Education

Catherine Mohr: Medical Research, Technology and Innovation

She calls herself “a tinkerer at heart.” And ever since Catherine Mohr walked into a Boston-area bike shop looking for a high school job repairing drive trains and spokes, the New Zealand-born surgeon and inventor has taken tinkering to a mind-boggling high art here in Silicon Valley.

Dr. Catherine Mohr is the Director of Medical Research at Intuitive Surgical, the global technology leader in robotic-assisted minimally invasive surgery. In this role, she evaluates new technologies for incorporation into the next generation of surgical robots. In addition, she is a Consulting Assistant Professor in the department of Surgery at Stanford School of Medicine where she works in the development of simulation-based curriculum for teaching clinical skills. She is also a Medicine Faculty at Singularity University and an Advisor in the Future of Health Systems Working Group of the World Economic Forum.

Dr. Mohr received her BS and MS in mechanical engineering from MIT, and her MD from Stanford University School of Medicine. During her initial training as a mechanical engineer at MIT’s AI Laboratory, Mohr developed compliant robotic hands designed to work in unstructured and dynamic environments. Later, while pursuing an MD degree at Stanford, she identified needs for new laparoscopic surgical instruments and collaborated to develop the first totally robotic roux-en-Y gastric bypass, and invented and then started a company to commercialize the “LapCap” device for safely establishing pneumoperitoneum.

She has been involved with numerous startup companies in the areas of alternative energy transportation, and worked for many years developing high altitude aircraft and high efficiency fuel cell power systems, computer aided design software, and medical devices.  She spoke twice at TED Conference. At her TED2009 Talk, she tours the history of surgery, then demos some of the newest tools for surgery through tiny incisions, performed using nimble robot hands. At her TED2010 Talk, she walks through all the geeky decisions she made when building a green new house — looking at real energy numbers, not hype.

To learn more about her works, please visit her official website.

The following is an interview with Dr. Catherine Mohr about Medical Technology, Innovation and Creating a Better World. The interview has been edited for brevity.

Niaz: Dear Catherine, I really appreciate you taking time to join us at eTalks. I am thrilled to have you.

Catherine: Thank you for the invitation, it is great to be here.

Niaz: You are the Vice President of Medical Research at Intuitive Surgical, where you develop new surgical procedures and evaluate new technologies for improving surgical outcomes. You have profound experience and a body of great works in the field of Medical and Disruptive technology. In addition to that you’re very passionate about the futures in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. At the beginning of our interview, please tell us a little about your background and how did you get started?

Catherine: I am originally from New Zealand and grew up in Boston. Although, you can’t infer either of those facts from my accent. I always knew that I wanted to be a scientist, but my path to medicine wasn’t typical. As an undergraduate, I majored in Mechanical Engineering and built and raced solar cars as part of MIT’s team. That led me to working in alternative energy with Paul MacCready at AeroVironment working on hybrid electric cars and fuel cells. It was a wonderful time, and I remain very committed to sustainable technologies – encouraging kids at every opportunity to consider careers in science and engineering.

Niaz: Tell us about the road that led you to the world of robotic surgery. It was not a straight path, it seems.

Catherine: It wasn’t until after many years of working as an engineer that I went to medical school. I was in my 30s, and hardly the typical medical student. In many ways, I ended up in medicine because I was very interested in getting back onto the steep part of the learning curve. I loved engineering, but I had become an engineering manager, and I was looking for a new challenge.

In medical school, I was doing a lot of research in surgery and surgical technologies as part of my schooling. I encountered the da Vinci Surgical System and I started doing procedure development with one of my attending surgeons. We both work for Intuitive Surgical now – she as the Chief Medical Officer, and I am the VP of Medical Research.

Niaz: Intuitive Surgical is a high technology surgical robotics company that makes a robotic surgical system. Today, Intuitive Surgical is the global leader in the rapidly emerging field of robotic-assisted minimally invasive surgery. We would like to learn more about Intuitive Surgical. Can you please tell us about Intuitive Surgical, its current projects and also how it has been innovating our future?

Catherine: The flagship product at Intuitive Surgical is the da Vinci Surgical System. It allows a surgeon to operate with full dexterity and capability, but through tiny incisions. The da Vinci System has been a major part of the increase in the rates of minimally invasive surgery in many types of procedures where surgeries were too complex, intricate or just too fatiguing. As of early this year, we estimate that there have been two million procedures done worldwide with the da Vinci System.

Current research and development projects at Intuitive Surgical are aimed at increasing the capabilities and decision making resources of the surgeon while continuing to decrease the invasiveness of surgical therapies. The goal is always working toward better surgeries that are less invasive.

Niaz: The da Vinci Surgical System is a sophisticated robotic platform designed to expand the surgeon’s capabilities and offer a state-of-the-art minimally invasive option for major surgery. It has been using all disruptive technologies like robotics, high- definition 3D camera and so on. Please tell us what is the da Vinci Surgical System and how does it work?Catherine: Although it is often referred to as a “robot”, a more appropriate description would really be “telemanipulator,” as it doesn’t make any autonomous decisions of its own. To operate the da Vinci System, the surgeon sits at a console which has both a 3D display and a pair of input devices, which capture the motions of the surgeon’s hands and the da Vinci System moves the surgical instruments in a precise, scaled replica of the motions that the surgeon is making. This is coupled with a 3D camera so that the surgeon sees the instruments in the display superimposed over where they feel their hands to be.

Sitting down at the console, moving these input devices, and seeing the instruments move exactly the same way is the “intuitive” part of the process.

Niaz: How is robotic surgery, using something like the da Vinci system, better than the old-fashioned way with human hands?

Catherine: The human hand is rather large – at least when you are thinking about making an incision in the body large enough to fit that hand through. The da Vinci instruments are only 8mm in diameter, so they allow you to bring all the capability of that human hand into the body, but through a small incision. This is much better for the patients, as they get the same operation inside, but they heal more quickly with less pain.

Niaz: If we look at the evolution of surgery, we can see really huge changes have happened since last the two decades. With the rapid acceleration in human-machine interaction, the potentiality of robotics in surgery is going to be very vast. How can innovations like robotic-assisted surgery change the world of surgery?

Catherine: The changes haven’t only been happening on the surgical side. The improvements in surgery will come partly from synergies with advances in other parts of medicine. Some of the most exciting things that I have seen have been improvements in diagnostics and screening. As we find cancer earlier and earlier when it is easily cured surgically, we won’t have to do huge reconstructive operations to restore the function that would have been lost by cutting out the larger tumor. This gives us the opportunity to further reduce the invasiveness of our surgical therapies by moving to even smaller incisions, or going in through the mouth and avoiding external incisions entirely.

Niaz: What do you see as the future of robotic surgery? What are our core challenges to reach to that future?

Catherine: As we look at reducing invasiveness, we always want to be able to build things smaller while maintaining strength and precision. Interestingly enough, some of the biggest advances in robotics may come from new material science and machine tools.

Niaz: As an expert in the fields of robotic surgery and sustainable technologies, you’re passionate about realizing the potential benefit that appropriately applied technologies can have in our society, and inspiring the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs to tackle the world’s important problems. Can you please tell us about some interesting and tough technological problems that you want next generation of entrepreneurs to solve?

Catherine: Apart from the new materials, many of the opportunities to do extremely small interventions will rely upon being able to navigate within the body – like having a GPS for the body. Today, we can map the body with things like CT or MRI imaging, however, the body does not stay static. Organs move constantly, which makes navigating with a preoperative image like trying to follow a GPS map while the roads are constantly changing and moving, but your map never updates. Solving these problems would make it easier to make surgery even less invasive.

Niaz: As you know, it’s really hard to do scientific breakthroughs, to build companies like Apple, Google, Space X, and Tesla, to do something in massive levels with truly disruptive technology. I would like to hear your ideas on doing breakthroughs, coming up with authentic disruptive innovation and on building next big organization?

Catherine: It is solving problems that matter that is the key to these disruptive companies. The problems that matter also tend to be hard, so you need to be patient, and dig deep into the technology to get to solutions. None of the companies you mention are short on ambition, they all started fairly small, and they are deep experts in their technologies.

Niaz: Do you believe Silicon Valley is still the best place to build next big technology company?

Catherine: It is the best place because its historical success has led to the intense concentration of tech talent. However, the shortage of housing and the resultant astronomical housing prices make attracting people to come to Silicon Valley who aren’t already here rather difficult.

Niaz: What does actually make Silicon Valley very special?

Catherine: Critical mass. The concentration of talent, and the expectation that you will fail a bit before you succeed continues to attract the ambitious with big ideas. People cycle through startups gaining experience, and they keep going until they do succeed.

Niaz: You’re a medical technology pioneer, a mechanical engineer, and an expert in robotic surgery. Prior to going to medical school, you worked in the field of alternative energy transportation and sustainable technologies, working for many years with Dr. Paul MacCready at AeroVironment developing alternate energy vehicles, high-altitude aircraft, and high-efficiency fuel cell power systems aimed at reducing our world’s energy consumption and emissions. Can you tell us about how do you connect all of your skills, expertise, ideas and knowledge to break through the threshold in any specific field to get the best out of it or build the big things?

Catherine: Much of what I do involves understanding how the problems we are trying to solve are part of large interconnected systems, and thinking about optimization across the entire system. Optimizing only one part of the solution at the expense of the other important parts is counter-productive. For example, maximizing energy storage without considering weight for an airplane, or improving surgical capability without making it easy enough to operate safely. The big interconnected problems I like to tackle involve many of the same skill sets, even if they are in far flung areas like sustainable energy and surgery.

Niaz: How beneficial is it to have a multi-dimensional background and expertise?

Catherine: Attempting to solve all of these big programs are always team efforts. The myth of the lone inventor is just that – a myth. You need huge diversity of skills on a team, but that very strength means that teams often have difficulty communicating, if the background and experiences of the team members are too different. The people who have experience, background and training in several fields act as the linkers and translators within teams. I like to joke that I am “trilingual” – I speak Geek Speak, Medical Jargon and English – three mutually unintelligible languages. Being able to explain the clinical to the technical and the technical to the clinical is a valuable role.

Niaz: As far as I know you hold several patents. Please tell us about your patents?

Catherine: Most of these are in the area of manipulation or vision on the da Vinci System. You’ll notice that few, if any, of those patents list me as the sole inventor. Invention tends to come when you are solving a new problem with a team, and have the opportunity to try novel solutions. The best ideas are also often hybrids of many people building upon and improving each other’s ideas as you solve a problem together. Patents certainly serve a purpose in that they give you a period of time in which to use an idea before a competitor can legally copy it, but it is the teamwork and problem solving aspect of it that I enjoy the most.

Niaz: What is your favorite part about working at Intuitive Surgical?

Catherine: Getting to remain on the steep part of the learning curve – medicine and technology are changing so rapidly, that keeping up with what is going on is a constant process – one that I enjoy very much.

Niaz: As Vice President of Medical Research, what do you do on a daily basis? What is a normal day like for you?

Catherine: I’m not sure if I really have a normal day. Some days are lab days when we are in the research operating room developing new procedures or testing out prototypes of new instruments. Other days involve traveling around and both speaking about our technology and learning about new technologies from their inventors. And, some days involve trying to look out into the future to see what changes are happening in medicine so that our next products fit the new needs that are arising.

Niaz: What other kinds of projects or initiatives have you been involved in?

Catherine: I started playing the cello recently, and through building our house and blogging about it, I have been active in the conversation about green building and native plant gardening. Recently, I have also started working with GAVI, the vaccine alliance, on technologies for tracking vaccines in developing countries.

Niaz: You wanted to save the world, or at least a piece of it. But you just weren’t sure how to go about it. And now in 2014, we can see your profound body of works that have helped to change the world of robotic surgery and sustainable technologies. I know there are still a lot more to come. What would be your advice for the ones who want to follow your footsteps and change the world to make it a better place to live in?

Catherine: Focus on the problems that matter to you, if it matters to you, it probably matters to other people too. People make the mistake of focusing on what they think other people want, and then their hearts are never really in it. Without passion you won’t have the drive to do all the really hard work that comes with trying to make a difference. People are very impatient for success now, but it will never come unless they take the time to become deeply educated and skilled in the areas needed to be able to make a contribution.

Niaz: Any last comment?

Catherine: The technologies that will probably shape our future careers are in labs somewhere. I expect I will reinvent myself several more times as those technologies come out of the lab and start changing our world.

Niaz: Thanks a lot for joining and sharing us your great ideas, insights and knowledge. We are wishing you very good luck for all of your upcoming great endeavors.

Catherine: Thank you for putting this program together

_  _  _  _  ___  _  _  _  _

Further Reading:

1. Andrew Hessel on Biotechnology, Genetic Engineering and Future of Life Science

2. Aubrey de Grey on Aging and Overcoming Death

3. Irving Wladawsky-Berger on Evolution of Technology and Innovation

4. Gerd Leonhard on Big Data and the Future of Media, Marketing and Technology

5. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on Big Data Revolution

6. James Kobielus on Big Data, Cognitive Computing and Future of Product

7. danah boyd on Future of Technology and Social Media

8. James Allworth on Disruptive Innovation

9. Brian Keegan on Big Data

10. Ely Kahn on Big Data, Startup and Entrepreneurship

Cole Thompson: The Ultimate Photography Manifesto

Cole Thompson is an award-winning black and white photographer who has been creating some of the most amazing and brilliant BW images that I know over the years. His art has appeared in hundreds of exhibitions, numerous leading publications and has received many international awards.

To learn more about his works, visit his Official Website and read his blog Black and White Photography. You can also purchase his Prints, Posters, Booklets and Folios (click to purchase).

The following is an interview with Cole Thompson where he shares the journey of a photographer who became an artist by gaining his own internal success, which inspires me most.

Niaz: Dear Cole, thank you so much for finding time to join us at eTalks in the midst of your busy schedule. We are thrilled and honored to have you.

Cole: I am more thrilled than you Niaz, and honored that you would invite me!

Niaz: You are a “Fine Art: photographer. Year after year, you have been creating amazing art with the integration of photography, creativity, concept and authentic attitude. At the beginning of our interview can you please tell us more about “Fine Art” photography?

Cole: Well this will be a funny and ironic discussion Niaz, because I really don’t really know what “fine art” photography means! And is there a difference between “art” and “fine art” photography?

Honestly, I only ask myself two questions:

  1. Do I like the image?
  2. Would I hang it in my home?

So why do I call myself a “fine art” photographer? Because people generally know what I’m talking about when I use that title and the term also tells people what type of photographer I am not:

  • I am not a documentary photographer
  • I am not a portrait photographer
  • I am not a wedding photographer

The term “fine art photographer” implies that I am creating something that I consider art and it’s something they may want to hang in their home.

What is fine art? Who cares!

Niaz: You’ve once stated that there’s a difference between a photographer and an artist and you strive to be an artist. I think you’re absolutely right but I would like to hear your explanation of that statement.

Cole: I do think there is a difference and it’s a huge one.

I think of a photographer as someone who documents or “takes pictures” and an artist is one who “creates images” according to their Vision.

For many years I thought of myself as a photographer and felt it was wrong to manipulate an image or to change it in any way.

I grew up believing that I lacked creative skills, and so as a photographer I tried to make up for that by excelling in my technical skills. It seems preposterous now to think that technical skills could compensate for creative skills, but that’s what I thought.

But as I matured with the help of an artist mentor, I started seeing images in my head and found myself wanting to manipulate my photographs to bring them into conformance with that Vision.

“The Angel Gabriel” is the first time that I purposefully “created an image.”

The Angel GabrielThe Angel Gabriel by Cole Thompson

I’d like to tell the story of this image, because I cannot separate the story from the Vision I had of it:

This is the Angel Gabriel. I met him on the Newport Beach pier as he was eating French Fries out of a trash can. 

He was homeless and hungry. I asked him if he would help me with a photograph, and in return I would buy him lunch.

The pier was very crowded and used a 30 second exposure so that everyone would disappear except Gabriel. 

We tried a few shots and then Gabriel wanted to hold his bible. The image worked and the only people you can see besides Gabriel are those who lingered long enough for the camera to record their “ghosts.” 

Gabriel and I then went into a restaurant to share a meal; he ordered steak with mushrooms and onions. When it came, he ate it with his hands.

I discovered he was Romanian and so am I, so we talked about Romania. He was simple, kind and a pleasure to talk with.

I asked Gabriel how I might contact him, in case I sold some of the photographs and wanted to share the money with him. He said I should give the money to someone who could really use it; for he had everything that he needed. 

Then the Angel Gabriel walked away, content and carrying his only two possessions: a Bible and a bed roll.

“Creating” this image was a breakthrough for me and marked the beginning of my transition from photographer to artist. No longer would I document and record, but rather create.

I don’t think it’s wrong to be a photographer, but there were images in my head that wanted to get out!

Niaz: So how and when did you get started in photography? Did you go to school to study photography?

Cole: I discovered photography as a 14 year old boy living in Rochester, NY and I’ve never taken a photography class in my life.

I was out hiking one day when I stumbled upon the ruins of a home that was once owned by George Eastman. That piqued my interest and so I read the biography of George Eastman.

Before I had finished that book and before I had ever taken a picture or seen a print come up in the darkroom, I knew I was destined to be a photographer. I know how silly and pretentious that might sound, but that is how I felt then, and it’s how I still feel to this day.

I am self taught, from the age of 14 and until I was 20, I lived and breathed photography. Photography was my entire life and I spent every waking moment photographing, working in the darkroom, reading how-to books or studying the works of the great masters. Photography so dominated my life that I rarely attended classes and almost didn’t graduate High School.

Gull and MoonGull and Moon by Cole Thompson (created when he was 16 years old)

Learning on my own was good for me, it reinforced a life view that I could do anything I set my mind to and was willing to work hard for. I believe it also helped me avoid “group think” and thankfully I avoided learning the “rules of photography.”

At age 17 I briefly considered going to school for photography, it seemed the natural course for me, but then had this premonition that earning a living through photography would eventually dilute my passion for it.

Instead I earned a business degree and that’s how I’ve earned my living for all of these years. I’ve never regretted that decision, for I still love photography as much today as I did when I was 14 years old.

Niaz: As a photographer what is the most complicated issue you experienced & how have you overcome?

Cole: Overcoming the desire to please others and to receive external validation.

For most of my photographic career I created to please others, to earn accolades and to become famous. As I started achieving some success, I noticed that it felt great for 15 minutes, but the next day I was left feeling hollow and empty.

I realized that no matter the accolades, in the morning it was still just me, my work and what I thought of it. If I was not creating for myself and did not love my images, then no external praise could make me feel good about my work or myself.

And so I began to question my motives and asked myself some hard questions:

  • Why am I creating?
  • Who am I trying to please?
  • What do I want from my photography?
  • How do I define success?

I found it curious that it was very difficult to be completely honest with myself. But it was only by answering these questions with brutal honestly, that I was able to stop chasing transitory praise and focus on the things that would result in personal satisfaction.

From these answers I was able to define what success meant to me and that’s what I now pursue.

In the past I considered those accolades as the evidence of my success, but I now think differently. My success is no longer measured by what others think about my work, but rather by how I feel about it.

While I do enjoy exhibiting, seeing my work published and meeting people who appreciate my art…this is an extra benefit of creating but not success itself.

I believe that the best success is achieved internally, not externally.

Niaz: You’ve citedMy art has appeared in hundreds of exhibitions, numerous publications and has received many awards. And yet my resume does not list those accomplishments.” Why? Can you expand on coming to these perspectives?

Cole: It all goes back to my motivations for creating. For too long I found myself working to create a long resume just to impress: look at all the wonderful places I have exhibited and the awards I’ve won! I must be a good photographer.

But when I found my Vision and defined success for myself, I saw how silly all of that was. My goal is not to impress others, but to please myself by creating images that I love and am proud of.

I’m also against judging a person’s art by their resume. I feel that my images are my resume and that’s all anyone needs to decide if they like my work or not. It should not matter where it has exhibited or what awards it has won.

All I want a viewer to ask themselves is: do I like it? The resume should be irrelevant.

I recently had an experience where a venue wanted to exhibit my work but first wanted to see my resume. I told them that I didn’t keep one and they made it clear that they needed the resume before they could make a final decision.

I think it’s sad that someone cannot judge art unless they know who else has exhibited it, what awards it has won or what critics think of it.

Niaz: What is “Photographic Celibacy”? How has it become your good practice?

Cole: Photographic Celibacy means that I do not look at or study other photographers work.

Why? Simply to keep my focus on my Vision and to not be tempted, either consciously or subconsciously, to copy others.

I’ve spent much of my life copying others; their look, their style and sometimes I’d even try to recreate a specific image by going to exactly where they created it! (Sorry Ansel)

Here’s the story on how I came to practice Photographic Celibacy: Several years ago I was attending Review Santa Fe where over the course of a day my work was evaluated by a number of gallery owners, curators, publishers and “experts” in the field.

Review-Santa-Fe

During the last review of a very long day, the reviewer quickly looked at my work, brusquely pushed it back to me and said “It looks like your trying to copy Ansel Adams.” I replied that I was, because I loved his work! He then said something that would change my life:

“Ansel’s already done Ansel and you’re not going to do him any better. What can you create that shows your unique vision?”

Those words really stung, but over the next two years the message did sink in: Was it my life’s ambition to be known as the world’s best Ansel Adams imitator? Had I no higher aspirations than that?

It was then that I committed to find my Vision and one of the first steps that I took, was to stop looking at other photographer’s work. I figured that if I immersed myself in the Vision of others, I was likely to copy their work, either consciously or subconsciously.

I’ve been practicing Photographic Celibacy for about 6 years now and I’m often asked how long I’ll continue it. The truth is, I still find the practice useful and needed.

Let me give an example of why I still practice it: I had an image published in the book “Why Photographs Work” by George Barr. The publisher sent me a copy and I eagerly flipped through the book looking for my image. Along the way, I saw an image by Brian Kosoff that I just fell in love with:

kosoffThreeCrossesThree Crosses by Brian Kosoff

I contacted Brian, purchased the print and would look at it enviously. And for the next several weeks I found myself driving around looking for telephone poles that I could arrange like Brian’s Three Crosses! I’d stop and chastise myself, but then later I’d find myself doing it again subconsciously.

I’m clearly still prone to be influenced by the Vision of others and so Photographic Celibacy is something I continue practice. Most people who read about it disagree with the practice and its usefulness and recently I had someone write to me to boast that they practiced Photographic Promiscuity!

Perhaps Photographic Celibacy is not for everyone, or perhaps it’s a practice that should only be considered at a certain point in ones creative development. I don’t know.

What I do know is that it has helped me a great deal to both find and follow my Vision, and to feel good about the work that I create, knowing that it was created honestly and not copied.

Niaz: You’ve formulated your rule of thirds and I have to fully agree with you. Can you tell us more about your rule of thirds?

Cole: I am self taught and was fortunate to have never learned the “rules of photography.”

Just a few years ago someone came up to me during an exhibition and criticized one of my images for not following the rule of thirds. I was amazed that instead of seeing the beauty of the composition, she could see only rules.

If she would have said to me: I don’t think this composition works or I don’t like this image, I would have respected her opinion even if I disagreed with her. But when someone ignores the image and focuses on some imaginary rule, I have no respect for that opinion.

I think it is foolhardy to think that you can distill great composition down into to a few rules, that if followed, will create great images. It reminds me of the “Paint by Numbers” kits that I loved as a kid.

Paint by NumbersPaint by Numbers – Follow the rules and create a masterpiece!

We were promised that if we followed the rules, we would produce a masterpiece.

Mona-Lisa-Paint-by-Numbers-ComparisonCompetent…maybe…but no masterpiece!

Well, as children we were proud of what we created, but it was certainly no masterpiece!

I have no doubt that if you follow these supposed rules of photography, that you will create “competent” images. But they will be just like thousands of other competent images created by thousands of other photographers who are all following the same silly rules.

If you want to create great images, then forget the rules and create according to your Vision.

So in response to this experience, I created my own rule of thirds:

Cole’s Rule of Thirds

A great image is comprised of 1/3 vision, 1/3 the shot and 1/3 processing

A great image begins and ends with your vision. Vision is a tough concept to describe, but I think each of us instinctively know how we want our image to look and our job as an artist is to bring that image into compliance with our Vision.

When we pursue an image with Vision, then equipment and process becomes the servant and the creative process the master. It’s only then that great images can occur.

Vision is everything.

Niaz: I think the shot – basically technical skills – can be taught and learned, the same applies to the editing. But what about vision? Can you learn vision? Or is a skillful photographer without any vision doomed to be just a skillful photographer whose work will have no artistic value?

Cole: I don’t believe Vision is learned, but rather discovered.

I grew up in a modest home where there was no money for art, music or creative pursuits. Perhaps because of this, I grew up believing that I lacked creative abilities. I came to believe that you were either born with it or you were not…and I was not.

But several years ago I was challenged to find out if I had a Vision. Part of me was very afraid to go down this path: what would happen if I discovered that I didn’t have “it?” Perhaps I would be better off never knowing?

No, I had to let the genie out of the bottle, even thought I knew that I could never put him back in. I decided that I must know the truth and off I went. I was unable to find a “how to guide” on finding your Vision and so I just made things up as I went along, creating a 10 step plan that I followed. (You can read about it here: finding vision)

It took two years of hard work and honest soul searching, but I did find my Vision and learned a lot more in the process. Here is what I learned:

  1.  Vision is simply the sum total of our life experiences that make us see the world in our own unique way.
  2.  Everyone has a Vision.
  3.  Vision is not developed, but rather discovered.
  4.  Finding your Vision is hard, following your Vision is even be harder.
  5.  Vision is what makes great images, not equipment, techniques, styles or gimmicks.
  6.  Finding and following your Vision gives you and your work strength, confidence and independence.
  7.  Vision has less to do with photography or art and has more to do with being a well-adjusted, confident and independent person.

Why do I say that Vision needs to be discovered or found? Because I believe we all have a Vision, but many like myself have buried it under so much “stuff” that we forget that we ever had one.

What is this “stuff” that we bury our Vision under? It’s things like caring what others think, fearing that our work will not be liked, wanting to fit in, trying to please, creating for attention, fearing failure and a whole host of other insecurities.

Once I started to address these issues, I was able to uncover my creativity and find my Vision.

The second part of your questions was: Or is a skillful photographer without any vision doomed to be just a skillful photographer whose work will have no artistic value?

Yes, basically they are doomed. If a person relies on technical skills alone, then they are doomed to create technically perfect but soulless images, with the exception of the occasional accidental great image.

I really believe that Vision is everything!

Niaz: What kind of equipment (camera body, lens, filters, flash, and tripod, cleaning equipment other) do you use? Do you use any special equipment for long exposure?

Cole: For the past several years I have been on a mission to simplify everything that I do, which includes my equipment.

I have a very small and simple kit: my camera (Canon), three lenses that cover from 24 to 400, a tripod and an assortment of neutral density filters including my important tool, the Singh-Ray Vari ND filter.

I find that more equipment does not mean a better image, and in fact I could argue that it gets in the way more often than it helps. I say master the basics and only add equipment when there is a specific need to fulfill your Vision.

Keeping it simple also helps me stay focused on what’s really important: the image.

Niaz: What kind of hardware, software and tools do you use for post-processing, if any?

Cole: As with my camera equipment, I try to use the simplest equipment, processes and software that will get the job done. These things are merely tools and while I want the best tools for the job, I also want the simplest.

I use a PC, Photoshop, a pen and tablet and an Epson printer. That’s it.

I think it’s important to mention what I don’t use: I don’t use special b&w conversion programs, plug-ins, curves, layers, RIPs, monitor calibrators, special paper profiles or inksets.

My workflow is so simple and unsophisticated, that for years I would not let anyone watch me work because I was afraid that they would lose all respect for me. Now I realize that it’s not about the equipment or process, but about the image. Nothing else matters.

I like to show people my before and after images and emphasize that I create them with only six tools in Photoshop. I like to expose the myth that great images require extensive and complex procedures or special plug-ins and programs.

Here is my image Iceland No. 4, before and after:

Before  After

I am not suggesting that others need to process their images using the six tools that I use. But I do want people to know that you can create great images using only simple equipment and processes.

Before AfterThis is “Skelton” and the image on the left is how my eyes saw the scene, and on the right how I envisioned it.

When I show people my before-and-after images, sometimes they come away with the impression that they must improve their Photoshop skills. Unfortunately that is the exact opposite message that I want to convey!

My Vision is what created this image. My equipment and technical skills are mere tools and I use the simplest tools that will get the job done.

There is a great little story told by Sam Haskins that illustrates the role of equipment in the creative process:

“A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. As he entered the front door, the host said ‘I love your pictures – they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.’

Camera

He said nothing until dinner was finished, then:

“That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific Stove.”

StoveSam Haskins

Niaz: How do you educate yourself to take better photos? Can you please name some of your favorite online resources/websites for our readers?

Cole: I don’t read any photo magazines, subscribe to newsletters or visit photo websites.

I am self taught and I learn by trying things, experimenting, sometimes failing and many times succeeding.

Instead of mastering a wide range of technical skills that I might someday need, I have approached learning in the opposite way. First I gain a Vision of the image and then I learn the skills necessary to express that Vision.

For example, when I created the series “The Fountainhead” I first envisioned the images in my head, and then learned the skills and techniques to put that Vision on paper.

Cole Thompson 01 Cole Thompson 02 Cole Thompson 03 Cole Thompson 04
The Fountainhead Series by Cole Thompson

I knew that I wanted to portray skyscrapers in a distorted and futuristic way, but didn’t know how to do that. With time and determination, I finally came upon the idea of photographing the buildings reflection off of a bent ferrotype plate (think funhouse mirror).

Cole ThompsonCole photographing the reflection of skyscrapers from a bent ferrotype plate

I do believe that “necessity is the mother of invention.” When I have a need, I will find the technical solution.

Many believe the opposite, that you must have a myriad of skills before Vision can be expressed. I disagree and believe that this puts the emphasis on processes as being the key to the image.

Anyone can be a great technician but it’s hard to be creative.

Niaz: Do you have any photographers/ artists who inspire you consistently? Please share few of your favorite artist/photographer whose work could encourage for creating an art.

Cole: I do not follow any other photographers or artists.

Being celibate, I do not look at others work. The heroes I did follow (Adams, Weston, Caponigro, Cunningham, Strand, Bullock) are all gone now, but they are still influential on my work because those images are forever burned into my memory.

The photographer who has been most influential on my work is Edward Weston, I love his philosophies and the way he lived. In Ansel Adam’s biography he recounts the first time he met Weston and it illustrates one of the qualities I love about him:

“After dinner, Albert (Bender) asked Edward to show his prints. They were the first work of such serious quality I had ever seen, but surprisingly I did not immediately understand or even like them; I thought them hard and mannered.

Edward never gave the impression that he expected anyone to like his work. His prints were what they were. He gave no explanations; in creating them his obligation to the viewer was completed.”

I love Weston’s images, but I love his attitudes even more; he created for himself and he did not care what others thought.

Another artist that has similarly influenced me is the author Ayn Rand. I first read her novel The Fountainhead at age 17 and like Weston, she taught creative independence. These ideas were mere seeds for much of my life, until several years ago when they germinated and have grown into my current philosophy.

Niaz: And five of your favorite photography books?

Cole: These are books from my past that I still treasure:

  •  Edward Weston’s Day Books
  • Ansel Adams’ Biography
  • The Family of Man

And while it is not a book, I am very inspired by the movie “Finding Vivian Maier.” Her work is amazing but even more inspiring to me is the mystery of why she never showed her work to others. I’d like to think it was because she created for herself and did not need external approval.

Niaz: What is your inspiration to do what you do? How do you stay focused and keep making impressive art?

Cole: I can’t explain why I’m compelled to create, I just am. It brings me pleasure and so I do it.

How to I inspire myself? Well, first of all, there are times I feel inspired and there are times I don’t! Those “down times” used to trouble me, but not anymore. I have come to appreciate the down times as much as my up times. Like a farmer who leaves a field fallow for a season to rejuvenate it, so those down times serve a purpose.

In the past I would fret over those dry periods and try to hasten them along, but now I just enjoy them knowing that a creative season will return as certainly as the winter gives way to the spring. And with each returning creative season, a renewed enthusiasm will result.

So, what do I do to find inspiration? First, I have to get away by myself and create alone. I cannot create with others around, even other photographers.

I’ll spend 2-3 days just looking until my eyes start to see, as I call it. I think it takes me a couple of days just to clear the mundane routines and worries of life out of my consciousness.

I’ll read the Weston’s Day Books and for whatever reason, those really make me want to get out and create.

I’ll listen to the Beatles. Why the Beatles? Because they remind me to keep growing and evolving, even at the risk of offending current fans or upsetting a winning formula.

Many people ask how I go about choosing the subject for a new portfolio. I tell them that whenever I get an idea I write it down, and right now that list is about 50 ideas long. Then I tell them that I’ve never yet used one of these ideas.

The truth is that every idea for one of my portfolios has come spontaneously, in a moment of inspiration. The best example is “The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau” which was conceived and executed in under two hours. Here is the story behind the images:

2008-5-10 Auschwitz No 14 - Final 2-1-2009 500The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Cole Thompson

My wife and I were visiting my son who was serving in the Peace Corps in Ukraine and while there we decided to visit Poland and took a train to Krakow. Upon arriving discussions began on what to see and of course Auschwitz-Birkenau was high on everyone’s list, but secretly I hoped we wouldn’t visit the camps because I did not want visit a place of such sadness.

However the family voted to go and so I agreed.

We took a bus tour that would spend about 1 hour at Auschwitz and 45 minutes at Birkenau. Even though I had my equipment with me, I had not planned on photographing the camps because it seemed that this might be disrespectful.

The tour began indoors and we saw the meticulous records the German’s kept of their victims and then the iconic piles of personal effects: glasses, shoes and hair.

This was just all too overwhelming and I felt like I was suffocating, so I signaled to my family that I was going outdoors. Breathing in the open air I began to feel a bit better and I began to slowly walk, looking down at my feet.

2008-5-10 Auschwitz No 1 - Final 2-1-2009 750The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Cole Thompson

Then I began to wonder: how many had walked in these exact footsteps and now were dead? How many had taken this same path and then had been murdered? And I began to wonder if the spirits of those who were murdered still lingered?

And then it suddenly struck me that I must photograph the spirits of those who had died here. I instinctively knew how I would do that, I would use long exposures of the other visitors at the camps, who would stand in proxy for the dead.

The enormity of this task hit me as I realized that the bus was leaving in 45 minutes and so I ran from location to location, working incredibly fast. Each location had its own challenges, I had to photograph people without their knowing it, because if they thought I was photographing they would politely move out of my way.

2008-5-10 Auschwitz No 3 - Final 8-11-2008 750The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Cole Thompson

I quickly developed a technique to fool people into thinking I was not photographing, I would set up my equipment and then talk on the phone or look in my camera bag, and then trigger the camera with a remote shutter release.

I do feel that I was inspired, both in concept and execution. As I looked at each scene I knew in my mind exactly how the finished image would look. However if you were to see the original shots and compare them to the final images, you would be surprised to see the extensive Photoshop work it took to bring the “shot” into compliance with my vision.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is a depressing place, but I am glad that I went. I hope my images have portrayed the camps not just as a historical location, but as a place where real people lived and died.

2008-5-10 Auschwitz No 8 - Final 6-24-2008 750The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Cole Thompson

Niaz: There are so many photographers working with long exposure photography techniques in black and white that sometimes it is hard to be original. Yet your work is very original. Can you give our readers any tips for finding an original approach to long exposure photography?

Cole: My suggestion will be predictable: find and follow your Vision.

Do not set out to pursue long exposures or any other style or technique, but rather set about to follow your Vision and go wherever that takes you. I honestly don’t know if my long exposure work is unique or not, I only know that it is original and honest for me.

Sometimes my Vision takes me somewhere that is not so original. For example I created a series called “Grain Silos” several years ago and submitted them to LensWork.

2007-5-25 Silos - Final 6-11-2007 750Grain Silos by Cole Thompson

The editor Brooks Jensen replied that he’d love to publish the work but that they were featuring almost identical images in the current issue by a photographer named Larry Blackwood.

Larry and I are friends and we created an almost identical series without each other knowing it! My point is that my work was unique to me, but not necessarily unique in the world of photography.

I’m okay with that as long as my work came about honestly.

Niaz: If you were advising a young photographer today, what would your words of wisdom be?

Cole: Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way about being a fine art photographer:

Carefully decide if you want to try to earn your living from your art (please note the emphasis). Will you enjoy it if it is your job? From my experience, you will need to focus on what sells and what the market demands, not on what you truly love. Some people can live with that, and for others this takes the joy out of the work.

Early on you should define success for yourself and not just pursue the standard definition that society sells: limited editions and high prices, big name gallery representation, long resumes and book publishing. Perhaps you do want some of that, but be sure to examine that question carefully before you go down that path.

Focus more on finding and following your vision and less on technical skills.

Only create images that you love, not those images that bring praise or sales. You may think you’re winning in the short term, but that that type of success will sour with time.

Be a good person. Success in any field is affected by the kind of person you are. Be sincere, honest, helpful and just plain nice. Those qualities will help you no matter what you do in life.

Niaz: I can see from your portfolio that you are widely traveled, especially within the United States. How important is the contribution of travel to developing your portfolio from an artistic point of view? How has travel helped you develop as a person?

Cole: Travel is not as important as I thought it would be when I was starting off. I initially thought a great location would produce a great image. I have learned that it doesn’t necessarily work that way.

I have been to unique locations and have not created anything unique and I have been to mundane and pedestrian locations and have created something wonderful. Much more important than location is your ability to see and imagine.

I once wrote an article about this, how with the right eye your backyard is enough. I assembled all of the images I had created within a few miles of my home and to illustrate the point.

Best of Cole ThompsonCole Thompson Photography

But yes, I am well traveled. I’m fortunate that my full time job took me all over the US and my children have lived all over the world, so I’m often able to combine work and family with my photography.

Niaz: What defines a good photograph in your view and what prevails: aesthetics or mood/a deeper message? What will last longer or is the phrase ‘mood’ just overrated?

Cole: What defines a good photograph, in my opinion, is simply how I feel about it. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s as deep as my thinking goes.

I am terrible when it comes to using words to describe images and the feelings they evoke. I think that’s why I became a photographer, so I wouldn’t have to use words.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and so I say let it speak for itself!

Everyone’s definition of “good” will be different and that’s why I don’t believe I can define a good or bad image, I can only say which ones I like and don’t like.

Niaz: And what defines a good photographer in your view? Does s/he have to be a celibate, just like you are or does s/he need to absorb all art, all influences and then try to pick out the best of all these influences and combine and integrate it into his then newly created art?

Cole: In my view, a good photographer is one that creates images true to their Vision and which they love. Achieving that does not guarantee commercial or critical success and it doesn’t mean that others will love your work as much as you do. But I do think that it guarantees personal satisfaction, which I think is worth more than money or fame.

As strongly as I feel about the principles and ideas that I espouse, I am not so naive to think that my way is the only or best way. People learn differently and have different experiences, so I have to believe there are many paths that work.

Niaz: With the arrival of digital tools, the Internet, sites like Flickr, apps like Instagram and other social media, photography has changed in many ways: not only in the way we shoot, the way we post-process them but also in the way we share them with the outside world. We’re flooded with photos on the Internet by people who are self proclaimed photographers and artists, and not only are we now confronted with a lot of bad work that I wouldn’t call art but at the same time I see so many artists who are just fantastic and who would never be discovered if they would’ve lived 30 years earlier. How do you look at this and how do you personally see the future of photography? Is this digital era a curse or a blessing for photographic art?

Cole: I think these new digital tools are wonderful for many reasons.

First, more great artists are being revealed. The technical threshold of digital is much lower so that more people can express themselves more easily. This is a good thing, even though at times it seems that there are so many new and great photographers in the digital world that there is no room left for me!

I also think that digital helps people stay more focused on the image and less on the technical process. In the film world, a photographer had to invest such an enormous amount of time, money and knowledge before they could produce a decent print. Back then photographers became such technicians that many neglected the creative element of photography.

And for me personally, digital allows me to do so much more with my images. My work has never looked so good since I switched to digital. It’s so much easier to manipulate my images to match my Vision. I have many, many fond memories of working in the darkroom, but I’d never want to go back!

And then there is the issue of exposure, in the old days my work would be seen by the few who entered the galleries who carried my work, or those who saw my work in a photography magazine. This meant a relative few people in the world ever would see my work.

Now, I have people contacting me from almost every country in the world. I am now more in control of my destiny, not having to rely on the gallery system. There are of course some downsides and challenges, but all in all, I love the opportunities made available in this new world.

Niaz: How can an artist remain fresh, unique, and on the cutting edge (whatever that actually even means)?

Cole: I never seek to be different, but to simply illustrate what I see through my mind’s eye. Sometimes that means my work will not be very different as in the case of my Grain Silo portfolio resembling my friends work. And sometimes it will be very different as in my Auschwitz images.

But I never worry about that, I simply follow my Vision and create for myself. That’s the best way to stay fresh, unique and most importantly: satisfied.

Niaz: How do you define the term success? What and who comes first when you hear the term success? And why?

Cole: One large mistake I made in my photographic career was to not stop and question what success meant to me. I wasted so much time chasing things that didn’t bring about personal satisfaction.

It was late in life that I defined success for myself, and it’s a very simple definition:

To do what I want.

To create what I love.

For me success has nothing to do with sales, resumes, exhibitions, how popular my images are or any other external measure.

Niaz: I believe you earn a living, or at least a part-time living, as a fine art photographer. Do you have any advice for our readers on how they can work towards achieving the same goal? What can they do from an artistic viewpoint to improve their work and a practical viewpoint to selling their work?

Cole: I do not earn my living from my art, but rather support myself through a full time job in business.

You cannot imagine the freedom that gives me, I am free to pursue any idea, any project and to take as long I need to produce my work. I do not depend on sales and so I don’t care if my work sells or not. I am completely free, aside from my vanities of course!

I am glad that I never chose to earn my living from my “fine art” photography and would advise your readers to seriously consider the impact of that decision on their freedom and independence as an artist. I personally think money and art do not mix well.

If you choose to earn your living by selling your work, then be prepared to create images that the market demands, which is rarely the type of work that you love. Selling to earn your living always means compromising and I have chosen not to make that tradeoff.

Now that doesn’t mean that you cannot do both, create one type of image to sell and then also create your personal work on the side. But I have to be honest, many people write me who have tried to do that and complain that they don’t have the time and energy to do both.

And in that situation, guess which one languishes? Maslow taught us that eating always comes before art.

Niaz: Any last comment?

Cole: Niaz, I consider myself to be the luckiest person in the world. I have a job that pays the bills and I create art that I love. How could life be any better?

I have my honest views based on my experiences, but I do not suggest that they are right for everyone. Perhaps Photographic Celibacy is not the best for you, perhaps earning your living from photography is something you really want and your definition of success is different than mine!

But if any of my ideas resonate with you, then maybe there is something to consider. If anyone would like to ask me further questions, please feel free to contact me directly.

Niaz: Thanks a lot for joining and sharing us your great ideas, insights and knowledge. We are wishing you good luck for all of your upcoming great endeavors.

Cole: Thank you Niaz, I appreciated your questions, they cause me to think and to analyze my beliefs. Thank you for your website and this opportunity!

_  _  _  _  ___  _  _  _  _

Further Reading:

01. Debra Harder on The Art of Photography

02. Hugh Mac­Leod on Creativity and Art

03. Daniel Pink on To Sell is Human

04. Naeem Zafar on Entrepreneurship for the Better World

05. Derek Sivers on  Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

06. Jeff Haden on Pursuing Excellence

07. Barry Schwartz on Wisdom and Happiness

08. Gautam Mukunda on Leadership

09. Shaka Senghor on Writing My Wrongs

Andrew Hessel: Biotechnology, Genetic Engineering and Future of Life Science

Andrew Hessel is a futurist and catalyst in biological technologies, helping industry, academics, and authorities better understand the changes ahead in life science. He is a Distinguished Researcher with Autodesk Inc.’s Bio/Nano Programmable Matter group, based out of San Francisco.  He is also the co-founder of the Pink Army Cooperative, the world’s first cooperative biotechnology company, which is aiming to make open source viral therapies for cancer.

As the co-chair of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology at the Singularity University, he addresses the disruptive shifts underway in life. He speaks widely on topics that include cells as living computers, life science as an emerging IT industry, and biological safety and security. He is active in the iGEM and DIYbio (do-it-yourself) communities and frequently works with students and young entrepreneurs.

To learn more about his works, visit his Official Website and follow him on Twitter.

The following is an interview with Andrew Hessel about Biotechnology, Genetic Engineering and Future of Life Science. The interview has been edited for brevity.

Niaz: You are a genomic scientist and consultant in DNA technologies. Working with leading academic and commercial groups, you have traveled the globe for more than 15 years in the exploration of digital biology, the successor to recombinant DNA technology that is transforming DNA into an easy-to-use programming language for biological systems. Your work is empowering a new generation of young researchers to tackle big biology related problems like sustainable fuel production, environmental cleanup, superbugs and cancer. At the beginning of our interview, please tell us a little about your background and how did you get started?

Andrew: I really love technology, particularly computers, but saw living things as special. I wanted to understand how they worked, so majored in cell biology, microbiology, and genetics.

Niaz: What first got you interested in biotechnology? Tell us about the road that led you to the world of biotechnology, synthetic biology, and genomics?

Andrew: I was interested in DNA code and realized that using computer programs to organize and analyze it would be very powerful. I started to write software and databases. Combined with lab bench skills, this gave me some unique abilities at the time. I was hired by Amgen, Inc. in 1995. It was an exciting time, with the Human Genome Project ramping up and Internet and biotechnologies booming. I learned a lot, fast. One of these lessons was how valuable a small genetic program could be. Amgen’s phenomenal success could be traced back to just a few hundred bases of genetic code.

Eventually, the draft of the human genome was published and the economic bubble burst. Things slowed down. I took some time off to reflect. I realized that it had only taken 10 years for scientists and industry to build the technologies needed to read large amounts of DNA. It seemed reasonable that DNA writing technologies would also evolve quickly. I started tracking improvements in DNA synthesis, the core technology that makes synthetic biology possible. The field was still very small. I was lucky to meet many of the pioneers of synthetic biology early on. It was like Silicon Valley in the early days, only this time around it was all based on carbon.

Niaz: Now we are learning how to make a living world which was not possible before. We can engineer our nature to sustain our need. What is the interface between programming and biology? How does computer science relate to the genetic code?

Andrew: Computer programming is relatively easy. Engineers made the processors. Engineers created the languages and compilers. Because we’ve made everything, we know everything about how these things work. The specifications are known.

Cells are essentially living computers. Genetic engineering is software engineering. The challenge is that we didn’t create the cell or the programming language. We don’t understand fully how everything works yet. This limits the sophistication of the programs we can write. But we’re learning more every day. As our knowledge grows, so do our capabilities.

Synthetic biology is still very young compared to electronic computing. Human-readable programming languages are just starting to appear. DNA synthesis, which compiles this code into an executable form, is still expensive. But as the computer design tools improve and DNA synthesis costs fall, programming living cells and organisms gets easier to do, faster to do, and a lot cheaper. This opens up biotechnology for more people, just as the PC brought computing to the masses so will computing transform healthcare.

Niaz: Tell us about programming our genes? Would it be possible for our genetic codes to be published on the web and open sourced by ‘gene programmers’ for example?

Andrew: Absolutely. A lot of genetic code is already published openly – and more of it is flooding into databases daily. This includes data on individuals. For example, I’m part of a project called the PGP – Personal Genome Project, where participants willingly publish their genomes for open research.

We’re already seeing dozens of small biotech companies using next-generation DNA technologies – companies like Ginkgo Bioworks in Boston, which engineers custom microbes, or San Francisco’s Glowing Plant, Inc. I expect many more companies to appear. Bioengineering and biological programming are already hot jobs – and I believe there will be a lot more positions to fill in the future.

Niaz: What are the possibilities of biotechnology? How it will change the world and how it affects to find the new ways to achieve success?

Andrew: The possibilities are staggering. Consider the range of existing organisms. Every environmental niche is populated. There are millions of large species on our planet, and possibly billions of microbial and viral species. This is just what’s here today, now, or at least what we know about.

Biotechnology greatly expands the range of possibilities. There’s no species barrier at the code level, so we can mix and match traits from species that otherwise could not share genetic code easily. We can also create new environments and direct evolutionary processes to produce novel traits. We can print cells using 3D printers. We can connect cells or cell components to electrical devices, creating bridges that never existed before – possibly leading to new sensors or electronically-controlled metabolic processes.

These approaches are unfamiliar to people today. But fifty years ago, so were computers and robotics. Over the coming decades, the fundamental processes of living systems will be better understood, and biology will become more accepted as an everyday technology. I think this is a positive thing for humanity and for our planet.

Niaz: How long until genome sequencing becomes available on an iPhone?

Andrew: Prototype devices are already about the size of an iPhone. But having this feature on a phone isn’t what people are asking for today. When there’s enough demand and the technology is cheap enough, it will happen.

Niaz: As you know, Robots are starting to emerge in sequencing labs. To what extent can this field be roboticized?

Andrew: DNA sequencing has been increasingly automated since the late 1990’s. The robots are already doing much of the work, even the sample preparation.

Niaz: Can you please briefly tell us about synthetic biology?

Andrew: It’s computer-aided genetic engineering –programming living things using software and hardware tools. I like to think of it as the next IT industry. It’s already beginning to happen. For example, the iGEM Synthetic Biology program (http://igem.org) has already trained tens of thousands of students. Kids today grow up digital. Increasingly, they’ll grow up biotechnological, comfortable and adept with the tools to engineer biological systems.

Niaz: What will be the first mainstream application to be introduced that is dependent on synthetic biology?

Andrew: By mainstream, I take it you mean some form of branded consumer application, since some engineered products are already incorporated into many common products. An example is modified enzymes or oils in laundry detergents and soaps, and also biofuels.

For people to actively seek out a synthetic biology product in large numbers, it will need to be something fun and/or useful, affordable, and above all safe. I think there’s a good chance it will be a food or drink – probably one based on yeast, since post-processing can eliminate any genetically modified yeast from the product. I’m tracking projects in beer and milk that have a high potential to go mainstream.

Niaz: When will the first human organs be created using synthetic biology?

Andrew: This is more a challenge for the cell biologists. 3D bio-printing technologies are very exciting right now. Prototype tissues and organs are starting to appear, but the capabilities are still very limited. These will improve but the rate of improvement is at present hard to estimate – there are too few data points. That said, I think the first bio-printed human heart will be transplanted in less than a decade.

Another approach is to engineer humanized animals. There are almost a billion pigs in the world. If their organs were engineered to be immune-compatible with humans, almost overnight there would be no shortage of organs for transplant.

Given enough research and development, I expect we might learn how to activate self-repair or self-replacement of our organs so transplants won’t be necessary. But this is still in the realm of science fiction for now.

Niaz: How much progress can be expected in the field of synthetic biology by 2025?

Andrew: It will grow exponentially or super-exponentially as DNA synthesis and other biotechnologies advance. You can bank on it, like Moore’s law.

Niaz: You are the co-founder of the Pink Army Cooperative, the world’s first cooperative biotechnology company, which is aiming to make open source viral therapies for cancer. Can you tell us more about Pink Army Cooperative, its initiatives and upcoming activities?

 Andrew: I started Pink Army in 2009 to make people aware that the rapid advances in biotechnology are allowing smaller innovators to compete effectively with big pharmaceutical companies. As a cooperative, it’s an open source company owned by the members and capitalized by the membership fees. After getting about 600 members, I stopped focusing on awareness and started working to create the digital tools for making synthetic cancer-fighting viruses very inexpensively. Meanwhile, viral therapies are beginning to have success in treating some cancers, in some cases completely eliminating them with a single treatment. I expect to do much more with the cooperative in the next year or so.

Niaz: You are a Distinguished Researcher at Autodesk and the former co-chair of bioinformatics and biotechnology at Singularity University. How has your experience with Autodesk and Singularity University affected your vision for biotech and Pink Army?

Andrew: Definitively. Singularity University allowed me to connect with other innovators around the world, including Autodesk. Since 2012, the team at Autodesk has been working to create innovative design tools and industry partnerships that will make biotechnology easier and yet more powerful. In short, Autodesk is building the tools that make Pink Army and other advanced biotechnology companies possible. And just a few months ago, we made our first synthetic virus, a bacteriophage called PhiX174. This was a first step toward one day producing cancer-fighting viruses.

Niaz: More people are now getting into biotech, nanotech, genetic engineering and genomics. What do you think about the important factors of the success in these industries?

Andrew: I think they are similar to other industries. If these technologies are used to create useful products and services that people are willing to pay for, the companies will be successful. Improvements in these technologies are reducing costs and risks of development, but these industries still face a more complicated path to the marketplace with their products than, say, the computer industry, at least in the US and UK. This could be a big opportunity for emerging markets in the short term. Eventually, I believe efforts the regulatory and approval processes must be streamlined.

Niaz: Why do we need to think really big as well as to be high ambitious in the filed of biotech, nanotech, genetic engineering and genomics? How to stay motivated to build the next big things from these domains?

Andrew: These are powerful technologies that can address global challenges but there is always the risk of accident or abuse. We must be open and transparent about what we are doing with these technologies and we must pursue positive applications. We need to train people to be responsible and safe in their practices. We must also update and empower the regulatory organizations to do their jobs properly.

Niaz: How big is life science industry? How is life science going to be evolving in near future? Do you think we are about to live like science fiction?

Andrew: I don’t have an exact figure dollar-wise, but collectively, including medicine, it’s in the trillions of dollars. Life science will only become more robust. I don’t think we’re going to live like in science fiction, just better because of what these technologies can deliver to people.

Niaz: What does excite you most now?

Andrew: How quickly things are changing. Opportunities abound for anyone that is interested in these areas.

Niaz: Is there anything else you would like for readers of eTalks to know about your work?

Andrew: I would just like people to explore this space for themselves. If my work gets them curious or inspired, that’s great.

Niaz: Thanks a lot for joining and sharing us your great ideas, insights and knowledge. We are wishing you good luck for all of your upcoming great endeavors.

Andrew: Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts.

_  _  _  _  ___  _  _  _  _

Further Reading:

1. Aubrey de Grey on Aging and Overcoming Death

2. Irving Wladawsky-Berger on Evolution of Technology and Innovation

3. Gerd Leonhard on Big Data and the Future of Media, Marketing and Technology

4. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on Big Data Revolution

5. James Kobielus on Big Data, Cognitive Computing and Future of Product

6. danah boyd on Future of Technology and Social Media

7. James Allworth on Disruptive Innovation

8. Brian Keegan on Big Data

9. Ely Kahn on Big Data, Startup and Entrepreneurship

Debra Harder: The Art of Photography

Debra Harder is a Portrait and Landscape photographer. She is well respected in photography community for her wonderful works.

As an art student in college, she developed an interest in photography. Originally, inspired by the works of Ansel Adams, she focused entirely on black and white images.

In December of 2006, she was in a position to return to serious photography. She became forever inspired when she purchased her first digital SLR. Her passion for the Photographic Arts has been very steadfast and serious since that time.

You can learn more about her works from 500px and her Official Website.

The following is an interview with Debra Harder about photography, camera, lighting, art and creativity. The interview has been edited for brevity.

Niaz: Dear Debra, thank you so much for finding time to join us at eTalks in the midst of your busy schedule. We are thrilled and honored to have you. At the beginning of our interview, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

Debra: I was born and raised in the Bay Area, California. I married in 1986 and we moved to Medford, Oregon in 1992 to open up a Veterinary hospital (my husband is veterinarian). We sold the business in 2006, which has allowed my husband and me the opportunity to travel more, and for me to pursue photography fulltime. As you can imagine, we love animals. My “children” consist of two Boston Terriers, one American Pit bull, and three cats.

Niaz: How did you get started? Did you go to school to study photography?

Debra: In the late 1980’s, I decided to take a black and white film photography class at Solano Community College in Fairfield, CA. I was inspired by Ansel Adams’ landscapes and focused solely on black and white film photography. I experimented with exposures and the zone system, and the art of printing in the dark room using old-fashioned dodge and burn tools, e.g., a piece of cardboard attached to a wire hanger. Since that class, photography became my passion.

Niaz: How would you describe your style?

Debra: I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to landscape photography, so I don’t go overboard on effects. For example, I have a problem with over-saturation in landscapes. There are a lot of images on-line that really push color for the “wow” factor with some to the point of being garish and losing the rich, realistic tonalities of the scene. Years ago, I took an on-line class from the great landscape photographer, William Neill, and our assignment was to hand in a portfolio of 5-6 landscapes. His honest and valuable criticism of over-saturation has always stuck with me and I do my best to stay within the guidelines he espoused. I’d rather have an image that conveys a mysterious mood than a candy store.

With respect to portraits, I do gravitate towards a ‘Hollywood’ style. I also love Rembrandt lighting to convey an “Old Masters” feel.

Debra Harder - 05Copyright © Debra Harder, 2014

Niaz: What type of cameras do you shoot with?

Debra: I currently shoot with a Nikon D4 for portraits and a Nikon D800E for landscapes. I just purchased the Nikon D810, and am ready to try it out!

Niaz: What is your favorite lens set-up?

Debra: For landscapes, there is no doubt my favorite is my Nikon 14-24mm. I’m always looking to shoot wide before anything else. I’m not suggesting this is always a good thing. I would suggest, however, considering other lenses for a closer perspective. For portraits, I most often use my Nikon 85mm, and with my current studio project, I’ve been using the Nikon 24-70mm so I have the ability to zoom in and out.

Niaz: What lighting equipment do you take on a shoot?

Debra: It really depends on where I am. With respect to landscapes, I rely on natural light, and depending on the contrast, I bracket my exposures to cover the entire dynamic range. With respect to studio portraits, I use Elinchrom strobes and Westcott Spiderlite Td6s (continuous lighting).

Niaz: What are your favorite editing software and application? How important are they for the final works?

Debra: My favorite is Adobe Photoshop CS6. The processing is very critical in my final works. As Ansel Adams once said, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance.” The negative being the digital RAW file, and the performance being the digital processing of the print.

Debra Harder - 02Copyright © Debra Harder, 2014

Niaz: How do you educate yourself to take better photos? Can you please name some of your favorite online resources/websites for our readers?

Debra: There are so many great on-line photography sites (e.g., 1x, 500px, Photo.net, BetterPhoto) that I constantly refer to for inspiration. I continue to take on-line classes and refer to other instructional media to improve my photographic techniques. Most importantly, I’m out there doing it. I learn more from my failures than my successes. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t learn something. It’s what makes the photographic journey so interesting and exciting to me!

Niaz: What is your greatest fear? What do you do to overcome your fear?

Debra: I hate heights…lol. I wish I could overcome this fear, but it doesn’t seem to be getting better…lol. I had previously hiked the Eagle Creek trail to photograph Punchbowl Falls in Oregon. I became panicked on a precarious stretch of the trail. There was a cable to hold onto, but I had a 25 pound backpack, a tripod in one hand, and rain falling from above…not to mention the 100 foot drop just inches away! Someday I would like to photograph this waterfall in the dead of winter, but only if I can muster the courage…lol.

Debra Harder - 03Copyright © Debra Harder, 2014

Niaz: How do you get inspiration to keep doing all these great works?

Debra: Thank you for the generous compliment! As to what inspires me? I would have to say my passion for photography and the desire to excel at it. Honestly, I never feel that I’m “there,” i.e., peaked, and I never will. I work very hard to learn as much as I can so that I can produce my best work.

Niaz: Can you please tell us how do you stay creative?

Debra: Steve Jobs once said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” As much as one would like to think he or she has an original idea, it is difficult to fathom that outside sources have no influence. My creativity is a byproduct of my life experiences. I’d be disingenuous to say that other photographers’ work doesn’t inspire me to go in a certain direction. For example, I was intrigued by photographer Mark Seliger’s recent Academy Award images for Vanity Fair magazine. His concept was to take a platform and capture the stars’ personalities in portraits utilizing just that small space. I decided to use this inspiration for my own portrait series. I similarly created a small two-walled platform structure in my garage and am currently photographing a wide diversity of portrait subjects highlighted by a splash of their own individuality. Not only has it been a great learning experience, but I am able to inject my own style and creativity from both sides of the camera.

Niaz: Please tell us five of your favorite photographers?

Debra: That’s a tough one. There are so many great photographers. It’s hard to nail it down to five, but if I had to say off the top of my head: 1) Ansel Adams; 2) Nick Brandt; 3) Annie Leibovitz; 4) Art Wolfe; and 5) Joel Grimes.

Niaz: And five of your favorite photography books?

Debra: I don’t have many “coffee table” books. Most of my photography books are instructional. I’m a big fan of Scott Kelby’s books. When I began my photographic journey, his books and video tutorials were instrumental and still are today. I also subscribe to most photography magazines in order to keep up with the latest, e.g., up and coming photographers, products, etc.

Niaz: If you were advising a young photographer today, what would your words of wisdom be?

Debra: I would advise a young photographer that if he or she chooses to display their work on an online community photography site, they should take the feedback with a grain of salt, whether it positive or negative. Stay true to your aesthetic regardless of the pressures driven by a selected few in photographic circles. I have personally got caught up in this trying to mimic other landscaper’s work in hopes of receiving the same amount of praise. Receiving the accolades is intoxicating, but in the end it doesn’t distinguish you from the rest of the sheep.

Debra Harder - 04Copyright © Debra Harder, 2014

Niaz: Any last comment?

Debra: Thank you very much Niaz for giving me this opportunity. Happy Shooting!

Niaz:  You’re welcome.  We really appreciate your time. Keep up doing great works and all the best wishes for all of your upcoming great endeavors.

_  _  _  _  ___  _  _  _  _

Further Reading:

01. Hugh Mac­Leod on Creativity and Art

02. Shaka Senghor on Writing My Wrongs

03. Daniel Pink on To Sell is Human

04. Naeem Zafar on Entrepreneurship for the Better World

05. Derek Sivers on  Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

06. Jeff Haden on Pursuing Excellence

07. Barry Schwartz on Wisdom and Happiness

08. Gautam Mukunda on Leadership

Jon Nathanson: Apple, Disruption, Fire Phone and Content Business

Jon nathanson is a technology and business columnist for Slate. He is also an angel investor and a strategy consultant in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The following is an interview with Jon Nathanson about Disruptive Innovation, Apple, Amazon’s Fire Phone, Disrupting Hollywood and Future of Content Business. The interview has been edited for brevity:

Niaz: Dear Jon, thank you so much for finding time to join us at eTalks in the midst of your busy schedule. We are thrilled and honored to have you at eTalks.

Jon: Thanks for having me! It’s a pleasure and an honor.

Niaz: You are a technology columnist, startup investor, and strategy consultant in San Francisco and Los Angeles. At the beginning of our interview can you please tell us more about yourself, your works, and current involvements?

Jon: It sounds so corny, right? “Technology columnist, startup investor, and strategy consultant.” Those are some of the things I do every week—but put them together like that, and they don’t amount to a coherent job description. Unfortunately, I’m the one who put them together that way, when I was asked by Slate to give a tagline for my column, “The Bet.”

But let’s unpack the list. I’m a columnist for Slate, and that’s a fairly recent turn of events. I’ve been writing my whole life. I doubt anyone will give me credit for it, but I was the editor-in-chief of my high school paper, which won numerous national awards and was consistently ranked at the top of the nation…for a high-school paper. For whatever that’s worth. (Probably not much.) That was, sadly, the beginning and the pinnacle of my un-storied career in journalism. After graduation, I packed up my proverbial press pass and moved on with my life. But it still called to me. I successfully ignored that call for the first decade of my professional life.

That was up until early last year, when I realized I’d been wasting an unseemly amount of time commenting on Hacker News every day, and I came across a listing on HN for Priceonomics. Priceonomics is a Y Combinator company that started a blog initially as a content marketing effort, but who came to specialize in writing top-quality blog posts. They became so good at it, in fact, that they were regularly charting to the front page of HN, and I was regularly reading their stuff. I saw they were looking for writers, and I applied that instant. Through my work with Priceonomics, I started getting attention from other journalists and media outlets, and I was invited onto NPR a few times. It was very quick and very surreal. Next thing I knew, I had an agent, and soon after that, the gig with Slate. It was one of those cases, as they say, where my “overnight” success was the result of 20 years of preparation. When I was invited up to the big leagues, I’d been practicing my swing for decades. (So you’d think I’d be better at writing job descriptions for myself…)

As for the investing and consulting—those, too, are fairly recent ventures a long time in the making. I’ve been informally advising friends’ startups for years now. And in 2013 I started putting my money where my mouth is, investing at the seed stage in several companies I knew well and believed had a serious shot at success. It’s funny how the angel community works. You invest in a few companies, and next thing you know, more companies and more opportunities are coming your way, all because the founders and co-investors you’ve gone in with are friendly with others. And platforms like AngelList have made the process even more social. Next thing I knew, I was investing or advising enough startups—and devoting a scary amount of my workweek to doing so—that I felt justified in taking a step back, evaluating it, and calling it a significant part-time job. Investing and consulting had earned their fair place on my motley tagline.

Niaz: I would like to start our interview discussing about disruptive innovation. The last few weeks were pretty interesting and there was much discussion for and against disruptive innovation. Jill Lepore, a Harvard professor, has written an extraordinary piece on The New Yorker where she cited disruptive innovation as a myth. Even the father of disruptive innovation, Professor Clayton Christensen, now thinks disruption has become a cliché. You have seen how disrupt, disruptive, disruption and some other buzzword around disruptive innovation have become a common phenomenon in the tech industry. Can you please tell us what do you think about disruptive innovation? How a buzzword or myth or cliché like disruptive innovation is changing the world revolutionary? Or there is something else [like mindset] behind the scene, which is the original reinforcement of these revolutionary changes?

Jon: First of all, I think it’s intellectually—and, dare I say, emotionally—consistent to appreciate Jill Lepore’s article and to maintain a healthy respect for Christensen’s thesis. People will say that Lepore has chipped away at the very foundations of Christensen’s theories of disruptive innovation. I don’t necessarily agree. The analogy I’d use is that she’s shone a very bright light on it. She’s walked down into the basement of the building, and she’s lit a floodlight on everything there, exposing the cracks, the structural weaknesses, and the clutter. But the building itself is still (mostly) sound.

It helps to frame Christensen’s original thesis in context of the intellectual climate of his day. “Disruptive innovation,” as Christensen originally charted it out, was a theory of market competition that sought to expand upon the work of Michael Porter and his “Five Forces” framework. Porter argued that there are five major forces in play in any given market: competitive intensity between existing players; suppliers’ bargaining power; buyers’ bargaining power; the threat of substitute products or services; and the threat of new entrants into the marketplace. Christensen, to put it in physics-geek terms, sought to unify two of the five forces: the threat of new entrants, and the threat of substitution.

“Disruptive innovation” occurs, in Christense’s framework, when less-than-perfect substitutes arise for existing products, capitalizing on benefits (in solution, in cost, or in feature set) that the current players in the market either don’t think are important, or think are inferior. Christensen argued that new entrants—startups, as we now call them—are usually the bearers of the substitute products, because they have no legacy supply chains, cost structures, or customer requirements to satisfy. And he argued, in a Schumpeterian sense, that these new entrants would usually, or even inevitably, “disrupt” the existing market and unseat the established players.

Lepore’s research disputes the second of those premises, but not the first. She showed that new entrants tend not to survive the shakeup. Their function is usually catalytic. They enter a market, stir the pot, and get acquired or driven out by the legacy players once the legacy players catch up. But shakeups can and do happen, and they often play out in the dynamic that Christensen outlined in The Innovator’s Dilemma.

So it appears that Christensen was largely right about the dynamics of disruption, but less right about the outcome of disruption, or about the inevitability of its winners and losers. He raised valid and provocative ideas. But his project for the unification of two forces—new entrants and substitution—was not entirely successful.

That said, I’d still recommend The Innovator’s Dilemma as mandatory reading in any core business school curriculum or strategy class. Readers should simply place it in context. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was foundational in outlining the theory of evolution by natural selection—but it’s a very old text these days, and it got some things wrong, and others have come along and corrected or expanded upon them. Those corrections, and those amendments, do not invalidate the importance of Charles Darwin to the field of evolutionary biology. Similarly, modern challenges and updates to Christensen’s work don’t necessarily invalidate the significance of his work.

This isn’t a baby we should throw out with the bathwater. As for the cult of “disruption” that has sprung up around Christensen’s work over the last few decades: that’s a different story. Disruption, in and of itself, shouldn’t be the driving goal of any given startup. Innovation is the goal. Disruption is the means to the end. And not all kinds of innovation are necessarily “disruptive.” Even the big kinds.

If founders and thinkers take away one thing from Lepore’s challenge to Christensen’s work, it should be that disruptive innovation is a theory. It is not the only theory people need to know, and it is neither universally applicable nor wholly actionable. The innovator’s Dilemma deserves a place on you bookshelf, but it shouldn’t be the only book there.

Niaz: Folks have long been waiting for the disruption of Hollywood. But Hollywood has been out of touch from the massive disruption for years. You have an interesting column on Slate, Why Hollywood Resists Disruption, where you compare the likeness of Hollywood to the Roman Empire, particularly that the Roman Empire did not actually fall but instead divided and dispersed. Can you please briefly tell us about Why Hollywood Resists Disruption? Do you feel your opinion is influenced by your experience at NBC and 20th Century Fox? What will be the outcome of massive disruption of Hollywood?

Jon: The analogy to the Roman Empire was a colorful and nerdy one, no doubt spurred by my inability, after all these years, to stop playing Rome: Total War or watching movies like Gladiator. But the analogy is this: Rome was a remarkably adaptable political organism. It was constantly shifting its boundaries, incorporating its former enemies, and bringing them into the fold. By the end of the Empire, Rome was so thoroughly, demographically changed that a “barbarian” of Germanic bloodline was leading its army against Germanic barbarians at its gates. Hollywood is similar in that respect: companies like Netflix have disrupted and shifted the borderlands, so to speak. Distribution of movies and TV shows and music is wildly different now, and none of it to Hollywood’s real benefit. But Hollywood has maintained control over talent, over means of production, over storymaking-to-filmmaking process—and has maintained an indispensable role in the process of creating and distributing entertainment to the masses. More and more people get their shows through Netflix, but Netflix’s shows are still made by Hollywood studios and Hollywood production companies, at Hollywood prices.

Here’s where things will get interesting: Hollywood owns very few of the the “last miles” in any of its consumer pipelines right now. Movie studios don’t own the major theater chains, at least in this country. They don’t own the customer relationships at iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, or XBox Live. TV networks still have a direct pipeline to viewers, but that pipeline is eroding or obscuring—fewer and fewer people watch their network programming on the networks themselves, at the appointed days, dates, and times.

And so Hollywood is at a crossroads. Should it abandon the fight for last-mile distribution, and focus entirely on creating and licensing content? If so, a lot of very big, very consolidated media companies are going to need to do some major restructuring. Should it keep up the fight for relevance in distribution? If so, studios or production companies will need to build a credible alternative to Netflix, iTunes, etc. HBO Go is a very interesting example, and I think its success will be a bellwether for the next few years. Already we’re seeing just about every network under the sun releasing its own “HBO Go” app. And consumers seem to be fine with that—an app for every network. But they’ll be fine with it up to a point. A future in which every network has its own app necessarily means that every consumer needs to keep track of which shows belong to which networks, and can be found on which apps. That’s a high cognitive load to bear, and it’s a consumer-unfriendly burden to impose. Consumers love convenience, and Netflix is very convenient. I don’t think an ecosystem of 20 different HBO Go-alikes is a viable, consumer-preferred alternative to Netflix. But maybe a handful of apps are. Apps differentiated by genre. Or subscription streams based on dynamics the major players aren’t thinking about today, like group subscriptions, or customizable subscriptions for only the shows you want, and not the stuff you don’t want.

I spent many years in Hollywood, working on primetime shows at NBC, Fox, and elsewhere. I think my time there gave me a deep appreciation for just how hard it will be to disrupt Hollywood, and at the same time, just how much disruption probably should take place. It’s a paradox, and to circle back to your earlier question, I wonder whether Christensen’s framework gives us any guidance as to how this will play out. Christensen’s work might argue that YouTube and Vine are changing the nature of entertainment content, and that inevitably, full-length, TV-style shows will fall to the wayside. And yet that’s not entirely true. Teenagers are probably watching YouTube and Vine to the exclusion of more and more TV-style programming. And yet, uber-premium TV programming like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad are more relevant than ever before. Perhaps the middle is falling out this time, and we’ll live in a world with supergood content and superdisposable content. Nothing in between.

Niaz: You’ve spent a lot of time in the content business. We are now living in an exciting era of content creation, curation and distribution, where there is a popular belief that ‘content is king’. From hardcore tech companies to venture capital firms to social media companies to marketing companies to media companies …. everyone is actually into content business. Does that mean if you not doing content, you’re missing something really big?

Jon: “Content marketing” is having a moment right now. Everyone feels that adding something substantial to the conversation is necessary to winning business and maintaining credibility in whatever industry they happen to play in. Witness companies like Google Ventures, who are creating libraries of advice, content, etc., to their arsenals in an attempt to become better full-service providers to portfolio companies. Or companies like Priceonomics, whom I mentioned earlier—research companies that regularly publish accessible, in-depth, top-quality articles for anyone to read, regardless of whether they’ll be users of Priceonomics’s core services.

Some companies will get content marketing right, and many will embarrass themselves. The ones who’ll get it right will realize it’s a full-time task. It’s more than a full-time task. It’s a way of thinking. It’s an editorial sensibility. The folks at Priceonomics spend as much time writing, editing, and investing in their blog as they do their data-analytics services. If Google Ventures is going to fulfill its very exciting ambitions in the content space, it’s going to need to elevate content to the forefront of what it does, right alongside investing.

Content can be king, but if it’s going to be king for you, then you need to treat it like royalty. Take it as seriously as anything else. Don’t half-ass it. Bad content marketing is blatantly obvious to all who come across it, and it’ll actually hurt your company. Great content will do wonders for your company. But you’re going to need to commit to it and commit fully. If your company wants to do content marketing, then everyone at your company should be prepared to chip in every week. Including your CEO. Making world-class content takes a ridiculous amount of time and effort, and the bar for world-class will be raised in the years to come.

Niaz: You’re the co-author of a Harvard Business School case study on Netflix and its use of collaborative filtering technology to disrupt traditional models of consumer discovery and consumption of entertainment.With the massive entrance and existence of Google, Apple, and Amazon into content business, how do you think that will affect the future of Netflix?

Jon: To understand Netflix’s situation right now, it helps to understand HBO’s situation 15-20 years ago. HBO—the acronym stands for “Home Box Office”—started out licensing and replaying movies. That’s it. It was a distributor of movies shortly after their theatrical release, and before their home video release. And that was a brilliant business model in the days when windowing mattered a great deal, and there were few other ways to see movies after they’d left theaters. But HBO had to adapt as the years went by. Other networks popped up with similar business models. The DVD player came along and revitalized the home video market. The internet was starting to provide rough, but credible means for getting one’s hands on movies. Local TV stations were getting more aggressive about licensing first-run movies. And so HBO needed to create original content. It started with documentaries, then moved up the value chain to original, scripted series. And it focused a hell of a lot of money, time, and effort to ensure that it’s series were great. HBO’s executives in the early 1990s would hardly recognize the HBO of today, and vice versa. Today’s HBO is best described as a premium TV-show network, and not a premium movie-licensing network.

Netflix is in a similar situation. It got to where it is today by being the most convenient, optimized, consumer-friendly way to watch movies and TV shows. But networks and studios realized that Netflix was a threat to their business model, and they started threatening Netflix with higher licensing fees. Some pulled their content altogether. And so Netflix faced a choice: fight tooth and nail to be a commodity provider of everyone else’s content, or start developing exclusive, original content of its own. And it’s started to diversify its mix with the latter. The problem is, now Netflix is in the hit-driven business of TV development. It might spend $100 million on a show that flops. Or it might spend $100 million on a show that temporarily drives subscriptions and maintains customer loyalty, but whose run expires in a few years. Meanwhile, it’s still spending close to a billion dollars a year licensing everyone else’s content. Netflix’s operating costs are going to skyrocket in the years to come. At the same time, Netflix is still the most convenient and ubiquitous way for many, many people to get the shows they want to see.

Apple doesn’t seem to have the taste for developing original shows, nor do most analysts think it should. I’d probably agree (for now). Amazon has the muscle and the clout to compete with Netflix, but its efforts in the originals-development space have been lackluster to date. Friends within and without the company tell me it’s not taking development as seriously as it could. But that doesn’t mean it can’t, or that it won’t. Google is a very interesting dark horse. It owns the “low end” with YouTube, and that low-end will be very lucrative. Meanwhile, it’s building out its own infrastructure with Fiber, and its own platforms with Chrome and Android. All it needs to do now is shell out the cash on originals and on premium licenses—but we’d be talking hundreds of millions, and possibly even billions, to outcompete Netflix with Hollywood-quality programming. To date, Google hasn’t really shown the desire or the capacity to do that. It’s had a lot of false starts inking expensive deals with celebrities, writers, and producers—but very little has come of that. As I mentioned earlier, content is an all-or-nothing proposition. You’re going big or you’re going home. Google can go big, but it needs to go quite big, and I think it’s been a little scared of just how big “big” really is.

Niaz: I believe Apple’s purchase of Beats is a pretty big deal when we consider the integration of culture and creativity. We have seen both culture and creativity are at the heart of Apple’s whole ecosystem. At the same time, Beats will give Apple access to a different customer segment that is pretty huge not only for music but also for healthcare. I am excited to see some integration of Beats Headphone with Apple’s healthcare in near future. On the other hand, executives like Jimmy Lovine and Dr. Dre, will make Apple’s path a lot easier to play big game in content business. Can you please tell us about your ideas and takes on Apple’s purchase of Beats? What new innovations do you expect to see from the integration of both Beat and Apple’s ecosystem?

Jon: I wrote a bit about Apple and Beats in Slate recently, and the long and short of it is this: I think it was a smart buy. Apple needed a streaming service; it needed to diversify its customer base; it needed to establish credibility in the creative community and in Hollywood to place itself on competitive footing with Amazon and its other competitors, real or putative. And it gets some high-margin, bestselling hardware as part of the package. The icing on the cake is that Apple was sitting on a literal mountain of cash, partly because there are almost no great ways to get a respectable return on cash right now in any market. So this was a good, productive use of free cash.

How will Iovine and Dre get involved? A lot of people are speculating that they’ll start a sort of mini-studio within Apple, commissioning original content. That has never really been a focus of Apple’s, but it would be very interesting to see. The thing is, everyone needs originals right now. Everyone needs exclusives. Apple’s strategy, to date, has been to let its platform (iOS) be the soil in which developers plant and nurture the seeds. And I believe Apple will still operate a content business from that worldview. You won’t see Apple producing its own shows, but you may well see Apple shelling out serious money for exclusive distribution windows, or for first-look deals, or maybe even for first-run programming. But other people will make those shows for Apple. Apple won’t make them itself.

Niaz: Let’s talk about WWDC. Apple has announced iOS8 and OS X 10.10 Yosemite in WWDC 2014 in addition to some other major updates. With all these great new updates, it seems inevitable that they will be accompanied by larger screens on the iPhone, iWatch, and probably Apple TV later this year. What has fascinated me most is that Tim Cook has been able to transform Apple and make it his own in such a short amount of time. It seems like Apple is ready to kick start again with remarkable products and services. I have seen some hints of new product from Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services, at Code conference. What are you takes on WWDC? What do you think about all these new updates?

Jon: I was very excited by WWDC, and I would echo a lot of the sentiments coming out of the Apple blogosphere. I am very excited by the expansive platform potential of iOS. It could well become Apple’s Windows, ironically enough: a ubiquitous operating system that is embedded into, plays with, or powers everyone else’s hardware. The difference between the Windows era and the iOS era, of course, is that Apple is a hardware company—so any distributed ecosystem involving iOS would, by necessity, mean every other device merely uses iOS, but you’ll need Apple devices to control them all. Apple devices will be the hub, and everyone else will be a spoke.

Niaz: With the release of latest iPhone 5C, entrance in a new market, new openings of Apple stores globally, and overall performance in China and Japan, it seems like Apple is going truly global with massive scale. What do you think the future holds for Apple, a company with $600 billion market cap, $45.6 billion in quarterly revenue, and a 39.3 percent gross margin? Should they focus on becoming dominant in entertainment and communication or expand their products and services to other things?  And how will Apple’s competitors compete with this massive scale of product, service, content, and global distribution?

Jon: I mentioned how Apple envisions a future in which it’s the hub, and everyone else is a spoke. Well, that future is by no means assured. Google is putting up very credible competition. Apple is selling a remarkable number of devices in markets like China, and nominally speaking, it’s growing. But worldwide, its rate of growth might be slowing. So the question will soon become: how does Apple transition from its current growth model—putting an iDevice into everyone’s hands—toward a more mature growth model, capturing the value from all those iDevices in all those hands? Sooner or later, there will be a limit to how many device refreshes consumers will tolerate at Apple’s margins. That’s why Apple is getting increasingly serious about iOS as a platform, to ensure the continued necessity of iDevice refreshes.

It’s somewhat fashionable, once again, to look toward a future of slowed, or at least less explosive iDevice sales growth, and predict doom and gloom for Apple. I think that’s a simplistic view. Apple isn’t going anywhere. But it’s in transition. Apple is maturing as a company, and its mature business model is going to look more steady, more stable, and less notionally explosive than its model has over the last decade. I don’t think that’s a bad thing; it’s the aftereffect of so much success for so long. Apple has planted the world’s lushest orchard; now it’s got to make something of the fruit.

Niaz: As you know, the smartphone industry has been facing fierce head to head competition, and now Amazon is entering the ring with the release of Fire Phone. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s Chief Executive, asserts, ‘I think in the whole evolution of this [smartphone], we’re still pretty early’. Do you agree that Amazon’s arrival in the smartphone industry is pretty early when we have started imaging a world without any device like a smartphone? What is your overall evaluation on Amazon’s Fire Phone? How do you feel about its exclusivity with AT&T? Is it going to be huge? What further steps should Amazon take to compete with other smartphones?

 Jon: It’s important to place the Fire Phone not just in the context of the smartphone market, but also in the context of Amazon’s corporate strategy.

Let’s think back to the tail end of the last decade and the beginning of this one. Amazon is the king of ecommerce. It’s the world’s largest bookseller, and it’s a credible force—if not necessarily an undisputed leader—in movies, video games, music, and other entertainment categories. Along comes Apple with iOS, and eventually the iPad. Suddenly, Amazon is facing a serious threat to its book and entertainment businesses. So it releases the Kindle, a purpose-built book reader. It turns out that no one’s satisfied with a purpose-built book reader. A book reader is insufficient to compete with more feature-complete hardware like the iPad (and the emerging Android device ecosystem). So Amazon releases the Kindle Fire, a full-featured device. But that’s not enough. Amazon feels it needs a full mobile hardware platform. Hence, the Fire Phone.

There are some problems here, not the least of which is that nobody has been able to crack the Apple/Google stranglehold on the mobile device market in a serious way. Fire Phone, like the Fire tablet, might wind up a day late and a dollar short. At the same time, Amazon needs to do something. The future of books, games, movies, TV, and music is probably streaming or subscription services, and that’s all going to happen outside of Amazon—on other people’s apps and on other people’s devices—unless Amazon figures out a way to own the point-of-purchase customer relationship. So it’s trying to do that with hardware. I’m not sure that’s necessary; I think Amazon could do just as well positioning itself as the premiere shopping, streaming, and media consumption app on everyone else’s devices. But the present-day competitive landscape makes that very hard to do. Every hardware platform wants to own the point-of-purchase for content, too.

Jeff Bezos is probably the smartest CEO in the entire country, and high in the running for smartest in the world. He’s the most brilliant retail mind since Sam Walton. He may be the best pure businessperson of our generation. If anyone can figure out a way to crack this space, he can. But if he’s serious about hardware, he’ll need to figure out how to add something new and exciting to his hardware. Something exclusive. Retail is all about price, selection, and convenience. Hardware is still very much about razzle-dazzle. Amazon has never been a razzle-dazzle company. Amazon released the Kindle because it needed a reader. Amazon released the Fire because it needed a full-featured tablet. It can’t just release a phone because it needs a phone. Consumers need more than that.

But I agree with Bezos’s assertion that the smartphone market is still in its infancy. The best is yet to come. But Amazon will need to deliver the best—stuff we’ve not even thought of yet—if it’s going to make a serious bid for a place at the table.

Niaz: What do you think about the Future of Social Media? How things are going to evolve with Facebook and Twitter? We have text (Twitter), photos (Instagram), videos (Vine), and the combination (Facebook); what’s the next platform for social media? Should we expect additions to social media or the simplification/streamlining of it?

 Jon: Two major, semi-competing forces are going to shape social media in the next few years. The first is unbundling. Facebook, Twitter, and other players are going to put out, or buy, dozens of single-purpose apps and networks in an attempt to occupy as much real estate on your home screen as they can. Because they know your attention span is limited, and that the home screen is all-important. The second force is what I’ll call app fatigue, or perhaps more accurately, marginal app utility. There comes a point where people have more apps than they know what to do with, and hence, apps that get relegated outside the home screen are going to fall by the wayside. This creates a countervailing pressure to make your core app as relevant as possible, so that it maintains its place in the user’s daily mindset, and occupies the Fifth Avenue real estate that is the home screen, or better yet, the dock.

A lot of people mocked Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp, but Facebook is keenly aware that Instagram and WhatsApp are home screen apps for hundreds of millions of people. That’s why it hasn’t shut those apps down and integrated them into the Facebook app. Instagram is probably the single most important app to most young people’s lives, and Facebook would have been crazy to kill it or marginalize it. It will go down in recent history as the smartest acquisition Facebook has ever made, and the decision to keep it quasi-independent was a very smart move.

Niaz: As you have seen there are hundreds of sites, apps and platforms dedicate to content curation. What do you think about content curation? Are we going to have some kind of social media that’s exclusively dedicated to curation?

 Jon: Curation is increasingly necessary in a world with more content than we know what to do with. How do I sort through the pile? How do I find things I’ll like? As an app developer, how in the heck do I get my app in front of the people who’ll like it? Let me tell you: we haven’t even begun to see the future of curation. It’s an important one. Apps, content, and entertainment will be curated through all manner of interesting means: tailored or self-tailored subscriptions, influencers, collaborative filtering methods and other algorithms, tastemakers, lists, and category-centric curation apps.

If someone can become the Google search of the app world, or the Netflix of the app world, or even the New York Times book review of the app world, these are very valuable and very lucrative things to become.

Niaz: What do you think about Silicon Valley? Is it a mindset or something very special? Do you foresee Silicon Valley expanding or rather replicating in other areas around the world/country?

 Jon: Silicon Valley has succeeded because it’s Silicon Valley. That sounds tautological and circular. But it’s important to understand what makes Silicon Valley work if we’re to understand how other locations—or, as I think is more likely, how a more global, distributed system—can replicate it. Silicon Valley has several of the world’s leading technical universities situated in its back yard. It has received decades of investment and government support. It has an unprecedented concentration of risk-seeking capital. It has a feedback loop of successful founders and funders, each of whom plows money, connections, and expertise back into the system. And it has a big tolerance for exploration, for failure, and for dangerously innovative thinking.

Now, none of those things in isolation is sufficient to replicate the whole. But some of those things came from the others. A playbook for replicating Silicon Valley should start with capital, government support (but not government prescription), and top-tier university research and cooperation. In fact, I think it’s virtually impossible to recreate Silicon Valley in a single location in the absence of a world-class technical university. This is why you see the new Silicon Valleys—the ones that actually have a shot at replicating the entire SV ecosystem—springing up in fertile soil that has all the right characteristics, including strong academic systems. Places like Israel, for instance.

But in some cases, I think the race to rebuild, replace, or create anew Silicon Valley is a half-step. The new Silicon Valley will be a distributed ecosystem, powered by services like AngelList and FundersClub, in cooperation with universities and institutions, with distributed access to talent, capital, and mentors. Conventional wisdom holds that you need to concentrate all of these things in one place. I’d say that’s still nominally true, but it can be done virtually. What Amazon Web Services was to the server, so will distributed access be to geographic and physical concentration of the necessary resources.

Niaz: Any last comment?

 Jon: As a content person, and as an entertainment person, I’m always on the lookout for people trying new and exciting things in these spaces. I have no desire to “disrupt” Hollywood, but I have a strong desire to shake it up a little, and to direct its energies toward more forward-thinking and customer-centric means of creation and distribution. I’m always happy to chat with entrepreneurs in any space, but in particular, I’d love to talk to anyone and everyone thinking about this space. Feel free to hit me up anytime on Twitter (@jonnathanson) or via email (jonfnathanson @ gmail.com)

Niaz: Thanks a lot for joining and sharing with us your great ideas, insights, and knowledge. We are wishing you good luck for all of your upcoming great endeavors.

 Jon: Thanks so much for having me! I am a big fan of your interviews, and I am honored to have talked with you.

_  _  _  _  ___  _  _  _  _

Further Reading:

1. Horace Dediu on Asymco, Apple and Future of Computing

2. Irving Wladawsky-Berger on Evolution of Technology and Innovation

3. James Allworth on Disruptive Innovation

4. Gerd Leonhard on Big Data and the Future of Media, Marketing and Technology

5. James Kobielus on Big Data, Cognitive Computing and Future of Product

6. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on Big Data Revolution

7. Ely Kahn on Big Data, Startup and Entrepreneurship

8. Brian Keegan on Big Data

9. danah boyd on Future of Technology and Social Media

Philip Delves Broughton: What they teach you at Harvard?

Editor’s Note: Philip Delves Broughton is the author of The Art of the Sale, published in the UK as Life’s a Pitch, and Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School, published outside the US as What They Teach You at Harvard Business School. His first book, Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School was a New York Times bestseller and a Financial Times and USA Today business book of the year.

He spent ten years as a reporter and foreign correspondent with The Daily Telegraph newspaper, serving as its New York and Paris bureau chief. He then left journalism to obtain his MBA at Harvard Business School. He has since worked as a writer at Apple Inc. and the Kauffman Foundation for Entrepreneurship and Education and as a contributing columnist at The Financial Times. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times and The Atlantic.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Philip Delves Broughton recently to gain insights about The Art of the Sale, The Greatest Salespeople in the World, The Soul of the Salesman, What They Teach You at Harvard and The Point of a Business Education which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Philip, thank you so much for managing time to join us amidst your busy schedule. We are honored to have you at eTalks.

Philip: My pleasure.

Niaz: You are the New York Times best selling author, blogger, business philosopher, speaker and an inspiring mind. Your books ‘The Art of the Sale‘ and ‘What they teach you at Harvard Business School‘ are truly instrumental for self-help, self-growth and for the success in 21st century. At the very beginning of our interview can you please tell us more about you, your work and your current involvements?

Philip: I grew up in England, was a newspaper journalist and foreign correspondent for the first ten years of my career, then decided to go to business school at Harvard. Since then, I’ve written and published three books, the memoir of going to HBS, The Art of the Sale, and a book called Management Matters, which is basically a collection of the pieces on management I’ve written for the Financial Times. I write regularly for the FT, the Wall Street Journal and am affiliated with the Kauffman Foundation for Entrepreneurship and Education, a wonderful institution based in Kansas City which funds a wide array of programs designed to stimulate entrepreneurship.

Niaz: Why are you very passionate about ‘Sale’? Can you please tell us what exactly is Sale?

Philip: Sales is very simply the process of turning a product or service into revenue. I’m fascinated by it, because as one great salesman told me, it’s the greatest laboratory there is for understanding human behavior. In sales, we see business at its most raw. We see the truth, lies, greed, decency, ambition and value of any business and business person exposed at the moment of the sale.

Niaz: As you know social media revolution, cutting edge technology, disruptive innovation, widespread uses of smartphone and a whole new digital world have been changing everything. This trend is bringing revolutionary change in the way we do business. Living in such an exciting era, what’s new about sale now in comparison to sale 15-20 years back?

Philip: There’s evidently much more transparency. It’s much harder to deceive customers in a world where so much information about products and pricing is available at a keystroke. Reputation has become far more important as it can so easily be damaged in a world of viral reviews. Transactions have also changed. We can buy and sell in so many different ways these days. Social networks have certainly made prospecting for customers and checking on people’s reputation easier. But I still believe real, lasting relationships require in-person contact over time. Technology hasn’t changed that.

Niaz: Can you please tell us about the art and science of selling?

Philip: The science is in creating value around your product and service and then finding ways to convey that value to the right customers. It’s about mapping your product and sales process to their needs and schedules, not your own. The art is in having a supple, imaginative grasp of human behavior. It’s about finding the right balance between science and intuition, because it’s still the case that humans make decisions, and technology, though vastly improved, is still far from being a complete substitute for human intelligence in sales.

Niaz: You have cited, ‘Without a sale, there is no business’. We have seen, most companies fail only because they can’t make enough sale even though some of them are using state of the art technologies, are embracing science and disruptive innovation and despite they have great products. Sometimes customers don’t want the products and most of the time they fail to make sale. As a result the success rate is very little and almost 90% Start Ups fail. Why art and science of selling remain necessary to succeed in most of the human business disciplines? Why is sale the core part of any business?

Philip: Sales is often the last thing many people like to do, because it’s the final judgment on their product or service. It’s a moment of truth. At the moment you sell, you’re risking rejection, which can be painful. Smart, highly educated people in particular aren’t used to rejection, and so try to minimize the risk of it. Sales isn’t forgiving. But if you don’t sell and earn a profit, you’re pursuing a hobby not a business. I often hear people try to make a virtue of their reluctance to sell. They say they’re not aggressive or bullying enough. Or that they don’t like asking people for money. But really, all they are is bad at sales. If you can’t sell yourself, or hire or partner with someone who can, you have no business being in business. It’s not a very complicated concept. The flip side is that people who do push through the rejections and difficulties which precede almost any sale, find their eventual success a great rush which they want to repeat as often as possible. Those people tend to be the ones who succeed in business.

Niaz: Do you think sale is the advanced human game? What are your suggestions on mastering this advanced game?

Philip: I’m not sure how advanced it is, but it can certainly be viewed as a game between consenting adults. There’s an old Quaker tradesman’s saying I cite in the book ‘I shall not cheat thee, but I shall outwit thee.’ I think this is a useful moral code for any salesperson. Ideally, your product, service and price perfectly match a customer’s need and willingness to pay and the sale is easy. But most of the time you’ll need to do some modifying, persuading and course correcting to close a deal. If you lie, you’ll likely end up being exposed. But you can certainly out-think and out-strategize to win, while balancing the short and long-term consequences of your actions. People have very different comfort levels about what they’re willing to do to sell. But good salespeople, however they choose to do it, have thought the compromises and risks and have set firm boundaries on their behavior.

Niaz: What do you think about the salesmanship of Steve Jobs? How has he become one of the greatest salespeople in the world? What are the characteristics, views, ideas, skills and insights of Salesmanship of Steve Jobs that fascinate you?

Philip: Jobs was indistinguishable from his products. He never ceded the role of Apple’s chief salesman to anyone else. That’s a very powerful model and the way he did it inspired enormous belief in his company and products. He used the language of religious evangelism, such as “transformation” and “magic”. He also made brilliant use of persuasive techniques such as “social proof”. All those glass windows in Apple stores allow passers by to see people like themselves using Apple products. The “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ads similarly made the case that buying Apple products wasn’t just above buying software or hardware. It cut to the very heart of your social identity. It’s rather creepy, actually, but Jobs was brilliant at it. It’s easy to forget what a marginal company Apple was in 1997, when Jobs returned as CEO. His salesmanship helped turn the company around internally by restoring belief among employees, and then got customers to try the products at at time when Wintel was still dominant.

Niaz: Were there some universal qualities you found in great sales people?

Philip: An optimistic frame of mind, enthusiasm, self-discipline, the ability to tell a story and to be energized rather than crushed by rejection. They are terrific listeners, but also ruthless closers. They also tend to be very good company, which made writing about them such fun.

Niaz: Despite the new opportunities in social media, marketing and measurement, selling still frequently comes down to two people looking each other in the eye and deciding how to sell and whether to buy. Business continues to need great salespeople along with all the creativity, tenacity and optimism they bring. Great salespeople come in very different packages. Some are the best at high volume transactional selling and others thrive at building long-term relationships. At this point can you please tell us about the great skills of 21st century salespeople?

Philip: They’re the same as they’ve always been. You need to keep abreast of the prospecting and pitching tools, such as LinkedIn and Salesforce, but ultimately the edge still belongs to those able to build trust, inspire repeat customers and develop healthy books of business. Maybe there’ll be fewer steak and cigar dinners in the 21st century, but you still have to find ways to develop meaningful relationships and that doesn’t happen virtually. Personal networks and interpersonal skills will count as much as ever.

Niaz: What happens when the business and non-business worlds no longer understand each other?

Philip: Revolution.

Niaz: You have had said ‘The cleverest invention or product will disappear — creating no income, no employment — unless someone can sell it.’ Is sale resided in the core of capitalism? How does sales drive economy?

Philip: If all an economy consisted of was things we needed simply to survive, it would look very primitive. No one needs a BMW or a Jamba Juice, or a Macbook or a work of art. But such things make life more appealing. Profit incentives are also essential to the creation of more important things such as new medical treatments or healthier cities. It’s by selling each other new, interesting and life-enhancing, rather than just life-sustaining, that economies grow. Sales leads to revenue leads to profit leads to investment leads to growth.

Niaz: Do you think by creating better understanding of selling, and the many challenges it involves, we can build better world? How can that become possible if I want you to discuss from removing poverty to solving international fights, solving environment problems to stop international war?

Philip: This a long way above my pay grade! All that counts here is that we continue to search for the healthiest balance between market forces and social justice. It’s a constant adjustment for all of us. As individuals, we struggle with our material, emotional and spiritual desires. Companies must balance shareholder with employee interests. Governments seek a way to grow national economies while protecting the weakest in their societies. Sales matters in all this because, as I said, it cuts right to the heart of these discussions. How we choose to sell says everything about how we’re balancing the good and bad in our selves.

Niaz: In 2004, you gave up a career in journalism to attend Harvard Business School. Three years later, you published the New York Times bestseller ‘Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School’, in which you described and questioned the value of a business education. You have cited ‘Most top business schools don’t teach selling’. And you believe ‘Selling should be the first thing to teach, as everything in business flows from the sale’. Can you please tell us about the point of a business education? What’s going wrong with our business education?

Philip: A business education should enable someone to pursue their interests in a way that makes good financial sense. A lot of MBA programs charge a lot of money while under-delivering on this basic purpose. I also think the top business programs need to do a better job educating students on the social purpose of business. Better basics, more humility and lower fees would go a long way to fixing this.

Niaz: Still folks from different countries, states and cities across the world hope that teaching business and entrepreneurship will lead to initiate more start-ups and better businesses. Is their hope justified?

Philip: Education is always a good thing. But I think the teaching of business and entrepreneurship can be pretty crude and ineffective and there’s a lot of work to do in improving it. Also, it’s not just about educating individual entrepreneurs. The social and political context also has to favor them.

Niaz: Can you please tell us about the aspects of business which can and cannot be taught, those which must be taught better, and those are not worth teaching at all?

Philip: Sales, evidently, should be more a part of MBA curricula. I’m intrigued by new just-in-time business education programs, which deliver teaching at the moment a businessperson needs it. That seems to make a lot of sense. The issue here isn’t what should or should not be taught at a high level. It’s about delivering value to the person who needs it. Business isn’t law or medicine, with a body of knowledge which has to be learned before you can practice. It’s much more fluid than that, and business education needs to reflect this fact.

Niaz: How educators and policy-makers should teach business as a means to improving the rate and quality of economic growth?

Philip: Focus on developing communities of businesspeople. Help facilitate connections. Listen to what these people ask for. Then get out of the way.

Niaz: What are you doing now at The Kauffman Foundation for Entrepreneurship and Education?

Philip: Writing about entrepreneurship programs, what works, what doesn’t.

Niaz: Thanks a lot for joining and sharing us your great ideas, insights and knowledge. We are wishing you good luck for all of your upcoming great endeavors. Happy New Year Philip.

Philip: Thanks Niaz.

_  _  _  _  ___  _  _  _  _

Further Reading:

01. Philip Kotler on Marketing for Better World

02. Hugh Mac­Leod on Creativity and Art

03. Daniel Pink on To Sell is Human

04. Naeem Zafar on Entrepreneurship for the Better World

05. Derek Sivers on  Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

06. Jeff Haden on Pursuing Excellence

07. Rita McGrath on Strategy in Volatile and Uncertain Environments

08. Gautam Mukunda on Leadership

09. Gerd Leonhard on Big Data and the Future of Media, Marketing and Technology

Naeem Zafar: Entrepreneurship for the Better World

Editor’s Note: Naeem Zafar is the president and CEO of Bitzer Mobile, a company that simplifies enterprise mobility. On November 15, 2013 Oracle announced it has acquired Bitzer Mobile. As a member of the faculty of the Haas Business School at the University of California Berkeley, he teaches Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the MBA program. He is the founder of Startup-Advisor, which focuses on educating and advising entrepreneurs on all aspects of starting and running a company. His entrepreneurial experience includes working directly with six startups, and he has extensive experience in mentoring and coaching founders and CEOs.

Mr. Zafar holds a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from Brown University (magna cum laude), Rhode Island, and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Minnesota. He is a charter member of TiE .He is also a charter member of OPEN where he serves as the Board member.

You can read his full bio from here, here and here.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Naeem Zafar recently to gain his ideas and insights about StartUp, social business and entrepreneurship for better world which is given below.

Q: You’re a successful entrepreneur. As a member of faculty of the Haas Business School at UC Berkeley, you teach entrepreneurship and innovation in the MBA program. At the beginning of our interview can you please tell us what exactly is entrepreneurship?

A: Entrepreneurship is a state of mind. It is a way to look at a situation and see how could you make a profitable venture out of it. It is very innate. People, educated or not in urban or rural setting, are just as likely to spot an opportunity and drive it to commercialization.  The likelihood is there just as it is for a Silicon Valley hotshot startup guy. So it transcends all boundaries of education, race and gender. It is a state of mind.

Q: You believe that entrepreneurship can be a powerful tool to alleviate poverty and extremism of the world and social businesses can fill the gap where public institutions often fall short. Can you please tell us more about that?

A: If you think about the definition of a business….its objective is to maximize shareholder return. So the shareholder who invests in the company has an expectation that the management should do whatever it can to maximize return; that is perfectly fine. We have seen tremendous companies and innovation come out of that model. But if there were a concept of setting up a company with the sole purpose of not  maximizing shareholders return but to address its social ill….. that can work for alleviating poverty.

It can be something as simple as the city doing lousy job of collecting garbage. Let’s say the garbage is not being collected on time which is very unpleasant as we know. We can set up a company so that there speedy pick up and disposal of garbage. The purpose of that company is to address this social ill. It is not to maximize shareholder profit. Imagine setting up the company with that objective and shareholders putting in money. This company’s objective is for this social ill to be addressed and not to maximize profit. Now, it is still a for profit company. It still pays market wages and hires the best people to address the issue but it is not trying to maximize profit.

This model which can be very rewarding for the shareholders as it is a new way of looking at solving many of the problems which governments are not well suited to solve. That’s called social business. I think the concept is a powerful one. It’s put forward by the Nobel laureate, Muhammad Yunus, in his 3rd book and I think it is a tremendous way for communities to organize and address issues which plagued them without having to wait for government to show up.

Q: How do you connect these three dots: social entrepreneurship, alleviating poverty and making a better world?

A: If you look at my previous answer I just connected the three dots for you.  Making a better world is about alleviating poverty and giving people a chance to participate in economic growth and well-being. Social businesses and entrepreneurship is a way for them to have that opportunity.

In the country that I grew up in you look for government to give you a good job. However, the government is not well equipped to provide a job for everybody. On the other hand, the private sector is well positioned. As we have seen in US, the private sector produced even submarines, bombs and fighter jets. This was quite shocking to me when I came to this country.

The government’s job is not to produce goods. Its job is to set policies and systems so that companies and entrepreneurs can thrive.

Q: How did you find the idea for Bitzer Mobile? Can you please briefly tell us about Bitzer Mobile?

A: Bitzer Mobile’s technical founder, Ali Ahmed, was working as a software architect for large companies in insurance and oil verticals for many years. He continued to recognize that people were struggling to allow employees mobile access to data.

Ali was having to solve the problem for every company in a unique way. So the idea was, why not come up with the way so that the employees can easily and securely access corporate data and be productive from wherever they happen to be. And that gave birth to Bitzer.

Q: As far as I believe for changing the world, we need to find complex, interesting  and  big problems of the world and then have to build great organizations that will sustain in the long run to keep solving those problems as well as to keep contributing for the betterment of the mother earth. Can you please tell us how can we find interesting, complex and big problems of this world?

A: First of all, I don’t agree with your definition. It is not about solving big problems. It is about solving problems. Problems of all sizes. Sometimes all you have to do is look around you. There are problems in your community, where you live, where you work. Solve those problems. Big ideas come from people trying to solve small problems which turn into great movements. So looking for the great problems to solve is not the only way and may not be most efficient way to do it either.

Q: What are your suggestions on finding interesting ideas and bringing the ideas to life to solve?

A: Interesting ideas to solve come from deep domain knowledge. It’s very difficult for entrepreneurs when they are young to come up with ideas as they can be light weight. The average age of an entrepreneur in America is 37. This means that many people are older than 37 when they start their company. So only if you worked in the industry for 5-10 years you really understand what issues are, what the problems are, and then you can see how you can solve them. So my advice is:  look around you, work in some industry, learn the hard skills. Then you will see the problem and you will be well equipped to solve them. This is how you address this issue.

Q: What are your takes on finding the right business model and identifying early customers?

A: To find the right business model and early customers is simple. You should be able to answer these two fundamental questions: what problem are you solving and who has this problem.  If you cannot concisely answer these two questions you don’t have clarity in your head. I insist that people should talk to 5 to 10 actual users and buyers of whatever product they’re planning to buy and try to understand what their pain is. If you cannot clearly articulate what pain your customers have do not start the company. Then discuss with customers what you are planning to do and if this would be interested in it. If you cannot generate this early customer interest, do not start the company.

And stop worrying about confidentiality. People have other problems to solve in their lives. They are not running to copy your idea. It is the execution of your idea that is the hard part. By bouncing these ideas off suitable customers and users and consistently getting positive feedback, you may be in a position to start the company and then they likely will buy it. Everything else will clarify itself during the course of this process.

Q: Can you please tell us about the legal process of starting a company?

A: Legal process depends on in which country you are starting the company in, what the local regulations are.  My book which is a legal guide for entrepreneurs goes into fair amount of details: What is the process, what options you have in the United States. So read the book. It’s available at naeemzafar.com.

Q: As you’ve seen during Internet bubble, there were so many companies founded and were committed to change the world. But with the changes of time around 90% of them got obsolete. And we ended up having some great companies. Now, there are also so many startups working with cloud computing, big data, wearable technologies, space, robotics and so on. The data shows most of them will also get obsolete as the success rate of startups is very low. But there are always some common characteristics, values,  philosophies and ideas that  keep some startups alive and helps to sustain in the long run. You have profound experience of seeing all the trends as you have been advising companies and working with great entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. What are your suggestions on building the next big organization?

A: Aspect of building the next big organization is about solving a big problem. It is easy to spot what are the problems that need to be solved. All the trends you mention have tremendous potential.

Big data and business analytics can pinpoint precisely if you put a restaurant in the corner of this street and that street. They tell you what will be your monthly sales when you put it in the corner of that street and that street. So, the way businesses will be making decision could be based on not intuition but actual data.

If you read the book or watch the movie called Moneyball, it is about applying statistics to baseball. It is about how a mediocre team became the number one team by using big data. And that is applicable to every single business. So look for a big idea around you and build a great team with high caliber people. If you can put together a right market with the right team, you can build a lasting company too.

Q: How do you think about hiring remarkable people and let them scope to work on achieving vision that will change our world for good?

A: I think it’s good idea to hire remarkable people. You should do that. It’s not easy to do that. Remember the good people  will follow somebody which they can respect and whose vision they share. If you don’t have the passion and vision yourself why would A people, A players, best players follow you. Best players want to follow someone that they believe in. If you have that you shall attract the right team. And yes, you will be able to do great things. So step up to the stage and stage could be yours.

Q:  Whenever we talk about changing the world, thing that always comes first is changing ourselves. After changing our own life, we can go and change our family, then our society and then our country and then we can have a mission of changing the world to make it a better place to live in. But changing the world is hard, complex, challenging and hurting. You have come a long way and have already left a body of works to make this  world a bit more special. Can you please tell us about what your life has thought you in this amazing journey?

A: What my life has taught me is that it’s not a sprint. It is a marathon. So you have to create your own brand. You have to be genuine and honest and people will follow you . If you have  a vision that attracts people, you will have easy time attracting them.

So my advice to myself and other people around me is that if you’re a genuine person and a truthful person and you have a strong vision and can articulate it, you will have people willing to follow you. Once you have people willing to follow you then there is no challenge you cannot take tackle, no matter how big it is.

You will be able to overcome it over time and there are plenty of problems to follow around the world. But be true to yourself and always look for the team who is willing to follow you.

Q:  Last but not least, can you please give some advice to entrepreneurs who are on the mission of changing the world?

A: Changing the world is important and changing the world sometimes happens. But that is not the goal to start with. It is too big goal. It is too audacious and maybe even too arrogant to have this goal.

Martin Luther King did not have the goal of changing the world. He was just trying to change some laws so that black people could have equal rights. When Steve Jobs was starting Apple he wanted to do a music iPod. He was not trying to change the world. So I’m a little bit suspicious of your question because changing the world has come up multiple times.  Forget about changing the world. Do something meaningful for the people around you and your community. If you’re lucky enough it will have a big impact.  So think more practical and try to make local change. Stop worrying about changing the world – that will come later if you’re so lucky.

_  _  _  _  ___  _  _  _  _

Further Reading:

1. Peter Klein on Entrepreneurship, Economics and Education

2. Derek Sivers on  Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

3. F. M. Scherer on Industrial Economy, Digital Economy and Innovation

4. Diego Comin on Entrepreneurship, Technology and Global Economic Development

5. Stephen Walt on Global Development

6. Juliana Rotich on Social Entrepreneurial Innovation

Jillian C. York: Freedom of Expression, Social Media and Nonprofits

Editor’s Note: Jillian C. York is Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Before joining the EFF, York worked at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, where she contributed to the OpenNet Initiative. Her work is at the intersection of technology and policy, with a focus on the Arab world. She is a frequent public speaker and has written for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, Al Jazeera, the Atlantic, the Guardian, Global Voice, Foreign PolicySlate and CNN.  With Katherine Maher, she has a regular web show, Interrobang, hosted on Bloggingheads.tv.

Jillian contributed chapters to the upcoming volumes Beyond WikiLeaks: Implications for the Future of Communication, Journalism and Society (Palgrave Macmillan) and State Power 2.0: Authoritarian Entrenchment and Political Engagement Worldwide (Ashgate Publishing).  She serves on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online, and on the Advisory Boards of R-Shief, Radio Free Asia’s Open Technology Fund, and Internews’ Global Internet Policy Project.

She says “I talk a lot around the Internets, and in real life–about free expression, privacy, anonymity, culture, and MENA.  I also talk about travel and post pictures of food.” You can get her on Twitter, LinkedIn and Google +.

To read her full bio please click here, here, here and here.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Jillian C. York recently to gain her ideas and insights on Freedom of Expression, Social Media and Nonprofits which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Jillian, thank you so much for joining us in the midst of your busy schedule. We are very thrilled and honored to have you at eTalks.

Jillian:  Thank you for having me.

Niaz: As an activist, you have been working with all great organizations and setting a trend of doing great works. You’re also a writer and a speaker. At the beginning of our interview can you please tell us more about yourself, current works, projects and involvements?

Jillian: Certainly.  Right now, I’m working on some really interesting projects.  One is an effort to create a set of educational resources to teach people how to be more safe online…there are a lot of great guides and tools out there, but many of them are difficult to understand, or the resources are scattered all over the web.  We want to create a definitive set of resources that are easy to access and comprehend.

Another thing I’m working on with my colleagues is pushing governments to commit to a set of 13 principles for the application of human rights to communications surveillance (they’re at necessaryandproportionate.net).  We’ve gotten more than 300 organizations all over the world to sign on, and dozens of academics and experts, too.  Now we’re taking these principles to governments.

Niaz: You’re the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Can you please briefly tell us about EFF, it’s activities and vision?

Jillian:  EFF was born in 1990 in response to a basic threat to speech.  Since then, the organization has grown to encompass a variety of issues—free speech, privacy, intellectual property, open access—that face us in the digital realm.

In the United States, much of our work is done in the courtroom, but we also have a strong team of activists who raise our issues in Washington, DC and get support from all over the country and the world.  Our technology team builds tools and advises people and organizations on security.  And our international team, the team that I work with, works with organizations all over the world to create good policy, fight online threats, and help build a movement in favor of online free speech and privacy.

Niaz: What are the other organizations out there working for freedom of expressions?  Do you think we should have more organization in this area?

Jillian: There are so many!  There are global organizations like Access and Global Voices Advocacy and US-focused organizations like Free Press and Fight for the Future.  There are organizations all over the globe that I love and support, too…just to name a few, there’s Bolo Bhi in Pakistan, La Quadrature du Net in France, Derechos Digitales in Chile, 7iber in Jordan, MADA in Palestine, Digitale Gesellschaft in Germany, and so many more!

Niaz: How building similar organizations from different parts of world can help EFF to achieve its amazing vision? What are your messages for the youngsters working in nonprofits?

Jillian: Fundamentally, we believe in certain ideals, but we also believe that those battles are best won by local organizations, rather than by a US organization like ours coming in and trying to fix problems.  And so our strategy is to work in partnerships with organizations in other countries to help them build capacity or support them in their fight against a particular threat.  Of course, in this process, we also learn so much from our colleagues everywhere.

My message to youngsters would be that it’s worthwhile to do what you’re passionate about.  I’ve spent my entire career working in the nonprofit sector, and have found it incredibly rewarding.  It helps too that, through my job, I’ve developed friendships all over the world, which means I always have a place to sleep wherever I am!

Niaz: You also serve on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online. It has already become a true Global Media where people from all over the world doing citizen journalism and sharing amazing stories in different languages. At this point, can you please tell us about citizen journalism? How has citizen journalism been changing our traditional media?

Jillian: The problem that I have with traditional media is that it’s limited.  In the US, it’s limited by the (false) idea of “objectivity”, but also by the experience of its journalists.  I don’t think mainstream media is or should be dead, far from it, rather, I think that citizen journalism provides a supplement to more traditional media.  It helps us gain the human perspective of a story.

Niaz: How is Global Voices different from other traditional media? Why is it important to be different?

Jillian: Global Voices began as an attempt to cover what people were saying in the blogospheres of places where the mainstream media didn’t always reach.  Since that time, a lot has changed: we can now access more mainstream publications from different places in the world, giving us an insight into the perspectives of journalists there.  There is also a lot more content from certain places in English than there was a decade ago, which is helpful.

Today, Global Voices still seeks to accomplish that goal, but it’s also now available in dozens of languages, which I often think is even more valuable – it allows people in Madagascar, for example, to read content in their own language by and about people in say, Venezuela or Japan.  It’s that cross-cultural pollination that I find fascinating.

Global Voices is also unique in that it’s almost entirely run by volunteers.  There are fewer than 10 paid full-time employees, and more than 300 people working on the project at any time.

Niaz: Your work focuses on freedom of expression.  And you’ve a profound body of works on freedom of expression. Now can you please tell us about Internet Censorship? How does Internet Censorship affect freedom of expression as well as democracy?

Jillian: Censorship happens all over the world.  We often hear about China and Iran, which are by far two of the worst offenders, but we hear much less about the Internet censorship that happens in Vietnam, Jordan, and many other places.  In Vietnam, political content is censored and bloggers that challenge the state can be arrested for unrelated crimes.  In Jordan, more than 300 news websites were recently blocked after they refused to obtain licenses.  Censorship can be used for all sorts of purposes, but governments that censor the Internet tend to have one thing in common: they fear their citizens.

Niaz: Social media coverage is becoming increasingly common across media; do you see a fundamental shift happening in the way news is covered, particularly internationally?

Jillian: I do – I’m seeing a lot more agency given to the subjects of news articles.  It used to be that an American journalist could parachute in, write a story about a place, and have that story become the definitive narrative of a given situation.  Today, the Internet allows the “subjects” of that narrative to challenge it.  So when, for example, Tom Friedman writes a story about Egypt, you will often see Egyptians on Twitter challenging him about it.

Unfortunately, this is happening on the fringe of the media.  The Atlantic, for example, is doing a pretty good job of it, but the New York Times by and large still seems fairly oblivious.

Niaz: What do you think about social media revolution in terms of freedom of expression?

Jillian: I think that we’re looking at a net positive for freedom of expression, but with a serious caveat: the social media companies that host our speech can also exercise control over it.  This can be insidious, such as Facebook banning entire categories of expression (such as nudity or its ill-defined “hate speech”), but it can also be subtler.  We should be cautious and aware of the fact that the spaces we think of as the online public sphere are not public at all, but privately-owned companies.

Niaz: Do you think social media revolution is also the revolution of free speech? What do you think about the future of Citizen Media that will be able to scale freedom of expression?

Jillian: Yes and no.  I think that the social media revolution is about broadening the set of voices we can hear and that we listen to, but I don’t think we’re nearly there in terms of access to call this a speech revolution.  There are places in the world, like Yemen, where Internet penetration still rests below 5% of a country’s population, and there are other places, like Nigeria, where women report not feeling safe accessing public Internet spaces.  We need to solve the access gap before we can really proclaim social media as a revolution of free speech.

Niaz: What’s new about democracy in this digital era? How do you connect democracy, freedom of expression and social media revolution?

Jillian: I’m not sure we’re even close to solving the problems of democracy, but I do believe that social media opens up space for citizens to make their voices heard in an unprecedented way.  Take, for example, the recent nuclear deal between the US and Iran.  I watched while right-wing journalists decried the deal on Twitter, but their voices were drowned out by those of the people, the citizens, all over the world.  Before social media, those “expert” voices would’ve carried far more weight than they do now.

Niaz: Can you please tell us about your book chapter in the volume ‘State Power 2.0’?

Jillian: Sure – I wrote this chapter with Katherine Maher.  It covers the history of the Tunisian Internet—its infrastructure, censorship, surveillance—as well as the forces that led to a change in policies after the fall of Ben Ali.

Niaz: What are your suggestions to make our non-profit sector much more productive, scalable, efficient and effective?

Jillian: I think one of the key challenges is for non-profit organizations to think more like businesses, particularly when it comes to finding sustainable funding models.  Non-profits are all too often tied to foundations, which means they risk losing their funding at any moment.  We’re lucky in the United States, in that donations are tax-deductible, which means that organizations have a much easier time at getting individual support.

Niaz: Can you please briefly tell us about your new book ‘Beyond WikiLeaks: Implications for the Future of Communications, Journalism & Society?

Jillian: Sure – this is a fantastic book put together by a group of academics. My chapter looks at the history and effects of leaking in the Arab world, starting with the Iran-Contra Affair and moving toward the future.

Niaz: Dear Jillian, thank you very much for your invaluable time and also for sharing us your amazing life story, great ideas, insights, experience and knowledge. We are wishing you very good luck for your good health and safe living along with for all of your upcoming great endeavors.

Jillian:  Thank you so much, Niaz, this has been great.

_  _  _  _  ___  _  _  _  _

Further Reading:

1. Stephen Walt on Global Development

2. Juliana Rotich on Social Entrepreneurial Innovation

3. Shaka Senghor on Writing My Wrongs

4. Ovick Alam on BridgeWee

5. Shaba Binte Amin on Poverty Fighter Foundation

Peter Klein: Entrepreneurship, Economics and Education

Editor’s Note: Peter Klein, is Executive Director and Carl Menger Research Fellow of the Mises Institute and Associate Professor in the Division of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Missouri. At Missouri he also directs the McQuinn Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, and he holds adjunct faculty positions with the Truman School of Public Affairs and the Norwegian School of Economics. His research focuses on the economics of organization, entrepreneurship, and corporate strategy, with applications to diversification, innovation, food and agriculture, economic growth, and vertical coordination. Klein has authored or edited five books and has published over 70 academic articles, chapters, and reviews.

He taught previously at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Georgia, and the Copenhagen Business School, and served as a Senior Economist with the Council of Economic Advisers. He is also a former Associate Editor of The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek. He lectures regularly at the Mises University and other Mises Institute events.

Klein received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Berkeley and his B.A. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He co-founded the popular management blog Organizations and Markets.

To learn more about him, check out this this this this and this.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Peter Klein recently to gain insights about entrepreneurship, economics and education which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Peter, thank you so much for joining us in the midst of your busy schedule. We are very thrilled and honored to have you at eTalks.

Peter: It’s my pleasure to participate!

Niaz: You are the prominent researcher, speaker, author, analyst and think tank in the field of entrepreneurship, innovation, economics, and education. At the very beginning of our interview can you please tell us about Entrepreneurship? What is entrepreneurship to you? What are the different contexts of entrepreneurship?

Peter: The terms “entrepreneur,” “entrepreneurship,” and “entrepreneurial” are used in many ways, not always consistently! On the one hand, entrepreneurship is often used to mean self-employment: an entrepreneur is a person who starts or operates a small business. On the other hand, we also use the term “entrepreneurial” to refer to something broader, a mindset or way of thinking that emphasizes novelty, creativity, and initiative. Obviously one can be entrepreneurial in this sense without being a small-business owner.

In the academic literature, things get even more confusing. Originally the word entrepreneur was identified with decision-making, risk-bearing, and responsibility: entrepreneurs were the business people who organized production, transforming resources into valuable products and services for consumers. That usage goes back to the 18th century. More recently, scholars have identified entrepreneurship with narrower activities or functions such as alertness to profit opportunities or the introduction of new goods and services or new ways to make existing products. In my academic writing I adopt the concept developed by the American economist Frank Knight and the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises which emphasizes judgmental decision-making under uncertainty.

This variety of concepts and definitions causes problems, both in academic and in popular discussions. I sometimes think it would be better if we avoided the language of entrepreneurship altogether! As an exercise, I require my PhD students writing about entrepreneurship to describe their dissertation topics without using the word entrepreneurship or any of its cognates. If a student is writing about venture capital and IPOs, then call it “new-venture funding,” not entrepreneurship. If she is studying how people evaluate and compare new business models, then call it “business-model evaluation,” not entrepreneurship. I typically find that if people struggle to explain a particular phenomenon or research question without using the language or entrepreneurship, they probably don’t really understand what they’re doing!

Niaz: Can you please define what an entrepreneur is?

Peter: As discussed above, there are many definitions floating around in the academic and practitioner literature. I prefer to define entrepreneurship as judgment, the act of combining and recombining heterogeneous resources under conditions of uncertainty. But arguing about definitions is often counterproductive. I prefer to think in terms of the research question to be answered, or the practical problem to be solved. Defining entrepreneurship as self-employment or technological innovation or opportunity recognition may be useful in some contexts, but not others. Let’s focus on the phenomena and relationships of interest, even if we disagree about the labels!

Niaz: Why do you think entrepreneurship is the fundamental stand of understanding economics? And how?

Peter: Unfortunately, most people see economics as a dry, technical subject that involves poring over charts and graphs and writing equations to describe the “equilibrium” behavior of hypothetical actors. But economics is a logical, deductive, human science about real people acting in the real world, with all the dynamism, unpredictability, and creativity that entails. Markets aren’t static, lifeless mathematical constructs but lively, vigorous spaces where people interact and coordinate. Firms, markets, and industries don’t just come into existence by themselves, they have to be created and operated by real people with real responsibility. These people are entrepreneurs, what Mises called the “driving force” of the market economy. That’s one reason I’m attracted to the “Austrian” approach to economics, which has always placed the entrepreneur at the front and center of production and exchange—not an incidental actor who steps in to introduce novelty then fades into the background as the “normal” market process resumes. Entrepreneurship, as decisive action under uncertain conditions, is at the very heart of a market economy.

Niaz: At eTalks, we believe entrepreneurship is a great tool that helps building sustainable economy. We also believe entrepreneurs are the rock starts those who work to keep economy growing. Both entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs are the driving forces and instrumentals to build strong economy. Now, how do you connect these three dots: entrepreneurship, economic growth, and development of a country?

Peter: If we think of entrepreneurship is the broad sense of judgment under uncertainty, then economic development and growth can not exist without entrepreneurship! It is the entrepreneurs who invest the capital necessary for productivity growth, who organize production into firms and industries, who compete and cooperate to create and distribute goods and services to consumers in the most efficient and profitable manner. If we think of entrepreneurship more narrowly, as small business or startups or venture funding, then the story is more complex. To be sure, smaller and newer firms are often disproportionately responsible for employment growth and, in some contexts, the introduction of new products and new technologies. At the same time, large enterprises can also be innovative, and capital accumulation is often critical to achieving economies of scale and scope, even in today’s “knowledge economy.” And not every individual wants to be responsible for owning and operating a small business. Unfortunately, large firms are typically more adept at securing for themselves special political privileges and protection against competitors, though small firms play this game as well. Ultimately, I am agnostic about what mix of small and large, new and mature, and high-tech and low-tech firms is best for economic growth; I prefer to let competition in free markets sort it out.

Niaz: As you know, America is a great country having being built all big and great corporations. In the last two decades we have seen the structural and revolutionary contribution of the most exciting companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Amazon in American economy. But things are not happening in the same ways throughout the world. In some points, things are happening more devastatingly. Some countries are taking optimum advantages of cutting age technologies, disruptive innovation, and digital economy. On the other hand, most countries are lacking behind and economic condition is becoming worse. According to you what drives entrepreneurs to build great organizations? And what are the role of culture and entrepreneurial environments in that endeavors?

Peter: Clearly culture and environment are critical for the success of entrepreneurs, however defined. Unfortunately, there is little consensus in the research literature about the precise mechanisms by which culture, including social norms and beliefs, affects economic behavior. We have a general sense that cultures in which experimentation and creativity are rewarded, and failure is tolerated, are more conducive to the kind of risk-taking that entrepreneurship requires. At the same time, there are plenty of counterexamples—the Nordic countries, for example, are relatively egalitarian and homogeneous, while still being highly entrepreneurial.

When it comes to the legal and political environment, the evidence is clearer. Countries with strong property-rights protection, a well-functioning monetary system, and minimal government intervention in the economy provide the best environment for entrepreneurship and economic growth. There is a strong temptation among many government planners to try to micro-manage entrepreneurial activity through targeted subsidies, infrastructure spending, tax and regulatory codes that favor one type of firm or location over another, and other attempts to create geographic or industrial clusters of innovation. Everyone wants the next Silicon Valley in his country or region. But entrepreneurial clusters like Silicon Valley emerge, endogenously, from the bottom up; they cannot be established from the top down. To be sure, strong “anchor” entities like research universities and established companies are important for kick-starting local entrepreneurial activity. But most attempts by government planners to target particular areas or activities for an entrepreneurial boost have fallen flat. The policy environment should also allow the “freedom to fail”—no bailouts and subsidies for unsuccessful ventures! Monetary and fiscal policies designed to “stimulate” the economy are also harmful, as they tend to generate asset bubbles and other forms of price inflation that make it more difficult for entrepreneurs to plan and invest.

Niaz: Why don’t we see big organizations getting formed in other countries? What are their core challenges?

Peter: Well, we do see large-scale enterprise around the world, but it often takes different forms such as diversified business groups, keiretsu, chaebols, and the like. Often these large groups are nominally private, but closely connected to the state, which tends to extend them special privileges that make it more difficult for them to innovate and compete internationally. Size is great when it results from superior performance on the market, but not so good when it comes from subsidies and political connections.

Niaz: How can they overcome those challenges?

Peter: Newer and smaller organizations looking for sustained growth have to find a balance between doing the things that made them successful in the first place—acting with boldness and imagination, being willing to experiment, finding the right niche—and developing routines and capabilities that keep it going. Often there is a change in mindset; in the early stages, founders feel like outsiders, Young Turks shaking up the establishment with little to lose.  Over time, the competitive landscape changes, and the outsider becomes the incumbent. This creates two problems: the team may still be in startup mode, still fighting the old battles, or it may become complacent, unaware of the potential competitor around the corner.

Complacency is a common problem for any successful organization. Clay Christensen has shown how large companies—and, I’d add, other large organizations like universities—struggle to adapt the newest and latest technologies. They are often too successful at what they already do, too effective at serving their existing customers using existing methods, too reluctant to disrupt their existing revenue streams. Of course, large and successful companies can also be innovative, typically by delegating decision authority to subunits, providing strong incentives for performance-enhancing innovations, setting up “skunk works” and internal corporate ventures, and other strategies. But it is not easy, and many large firms fail to adapt to changing circumstances.

Niaz: What other countries can learn from Silicon Valley and from its culture, environment, attitude, and innovativeness?

Peter: As noted above, Silicon Valley is a unique case and difficult to duplicate. What we see there, as in other successful innovative clusters, is strong anchor entities (e.g., Stanford University, Fairchild Semiconductor in the 1950s and 1960s, Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s and 1980s), a concentration of highly skilled and highly mobile workers, local venture funding, and a dose of serendipity. Economists have been studying agglomeration—the benefits of locating similar or complementary activities in geographic proximity—since Alfred Marshall’s work in the 1890s. Paul Krugman’s academic reputation rests partly on his elaboration of Marshall’s insights (not, incidentally, for anything Krugman wrote on macroeconomics!). Once a cluster emerges, it can exploit economies of scale: skilled workers, attractive firms, and aggressive funders want to be located close to each other. The trick is to get the cluster started in the first place. Nobody knows exactly how—otherwise we’d have Silicon Valleys all over the place.

However, it’s also important to recognize another force, what we might call economies of diversity. The late Jane Jacobs masterfully demonstrated that the growth and vitality of cities stems not from the way they cluster similar or complementary people and activities, but how they bring together a wide variety of dissimilar, and seemingly unrelated ones. Exposure to new ideas and new ways of thinking is more likely in a diverse, heterogeneous environment. So maybe we should care less about same-industry clusters, and think more about how to encourage interactions among firms and industries doing radically different things.

Niaz: In this information age, now we seriously need to redefine, rebuild, and redesign our Higher Education to help us in pursuing entrepreneurial, actionable, and effective knowledge to learn, grow, and work to contribute in global economy. What are your suggestions to change and build an effective education system?

Peter: That’s a huge question. I can’t speak authoritatively on primary and secondary education but I have strong opinions on the structure of the higher-education industry in the US and Europe. Basically, the established universities are the privileged incumbents who tend to be swept away by the disruptive innovation Christensen talks about. Most are highly inefficient, slow to embrace new technology, and highly dependent on public subsidy. Technology has encouraged many new entrants, mostly at the low-quality end of the market. The incumbent universities have responded by discouraging people from consuming these entry-level products—“Those online, for-profit universities are fly-by-night organizations, they don’t offer real degrees like we do!”—but I do not think this strategy can succeed in the long run. At present the established universities are coasting on their reputation for quality. Reputation lags are long, so it may take time for consumers to begin voting with their dollars and feet for more innovative, lower-cost competitors.

In short, the higher-education industry is poised for a new generation of entrepreneurs, in both the for-profit and non-profit spaces, to experiment with new forms of educational content, new production and delivery methods, new ways to package information, and a range of further innovations we cannot yet foresee. MOOCs are but one highly visible manifestation of this. I find it ironic that the established universities are struggling to embrace the MOOC, seeing it as a way for them to leverage their brands and extend their market shares. They assume that, in the future, students in the developing world will be taking online courses from Yale or Illinois. I think it’s more likely that students in New Haven or Urbana-Champaign will take courses from some brilliant and articulate lecturer in Bangalore.

Niaz: To me a great entrepreneur is someone who understands economics, can see the big picture, and analyzes the things globally. He is also an economist, a research scientist, and a remarkable doer. What are the core things of economics and globalization should entrepreneurs be master at?

Peter: I think everyone should understand basic economics—say, by reading Henry Hazlitt’s classic Economics in One Lesson. Most of economic principles are common sense: there’s no such thing as a free lunch, benefits and costs should be compared at the margin, voluntary exchange is mutually beneficial, actions often have unintended consequences, and so on. Basic knowledge about globalization—the radical drop in communication and transportation costs, the often-surprising differences in legal, political, and social rules and customs around the world—is important too. But I don’t think a deep theoretical knowledge of economics or international trade is a prerequisite to successful entrepreneurship. Intuition and experience are typically more here valuable than “book learning.” (And I say that as a university professor!)

Niaz: What are your advices and suggestions to entrepreneurs to find big and complex problems, to build actionable business model to work to solve those problems, and to make this world a better place to live in?

Peter: The most important advice is not to listen to people like me. Seriously, one can fill a large library with books about entrepreneurship, innovation, competition, and business success, most written by scholars or journalists or policymakers without any experience or expertise with actual entrepreneurship. Thinking conceptually about entrepreneurship, and studying the great entrepreneurs of the past, can be useful and informative. Knowing basic accounting, finance, and marketing is important. But these things are neither necessary nor sufficient for entrepreneurial success. Entrepreneurial judgment, as Mises put it, “defies any rules and systematization. It can be neither taught nor learned.”

From a social or policy point of view, I think we need an environment in which those who wish to experiment with entrepreneurship can do so. Many people are attracted to “wicked problems,” for the intrinsic satisfaction of solving them as well as for financial gain, and we should allow people young and old, novice and experienced, to try their hands, knowing that they can reap the rewards if they succeed, but will have to bear the costs if they fail.

Niaz: Last but not least, if you could send a message about the benefits of entrepreneurship, what would it be?

Peter: As educators, I think it’s critical to remind people who are not entrepreneurs—I’m looking at you, politicians and journalists—that entrepreneurship is the driving force of a market economy, and that entrepreneurs need property rights, the rule of law, sound money, and free and open competition to be successful.

Niaz: Dear Peter, thank you so much for your valuable time and sharing us your invaluable idea, experience, and knowledge which will help us to pursue entrepreneurial excellence.  We are wishing you very good luck for your good health and for all of your upcoming endeavors.

Peter: Thanks for the great questions, and I look forward to reading future entries in your series!

_  _  _  _  ___  _  _  _  _

Further Reading:

1. Diego Comin on Entrepreneurship, Technology and Global Economic Development

2. Derek Sivers on  Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

3. F. M. Scherer on Industrial Economy, Digital Economy and Innovation

4. Stephen Walt on Global Development

5. Robert Stavins on Environmental Economics

6. Ely Kahn on Big Data, Startup and Entrepreneurship