The Idea Dude


Thursday, June 29, 2006

Phoenix rising

Last night, I came home, pulled my laptop out of my bag to find the 'e' was missing on the cover. The Idea Dude became The Idea Dud! It was that kind of day.

It started with a terrific meeting with an influential technical writer where we pitched our new idea and direction. It ended with my sole investor pulling out his support. We had mutually agreed the current business started 4 months was not something either of us wanted to pursue any further. We took the blue pill and went down a rabbit hole.

I think we both started that adventure reluctantly for different reasons. Mine was to taste and smell a real startup again rather than turn small or medium-size software companies around. Like in the game of poker, we decided to fold our hand. As in the game, he had put up a small blind (an fitting analogy for a startup, in reality, you really have zero visibility), I'm proud that we were fiscally responsible, we burnt the match and not the candle. Now, as we moved to something far greater and more exciting, he has decided it was not the game he wants to play. I respect that immensely, none of this loyalty crap that sometimes results in long bitter relationships that kill all its participants. We've always been frank with each other and perhaps that's why we will always have each other's support, respect and friendship.

Nevertheless, it is a separation and now, I have the credentials of a killer Web 2.0 company i.e. no business model, no money, no offices...just a great friend, Tealeaf, who continues to stay true to the journey, a life long mentor who continues to support my wacky ideas, a terrific new concept, a deep passion to build great communities and a fierce hunger that I can leave something behind one day that will be an exclamation mark in the history of the Internet. (no please, not a comma or a dreaded period, no, it has to be an exclamation mark!!!!)

As a confirmed hitchhiker to the Internet galaxy, all I have to remember is to bring my towel and there is never doubt in mind because I always know the answer will be 42. But first things first, I need to glue the 'e' back onto the end of Dud.

Beware the alligator smile

I love analogies. It helps me understand my life, the situation and what I need to do to solve problems. It's also my way of explaining things. This morning was spent reviving my long suffering lawn. Much of it was spent eradicating crabgrass. The Merriam-webster dictionary defines insidious as developing so gradually as to be well established before becoming apparent...that is what crabgrass is. They do not stand tall like other weeds but rather blend with your real grass all the while growing long tentacle like roots that spread horizontally beneath the soil, wrapping themselves around innocent healthy grass. Left too late, means major surgery, removing both good and bad grass, leaving a trail of barren soil and the inevitable long period of recuperation.

Made me think of a couple of individuals that became the bane of my life in numerous gigs with software teams. I recognized the symptoms, bright, egotistical, vocal, these people always managed to sound smart and more importantly could argue successfully their indispensibility to the company. I smelt trouble, my gut told me to take action. But being the great believer in people, I spent too much time trying to change them, show them the better way and more importantly, succumbed to the fear that removing them would hurt the team and the company. Fear led to inactivity, to spend more time with them, and in the end, like crabgrass, I only managed to boost their self-esteem, their value in their eyes and in the eyes of the peers. As the Star Wars quote goes...fear leads to hate, hate leads to anger and anger leads to suffering.

Ultimately I made the right decision, I did the culling but sometimes at great personal and team cost. Leave it too late and you will lose a few good men too. Every time, with fail, the team was happier, became stronger and more productive. Every time, without fail, I wondered, "Why did I wait so long?" Probably a combination of fear that I misjudged them, fear that it would hurt the product, the team, the business but perhaps it was fear that it would mean as a leader I had failed to keep the team intact. Now older and hopefully wiser, I realize, that in reality it was a wrong relationship to keep. It was wrong for both the individual and the team and ultimately, they will find a better and more appropriate home elsewhere for their talents and skills...sadly, it's just not here.

This one's for you, the little dude

This post is for the little dude, my son, also known as the Great Despoiler to his online friends. He made me very proud last night. He graduated from elementary school with distinction and made it to the top 3 in his class. What made it even more amazing was we let him do it his way. You see, the little dude (who is actually taller than me), is in some ways like his father, he blogs, loves computer games, has a great sense of humour but in some ways, he's not. When it comes to school work, 'good enough' was always his mantra. 'You don't have to overdo it, Dad!' and 'we all have different ways of studying...'. Almost two years ago, we took the big step and stepped back, letting him do it his way. We had our doubts...he's expressive, loves a good time and probably make a great marketing guy. Fun is his middle name. But against all odds, he proved us wrong, he did do it his way.

It did remind me how often in work situations, I had to hold back myself and let the team take it on the chin a couple of times and let them figure it out. More often than not, good things happened. The old style command and control management is not what leadership is about. It's about facilitation, mentoring, bringing the best out of people, not forcing square pegs into round holes. As Sun Tzu said, The great victory is the one that is not fought at all. To win without battle and without casualties is the highest achievement.

I wait with bated breath for the next chapter of The Great Despoiler. I know he will not disappoint.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

To honour those who fall in battle

This week, some friends of mine lost their jobs as their startup disappeared into the sunset. It's a tough decision that gets made every day across this globe and more Web 2.0 will inevitably fade than we will ever now. I've had to make similar decisions and suffered from a few of those too. My heart and hopes do go to them. This post is simply to recognize these people. Whether they are managers, developers, assistants, most people (especially in high tech) join a company for more than the money. They buy into the dream, the possibility of being in something big or something memorable. To show their kids one day, they helped lay a particular brick. Even if they were merely the water boys in the Superbowl team, we all want to be associated with success because it becomes part our legacy, our well-being and our self-worth.

While the software industry is paid relatively well compared to many others, it is the one where I've seen people make extraordinary sacrifices to their personal lives with little or no additional compensation. Who of you have sung Harry Chapin's "Cat in the Cradle" in your head on the way to work or home? I have, too many times. Damn the CEO, manager or investor who tells me once more, "this is startup, we have to do what it takes...". It does make you wonder though that many die in battle for a national cause, to fight for freedom, or a belief. Their sacrifices are noble, for the rest of us, it just seems obscene to only do it for the money.

I read an interesting discourse at the Byvation site the other day. Basically challenging us to shirk off the "are we good enough question". The answer is if you have "raged in the night" to the best of your ability and talents then you have every reason to look back with pride regardless of the outcome. To my friends, this candle of hope is for you...

The iceberg effect

I was looking at the Sitemeter traffic statistics generated by TruthLaidBear. While the statistics is not comprehensive e.g. like Technorati, the volume of traffic and number of random users is sufficient to regard it as a good representative sample. Based on a snapshot taken about 10 days ago, I found the following. Of the top 5000 Sitemeter sites, the top 60 blogs represent almost 40 percent of the blog readership. The top 600 blogs represent 50% and the rest of the 5000 represent the bottom 50%. The top slot attracts over 1 million views a day and by the time you are around #5000, you have around 70 views per day. Given there are over 37 million blogs out there, it is a very long tail. The A-list in fact represents less than 2% of the blog population. The B-list maybe the next 10-15% and everyone slaves away in their tiny blogs which to all intent and purposes could be private blogs given the amount of traffic they attract. Forget the 80/20 rule it's more like the 99/1 rule.

The Adsense model works because of its simplicity and widespread appeal. It does not pay high traffic sites better rates and at the same time are happy to have the 99% of the long tail as members. In short, they cover the entire tail without paying a premium for the top performers. But the sad truth is that most bloggers do not realize that unless their traffic is in the 1000 or more views per day (only 5% or less of the blogger population), you won't be making any money from Adsense. For focused sites, a click through ratio of 1:100 would be phenomenal. For a generic blog with random topics you could be looking at 1 in 500 or even 1000. So literally you could be making cents per month, a very disappointing outcome for all who believe it is easy making blog money or literally blood money given the time we spent crafting our blogs.

Given the sheer volume of posts and bloggers, even great sites like Technorati and some of the blogger network sites do not help solve this problem because while they aggregate content and provide search, they also survive via popularity rankings. In fact, I suspect the long term effect is that they are reinforcing the long tail effect rather than flattening the steep curve. It is also telling that the system of ranking is about to fail when the top Technorati blog cannot be read by the majority of the North American population where most of the blogger community resides. The blog is in Chinese and has succeeded to take #1 spot because of the sheer number of Chinese links it has attracted.

So the problem of building a single point to aggregate and serve, while attractive, is not going to solve the problem of distributing great content and exposing some terrific blogs that today I only find via some random click event. Unfortunately, the majority of Web 2.0 and other search engine wannabees are precisely attacking the problem this way. Building bigger and bigger warehouses is a typical old fashion industrial approach. What we need is something like a just-in-time dissemination of blogs that do not rely on some central search and storage mechanism. While RSS is a terrific mechanism to keep you updated with the blogs you love, it doesn't address the millions of blogs you could fall in love with but didn't know they existed. Pretty much like sitting on top of the iceberg and thinking that is your castle oblivious of the 90% that is beneath the water.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Riding the long tail

I spoke of the long tail a while continues to haunt me wherever I look. Whether it is business, entertainment, sports and now the Internet, there seems to always be an elite few who are disproportionately more successful and richer than the rest. In the late 90s, we lauded the reach of the Internet and how it would level the playing field and remove the middlemen, the term disintermediation was the catch phrase of the day. Yet, if we look at any particular paradigm, we see the long tail. The eBay affiliates that make millions, the top Adsense drivers earning in excess of $100k per month, the bloggers who get 1 million views a day, the MySpace members who have 300,000 friends, so what is the reality? The long tail is here to stay and we all aspire to be the next Robert Scoble, or Tom Cruise or PlentyOfFish.

Is it impossible to beat the long tail? No, but it takes a long time and a lot of hard work. None of the elite came by their success overnight (discount the millionaires that were spawned by the dotcom in the 90...that, like YouTube, is more an anomaly than the norm). The bad news is that most of us will always reside in the long tail and every so often one of us will rise beyond that and climb that steep curve to fame. Yes, there is always the infamous, using grey techniques and black hat approaches that temporarily get there faster. That is a matter of choice.

The epiphany today is that disintermediation is not necessarily a good thing. It leaves the long tail largely helpless and inert. The only way to beat the long tail is through collaboration. Through a network of people with similar interests, we can convert small islands into archipelagos which in turn form federations. That is one of the lessons political history has been able to teach us. If we are weak, we need to find allies to battle a much larger enemy. Open source is a prime example of how collaboration and unselfish contribution can test giants like Microsoft and Oracle. Is one blog with a million readers so much more than 1000 bloggers each with 1000 readers? I would argue diversity is the what helps us mutate and ascend to new levels of technological advancement, not through indoctrination or specialization.

The problem is the long tail demands large scale automation, it thrives on economies of scale. Moreover, we need to convince a lot of people before the flywheel gains momentum and every now and then, one success story will break rank and either inspires or depresses us. We can never eradicate the long tail, it is probably a characteristic of existence as we know it. In the past few months, we have stumbled upon technologies that can be harnessed to help us empower the long tail. Hopefully, future blog entries will prove me right. But to those who know and see what we are doing, it is merely a skin, an examplar, a proof point...the best is yet to come...soon. Perhaps it is apt to take a quote from Dickens...It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done.

If you're a Jim Carey fan, you will remember the classic segment where his character is trying to get a date.

“Not good.”
“You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?”
“I’d say more like one out of a million.”
“So … you’re telling me there’s a chance!”

To all my fellow long tailers, you do have a chance...yes, it may seem like we are either Dumb or Dumber! but hope, like the long tail, is the other characteristic only our species seem to possess in the animal kingdom.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

For whom the blog tolls

We were chatting about blogs today and how social networks are really islands. How you become more than an island and connected to the rest of the network is the existence of one individual on your island who is connected to one other island. This is a much better description than the usual six degrees of freedom paradigm because that does not convey that in life, the internet and the blogosphere, there exists a myriad of interconnected mini communities and families. I read an article today on Pope John Paul II and how he had canonized more saints (over 480) than the rest of his predecessors put together. The article postulates that one of his motives was that he recognized that in order to grow the power of the church, he had to win all communities far and wide and creating saints as focal points in each community not only strengthened the community but also drew that community closer to the church. Whether it is true or not, it certainly makes sense to me. The currency of the church is faith, that of blogging…reputation.

On the topic of islands, I received the famous prose of John Donne from my friend, Tealeaf (my perpetual fountain of information). It reads:
"All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness....No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." -- John Donne

In the spirit of the prose, I will translate this contribution into modern day context of what has become my blogging sickness. Hopefully, you will forgive me for the poetic injustice I'm about to do:
"All of blogosphere is of one author, and is one volume; when one blogger dies, one blog is not torn out of the Internet, but translated into a better language; and every blog must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the blogger only, but upon the readers to come: so this blog calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this blogging sickness....No blog is an island, entire of itself...any blogger's death diminishes me, because I am involved in blogging; and therefore never Google to know for whom the blog tolls; it tolls for thee." -- The Idea Dude

BTW: Technorati reports, the top Technorati honours goes to a Chinese blogger, and Boingboing is officially dethroned after its long reign as king of blogs. The king is dead, long live the king. It also observed that only 30% of all blogs are in English, I am still at this point, digesting this fact and figuring out what this means to the future of blogging as we know it today.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Every startup is an accident waiting to happen

If blogging is a form of confessional, then forgive me, it is 7 days since I have blogged. Unlike some bloggers who are able to throw words routinely into a blog as part of their daily reality, I prefer to put what inspires me in mine. Today, I realized that inspiration rarely comes in the heat of battle, but usually it announces itself in that quiet moment of reflection when you have time to ponder someone else's ramblings or be introspective of your frenetic actions.

Today's title is inspired by a Fast Company interview with Caterina Fake, a co-founder of Flickr. Fake relates how the concept mutated from the original idea to build a massively multiplayer game that didn't quite make it. What did survive was the idea to share stuff like pictures and Flickr was born. I attended a Delrina 10 year reunion this week. It almost follows a similar story. The company start making electronic forms in the late 80s and the unplanned sibling of electronic faxing aka Winfax became the poster child that defined them. In their heyday, they would compete with Microsoft Windows as to which company shipped more product on a weekly basis. A great bunch of dudes, humble even to this day in the aftermath of their success. I'm honored to have worked for them and played a small part in their story. They deserve a piece of my blog.

So the learning here is that no-one can tell you whether you have run the course in your current adventure or whether you should take an uncharted road that could spell riches or demise. For every story of someone sticking to their vision and won, there is one that lost. Similarly for everyone that took that deviation and smiled, someone else got all their teeth knocked out. The point is, nobody knows and it is easy to look back and declare that victory was planned even though it really was being in the right place at the right time. I guess what it means for me, is that to be that star you have to take that risk and stand on stage and sing your song, because as long as you on that stage, the next song (not the current one) could be the one that defines you.

The best way to describe any entrepreneur would be Bruce Barton's quote...Nothing splendid has ever been achieved except by those who dared believe that something inside of them was superior to circumstance.

Or as the inimitable Spock would say...Random chance seems to have operated in our favour