This is the first of three posts covering the fourth annual GeekWire Summit, held October 2 – 3, 2015. GeekWire Summit 2015, like its predecessors, featured talks and panel discussions from leading figures in technology and business in the Pacific Northwest.
This year, the conference had a specific focus on the future of business and technology, particularly looking at current technology and its possible applications in the future. Here are some of the highlights from this year’s GeekWire Summit. It was the first time the conference was held over two days.
Why Microsoft is Putting the Gamer at the Center
The first day of GeekWire Summit 2015 featured a talk from Phil Spencer (@xboxp3), the head of Microsoft Studios. Spencer shared some of the lessons learned by Microsoft from the reactions to the launch of the Xbox One and provided a glimpse into Microsoft’s future plans for its game division.
After its launch announcement at the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the Xbox One was widely criticized fans and critics for prohibitive licensing schemes and what they perceived to be unnecessary features. Microsoft revised the Xbox One’s features extensively before its launch, but the damage was already done.
“[Our most loyal customers] felt the direction of the product didn’t include them,” Spencer said, describing the outpour of disappointment and hurt from fans of the Xbox console. Microsoft’s shift in attitude towards their game production side has helped with regaining user loyalty and trust, but it’s an ongoing process.
One example of the most popular features developed for the Xbox One is backwards compatibility, which allows users to play their Xbox 360 games on the Xbox One. “More than the actual feature,” Spencer said of the feature’s positive reception, “It was the sentiment that we were taking time to recognize the value and investment in our product, and bringing it forward. We wanted to show respect for the investment they made in our product.”
The key to that respect has been a strategy that places players at the center of everything that Xbox teams produce, keeping the team’s focus on their own output rather than what the competition is doing.
Spencer also took time to acknowledge the value that acquiring the Minecraft IP has brought to Microsoft, and how education remains a big push for Microsoft. He also said Microsoft may be building new games specifically for eSports (competitive team gaming) in the future, which will take advantage of the unique opportunities for broadcasting and community-building in that space.
Regarding the HoloLens and virtual reality (VR), Spencer said that he feels that it’s too early to be fighting for market share in the wild west of the VR space. Right now, it’s more important to develop technology and controls that offer users the choice to move seamlessly between virtual and augmented reality experiences, and remove barriers between input and output.
“As that line blurs, thats the biggest impact we could make,” Spencer said. “Bringing it to more people, where it’s not about control or the technology itself, but what it enables.”
Exploring Alternative Models for Startup Funding
Gregg Gottesman (@greggottesman), a Venture Partner of the Madrona Venture group, came to discuss his new company, Pioneer Square Labs. Describing it as a “startup studio” rather than an incubator or accelerator, Gottesman says PSL doesn’t aim to replace the traditional startup model and that 99 percent of companies will still be formed the traditional way.
PSL takes ideas for startups and spends a few months to work on them, building prototypes and doing research. If the idea has potential to be commercially viable, PSL begins looking for an executive team to head the budding operation. If it doesn’t, the organization moves on to the next idea. If an idea is selected, it’s up to the executive team to decide which of the angel investors and venture capital firms involved in PSL make the best match for their goals.
“We hope to create companies worthy of the very best talent in Seattle,” Gottesman said. PSL aims to give ideas and opportunities to people who have excellent ability to execute and desire to participate in creating a startup, but who may lack the perfect idea and the perfect opportunity to do so.
Gottesman also explained that ideas are heavily vetted. At PSL, four out of five projects are killed while looking for the perfect combination of excellent traction, market size, and timing that he described as the functional equivalent of surfing on a tidal wave. In a year, he expects to produce two to four viable ideas.
When prompted about the tech and other opportunities to watch for in 2018, Gottesman highlighted the opportunity surrounding massive amount of student debt that learners are accruing, as well as the ubiquity and potential reliance of the supercomputers that our mobile devices have become in our day to day activities.
Later in the day, Dave McClure(@davemcclure), a founding partner at 500 Startups, and Brady Forrest(@brady), Vice President at Highway1, spoke about running their respective startup incubators, the opportunities they see in their space, and what they believe Seattle lacks.
In short, McClure and Forrest believe that Seattle doesn’t have enough angel investors, there’s not a strong enough network to funnel capital back into the startup community and there’s a weak link in an otherwise vibrant tech community. They say venture capital should not be the sole factor driving startups and entrepreneurship.
Additionally, both McClure and Forrest seemed to feel like tech developers and investors simply aren’t looking geographically far enough with their next venture. There’s untapped potential in other geographic areas, including underserved Arabic- and Spanish-speaking markets, and only a few companies working to fill that space. Forrest, whose work deals primarily with hardware, believes that consumer medical technology will also be great space to move into, as well as other “unsexy enterprises” such as facilities management, networks, education, and healthcare.
“People are looking for the next great big thing, but the search for the internal newness is creating riskier business models than necessary,” McClure said. At 500 Startups, he manages risk by looking specifically for teams that have worked together in the past and made an active decision to work on a startup, have good conflict resolution and will produce something truly unique and beneficial.
As his parting words, McClure offered entrepreneurs looking to get their idea funded a simple piece of advice when pitching to investors: when talking about your companies, use the past tense, not the future tense. “The future tense is mostly lies,” McClure said. It is much more powerful to discuss what your company has accomplished in the last 8-12 months, whether it’s speaking in numbers like your key performance indicators, or bringing in a working demo or prototype to demonstrate the viability of your product.
Additional coverage and analysis for this article was provided by Drew Stone. Stay tuned this week for our continued coverage of Geekwire Summit 2015.