A Day at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

This past week, one of my business partners and I had the pleasure of spending several hours with Steve Collins at NASA’s JPL. I’m sure it would be fair to say that had I been able to see a reflection of myself, it would have been a mixture of a wide-eyed child trying to soak absolutely everything in with the ear-to-ear grin of someone who couldn’t believe all of the real “fantasy-come-true” things he was seeing. That Steve, a completely down to Earth and plain-spoken, but insanely smart and accomplished NASA JPL engineer, took time out of his day to give us a personal tour of the facility was one of the most amazing and intellectually stimulating experiences in recent memory.

As we were standing underneath a full scale replica of Galileo, our conversation wasn’t the regurgitation of history taught to a tour guide, but a deep and detailed conversation with the scientist who was responsible for the telemetry of Galileo. Talking about Galileo’s orbits around Earth and Venus as it prepared for it’s voyage, and then traveled, to Jupiter was first-hand perspective that left me with a glimpse of the passion, excitement (and sometimes fear) for what it must be like to have mission-critical responsibility.

curiosity_900wThe same can be said about Curiosity, which he had an integral part in both getting to Mars and to its ongoing exploration of the surface, and is more closely related to how we initially met. Seeing the Curiosity’s “sister” on Earth was similarly amazing and I was thrilled to be able to talk at length about why Curiosity’s wheels are tearing on Mars’ surface (and understand through touching one that has been put through similar experiences here on Earth). Extra credit to anyone who knows or figures out the “Easter Egg” on Curiosity’s front driver-side wheel.

mission-control_900wAs we walked in for an “on the ground” tour of Mission Control, which has data visualizations that are more impressive than the biggest budget Hollywood movie (maybe in small part because they are real), we saw an installation from their resident artist that uses LED strands to display real time satellite transmission data. I can’t say strongly enough how cool I think it is that they have a resident artist in 2015.

Our conversation over the few hours we spent together covered the successes, “normal” mid-mission corrections, and inevitable, unexpected errors and failures where we talked at length about the ways in which the members of the mission crew get creative to troubleshoot, remedy or even sometimes hack fixes from literally thousands of miles away.

One of the most rewarding moments was when we were talking about a problem they encountered with a tape drive. As we were talking about all of the variables, and then unknowns, Steve eyes suddenly went distant for a moment and he said half to himself “Wow, I never thought about it from this perspective before.” That a conversation one of the smartest people I’ve ever met could have led him to a different way of thinking about a problem or approaching a solution is valuable to me beyond words.

I hope Steve found the time even partially as rewarding as we did. They truly venture to “Dare Mighty Things” every day. And yes, they had long since come up with a workaround for the problem all by themselves.

A Christmas Gift From Elon Musk

 

December 25th is generally a day that companies and brands avoid making big announcements… for fear they will be lost in either the noise of the holiday or missed entirely as people “tune out” to be with family and loved ones.

But Elon Musk doesn’t do anything by anyone else’s playbook.

On December 25th, Elon tweeted the following:

elon-musk-roadster-3.0-tweet

This tweet did several things to strengthen both the Tesla and Elon Musk brands:

  1. It started a viral swell, setting the Twitterverse of Tesla enthusiasts on fire with speculation of what was to come
  2. It ensured Tesla’s formal press release would be rabidly consumed and analyzed word-by-word for additional clues
  3. It created even more loyalty with his already passionate customer and fan bases

Let’s be honest, announcing an upgrade to a car isn’t really news in itself, so it’s important to understand the larger context. The Tesla Roadster is a vehicle that hasn’t been in production since 2012, making it clear that Elon’s tweet was just a sheep costume around the wolf.

On Christmas day, Musk was really firing a warning shot across the bow of every automobile manufacturer, indicating that the days of producing a vehicle and supporting it merely through a warranty (and recalls) are over. To be seen is whether he also initiated a change in the mindset of consumers toward a model where existing vehicles will be upgraded incrementally with new technology, prolonging the new car purchase cycle for many consumers.

While this may seem counter-intuitive from an automobile manufacturer’s perspective, it actually stands to benefit manufacturers and consumers alike:

Manufacturers

  • New technology innovation, which is expensive, can be partially subsidized and even turned into a high-margin revenue stream, by offering upgrade packages to vehicle owners
  • The support window for older (or multiple) platforms can be shortened as newer technology is adopted
  • A deeper relationship (brand loyalty) with consumers can be better fostered through a long-term product view
  • Relationships with dealer networks who do the upgrades are strengthened by the new CRM and revenue opportunities this creates

Consumers

  • Technology upgrade packages can improve the safety, range, MPG, eco-footprint, and other aspects of existing vehicles without the full expense of replacement
  • Upgrades may slow down (or change) the way in which automobiles depreciate in value
  • Upgrades demonstrate manufacturers are committed to relationships with their customers for the long haul

Although it’s not a 100% parallel, this is evocative of Apple’s model of selling hardware and continually offering a better experience over its life through software upgrades (e.g. iOS 8 keeps an iPhone 5s relevant in a world of iPhone 6’s). Operationally, it also allows them to be more streamlined by limiting the number of legacy iOS versions they have to actively support.

In case there’s any remaining doubt about Elon’s intention to further disrupt the automobile industry, the closing line in Tesla’s December 26th press release makes his intentions very clear:

We are confident that this will not be the last update the Roadster will receive in the many years to come.

Perhaps “A Call to Arms for the Automobile Industry” would have been a better title. Either way, I expect this will prove to make a happier new year for some, not others.

Viosk – CMO Club Labs Presentation

 

March 25, 2014 — As the Interim CEO of Viosk, I was one of five hand-picked startups invited to present at The CMO Club’s annual Innovation and Inspiration Summit in New York. I am proud to say that Viosk won the event (no that’s not me in the video thumbnail, but the video will start at the beginning of my presentation).

The cameraman didn’t cut over to the screen the audience saw during my presentation, so here’s what was on screen:

Viosk is a simple to use video creation platform designed to create high-definintion animated business video in minutes. If you can make a deck in PowerPoint deck, you can produce video with Viosk… Really!

Thoughts on the Future of Mobile Video

Robert LaskyGigaOM author Janko Roettgers did a write-up of startups Showyou and Vidora titled with the question “Is the Future of Mobile Video all about apps?” which served as a catalyst to organize some thoughts on the subject that I’ve been mulling over the past couple of weeks (thanks Janko).

Many TV networks have standalone apps that offer some amount of streaming video programming. Given the current life stage of TV everywhere and a la carte TV being in its infancy, this is a necessary but transitional strategy for a variety of reasons:

1. Clutter: Consumers don’t want a dozen or more “TV” apps on their devices buried in one or more “TV” folders, they want a single go-to for the programming they want to watch.

2. Loyalty: Consumers are only loyal to a network based on programming. Consumers don’t think network first, they think “programs I want to watch” first and want a single place to find them. Consider, if this weekend’s “Game of Thrones” season finale were to magically end up on Showtime instead of HBO. Millions of fans would scramble to their respective program guides to find the listing so they know to tune into Showtime at 9pm.

3. Interface: Consumers don’t want multiple app user experiences to get to programming, and there’s currently no UX symmetry across any competing networks’ offerings. The app part of the experience needs to be as simple as possible, and play second fiddle to the programming the consumer wants to watch. And because loyalty lives at the program level, there will continue to be a need for a cross-network “programming guide,” which consumers won’t want in yet another app.

4. Support: Content producers and networks won’t want to be on the hook for having to develop and support applications across existing and emerging platforms over the long term. Supporting apps requires being in the customer service and support business, putting the network in the QoS crosshairs at both the feed and user device level.

Whether Showyou, Vidora, MSOs, a existing leading tech company or a TBD startup become an 800lb. gorilla in mobile video is to be seen, but there will be a dedicated delivery layer between the content creators / networks and consumers as the mobile market matures.

Remembering Steve Jobs: In the Words of Children

We’re extremely sad to hear of Steve Jobs‘ passing. He’s directly and indirectly touched so many lives around the world (most definitively everyone in our house).

We think the innocent wisdom of our children may have captured it most poignantly when they overheard us talking and watching the news:

Julia (5): That’s terrible. I wish he didn’t die so he could keep making cool things.

Rachel (8): Is there someone who will carry on?

Tim and team, while the world will never be quite the same, we offer our deepest sympathy, and hope you continue to think different as you do carry on, both for Apple and in Steve’s memory.

Sincerely,

Robert and Svetlana Lasky

Authored on my iPhone