We all harbor magical and romantic ideas about the transformative power of both technology and entrepreneurship. “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” That romantic idea is at the heart of many start ups, and the Internet has created a platform on which a never ending stream of new “mousetraps” can be conceived. Think, for example, of the NEST thermostat – that iconic Internet of Things product, which stylishly re-imagined the boring old thermostat: outfitting it with brains, motion sensors, a cool graphical interface and a powerful, web-based back end.
Company Town 2.0
But technology can just as easily create dystopias as utopias: obscuring the operation of formerly mechanical instruments whose workings were easily observable, or harvesting data from unwitting users and ferrying it off to the cloud for use by shadowy global corporations. Technology can even trap owners and business people in a kind of servitude – like the share croppers or the residents of “company towns” in the 19th and 20th centuries whose lives were prescribed and diminished by invisible bonds of contract and dependence, rather than by physical chains.
As the Internet of Things expands from “smart thermostats” to cars; home appliances; the agricultural equipment that plants and harvests our food; or the machinery that businesses rely on; the chances that you or someone you love might end up as a digital share cropper or the resident of one of these virtual “company towns” are growing.
And that’s what our podcast this week is about. In the first part of a two part episode, we’re joined by Jeremy O’Sullivan, co-founder of the IoT analytics company, Kytch. Jeremy and his wife and co-founder, Melissa Nelson, were the subjects of an amazing profile in Wired Magazine by Andy Greenberg that described the young company’s travails with the commercial ice cream machine manufacturer, Taylor, a storied multi-national whose equipment is used by businesses from the corner soft serve joints to giants like Burger King and McDonalds.
Despite the company’s sterling reputation and dominant position in the marketplace, O’Sullivan found that the Taylor equipment was notoriously unreliable – to the point of becoming an Internet meme. Today, sites like McBroken.com use McDonald’s online ordering websites to determine that anywhere from 5% to almost a quarter of all McDonald’s ice cream machines in major U.S. metro regions are not operational at any given time.
O’Sullivan’s big idea for Kytch: use technology he had developed to allow franchise owners better stay on top of the Taylor machines maintenance and cleaning functions – to keep their machines running and churning out soft serve to happy consumers.
A Cautionary Tale for IoT Entrepreneurs
It wasn’t to be, for reasons that still aren’t that clear, but are the subject of a lawsuit filed in Superior Court in California on May 10 by Kytch against Taylor and a prominent McDonald’s franchisee: Jonathan Tyler Gamble.
Regardless of how that lawsuit turns out or what it reveals, O’Sullivan’s story is a cautionary tale for entrepreneurs who are hoping to carve out a niche in what amount to software-enforced monopolies that are becoming more and more common. That’s true whether those monopolies govern Apple’s phones (see the ongoing lawsuit between Apple and Epic over access to the AppStore), John Deere’s monopoly on service and repair of its agricultural equipment or – in this case – Taylor’s strangle hold on its ice cream machines.
In this first installment, Jeremey tells us about the origins of Kytch in the fabulously named “Fro Bot,” which he and Melissa – soft serve enthusiasts – imagined as a kind of “Red Box” that automated Taylor’s ice cream machines. What starts out as a story about a plucky entrepreneur showing an older, richer company how to make their business better ends up in a different, darker place. In this episode, Jeremy takes us back to the beginning.
As always, you can check our full conversation in our latest Security Ledger podcast at Blubrry. You can also listen to it on iTunes and check us out on SoundCloud, Stitcher, Radio Public and more. Also: if you enjoy this podcast, consider signing up to receive it in your email. Just point your web browser to securityledger.com/subscribe to get notified whenever a new podcast is posted.