The Online Ad Ecosystem, Along With Others, Is Unwell

Published in Online Spin, January 8, 2016.

“The perfect business is a computer plugged into the Internet. Starting with me, every human thereafter is overhead.” -- Henry Ward, eShares CEO

The year is 2010. In the small town of Ashburton, New Zealand, a young lady named Jade Temepara has an insight. The insight involves old people, young people, inexperience and wisdom. It involves food and self-sufficiency, connection to the land and to each other, the ability to create and the ability to provide. Hand Over A Hundy is born.

The program is simple. It targets people who have never gardened or who have failed at gardening. Participants are given $100 worth of supplies, compost, and seeds to get started. They are also paired with a mentor in their community -- an experienced gardener, often older. Their challenge is to grow their own food during the year, plus at least $100 more than they need. That extra “hundy” is paid back into the system, to kickstart the following year’s cohort.

It works. In five years, Hand Over A Hundy, with its adorable catch-phrase, “Digging The Future,” has spread across New Zealand. Solo mothers on welfare are feeding their kids organic, home-grown vegetables. Elderly green thumbs are finding a renewed sense of purpose. It is sustainable. It is community-driven. It nourishes all its participants, not just with food, but with connection.

Most importantly, Hand Over A Hundy understands that it exists in an ecosystem. The group could just give participants a book to read, or a YouTube video to watch -- that would scale. But it lives by the simple, positive, self-reinforcing idea that when more people thrive, the organization thrives, and when the organization thrives, more people thrive.

That is not the worldview suggested by Henry Ward’s quote, above. Henry Ward’s quote, which came from a post he published called “"How to Hire,” suggests a worldview in which the company exists separate of its containing ecosystem. Ideally, customers thrive through their consumption of eShares’ services, but that’s about it. Every new employee is overhead, and overhead is bad.

I am being unfair to Ward. It is one quote, taken out of context. His article is excellent and I agree with almost all of it.

But the quote is illustrative. It is illustrative of a set of assumptions: that success is defined by financial return, that individual actors (whether people or companies) succeed or fail independent of each other, that “we” are somehow distinct from “the market” that we serve.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick suffers from this worldview, when he gets excited about being able to eliminate drivers from his business model. Jeff Bezos suffers from this worldview, as he continues his drive to fully automate Amazon warehouses. And the online ad industry suffers from this worldview, as its unsustainable bubble gets bigger and bigger.

It is an understandable worldview, one that is supported by many investors. It drives near-term, financially constrained success. But it does not lead to the kind of society in which I want to live.

But without explicitly questioning those first principles, it is the worldview to which we will default. And eventually, the system will crash: We will achieve the golden ideal of technological unemployment, and there will be no more consumers to buy stock through eShares or catch rides on Uber or buy books on Amazon or click on your annoying banner ad. These companies will have reached peak efficiency, but their ecosystem -- the very thing that gave them life in the first place -- will be dead.

As Jade Temepara knows, it’s unwise to take nutrients out of the soil with no replenishment. One day, you will find there is nothing left to eat.