Wednesday
Dec082010

The Transcapitalist swan song: a summary of two years exploring the technology & free markets intersection

After 177 posts spanning nearly two years, Transcapitalist is going into hibernation. I have loved writing here, most of all for the opportunities to meet other people who think like me (and those who didn’t and told me why). Highlights of the experience were co-hosting Tap the Collective with Inkling Markets, participating in Ignite DC and Ignite Baltimore with my talk Web Capitalism Doesn’t Need a Bailout (a summary of the Transcapitalist philosophy), and having the opportunity to interview people at many of the companies that I most admire.

When I got started, there were three emerging constructs that really excited me: social lending, peer-to-peer e-commerce, and prediction markets.  As this was late 2008 at the height of anti-market fervor in DC, what struck me about these platforms was that they were essentially distributed marketplaces, largely self-policing, transparent, efficient, community-driven, and enabled by the internet. At a time when much of the political rhetoric focused on how the market had failed, these seemed to be constructs that offered a purer and non-exploitative example of how market capitalism could and should work. Transcapitalist began with this idea – to explore the intersection of technology and free markets – with the presumption that the former had the potential to transform the latter and for the better.

My viewpoint evolved through the course of writing here and discussions with others, but I still think that web capitalism has a lot to offer our traditional view of market dynamics. I’ve summarized my thinking on these topics below, linking heavily to previous posts with more detailed coverage.

In the face of tightened financial conditions, new investing and borrowing mechanisms are emerging ranging from the “personal IPO” to crowdfunding. Peer-to-peer lending remains a viable alternative to banks for both borrowing and lending at small scales with better rates for both sides of the transaction.

Largely in response to the credit crunch and the restrictions of the current financial marketplace, interesting financial innovations emerged over the past few years. We were particularly intrigued by the new concept of selling a percentage of your future income in exchange for a cash investment up front, which I referred to alternatively as the Personal IPO, or “taking yourself public” or “selling your personal equity”.

Another emerging construct which holds promise is crowdfunding. We came out early with enthusiasm for Kickstarter, a platform to match creators and artists with funding through, and we’ve been thrilled to see it take off ever since. The first real example at scale was set by Trampoline which sough to crowdsource its Series B funding. We loved the trend for mobile payments like Square for merchants and Venmo for repaying friends. More troubling financial innovation is on display at eToro which aims to create a “Zynga for real men” in the world of foreign exchange trading.

However the most prominent innovation is in p2p lending which experienced great change over the past two years as they sought to create an entirely new financial product and asset class. The original innovators Lending Club and Prosper Marketplace made it successfully through the SEC process (which at the time was far from certain as Prosper alternatively opened and closed), while promising privacy-focused hybrid upstart Pertuity Direct folded.  What began as a platform to browse individual profiles prone to adverse selection is now a more scalable steamlined dashboard experience to select target characteristics from vetted borrowers in order to create a custom portfolio. Since opening my Lending Club account, my discussions with their team and continuing healthy returns (~10%) encouraged me to expand my portfolio, and I plan to keep up my investments there for some time to come. The appeal of p2p lending is that it is simple and commonsense: by cutting out the middleman of the bank and lending directly, investors earn better returns and borrowers pay lower rates. Why give that spread to the bank? However, even with high interest rates and the credit crunch, p2p lending has not gone mainstream. Uncrunch America was an effort by a coalition of non-traditional finance platforms to encourage people to look beyond the bank, but it’s not clear that the message was heard.

More niche markets also emerged to mixed results. Yadyap (“payday” spelled backwards), which aims to provide an alternative to the payday lending market, has yet to get off the ground.  On the other hand, People Capital has secured significant financing and during my interview with them, they impressed me greatly with their concept of a Human Capital Index to replace the FICO as the credit evaluation metric for young people. Unithrive seeks to connect Harvard students with alumni who can provide interest-free loans. Vittana targets helping students in the developing world.

Internationally, internet-enabled market-based practices are introducing new concepts to traditional international development approaches.

Muhammed Yunus, godfather of the microfinance movement, pointed out that Grameen Bank’s microfinance investments performed steadily through the financial downturn where other lending arrangements failed and could be a means to “return the economy to health”. I keep a small amount of money with MicroPlace, interest-bearing investments in microfinance institutions in Nicaragua and Uzbekistan, which each send me $0.50 or so every month.

In China, p2p lending is a nascent movement, as  CreditEase offers a p2p lending platform to institutionalize informal lending practices, and Qifang employs clever cultural pressures for repayment, including posting the pictures of family members to shame defaulting customers.

I greatly admire Acumen Fund’s approach to international development, which seeks to invest in targeted local ventures, providing an example of a free market solution providing social good. And one of the top startups of the past couple of years is socially responsible outsourcing nonprofit Samasource which encourages you to “give work” through paying the poor to do online tasks.

New e-commerce platforms have the potential to cut out the middleman to directly connect small-scale sellers and buyers, but many remain in the realm of gimmick.

Etsy remains one of the most amazing and promising sites on the web. A destination for handmade goods which defied the odds to become the fastest growing e-commerce site, I covered it a full 20 times. It’s a prime example of an open marketplace, from its open API to the Community Council that brings the buyer and seller community together to talk about the future of Etsy, and it serves the artisan community well. Its blog encouraged me to join the outcry against the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, and I argued that the community-enforced handmade standards of the Etsy community were an approach to support, not smother with regulation.

I was an early fan of Groupon with absolutely no idea of how huge it would become just a year and half later, but my opinion now is considerably tempered. Also out there with innovative selling platforms are  the cleverness of Gilt Groupe and the fast purchase decisions made through online sample sales, the scam-like approach of Swoopo, and gaming travel deals on Off and Away.

Crowdsourcing is opening up problems sets previously thought as being too complex for non-“professionals” resulting in more efficient and open approaches.

Netflix set the model for challenge competitions as it successfully crowdsourced the improvement of its recommendation algorithm, setting off a trend within government to procure technology and approaches through contests, saving taxpayer dollars.  Other crowdsourcing projects we enjoyed included:

However, when I was ambivalent about its application in crowdsourced design sites such as 99 Designs, I received an unexpected outpouring of support from the design community and a simultaneous beatingon HackerNews by those who believed that this was simply a more efficient marketplace. I was less sympathetic to the artists’ cause when they rallied against the Australian government’s decision to seek citizen photos for its website rather than professionals’.

I was generally unimpressed with crowdsourced Q&A sites like Yahoo Answers, Mahalo, and Aardvark; however, Quora seems to be on to something.

Crowdsourcing was also applied in dumb, troubling, or useless ways, including:

///

And finally, the two posts that didn’t fit into any clear bucket, but which were the two most read and commented upon posts on Transcapitalist …

After the first release of classified documents, I came out strongly against Wikileaks with “How Wikileaks threatens transparency”, arguing that its actions threatened transparency where it really mattered: between government agencies. All commenters both on my site and on HackerNews disagreed strongly, but I still stand fully behind my original opinion: with the latest release, we see exactly the closing down of information channels that I feared.

Markets at Burning Man” explored my personal experience of the gift economy on the playa and the contrast of the commercialism that is in the outside world before and after the event. The post started a fascinating thread on HackerNews by fellow Burners and Burning Man novices alike.

Thanks for reading and keep in touch.

Melody & Anita

 

Thursday
Sep302010

Nudge theory gets a chance in the UK

I'm heartened to see that Richard Thaler, co-author of my favorite pop-economics / psychology book of recent years - Nudge - is being retained by the new government in the United Kingdom in a so-called "nudge unit". The fundamental hypothesis of the book is that by better framing choices for their citizens, governments can encourage personal decisions that are better for both individuals and society. The authors rely on recent findings in behavioral science to construct a theory on "choice architecture" that results in better outcomes. Examples cited include placing dessert at the end rather than the beginning of the line in school cafeterias and making retirement savings and health insurance plans opt-out rather than opt-in.

Of course as Thaler and Sunstein are economists, the arguments are made to emphasize incentives. And because goverments play a critical role (in the shaping) but the fundamental decision is left with the individual,  they refer to this approach as "libertarian paternalism".

Here in the United States, Sunstein is already an adviser to the White House, but I've yet to see any examples of how this theory has been translated to policy. In Britain, the newly-elected conservative government is hoping that Thaler can help effect change initially in the realm of public health, tacking societal challenges such as obesity, alcoholism, and limited organ donation.

The aim of the unit ... is to explore ways of encouraging citizens to behave in social ways relying on market incentives, as opposed to regulations.

This is an approach that I support. In complex arenas such as savings and health, people are bombarded with decisions daily and often take the choice that is easiest or the default rather than thinking about the issue thoroughly. This is human. Governments should recognize this reality, however, and frame these decisions thoughtfully themselves (they are usually the ones to frame them anyhow). It's a public policy approach that's both free-market and smart.

Tuesday
Sep212010

The Iraq war Wikipedia entry: A case study in real-time history

James Bridle at booktwo.org released an amazing project and reflection this month: a consideration of how Wikipedia provides "a framework for understanding how knowledge came to be and to be understood" illustrated through the printed and bound collation of all edits made to the "Iraq War" entry over 5 years. It is amassed in 12 volumes, or what looks to be about the size of Encylopedia Britannica in its entirety.

It's a terrific way to visualize the power and impact that is Wikipedia - our collective consciousness and knowledge of information. But it also highlights the an ideological debate about history that the continual editing format of Wikipedia offers.

Click to read more ...

Monday
Sep132010

Markets at Burning Man

My first encounter with the Burning Man “gift economy” was upon leaving the Reno airport with a friend of a friend who had come to pick me up. We had randomly scooped up two young people who arrived hoping to hitch a ride to Black Rock City, the Burning Man locale, and agreed to take them to the Wal-Mart to find a car that could fit them. In our ten minute ride together, one of these people mentioned that she didn’t yet have a ticket for the event and would have to buy one at the door, which was difficult because she was broke and had saved up all her money in order to get a flight out there. My new friend then “gifted” this young girl a $300 ticket. She jumped with joy, we arrived at the Wal-Mart, and she thanked us both for the ride, jumped out, and gave us each a Blow Pop. This must be the Burning Man way, I thought, that a $300 for $0.10 trade could leave both sides of the transaction happy.

Of course, through my week on the “playa” I learned that trading is not the point at all. It really is an economy based solely on gifts. The generosity of strangers at Burning Man is overwhelming. Random giving occurs constantly, from the small – I witnessed a guy smoke his last cigarette while the guy next to him, unprompted, took 5 cigarettes out of his own pack to replenish his neighbor’s – to the large – one camp ran a daily steam bath that utilized many hundreds of gallons of water (a critical commodity in the desert) to provide any burner who wanted one, a hot bath and shower. No exchange is equal, yet somehow it all works out collectively.

For a market lover like me, this was a radical concept: nothing has a fair market value. Only 2 items are available for purchase: ice and coffee. Any other commerce is expressly outlawed. Sharing a bottle of wine may gain you a string bracelet or maybe nothing at all. Everyone rejoices in generosity and if you give more than you receive, that feels good rather than annoying. The spirit of giving so permeates your being that you seek the opportunity to give away the most valuable item that you possess there that you do not need for your own survival. All transactions involve the highest level of personal choice.

I left Burning Man refreshed and optimistic about humanity, but a friend of mine described the experiment well: it’s “a perfectly unsustainable utopia”. Back in Reno for my first meal post-playa, we experienced terrible service at a sushi restaurant, demanded to speak to the manager, and ended up with the meal comped. Alas, it took me less than a day to adjust back to my normal self … in the real world, we only pay what things are worth.

Monday
Aug232010

Reducing carbon footprints through behavioral targeting at Opower

While TechCrunch waxes about the inability of the technology scene of Washington, DC to "define itself as more than just AOL", let's look at a real DC startup success story: Opower. Opower offers a patent-pending targeting methodology to energy customers to convince them to reduce their consumption. By comparing consumers to their neighbors, Opower has discovered an effective way to get people to move beyond talking about their carbon footprint to actually taking small steps to reduce their energy usage (and utility bills).

The comparison approach, leveraging new behavioral science, is proving to be a startling effective way to convince people to take small steps to be more like their efficient neighbors.

To effect energy savings, Opower targets 2 areas:

  • Small changes with immediate impact:  Modification to daily habits, such as turning off the lights when leaving the room or adjusting the thermostat.
  • Big changes with long-term impact:  Structural, one-time activities, such as insulating the home or installing EnergyStar appliances.

But by knowing you and your energy habits, it makes targeted recommendations that you are more likely to follow. For example, it won't recommend a large structural change such as insulating your home if you are a renter. This targeting leads partner utilities to broad customer engagement; Opower claims that 85% of customers exposed to the platform take some type of direct action.

I love this type of behavioral approach because unlike efficiency regulations forced by the government, change with Opower is effected by citizens armed with greater knowledge about their own consumption patterns and habits who consciously choose to adjust their behavior. The collective impact is meaningful and it is organic, positive, and self-sustaining.

So, @sarahcuda and the TechCrunch team, next time you talk about DC and its tech scene, let's not look to 1990's AOL but 2010's Opower, a leader in innovative energy efficiency, on track to post $35 million in profits this year.

Wednesday
Aug042010

Asking for money while retaining class with social micro-payment platform Flattr

As the social sharing features of Twitter and Facebook "Like" proliferate around the web, I've noticed one sidebar item slowly disappearing from blogs: requests for money. These used to be fairly common on blogs, e.g., "Hi! Hope you enjoy reading. Please consider donating to help me pay the bills :)" Even Allie Brosh, one of my favorite bloggers out there (whose stuff is shared religiously by devoted followers) has such a request on her blog:

Luckily, Allie is amazing and this request is credibly reluctant, but still, it is undeniably cheesy, ugly, and has exactly the same look as such requests did 5 years ago. Worst of all for the cause, it is kind of a pain for the reader to go through the PayPal process. As cute buttons have been developed across the web, it's surprising that PayPal hasn't decided to innovate a bit upon their peer-to-peer processing to make micropayments for web content a bit easier.

But this is why I'm glad to see the launch of Flattr, a social micro-payment platform that makes it extremely easy for consumers of the web to not only "Like" content, but actually show some financial appreciation for it. What I love about their model is that participants choose a set budget for each month for their online web consumption, and that amount is divided equally among all of the authors/sites that they choose to "Flattr". So I can commit $10/month for all the ad hoc web content that I consume and if I Flattr 10 articles, then each author will get a dollar. It's a small but tangible way to say, "your content is valuable enough that it deserves more than just to be further shared."

For bloggers, aesthetically, the benefit is that Flattr is an unobtrusive button that you can put next to your Twitter or Facebook buttons without looking desparate for cash. Your readers can simply click without being taken to any other site to confirm the transaction, reducing the barriers to participation. It still remains anonymous and at the time, the reader isn't committing to any set value, so even if by the end of the month I end up Flattring 50 articles and each one only gets $0.20, I don't feel cheap at the time, which may otherwise prevent me from participating at all (for more on this phenomenon, see here).

I see Flattr as a great step forward for content creators and consumers. People deserved to be compensated for good work and consumers are willing to pay to keep the things the value going.

Monday
Jul262010

How WikiLeaks threatens transparency

The defenders of the WikiLeaks disclosure champion the benefits of transparency: providing the public with the unfiltered information that informs the government's decisions in Afghanistan. Yet the leak threatens another type of transparency, one that has critical impact on the ground: information sharing between departments of government. This information security disaster provides ammo to those officials who doubt the value of information sharing and use the name of security to defend closed policies.

While the Pentagon is still investigating the source of the leaks, media outlets are speculating that they originated on interagency information sharing portals. Wired writes that PFC Bradley Manning, who is already charged with leaking classified documents to a blogger and is under investigation for the Afghanistan leakage, obtained 150,000 State Department cables through a program known as Net-Centric Diplomacy. CBS News is now suggesting that this latest batch of documents may have come from Intellipedia.

It may seem hard to believe, but the type of open sharing of information between government agencies on platforms like Intellipedia is a relatively new phenomenon. The public may gripe that too many documents are classified Secret, but even within government, issues around "need to know" and fear by some officials that sharing information outside their department will lead them to lose control of it has lead to closed information policies. Intellipedia is a small example of the movement to break down knowledge barriers and share information between government agencies (and beyond) in order to effect better outcomes in the field.

The public wants to know more about the decision making behind Afghanistan and WikiLeaks provides a rare direct from the field account (I've griped before that the field reporting from Afghanistan is dominated by contractors rather than Soldiers and Marines due to DoD policies). Some people may argue that WikiLeaks has provided value in this way, but we should consider the collateral damage.

The public also wants their government leaders and those in the field to have the best information available, whether that comes from State, Defense, Commerce, or elsewhere. In this case, a Department of Defense employee may have leaked Department of State classified cables that he was able to access online thanks to open policies. Information security officers across government are probably thinking twice about new initatives to share information both with each other and with non-traditional partners like trusted NGOs and foreign partners. A really bad outcome from today's WikiLeaks news would be a step backwards in inter- and intra-governmental transparency. Our success in Afghanistan depends on open information sharing.

Friday
Jul232010

Venmo seeks to simplify peer-to-peer payments (simply, paying your friends back)

I write more I O U notes than I care to admit. I just never have cash and the coffee shop in my buildingSadly, not a joke doesn't accept credit card for purchases under $5 (a practice that violates their terms with the credit cards, but that I support). While I'm always good for the $3, surely there is another way. A way to avoid the awkwardness of buying a friend lunch when he forgets his wallet, and then promptly forgets your generosity. A way to avoid PayPal'ing a friend money for buying your tickets to a conference and have 3% taken off in fees.

Square will revolutionalize merchant payments. But for peer-to-peer paybacks, I'm excited about Venmo, a 100% free way for individuals to text each other payments. Users can deposit money directly into their Venmo account or have it pull from their bank. So instead of writing I O U $2.50, I can text Venmo "send Anita $2.50". We're immediately settled up and transactions costs are 0. Lovely.

Wednesday
Jul212010

Addendum to "Shared Social Responsibility"

I had an interesting conversation with Anita Gardeva today about this where she expressed being puzzled over why less people chose to buy the photo when half the money went to charity and they could still pay-what-you-want. It's interesting that the social norms around charity are such that giving nothing (not participating) is seen as better as giving a token amount (and coming across as cheap).

Upon reflection, I also wonder if the people who participated in the pay-what-you-want with half-to-charity scenario now deduct that amount from their total giving by, for example, deciding against buying a chocolate bar from high school fundraisers. The researcher examined whether net spending in the amusement park was offset by the photo purchases (which it wasn't), but I would be interested to see a survey of the charitable pay-what-you-want participants to see if they offset their future charitable contributions based on that purchase. In that case, the bottom line to charity remains the same - the researcher just found the subset of people (about 5%) interested in charitable giving.

Tuesday
Jul202010

Shared social responsibility: the new double bottom line

The double bottom line has never looked so good. Traditionally thought of profits plus positive social impact, new research suggest that markets can also be structured so that the financial bottom lines of both for-profit and not-for-profit improve with a single transaction.

Ayelet Gneezy from the University of California, San Diego ran a study at an amusement park where vistors were offered the ability to purchase a picture of themselves taken on a rollercoaster ride. She analyzed purchasing habits across four different pricing options. First, she tested the results from offering the photos first for a flat fee and secondly under a pay-what-you-want model. Not surprisingly, significantly more people chose the photo in the second model, but they also offered considerably less money for the photo.

But the next test is more interesting. Gneezy first modified her flat fee offer by noting that 50% of the proceeds would go to charity. The result was a neglible increase in interest. But by instead modifying the pay-what-you-want model in the same way, interest increased significantly and the price went way up from what people "wanted" to pay before.

A summary of the results:

Pricing Model

% Purchasers

Price Paid

Flat set fee

0.5%

$12.95

Pay what you want

8.4%

$0.92

Flat set fee – half to charity

0.57%

$12.95

Pay what you want – half to charity

4.5%

$5.33

 

The impact? Both the amusement park stands to makes more money than it did before and a charity is able to receive a generous donation if this model is adopted.

What human decison making is at work here? I can think of a few reasons:

  • $1 feels about right for what a photo is worth, but giving 50 cents to charity seems so little as to be embarrassing, so people give more to fall more in line with what a reasonable charitable contribution might look like ($2.66, or about the cost of a box of Girl Scout Cookies).
  • A pay-what-you-want scheme seems more in line with a traditional charitable donation construct. Giving half of an amont that a for-profit company set, on the other hand, seems manipulative.

I do wonder about how well these results transfer to other domains that are not using as a base item something (a lame amusement park photo) that most people value at about 0. Pay-what-you-want works much better, I think, for things like theater performances where you might not be able to afford the flat price, but you would go if you could pay just a bit less. I wonder if you valued a show at $15, thus paid that when asked to pay-what-you-can, if you would add to that total if you were then told that half the money would go to charity. I doubt it.

The full story can be found here.

Flickr credit: Rudloff

Saturday
Jul172010

"Zynga for real men": a troubling blend of FX trading and social gaming

Online platform eToro is opening up the complex world of foreign exchange trading to the masses through a simple and social user interface - but is this democratization of currency speculation good for the market?

Much like online prediction markets, eToro makes trading easy and fun, with leaderboards, discussion threads, and neat visualizations, but the truth is that the FX market is not fun and games. Participants are not betting with fake cash on who will win the World Cup in the pursuit of prizes, but rather are speculating on the currencies of real countries. The FX market serves a very important purpose: to facilitate transactions worldwide in all currencies. A collapse in currency can have very a real impact on individuals who never have even heard of the FX market and certainly never chose to gamble their future on it (ask the people of Malaysia or Thailand in 1997).

Admittedly, the concept behind eToro is brilliant: providing access to the largest financial market in the world that has largely been the domain of large financial institutions.  Even better, the market is entirely over-the-counter with no regulation or central oversight. So you can short at will, there is no up-tick rule, it operates 24 hours a day during the week, and the concept of insider trading doesn't exist. But herein lies the danger. Already, most trades are purely speculative (a full 80% where no currency ever actually changes hands) and while this influx of cash daily gives the market tremendous liquidity which is good for trade, it also puts the fate of countries' economic well-being in the hands of bankers. Adding in novice traders allured by what investor Howard Lindzon described as "Zynga for real men" would seem to make the market more volatile, not stable.

Of course, eToro's influence on the market is negligible. While $100 billion already traded on the platform is some nice volume, FX trading accounts for nearly $4 trillion daily. So novice traders can have fun and muse publicly on the geopolitical factors that will cause X country's currency to depreciate, raising their individual stature on an eToro leaderboard and maybe getting new followers to mimic their trading habits. Michael Arrington describes this all as very fun and as it goes more social, increasingly "funner".

Yet let's remember that foreign exchange trading has a real impact on lives and is not just a game. Of course, there is no reason to think that institutional investors take this into consideration, but as an individual, I can choose differently. That is why I invest in Lending Club, a platform that is also fun, but also transparent about risks, returns, and the impact on the people participating (and without the potentially devastating externalities to people outside of the market altogether).

Addendum: Hacker News has a great comment thread on this post.

Sunday
Jul112010

A call for peer to peer lending in Afghanistan

“The citrus are like children, they are very fragile, very thin and they need lots of attention and effort. But the olive tree is a tough thing, it survives by its own strength.”

Photo by Moises Saman for the New York TimesI was moved today by the NYT article on severed olive and orange trees in groves across Afghanistan and the commitment of the local farmers to re-grow them. The article paints a picture of the grove's successes and trials that reflect a broader Afghan picture - massive (and competing) investments by the Americans and the Soviets in the 1980s, followed by devastation during the Taliban years, and now, the seeds of rebirth funded by American military support.

Rebuilding the groves is a worthy undertaking - with the potential to employ tens of thousands of young Afghans, this is the type of investment that will reap benefits for years to come. But the approach seems too strangely reminiscent of that of the 1980s: an initial $1.8 million gift from the U.S. military Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and the expectation of years of additional governrment money to come. Indeed,

Mr. Hakim estimates that he will need foreign support for at least five more years to get the farms on track to be fully productive again. The Agriculture Ministry has begun sending modest amounts of money, but is expected to increase the budget as millions of dollars in foreign donor funds become available.

The U.S. money to kick-start the project is understandable, but in a country where corruption is rampant, is funneling future funds through the Agriculture Ministry the way to reach Gul Abbas and farmers like him for this endeavor? When the initial projects were top-down designed by the Americans in the 1980s, there were no local champions with the expertise to guide them.  But now, there is Mr. Abbas, who possesses both the knowledge and the passion - can he be reached directly?

Click to read more ...

Sunday
Jun132010

E-commerce gaming finds a new target: travel deals

In an online marketplace already rife with distortions of limited time offers, opaque pricing schemes, deal aggregators and misleading hooks, a new online entrant offers yet another time-sucking deal variant: variable auctions. The web savvy traveler already operates in an online world where travel deals abound, but the deal is rarely exactly what he hoped for. You can sacrifice certainty on Priceline, stress over price trends on Kayak, and accept suboptimal pairs in the name of bundling on Expedia.

But if you're willing to add more stress and uncertainty to your travel planning, check out Off & Away, a Swoopo-like platform to auction off luxury hotel rooms at bargain pricing. As in Swoopo, the hook comes in the form of costly bids. In order to raise the price of the room by $0.10, you need to place a "bid" which costs you $1.00. As the clock winds down, each additional bid raises the countdown by 30 seconds, so theoretically it could go on forever, in reality, the last couple of minutes take about 45 minutes, from what I've seen.

I've discussed my opinion (hint: it's negative) of Swoopo before and most of that analysis applies here. While I generally love online markets that open up new buying/selling opportunities, the Swoopo and Off & Away model is market distortion, not market efficiency. Bidding is more of a game of luck of getting in at the exact moment than a mechanism to determine true market value.

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Jun082010

The U.S. Patent Office

My recent praise of the U.S. Patent Office for its forward-thinking technology partnership with Google was perhaps premature. Peter Orszag, the Director of the Office of Management and Budge commented today that while "the Patent Office receives more than 80 percent of patent applications electronically...these applications are then manually printed out, re-scanned, and entered into an outdated case management system. The average processing time for a patent is roughly three years."

Here is an interesting statistic: only one of the top 10 government IT contractors was founded after the 1960, and that is Dell, who provides the computers, not the software.

Monday
Jun072010

Australian government crowdsources its website photos; artists up in arms

Fighting a losing battle against the rise of sites like U.S. startups 99Designs and Genius Rocket, the No!Spec movement has found some sympathizers internationally. Australian artists are railing against the "worrying precedent" potentially set by their government's new effort to solicit photography contributions from average citizens as part of their campaign to revitalize their tourism marketing.

Nothing Like Australia, the new tourism site features photos sent in from around the country to help would-be tourists get a better sense of the real Australia that they can experience. Professional photographers, meanwhile, are upset that the government is willing to use free photos rather than relying on professional photos, saying,

Refusing to license these photographic works in an appropriate way sends a message that it (government) does not value creative work in the same way as it values other economic assets.

I've been sympathetic to some of the NoSpec! critiques, notably the winner-takes-all approach that encourages quantity over quality design. But the Australian artist response is a bit outrageous: the Australian tourism site is pretty great (better than any comparable city or country tourism campaign that I've seen before) and its strength is surely attibutable to the diversity of the photos submitted by average Australians depicting their way of life (rather than say, perfectly composed sunset and mountain photos typical to such campaigns).

Designers: you are right to demand that your work is properly valued, but pick your battles. In seeking to gain a taste of the diversity of Australia, the crowd of amateurs is more valuable.