Peter Thiel announces $100K grants for teens

October 1, 2010

Awarding Teens Grants to Dropout?

Financial trends and news by Faith Merino
September 28, 2010 | Comments (0)


For some, entrepreneurship proved to be a better route to financial success than sitting in class.

Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard before finishing his degree in computer science. He’s one of the better known Ivy-league dropouts next to Bill Gates, who coincidentally spoke to Zuckerberg’s Harvard class many years ago, encouraging Mark and his classmates to take time off because Harvard could always be a fallback. Gates certainly turned that notion on its head.

Similarly, two of the four NYU students who have been working on Facebook-rival social network Diaspora are planning to leave school to work fulltime on the project.  And now Facebook-backer and PayPal co-founder, Peter Thiel, is offering teens $100,000 to put school on hold to focus on developing innovative tech ideas.

Thiel (who will also be a keynote speaker at Thursday’s Vator Splash event) announced Tuesday his new “20 Under 20” program, which will award grants of $100,000 to 20 entrepreneurs under the age of 20 for developing interesting new tech business ideas. 

The two-year program, which was announced at a TechCrunch Disrupt event in San Francisco, will begin accepting applications early in the third quarter. The Thiel Foundation website says the program is open to anyone under the age of 20 who wants to pursue an entrepreneurial interest in any tech field, although Thiel is partial to artificial intelligence, space exploration technologies, biotech, and aerospace engineering.

But the under-20 mandate essentially requires applicants to forego college, if not dropout altogether.  Thiel refers to it as “stopping out of college,” but let’s face it—if some 18-year-old suddenly hits it big with the next Facebook or iTunes, he or she probably isn’t going to care too much about that nebulous degree in philosophy (sorry liberal arts majors, but you’re the easiest to pick on). 

In his on-stage interview at TechCrunch Disrupt, Thiel explained that while in college, students “do learn a lot, but the don’t really learn much about entrepreneurship.”

Personally, I find this a little disconcerting.  Why does a teenager have to choose between college and entrepreneurship? Why not establish the same grant for college seniors under the age of 25 under the condition that they must finish school first?


Thiel clarified via email: “The big problem with colleges and startups is that the amount of debt people are taking on in college is becoming  prohibitively large and is preventing students from doing anything risky (or not well-paying) after college.  I’d like a world in which people could do both, but I think this is increasingly difficult because of the out-of-control college costs.”

While I agree that the skyrocketing cost of college poses a very real problem for young entrepreneurs who may be too saddled with debt after school to want to take anymore financial risks, I don’t agree that encouraging them (with lots of money) to choose starting a business over school is the solution.

Success Stories

Of course, there is the argument that it is possible for someone without a college degree to be a successful entrepreneur. Just look at Mark Zuckerberg.  Now the 35th wealthiest person in America (Steve Jobs comes in at number 36) and one of the youngest billionaires on the same Forbes list, Zuckerberg is hailed as a dropout success story.

Or look at Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard in 1975 to focus fulltime on Microsoft (in 2007 he was awarded an honorary law degree from Harvard).  He has consistently made number one on Forbes’ list of America’s wealthiest people (although for all of his money, he still doesn’t appear to be willing to spring for a snazzier haircut).

So is college really necessary to be a successful entrepreneur?  Based on Zuckerberg’s and Gates’ stories: no.  But that’s a pretty oversimplified approach to the issue.


Entrepreneur-turned-academic, Vivek Wadhwa, who teaches at Harvard, Duke, and UC Berkeley, argues that not everyone can be a Zuckerberg or a Gates, and that if you look at the people that Facebook employs, Zuckerberg is the only college dropout.  In fact, all of Facebook’s top employees have undergraduate degrees from fairly prestigious schools, and most have advanced degrees as well.

Of course, this is the very point that Thiel makes regarding to the “20 Under 20” program.  Young people should be encouraged to take risks and endeavor to become the next Zuckerberg or Gates.  The burden of student debt in addition to what Thiel sees as traditional education’s habit of preparing students for safe, stable jobs as employees is ultimately preventing those same students from trying out something new and dangerous.  Maybe they won’t become the next Zuckerberg, but they might come close and come up with a pretty good idea nonetheless.

What is the value of a college education?

But the problem that I have with this idea isn’t that young applicants might fail miserably or even that students need a college education to develop the skills and experience needed to ultimately run a successful business (which is also true—Zuckerberg isn’t running the Facebook show on his own.  His highly-educated comrades are bringing in the business sense), but the fact that it pits a college education directly against entrepreneurship.

Comparing college to entrepreneurship in terms of long-term payoff doesn’t take into account the fact that a college education offers so much more than skill-development and number-crunching experience.  It offers students a comprehensive understanding of social and cultural issues, as well as civic responsibility and what it truly means to be an engaged and informed citizen.

I can think of classes that I took up until my last day of college that changed the way I viewed the world.  Even something as simple as a college-level Algebra class made me realize that I can do math and that there is no such thing as a brain that simply can’t do something (I still probably shouldn’t be the one calculating up the tip at the end of a group meal at a restaurant, but I digress…). 

What if one of those students who drops out of college (or “stops out” and chooses not to go back) ends up missing out on that Ethnic Studies course that would have changed the way he or she views the current situation for Mexican migrant farm workers?  Or never takes the Gender Studies class that would have made him or her realize that there is an unhealthy dearth of women in the fields of science and technology?

True—those students might never have taken those classes in the first place, but they never will if they are told that college is incompatible with entrepreneurship, and they must choose before the age of 20.

Assault on Net Neutrality: How Corporations Are Ready To Control The Internet

August 10, 2010

Above is a speech given in July by Senator Al Franken, in which he calls the Comcast-NBC deal the “first domino” in the collapse of internet freedom. Last week’s Google-Verizon deals seems to prove him absolutely right and then some.

This week Google and Verizon partnered up for a deal that has sparked an angry fervor across the web, and for good reason. In public statements, Google veiled the actual heart of the deal with calls for “strictly-regulated transparency” on all wired networks – the DSL or Cable you probably have at home. But if you read between the lines, you can see a very different plan being formed for wireless networks; the real future of the internet.

For those not versed in the debate over net neutrality; here’s a quick catch-up from

The debate pits network providers (like Verizon) against companies and individuals who use said networks to deliver products and services to customers (like Google). As web applications become more central in nearly every aspect of public and private life, the network providers have grown increasingly interested in recouping the massive amounts of money they spend on building and maintaining network infrastructure by charging those companies who use an inordinate amount of bandwidth (like Google) for privileged access and delivery to customers. The internet has never worked this way, so the idea is obviously upsetting to many people, who cite the web’s inherent openness as a key, if not the key detail that has allowed it to fundamentally change all of our lives in such a powerful way, and will allow it to continue to do so at the same breakneck pace in the future.

The plan establishes protection against tiered or paid services for any wireline networks, meaning all sites and domains get equal access to users. But the plan explicitly leaves wireless open for complete corporate control. If this plan is implemented, network providers will have the ability to give priority to certain services, such as their own internet tv services (this is mentioned especially in the release), while blocking other services which hog bandwidth. So depending on which corporation you’re getting your internet from, you might be allowed access to Netflix’s watch instantly service and blocked from accessing any other movie streaming service. Network providers would have the ability to block protocols like bittorrent entirely. It’s possible that you would be allowed access to any site you’d like, but only if you pay a certain premium. In the tiered-web model, different levels of payment would allow for different levels of access. Not to mention that the deal claims the ability to ban or remove any content deemed “unlawful”. This seems like a good thing, but it sets a precedent for censorship on the web. If a site like wikileaks is deemed “unlawful”, then there goes the last bastion of true government transparency.

Google justifies all this by emphasizing the freedoms they’d preserving for wireline networks; and deemphasizing the stranglehold they’re placing on all wireless networks. But anyone who’s considered buying a phone in the last 6 years knows that there is no question about it; wireless is the future of the web. Google’s plan even mentions encouraging governments to expand wireless access. This has been my personal tech dream for a long time, blanketed wireless access would be an incredibly important innovation for the internet. Think about the potential of every device you own having constant internet access. Now think about the potential implications of corporations having control over every aspect of the internet, which is constantly connected to every device you own.

Verizon’s reasoning for this is that current-generation wireless networks are fragile to maintain and expensive to build. But this is clearly an excuse for a deal which has been perfectly timed. As technology advances, wireless broadband access will become a much less precious commodity. Think about the amount of bandwidth you had when computers used regular phone lines to connect to the internet. That has changed incredibly quickly, and the nature of technology is that it advances exponentially. Don’t be surprised if soon after the Verizon-Google deal goes through, Verizon comes out with an even faster, more advanced wireless service, and suddenly Youtube looks like HBO and it’s given bandwidth priority over every other video streaming site. One day we will likely be swimming in more bandwidth than we know what to do with, but by that time, we’ll have forgotten what it means to have an internet which is a free, uncensored forum, where anyone can say anything, create anything, and share anything. In a world where so many elements of our lives are controlled experiences, the internet is one of the last places where we as users can freely have an unadulterated experience which isn’t watched by a corporate or governmental eye. The ball is already rolling, and it’s on course to crush net neutrality.

Al Franken Net Neutrality Petition

TechNGadgets Informative Article

FreePress Article

Google Public Policy Statement 1

Google Public Policy Statement 2

Google Makes Changes – How Can You Stay at the Top of the Page?

July 2, 2010

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is an interesting industry. It also happens to be pretty large considering its actual purpose: exploiting imperfections in search engines. The people who work in SEO generally don’t like to look at it this way, but all they’re doing is cheating at a game. The goal of a search engine is to give users the most accurate, high-quality results possible. When someone with a floundering website which isn’t receiving the pageviews they’d like seeks out a specialized SEO company just for the sake of getting better search-engine results, they are saying they’d rather get traffic than improve the quality of their site. Well as of late, the companies that provide the short-term relief that is SEO are going nuts, and it’s all because the company they make all their profit off of, Google, has made a pretty major change to their search algorithm.

It’s not exactly being explained this way, but the change seems pretty precisely designed to eliminate the ability to exploit faults in the existing algorithm, exactly the service that SEO companies provide. What the algorithm actually does is improve the quality of results by promoting sites with unique content.

When it comes to Google’s pay-per-click advertising, the updated algorithm will continue to use the quality and cost-per-click (CPC) figure but will be slightly tweaked for that coveted top ad position. Instead of using the actual CPC, Google will use the advertiser’s maximum CPC in the overall equation. In addition, Google will be applying a stricter threshold on the quality component for the top ad positions. Actual CPC is determined, in part, by the bidding behavior of the advertisers below you. This means that your ad’s chance of being promoted to a top spot could be constrained by a factor you cannot influence. By considering your ad’s maximum CPC, a value you set, you will have more control over achieving top ad placement.

According to Google, “In addition to increasing control for advertisers, the improved formula increases the quality of our top ads for users. This is due to more high quality ads becoming eligible for top placement, thereby allowing our system to choose from a larger pool of high quality ads to show our users.”

Other side effects include that the long-tail and mid-tail keywords (phrases with 3 or more words) are passing through more stringent semantic and ranking filters (meaning the array of broad match keywords a page could potentially rank for) have been tightened up or reduced to increase relevance.

Here’s a pretty technical video explaining the actual changes:

So who will be impacted by this change? First, those who currently have top ad positions will see more competition in that area. Second, the people who have spent their time increasing keyword density on their site just for the sake of reaching a higher position on the search engine will have wasted their time.

Really, it’s not as if Google is making a targeted assault on SEO. They are just trying to increase the quality of results and keep up with the evolving state of the web. They’ve recently begun to integrate real-time social media content into their results, which means that it will be impossible to pay a search engine marketing company to be constantly tweaking your site. Regardless, this is only reinforcing the reality that tweaking the content of your site so it’s more kosher for Google results will never stand up to regularly adding genuine, well-written content to your site which people will want to link back to. The truth is that if people reach a site solely because of SEO but the site itself is not well designed, does not have decent content, or doesn’t look trustworthy, no one is going to buy from it or link to it.

So what are the steps to take in order to compensate for this change? Obviously it’s still important to focus on where your site will place on Google. But the way to go about this is not to think from the search engine’s end and build your site around what will be successful on a results page. Rather, the priority should be the quality of your site and its unique content, its accuracy to its message or what its selling. Google is simply trying to make the web a better place – where the best sites are also the most popular sites.

Contact Us or check out our website and we would be happy to help you figure out how you can make a truly good website tailored to a better internet.

Finland makes broadband a ‘legal right’

July 1, 2010

Finland has become the first country in the world to make broadband a legal right for every citizen.

From 1 July every Finn will have the right to access to a 1Mbps (megabit per second) broadband connection.

Finland has vowed to connect everyone to a 100Mbps connection by 2015.

In the UK the government has promised a minimum connection of at least 2Mbps to all homes by 2012 but has stopped short of enshrining this as a right in law.

The Finnish deal means that from 1 July all telecommunications companies will be obliged to provide all residents with broadband lines that can run at a minimum 1Mbps speed.

Broadband commitment

Speaking to the BBC, Finland’s communication minister Suvi Linden explained the thinking behind the legislation: “We considered the role of the internet in Finns everyday life. Internet services are no longer just for entertainment.

“Finland has worked hard to develop an information society and a couple of years ago we realised not everyone had access,” she said.

It is believed up to 96% of the population are already online and that only about 4,000 homes still need connecting to comply with the law.

In the UK internet penetration stands at 73%.

The British government has agreed to provide everyone with a minimum 2Mbps broadband connection by 2012 but it is a commitment rather than a legally binding ruling.

“The UK has a universal service obligation which means virtually all communities will have broadband,” said a spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Making broadband a legal right could have implications for countries that plan tough action on illegal file-sharing.

Both the UK and France have said they may cut off or limit the internet connections of people who persistently download music or films for free.

The Finnish government has adopted a more gentle approach.

“We will have a policy where operators will send letters to illegal file-sharers but we are not planning on cutting off access,” said Ms Linden.

A poll conducted for the BBC World Service earlier this year found that almost four in five people around the world believed that access to the internet is a fundamental right.

[original BBC article]

Videochat and Social Media: The Missing Link

June 22, 2010


It’s time to take videochat seriously. Videochat a prime example of futuristic technology that would’ve seemed unimaginable 30 years ago but is currently available. You can have a decent-quality video phonecall with someone thousands of miles away in realtime – why hasn’t this technology taken off? The key lies in social media.

Now that Apple is taking on videochat with “Facetime” on iPhone 4 we can expect some major steps forward in the technology and hopefully in the popularity of this area of communication. Virtually all computers nowadays are equipped with webcams, but people are generally only using these to record video rather than to make live calls. Usually people blame this on the lack of quality and consistency in leading videochat programs like Skype, but in reality the quality is there, it’s just not being used. The problem with current videochat programs can be understood more deeply if you look at them in comparison with videochat’s predecessor: instant messaging.

The online plain of videochat currently looks almost exactly the way instant messaging used to. Sites like stickam and tinychat provide public video chatrooms as well as the ability to create private rooms, similar to the old aol chatrooms. Skype can be equated to AIM, the instant messaging program used ubiquitously for the past 6 or 7 years – at least by middle and high school students. But instant messaging has moved on; now almost all instant messaging dialogues take place over facebook chat, a huge change considering the past popularity of AIM. Skype has the same problem AIM did, it requires you to seek out your friends through their service and create a buddy list which is unique to Skype. Facebook Chat stole instant messaging away from AIM simply because every friend you could ever want to chat with is at your fingertips; you don’t have to find out their special username – you’re already friends with them. Considering the natural trend of tech it seems logical to say that we can expect videochatting to become easier, more reliable, and following these, more popular. The moment it’s possible to create a lightweight decent-quality videochat program within Facebook – expect Skype to disappear.

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