generate wealth when you drill for it."  Some ambitious analytics pro should use that quote in their CIO's next all-hands IT meeting when someone asks for a Cloudonomics calculation.  I'm now sufficiently intrigued by Stanford's US-Asia Technology Management Center to consider attending their seminars.  Their representative on the panel made Korea's dilemma quite clear; Korea has a national desire to avoid domination by foreign software firms but its own big companies have difficulty with open innovation.  I must admit that Korea gives us an interesting national case in why Big Data adoption has been so slow.  Big business' internal culture resists it and startups aren't culturally favored enough to push innovation.  IMHO it will fall to non-Korean firms that have a Korea presence, or Korean firms with a Silicon Valley presence, to truly drive full Big Data / cloud integration in the Land of Morning Calm.  The panel got really contentious towards its end when it considered whether Korea could truly leapfrog a generation in consumer tech or would lag in enterprise tech.

The next panel on hot software trends was the VCs' turn to tell entrepreneurs what they want to see from startups.  They observed that brand new markets from brave innovations create many more multiples of value than better / faster / cheaper incremental innovations.  I agree, but those innovations are so much rarer than incremental improvements and the opportunity set of pain points from incrementalism is quite large.  In other words, I say the serial entrepreneur who pursues the low-hanging fruit of small changes will experience more chances for exit events.  I see nothing wrong with getting paid a few million bucks every two or three years for running great acquisition candidates.  I was intrigued that the panel thinks Twitter is an A/B testing vehicle in CustDev, where startups ask their many followers to pick their preferred product style.

These panels start to run together after a while and I wasn't quite sure what to make of the one on software convergence and industry advancement.  Feel free to visualize software comparisons at Information is Beautiful while I figure out what else they wanted to show us.  I don't agree with the idea that scaling complex hardware from "zero to billion" valuation is getting faster.  Hardware is harder than software, not easier, and it takes longer to fix.  They pointed to ISSIP's goal of connecting entrepreneurial teams at many universities but IMHO that isn't going to make hardware development any faster until they all get some hands-on skills in rapid prototyping.  I do like one very brilliant thing the panel said about a startup's ecosystem.  They advocated thinking of who else in an ecosystem makes money when a startup sells its product.  Consultants, system integrators, and vendors all stand to gain and acquirers want to massively increase their own value by introducing an entirely new ecosystem to their own ecosystem.  That's the kind of analysis that reveals the value of a startup in an acquisition.

A former Army officer turned VC moderated the next panel on new business opportunities from mobile evolution.  I had to leave early and didn't get much from this one other than identifying eMarketer as a source for mobile market segment data.  I will never understand the "freemium" monetization model in gaming or why so many programmers think they can mint money by marketing another arcade-style game for mobile.  Tons of those things already exist and hardly any of them will make it.

The second day of the conference brought out some more keynote speakers and panelists in addition to the startup pitchfest.  I think a lot of these Korean startups are going to have a hard time in Silicon Valley for the cultural reasons I mentioned further up this article.  They will have to seek sponsorship from corporate venture arms.  I also wonder why more Korean startups don't try to first penetrate the large Korean-American population in Los Angeles.  That's an excellent test market to assemble use case data before pitching for funding in Silicon Valley.  I also noticed a generational difference in the way native Koreans now address public audiences.  The older Koreans who worked for their government's agencies would bow to the audience in the traditional style before beginning their scheduled talk.  The younger Korean entrepreneurs did not bow at all to the audience.  Korean culture is changing right in front of my eyes.

One of the pitchfest panel judges revealed something anecdotal about the finance sector.  He bemoaned that many people who work at a particular corporate venture arm only got hired there because they knew someone on the inside, not because they had VC experience.  He also said that he knew someone who was hired to be a senior investment banker at a well-known investment bank just because he had dinner with another senior i-banker and came across as likable.  I have no idea who these people were or whether the stories are true, but it just makes me shake my head because it matches what I experienced in wealth management.  People in high-powered finance make hiring decisions based on likability and familiarity, not competence.

The final panel gave me an opportunity to ask my only question.  I wanted to know whether the fashion community's accelerators were working with the tech community on wearable tech.  I may not have been clear enough in getting my question across because one panelist thought I was making a statement rather than asking a serious question, but the answer seems to be an affirmative that the fashion sector will build a business around a good tech idea.  The other panelist remarked that an Indian conglomerate is putting sensors into jewelry.  I'll also note their mention of Guidewire Labs' G/SCORE assessment method for startups.  That reminds me of the US government's technology readiness level (TRL) system.  I'll bet using the G/SCORE and TRL together in a pitch would make a big impression on savvy investors if they prove a startup takes itself seriously.

The K-TECH show was also my chance to get some refresher education on transfer pricing, which will be a subject for another article.  I also got my first interaction with a human-sized touchtable that allowed users to try on virtual fashions.  That's coming soon to a clothier near you.  Once the system is perfected, you'll never order clothes off the rack again because mass customization will stitch a perfectly fitted garment just for you on the spot.  I'm too cheap to pay a premium for instant clothing so I'll wait as long as it takes for the prices of 3D printed garments to come down to my level.  Kamsa hamnida, Korean tech folks.