Marianna Bonechi has been living in Silicon Valley for eight years and is running Avy Ventures in Menlo Park – a company focusing on pre-seed and seed investment in AI, SaaS and social media. She worked for i5growth in the Bay Area and is an advisor to the Austrian Business Agency in San Francisco. During the ViennaUp'21 conference, organized by the Austrian Business Agency and Vienna Business Agency, she spoke with Chris Messina. Chris has designed products and experiences for Google and Uber, founded startups, created movements and acted as a catalyst for change in small and large organizations. And of course, Chris is best known for inventing the hashtag.
Marianna: Chris, the hashtag had such a profound impact on the world. Over 200 million hashtags are used every day on Twitter alone. Take us to how exactly you had this idea?
When I came up with this idea back in 2007, the hopes, dreams, and ambitions for social media or what it would become were different. We found ourselves in the process of migration from desktop computing experiences to ones that were mobile. As the mobile phone became the de facto computing platform, the ways that we could use digital technology to support social interactions became more apparent. We wanted to go out with our friends and use these technologies to communicate, to connect and to find each other. What we found was that technology as it had existed hadn't been adapted to be used on the go, out in the world and that, in addition to reshaping technology to fit our needs, we needed to modify our own behavior to integrate these advances. The hashtag — as a behavioral technology — sits right between the technology of language and the technology of social media, which was largely enabled by mobile technology, like the iPhone.
Marianna: What was the moment when you realized that the hashtag became viral?
The hashtag resulted from contemporary innovation and behavioral changes in the marketplace.
When it was first proposed, it caught the attention of a small number of my friends — but there was a great deal of scepticism that it would ever become mainstream, let alone offer value outside of a narrow slice of Silicon Valley.
But then Instagram came out in 2010 and it provided a powerful use case that helped usher the hashtag into mainstream consciousness. Back then, computer vision was largely an academic area of study rather than a commoditized search technology, so when you searched for content on Instagram, you couldn't find anything unless metadata describing the photos was available.
Since Twitter users were already using all those tags on Twitter and Twitter was well-established, as users migrated from Twitter to Instagram to share photos, the practice of hashtagging migrated naturally.
But the moment that I realized that the hashtag had the potential to be widely adopted was before then, back in 2008, when I somewhere in the middle of California along some highway and way outside of Silicon Valley, I spotted a billboard for the Tea Party using a hashtag to promote a political message. This was when I realized that the hashtag had left the nerdy technology world of Silicon Valley and was started to find utility in mainstream use cases that had nothing to do with technology itself.
Marianna: It's hard to believe that Twitter initially rejected the idea of hashtags and told you 'These things are for nerds. They're never going to catch on". What helped you to persevere in the face of adversity?
What was different and an important part of the cultural zeitgeist back then, was a bi-directional conversational relationship between people who are building the technology and people who are using it. It seemed like these social platforms and products were ours, that they were being built with us not just delivered to us.
The day after I wrote a blog post offering the hashtag as a community-focused proposal, I marched into Twitter's headquarters to present my idea, but was dismissed out of hand because Twitter's servers were metaphorically on fire. Twitter was blowing up in terms of popularity and the core team didn't have time to consider some random suggestion from the peanut gallery. But the rejection didn't feel personal; it felt more either like Biz Stone (one of Twitter's co-founders) didn't get it or that he wanted to solve relevance with a different strategy — one informed by his time at Google. It was his company, so of course that was his decision to make.
But I wasn't deterred because I was very much embedded in the early social media community and happened to friends who were building apps for the Twitter platform. All I had to do was to convince them to build support for the hashtag into their apps! And then, over the years, as Twitter started to acquire those companies, rather than remove the code and functionality that enabled hashtags, Twitter's engineers just left it in. So the hashtag was like the Romans in the Trojan Horse, sneaking its way into the company's products.
Marianna: Chris, you have spent over 15 years living in Silicon Valley at the technology edge. What is the culture of failure here and how does it differ from the other part of the world?
I remember pretty distinctly when I was in Paris on a panel with Mike Arrington from TechCrunch and there was a question whether Paris would ever be able to have its own version of Silicon Valley. Many places have been asking this because they look at the success of Silicon Valley and they want to copy or at least achieve the same economic outcomes that Silicon Valley has. It seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of why Silicon Valley works the way it does and how it has this sort of brilliant combination of academia, military contacts, counterculture revolutionaries, strange people, third wave coffee, and open source/Homebrew cultures.
During my time at Google one of the things that stood out to me was how much Google rewrites its internal code every year. It goes through the shedding of old code and ideas — and engineers celebrate when they delete obsolete code because they're moving forward. There's just no room for nostalgia or clinging to the way things have been. There is a desire to keep iterating, keep moving, and keep trying things.
Although Zuckerberg gets dinged for this a lot, the idea of moving fast and breaking things was more an attitude of not writing code that is so perfect that you couldn't overwrite it with something better. And if you broke someone else's code in pursuit of building, learning, and iterating, it was acceptable as opposed to a fireable offense. That dynamic — in which conflict was resolved with data when those interactions would occur — is very different than you'd expect in places with more territoriality.
In the era of the internet, you can push something out in the morning, realize that it is breaking a bunch of things, tweet about how you realized there's a problem and that you're working on a fix, and then by the end of the day, tweet that you've rolled out the fix. That cycle might have previously taken six months. It's a different environment enabling a breakneck pace in how fast you can move, rapidly designing, building, and deploying in rapid succession.
Marianna: The invention is the core of your career and you have created so many movements whether it was co-organizing the first BarCamp and popularizing the unconference event format or opening the very first coworking space in the world. What do you attribute to your ability to generate these groundbreaking ideas?
I want to be clear that there were a bunch of people who worked on a lot of these original ideas, and that I helped catalyze some of these movements. Coming out of the open source tradition, I took a lot of inspiration from the ideas and practices of open source.
Tim O'Reilly, a well known publisher of O'Reilly Media, had these annual events in Sebastopol, California called FOO CAmp, where he would bring a lot of well known or rising stars like Larry Page and Sergey Brin, among others. In 2005 I hadn't been invited because, frankly, I wasn't anybody yet! But because Tim O'Reilly was such an advocate for open source, I thought why don't I take his event model (actually promoted by his colleague Sara Winge) and popularize it? Having never organized an event like this before, my friends and I organized our "unconference" in just six days — using the earliest social media of the day: wikies, IRC, Plazes, and web pages. We expected 30 people and instead 300 people showed up! And the conference organized itself very much in the way that the internet does, and it was incredible. We launched a number of platforms and products that are well known today, including TechCrunch and Pandora. Matt Mullenweg from WordPress was one of the co-organizers, and a bunch of other interesting people that would become quite influential in the tech world attended and presented.
After the event got some press in Wired, a bunch of people reached out to me requesting that I come and organize BarCamps for them. But that wasn't the point, so instead I designed logos for them and told them that BarCamp is an open source event, and so you have to build it yourself. Because we documented everything openly and publicly, people started to run events themselves and they started to realize that they didn't need to get permission from a central authority, that they could actually serve themselves. I wasn't interested in a commercial outcome, I was interested in helping to propagate our culture.
So in 2006, after the BarCamp community had started to get going and began popping up all over the place, some friends and I realized that we wanted to have the ad hoc community experience of BarCamp on a daily basis. For that, we needed a permanent space. My friend Brad Neuberg had been organizing biweekly events that he called "co-working" in the Mission in San Francisco and I suggested we should start doing this every day. With that, we set up the first dedicated co-working space in Dogpatch in San Francisco called Teh Hat Factory (yes, "the" was intentionally mispelled). We ran that space for several months before reluctantly realizing that we were going about it all wrong and needed to get serious about this idea... and so shut that down and opened our next location, which we called Citizen Space. This was in South Park (up the street from Twitter's early headquarters) and that blossomed into a much, much larger community.
Marianna: A growth mindset is the driving force behind innovation, yet some cultures are still very much focused on perfectionism. How can one learn to think differently?
I myself suffer from perfectionism, so I can relate. Because my friends and I were coming at this from a desire of serving one another and just trying things, I suppose it wasn't so much that we needed a growth mindset, it was just that we were in the process of growth and our mindset derived from whatever confronted us or that we didn't understand. We knew that we didn't know everything because we were literally living at the edge of human experience, and so everything we tried was being tried (as far as we knew) for the first time — and so... how could we be wrong? No one had established what was right!
For example, there was one hackathon at the first BarCamp, where the internet connectivity was so bad because we were in a building in Palo Alto that hadn't been wired yet. We ended up getting someone to beam us microwave wi-fi from 60 miles away in order to light up the venue and to provide wi-fi — and I'd never heard of that before. But someone there just happened to have the knowledge and willingness to try it — and it worked!
I suppose the growth mindset is related to the hacker mindset. If you just keep going and focus on the goal or the outcome that you want to achieve and get mired in current solutions, you become very sensitive and almost triggered by it and so you're like "no we're getting bogged down in the details and we're not moving forward! Let's pause this and try something else." There was no ego about it — it was about concerning energy for the tasks that required the most effort, creativity, and exploration.
There are a lot of people whose job is to be completely risk averse and to make sure that nothing bad ever happens. For example, if you're running a nuclear power plant, moving fast and breaking things is probably not the M.O. that you want to adopt! And yet, humanity is also running towards this climate crisis and that does require a different way of thinking and to examine the systems and structures that are in place, how they got to be in place, and whether the intention of the people who put them in place was to create indefinite institutions. For hackers who are just trying to solve the immediate problem, rarely do they intend to create unquestioned institutions. And so just because something exists or has persisted for some period of time, it doesn't necessarily mean these solutions shouldn't be questioned and whether or not they can be evolved beyond the status in which you found them.
Marianna: As a number one product hunter, what products or apps excite you most?
One of the things that has been interesting last year has been the number of apps that use video as a core medium and are evolving that format in a way similar to webpages did in the mid-2000s. In 2016 bots were a huge trend because we were starting to see that conversational AI might be possible. Obviously we've been in the trough of despair (in the Gartner Hype Cycle) but maybe about to be on the way up with bots... but relative to bots, we're in the early innings of video as a core medium because the bandwidth hasn't been there, the compute power hasn't been there, the machine learning models for working with video and compression and all that stuff has really just started to become productized in a way that allows people to build. This is very exciting.
In addition, I'd point to virtual presence. Obviously a lot of us spend many days in these square rectangles and on Zoom calls but a lot of people are bringing the elements of MMORPGs and gaming into these spaces where people can move about and interact with each other in a spatial environment. I think that there's really interesting elements that are being brought into that, kind of bringing together elements of the metaverse with collaboration, communication and just being very online.
Marianna: Any apps or products from Austria that caught your attention?
Product Hunt is such a global and diverse place that where someone comes from (i.e. their country of origin) isn't something I've paid much attention to.
Marianna: You probably know remove.bg?
Ah yes, of course. There you go! I know the product, but not that it came from Austria!
Marianna: Where can readers go to learn more about you and how you help founders with building products?
Marianna: Any parting thoughts you'd like to share with us?
In general, what is really important is thinking into the future and thinking about the type of work that especially young people are going to be engaged in. You need to be very dynamic in the way that you perceive yourself and how you can change yourself in order to adapt to and to respond to the continued evolution of technology. We are still in the very very early innings of AI and how that's going to change work. And if you go into that space imagining yourself to be one thing and only one thing, that's a pretty limited perspective to come from.
Failure is going to be not only necessary but that is the way we learn. Machine learning works by having reinforcement mechanisms and loops that reward successes but that requires millions and millions of failures to get to those positive outcomes.
What I learned out of Silicon Valley is that the more shots on goal you get, the better outcomes you'll achieve. You may have thousands and thousands of failures but the few successes you do have are going to be so much stronger and come from such a place of knowing and you'll be able to explain what it was that didn't work, which is a necessary part of the learning process and the learning engine; this is co-evolution of technology, culture and society, and we're all part of it now. It's simply undeniable, so it's up to each to shape our contributions.
If you yourself are thinking about starting a business, why not do so in Austria? Find out more about our country's innovation and funding landscape here.