Category Archives: Business

The Strange Case of Newbury and Maidenhead

Newbury and Maidenhead nestle quietly west of London. Neither has a professional football team, neither is a hotbed of cutting-edge consumer tech, and neither has >100,000 inhabitants.

So when my team launched a Facebook football game, we were shocked to see Newbury and Maidenhead in the list of top 10 places where our players lived. This was in absolute terms, not penetration. We actually had more players in those two small towns than in many large cities.

Scoreboard focused on the English Premier League. Each week users would predict the results of the upcoming matches, and every Friday we made a show in which two pundits pitted their wits against the wisdom of the crowd.

We were big in Asia because we were spending marketing money on reaching Asian football fans, who are under-served with good Premier League content other than the live matches. But Newbury and Maidenhead — what was going on there?

The questions stumped me for weeks until I stumbled across an academic paper: The Spread of Behaviour in an Online Social Network Experiment, published by Damon Centola in Science (2010) and summarised here by MIT.

The paper looks at the spread of behaviour through two networks of equal size and containing an equal number of connections, but with rather different structures. The networks are pictured here:

The first network has regularly-spaced nodes (nodes = people), and no real clusters. The second network has a small number of dense clusters, with only minimal connections from one cluster to another.

In which network do behaviours spread faster?

It’s the second. Why? Because in order for behaviour to pass from one person to another there need to be multiple stimuli. So a well-spaced network will transmit behaviour more slowly than a clustered network, because in clusters there are dense interconnections between a small number of people. If one friend suggests I watch a new film, I might nod politely. But when a second and third say the same thing, I really start to listen.

We must have hit upon a densely-connected network of football fans in Newbury and Maidenhead. One or two started playing, then invited friends to play, and soon those inside the network must have been receiving multiple invitations and decided to give it a go.



Perhaps this happens more often in smaller settlements than larger ones. re/code just published an article about Pocket Gems’s players, showing that their most intense US gamers are in small towns, not big cities.

If we did that project again I’d spend the whole marketing budget targeting very specific groups of potential players — and I’m sure I would get more bang for each buck.

The British comedian Norman Wisdom is a hero in Albania. Maybe one day there’ll be a statue of Scoreboard presenter Dougie Anderson in Newbury and Maidenhead.


Reference: Centola, D. (2010), The Spread of Behaviour in an Online Social Network Experiment. Science 329(5996), 1194-1197. Summary:

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Blackberry Poker

Alex told me:

Blackberry Poker is so great, man! It’s just perfect. Really cool. The AI is brilliant. It’s so easy to play. Ach! What a great game.

Have you heard anyone talk that way about something made by Blackberry in the last five years?

But this guy just loved it. And my Blackberry was rock-solid – battery lasted forever and the mail app was very neat, much better than most of the fancy new clients in the app stores today.

It’s easy to write off a company, and laugh at their mistakes. But the NYSE has 90+% new companies vs. 100 years ago – everyone fails eventually. Even when the company fails, parts of it can still be “so great, man”.


More musings via @toddmgreen on Twitter.

The Secret World of Taxi Drivers

I learnt a lot on a late-night taxi ride last week.

The UCG – United Cabbies Group – has a protected Twitter feed through which they share tips on hot-spots for good fares in London.

When a big venue turns out, the words goes out: ‘Albert Hall on the burst’ = lots of fares suddenly available.

There is also a taxi driver dialect derived from Cockney rhyming slang:

  • Septics – Yanks – Americans (septic tanks)
  • Sweaties – Jocks – Scots (jock straps)
  • Leatherarses – cabbies who do a huge number of hours
  • Butterboys – newbies who work all hours when they realise the more they work, the more they earn

Taxi drivers are not required by law to wear  a seatbelt. They may urinate in the street if shielded by the cape of a member of the Metropolitan police force. And until 2005, there was a theoretical 6-mile limit on all journeys – the distance that could be expected of a horse after eating one bale of hay.

I read something by Caitlin Moran in which she wrote this to her daughter:

Even if you’re [sat] next to a man who collects pre-Seventies screws and bolts, you will probably never have another opportunity to find out so much about pre-Seventies screws and bolts.

Everyone is an expert in something. 


I only deal in post-Seventies screws and bolts. To find out more, follow @toddmgreen on Twitter or sign up for emails.

Cheers ~ Todd

The Strangeness of Silicon Valley

From a conversation between John Naughton and Judy Wajcman:

The technology industry is actually rather small. And dysfunctional. And solves its own problems. But Silicon Valley has convinced us that the problems of a small set of socially-unusual people (who sleep at their desks and have no social life) are actually our own problems too, and that we need products and services that help to solve them.

In case proof of this were needed – here’s Elon Musk (PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla founder) on relationships:

I would like to allocate more time to dating. I need to find a girlfriend. That’s why I need to carve out just a little more time. I think maybe even another five to ten — how much time does a woman want a week? Maybe 10 hours? That’s kind of the minimum? I don’t know.

Clearly a genius, but a rather strange one. The other side of the Valley.


Links: Naughton/Wajcman, Musk.

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The Robots Already Won

You can relax! Our robot overlords already took control.

Three examples of their successful infiltration:

1. Ipswich Town’s PR teambots

Ipswich defender Tyrone Mings paid off all his mum’s debts. Wonderful news! A footballer with a conscience!

An Ipswich spokesman said it was:

A private matter between Tyrone and his mum.


2. Verizon CEObot

Verizon spent $4,400,000,000 (that’s $4.4bn) on buying AOL. Blockbuster deal!

Lowell McAdam, Verizon chairman and CEO, said:

Verizon’s vision is to provide customers with a premium digital experience based on a global multiscreen network platform. This acquisition supports our strategy to provide a cross-screen connection for consumers, creators and advertisers to deliver that premium customer experience.


3. Local councilbots

Water fountain dating back to 1853, adorned by Biblical quote. Historically interesting! And possibly significant!


Game over, see you later. MAYBE.


Links: Mings, Verizon, Water.

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What is the highest circulation magazine in the world?

Yep, that’s right!

The Watchtower: Public Edition, which has been produced and distributed by Jehovah’s Witnesses since 1879, now has an average monthly print run of 53m copies. That’s about 1 for every 142 people on Earth.

The only verification I could find for the 53m number is from the publishers themselves. But I suspect that it really is the biggest because when I checked the monthly circulation figures for other big magazines, they’re much much smaller. Here’s the top five in the US:

Rank Name Circulation Founded Publisher
1 AARP The Magazine 22,274,096 1958 AARP
2 AARP Bulletin 22,244,820 1960 AARP
3 Costco Connection 8,654,464  ? Costco Wholesale
4 Game Informer 7,629,995 1991 GameStop
5 Better Homes And Gardens 7,615,581 1922 Meredith

The Watchtower: Public Edition also appears to be much larger than anything outside the US. The biggest magazine in India (Mathrubhoomi) records a circulation of 800k. I couldn’t find any data for China – perhaps there is a huge magazine there of which I’m not aware (please let me know if so).

But top magazine circulation does not correspond to population size. For example: the Netherlands’ top magazine is AutoPrimeurs with 6m among a population of 16.8, whereas Cosmopolitan in Russia circulates 980k copies among a population of 144m.

Curiously, different magazine topics top the list in different countries:

  • Cooking – Canada
  • TV – France
  • Cars – Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand
  • Celebrities – Russia, Spain

In other countries, there are either more general, or organisation-specific magazines topping the list:

  • Australian Women’s Weekly – well, Australia
  • The National Trust Magazine – UK
  • AARP The Magazine – US

So, how did The Watchtower’s circulation get so big?

For sure there is a sense of mission – the subtitle of the magazine is ‘Announcing God’s Kingdom’.

Second, it’s free. Until 1990, The Watchtower carried a fee of $0.25 in the US. After a question was raised over the whether religious literature should be subject to taxation, the decision was made to make the magazine free, and now it is funded by voluntary donations from Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of the public.

Third, it’s efficient. Production of so many copies must be very expensive. But distribution is relatively cheap, since at local level it is carried out by unpaid volunteers.

I’m no Jehovah’s Witness, but I was struck by the scale and the reach of the magazine and the operation behind it. So next time you see someone offering a copy of The Watchtower, give a nod to that at least.

VC School

Best ways to learn about something new, in order:

  1. Start doing it
  2. Help someone do it
  3. Listen to someone who knows about it

For #3 I have recently built myself a VC School.

I downloaded Digg (now an excellent RSS reader) and connected it to my ten favourite VC blogs. Now, online and offline (important in London since half my commute is on the tube), I have a constant stream of high-quality posts available on my phone.

Posts I read today:

  • Web vs. native apps for consumer startups
  • Sticking with struggling investments
  • Dealing with recruiting mistakes
  • Bitcoin prospects
  • Snapchat/no revenues debate

Why VCs in particular? Three reasons:

  1. Connections: they know lots of entrepreneurs with new ideas
  2. Incentivised to be open: their aim in blogging is partly to attract interesting new cos, so they have good reason to share what they know
  3. Long-term perspective: unlike tech news (mostly ephemeral and therefore dull), VCs want to invest in ideas that have long-term relevance

So I’m finding Digg + VCs’ RSS feeds a great way to learn. It’s also an efficient way to discover new products, since they’re always plugging their portfolio companies. Combo bonus.

Sounds interesting? Here are the blog feeds, in alphabetical order:

Bill Gurley, Above The Crowd – blogRSS
Paul Graham, Essays – blogRSS
Chris Dixon – blogRSS
Mark Suster, Both Sides of the Table – blogRSS
Fred Destin – blogRSS
Fred Wilson, A VC – blogRSS
Andreessen-Horowitz – blogRSS
Semil Shah – blogRSS
Tom Tunguz, ex post facto – blogRSS
Dave McClure, 500 Hats – blogRSS 


How to become a world-ranked sportsman (just like me)

In 2010 I was ranked #705 in the world. Heady days!

I also made it to #105 in Britain. I won a bronze medal in the British Championships and had beaten a couple of tricky opponents at the English Open.

But then I quit.


Not burn-out for sure. No injuries to speak of. No drug rumours swirling! (My agent took care of those.)

I quit because I didn’t want to practice. I was playing 2-3 times a week but I was getting tired of the late nights, it meant a lot of travelling, and winter was coming.

So I quit, and abandoned my world ranking.

But how did I get it in the first place? Skills + Niche.

1) Skills

I’ve been playing tennis since I was a kid – I’m not great (ok club standard at best), but it means my hand-eye coordination is decent so I’ve always been ok at other racket sports.

2) Niche

My world ranking came in a sport called racketlon. ‘Racket-l-o-n‘. It’s a Finnish sport: you play the same opponent in table tennis, then badminton, then squash, then tennis (with a two-minute break between sports). It’s first to 21 points in each sport, and you add up all the scores at the end to see who won.

Racketlon is pretty niche. My friend Jo told me about it and the next day I discovered I could simply sign up on the internet to play in the British Championships, which were happening the following weekend. I got my British Champs bronze by beating one guy – there were only four entrants in the amateur category, so by winning one match I came 3rd and got the bronze.

Skills + Niche = World ranking!

That’s probably true in lots of areas outside Finnish sports. Wikipedia’s list of sports is enormous. Maybe you would be a world-class player of Hooverball, Yukigassen or Old Cat? Figure out what you’re good at, and apply it to a niche.

The same must be true outside sports as well. It’s pretty cool to be the best damn recycled pencil maker in the world. Or the finest mandolin stringer in the world, or the funniest fridge poet. And if you combine >1 thing you can create all sorts of other niches – I’m sure someone out there is the greatest maker of brail for packaging, and there must be world-class manufacturers of shoelaces for football boots and utterly brilliant writers of jokes for Christmas crackers.

Who knows who they are – who cares? So long as they know, so long as they get the rewards of a feeling of mastery, and so long as they can hang out with the other best guys and girls around, it will still be a pretty cool feeling.

It’s not so hard to be one of the best in the world if you combine Skills + Niche.

So if you want a game of racketlon, come and get me.

But be warned: I’ve got this little bad boy in the trophy cabinet already, and your head is next.



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So I applied to be an astronaut

My life’s ambition is to go into space, so a few years ago I applied to be an astronaut.

At the time anyone could apply to ESA (the European Space Agency), so I went to the doc and to the hospital, had a bunch of tests done, filled out the application form and sent it off.

There was little chance I would succeed. But it made perfect logical sense to try.

There are two ways of getting into space: (1) become a billionaire, or (2) get hired as a professional astronaut. Maybe one day I’ll be a billionaire but I don’t want to count on it. So I just applied.

Actually, all my best decisions are made when I ignore the chances of failure and just do it.

  • Want to learn how to code? Ok, build a website.
  • Want to try building a business? Ok, start one now.
  • Want to find out if teaching would be a good career move? Ok, do it part-time and see whether it’s fun.
  • Like that girl a lot? Ok, ask her out.

These simple decisions are the best.

A) You can’t regret them

If it doesn’t work out, no big deal. You did the logical thing and tried. Your mind is at rest. Ssshh now little brain.

B) You know exactly why you made them

It’s a simple formula. You won’t get confused about your motives. Want something? Ok, have a go.

C) You always gain something unexpected

Building a website taught me how the internet works. Starting a business taught me a million things that I put into a recent post (How I lost £1,500 when I was 23). Teaching part-time right now is making me 10x better at explaining stuff and speaking in public. And the last girl I asked out is going to become my wife next summer, so that one worked out pretty well too.

Worrying about failure kills good decisions. Whenever I worry I lose the magic power to make simple logical decisions and I waste my life fretting. I’m glad that didn’t happen with applying to be an astronaut.

The physical tests and most of the application form were ok, though I couldn’t really disguise my lack of a PhD in astrophysics or biology. The weakest bit though was when I had to describe my experience in radio communications:

I did hospital radio for two years when I was at school. I was a presenter and had my own weekly show.

But since I haven’t actually heard back from ESA, I assume they’ve got me on the reserve list.

Hopefully someone will drop out soon.



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I quit 200 hours too late

One day I woke up and realised I had wasted 200 hours of my life.

200 hours!

I’d spent two years trying to brighten up nearby high streets by getting local artists to redecorate the shutters of closed shops.

Total number of shutters decorated: 0.

I thought I’d lined everything up: the local council, the planning authorities, nearby schools, a bunch of excellent artists and arts groups. I made a little website, wrote a manifesto, and got some local press coverage (the photo above was in the local paper).

But I just could not get any shop owners to sign up. Even the one guy who said yes quickly disappeared off the face of the planet (that might be an exaggeration, but I hope not. Bastard.).

I figured that persistence was the answer.

I spent weekends and evenings on the project, took days off work, spent money tracking down landlords, changed the way I described the project to people over and over again, and so on – all to no avail.

But when I woke up that morning, it hit me: executing the project well wasn’t just difficult – it was impossible.

Persistence wouldn’t help. I just wasn’t set up right.

I couldn’t convince the shop owners to trust me, because I had no track record.

And I couldn’t persuade the shop owners to take a risk, because I worked in another part of town all the hours they were open, so I couldn’t sell them on it in person. I wasn’t able to build trust.

Without that trust, and without the time or the proximity to build it, extra hours and extra money weren’t going to add much.

So I changed it.

I threw the whole project out, and fixed the problems of time and trust.

I had got close to a lady who ran one of the kids’ art groups, and had an intro to a guy who ran a local charity. So I figured out a way to put those two together, and got the hell out of the way.

Instead of a street art project, I proposed an art exhibition: we would put the kids’ artwork from the summer term into an exhibition, and the exhibition would be in an empty shop unit that had been taken over by the charity.

Auriol from Kite Studios would teach the kids how to produce art, and Shaylesh from Healthy Planet would get the shop set up and look after the exhibition. Luckily enough, the council agreed to fund the project too.

And so, one day in June 2010, we got all the kids and their parents and teachers down to the shop unit, and opened up the exhibition for everyone to see. It was so great! The place looked amazing, the kids were so proud of themselves, and everyone had a blast.

So clearly, time and trust are important.

But doing something that you personally are well-placed to do is essential.

Without that, you’re in for an uphill struggle.


Arts group: Kite Studios

Charity: Healthy Planet

Photo credits: Justin Thomas and Brian Jersky (thanks guys)

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