The Idea Dude


Monday, January 30, 2006

Building clocks or telling time

Businessweek has a free online course on writing business plans. I've probably read a couple of hundred in my life-time and wrote a few myself. Nevertheless, I went to have a look. Doesn't hurt to sharpen the knife so to speak. Needed to blow out a couple of bad habits of my own. Not sure if it was synchronicity but I was trading emails a short while ago with a good friend of mine who asked me what should be in a good business plan because he's seen some that were pretty bad or made fantastic promises that simply disappointed when it came to execution.

I told him you really need 3 business plans. Your own, your investors and your employees. That's not implying you will lie in each one but rather the emphasis is different for each one. For your investors it's about market opportunity, showing your competence, the potential upside etc. For your employees, it's about execution, selling the company as a great place to work and grow and be one of the best in the market. But most important and the first one you should write is your own business plan. Why are you doing it? what are your own parameters for success? what are your own drivers? No fluff, just stuff...

So the thoughts that flow from here are...
  • be able to tell the story from your heart, passion and conviction are intangibles that project from you which emotionally help people decide on investing or joining you...
  • be able to tell the story, preparation is key...everyone needs to be able to market themselves and their ideas...
  • plan, because the plan is not the only thing you get out of is the discipline of thinking through the problem that is the saying goes..."if you fail to plan, you will plan to fail"
  • Make sure you're telling time and not building clocks...think about the value you will bring to your investors, employees, your customers and yourself.

Remember, you can't predict the future but you have to get on the train...a man does what he can until his destiny is revealed...

Friday, January 27, 2006

The People's Revolution or Is it?

The theme of Esther Dyson's upcoming PC Forum 2006 is "Erosion of Power: Users in charge". She quotes Barry Schwartz a psychologist who argues that all this freedom and myriad of choices do not always result in happiness. I would agree. I think there's a dangerous theme in product management and marketing today that says give customers what they want and give them thousands of choices. The rationale is that if you do this, you will please all the people all the time. Urgh! Here are a couple of thoughts why this may backfire on you.

Trap #1. Asking your customers what they want. Many customers will tell you what they think you want to hear not what they really want. Harry Beckwith, marketing guru, recounts the story of kids who told an interest group they wanted CD players of all different colors but on the way out they all picked a black one as the complementary gift! Also, if you have ever been a recipient of a RFI (request for information) or RFP (request for proposal), you will also know that the list is really a union of all the players in the domain and whatever academics have been promoting at conferences. Why? The customer is not usually the expert and he or she will cover the bases by merging all the features that you have and the 100 competitors that you may have (and throw in the need for a fusion-powered water kettle to boot). The key here is focus on your competence and be the best at solving a particular need (hopefully the one that people are willing to pay for).

Trap #2. Give the customers choice. Sales teams love this because it means they can satisfy the customer no matter the situation. Choice in itself is not a bad thing. But it can cripple your company needlessly by trying to be the Swiss knife of your domain. The saying, "Jack of all trades but master of none" is relevant here. We should take a leaf out of the Apple book i.e. iPods were always white (the second great innovation? they are now also black!). I think the number of people who refused to buy the iPod because it didn't come in the color of their choice must be in the minority. A staggering 42 million iPods has been sold since it's inception, 14 million in the last quarter. Henry Ford would be proud (except if he was at Apple, the iPod would have been black!). Ever wonder why bad restaurants tend to be the ones with a zillion things on the menu? Be careful of dying from a thousand cuts (er....features).

Trap#3. Customers like to choose. Most people are followers not leaders. If you don't believe me, listen to the table next to you the next time you're at a restaurant. It's often, "I can't decide, what are you having?". Similar conversations occur at cinemas, shopping malls etc. Customers actually don't like to be wrong. That explains why Amazon's recommendation engine is so powerful, and many of the paid advertising shows on TV use celebrities or use testimonials. That's why we do white papers and we get endorsements from experts. Customers think they like to choose, but often the choice, explicitly or implictly is made for them. The thought here is help your customer choose.

Back to the future, it's probably not so much about users in charge but perhaps more about the blurring between producers and consumers and barriers to market. Users are now exposed to so much choice at breakneck speed, all they really need is someone to help them make their choice without making it obvious.

So next time you decide...ask yourself...did you really make that decision or did someone make it for you...

So is it Web 2.0! or Web 2.0? ...maybe it's what follows Web 2.0 that's important...

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Deja vu

Watched a series called 'Restaurant Makeover' on the FoodNetwork this week. Here's a real life scenario that brought back vivid memories. The designer has 6 days to do a complete restaurant makeover. The designer turns out to be very ambitious in her proposal. The foreman, pressured into getting everything done gets the carpenter to help do the plastering. Then the electrician (the lights have not arrived yet) has to build the bar which is what the carpenter should be doing. He does a great job but there is confusion because there are two sets of plans for the bar. The designer can't figure out which is the right one. They call the folks who are doing the counter top. Yet, when it finally gets delivered, the counter top does not fit the bar that has been built. The following conversation ensues...

Carpenter: "If I did the bar, this would have not have happened!"
Designer: "Why is the carpenter doing the plastering instead of what he is good at?"
Foreman: "You gave us too much to do. It was the only way to finish."
Electrician: "This wasn't my job and it isn't my fault, the plans were wrong."
Carpenter: "I should have done this, it wouldn't have happened."
Foreman: "It wasn't his fault, the plans were wrong."
Designer: "I don't know why there are two sets of plans."
Foreman: "Get them to make a new counter top, the structure is already built"
Carpenter: "I should have done this."
Designer: "I still can't figure out the plans."
Electrician: "The plans were wrong, it's not my fault."
Designer: "We'll have to redo the bar."
Foreman: "Then we have to demolish everything. We wasted all this time."
Designer: "You guys are great, I know you'll figure it out"...and exits...

In the end, they do the right thing, rebuild the bar, it is terrific and all is well...

In the heat of the moment, you see all the emotions, confusion, accusations, guilt, justification, fear, anger...It's reality TV at its best...just like reality software development...only the names have been changed...

There's a great book (at least the first third, I'm convinced most if not all leadership books should be a third of their size but authors feel they have to pad to justify the price of the book...but that's another topic for another day)...I digress, the book is called The Oz Principle (Hickman, et. al). It's about individual and organizational accountability. I love the beginning because it talks about the many excuses we make to justify why something didn't happen. I've mentioned this before in another post. The most profound statement they make in the book is accountability is not what you did but what you are going to do....

My standard reply to these situations..."It is what it is"......"How do WE fix it!"

As John Maxwell says..."Don't keep score...", it is the surest way to self-destruction.

Monday, January 23, 2006

It's a question of focus

Too often we get distracted by the hot idea you got from the last conference, or the buzz from reading a blog or even one customer describing a particular pain point he has. It's an affliction that strikes most startups and sales people because they struggle daily for that seemingly elusive goal...a predictable revenue stream. Those who are entrepreneurial at heart and sales folks are particular prone to this disease. While it is important to recognize great opportunities when they come along, it is often disconcerting to the crew rowing below the decks. They see a captain being pushed around by prevailing winds rather than someone who has the skill to choose the ones that will take them to their destination.

So this is a fitting way to start the week and note to self. We have to recognize what business we are in and what we are best at. Anything else is a distraction that should either be discarded or outsourced. Having too many goals is also a bad thing. I really believe most people can focus at most 2 things and often I hear the cries amidst chaos, "I don't know where to start!" My reply is always the same, "Pick at most 2 things that you want to achieve above all else" and then "Forget there are a thousand steps to get there, just take the first one".

So to achieve focus, you need discipline and the best natural driver for discipline is passion. By now, you'll realize I'm a sucker for quotes and cliches, I thrive on memorable one liners because they help me find my way when I'm down or lost. I'll share one of my favourites from the movie, The Last Samurai. Captured by the Samurai, Tom Cruise's character grows to respect them and one of his observations about them was - "...from the moment they wake, they devote themselves to the perfection of everything they pursue. I have never seen such discipline...". As a living Knight of the Old Code having sought many software grails, I can relate to that...

I'll close this blog on focus with Segal's Law..."A man with one watch knows what time it is, a man with two watches is never sure".

Friday, January 20, 2006

To be or not to be...

We easily make 50 to 100 decisions a day routinely without too much thinking. Whether it's what we are having for lunch, to what to wear, to whether we should pursue a company acquisition. Some consequences are less drastic than others but too often we look back with regret at something that is so painfully obvious after the fact wishing we took a different path.

Harvard Business Review publishes an excellent article on the subject of 'Why bad decisions happen to good managers.' I found it to be a terrific bootstrap for my own thinking. Firstly, we make a habit of placing more important on the first piece of information we receive. Don't think so? Think about how many times you picked the first color shown to you, or your first car, or your first crush at high school. Pretty unforgettable. Hence the saying, 'first impressions' count. We have to make sure that we balance our lines of thinking and not allow our emotions to give sway to the first source.

Human nature hates risk because it brings uncertainty. As a result it is easier for us to make decisions based on keeping status quo than favour the path less travelled. Here we have to separate the cost of moving away from our center of gravity with the benefits of being caught up in a totally different orbit. Making the right decision should not be based on the low cost of inertia but rather whether change is the path to achieving our long term objectives.

The one that we are all so guilty of is sunk costs. Too often, we have invested so much time, energy and money into a particular business strategy, we cannot emotionally detach ourselves from a death spiral. Instead, in panic, we pour increasingly more resources in the hope that we will somehow extricate ourselves from the hole what we dug ourselves into. It is both failure of our ego to admit that we had made flawed choices as well as a desperate attempt salvage a sinking ship.

We like to hear things that support our decisions so we actively seek evidence that adds credence to our line of thinking and at the same time suppress or ignore that which may call our judgement into question. Not only that, we also take our past experiences and use them incorrectly to forecast the future...incorrectly because either we have bad memories or the historical evidence, even if it true, is not really applicable.

It often takes a frank mentor or a bold colleague to stop us from perpetuating some of these flaws in our decision-making. I've learnt to cherish those who challenge my thinking (no matter how emotionally unsettling or painful it can get).

So the next time, you walk into a coffee shop and order the same latte and the cream donut, maybe you should think twice...

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


We talked about it in the late 90's and now it's pervasive. What is it? According to Wikipedia, disintermediation is the process of cutting out the middlemen, or to put it more elegantly, it is market transparency. Businesses who ignore it will do so at their own peril. The examples touch every aspect of life. With voice-over IP (VOIP) we see Skype, MSN, Yahoo and Google offering free calls across the Internet...a huge savings if you do a lot of long distance calls. eBay created a marketplace that blurred buyers and sellers and transaction size. It's success is highlighted by the number of small to large enterprises selling some or all of their goods through that channel. Open source software has become a legitimate avenue for low cost/free fully functional software that rivals offerings that cost thousands of dollars. All of this happened because of mass connectivity.

So what's the message in this blog bottle. The Internet continues to change our lifestyles radically. It is still a killer wave. Some say it's Web 2.0 but who's counting...and who said it should be linear. You have to be so in tune with your consumers and trends in the Internet space. One of my favorite trendspotting sites is Trendwatching. It is absolutely amazing what people will ask for and pay for today. The barriers of brick and morter are gone and the adage that your competitor is just a click away is real. The Internet has also allowed many ideas that would have been thrown out of big businesses to flourish and live a little. Take PodBrix for example. You gotta love the savy of the owner who builds Lego jackets for iPods and apparently makes a decent dime from it (not to mention probably having a lot of fun living his passion).

I guess what we need to realize is that in this age where we are potentially connected to every other human being on the planet, you will find your clone and you will find someone (hopefullly more than one) who will buy your product/idea. The upshot is that you don't need a couple of million dollars and three years to build your company. It's enough to have a little bit of courage, a little bit of passion and lots of encouragement to jumpstart your dream....May all your mistakes be quick and small ones!

There is no oracle (like the Matrix) who will tell you if you are the one. Only you will know. But rest assured while there is no 'i' in team there's definitely an 'i' in Internet.

If you do what you have always done, you will get what you have always gotten...

Monday, January 16, 2006

It's all about change...

Today's topic is about change...John Maxwell talks about it in his latest newsletter and Fast Company has an article on why it's so damn hard to change (see Change or Die). I used to think as a kid, managers were the people who made a lot of money by telling the rest of the people what to do. Many people still think that and in many industries maybe it is. In the software industry, I believe the most important role of managers is to help people cope with change.

Change is an interesting concept, it's a disruption to a known universe, it brings in elements of risk and uncertainty. Many of us would prefer to stay in the frying pan in fear that we may jump into the fire. We prefer order and stability because chaos requires energy on our part to harness and tame it. That's probably why we fear radicals because they test our thinking and we really fear that if there is truth in their words it will require us to change either our lives or even worse our perceptions and attitudes.

As leaders, we must help our team prepare for change. Firstly, to expect change. It is inevitable, we should expect it and feel comfortable dealing with it. Secondly, to understand the need for change. Like the seasons, change is necessary for rebirth and recovery. Thirdly, to deal with change one step at a time. Managing change is really about managing fear and making sure our teams have the courage to be part of the change as willing participants rather than being dragged along like leaves in the wind. We have to show change not as something we are doing to remove a pain point or an impediment because that will never be lasting, and people will revert back to old ways. We have to show change as a path to greater fulfillment and joy because those emotions are what people are willing to put energy and effort to maintain and enhance.

One of the most important lessons I learnt is that of patience during change. I can make bold and inspiring speeches. I can create high energy environments. I can educate my team. But I cannot change my team. They must do that themselves. It is a hard sobering lesson...I can guide, coach, mentor, inspire, encourage, discipline and love my family and my team. But I cannot change them. That is something that must come from within and it must come willingly and with joy. If you don't believe me...try teaching someone music. You can make them learn all the theory, musical notes and force them to practice but you will never create a great musician. That must come from within each is their choice not yours.

Another analogy is growing plants...we plant the seeds, provide water, pull out the weeds and hope that the plant will flourish. Unless we fail to do our part, we usually don't beat ourselves up over a plant that whithers away despite our nurturing. But we do take it personally...intensely so...if our team members (and children for that matter) don't turn out the way we expect them to. Frankly, I think that is an ego thing. We feel we can play god as the manager or parent. But we really are just the gardeners...

Love life!

Unconscious competance...

Running companies is like driving. 90% of the people believe they are above average drivers, but statistically that is not possible. Face it, unless you're over 65 and ran 20 different companies (and failed in every one!), you're unlikely to know everything about everything. Tony Jeary in is book, "Life is a series of presentations" talks about 4 levels of competance. I'll share a bit of this in this blog entry.

Firstly, there is unconscious incompetance i.e. you don't know that you don't know. Call it human naivity. Probably the most dangerous level (like bad drivers), these folks make decisions without any logic or experience...just a bit savy and self belief. BTW, this affliction is not reserved only for the young and inexperienced. Unfortunately, it's not like skiing where you learn pretty fast which level you're in.

Secondly, there is conscious incompetance. You know that you don't know. Ahhh, first step to recovery. This requires egoless introspection. Self evaluation is never easy. We look in the mirror and can't believe why others can't see the beauty. But the beginnings of great leaders and managers start here. They realize there is much that they do not know or do not have the skillset. The solution is finding a great learning environment and most importantly great mentors. (note plural, we all have our foibles and pearls).

Thirdly, comes conscious competance. This is kinda a tricky. All it means is that you know what is the right to do but you have to think about it before doing it. This requires us to step back and make conscious decisions, not a bad thing in this day and age of lightning speed business. PS: there's another post coming talking about how we make bad decisions...more later.

Finally, the Nirvana is unconscious competance, it's like management by instinct. You don't really think about what you need to do, you just do it. Note to reader...this is not because you're winging it (like unconscious incompetance) but because you've seen similar situations and solutions to immediately know what to do. Like expert skiers they know where to carve the snow and how to shift their weight to adapt to the terrain. They also seem to do it effortlessly. The tricky thing to watch for here is that we are not lulled into a false sense of self-confidence and sometimes some things that appear familiar are not really the same as what we know.

The hardest part about all this is that our different skillsets are at different levels and we need to really understand what we are good at and what we are not good at. The solution is to always have mentors and confidants who can tell you like it is and help you question your assumptions. What worked yesterday may not work today and sometimes as the technology and world changes we complete the cycle and go from unconscious competance back to unconscious incompetance.

In life, it is not only important to do the right things but also to stop doing the wrong ones!

As they say...In the land of the blind...the one-eye man is king.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Just read an article on Apple in Businessweek. Clayton Christensen of The Innovator's Dilemma fame questions the ability for Apple to survive in the future. I'm a great admirer of both Apple and Christensen. I would agree with him if Steve Jobs were no longer at the helm. Until then, I'd be the last one to place a bet against Apple. Here's why. If you follow Steve's journey in business, a couple of things stand out. He bucks the trend and has the courage to admit failure and do the right thing. He's not always right but he is relentless in challenging the norm. What he's done is build a brand and a loyalty that borders on religion.

They thought he was done when he was ousted from Apple, he built an awesome animation studio at Pixar challenging Disney. Without blinking, he returned to Apple and led the renaissance through iTunes and iPod. While the Mac was always known for their multimedia, to venture into online music and music-only devices was a stretch. I'm sure there'll be product failures in Apple's future...they're aren't immune. But I for one will be routing for them, in the world of bland, they exude technology excitement, innovation and style. The last thing you would accuse Apple of is being boring.

BTW: Steve in my opinion is so much like Richard Branson, another serial entrepreneur. They don't hesitate in taking bold steps even though to the masses, it seems stupid or foolhardy at the time. Not always easy being the prophet...

Here's an interesting transcript of a speech by Jobs. Worth reading and immensely inspiring.

As Steve says, "Stay hungry, stay foolish"

Monday, January 09, 2006

Accountability and choice...

One of my CEO friends used to be frustrated about his technology team not being accountable. I thought about it long and hard. People fail for many reasons. Without seeming to defend plain old poor performance (that is indefensible), the reasons why people and teams fail are pretty complex. Sometimes it's a result of setting goals and timelines that are not achievable in the first place but are blindly forced upon the company because of revenue and sales demands. Other times, it is the failure to recognize that in the real world bad things not in your control happen and they invariably will throw your plans in disarray. However, there are two common causes that fall squarely on management's shoulders.

Firstly, not making sure your intent is clear and that management is as transparent as possible is a surefire way of getting into trouble. Most technology companies run so fast they often forget to communicate intent (not commands) to their teams. Intent is important because it allows team to recover for wrong turns and dead-ends. It allows them to innovate and propose paths that you may not have thought of before. Note I use the word intent rather than vision because it is true on a tactical level. Tell your team what you want to achieve rather than how to achieve it. Then collectively decide on a gameplan that fits the current context. Finally make sure they repeat your intent to ensure that there is no ambiguity. The upside to this? You have a better chance that your team will see roadblocks and pitfalls and help you avoid them instead of acting like lemmings.

Where am I leading with this? it puts the ball squarely on everyone's court, simply put, everyone owns the problem. Then everyone has a choice to own it or to walk away. No recriminations of "I didn't know" or "you weren't clear" which usually leads to "it's not my fault". That leads me to the title of this blog. Accountability is not so much your ability in the past but in this fast moving world, it is what you are going to do in the future. If you're at the bottom of the ninth, it's pretty useless figuring who fumbled a play in the 3rd. All you need to care about is the next pitch and how you will react to it. It is after all your choice....

Secondly, make sure your team can actually execute on your intent. Very often we get frustrated with people not completing tasks as defined without realizing that we are to blame. We failed to recognize that these people didn't have the skillsets. Young teams fail because they haven't been around the block and so they really can't see the next sharp turn or the tree in the middle of the road. That is not their fault, it is our responsibility to help them fail fast and learn from their mistakes rather than emphasize failure as part of their personal character. It is management that must establish a balanced team of skill, wisdom and energy.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The next new thing...

I've been following the debate on Web 2.0 with much interest. There are those who see it as the phoenix rising from the dotcom ashes, while others debunk it as the rehash of the old world. As someone who started in the 8 bit world and saw life before the Internet, I think the truth is somewhere in between. It is true that many concepts expounded by supposedly new innovators have been around for a while, but isn't that just the way of nature and technology, ie. some ideas are plain dumb and doomed to failure and some hit the mark at the right time. Many also are way ahead of the curve because either the technology was not capable enough, the network infrastructure was inadequate or the novelty was beyond human appreciation at the time.

In retrospect, the dotcom crash early this century was nature's way of saying things got out of hand. Valuations were ridiculous and many solutions were poorly executed in their haste to get to market. The correction was inevitable even though it hurt a lot of people (me included). Given some of the recent acquisitions (Skype) and stock prices (Google), seems like we're headed for another technology whirlwind. It can't happen again you say...well it happened after the 96/97 correction when everyone licked their wounds and said technology would never recovered. In fact, technology blossomed to unprecedented levels.

Subjectively, it seems that technology goes through boom/bust cycles that last approximately 5-6 years. Something like the 7 lean years and 7 fat years concept. Probably has something to do with the memory span of people. Takes 5 years to forget a bad event and spawn a new generation of savy (maybe it should read as naive) VCs and entrepreneurs. It makes a lot of sense...I don't know what gene or DNA strand governs our optimism but there is something that sets us apart from other animals. We are inherently optimistic people (why else would lotteries and gambling continue to thrive). We are a hopeful breed. Anyway technology comes in waves, the first wave is always huge and always unsustainable due to wild expectations, it is followed by a period of disillusionment and naysayers. What is interesting is the second wave which is much smaller, more practical and the only survivors are the tenacious and practical. ie. the survival of the fittest...ergo...the Internet Evolution. Artificial Intelligence is one fine example. While the intelligent machine comparable to the human counterpart is still a holy grail, there are many fine examples of fuzzy logic, neural networks, speech recognition innovations that have made it into our cameras, washing machines and telecommunications systems. Technology matures to become commodities where it is an enabler and not there for its own sake.

So where does this put Web 2.0. The Internet has indeed changed our lives. For those we lived through dial-up, ISDN and DSL, today with 3G networks, 802.x, Wimax, the revolution er...evolution is real. We are becoming permanently connected. The more important thing is that the disintermediation and Cluetrain Manifesto ideas of the late 90s is now becoming a de facto way of life. There are no rules or structure to consumers and producers. The ability to reach out and to connect and be connected to changes the way we run our lives and do business. Web 2.0 is the awakening innovators and thinkers emerging from the ashes. I'm sure there will be ideas we haven't seen before and there will be many that look like deja vu. But in the grand scheme of things, we are looking at micro-revolutions in the Internet evolution. A very exciting place to be...although I'm sure my son will one day look back and view this time as a historical footnote...such is the speed of innovation and the power of the human intellect to promote change at breakneck speed.

I remember reading a quote from someone many years ago, probably said tongue-in-cheek, there are three things that surely lead to destruction, money, sex and technology. Money is the fastest, sex is the most pleasurable and technology the most certain. As my son would say...."whatever floats your boat!"

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The keys to successful innovation...

Here are some thoughts on what makes some people more successful innovators than others.

Firstly, it is curiosity..without which you will never take the road less travelled. The wisdom behind that thinking is that if you do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always gotten. It is one of the key traits that I look for when hiring anyone. I need people who ask "what if?" or "why" and even "why not?". These are the people who refuse to bow to stone walls and serpent pits because their tenacity to overcome will almost always mean that they will find a way.

Secondly, it is courage...many innovations and inventions are not obvious to the general masses. It takes a lot of courage to stand up and promote an idea even though many may not believe. (It also takes a lot of courage to admit that the road on which you are travelling is actually not technically or fiscally a good idea). I believe many great ideas are lost because people have been afraid of being ridiculed and yet one great idea implemented is worth a thousand scorned because it is innovation that is the fuel for technology advancement whether it is by evolution or revolution. Initiating is the taking the first step and it is always the hardest one to take. Once taken, the next thousand steps are infinitely easier. Going between two points requires walking and walking is powered by continual instability.

Lastly, (I don't claim to have total wisdom so I'll limit myself to 3 concepts) it is persistence. I have seen many companies go through dark days when shareholders, customers and employees ceased to believe and yet they emerge from the darkness because of the perseverance (and perhaps stubborness) of one leader who refused to give up. I think too often (having suffered from the same condition), we give up too easily or too influenced by the opinions of others. Sometimes we forget the sun is just on the other side of the horizon and the higher we climb the mountain, the sooner we see the other side.

I intend to live by these concepts this year and this blog will serve to be my reminder...