Interview with Robert Scoble aka @Scobleizer – Rackspace’s Startup Liaison Officer and Cloud Guru

January 8, 2013

By @Rose_at_O  and @Olivia_at_O

Robert Scoble (or @Scobleizer, as he is known on Twitter) is Rackspace’s startup liaision officer. Check out his blog at http://scobleizer.com/


Q: You were born in New Jersey, but your Wikipedia entry says you grew up in Silicon Valley. How does a New Jersey boy end up being a product of Silicon Valley?

When I was four years old my dad got a job at Ampex in the Silicon Valley and moved us from the East Coast to the West Coast.

Q: Do you think that move to the heart of the VC and startup world affected where you are in your career now?

Absolutely. Watching the Silicon Valley grow up, and watching Apple grow from one building to what it is today, has certainly played a huge role. In college I met Steve Wozniak, the cofounder of Apple, and talked him out of $40,000 or $50,000 for our journalism department.  Apple’s success definitely has an effect on many entrepreneurs. I was recently talking to a guy I know who has headquarters in Cupertino, and he says everyday he drives by the Apple offices, he thinks, “I know it can be done.” That helps him stay optimistic—which you need to be as an entrepreneur! If you don’t stay optimistic, you give up, and I’ve heard story after story of companies that won because they didn’t give up. I heard it took 1,000 days for Airbnb’s business to start working. Imagine if they had given up on day 990.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your role at Rackspace and your blog.

Rackspace takes me to be almost like a strategist. They ask me to go and learn what’s happening on the bleeding edge of the Internet. But they don’t ask me to take that knowledge internally to their executives; they ask me to put that on YouTube, Google+ and other places where it can be shared with the world. By doing that, it creates a conversation about Rackspace that is very unique and interesting.

I do a lot of things in my job. I build relationships with startups. For example, in Paris I recently met with the CEO of Pearltrees. I do media about what startups are doing. I study the startup world. I’m writing a book right now about context, because I’m noticing a new pattern among startups. The mixing of wearable computing, sensors, social networks, big data and mapping are going to let companies build highly personalized systems because of contextual systems that mix data about who you are, who you are with, and other information that lets companies build really interesting new products.

Q: What do you think about the enterprise startup world as compared to consumer startups? Is the enterprise exciting enough?

I’ve certainly watched many enterprise companies over the years, like Workday, Yammer, Proteo, and so on and so forth. Those are pretty interesting. I think the venture capital firms are taking money out of consumer tech and putting it into enterprise, because there is less risk there. So we’ll see some more interesting ideas for tech in the enterprise over the next few years. But I’m a technology user at the end of the day, and that is sort of how I approach my world.  I look at what’s most interesting for users, whether that be a user at an enterprise or on Instagram. I don’t really care too much about whether it’s an enterprise or consumer company. Probably 70% of what I do is more consumer-focused because that typically is where the sexiest stuff is. It’s getting tougher right now for a consumer company to be built, partly because platforms are fragmenting. Not just Android, but Windows 8, iOS, Google, Microscoft. Then companies like Amazon are fragmenting the Android. So it’s getting harder to be two software developer guys at a picnic table, the way Instagram was, and just build for one platform and build a global brand. Now you need ten people: one building a Windows version, one building an Android version, one building a RIM version. It’s getting to be an issue, partly because you are competing against other startups that are already funded and have those ten people. So your competition already can build systems for three or four different platforms. Box.net’s CEO told me he sees this fragmentation as a competitive advantage that keeps startups and big companies from competing with him. So it’s interesting—and Box is a great example of an enterprise company that has taken a consumer focus, but they have to build for four platforms all at one time.

Q. What do you see as the big opportunities or hot topics in the enterprise tech space?

Even in enterprise tech, there’s a lot of opportunity to play with new things. The Google Project Glass — the wearable computers — I think they’re going to be used a lot at work. If you’re working somewhere you need to use your hands, using a wearable computer makes a lot more sense than forcing someone to look away at the screen. There are lots of startups building technologies for surgeons, for examples using Microsoft connect centers and wearable computers to let you look at your data without touching anything. I think this is going to be a big story in the next few months. They’re coming out in the next quarter if the rumors are correct.

Q. Roughly how many events do you attend each year?

I go to four or five unofficial events a month. Maybe more. I do a lot of interviews too.

Q. How many interviews do you do per week?

It’s been a lot slower the last couple months because I have been traveling. When I’m not traveling, I try to do at least one or two a day. Sometimes more.

Q. Which big conferences and events are you looking forward to in 2013?

I still like LeWeb the best. They treat their speakers the best and have the best international audience. I like smaller events though. Under the Radar here in the Valley is a good one. They have lots of startups. I’m always looking for something new and innovative. Robotics is interesting, for example. Hackathons. Conferences here in San Francisco.

Funnily enough, I’m trying not to go to too many big events. Next week I’m going to a private tour with Facebook. I get a lot more out of private events than I get out of public events where there’s just a speech and they don’t tell you anything beyond what they’re willing to tell a public audience. I prefer one-on-one conversations.

Q. What kinds of stories and companies are likely to attract your attention in 2013?

I’m writing a book on context, so I’ll be following anything that uses social trends, social networks, big data, mapping, sensors or wearable computers to build highly personalized products. Oakley’s AirWave ski goggles are one of the first examples that come to mind. On the enterprise side, contextual business intelligence is going to be a big deal. Companies will be using these same trends to be able to know their customers or understand their businesses at a very deep level. That will be a big trend next year. After that, I’m just looking for anything that’s mind-blowing. You never know what’s going to come out of somebody’s garage and make you go, “Wow! I never even thought about that!”

Q. What is the best way to pitch a story to you?

The first thing is not to look at your company as a launch event. Look at it as building a company. That lets you take a longer-term view and not be so PR-focused. The best companies have never really launched to me. They just have a conversation with me. Siri was introduced to me six months before they launched. Instagram I saw by accident walking through test labs in San Francisco and I was told, “Hey, you should talk to these two guys; they’re building a cool photo app.” In other words, it wasn’t about launching. It was about building a company that would get other people talking about the company. If you do that, it doesn’t matter who you get to talk about you, because you are going to succeed anyway. My phone number and email address are on my blog, so phone me up or email me and, in one minute, explain to me what you’re doing. One minute is challenging, but you need to practice being clear on what makes you special. That’s why I keep a list on Facebook of 2,100 startups. If you watch that list, you realize just how noisy this world is and how much competition you have. You have to explain what makes you more special than all those other people.

Q. Who do you listen to in the marketplace?

In Prismatic, a new news app, I’m listening to literally thousands of sources. I have 4,000 friends on Facebook. I listen to those people. I have almost 5,000 friends on Google+. I have 33,000 on Twitter aimed at me. Those are the people I listen to. I don’t listen to any one person. If Mark Andreeson called me this morning and said, “You need to cover this,” I probably would. Same thing for Tony Schneider, Om Malik, Ron Conway, Ashton Kutcher or any number of people who have proven they don’t waste my time and bring me really good stuff every time they call. Certainly those people would get me something faster than waiting for someone to randomly call me and pitch it. It’s hard to get to those people, though, which is why they have that reputation!

Q. How do you filter through all that noise?

I just watch it all day long. It’s what I do.

Q. Do you have a favorite piece of technology?

In terms of how many minutes I spend using it, my iPhone is by far the number-one favorite piece of technology in my life. I also have a Toyota with a radar where, if someone slams on their breaks in front of me, my Toyota slams on its breaks without my even looking at it. That’s probably my favorite piece of technology because it has a chance of saving somebody’s life.

Q. From your perspective, what is the most important development to date in information technology?

The transistor and then the semiconductor are probably the two big ones in my lifetime. Everything else springs out of that discovery.

Q. What is your best piece of advice for companies that try to pitch you?

Have an interesting story that makes you stand out from the crowd. That’s really tough. If I knew how to do it, I would be starting companies! But good entrepreneurs find a way to stand out from the crowd and define what they are doing as different and innovative and transformative. If you look at Uber Cab, they took what seemed like a normal everyday thing—getting a ride somewhere—and made it transformative and disruptive. That story is very interesting for journalists to tell, and they keep telling it. And that story sits on top of my theory that mobile is really important in the world today, so if you know what journalists are interested in, you can overlay your story on top of that. I’ve said what I’m interested in. I’m interested in context: sensors, wearable computing, big data, social networks, mapping. If you have a story that involves those five things, I’m listening.

Q.  What have been your favorite press trips?

I’m always looking for my story, so taking me on a trip somewhere, if you don’t have the product or a story, it doesn’t matter. It’s not going to resonate. I want trips with stories in them. I will keep digging until I find the story. I went to Harman last week and found a story about how they’re innovating. I did a story at some guy’s desk and it got thousands of views. It was pretty cool. But the PR team was looking at me like, “Why do you want to talk to him? We want to talk about the product.” But I thought the way they were developing the product was really interesting. So I look for my story, and if you’re good, you keep listening and giving me that opportunity.

Q. Tell us something that nobody knows about you.

I live pretty much every day of my life in public, so it’s hard for me to keep secrets at this point. But in high school I ran four marathons, and I guess a lot of people would find that interesting. I was into photography back then. If you look at my yearbooks, I was always in computer clubs. Even back then, my interests were very aligned with who I am today.

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  1. […] I follow a few people on Google+ as this tends to attract the tech notables. I always see what Robert Scoble has written on there. Otherwise, I chat mainly to other tech journalists down at the pub. It’s […]

  2. […] I follow a few people on Google+ as this tends to attract the tech notables. I always see what Robert Scoble has written on there. Otherwise, I chat mainly to other tech journalists down at the pub. It’s […]

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