Friday, June 13, 2014

The Busiest Man On The Internet

Tim Hwang was gaming the system as far back as high school, which was only 11 years ago. As a sophomore at the posh Newark Academy in New Jersey he started a group called the Strategic Gaming Forum Syndicate. Fancy name, but “it was just a nerdy, board-gaming club,” says Hwang. To raise money Hwang held bake sales, buying packaged Entenmann’s cookies and cakes and selling them “at a ridiculous markup.” The kids didn’t mind. Hwang had earned their respect earlier selling them George Orwell parody T-shirts of a smiling Tim in braces with the words Big Tim Is Watching You. “My parents were concerned, but they played along,” says Hwang. “They resigned themselves to doing 100 iron-ons all weekend with me. I made a profit on that one, too.”

Thin and excitable, with spiky black hair and black glasses, the 28-year-old Hwang represents a new kind of Web entrepreneur who is equal parts huckster and activist. Rather than seek riches, Hwang seeks legitimacy for digital concepts such as crowdfunding (done), social bots that interact with humans on Twitter TWTR +0.3% (done) and software to automate rote but expensive human functions such as the law (not done yet).
He has yet to hold a full-time job for longer than two years, but Hwang gets more done in a week than most people do in a month.

“I have a list of ideas in two columns–Someday and Maybe–that I’ve been keeping since college,” says Hwang. “It’s now 200 items long.” During his junior year at Harvard Hwang started working at the college’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society but grew frustrated with academics who merely theorized about Internet culture. Hwang decided to bring Internet culture to the campus. In 2008, during his senior year, he created a rudimentary Web page for an event he dubbed ROFLcon (ROFL = Rolling On the Floor Laughing) and started inviting “memes” to attend. The first year brought 600 people. It’s now a biennial event attended by 900 people to meet luminaries such as Internet law expert Jonathan Zittrain, 4Chan’s Christopher Poole and the “Double Rainbow” viral video guy.

But Hwang lost interest once things went pro. “By 2012 I was on the phone with GrumpyCat’s agent. It just didn’t seem fun anymore,” says Hwang. The conference is currently on hiatus.
Hwang stayed on at the Berkman Center after graduation. He and his friends would sit around and complain about the lack of cool things to do in Boston. So Hwang launched the Awesome Foundation. They each threw in $100 to make a $1,000 grant for the creation of something “awesome.” The first grant went to a Rhode Island School of Design professor who applied to make a 33-foot-long hammock that sat in Boston’s Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

Crowdfunding over the Web was a new concept at the time (Kickstarter launched in April 2009), and the idea, once online, became a meme of its own. The Awesome Foundation–Hwang loves overblown titles–now has 94 chapters in 19 countries and has given out more than $1 million in grants to more than 1,000 projects, putting Hwang on lists, alongside Bono and Bill Gates, of the world’s most innovative philanthropists. “He uses the power of faceless organizations to disguise the fact that it’s just him working on it,” says Christina Xu, Hwang’s partner on ROFLcon and the Awesome Foundation, where her title is Chancellor at the Institute on Higher Awesome Studies. Like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hwang has built a brain trust of people into whose ideas and expertise he can tap to realize his projects, using email list-servs expertly to reach them.
Internet marketing outfit The Barbarian Group recognized Hwang’s branding savvy and hired him away. But mapping the social influence of cereal maker Kashi didn’t hold Hwang’s attention for long. So he secretly applied to and got accepted at the University of California, Berkeley law school. For six months he held down the marketing job from California without his bosses knowing he was in law school. “I did a lot of studying on airplanes flying to clients’ offices,” he says.

Meanwhile, he kept churning out more Internet projects and groups: He launched the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory when a nuclear power plant site told him he needed to be part of an official group to go on a tour. It recently raised $20,000 on Kickstarter for a book of essays about shipping containers. He did consulting work for Google GOOGL +0.12%, Tumblr, and Mozilla, organizing an “Open Internet Preservation Society” event for the latter. He named himself chief scientist for the Pacific Social Architecting Corp., which creates “social bots”–swarms of automated, credible identities on social media platforms that interact with unsuspecting humans. Pacific Social has spun out a startup that charges hedge funds and retailers up to “six figures” to use its human-imitating bots to conduct market research on Twitter among people who don’t realize they’re being polled (or that it’s being done by algorithms). Pacific Social’s research was cited in an NSA PowerPoint leaked by Edward Snowden.

“I was wondering if anyone was ever going to catch on that all these projects were coming from the same guy,” says Rick Webb, co-founder of Barbarian Group. Hwang also just has a contagious sense of humor about technology and Internet culture that easily translates into performance art. Last year, to mock “Start-up Weekend,” he organized “Hype Up Weekend,” where people gathered to pitch ludicrous ideas for tech companies, such as “Scraps – to get your leftovers into the share economy.”

Last summer Hwang tried again to go mainstream, joining prestigious law firm Davis Polk after graduation. He had wowed them with his efficiency as a summer associate the year before. Little did they know that he had written software to handle simple tasks he’d been assigned. He stayed at Davis Polk for only seven months, all the time he needed to lay the groundwork for his own firm, Robot, Robot & Hwang. It’s a joke name, and the firm isn’t real, but Hwang has assembled a group of programmers that this summer will release a free software package to automate the document review and IPO-form-filling work that’s assigned to a first-year law firm associate. “I was in it to kill it. I want to replace lawyers with code,” says Hwang.

Hwang’s latest full-time job, as of March, is head of special initiatives at Imgur, an image-sharing and meme-generation site that recently scooped up $40 million in venture funding from Andreessen Horowitz. Responsible for promoting offline networking among Imgur’s thriving 130-million-member online community, Hwang recently spent a week visiting summer camps to find one for a company-hosted meet-up. Imgur CEO Alan Schaaf knows about Hwang’s many hats and doesn’t mind them. “He concocts these far-out ideas and then brings them down to earth and actually does them. We’re lucky to have him,” says Schaff.

How does he manage to get it all done? Hwang as a teenager had to make the transition from an unstructured Montessori to a regimented prep school. So he started planning his days carefully, something he still does, meticulously blocking out each hour of each day. When I met with him one Sunday afternoon in his San Francisco apartment, I was crunched between Brunch and Netrunner Card Game.

Ian Pearce, a developer who is one of Hwang’s many collaborators, has a different explanation: “He’s a robot with a soul.”

Google’s Next Phase in Driverless Cars: No Steering Wheel or Brake Pedals

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Humans might be the one problem Google can’t solve.

For the past four years, Google has been working on self-driving cars with a mechanism to return control of the steering wheel to the driver in case of emergency. But Google’s brightest minds now say they can’t make that handoff work anytime soon.

Their answer? Take the driver completely out of the driving.


The car would be summoned with a smartphone application. It would pick up a passenger and automatically drive to a destination selected on a smartphone app without any human intervention.

Google won’t say if it intends to get into the car manufacturing business or simply supply technology to carmakers, but it says there are plenty of possibilities if it can persuade regulators to allow cars with no drivers. One potential use: driverless taxi cabs.

In an interview at Google’s headquarters here, Sergey Brin, a Google co-founder who is actively involved in the research program, said the company decided to change the car project more than a year ago after an experiment in which Google employees used autonomous vehicles for their normal commutes to work.
There were no crashes. But Google engineers realized that asking a human passenger — who could be reading or daydreaming or even sleeping — to take over in an emergency won’t work.
“We saw stuff that made us a little nervous,” said Christopher Urmson, a former Carnegie Mellon University roboticist who directs the car project at Google.

The vehicles will have electronic sensors that can see about 600 feet in all directions. Despite that, they will have rearview mirrors because they are required by California’s vehicle code, Dr. Urmson said. The front of the car will be made from a foamlike material in case the computer fails and it hits a pedestrian. It looks like a little bubble car from the future, streamlined to run by itself — a big change from the boxy Lexus SUV Google has been retrofitting the last few years with self-driving technology.
The new Google strategy for autonomous cars is a break from many competing vehicle projects. Mercedes, BMW and Volvo have introduced cars that have the ability to travel without driver intervention in limited circumstances — though none completely eliminate the driver.

That feature, which is generally known as Traffic Jam Assist, allows the car to steer and follow another vehicle in stop-and-go highway driving at low speeds. In the Mercedes version, the system disengages itself if the driver takes his hands off the steering wheel for more than 10 seconds.
Volvo said that by 2017 it planned to have the cars in the hands of ordinary consumers for testing in the streets of Gothenburg, Sweden, where the company has its headquarters.

In the interview, Mr. Brin acknowledged those advances, but said they were incremental. “That stuff seems not entirely in keeping with our mission of being transformative,” he said.

Google’s prototype for its new cars will limit them to a top speed of 25 miles per hour. The cars are intended for driving in urban and suburban settings, not on highways. The low speed will probably keep the cars out of more restrictive regulatory categories for vehicles, giving them more design flexibility.

Google is having 100 cars built by a manufacturer in the Detroit area, which it declined to name. Nor would it say how much the prototype vehicles cost. They will have a range of about 100 miles, powered by an electric motor that is roughly equivalent to the one used by Fiat’s 500e, Dr. Urmson said. They should be road-ready by early next year, Google said.


A self-driving car Google has worked on for four years out for a spin in Mountain View, Calif. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

The current plan is to conduct pilot tests in California, starting with ferrying Google employees between buildings around its sprawling corporate campus here.

 Laws permit autonomous vehicles in California, Nevada and Florida. But those laws have generally been written with the expectation that a human driver would be able to take control in emergencies.

Google executives said the initial prototypes would comply with current California automated-driving regulations, issued on May 20. They will have manual controls for testing on California public roads.
In the future, Google hopes to persuade regulators that the cars can operate safely without driver, steering wheel, brake or accelerator pedal. Those cars would rely entirely on Google sensors and software to control them.

So where might the driverless cars be used besides at Google’s offices?
Last year, Lawrence D. Burns, former vice president for research and development at General Motors and now a Google consultant, led a study at the Earth Institute at Columbia University on transforming personal mobility.

The researchers found that Manhattan’s 13,000 taxis made 470,000 trips a day. Their average speed was 10 to 11 m.p.h., carrying an average of 1.4 passengers per trip with an average wait time of five minutes.
In comparison, the report said, it is possible for a futuristic robot fleet of 9,000 shared automated vehicles hailed by smartphone to match that capacity with a wait time of less than one minute. Assuming a 15 percent profit, the current cost of taxi service would be about $4 per trip mile, while in contrast, it was estimated, a Manhattan-based driverless vehicle fleet would cost about 50 cents per mile.

The report showed similar savings in two other case studies — in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Babcock Ranch, a planned community in Florida.

Google is one of the few companies that could take on a challenge like that, said John J. Leonard, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology roboticist. But he added: “I do not expect there to be driverless taxis in Manhattan in my lifetime.”

Mr. Brin said the change in Google’s car strategy did not mean that the company was giving up on its ultimate goal of transforming modern transportation.

“Obviously it will take time, a long time, but I think it has a lot of potential,” he said. “Self-driving cars have the potential to drive in trains much closer together and, in theory, in the future at much higher speeds.

“There is nothing to say that once you demonstrate the safety, why can’t you go 100 miles per hour?”

It's Official: Apple Adds Dr. Dre With $3 Billion Beats Deal

Rap is coming to Cupertino in a big way.

After weeks of rumor, Apple finally announced it has acquired headphone maker Beats Electronic for $3 billion, including $2.6 billion cash up front and approximately $400 million in stock that will vest over time. As part of the deal, Beats co-founders Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine will join Apple AAPL -1.09% in undisclosed roles.

“Music is such an important part of all of our lives and holds a special place within our hearts at Apple,” CEO Tim Cook said in a statement. “That’s why we have kept investing in music and are bringing together these extraordinary teams so we can continue to create the most innovative music products and services in the world.”

This acquisition is Apple’s biggest ever, and largest since it brought back Steve Jobs in 1997 though a $400 million purchase of NeXT. However, the $3 billion price is still just a tiny fraction of the company’s $150 billion cash reserves, and Beats’ estimated annual sales of $2 billion represents barely over 1% of Apple’s $171 billion revenue last year.

“I’ve always known in my heart that Beats belonged with Apple,” Iovine said. “The idea when we started the company was inspired by Apple’s unmatched ability to marry culture and technology. Apple’s deep commitment to music fans, artists, songwriters and the music industry is something special.”
The $3 billion purchase price includes Beats Music, the sister company that runs a subscription streaming music service. In fact, Apple’s press release mentioned that before the more well-known headphone business. While some analysts have wondered why Apple doesn’t simply build its own streaming service within iTunes, Cook must believe this deal gives him a quicker way to catch up with Spotify and others.

“The addition of Beats will make our music lineup even better, from free streaming with iTunes Radio to a world-class subscription service in Beats, and of course buying music from the iTunes Store as customers have loved to do for years,” Apple Senior Vice President Eddy Cue said.

Apple shares fell slightly on Wednesday in trading before the announcement, but remain up over 17% since April 23rd. Shares have crested $624, the highest mark Apple has traded at since October 2012.

Why Regus’ announcement of their 2,000th center is phenomenal news for independent workspace providers!

By Laurent Dhollande, CEO of CloudVO & The Pacific Workplaces Group
Understand Your Regus Competition
Regus announced the opening of its 2000th business “Centre” location in Boulder, Colorado in a recent press release, shortly after CloudVO hosted a webinar where we dissected Regus’ successful strategy, centered on the value of their network and emphasized by their Businessworld offering.

In this “Dissecting Regus’ Businessworld” webinar, we shared the impressive growth of the Regus network that:
  • Doubled in size in 4 years
  • Grew by 420 business centers and 78 “3rd places” in 2013 alone
  • Generated a 23% revenue increase last year
We also projected that Regus would add 300 locations this year, plus or minus 100. This was based on their last annual report suggesting that they would generate enough cash flow to fund 300 new locations, and the steps they took to increase their lines of credit to allow for the possibility of more. They seem to be on-track. Given the strength of the demand for flexible offices, I am even tempted to upgrade my forecast to the high end of that range, particularly if we include their “3rd place” locations.
Should independent providers be threatened or encouraged by this impressive execution of their strategy and phenomenal growth for a $2 billion company?
The answer: Neither! This is more than encouraging; it is incredibly exciting for all independent providers. Four reasons for this:
  1. The demand for on-demand offices from Enterprise users is exploding!
    The Regus growth is fueled by a surge in flexible office space demand that benefits everyone. Their press release mentions that 34% of global businesses want to shed their fixed office space this year. The demand for on-demand workspace by Enterprise users is indeed exploding, and we are only scratching the surface.
  2. Regus is no longer the only player that can provide ubiquitous access to a network of on-demand office locations.
    For now, Regus is still the largest network, but the wave of their marketing clout lifts all credible alternative ships. Allow me to speak to our own efforts. With the CloudTouchdown network and access cards, CloudVO™ has already built a credible alternative to Regus Businessworld. CloudTouchdown™ cards give mobile workers and the distributed workforce of Enterprise clients access to a network of locations under a fixed monthly price, with no surprise to their monthly budget. Today CloudVO™ is already 450 locations strong. But the better news is that there are many more quality on-demand workspace providers around the world than there are Regus centers. Thus, we will eventually beat Regus in this important race to ubiquity, if we can continue to be credible in uniting the industry to offer an alternative that combines local/regional focus with single point of billing and global support, which Enterprise clients and highly mobile workers need.
  3. The consumerization of the workplace favors local workspace providers.
    At the 2011 GWA conference in Las Vegas, I moderated a panel on Social Media and the Workplace, where Mark Gilbreath (GWA Board Member and Liquidspace Founder) and Josh Waldo (Microsoft SMB Marketing Director) conceptualized the consumerization of the workplace. In that same forum, and at CorenetGlobal events that same year, I talked about the “Bring-Your-Own-Device” trend in IT that was spilling over to “Bring-your-own-Workplace”, with outsourced, hosted, touchdown office space.  The anticipation of these new trends was the basis for the creation of companies like CloudVO™ and Liquidspace early in this decade, following in the footsteps of Davinci who started a few years earlier. All three have been instrumental in accelerating these nascent trends into undeniable reality.

    Whereas a large portion of on-demand users are still restricted to providers approved and managed by their enterprise sponsor (such as CloudTouchown™ or Regus), an increasing number of users are free to access local providers on their own, under their own decentralized budget. They often do this via apps that offer pay-per-use ecommerce solutions sites like CloudMeetingRooms, Liquidspace, or DavinciMeetingRooms. Technology providers like HappyDesk in the US or RJMetis in Europe are now equipping independent providers with new and interesting white site e-commerce capabilities embedded in the local provider web site, giving that many more opportunities for local providers’ day offices and meeting rooms to be booked by empowered enterprise users.

    And when the “Enterprise” is reduced to one solopreneur (a growing breed!), the local provider often has the edge, being more nimble, more community oriented, and less encumbered by expensive overhead than Regus. Case in point: Coworking locations, whose value propositions are inherently local and community based, have grown almost 10-fold since 2009, while Regus “only” doubled in size.
  4. Regus is a viable exit strategy for many Independent Operators
    This is my least favorite reason personally, but certainly something of value to many operators. Because Regus just can’t keep up fast enough with the demand based on pure organic growth, they have been extremely active with acquisition of independent business centers. In fact, the majority of their growth last year came from outside acquisition. We also see signs that they are now seriously pursuing coworking acquisitions as well. Because Regus is the only major acquirer today, the multiples remain low, but with the broiling interest for our industry by Private Equity Firms, we believe that multiples are likely going to rise in the coming years.
If you missed the “Dissecting Regus’ Businessworld” webinar live, view a slightly edited version here. We had 300 registrants to the webinar, which generated a rich Q&A discussion that extended beyond the webinar itself. See an extensive list of Q&A below the video on the same landing page and feel free to volunteer questions and observations to We will continue to enrich that discussion as a reference for the entire industry.