The Idea Dude


Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The secret behind mass adoption

Jonathan Schwartz from Sun has some really good things to say in this Fast Company article. He talks about simplicity changing the world and convenience is the force multiplier. I wholeheartedly concur. Software designers are notorious for putting more functionality, gizmos, buttons after each release to win the mandatory bakeoffs. Customers are also to blame since often they want the best of everything regardless of whether they'll use the features or not.

What we should never forget is our target audience. More often than not, they are ordinary folk who want you to help them make their lives simpler not more complex. The equation that comes to mind is "delivered value - cost of change = adoption". For the public to adopt your solution, you have to make sure the equation is positive, i.e. the value the customer receives is worth the trouble to pay and learn a new way of doing something, otherwise, it doesn't matter whether you have a better mousetrap if he or she can't figure where to put the cheese!

Jonathan must be a cool dude, he leaves us with two thoughts that carry me through today. "When you do what you love, you can't lose" and "ultimately, everything is personal."

If you've started, keep moving...if you're moving, don't stop...maybe life is that simple.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Source code, lies and videotape

It always bothers me when my fellow software gurus share with me that they are stressed because management is subjecting them to unrealistic timelines. From a management standpoint, the argument always seems to be that the team is poor at predicting delivery timelines or inefficient at managing the software development lifecycle. On the other hand, the software team will argue that it is the result of feature creep, unclear requirements, moving targets, added responsibility and insufficient resources. Having been burnt both sides of the coin, I can attest that there is an element of truth in all the above reasons. However, the myriad of books that have been written on how to run software teams, design software etc., seem to have little or no effect on most companies, especially startups, delivering poor quality product usually very late. Maybe they didn't read the books or maybe the problem is more deeply rooted than simply getting teams to write better and high quality software.

My personal epiphany is that the key to successful software companies is strong product management. I think we all kind of know what product management is supposed to do...define the product right? But think what happens when there is weak or no product management...some scenarios...
  • The CEO is at liberty to make changes to company direction and vision without understanding the impact it has on daily operations and delivery commitments.
  • The sales team will invent features to land deals or make functionality promises that are either not possible or not feasible in the delivery timeframe.
  • The software architect has no agreed short and long term road map and will either under or over design the system.
  • The developers without well-documented use-cases make assumptions that are not necessary what is required.
  • The quality assurance team really does not know what success looks like and what metrics are important to the company.
  • The customer is uncomfortable because there is a lack of guidance of how the product will evolve over time.

What this translates to is poorly architected systems that are bloated, buggy and delivered late. Having product management does not automatically solve all the problems. Business reality dictates there will always be that one feature that is the million dollar deal breaker. New architectures and product features always have the propensity to encourage the unexpected. Those who worked with the early versions of Windows NT will remember (perhaps not so fondly) of the blue screen of death.

But having STRONG product management is a must, because it keeps everyone honest. I like to think of product management as a committee of stakeholders, namely, customers, the executive team, sales, marketing, technology, QA, documentation and delivery. But it is run by one person...the product manager. His role is to ensure that there is product roadmap (if you don't know where you are going, how do you know you will get there?) and most importantly, communicate the impact and consequence of EVERY decision that causes the company to deviate from the road map.

So next time you need to do due diligence either for a job opportunity, investment or acquisition, make sure you are comfortable with strength of product management, it should never be the weakest link.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Entrepreneur or Desperado

In every business, there are highs and get to experience every season startups you seem to get them all in one week, sometimes in one day. We've made some pretty decent progress and open source has been a great bootstrap to getting us up and running. Helps to have an awesome technology dude as one of your co-founders. As for me, it feels like rehabilitation, you know you used to run but now you're learning to walk all over again...20 years and 20 million lines of code seem so far away right now. You start breaking all the rules that you used to set when running other people's teams, like don't do things that other people are better at, except isn't too many 'other' people. So you code, talk to partners, investors, buy hardware, brand your site plus a zillion other things. Emotionally, it's like a living in a lava lamp, going up, going down...differentiating between strategic and tactical is a blur...

So when weeks like these end, I sit back and listen to the Eagles, and their song Desperado in particular. To me it speaks of the entrepreneur who should come to his senses and maybe been out riding fences for too long. We're just one crazy breed of people. Doing the things that please us and maybe hurt us somehow and we only want the things we can't get.

It's 5pm, and up...the words are pretty appropriate...

"Desperado, oh, you ain't gettin' no younger
Your pain and your hunger, they're drivin' you home,
And freedom, oh freedom well, that's just some people talkin'
Your prison is walking through this world all alone"

Note to self: I fear regret more than I fear failure...I remain inspired!

Whilst every hitchhiker to the galaxy has his towel, I have my Tealeaf and whatever the question is, the answer is 42

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Mob 1.0

There's an interesting interview given by Paul Kedrosky as part of the Under The Radar conference. Paul's blog, Infectious Greed always has something punchy and interesting on Web 2.0. He jokingly thinks it should be renamed Bubble 2.0 because so many of these young startups will die...survival of the fitness is the name of the game. Methinks it should be called Mobs 1.0 ushering the age of collaboration, (I would hesitate to call them smart) but there is definitely a mob mentality in Web 2.0. And it's not just the young and the hip who are getting it, see Daniel Terdiman's article on company executives collaborating in guilds in the Warcraft world.

I like Mob's what happens when there is anarchy (see the splog phenomenon), and everything is free...(I can think of couple of product names like Flickr Free and movies like Blog Free) but levity aside, almost everything you need to survive in a virtual online world is available (and free) from email, photo journals, blogging, IM, VOIP, open source software, online fantasy games, information...what is the new frontier for the digital economy. Seems like we've gone full circle and the equity is the eyeball. Check out young companies like Kaboodle and Blogburst. The prize, advertising dollars...(sounds like a throwback to the early 90's, when an artifact called a web page first appeared). Retro is in.

Dial the clock forward 5 years from now, hopefully we don't have the situation of one of the Internet gorillas devouring what's left of the digital debris and bought your loyalty for a song (or is that an iTune?) no doubt sparking more DOJ activity. I have visions of online communities having drunk from the Free fountain wake up one morning to Hotel California and find out that they can check out but they can never leave...

Drink the KoolAid but beware of the freebie...everything has a price...

As the saying goes, "Let a thousand flowers bloom", so was the Cultural Revolution an exercise in mass collaboration?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Art of the Long Tail

David Sifry continues his insight into the State of the Blogosphere. Primarily his dicussion centers around the long tail. What is the long tail? The long tail is like a power curve, that starts very high up and drops dramatically but does not terminate immediately. Instead it 'tails' off for a very time, i.e. has a very long decay. The blogspace is divided into the A-list, the B-list and the C-list. The A-list is the top 100 blogs which have thousands and tens of thousands of inbound links. (In the blog world, your net worth is directly proportional to how many people link to your blog). The B-list is the second tier of blogs with 20-1000 links representing about 155,000 blogs. Finally, we have the last segment, the C-list, the long tail, where yours truly reside, i.e. small blogs of little significance (again based on the network measure, not on the quality of the author or the readership). The long tail is where 90% or 27 million blogs reside.

Practically, the advertising money is made by the A-list because most online advertising is a volume game...1 million people read the blog, 1000 people may click through an ad and 10 may actually buy something. Theoretically, the area under the long tail is much greater than the area under the first 5-10% (the A-list) and if you can equate this to potential value, then you could postulate that the blogging long tail remains largely untapped. eBay has figured out the eCommerce long tail because it makes a lot of money through people selling very low cost goods too. Back to the Blogosphere, there's an interesting article on Blogs to Riches, my biggest takeaway here is that blogs are certainly becoming mainstream and blog empires are being setup to monetize the traffic. At least 5 of the 10 in the A-list are companies with several writers and editors to blog around the clock. Engadget founder, Pete Rojas will tell you of the 80 hour weeks he spends scouring the web for cool stuff. For him, he hit paydirt with the sale last fall of Weblogs, Inc to AOL for $25 million. Many would say that the impetus for the sale was the Engadge blog.

Clearly, the original intent of weblogs have changed over the years. Like any phenomenon someone will figure out how to make money, commericialize it and maybe even taint the idea. For the casual reader, it may no longer be clear whether what he is reading is one quality voice or simply a creative collage of multiple contributors whose sole purpose is to win your eyeballs and your future loyalty.

What will remain true, is that occasionally you will find a gem in the long tail, someone who speaks with passion, conviction and personal candour. Somehow these will make their way to the B-list over time. One hopes that they will not succumb to the allure of the A-list and sell their souls. The analogy that comes to mind are the dedicated actors and actresses who toil in obscurity in small theatres around the world for the love of their art. The lucky (or unlucky?) ones end up losing their souls in Hollywood.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Geeks in Toyland

Full-disclosure, I 'borrowed' the title from a Wired article on the next generation Mindstorms. I feel justified having been a long time Lego son has inherited my passion. I think I've personally helped resurrect the Lego company from financial distress with my periodic forays into Lego purchases. Mindstorms Nxt is an aggressive foray into consumer robotics with support for Bluetooth, USB 2.0, etc. Exciting stuff, read more here...

Back to the point of this blog...this is the month of no turning back. I'm about to embark on another start-up venture. With a couple of friends, a little bit of funding, we're hitting the yellow brick road. I've never really quite escaped the Internet cyclone. Hopefully we will have the hearts, minds, courage and instinct to find our way. I wake up every morning repeating my current favorite phrase, 'I fear regret more than I fear failure'. Having done this a couple of times and made a couple of people rich along the way, it's time to ride my own destiny.

Right now, my long-time friend and colleague, and I feel like Geeks in Toyland. Exhilerating, scary...another rollercoaster ride. Pretty soon, we'll hit reality, customers, bugs, business models, traction, budgets...there is no one else to blame, the buck stops here. I remember reading somewhere that for us to enrich ourselves, mentally, spiritually and emotionally, we have to, at least once a year, do something that we fear the most. Every time I did that, I always looked back in wonder at what all the hullabaloo was about...

The other thought that has been running madly in my head the last few days is 'not to seek consensus but to seek consistency'. What does that mean? As a young manager I spent countless hours trying to win the hearts of management, sales, my tech team, friends to make sure they all agreed I was doing the right thing. Alas, it took many life experiences to make me realize that in business, your goal is not for people to like you (it would be good if they did, but that isn't the goal and that shouldn't be what drives your decision). Your goal is to understand which decisions are yours to make and you make them based on what makes good business sense. Of course, you must try to make the difficult decisions with compassion and respect but you must make them nevertheless. What you want your team to understand that, after listening and consulting all the relevant parties, it is still your decision and they need to respect that. My emerging philosophy is that you can't truly love or care for anyone until you really respect them. Consistency is about everyone signing up and supporting you even if he or she may not personally agree with you because it's about the team that drives success.

Enough said, now where's Toto, can never find that dog when you want him.....

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Blogosphere Tsunami

Here are some statistics from the technorati weblog that are simply astounding:
  • They track 27.2 million weblogs
  • It doubles every 5.5 months (a consistent trend for 36 months) beating Moore's Law
  • The blogosphere is 60 times what it was 3 years ago
  • 75,000 new blogs are created everyday, almost 1 per second
  • About 10.4 million bloggers continue to blog 3 months after the creation of their blogs
  • 2.7 million bloggers update their blogger weekly
  • Technorati tracks 1.2 million posts per day or 50,000 per hour

We ignore this phenomenon at our peril because it truly represents the voice of the people. The question is how not to be drowned out by the noise.

Guy Kawasaki is an interesting example. After 30 days, he more than doubled his web traffic since starting his blog. I like Guy a lot for his enthusiasm and energy. I remember some 8 years ago he spoke at a small gathering of startup wannabees. He had just started Everyone had tons of colorful slides. Guy steps up with 10 slides in black and white but it blew us away. I wonder if he still has that deck. As an ex-evangelist out of Apple you would expect nothing less from him. But it's good to see he is alive and more than well. Don't be surprised if he hits the blogger top 100 soon (ranked #289 after 30 days).

One more thing, over half of blog posts now use tags (that's over 81 million posts). Maybe the semantic web will eventually come to pass. My good friends in Athens, Georgia are holding thumbs...

Monday, February 06, 2006

Show me the money

There's an upcoming conference that focuses on why Web 2.0 matters. It's an Under the Radar conference, it's about Web 2.0 so you know what to expect. The list of companies presenting are particularly interesting, ranging from websites in stealth mode, to shared calendars and most of all, picture blog communities. Many of these seem to be run by 5 people and have 50-200 picture contributions in them. Those of you who've been around smell 'dotcom', or the proverbial "build it and they will come" syndrome or will they?

The Internet has always been about communities...ask Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay who (at least publicly) always thought of his auction business as a community. In my mind it is probably the most successful online community business ever... based on stickiness, scale and profitability. Builders of today's Web 2.0 ideas should take note:

It is a many-to-many equation in which your business is to facilitate the collaboration and hopefully you make a bit of money oiling the gears to make it work. Let the consumers and producers decide what the commodity is be it a picture, a story, an antique or a used iPod. One of Amazon's strengths is not only it is cheap but it becomes your destination because you know you can find what other people thought about the book you're about to buy. The recommendation engine makes them the maven for books. But Amazon didn't want to be the maven (Yiddish term for one who is knowledgeable or expert), it facilitated a community of self-declared mavens. One man's Pez dispenser is another man's poison.

There is no one large community but it is a collection of tiny communities often no larger than 5 or 6 people. Why? Duncan Watts, in his book, Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, debunks the 6 degrees of separation idea as an over-simplification. He proposes communities are in reality islands which are bridged by one individual (Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, calls these folks connectors). What's the point here? You may be connected to the President but you have to first get past his secretary... Seriously though, I believe companies like Friendster and MySpace succeeded in getting traction because they didn't purposefully try a build a community of millions of people. It started by connecting students and bands to their fans respectively. Something small, something comfortable...interpret as "I belong". First rule of can't please all of the people all of the time.

Finally, there has to be a focal point and memorable experience for the participants. It could be that we shared the same passion for skiing or had the same magic vacation or found the bargain 1965 Ford Mustang. Remember people connect for a reason...some picture sites forget about this, thinking that the world is simply a bunch of voyeurs and as long as we serve thousands of pictures, you will find one that takes your fancy and you will return. Wrong! Think about why people connect, better still, ask and observe and then put them in a nice cozy room to strengthen the bond, not some large Internet room.

People are fickle, our tastes change, as do our jobs, friends and location. Be prepared for communities to die or better still, facilitate their transition and transformation to different spaces. It is not the connecting we have trouble with, it is maintaining the connection.

Would I jump on the Web 2.0 bandwagon, absolutely! I love this space, sometimes if feels like you are swept away by a huge current. But where there's white water, there are treacherous rocks and the customary waterfull. But what would life be without the thrill.

The best quote comes from an article in Fast Company about successful women...

"I fear regret more than I fear failure."

Friday, February 03, 2006

Masters of Design

Loved the article in Fast Company that profiled the six person jury who picked the Masters of Design. Here are some of the keywords that resonated with me. They are concepts that can applied to anything that we have a hand in shaping.
  • Diversity - the need to understand different cultures. Often it is our culture that is deeply rooted within us that influences our thinking, perceptions and judgements.
  • Patience - give ideas time to spring alive (or die). Too often, we shoot down ideas because they are rough and new, perhaps too radical for us or too alien a concept to grasp. Defer judgement and give ideas a chance to take shape.
  • Iterate - we often see a movie that is so slick and professional and we forget the number of takes to each scene, the amount of material that wound up on the cutting floor, the number of fluffed lines and so on. The photographer whose picture of the Pope on the cover of Time magazine took a couple of hundred of shots before finding the right one.
  • Discovery - very often we end up in a place we had not intended or even anticipated but be prepared to take unorthodox paths and untried thoughts which may lead us to a greater reward.
  • Choices - designing is about making choices. Be prepared to recognize there are always choices in every step of our thinking and we have to explore and consider each one.
  • Abstraction - you have to see the entire system at 10,000 feet to see the flow, form and function. The most beautiful sport cars are simple and almost plain but extremely beautiful, yet under the hood lies a complexity that is beyond most of our comprehension. Sometimes less is more.

Whatever you do, take it beyond where you found it...that has always been the mark of progress...