An overview of Day 2

The ASCENT conference in New York City had all the elements desired for a good techevent. There were only a few tracks: The Main Event, VC & Investors Forum and Startup Grad School. The exhibition hall was manageable with table-top stands versus cumbersome booth displays, a dedicated area for 1:1 scheduled meetings and a jam-packed two days full of inspiration, tips and learning.

Many of today’s presentations focused on the application of technology and the future of work. Specifically, presentations highlighted critical thinking and decision-making required to assess how and when to pivot, how to best commercialize technology plus how to protect it, as well as how to ensure the privacy of its userbase. And, how recruiting, employee engagement (and disengagement) were changing and needed to change.

The future of work

Benjamin Powers, a freelance tech journalist, facilitated a fascinating discussion on the future of work with Falon Fatemi, founder of Node.io and Ian Bester, VP, General Manager USA of BrainStation.io. Fatemi has expertly crafted prediction-enabled futures to inform timely intervention via a proprietary deep learning algorithm. Her company is focused on the application of Artificial Intuition™ to spot talent and customer churn by delivering AI-as-a-service. Bester is in the edtech business hosting live learning and learning on demand to support workforce transformation and empower workers to future-proof their careers.

An HBR report forecasts a $13T impact on the global economy through AI but Fatemi was quick to point out that the rate of adoption is extremely slow because integration is really hard. “There are too many cultural barriers and legacy solutions preventing the enterprise companies from adopting new technologies.” With the disappearance of over half of the Fortune 500 companies in the last two decades and the lifespan of a company on that list now at a meager 14-15 years, Fatemi asserted that, “The next wave of innovation has to come from big enterprise or they will die. AI will be a wrecking ball to orgs who don’t adopt it.” Moreover, if CEOs don’t own digital transformation, “it won’t be successful, period, end of story.”

Cutting edge deep learning is the right tool for complex business problems but there is a lack of proficiency and comfort with it. The technology imposes an existential threat so that market domination, profitability, success and fear become political levers. Fatemi suggested that companies need to look in the mirror and identify their strengths: is coding really their core competency? Node.ai has made an enormous investment and leveraged the best talent in the world to enable machine learning at scale. They’ve simplified modeling to the level of API-integration by combining highly specific use-cases with vetted data and models proven to work.

Bester emphasized the importance of upskilling and retooling workers and companies to meet current and near-future demands. An estimated 120M workers worldwide will require $3B worth of retraining within the next three years. Today, less than half of all graduates are working in their field of study and are switching jobs at least three times within their first five years of employment. The looming threat of talent fulfilment is going to be a problem, hence the importance of “fluid intelligence.” Bester advised a blend of hard skilled and fluidly skilled talent for every organization.

The panelists advised the audience on how to best prepare for the future of work. Bester suggested that the workforce be taken more seriously, be invested in and that leaders build roadmaps to guide the transformation of the workforce. Fatemi encouraged partnering to enable digital transformation if it wasn’t already a core competency. And, to bring in talent who understand the commercial metrics so that everything be assessed from an ROI perspective to inform which tool(s) should be used and how long it will take to achieve the desired outcome.

Society’s worker bees do not sit at a desk

A stunning statistic was shared by Daniel Sztutwojner, CCO, Beekeeper, in his fireside chat with Christina Bechold Russ, Director Ventures Samsung Next. An astounding 80% of the world’s workforce does not sit at a desk. These are the front-line workers in retail, hospitality, manufacturing and so on. Common traits of this group is that they do not own computers, do not have internet at home and more than 75% of them use a smart phone to do their jobs.

Mobile SaaS has enormous potential to unlock operational efficiency within this group. Tasks, checklists, policies, procedures, schedules all need to be delivered to these workers via their mobile phones. Sztutwojner predicts that marketplaces are the next add-on for mobile SaaS applications like theirs.

Converting from a freemium to a paid model

A fireside chat with Jager McConnell, CEO of Crunchbase, and Jordan French, founder and executive editor here at Grit Daily, offered perspective on how to effectively transition from a freemium to a paid subscription model. As it turns out, it was a decision informed by significant experimentation using their proprietary A/B testing framework plus in-depth focus groups with their power users. And it was clearly the right decision as their membership continues to grow.

The outcome of their research revealed that a RegWall and PayWall dual infrastructure would meet the demands of their subscribers. Doing so would necessitate having both a free and a paid service platform, each offering different features. McConnell felt that any new features added after the decision was made to migrate to a paid subscription model were “fair game” for monetization. Arriving at the right pricepoint, however, was more like art than science.

Given that some of their users expected continued free access whereas others were willing to spend upwards of $1,000 per month, they needed to find the right price. One that would democratize access to their financial analyses but put them on the path to recovering the $17M they had invested in developing the platform. His team arrived at the seemingly arbitrary price of $348 per year. Broken down, that’s $29 per month, which suddenly no longer seems so arbitrary.

They can charge what they do because their data “crunches the competition.” With more than 60M unique visits per month and over 4,000 partnerships with governments, investors, events, accelerators and others who provide data, Crunchbase has had to make enormous investments in its infrastructure and organization. Next year, they plan to invest over $30M to expand their offering and reach.

Is banking on the cusp of decentralization?

Always the provocateur, Alex Mashinsky, serial entrepreneur with $3B in exits to his credit, and founder of Celsius, positioned his venture as the disruptor of banking, poised to capitalize on the pending end of the US dollar. He predicts social unrest will lead to its demise. Given that money hasn’t changed, other than in form, in over 5,000 years, the end may be nigh. Coins evolved to notes to today’s cryptocurrency formats but centralization has been at the hallmark of banking for more than five millennia.

Decentralization, although impeded by the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation which protects the big financial institutions from perturbations by disruptive innovators and upstarts like Celsius, appears to be the next phase. Today, Americans have $1.6T in credit card debt which is fueling lenders with $600B in interest payments given the average rate of 24.6%. Even more disturbing is that half of Americans don’t have $400 in the event of an emergency and were hit with more than $36B in overdraft fees last year. Wealth is more concentrated now than at any other time in history.

Mashinsky has evolved voice over internet protocol (VoIP) into MoIP (Money over internet protocol) proposing to bypass the financial toll collectors, reward the depositors with profit-sharing and reduce the egregious fees collected from borrowers in traditional banking arrangements with his bitcoin transfer service. Thus far, he has amassed $2.2B in bitcoin loans where 79% of depositors are repeat customers. He reminded the audience that membership, and not revenues, is the new metric by which companies will be evaluated and rewarded.

Trends in crowdfunding

Andy Yang, newly minted CEO of IndieGoGo, highlighted a few trends observed on their crowdfunding platform. Many campaigners were repeaters. Most of the items offered are in the mobility tech space such as enhanced scooters and bikes. Conscious consumerism is on the rise. Other offerings represented the creative side such as movies, films and comic books. Crowdfunding is generally regarding as the ultimate multi-player experience because it is dependent upon a community experience to work. Yang advised the audience that a thick skin was needed because “online communities are a ball of passion, which is a plus and a minus, where you can expect praise as well as harmful statements by trolls.”

Tips on protecting your intellectual property

John Sotomayor, attorney with Soto IP, highlighted some of the major changes to the USPTO process. Recently, the system has shifted from a first-to-invent to a first-to-file model which is entirely based on public disclosure. The USA has a 230 year inventive history which has spawned an extensive body of law.

Sotomayor offered a few tips. He advocated for patent searches as a first step to inform how you write your claims and draft your provisional patent application. Either conduct a simple patentability search to look for what’s similar or a landscape (aka competitive analysis) search across the industry to find the holes. Also, having one patent alone doesn’t offer much potential for monetization via out-licensing or strengthening an evaluation. However, identifying adjacent technologies and developing a patent portfolio can make a dramatic difference with respect to money.

A final tip came through his prior experience as a software engineer. At that time, he noticed that everything seemed “obvious” to his developers and nothing seemed “non-obvious or novel.” He realized that they were experts, so naturally, they knew how to render whatever they were building. So he instituted a “Wow Factor” criterion. Any time that a developer built something that caused another developer to utter a “wow,” the team would investigate the output for patentability.

Lean data practices

Jascha Kaykas-Wolff of Mozilla spoke of the general decline in trust over the last few years. Widely apparent within the US and amongst Millennials in particular. Mozilla’s lean data practices include equating data with value. Their approach is to ask only for data which they can deliver value back to. Kaykas-Wolff explained that they only ask for location, language preference and email address if they can provide relevant content in their native tongue. If not, they don’t ask for the personal data.

Another lean practice is to build-in security. They routinely ask, “What protections have I put around the data that I’ve collected?” Kaykas-Wolff challenged the audience to be more diligent about asking providers for their policies on encryption, access controls and retention periods. A key finding was that companies are treating people like robots, not like humans, and making simple tasks hopelessly complicated. For example, the average Terms & Conditions click agreement has 11,972 which takes the average consumer about one hour to read. Finally, he encouraged everyone to examine their advertising practices and to uphold no retargeting, selling, buying or sharing of consumer data.

With so much knowledge to be gained, it seems like ASCENT 2020 is a long ways away.