Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner is wrapping up the Rule Breaker Investing podcast's Authors in August theme with a nonfiction bang: Mark Penn, the author of 2007's Microtrends: The Small Forces Driving the Big Disruptions Today and this year's update, Microtrends Squared. Penn's nonwriting resume includes stints as the chief strategy officer at Microsoft, CEO of the PR firm Burson-Marsteller Worldwide, chairman of Harris Poll, and a key campaign advisor to both President Bill Clinton and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair. The two discuss the concept of microtrends and dig into a number of examples that are changing how we approach everything from business and investing to public policy and our personal lives.
In this segment, the subjects are the self-data lovers and the virtual entrepreneurs. Our ability to mine accurate data from our lives has grown at a breakneck pace, and you doubtless already know that businesses are even hungrier for it than individuals. Also remarkable is how rapidly the barriers to forming a small business seem to have shrunk.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on Aug. 16, 2018.
David Gardner: All right. And now our final section for this podcast. Let's go to where this podcast lives and breathes most weeks and it's Work and Business. And, of course, too many interesting microtrends to talk about with you today, Mark, but I have pulled out two.
The first one is No. 42 in the book and it's entitled "self-data lovers." I love this section because you helped me realize I'm a self-data lover. Can you briefly define our term?
Mark Penn: Well, a self-data lover is someone who really has become a data junkie in a lot of ways. Really loves to follow heartbeat, pressure, steps; all of the things that can be accumulated, now, on yourself that you could never really know before, mostly through your apps and smartphones. And so, I think if you become that, it in many ways then controls a new behavior because of the more information you get about yourself. Oh, maybe I'm going to have to walk 10,000 steps every day. It changes your behavior because you're kind of obsessed with meeting numerical goals in your life.
Gardner: And you said, "What's most surprising," [and I'm quoting from the book, again] "from these self-data lovers is that while a growing number of consumers are concerned about data mining and big data tracking by industries, many life loggers seem more than willing to share personal information with whoever is interested, supplying health symptoms and treatments to sites like PatientsLikeMe and CureTogether. Playlists and the number of times they've listened to a particular song to Spotify. And the number of calories they just ate at dinner to too many apps to mention."
Penn: This is where self-data lovers and big data really intersect, because to the extent that we're looking for a cure for cancer and we're trying to figure out what people did that improved their chances of survival, or to the extent that we're trying to understand what produces obesity, or the extent we're trying to find how to detect the early warning signs of a heart condition or heart attack; the more big data you get, the better our predictive capabilities can be.
We had as one of our first clients in Microsoft in the cloud an elevator company that had 50,000 elevators, and by knowing every floor that each elevator went to and how much stress it was under and how many people, they could predict with much greater accuracy who and what was going to break down when. And same thing with people. So I think that being a data junkie changes people's individual lives, but it may actually help us as a society.
Gardner: And that is very promising, so I'll feel good, then, about continuing to track my steps, my sleep, and various other things that I use my iPhone and Apple Watch to do.
Penn: And maybe you'll get to sell it. Right now you're giving away most of your data for free in exchange to use some apps and I think we're going to fast come upon the day when you can say, "Hey, that's my data. You want to buy it? OK, it's $100. Subscribe to my data. Subscribe to Mark Penn's data. $10 a month."
Gardner: That sounds pretty smart and in fact that reminds me in the chapter you do mention that at Harvard they've been experimenting with what they're calling a "can," which is basically like your personal data in a receptacle, just all that we're generating, and maybe that could be a thing. Your can and my can and we're renting it or selling it.
And you're right. It does make a lot of sense to me for consumers to take a little bit more ownership of that data because it's valuable, and one of the things that I do when I pick stocks is I'm often trying to figure out who has the most data out there. Those are the companies often I look to recommend. Whoever has the most data wins. But that should also be true of us as consumers.
Penn: Well, data is the new oil and amazingly each one of us has our own mini oil well ready to pump out that stuff which right now we're giving away for free and few could monetize. You could monetize that to your benefit in various ways as opposed to letting the technology companies monetize it for you in exchange for whatever free services they think you would like.
Gardner: That makes a lot of sense to me. Let's move to our final microtrend we're going to talk about on this podcast and that is No. 44, "virtual entrepreneurs." Certainly a lot of entrepreneurs listening right now. A lot of people who might, one day, want to be an entrepreneur. Part of what you point out with this microtrend, Mark, is that it's easier than ever before to be and become an entrepreneur.
Penn: I think people think of the cloud as an innovation for BOOT business. In fact, the cloud is one of the greatest innovations for small business and for individual business since the PC. You can now sit down at a PC, your iPad, or even your phone and you could start your entire business. You could get onto word processing or other software in the cloud. You can sign up for your payroll. You can register, typically, with your state government. You can get your federal tax ID. You can be off and running and be a virtual entrepreneur operating in a business in a couple of hours with a smartphone or an iPad.
And then you may or may not also be able to make your entire income off of the kind of new virtual entrepreneur opportunities that are on there, particularly being an influencer. Look, if you could get your dog [...] in $50,000; your dog could well be worth $100,000 a year. So put your dog to virtual entrepreneurship. But you can come up whether it's retail, whether it's selling digital goods, whether it's games, whether it's even doing podcasts like this. There's so many new ways that you can actually make some money.
Look, I started out at age 13 and I sold stamps to collectors through the mail. They just didn't know they were dealing with a 13-year-old. Today any 13-year-old can have a virtual business on eBay. I sure would have had one.
Gardner: And you do mention that chapter, "The Rise of Virtual Entrepreneurs." You wrote [I'm quoting], "... stands to help American women in particular."
Penn: Because the new kind of mom and pop store is the mom and pop consulting biz. And particularly a lot of women who want to be able to work part time go into consulting opportunities that now they can actually work part time virtually. So many different ways to control your own occupation and create an occupation that didn't exist and deliver a service without even leaving your home. I think people underestimate the virtual entrepreneurship abilities and opportunities open to Americans today.
Gardner: And human creativity, in my experience anyway, knows no bounds and surprising new things pop up here and there and we read books like yours to hear about them for the first time. I hadn't really heard much about virtual restaurants. You were writing that these "restaurants would have no wait staff and no host or hostess. Just a kitchen creating delicious food with the idea that ordering online and through app services would be enough to sustain a business." You just walk into a virtual restaurant.
Penn: Exactly. It's very interesting. Some of the most interesting Japanese restaurants have eliminated takeout, but you could have a virtual restaurant just having takeout. Just having Postmates pick up the food. You never have to do any of that other stuff. You just need to create an online image. Create an online image and turn out the food. You never have to deal with a waiter again.