Here’s an update on an impressive pandemic-inspired pivot by Samir Arora’s Sage, the company I wrote about at the start of the year that is building what I hope is a next phase of the net: a expert-based web.
When the pandemic hit and travel was all but shut down I worried particularly about two friends’ businesses because each was centered on travel. One is Samir’s Sage, which was starting its expert network with expertise about destinations — hotels, restaurants, places. I’ll tell you how he reacted in a moment.
The other was Rafat Ali’s Skift, which covers the travel industry and built its business around in-person events: a double whammy. I interviewed Rafat for the Newmark J-School’s leadership program about the painful decisions he had to make to keep the business alive. I think you’ll find it informative. Since we had this conversation, Skift shifted to offer a daily news subscription service and Rafat now says “subscription-first is the path forward for us.”
Now to Samir and Sage. He has made his career building tools to support creation: When he was developing an early web-authoring tool, NetObjects Fusion, he gained much valuable experience using it to help my friend Rick Smolan put together his amazing A Day in the Life of America project. Glam, Samir’s later company, was inspired by putting together networks of bloggers to build their businesses; I blogged about that 13 years ago. His latest company, SagePlus for Experts, which I wrote about here, was about to go public with tools for experts in travel and food to build their online presences and businesses with networks around them.
Before the shutdown, Samir had been introduced by William Morris Endeavor to celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, who got excited about using Sage to build his digital presence — across books (he has one upcoming), restaurants, and events — and to amplify the voices of experts not heard in mainstream media.
In the pandemic, Samuelsson started working with celebrity chef and food philanthropist José Andrés on relief for communities and restaurant workers. Samuelsson’s CEO, Derek Evans, called Samir about a dozen weeks ago asking him to extend the Sage platform to handle charitable projects and contributions: a campaign management system. In no time, Samir’s team volunteered to make it happen and on July 18, they went public with a platform for Harlem Serves Up. In 24 hours, it handled an amazing $100,000 in contributions.
This became Project Bento, an end-to-end platform for campaigns, which now include also Black Businesses Matter; Hand in Hand, a Daniel Boulud Fund; and the Project Bento Fund, which in turn gives money to Citymeals on Wheels and World Central Kitchen, in addition to funds to support restaurant workers. As of this writing, the team has raised $5.1 million in donations to charities and to create meals. Individual donations go 100% to the charities.
So now the Sage platform has more capabilities. It already had the mechanisms for experts to be invited, invite others, and build online presences and apps with multiple business models. Now, because of Samuelsson, the platform has the means to support not-for-profit campaigns and contributions from large sponsors and individuals.
That work done, Sage is turning back to its launch. Now it will include not just travel experts but also authors, entertainers, and experts in other fields, verified by humans. I had wanted Samir to move past travel because the web needs to build mechanisms and institutions to discover and verify and support expertise: to pay for their work. That, as I said in my last post, is what I think the net needs next: platforms not just for speaking “but also for listening and finding that which is worth listening to, from experts and people with authority, intelligence, education, experience, erudition, good taste, and good sense.”
I will never say there is a silver lining to the dark and deadly cloud COVID has because of the venal negligence of the current American government. But I am impressed at the good people create in times of need: Samuelsson and Samir saw a need and built it.
I was five hours late returning from San Francisco to home yesterday but I was remarkably calm and sanguine about the delay. Why? Because I was well-informed and well-cared-for. And that was the case because this year I joined the secret society of most-frequent travelers and ticket buyers on United: Global Services.
We were taxiing out to the runway at SFO for our agonizingly early 6:45 a.m. flight when the pilot said a gauge wasn’t acting properly. Back to the gate we went (and I was amused that my United app showed us arriving before we’d taken off). Much testing and back-and-forthing by mechanics ensued. It didn’t work. The plane was taken out of service. We were told to leave. Shit happens.
Then could have begun the customary hell of wrenches — literal and figurative — thrown into travel plans and planes. That was nearly the case. The entire planeload ran to a customer-service line seeking rescue. The person behind the counter said she couldn’t rebook us because our tickets were “used.” We were told United was, and I quote, “looking for” a plane. Pesky critters go hiding, apparently. Grumbling started to rumble.
But then two nice things happened. First, the lady behind the counter, named Rita, scolded operations at the airline for not giving passengers complete and accurate information. How nice — how rare — it was to have an ally fighting for us, the customers. That also preempted our need to fight for ourselves.
Then I got a phone call from Global Services. This, I quickly learned, is the real perk of being in the club (not just being the obnoxious guy who gets to get on the plane first). A very nice woman named Terry Norris told me that she had already rebooked me on three — yes, three — flights to afford choices based on time, airport, and seat assignment. Wow. I wasn’t sure what to do so I held onto one choice and Terry let me wait to decide while the airline went looking for its pesky plane. (Of course, when found, I imagine an employee shouting this:)
About an hour later, Terry called me back and informed me that a plane coming in from Raleigh-Durham had been assigned to us (which, of course, is what they mean then they say they “found” a plane). It would be arriving at 10:05 a.m. I’d still have my beloved first-class, aisle, bulkhead seat (I’d bought an upgrade with my miles). It so happens that I knew about the found plane before the gate agent did and filled him in.
I took to Twitter to thank and publicly praise these good people.
Thank you, Terry Norris of @united Global Services for rebooking me but more importantly keeping me informed. That's what matters most.
Right. Why shouldn’t everyone get the kind of service I got yesterday? Well, the answer at first is obvious: It would be prohibitively expensive for airlines to have lots of Terrys to personally take care of and inform every customer. I get that service now because the airline made a lot of money off me last year, when I flew more than 100,000 miles. But if every customer could, indeed, get that level of service, wouldn’t the airline make even more money from even more satisfied and loyal customers? Call me an cockeyed optimist, but isn’t that a service ideal?
Well, @ahalam is right: A software agent could take personal care of customers. The new United Android app is good and it keeps me better-informed than I used to be because now I can look up where the plane I’m waiting to board is coming from and when it will arrive as well as the status of wait lists for seats and upgrades. That’s quite an advance.
Imagine if when I arrive at the airport neurotically early, as I tend to do (thanks, Mom), United would ping me and ask whether I wanted that empty seat on an earlier flight. Imagine if when there are problems, United’s software agent keeps me personally informed and, like Terry, gives me other options to get to my destination. Imagine if this automated agent knew I liked going to on pleasure rather than business and sent me a tempting deal to fill up a plane. Imagine if, knowing my preferences in hotels and local transit — Über? rental car? train? — the agent booked and billed me from door to door, giving me choices but not requiring me to go through scores of pages to get the job done. Imagine if the computer agent knew me so well it could preload my own shows on the entertainment system (you left off at episode 23 of House of Cards, Mr. Jarvis) and order me the food and wine I like and seat me next to interesting people who like to talk or people like me who prefer the silence? Imagine, as I suggested a few years ago, if the airline could gather the collective wisdom of its passengers about their favorite destinations or hometowns and share that with other passengers. Imagine if just one airline did all that for us instead of making its money by nickel-and-diming us charging for bags of nuts or bags on the plane.
All that is possible. It would mean that an airline would have to respect customers as individuals rather than as anonymous butts in seats, building trusted and rich relationships with each one of us and rewarding us with tangible benefits.
More important, it would mean that an airline would have to become a technology company (which just happens to own metal tubes that fly). Such an airline’s core competence would be in building systems to super-serve customers with information and solutions and relevant suggestions based on rich data.
As we landed in Newark more than four hours late, I was starting to think this could happen if just one brave airline invested in such a future.
Four hours late? Didn’t I say above we were five hours late? Well that’s because the airline’s computer system had broken down and so none of the flights getting ready to leave were allowed to depart their gates and thus no gates were free for us and so we sat on the runway and — “the hits just keep coming,” said the pilot — then there was no one to drive the jetway to us. Oh, well. And I was imagining the new airline as technology company.
Well, a passenger can dream, can’t he?
In any case, given how much abuse airlines take on Twitter, I thought I’d say thanks to United for making a bad day as bearable as it could be for me. And I’m glad I wasn’t traveling with the passenger whose plane always flies under a dark cloud. See…
It’s ridiculous to think that in four days I could get a true sense of a nation or region I’ve never been to before. I think I could spend 40 years in this desert and not figure it out.
I’ve never seen a clearer case of there being no there there than here. When you come to Dubai, you can’t help looking for the real Dubai. That’s because everything around you is extravagantly made up.
I stayed in the opulent Jumeirah resort complex that is so lavishly designed that one wag said even the sea looked fictional. Out of my balcony, I stared at the fabled Burj Al Arab hotel, which looks like a sail on the ocean and is boldly beautiful on the outside.
But on the inside, I expected to see the Little Mermaid hopping out of the fountain.
Lore has it that when the hotel opened its design was minimalist, but when the ruling sheikh saw it, he asked when it would be finished. Out came Disney shades of pink and blue by the barrel and enough gold leaf to rescue Iceland’s economy.
With a newfound friend from the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Councils – the reason we were here – I went up to the bar atop the Burg and we passed on what was proudly advertised as the world’s most expensive drink as we gaped at the next world’s tallest skyscraper, an incredibly huge glass stalactite, and at the palm islands being built and built upon on the water.
Dubai has two skylines (this is just one of them) and they are dotted – no, filled – with cranes building them bigger and higher.
In an effort to show us the real Arabia, the government of Dubai (which paid for the conference as well as my travel and that of many or most participants) and a local developer bussed us with police escort an hour out into the desert past vast stretches of nothingness – I have seen the middle of nowhere – with gargantuan construction sites running in full gear in the cooler night.
We arrived, almost randomly, at the ruins of a fort (I wonder what it was defending) laid out with carpets and catering and camels (who were not happy) and young boys twirling guns (“al Qaeda in training,” one Brit wagged). We still had not arrived at the real Dubai.
The day before, looking for Dubai, I’d made the mistake of going to the Mall of the Emirates with its hundreds of stores and infamous indoor ski slope, just because it was so over the top. But I came away depressed because it was only an extreme extension of the malling of the world that I lament (and wonder whether whether eBay and Etsy can cure) in my book. All our stuff is now the same.
I suppose we should be flattered and relieved that a nation – especially an Arab nation, no? – chose to copy so much of America. But why did they chose as their inspiration Vegas (sans sins), malls, grossly conspicuous consumption, and Hollywood pap? I wasn’t sure whether I was sadder for them or us.
So I went looking for old Dubai downtown. But before I went there, a local told me that what I was more likely to see was old Bombay. True, but I did feel better riding the boats across the canal and shopping in the souks.
Ethan Zuckerman, who was on our World Economic Forum team and who I’d want to travel the world with, passive aggressively steered us all into a “pure vegetarian” restaurant called the Evergreen and expertly ordered up a feast for six that cost 25 percent less than a drink at the Burg. And we had a very nice chat with the Indian owner.
The essence of Dubai, it turns out, is that it’s not Dubai at all. In the United Arab Emirates of which Dubai is a part, 85 percent of the residents and workers are foreigners – from construction workers to hotel staff who washed the stone outside every morning as I jogged past (labor is that cheap here) to young journalists to bankers – who will never have the rights of citizenship. The vast majority of the population does not speak Arabic. There are a half-dozen thriving newspapers in English (odd sight these days); that is the lingua franca. So the economy is imported.
Having said all that, Dubai is an amazing accomplishment of its monarch, who is always but always referred to in the newspapers as His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. One day, a page-one, over-the-fold story said the Sheikh had been honored by a foreign leader for being good to horses. It reminded me of reading about the DDR’s leader in East Berlin’s papers in 1981. The Sheikh’s photo, always looking stern, adorns most shops in the old city (you can buy lots of sheikh schwag there: sports medals, paper crowns and hats, wrist bands, and even paper eyeglasses with his picture).
With my fellow members of the internet Global Agenda Council, I got to meet the Sheikh in a private audience. The greatest moment of the meeting and the entire trip: Dave Sifry greeting the sheikh: “Hi, Your Highness.” His posse cracked a grin. We tried hard not to.
Ethan Zuckerman eloquently and respectfully raised the issue of Dubai’s censorship online. When you try to go to any of many sites here, you get a page with a link that lists in cold clarity the forbidden zones: sex, crime, terrorism, and certain top-level domains (one of which happens to be from the land that doesn’t exist here, .il). As he will in an essay he wrote coming out of the WEF (which I’ll link to shortly), Ethan talked about the feedback loop the internet provides and how it loses value and returns false results when it is restricted.
I asked the Sheikh about the free-zone Media City and Internet City he built to attract those industries and the university adjuncts they are creating in the UAE with many American and European institutions. One of his aides explained that in 1971, when the government was formed, Dubai had one high school, no university, and only 45 university graduates. Today it is educating 90-odd percent even of its women in college.
Dubai has built a huge economy and it is still building feverishly. At the summit, a frequent topic of conversation was Dubai’s fate in the credit crisis as construction of gigantic complexes stretch as far as the eye can see across the flat sands. At the closing of the meetings, our cohost, the head of a giant construction company and member of the ruling government, told the group with a charming smile that Dubai’s just fine and has seven quarters of run room on serving the debt. More than one media executive said afterward that somebody should have stopped him from protesting too much. The next day, the headline in the paper was about panic selling of real-estate stocks here.
I spoke with media people who live here and love or like it. One is an executive who left Paris and finds business here faster and freer. Another is a young reporter who, apart from “extortionate rents” (but in a complex with a pool she wouldn’t get elsewhere), is getting great experience (I see an opportunity for my journalism students). Another is an old hand who speaks Arabic and has been here for 15 years and wouldn’t leave.
In an email, friend Fred Wilson – who went trolling for new companies in Slovenia this summer – asked about the place. The reason to consider Dubai, I think, would be as an offshore base to start a company. There are obvious tax advantages. For a certain sort of person, the lifestyle could be desirable: lots of shopping, Lord knows; plenty of American food (Fridays and food courts!); a great tax situation; no winter; and a beach that looks as if it, too, were imported.
Dubai is either an act of fiction or of the future. I arrived thinking the former; I leave wondering whether it could be the latter. In a sense, what we see here is a real-life model of the virtual world we are creating online, crossing borders and cultures and linking in whatever’s needed to make money: capital, cheaper labor, imported expertise and education, infrastructure. Except online, we are all citizens of the internet.
I’ll probably go back next year for the next WEF GAC summit and I’m sure I’ll still be looking for the real Dubai, getting in a car to find a real town and a real souk, finding someone who can explain the place to me. I’m not sure I’ll ever find it.
[Disclosure: To repeat, the Dubai government paid for the summit, for my travel, and for that of many or most participants as its sole sponsor.]
Flying to London Monday. In Paris Tuesday to see la Sorbonne for CUNY and then Paulo Cuelho for my book and folks from AFP for drinks. Then back in London for the Guardian’s Future of Journalism sessions Thursday and Friday plus breakfast with the Telegraph and a meeting with the publisher. But I do have time for drinks and such, as of now. Here’s my Dopplr.
: Later: Since you’ve asked, I’m flying Virgin (mere premium economy) and — I’ll admit this is ridiculous — I’m taking the day flight so I don’t have to worry about sleeping and lying flat to do so.