The guy we’re going to be talking to today, John Robb, might best be described as the person “least-likely to be kicked off the island.”
John’s accomplishments leave most of us feeling – how do I put this – a bit “ordinary.”
John and I first met due to a mutual interest in self-sufficiency and the establishment of resilient communities, but John’s expertise stretches further… much further than this.
John’s a true capitalist. His bio could easily be a post on its own, so let me try to summarize:
- Air Force Academy undergrad degree in “rocket science”
- Masters in public and private management from Yale University
- DoD counter-terrorism mission commander, pilot and mission planner
- Worked with Special Ops, including Delta Force and Seal Team 6
- Wrote a best-selling book in ’07 entitled Brave New War
- Forrester Research hired him in 95 as its first Internet analyst
- Was a key architect in creating one of the first blog publishing systems and the first RSS aggregator
- Esquire magazine named him one of the “Best and Brightest” in 2007
- Published in the NY Times and Fast Company
- Webby Award, 2000
- Eagle Scout (was there a doubt?)
If it isn’t already obvious, John is sought-after as a speaker, a consultant and an expert in counter-terrorism. I was really glad he agreed to chat with me.
Since his background is so diverse, I found myself wanting to discuss a few things with him. So, I’m going to start with his former expertise, technology, and move to the latter, resiliency and sustainable communities in the next interview.
Mark: John, how does a guy trained as a rocket scientist, who used to fly planes and work with counter-terrorism units, get hired as the first Internet Analyst for Forrester Research?
John: Luck. Fate. It’s the same with almost all of my life. I tend to stumble into things.
When I left the military, I decided to go to business school at Yale. It gave me a chance to dig into everything from the construction of financial derivatives to starting new businesses.
The great thing about being at a University in ‘93 – ‘95, was the chance play with the early Web on University networks. That promise of the Web got me interested in technology and start-ups. So, to start, I joined Forrester Research, a great technology research company in Cambridge, MA.
Fortunately, the CEO of Forrester George Colony, took me under his wing. He allowed me the freedom to develop my own research practice in Web technology. Anyway, in 1995, I stumbled into becoming the first professional Web tech analyst (likely in the world). EVERY Internet company came through my doors and my new research service went from $0 to $5 m in a year (it zoomed Forrester). It also had quotes in every news venue from the NYTimes to the Wall Street Journal to the BBC on a nearly weekly basis.
Mark: How did that gig lead into you co-founding a financial performance testing company, and running another that was the pioneer in weblogs and RSS?
John: Well, after watching the technology companies I interviewed become extremely successful, I decided to try my hand building companies too. So, I became an entrepreneur and co-founded a financial technology company called Gomez. While there, I ended up taking on the role of the CTO (as well as the President/COO). This led me to run a brilliant team of developers to build a global network (54 cities on 6 continents on 24 Internet backbones) that tested the online transaction systems of all of the big banks and brokerages 24x7x365. Long story short, it was a good business to be in. Gomez recently sold for nearly $300 million.
In 2001, I left Gomez to run a company in the newly emerging area of “blogging.” At the time there were about a couple of thousand of us blogging. Not many. We released one of the first desktop blogging tools and the first RSS aggregator while I was there. A couple of years after that, blogging and subscribing to blogs became very popular. The rest is history. Facebook and Twitter ran with the methods and technology we built for blogging. They repackaged it, making blogging ubiquitous.
Mark: We’ve been talking a lot lately about crowdfunding/crowdsourcing. Obviously when you came up in the tech business the majority of funding was still done via angels or VC’s. And, of course, all the major investment banks were tripping over themselves to take anything with the word “Internet” in the business plan public.
It seems that a focus of your work, whether it’s been your writing on guerilla warfare or resiliency, focuses on the concept of “open-source.” I would describe crowdfunding as a kind of open-source model for funding and encouraging innovation where it otherwise might be ignored. The big VC’s and the IB’s represent legacy models that probably will be rendered obsolete at some point. What’s your take?
John: Yes, it’s something I’m calling community funding, and I do think it is a form of financing that will replace venture capital in many instances.
Why? Community funding is BETTER money than VC money. Not only is it less expensive money, it’s money that comes from people that want you to succeed and are likely to become:
Further, by making your pitch directly to the public, you get to test out your idea early on in a much better venue than a pitch made to a bunch of know-nothing finance guys.
PS: I wrote a letter on how to avoid getting burned with crowd funding.
Mark: Switching gears just a bit… We’ve watched the SOPA/PIPA controversy, now its CISPA; the “Stellar Wind” project was featured in Wired last month, and recently an NSA whistleblower, former Director William Binney, came out and said flat out that the government is lying, they intercept and store everything we do, Constitution be damned. It seems the government won’t stop until it completely controls the flow of information on the Internet and has the ability to monitor and record everything we say and do online.
You’re a counter-terrorism expert, how much of this is hype and how much of it is really necessary to safeguard national security, in your opinion. And what about our civil liberties and right to privacy?
John: It’s a mixed bag. There’s certainly lots of excessive hype going on right now in regards to the NSA snatching and storing the data of US citizens.
The real problem is the encroachment on our freedoms in just about every other area. In particular, the ability of the President to declare any US citizen an enemy combatant and without a judicial process, order them killed. There’s also a whole host of laws and regulations that are aimed at restricting our freedoms in favor of the Intellectual Property mafia. They want the ability to censor everything we see and shut down web sites if there is even a whiff of IP infringement.
It’s a mess and it will only get worse.
The other thing I think people should be concerned about is the growth in the use of drones. Drones that routinely kill people. The bad news is that, despite predictions to the contrary, drones are going to become so inexpensive, intelligent and easy to produce they might replace most of the military as we know it today. That future would be very bad. It would allow a very small group of people to enforce their will on a huge number of people.
Chris: In a similar related theme. Mark and I are both students of history and it would appear to us that one can certainly make the case that we are in the midst of a collapse in the world’s present monetary system. This coincides with political, social and geographic elements being impacted.
We’ve all witnessed how the Soviet Union collapsed when the system was overwhelmed and we are watching with fascination as the “Arab Spring” evolves. I know you have an interest in complex societies/civilizations and how and why they collapse. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and whether any analogies can be made with what is taking place in much of the West today.
John: My approach is pretty simple: I believe the global system we live in today is already broken.
The system is too big, too fast, and too complex to control. It’s a system that is careening from crisis to crisis.
Why? It’s an inherently unstable system.
One reason: It’s a system that is built for high performance. You can see this in the speed of the systems that interconnect it – from financial flows of hot money to just-in-time manufacturing supply chains to mobile communications. It’s also leveraged to the hilt, via borrowing from the future, financially and environmentally.
Systems that are built for high performance, like fighter jets, don’t want to stay in the same place. They don’t want to fly straight and level. Instead, they tend to go non-linear (tumble, spin, gyrate, or break apart). That’s why we build computer control systems for them. They monitor the jet’s flight and when it starts to go non-linear, it dampens it out. In fact, modern fighters are so unstable, pilots don’t actually fly them. The control system does. If the control system failed, the plane would go out of control (which would lead to catastrophic structural failure) in less than 1/32 of a second.
That’s the problem with our global system. It’s unstable and there isn’t a mechanism to slow it down.
Another problem area is central planning. I see central planning in our current context less as an attempt to build a functional control system and more as a form of destabilizing leverage.
Unexpectedly, the most powerful central planners in the world aren’t in the government. They are in the financial world. Why? The increasing concentration of wealth combined with network dynamics has created the capitalist equivalent of a politburo. A small group of central planners that are grossly mismanaging our collective resource, often for minor (relative to the damage) personal benefit.
(Chris note: John’s article one on the fall of the US empire due to central planning is a must read:
Chris: Closely related to the previous question. Decreasing marginal rates of return are something that every business, government and society faces at some point. On the continuum of the life cycle of the above mentioned, we can see that much like a plant, societies, countries, sectors, companies all sprout, grow rapidly, slow, age, wither and finally die.
Many countries and sectors which we at Capitalist Exploits focus on are in their relative infancy, and either sprouting, or in early growth stages. Our contention is that steering clear of the decaying, withering and dying countries is prudent. What’s your take?
John: That makes sense. Given global telecoms, you can start a business nearly anywhere. So why not shop for the best venue to incorporate?
My personal preference is the virtual organization. A business that isn’t located anywhere but online.
I’ve built and operated companies that were completely virtual for years now. I’ve had people working for me that I never met face to face. People that worked from locations all across the globe. The cool part is that it worked. The products we built were amazing and the costs were very low.
As you can see John’s a smart guy! I wanted to introduce him to our community because we share so many common beliefs. In his next interview segment we’ll talk about what excites him nowadays.
John is an advocate of technology and has very useful opinions on how to fund and grow those businesses. He’s also a bit of a “futurist” with strong leanings towards resiliency and self-sufficiency. In fact, he writes a blog called Resilient Communities.
Chris and I are staunch advocates of sustainability. I spent a few months in Chile recently and had the great pleasure of seeing our friend Simon Black’s sustainable farm. Other friends of ours have, or are doing it as well… Doug Casey in Argentina, other communities in New Zealand, Uruguay, Canada and even in Israel. Resiliency is hot!
I’ve been in Fiji for the past month and a half, and what I’ve learned is that this is likely THE most sustainable and resilient country I’ve ever been to. Besides that, it’s also about the friendliest place on earth (sorry Disneyland!). I’m likely going to make my home here, that’s how sold I am…
Don’t believe me? Stay tuned.
Self-reliance is the only road to true freedom, and being one’s own person is its ultimate reward. – Patricia Sampson