Monday, March 31, 2008

A Small World After All

I was doing some browsing and stumbled on this video that shows my great-uncle's house collapsing into an abandoned coal mine in the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Coaldale. A great metaphor for the decline of the region, with a personal twist.

Coal mining was hard work and often lead to a very short life. If you happen to be in the vicinity of the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania at some point, I recommend visiting the Eckley Miner's village for an historical perspective on the mining life. My great grandfather was fortunate, as he was able to run his own contract mining crew (not bad for someone that arrived in the US without any adults around the age of 10, speaking only Russian), though he ultimately died of mining related lung disease. My grandfather was doubly fortunate, as he was able to leave the region without working in the mines and before the economic base collapsed.

I don't know who posted the YouTube videos on Coaldale, but they are quite interesting on a personal level. In the business and church video, you can see a quick snapshot of St. Mary's Russian Orthodox church, which my great grandfather helped to build. The last time I was there was for a funeral when I was a child, but I believe it is still there and still functioning. This video is also a neat reminder of what small town America used to be like.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Social Not-working?

Some former colleagues, both old and more recent, have started a company called Ringside Networks, building a platform to integrate and host social networking technologies within corporate web sites. The company is releasing part of the source code on an open source model to drive adoption, so check them out: there's no cost and lots of transparency. I like the fact that new business models are emerging for startups, though the exit options are limited to acquisition, valuations have been high for companies with open source products that have gained scale.

In this case, the business model is doubly interesting, as it aims at a hybrid of SaaS and in-house technologies: part of the pitch is that social applications are too important to be captive to third-parties. If large companies (especially retailers) find that they want more ownership of their customers, this may be a very interesting play.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Cetaceans among us

I had a chance to take my family on a three hour whale watch chartered out of Half Moon Bay on Sunday. After about an hour we wound up spotting several gray whales; baleen whales that I am told can grow to as large as 14 feet. For the most part, we were seeing the smoke-like "poof" of the whale expelling through its blow hole. My daughter was able to spot the fluke at one point. Then, suddenly, the larger gray jumped out of the water, exposing the majority of the whale's body to view. Amazing.

We did not get a picture of the whale, as each spotting was quite sudden. However, the overall effect was considerably more dramatic than the spotting photo I have linked to from Wikipedia.

On a slightly related topic, the migration of the blow hole to its present position on the whale's head is one of the more interesting parts of aquatic evolution.

Israeli Startup Panel (This Week!)

There's a panel in the Palo Alto area this week looking at Israeli startups with ties to silicon valley, organized by a local group CoolTech, this week. Israel (Tel Aviv in particular) is one of the few places that has been successful in transplanting the "American" venture capital model. Clearly, enlightened government policies had a formative influence on venture capital development in Israel, as did a business culture tolerant of risk and failure; it is also an incredibly exuberant business environment. In fact, when talking with Israeli VCs, I'm struck by how similar their outlook is to American VCs. And yet, there is undoubtedly more to the story. Israel's domestic market is small and the target for intellectual property is invariably external markets. The differences may in fact be more important than the similarities, since they open up new channels for discovering innovative business models. For that reason, Israel is an essential case study for economies around the globe that aspire to a dynamic technology marketplace.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Creative Thinking in Private Equity

I recently had a chance to attend a meeting with a partner from Aventura Investment Partners as a part of a Wharton program looking at private equity in emerging markets, an area that I find extremely exciting. Aventura is doing several investments in Senegal, targeted at the value chain around agricultural production and also in health care. I can't go into the business models they are using right now, but there is some very innovative thinking required to bring development to areas like rural Senegal. As one of my Nigerian friends recently commented to me, traditional "aid" just hasn't worked. This is the kind of private initiative that has the chance to make dramatic and sustainable changes in a society. I imagine we will see a lot more funds take on challenges around development, especially if projects like these have success.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Civic Pride

Shamong was rated the 6th best town in New Jersey Magazine this year, owing no doubt partially to the fact that it is an attractive, quiet place, with a lot of nice people. Philadelphia magazine also showed that Shamong was one of the best residential towns in South Jersey for homeowners.

Gulag Archipelago

I try to read at least one novel a month to keep myself sane. Last month, I stumbled on an old hardback copy of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, which I picked up for 2 dollars in a used book store in New York City some 15 years ago and lost along the way. A riveting book that should serve as a reminder that humans are not inherently good. The book is a bit like reading Kafka's The Trial, until you realize it is not literature but a documentary.