The Idea Dude


Saturday, March 31, 2007

In search of the remarkable gadget

It's not the gee-whiz gadget that everyone's gotta have. It will never outsell an ipod, play an MP3 or even show you a color jpg. Yet this little device has found a niche, a writers' niche. It's called a Neo made by Alphasmart. Designed initially for students, it found a following with journalists and writers. What is remarkable about this, is that rather than try and be the next best thing to slice bread, it did one thing very well. It enabled you to write anywhere. The size of a sheet of paper with a full keyboard, 3 regular alkaline batteries will keep this baby humming for over 700 hours. Have a great thought or want to blog before boarding the morning bus, one button instant on makes it all possible. Weighing less than 2lbs and rugged, it has become the journalist or writers' companion. There's probably nothing that remarkable about the technology, even the screen is a monochrome LCD 2 or 6 line text screen. In fact, it looks like a throwback to the first electronic typewriters of the early 1980s.

So why am I in awe? in a age where we try to create products that meet everyone's need and sell millions for superstar status, here's a company that did something very amazing with a seemingly unremarkable device. It focused on one need, to write anywhere, anytime. It executed it perfectly, giving nothing more and nothing less. Quietly generating it's own legion of raving fans. That is truly remarkable.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Web 2.0 deals exceed $850 million

At the Annual Web Ventures Conference, Ernst & Young and Dow Jones VentureOne released figures for Web 2.0 funding in 2006. The research shows $844.4 million was invested in 167 deals in 2006 more than twice as much money and nearly twice as many deals in the previous year. Analysts do not believe we are in a bubble economy yet although it is a significant increase in interest in an emerging area. The median pre-money valuation for a Web 2.0 company worldwide was pegged at US$6 million overall compared to US$18.5 for US ventured backed companies.

What is interesting is VentureOne's method of identifying and categorizing Web 2.0 companies. e.g. their business model must revolve around "a dynamic interface facilitating participation through such methods as user-created content, networking, an collaboration. Applications include podcasting, tagging, blog, social networking, mashups and wikis. Technologies used include: AJAX, RSS, SOA, CSS, XHMTL and Atom."

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Making your site look Web 2.0

Web 2.0 has become an Internet genre of it's own. Not only is it based on a social networking paradigm and, dare I say, synonomous with free, it has also commanded a particular look and feel. Almost like the fashion industry, to be Web 2.0, you almost have to conform to particular design patterns. Much of it has to do with the use of colors, logos, navigation, use of gradients, cuteness, etc. So if you're interested in finding out whether your site qualifies, take a tour at WebDesignFromScratch. Ben Hunt does a terrific job covering what he thinks is Web 2.0. The best part is there are visual examples of what he describes.

A lot of what he teaches is just good old common sense but also shows how the web has evolved over time in sync with the our cultural and modern preferences. On that note, Microsoft's XBox came out in white (I guess because iPod started the trend that white gadgets where cool, note that the Wii is white too). They have now announced XBox Elite which is black. With their Windows Media Player standard skin in dark tones and Playstation 3 in black, perhaps we're moving from a light theme/fun to a more sexy dark tone, mystique era. Time will tell.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

How do you justify spending more time on design?

A very thought-provoking article from Fast Company about determining the ROI on design. Recently, we revamped our website at TheGoodBlogs. We've been through several iterations in our short life-time to try and keep the site fresh. However, we would struggle to answer if the effort involved (not insignificant) was really justified. Although subjectively, we think it did. To obtain a direct correlation is extremely difficult because the experiment is not isolated or repeatable with the same set of subjects. i.e. since our membership numbers are climbing month over month, how do we attribute the increase to a better interface? even if there is an increase in the growth rate, there is not telling whether that was a direct result of our design efforts. Ideally, you would run parallel sites over the same period of time with the same people visiting both. Unless you have deep pockets or a research organization like Nielsen, using usability labs or conducting real-world surveys is usually out of reach.

There was a conjecture this morning in the news where they attributed lower American Idol viewership to the changes in daylight savings time. i.e. more people spending time outdoors earlier in the season. We all know we can spin statistics to tell whatever story we want. But quantifying a lot of what we do is certainly hard especially in a startup where all the variables tend to change quickly and by huge margins.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Designing your blog to be remembered

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There is a great article on eyetracking research by Nielsen. As bloggers, we often take it for granted the impact of how we deliver our message. We sign up with a blog hoster, throw a couple of images and colors to our liking and if it's pretty, we'll get readers. Reality, most of us will never know what keeps readers coming back or whether they like the content. Here are some of their insights:

  • Rewrite + reformat = remember. Their recommendation, if there is a complicated post, use bulleted items, subheadings and tighter writing. The benefits are better comprehension and retention translating to happy readers, they spend less time reading, remember more and have a less frustrating user experience.
  • Precise and relevant editing. While images are great, ones that do not convey relevant information simply take up space and are seldom appreciated by the majority of readers.

The takeaway for me from this great article. It also has page hotspots showing where people spend their time looking. The left hand side by default (cultural?) seems to command the most attention. Users will read only two to three words of a headline. Replace graphics that do not contribute to the story with whitespace. Images with people and especially faces draw more attention than those that don't.

At the end of day, anything that makes it easy for a reader to decide whether he/she wants to spend more time on a particular post is good. In today's attention economy, less is more. Shorter and more frequent posts are better than long posts.

Given all this great information, I'd better listen and stop right here...

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

One reason why you should not host your own blog

So you have a blog and it's generating a few hundred views a day. You like to control your destiny so you download Wordpress or something similar and host your blog on a machine that's gathering dust in the corner. It feels great to be able to change files, test and try things without the restrictions of which plugins you can use etc. So here's scenario that can and has happened to members at TheGoodBlogs.

You have a great blog entry that creates a Digg event. This means that your blog entry was found by a top Digger and as a result he/she generates a lot of momentum to your story. Several hundred Diggs later, your machine is bombarded by Internet requests. Literally, thousands. We've seen blogs that generate a few hundred views a day get a spike of 50,000+ for one day. So here's the downside, you Internet line is clogged up completely for the day, chances the blog server you're using is sharing the same bandwidth as your regular network. Your blog server can't get the request out fast enough (remember there is a limit to the number of TCP/IP network connections to every port). If you're making use of a server or service with an ISP, you could still get dinged for the additional bandwidth created by all this sudden traffic.

This is where hosting your blog with a reputable blog hosting service is a great idea. Most of these providers monitor bandwidth constantly. They have a bank of servers that can handle thousands of simultaneous connections. They are usually right on the Internet backbone. Like insurance, they've figured out that not everyone will be Digged (Dug?) everyday, so they can plan for fluctuations appropriately. If they have a thousand blogs, they only have to double or triple their hardware since only a small percentage will experience these spikes every day. They don't make you pay for bandwidth. They are also 24/7 (at least the good ones are).

It can't happen to you right? Well, if you're a good blogger chances are you'll experience one of these 'events' some time in your blogging lifetime. If fact, that's the nightmare most of us bloggers live for... isn't that funny?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Your success could be your Achilles heel

There is a pet food recall this week affecting 90 different cat and dog food brands. It was also carried by Canadian news. Having had some feline issues (unrelated, at least to my knowledget to this event) last week costing me over $1,300 dollars (yup I have now a walking furball that could have been an HD TV), the articles did catch my eye. It did highlight firstly how difficult it is to pinpoint something that may be extremely obscure could in fact initiate a kind of butterfly effect. As one company spokesman mentioned that they have had no complaints, duh! the chances of you being able to tie your pet's illness with many others is remote since you're a basically a sample of 1.

It was reminescent of an article I read about Toyota. In their quest for cost and production efficiencies, many of their components are optimized and used across multiple vechicle types and models. On the one hand, it would point to a great technology marvel in modern times but on the other, consider the effect of one bad component, the weak link as small as bolt could trigger a massive recall, resulting in millions of dollars lost in marketing, communication, labour and materials. In recent times, food scares because of tainted vegetables or meat have wide ranging implications across countries and even continents.

Having global giants in whatever industry invariably gives us access to cheaper and better goods although it is a two edge sword that when things go bad, they go horribly wrong. Virus that once may have wiped out small tribes in remote areas perhaps was nature's way of containing deadly diseases. Today where everyone is connected, and millions of people traverse the earth in a matter of hours, our technology hopefully will not catastrophically spell our ultimate demise.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Dotcom company makes a home run

Maybe the heady days of dotcom is back again. Cisco announces its acquisition of Webex for 3.2 billion dollors which is 10x of Webex's existing cash flow. Born in the midst of the dotcom boom in 1999, it has taken this company 8 years to finally get its home run. Microsoft's acquisition of Placeware in 2003 for 200 million now seems like a bargain. I remember while working at BackWeb in 1999, one of our VP's joined their ranks and we were shaking our heads because they had just started with a couple of people while we were riding a wave towards an IPO. To my mind, they were not one of the sexiest technologies out there at the time, but they filled a need in enterprise and that was how to run demos and presentations across the Internet without having to fly your salesforce all over the country. It goes to show, perseverance, luck and timing are all ingredients for success. Kudos to them!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Is the new daylight saving scheme worst than Y2K?

So you woke up on Sunday, checked your computers and everything was fine, right? Wrong! especially if you have Microsoft Outlook. An article by eWeek prompted me to check if my Outlook had that problem. Lo and behold, between now and the old daylight scheme, all my appointments are an hour off. Fortunately, I keep most of my appointments in my head so nothing of great consequence has occurred. While they are touting significant cost savings due to shifting the daylight savings scheme (of which I am still pretty cynical about the energy savings), I shudder to think how many dollars have been spent by the software community checking all their code, issuing patches, sending updates etc. Productivity must follow the law of energy, it is never created or destroyed, it is just moved from one context to another. If law-makers figured it would save money, they should give those who have to make it happen like software companies some kind of tax break for the headaches they caused.

Then there's the question of my Windows CE which I still have to figure out whether there are patches available...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The power of the collective, in defence of blog networks

I followed an interesting thread yesterday about blog networks and their perceived demise. It was started here, and followed by a post here. The underlying story in my interpretation was blog networks 'failed' because bloggers weren't been taken care of or paid enough money. The long tail effect also applies even for the giants like Weblogs, Inc. i.e. 10-20% of the bloggers actually bring in the lion's share of the traffic. Blog Herald had some interesting suggestions on what incentives Our good friends at B5media chimed in as well.

In defence of blog networks, there are some efficiencies and advantages that can be gained by belonging to one. And it's not just for the money (which is probably where most of the discussion lay). If you're a power brand, you can certainly go it alone, keeping all ad revenue to yourself. Chances are, it is not your sole source of income and the blog is really another avenue to promote your consulting, speaking gigs etc. However for the average blogger who wants to make a little money on the side, here are some of the non-monetary advantages you should consider. A good network will constantly monitor the traffic on their servers to ensure that your blog show up in readers' browsers as fast as possible. This is certainly not the case in some of the public free blog hosters. Blog networks can also negotiate better ad deals simply because they can offer better traffc inventory to ad buyers. Many large ad buyers won't consider anything under a couple of million of impressions a month. There's also the power of collective experience, blog networks due to their size and diversity will learn about what works and what doesn't and be able to pass it on to their bloggers. I would estimate 80% or more of the blogging community doesn't really understand SEO or figure out how to optimize their site for search.

So the question for each blogger is, yes all the above things I mentioned you can figure out yourself but it will take a little longer and are they really the things you should be worrying about instead of devoting that time churning out content. To be a professional blogger, earning decent money, I would guess at least 120 posts a month or 3-4 a day is a pre-requisite. The bottom line as in any business is to figure out what is strategic and what is tactical and how you will scale your business.

The broader question that should be asked is how many of these blog networks will survive and make sufficient money for their founders or be attractive enough for a buyout. FM publishing and their ilk are poor examples for blog networks because they focus on monetizing the A-list whereas most blogs in blog networks are much lower in the food chain. To monetize the long tail, means extraordinary measures of efficiency because you are really trying to make pennies of thousands. While we have seen how exploiting the long tail has worked where the 'thousands' where products like books and movies, it is not clear if the same principle will apply if the long tail consists of real people who can jump ship as soon as they are successful enough or regular attention.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Full steam ahead, the train has left the station

Today is a good day to reflect on TheGoodBlogs. Tony and I started TheGoodBlogs less 10 months ago. We had a dream... I'm not sure if it could be called web philanthropy, but we wanted to beat the long tail so badly. Some of the best blogs were simply eclipsed by bloggers who had better brand or better networks. Like eating in the same restaurant everyday, we were convinced that broadening the diet of a blog reader was a good thing. You may not want to follow a single blogger every day but everyone has something good to say some of the time. So we learnt a lot along the way, despite being software veterans. So here are some eclectic thoughts to mark the end of phase 1, the train has truly left the station.

  • To begin any startup, you have to have a dream, a passion, because it brings with it a certain amount of naivety that clouds all the experience you may have, any good sense you may possess and all the naysayers (well-intentioned or not) who will stop you dead in your tracks.
  • If you're a true software entrepreneur, you owe it to yourself to follow at least one of your ideas in your lifetime, regardless of its eventual outcome.
  • Never underestimate the power of 2 or more. It would be easy to say I know it all having run so many enterprise/dotcom startups. The truth is, I probably learnt more this time around than all the gigs put together. Having a good partner and seasoned advisors have been key to our existence.
  • Never be afraid to break all the rules as long as you do it knowingly and then never be afraid to say you were wrong.
  • Question every assumption you make every day. What works yesterday may not work today.
  • The creative pool is not limited to your office. Bury the egos and look outside. Figure out why others are succeeding in the same or similar spaces.
  • Listen to your members. Feel privileged that each one took the time to try your solution out.
  • Take each problem and use it as an opportunity to build a relationship with your customer/subscriber. It may be the only opportunity you have to establish a dialog and deliver a superb customer experience.
  • Web 2.0 may be more about building services than businesses. The product is user-experience, networks and personal brand.
  • Web 2.0 is an attention economy. Every one from Myspace, Flickr, Facebook, Second Life, Digg, Stumble-upon, YouTube and even TheGoodBlogs is really about helping people build their brand, about establishing their name and their existence.
  • Web 2.0 is an experiential journey. Not one startup, successful or not, can honestly say they knew exactly where they were going. Most will tell you that they embarked on a voyage and then let the prevailing winds guide them. Is that not how many great New World discoveries happened? by accident?
  • In the consumer world, the most popular solution is not always the best solution.
  • Most bloggers don't realize that building a loyal and growing readership takes a very long time (especially if you're not a known brand or already have an established personal network).
  • Building your brand isn't about content although it is important. To build your blog readership, you need to sell yourself, by reading, commenting, linking and connecting to other bloggers. The age-old fundamentals of sales and marketing apply equally well to your blog.
  • It's harder and harder to find great content and original thought. If you want reality TV in the blogosphere, go read the mom blogs. It's as real as it gets.
  • The idea that the blogosphere is one humongous cloud is so wrong, not many people get the island concept. The blogosphere is an archipelago of communities.
  • If you stop blogging, your readership will eventually die.
  • I'm convinced that TheGoodBlogs is the only solution that consistently promotes it's blogger community every single day. While others may showcase your blog through Digg or a blog post, none do it on a consistent basis.
  • While it is an impossibility to please everyone all of the time, it's pretty tough not to look at the widget and find at least one blog entry that educates or entertains. In my busy day, I've always found an entry from an old friend, or a breaking tech story or a mom rant that made me stop and smile.
  • Most bloggers should stop trying to focus on making money with their blog and just have fun doing it. Adding a zillion ads and add-ons is off-putting to the reader, the return of a couple of cents and maybe dollars is not worth the aggravation to readers. The irony is that the most successful bloggers with high readership numbers and probably reasonably good ad revenue know how to maintain a balance between content and advertising.

So we've walked 100 miles and there's at least a 1000 more. Regardless of our future, Tony and I would not change our decision to start TheGoodBlogs. It's more fun than anything else I've ever done, like riding those new wacky rollercoasters. Once it starts rolling, you wonder why on earth you ever jumped in. Then the ride begins, your mind and stomach goes on an incredible journey pushing limits you've never reached before and when it's over, you're amazed it was only been a short period of time and the only words you can utter as you stagger off the ride is.... "again!"

Friday, March 09, 2007

What are you thinking?

I love oneliners. They are either quotes, something funny or inspiring. My kids use them all the time in their IM profiles. Instead of putting their name, they put their oneliner of the day. Then there's always one at the end of each movie trailer. Or the ad jingle from MacDonalds that you just can't get out of your head (I'm lovin' it) that your 12 old keeps singing in the car. How about? "TheGoodBlogs, you belong here." It's like a 2 minute elevator pitch but something you want to do handcraft into one memorable sentence. It think it may have something to do with my attention span! but I live for the oneliner. Maybe I should be a stand-up comic except I'm usually not very funny.

The problem I have is I read a lot and I can never figure out where to put the oneliners that make me laugh, cry or I find inspiring. Usually I can't write a whole blog post around a particular one and it seems (at least for me) not an efficient way to use a blog although others have no problem doing that. Enter TheGoodBlogs miniblog. I get excited about a lot of stuff at TheGoodBlogs but this one is really awesome because I can finally put all the oneliners I enjoy throughout my day in one place. It's the first channel in the widget, it belongs to the blogger who owns the widget. It's always there, it's the blogger's oneliner, his moment in time, a piece he/she wants to share without too much thinking. I hope more people will use it.

For me, I'm lovin' it.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The emperor's new clothes

Lots of comments in the blogosphere about USAToday's foray into social networking.. Comments, personal spaces, avatars, conversations, they certainly have all the right features to claim a legitimate move into the Web 2.0 space. There's been much discussion about how newspapers are going online after facing tough times in the publishing business. What will ultimately decide whether they make a successful transition is not going to be based on technology but the culture of the organization.

Those of us who lived through the rise of CRM software will remember how enterprises paid millions of dollars to acquire customer relationship management software apparently to connect to customers better. I say apparently because while the spirit was willing, the culture was weak. Many of the millions spent was simply wasted as organizations were not able to increase profits or know their customers better. Why? in many cases, the company culture wasn't customer centric, so having the right technology enablers was simply a waste of time. If your employees never strived to know their customers and create superb customer experiences, having the tools to do it was moot.

I use this example because none of any of the magazines or newspapers I have ever subscribed to in my entire life has ever sought to create a customer relationship with me. To all of them, I was a subscriber with a subscriber number. They never knew what articles I read, why I subscribed or unsubscribed. Even the jargon is an important pointer to which camp they lie. Readership vs communities, publications vs conversations, subscribers vs members, fact vs opinion, reporters vs bloggers. So will USAToday or any other newspaper succeed? Only time will tell, but I predict many will fail simply because buying a new hammer doesn't make you a carpenter.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Reaching closure with my Thinkpad

So I finally figured out what the problem was with my Thinkpad. It was the battery that is going south. Every time the machine won't boot, I now pop out the battery and put it back in and Voila! it works perfectly. The behavior would seem to indicate that my trusty notebook or at least the battery is assuming a canine personality and requires to be taken out once in a while to be happy. I should as a contingency get a new one I guess. In the meantime, I'm still lamenting that if I wasn't as geeky or had geeky friends, my ignorance of technical matters would mean I would be wallowing in happiness with a new Mac. Alas, fate is not so kind...