Bittersweet 16

Wow what a tournament. So many close games. So many upsets already. And we’re just in the Sweet 16. My bracket has definitely taken a beating due to all this craziness. One of my Final Four, Georgetown is out. Three more Elite 8 teams (Kansas, Pittsburgh and Villanova) are also out, not to mention countless earlier round teams. A couple of story lines I’ve noticed: the failure of the higher seeded Catholic schools (Georgetown, Villanova, Notre Dame, and Marquette) shows that God clearly isn’t on their side this year. The Big East has been disappointing and I think that could mean trouble for me because I picked Syracuse to win it all (stupid move in retrospect). And the Ivy League may finally be known for something other than academics as Cornell continues its run. At this point, I’m rooting for them to go to the Final Four.

The only bright side to all this is that no one else saw any of these story lines coming, so I’m actually doing relatively well especially since I’ve watched very little college basketball this year. Here’s what I picked the rest of the way:

Spotify Review

When it comes to digital media consumption in the UK, its easy to miss those innovations in the US that we take for granted. One of the first things many American students notice upon arriving here is the inability to access Hulu and Pandora. One acclaimed service that they have here but not in the US though is Spotify. Spotify is an online P2P music streaming service currently available only in Sweden, Finland, Norway, the UK, France, and Spain. Naturally, I thought I would take advantage of my presence here to try out this local delicacy. Currently, free Spotify accounts are only available by invite and even though I signed up when I first got here, I only got my invite last week. After playing around with it for a week, I think I’ve got a good feel for the product and here are my thoughts and some screenshots for those of you across the pond.

First the good aspects. The user interface is primitive but easy to use (in fact it reminds me a little bit of iTunes). The sound quality is great and there is almost no lag, thanks to Spotify’s P2P streaming technology. According to a recent speech by their CEO this reduces some of the pressure of its enormous bandwidth consumption. (On a side note I’m still a little confused on how P2P streaming works. It’s not like P2P downloading where you actually have the files on your computer. Is it just mirroring off your computer?)

The library is also pretty solid. Of course you have your top 40, classics like Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and Elton John, and some lesser known artists like Bon Iver and the a capella group Straight No Chaser. They also have a good amount of live albums and movie soundtracks. The only notable absences I could find were The Beatles and Pink Floyd but they’re hard to find online anywhere. Additional features include Internet radio and the ability to share playlists with other Spotify users. They also have a partnership with 7digital if you want to buy and download any song. Currently, the free version has banner ads and a 30 second audio commercial every 3 songs or so. It’s still a lot less disruptive and obnoxious than another UK streaming service, we7.

Now for my complaints. First you can’t just stream directly from their website, you have to install Spotify on your computer first. I understand this is technically necessary because it’s P2P, but it restricts your access to computers with Spotify installed. If you want to use Spotify on your phone, you have to pay £9.99 a month for a Premium account (also includes ad-free and the ability to store 3,333 songs locally). The radio is pretty plain and doesn’t learn like Pandora. I also want them to open the free accounts up to everyone because right now I can’t share playlists with anyone.

I’m not saying I don’t like Spotify. It’s pretty good for sampling new songs and listening to songs or albums I wouldn’t necessarily like enough to download. I was just a little underwhelmed after all the hype and wait. To me it feels a lot like Rhapsody in the US although the free Rhapsody account only lets you listen to 25 songs a month. I think it has a lot of potential once it opens up in more countries. It definitely has the right idea to move songs into the cloud whereas iTunes is going to see a decline in a few years. However, I also have doubts about its long term sustainability since according to their Wikipedia article, the company reported a $4.4 million loss in 2008. Right now, I’m just not compelled enough to subscribe to a Premium account even though I think that’s where they’re looking to grow.

What’s the final verdict? I’ll definitely keep using it for the next two and half months that I’m here. When I come home in June though I’ll probably get cut off unless I go through a UK VPN and its not worth the hassle. So unfortunately as of right now, Spotify is fun to play around with but not a long term keeper.

March Madness ’10: Brits Can’t Ball

Well I may be an ocean away, but this time of year still means one thing: March Madness! I haven’t kept up with college basketball very well this year since basketball isn’t big here at all. Try naming one good British basketball player (and no, Ben Gordon doesn’t count even though he’s playing for the English National Team). Yeah, didn’t think so. As a result, I don’t know too much about what’s been going on other than BC’s disappointing finish, John Wall being the next great point guard, and the Big East dominating with its depth. However, I still have to fill out a bracket and go with what I remember from the ESPN.com front page over the past 3 months. So here is my 2010 March Madness bracket, aptly named “Brits Can’t Ball”

Entrepreneurship in London

So in the aftermath of the Entrepreneur’s International Challenge, I have to write my post on business and entrepreneurship in the UK. I already started profiling a few startups in London through a guest post on the RUNmyERRAND blog last semester. Here, I’m going to focus on more big picture things.

First off, London is no Silicon Valley and it’s probably not even a Cambridge, but there is a good deal of activity going on here. When I was doing sponsorship work for EPIC, I visited several modern, unconventional, and fun startup and small business offices that reminded me of those we saw on EPIC. We also went to a massive 2 day entrepreneurship fair where startups and businesses that support startups (like IT and marketing) tried to promote their businesses. There were keynote speakers, “speed dating” style workshops, and all sorts of networking going on.  And despite this recent article on TechCrunch, I do think the UK government is legitimately trying to promote entrepreneurship especially through giving out seed grants. They’re just really inefficient by nature.

Nor are UK startups absolutely dull and old fashioned. No one’s expecting the next Facebook or Google to come from here, but as you can see from the four business I profiled for RUNmyERRAND, and WAYN.com (Where Are You Now, a travel social network), another EPIC connection, are tech related. Some of them are uniquely London or big city like eCourier. Others are just downright quirky like carding service Serve Legal (don’t know if paying someone to make sure your own employees are carding is really sustainable) or Ben and Jerry style smoothie maker Innocent (who have an annual cap knitting campaign for their bottles).

Even students are coming up with some good ideas. The finals for Pitch It! this week, LSE’s version of BCVC, featured three interesting but in my opinion misguided companies:

  • BestGiraffe is an online marketplace for corporate advertisements. However, other companies have already done this and the mid-smaller size firms they’re aiming for could easily use Craigslist or crowdsource directly to get their work done. Also the team relied on leveraging developing countries for labor to offer low prices but since advertising is highly sensitive to regional and cultural nuances I doubt its really as useful as they believe.
  • Pressure Trade is an online game that simulates certain trading skills. It’s obviously targeted to investment banks and those who want to get jobs with them. Honestly though I think this is a very weak idea. Why not just play a real stock market game that simulates actual trading, not just activities that are similar to trading? One of the judges was smart to point out that this business could have a lot more potential if they just made it a fun, social game. Think WoW or Farmville for trading and investing. I would play that.
  • Youny is a matching service for tutoring. I think this one ended up winning (I didn’t stay till the end) but again I thought it was a weak idea. First off, most universities offer formal tutoring programs that will do this for free. You also run into a one time user problem because once someone finds a tutor they like, they’ll bypass the middleman and arrange future sessions on their own. Finally, the team wanted to attract users by building up a database and having live responses but this can be done for free through a wiki or forum.
  • Younity is a social enterprise that allows users to donate their loyalty points from shopping to charities. I didn’t stay for the social enterprise portion of the competition, but this one caught my attention. I like it because it’s creative, simple, and viable. However, I think most loyalty programs/credit card rewards programs already give you this option to an extent, so I don’t know how much of a market they’ll have.

So maybe I’m a little harsh on these business plans, but as you can see, there’s no shortage of ideas or inspiration.

The problem I think lies in the culture. Entrepreneurship just isn’t something most people consider as a career path. Students at LSE are mostly stuck on the investment banking/consulting route. There’s a culture of working for a nice corporation with a steady paycheck and not taking risks. One entrepreneur told me that in some parts of England, there’s actually a social stigma attached to being an entrepreneur or small business owner. I find this to be the complete opposite of the U.S. where the small business is heralded as the everyman of America. The education system also has a lot to do with it too. The university system here is really focused here so there’s little to no chance to explore outside subjects. The core and liberal education in the U.S. may be a pain at times, but it definitely stimulates creativity and innovation.

Will things change here? I think so. Just look at the popularity of BBC’s Dragon’s Den, an American Idol style competition for business plans. In fact, of all the reality show competitions the Brits could’ve exported to the U.S., I wonder why this one hasn’t made it across the pond yet.