Friday, January 13, 2012

Back in the Saddle

Yikes. It's been nearly 18 months since I last posted here.  I know I've said this before, but it's time to pick this blog back up again. Now that I'm also a VC, it's going to be very important for me to use this this blog as a means to reflect and synthesize my thoughts and viewpoints -- on companies, sectors, trends, and people.  More than that, I've realized that writing pushes me out of my comfort zone and away from my default introverted nature.

So, for better or worse, I'm going to give this another real shot.  And, hopefully along the way, I write something that you find worth reading.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Change is Good... But Not So Fast

Admittedly, I've never been one to get all up in arms about popular web services changing their appearance. After all, they are hopefully making changes that benefit usability and improve the product -- this is the beauty of the web. When my Facebook feed was cluttered with friends bitching about new Facebook design changes, I kind of just shrugged my shoulders. Shouldn't Facebook have the right to change what they think will work better for users?

However, yesterday, I rethought my position on this. When I read that Gmail had revamped its Contacts area (it took me till late last night to actually see the change in Gmail), I was excited -- I love Gmail, they usually make awesome improvements, and I had just spent an hour the day before organizing my contacts. This new interface had to be better. And, it is. The ability to quickly edit, sort, use keyboard shortcuts, etc for my contacts is a tremendous improvement to what was already there. But, coupled with this change was a fairly minor change in the user interface, designed to raise the prominence of "Contacts" and "Tasks". Since this change has yet to take in my Google Apps email account, I took screenshots of both:

Of all apps on the web, I use Gmail the most -- above, Twitter, Reader, and certainly Facebook. For as long as I can remember (let's call it 6+ years), the links to Compose and see the number of unread messages in your Inbox have been in the top left. To me, these are the single most important things you can do within Gmail: (1) write a new message or (2) check your inbox. While the change seems trivial (it's probably no more than 80 vertical px), it has been pretty jarring. I've clearly been trained to look for these two items in specific, fixed locations on the screen and I find myself wasting several seconds each time I tab to Gmail. I click on the "Mail" link attempting to Compose a new email (it's so ingrained that it's basically muscle memory) or I can't quickly identify my unread message count. Compose is a button, not a link, which is a large visual difference. This is exacerbated by the fact that my Apps email and my personal Gmail are on different interfaces. The wasted time adds up.

Google made this change to make it easier to get to Contacts and Tasks, but I honestly rarely click on those links; "Contacts" maybe once a week and "Tasks" even less frequently since my Task list is always open. That said, Gmail offers the option to collapse those 2 links, but there's still an unnecessary "Mail" header at the top. That option is better than most (see Facebook).

I'm sure that, over time, I'll get used to these minor changes and this post will be ridiculous. However, it has helped me realize how integrated these services are in my daily life and the truth that control over product behavior lies somewhere between user expectation and desired long-term product evolution. Companies owe it to their users to give them choice, especially if those products are used heavily and widely by 100s of millions of users. Providing options for users to selectively enable new features and functionality over a period of time, especially ones that change the user interface, seems like the best policy.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How To Develop Startup Ideas

Besides the better weather, access to great skiing, hiking, and any other outdoor activity you can think of, I love living in San Francisco because people "get" startups. New York (my previous home) is largely a city of bankers and consultants (although that's starting to change). San Francisco is a city of tech entrepreneurs and it really only takes overhearing conversations at any restaurant to figure that out. What's great is that it gives me the opportunity to talk to and learn from many peers who are in the process of starting their companies or have already folded many successes under their belt.

I firmly believe that great ideas are not necessarily what makes a successful company -- it's ultimately all about execution, with the most challenging part being building the inertia required to get started. It's really easy to convince yourself not to pursue an idea (the commitment, challenge, lifestyle changes) -- so it's certainly not for everyone. It's significantly harder to connect all the dots to translate an idea into a path of success.

In talking with other entrepreneurs and recounting my own experiences, I feel that I've narrowed in on a set of traits that are vital for successfully pursuing a startup idea:
  • Core competency is really important. Pick one thing that is core to your company and do it extremely well. Ultimately, as you grow, you will naturally expand into complimentary areas, but trying to grow a company on several fronts at one time can lead you to do many things adequately or poorly instead of simply killing one core area. Going away from your core competency seems like a likely recipe for failure. Even Google (a company with 100+ products) adopts a 70/20/10 mantra to focus 70% of their effort on their core businesses: search and ads.
  • Look for a niche. Find small things that make a big impact. Everything does not need to be the "next Facebook" or "next Google" and I'd argue that thinking like that trivializes and overlooks the inordinate sequence of small steps (which are far more important) that are needed to build something as powerful and sustained as those incredible companies.
  • Ideas have to be grown, not scrutinized. I can't count the number of times I've had an idea and spent time thinking about all the ways in which the idea would fail, only to see others execute those ideas. Nobody can know it all, but you can trust your instincts about what has the potential for success. In the times I've spent brainstorming with my friends, I've tried to focus on how to translate an idea into an execution strategy instead of worrying about the obstacles in the way.
  • Look for unmet needs. One of my pet peeves is describing an idea or product as a repositioning of an existing market leader -- "This is a [Facebook/Twitter/YouTube etc] for XYZ". The problem with this line of thinking, in my opinion, is that, often times, this feels like shoehorning a product into a market that may not have a need. And, if that is how you describe your product to others, then it's likely how you think about your product internally and force you to chase features and functionality that may not make sense for your market. It seems basic to say, but focusing on the singular problem you are solving is how I'd describe my company. This isn't a "Twitter for business" but instead "this is a product that solves the challenges people have communicating with each other within the workplace".
  • Explore emerging markets. As a tech entrepreneur, I like to look at industries or verticals that have traditionally been under-served by technology. Even simple ideas in these markets can make a huge impact, because the problems are numerous, competition limited, and the potential impact of small things can be large. It's best to be ahead of the curve as opposed to being caught up in a frantic land grab.
  • Get feedback early and often. Somewhat related to the concept of "growing an idea", it's hard to execute in a silo. In thinking through ideas, I'll try to get feedback from people I trust as soon as I can. I take these things with a grain of salt, but everyone I talk to usually has a perspective that can help me refine my ideas and path to execution. I often hear the people are worried about their idea being stolen, but the reality is that ideas are typically not unique -- it's your ability to execute that is.
These are things that I've found to be helpful in the brainstorming and ideation process. How about you?

Monday, January 18, 2010

CES 2010

Last week, I spent 4 days in Las Vegas for the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show. My primary goal was to network, but I did get a chance to spend a day walking the floor of the show. It's an overwhelming experience, as there are literally thousands of companies, most with extravagant product demos, booth babes, and a myriad of light-emitting displays that surprisingly did not bring about instant seizures.

3D technology, in displays and gaming, was undoubtedly the prevalent theme of CES 2010, with every major electronics manufacturer unveiling their 3D television. In fact, Panasonic's VT25 series won CNETs Best of CES award and will likely become the first 3D television to hit the market. This space is definitely starting to explode, with several networks - including ESPN and Discovery - announcing plans to launch dedicated 3D networks in 2010. I must admit, having just seen Avatar, I'm intrigued by the prospect of watching the World Cup in 3D this year. The displays are fabulous and, in many of the demos, I could really see how gaming and certain types of content could really benefit from this technology. The only downside is that they require you to wear fairly large 3D glasses (which must also draw their own power). Trust me, they look kind of ridiculous. Furthermore, there seems to be a fundamental perspective problem with the technology as the quality of the 3D effect degrades to the point of causing headaches as you move away from a 90 degree angle with the display. Are people really going to have 10 pairs of 3D glasses on hand to have their friends over to watch football on a Sunday? I'm not sure that the technology will get broad adoption until someone figures out how to cheaply replicate the effect without relying on the glasses (and 3M is working on it...)

I probably have an unconventional view of "what's cool", but here's my (short) list of most interesting technologies that I saw on the floor, primarily because they pertained to improving the environment and trying to address the most challenging problem facing the world: energy.
  • Chevy Volt - yes, I know EVs have been announced for quite some time, but this was the first time I actually got to see this car in person. It's a sexy car and the fact that you can monitor and control it using your iPhone sealed the deal for me. How awesome is that? I'm getting one... well, that is, if my Tesla Model S order falls through.

  • Panasonic's Fuel Cell Cogeneration System - this is essentially a residential fuel cell that can generate electricity and hot water from natural gas (hydrogen) and oxygen from the air. These are the same polymer membrane exchange fuel cells that are powering vehicles, but can now heat and power your home while reducing your energy consumption and CO2 emissions. Durability and cost are likely a concern, but I have to imagine that these things will improve over time as this technology is commercialized and hits mass market. Here's a picture of the unit they had on display (kind of looks like a Flux Capacitor, right?):
It's pretty easy to see how changing the way individuals consume energy in their daily lives can have a tremendous impact on the long-term sustainability of the planet.

There were a bunch of other gadgety things that were interesting, notably Sony's video camera stabilization technology and LED TVs that were as thick as an iPhone, but I didn't get a chance to take pictures of those. I did get cornered at the Sony booth to do a video interview about what I saw as the future of in-home media consumption, which you can happily see after the jump (cut to 2:17):

Sunday, January 3, 2010

It's Already 2010?!?

It feels like I blinked my eye and it's already 2010. What happened to the last decade? Well, according to Back To The Future II, we're about 5 years away from flying cars and Mattel hoverboards. While I don't anticipate wearing multiple ties anytime soon, it's pretty amazing how much things have changed in 10 years. I didn't even have a cell phone in 2000... today, it feels strange to go 30 minutes without looking at my phone. 2010 is a big year for me -- I'm turning 30!

2009 has been an interesting year for me -- certainly not one of my best -- so I can say that I'm eagerly looking forward to a fresh start in 2010. First, though, I wanted to look back on my "resolutions" from last year to see how well I did, because, it's kind of pointless to be making resolutions if I can't evaluate how I've done. By my calculations, I got a 43%, which is terrible.

  • Travel internationally at least twice - I traveled to Peru and Puerto Rico (which I guess counts as a 1/2).
  • Take at least 3 vacations that don't involve travelling home or going to weddings - I got the 2 above and a trip to Vail.
  • Blog at least once a week for the entire year - Nowhere close.
  • Launch a new website around a biz idea I have - Fail.
  • Buy a house - Fail.
  • Start reading again; it's sad when I think about the last real book I've read - Got a little better at this, however not close to what I wanted.
  • Buy a new road bike - Done!, and started religiously riding.
  • Break 90 in an 18-hole round - Only played a handful of times.
  • Speak on 2 panels - Done!, I think I spoke on 5.
  • Grow out my hair - Tried it, it looked bad, so scrapped the idea (no pictures forthcoming).
  • Be better about staying in touch with people - Better, but could do more.
  • Hike Half Dome - Fail.
  • Build a better Howcast - We're working on it, 2010 will be a big year!
  • Start writing code again - Fail.
  • Read the newspaper - Better.
  • Start investing again - Better, but not complete.
  • Less ESPN, More CNN - I think this may be practically impossible for me.
And, here's my master to-do list for 2010:
  • Buy a new apartment in SF by the end of March
  • Start cooking regularly
  • Ride AIDS/LifeCycle
  • 40 blog posts in 2010 (repeat)
  • Take an international trip
  • Launch my business idea (repeat)
  • Read at least 20 books
  • Re-learn French
  • Stop snoozing through my alarm clock
  • Take an international personal trip
  • Regularly play tennis
  • Half dome (repeat)
  • Get good at golf
  • Get at least a 80% on my resolutions
  • Redacted

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Changing Game of Customer Service

One of the largest uses of Twitter is clearly the ability for brands to engage with their customers, whether it's celebrities interacting with their fans or products soliciting feedback from their users. Even better, many companies (Starbucks, Southwest, to name a few) are using Twitter to successfully conduct customer service and promote a positive brand image. While most would not consider Howcast to be a service-based company, we diligently utilize Twitter to solicit feedback about new product features, conduct surveys, and engage with anyone who writes to/about us. We stress the importance of responding promptly and, more importantly, to take action on complaints, questions, or suggestions our followers may have. Many times, users will express sincere shock and gratitude that we responded so quickly, undoubtedly because people have come to accept poor customer service as the norm. As Twitter and other social media platforms hit mainstream, the way people and companies view customer service will hit a tipping point -- and it can't come soon enough, in my opinion.

Zappos gets it -- in fact, they "got it" well before Twitter and "social media" existed -- and that is their core innovation. They clearly were not the first company to sell shoes online, but they were the first to take an aggressive stance on service. From guaranteeing free 2-way shipping to clearly posting their phone number at the most prominent location on their site, Zappos has baked customer service into the very DNA of their company, looking at themselves as a "service company" that just happens to sell shoes. Their customers are happy, loyal, and form an army of individual marketers who promote the brand. I didn't start using Zappos because of a TV ad or billboard (which I've seen recently), but rather through a friend's recommendation. I've only purchased 5 times on Zappos, but each experience has been great. And without me asking or doing anything extraordinary, they recently upgraded me to Zappos VIP, which guarantees me free overnight shipping for life. I don't think anyone needs to wonder if I'll be shopping with them again and for a long time (and tell anyone who will listen just how awesome they are). It's more important for them to keep existing customers happy than spend that same money to acquire new ones.

I'm frankly shocked that companies who don't focus on service can still survive and it's largely happening in industries where certain players are the only game in town. Cable companies, wireless phone providers, and airlines are some of the worst -- why? -- because users have limited options. Comcast's introductory service packages are awesome until you find out your rate increases by 60% after 6 months and your neighbor is getting a better product for a cheaper price. Why companies would piss off existing customers to acquire new ones is beyond me. If you keep me happy, I'm a predictable revenue stream for life (can Comcast say the same for the new customer that my rate increase is subsidizing?). But, the threat of me leaving is limited to a few options, so there's no motivation for Comcast to change their ways. Fed up, I switched to DirecTV, which for the most part, has been a refreshing change. However, I recently wanted to upgrade my service to HD (UPGRADE - as in, pay more money on a monthly basis), and they wanted to charge me $180 to make this change. Sure, there was the cost of sending out a technician to change the satellite dish, but beyond that, my monthly charge would have gone up by $20/month. Only when I threatened to leave did they waive the fee. But, why make me jump through hoops to get this? Why not just give this to me up front? Companies are still operating in a traditional model where service is looked at as a cost center, not as what it truly is -- a marketing expense. In services that have largely become commodities (such as cable TV), satisfied customers will be their lifeblood.

Twitter has been an enabler of this paradigm. Until now, if you had a bad customer service experience, you could complain to the handful of people with whom you happened to talk to about that service or product. But, now, a consumer can instantly post on Twitter, write a Yelp review, or use any number of outlets to instantly spread the negative message to hundreds of followers, and possibly offer alternative options. This information can be spread all around us, not repressed by physical boundaries. People are liable to take recommendations -- both good and bad -- from their network. Happy customers become champions for your service/product, instantly becoming millions of mini-advertisements around the web. Twitter has changed the equation from one of simple dollars and sense to one that places value on customer satisfaction and the ancillary benefits of micro-promotion and loyalty associated with that customer.

As good customer service experiences happen, consumers will start to demand excellent service. Customer service will not merely be a check box in the list of to-do's for a company; doing it well will be a must-have. It seems like Business 101, but sadly the tide is only starting to turn: treat your customers or users the best you can and success will follow.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Logging Miles

It's been about 2 months since I purchased my very first road bike -- and I'm loving it. The awesome thing about California is that being active and outdoors is very much ingrained into the lifestyle here, which is much different from what I grew accustomed to on the east coast. Granted, this was largely a result of living in a climate where 6 months of the year were eaten up by cold weather, but also being trapped in an urban jungle like New York. On any given weekend in California, people are skiing, hiking, bike riding, running, playing golf -- you name it. I had always wanted to get into biking due to the bike-friendliness of San Francisco, but working in Mountain View every day put a damper on how much time I actually had to ride.

Over the course of the last 2 months, I've put over 825 miles on my bike, mainly riding after work and on the weekends, which I never thought I'd be able to do. In fact, I just realized I've put more miles on my bike in 2 months than I have on my car for the entire year. Not sure if that will keep up, but I like that I'm keeping my carbon footprint relatively low.

I love riding because, in addition to a great workout, I've been able to discover parts of the city and Bay Area that I normally wouldn't be able to see. Here are some various pictures that I've been able to take with my iPhone during my various rides:

At least for the next 6 months, I'm definitely looking to keep up the pace of 120-150 miles per week and, if all goes according to plan, I'll have more exciting biking adventures soon. Stay tuned.