Saturday, November 3, 2012

Totally disrupting the peer-review and publication process with modern technology - who's in favor?

I have a few frustrations with the academic peer review and publication process, but nothing that the current capabilities of the internet can't totally revolutionize:

(1) My first frustration is with the lack of availability of academic literature. Even as a graduate student with access to institutional subscriptions to many journals, I can't get access to some articles. Other articles I cannot get in digital form (which means I cannot annotate them using my favorite tools). On the other hand, if I were not affiliated with a university, I would have access to almost **NO** peer reviewed academic literature, unless I'm willing to pay something like $25 per article I find to be of interest. I think the general public should have better access to academic literature. For instance, if my physician recommends a treatment, I may want to know the research behind it, and I may be plenty educated to understand that literature. If I'm a blogger, I may want to critique research more easily - so I want to read about it from its original source. If I'm an entrepreneur, I may want to learn about new technology to use and commercialize, or about concepts I can use to invent new technology!

Opening up academic literature will force research to be more transparent and rigorous, and will help the public be smarter and more educated (including those who are already well-educated - they get to be smarter outside of their own fields and specialties with a lower cost barrier). As a society, we need to stop relying so much on "experts". Experts should be able to point me in the right direction in their area of expertise, but I shouldn't just buy their arguments and logic unless I inspect the merits thereof directly. Simply "trusting" their expertise is a logical fallacy and a form of intellectual laziness that I see every day in casual conversation, in the media, and even in academic circles. Our view of "experts" needs to change. Putting them on a pedestal promotes an anti-intellectual society, which hurts the experts in the long-run.

Now, one may argue: the literature is available to the public, but everything must come at a price; who's going to pay for it? My response to that would be that there is plenty of free content online whose owners have no problems monetizing without making the public pay. We don't have to pay to read the Huffington Post, but it has done very well for itself, has it not? So, I'm highly doubtful that a little bit of thinking outside the box can't lead to successful monetization of academic content: job postings can be a way to monetize, as well as highly-directed book sales (targeted according to the user's search or reading history), and sales of lab supplies, seminars, paid courses, etc (also highly targeted according to the user's profile, behavior, and search).

(2) My second frustration is not really a frustration, but more of a feeling of: "couldn't this be so much better?" It's the present reality that a publication is static - and I think that's suboptimal. You work and work and work, in isolation and in secret (and it's difficult to argue this leads to the best and most productive results), and then all of a sudden, you reveal your work to the academic world. What if there were a different way to post your research, but more in real-time, and not only as "text", but also in more varied rich data structures, that others can interact with and comment on in "real-time" (in addition to the text). Imagine the following. You can link the actual papers you have read or will read and plan to reference in the intro/background sections. Others can help you understand these papers and can suggest other papers to read. You can submit the method steps in a bit more quantitative detail and they can be stored in relatable computer-readable data structures. For example, if you use a particular material, I should be able to click on that method step and find other research using the same material, etc. If you've incubated something for a particular amount of time, I can see the spread among other researchers' methods: how long did they incubate it for? And so on. You can actually post your results as data that are accessible through different tools to make it easier for other researchers to visualize these data. Most importantly, peers can comment, make suggestions, and review, not only after you've submitted your work, but as you progress throughout the process.

Now, someone may be concerned about people stealing ideas and such. Firstly, I think if everyone is using this kind of system, things will just be figured out faster. Researchers will converge to solutions faster, but there'll be sufficient granularity to innovate without stepping on anyone's toes. Secondly, if everyone is on the same playing field and has access to the same information, there's no incentive to cheat - if you cheat, you can be cheated as well. More importantly, if everything is posted more or less in real-time, it'd be easy to see who did what "first". People can call others out on such things (Wikipedia-style), and there can even be official enforceable rules. Regardless, no one wants to just copy - it doesn't help your career! You want to innovate: so, before you begin, you will search to see if others did it already, and you'll try to supplement their work or you'll work on something else. Doing otherwise would defeat your own purpose.

This kind of system would just prevent people reinventing the wheel, which means faster progress. Additionally, more transparency means a more honest academic community, and a better society.

Anyway, my personal belief is that this type of thing is inevitable. I would love to be involved somehow in the process of helping it along and helping it come about. In fact, if there's sufficient interest, I would actually consider working on it just a little bit down the line. One thing is for sure, the present publishers will not be so amenable to changing their entire business model unless they absolutely need to, but they would absolutely need to once there's a tool out there that researchers and academics are using frequently and widely.

Now, this group planning the Open Science Summit has the right idea! I supported their Kickstarter campaign and was disappointed to find out they couldn't raise the support they needed.

(3) In thinking about this more, I realized something about a third frustration that I have with scientific research. There's a really important issue that can very easily be fixed by this kind of system. One symptom of it is the publication bias: researchers only submit to publication results that are interesting (or positive, or "significant", etc.). There's also the possibility of modifying one's hypothesis once the results come in and pretend s/he meant to ask a different question from the one s/he initially had set out to ask. There's also a strong possibility that the peer reviewers and the journal editors themselves won't want to publish a negative result. However, what if the peer review process started from the time a researcher poses her/his hypothesis and suggests an experimental methodology. S/he can then receive feedback from others who are knowledgeable in the field. The idea is that s/he is then bound to carry out the proposed experimental protocol unless there is a compelling reason to change course. S/he is allowed to change to a new project. However, if s/he continues to deal with the same topic, perhaps there is a limit to the number of times s/he modifies the experimental protocol without a good justification. One justification could be based on preliminary results. However, reviewers need to be able to judge whether this change is intellectually justified.

Ultimately, this kind of system is not meant to impose on the freedom of scientists and researchers. Rather, it would be meant only to provide a type of accountability. Perhaps there would be no hard rules, but the requirement to publicize intent ahead of time would cause a researcher to think twice before changing course. That might be enough without any "official" penalty.

A related issue comes to mind. Going against the mainstream view is costly in the academic and research communities. Therefore, if one is able to prove a hypothesis that is contrary to the mainstream, s/he should be especially rewarded. In order to balance incentives further toward intellectual fairness and honesty, there must be some "balancing out" against the pressures of being ridiculed, because in spite of best intentions, even academics and intellectuals, being human organisms, tend to follow the same social dynamics as everyone else. There is still a bit of a mob mentality when it comes to various beliefs and ideas. There must be some incentive to question established orthodoxies, and there must be some level of protection for doing so.

These are just some thoughts toward more intellectually honest (and more efficient) scientific inquiry.
So, what do others think? I'd love to hear opinions, thoughts, objections, complaints, ideas, etc.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Customer Development: an important clarification and some analogies

I've noticed that, while the "customer development" and "lean startup" movement might be really catching on in Silicon Valley and other markets, still in other areas, it seems to be a "nouveau entrepreneur" subculture, and a tension remains with the old way of doing things. So, when customer development is being discussed, I've noticed those discussions are often enshrouded with confusion, but it wasn't meant to be confusing.

Customer development is a concept that has been explicated and popularized by
Steve BlankEric Ries, and others. It is based on the observation that startups are very different from big companies. Steve Blank defines a startup as a temporary organization whose goal is to search for a repeatable and scalable business model, unlike big companies, whose goal is to execute an existing business model. Startup entrepreneurs need to "get out of the building" and validate concepts before they start building. Now, this certainly doesn't do justice to the idea of customer development. So, I recommend Eric Ries's book, The Lean Startup, as well as Steve Blank's books. I also recommend Steve Blank's brief online course on Udacity.

Additionally, I'll warn that, in discussing with people who are unfamiliar with these approaches, the response is often to assume that it's all just common sense and that they're already applying similar principles and don't need to look into this any further. However, it isn't all that obvious and there's a whole entrenched startup culture and status quo that will consistently pull entrepreneurs away from the "lean" direction the minute they start to engage the startup community (unless the respective community has already fully embraced this "lean" way of thinking).

A certain question comes up often, when customer development is being discussed: as an entrepreneur, I should understand my vision better than the customer does, and so why am I looking for input or feedback from the customer to help steer my vision? To make this point, people often bring up this quote:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” - Henry Ford

Or this one:
"You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new." - Steve Jobs

Or this one:“For something this complicated, it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” - Steve Jobs

In fact, this came up recently in discussing customer development with a colleague, and here's an example of this same issue being discussed at some length in an interview with Tim Ferriss:

So, this is what I want to clarify: customer development is not asking people what they want. Henry Ford is still absolutely right today, as is Steve Jobs. Yet, there is absolutely no tension between these truths and the principles of customer development or the lean startup. I submit that this perceived tension is due to an incorrect understanding of what customer development is all about.

I think it'd be a big mistake to think of customer development as some kind of balance between one's vision and the customer's desires/wishes. So it is not a refinement of the vision based on learning "what the customer wants". It is rather a refinement of our own understanding of who the customer is, what s/he "is about", how s/he currently behaves, what s/he needs, and how s/he does stuff step by step. It is not the customer telling us what we should do. It is us trying to understand the customer better than we understood him/her previously so that we can provide him/her something that is truly and objectively better than s/he had previously. It hopefully leads us to insight about customer needs and behavior in the context of him/her trying to meet a very specific narrow set of goals. We need to understand those behaviors and needs better than the customer understands them, and so within that narrow context of meeting these goals, we do need to know the customer better than s/he knows himself/herself. If we don't, then we can't be entrepreneurs, because an entrepreneur needs to provide a creative solution that isn't totally obvious to others. Viewed this way, customer development is part of our own creative process that enables us greater control and greater power, based on our growing insight about who the customer is, rather than it being about some level of deference to the customer's opinion.

So I sense a level of apprehension from many people, that perhaps as we go through the customer development process, we might reach a point where we say, "well, the customers want something else. Let's throw away our original insights, vision, and creativity and give the customer what s/he wants", which feels like being controlled by the customer and would seem to defeat the purpose of trying to be an entrepreneur with the freedom to be creative and inventive. If indeed we have this apprehension, then we might not be thinking of customer development the right way, because rather than a balance between our thoughts and the customer's thoughts, it is more of a process to allow us to gather as much insight as possible about the customer and thus apply our creativity in the most informed way possible.

To use a different creative process as an analogy, it's like a painter who decides to study some photographs and color combinations before he embarks on trying to recreate a vague scene he has in mind, and moreover goes out to visit specific locations to gather more inspiration. This painter then goes a step further and tries some sketches and also tries different colors and types of paint on a small piece of canvas. This whole time, he's not subjugating his creativity to the circumstances he encounters. Rather, he's giving his creativity more and more food and fuel to fortify it, empower it, and expand its capabilities. He's increasing his level of control by providing his imagination with more tools to work with. He's increasing autonomy by increasing the breadth and depth of his insight, so he can be increasingly confident about his artistic decisions.

So this is how we need to think of customer development. If we think of it this way, we'll be able to ask ourselves the right questions about the customers. Now, we will have to be creative in how to get these questioned answered, because in a lot of cases, asking them directly to the customers won't get the answer we need. This is much like how a psychology researcher wouldn't directly ask all his/her research questions to the subject and inquire from the subject what she thinks should go into the researcher's academic paper! Instead, the researcher has to design an experiment to test the system s/he's working with: the research subject and the human mind in this case. In our case as entrepreneurs, much of customer development is about understanding the psychology and behavior of a certain customer type. So, our experimenting has to be mindful of the fact that we cannot simply ask this customer for the answers we need. We need to extract them using well-designed experiments. These experiments might involve some questions to the customer, but these questions must be designed intelligently to reveal the customer's true nature and true behavioral patterns: I've alluded to this in this short old post

I wanted to share how I view customer development because I've often encountered the assumption that it requires some kind of balancing act between the entrepreneur's vision and creativity and what the customer would like. But this isn't at all true. It is rather a way to understand who are the customer segments who would be best served by my vision, what primary needs and problems do they encounter in the narrow set of goals that my solution is meant to support, and what kinds of responses do my solutions and messages (ways of presenting those solutions) elicit? In general, it is meant to help us validate our key hypotheses and "leap of faith assumptions".

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A market for disengaging users

Web and mobile/tablet startups focused on engaging users are not only a dime a dozen, but they are actually exploding and not only in number. Some are reaching such scale and market valuations that investors and entrepreneurs - who have obviously taken notice - are jumping so hard, and all at the same time, that the bandwagon itself is bound to break at some point. It's a specific kind of bubble, but not just in web or mobile applications that are "social", but more broadly, in apps that are somehow meant to be "engaging". Their business model is to create value via eyeball glue.

The obvious examples are Facebook, Zynga, Instagram (now owned by Facebook), Pinterest, etc. All employ a business model that relies on users being as glued as possible to their screens. It's called user engagement, and it has made user experience experts very much in demand. Certainly, to build this kind of startup and to reach a level of success to allow a company to survive purely on advertising (eyeball) revenue, one certainly needs to attract the attention of a ton of users, keep them coming back, and keep them glued.

Think of it: shopping sites are not built just to help you get to what you're looking for pronto, but are designed instead to encourage you to browse. You can try to find as direct a path as possible to what you're looking for, but make no mistake about it, there are things put in place with the intention of sidetracking you: similar suggestions, other related items that are in a different category altogether, random only marginally related (or unrelated) ads, etc. Online shopping sites are designed to emulate the physical-world shopping experience, where you walk in and the entire store is arranged to maximize the surface area of shelves you're bound to bump up against on your way to whatever it was you were looking for; well, what was it that you were looking for in the first place? Exactly. Online, however, aims to lure you with the added convenience of ordering and having things come straight to your door, but just like the physical store, their goal is to make you linger and to "engage you", rather than to maximally automate as much of the the shopping experience and decisions as possible.

By the same token, social media sites are not designed to make sure you get to see your friends more, or to improve the health of your social life with less time and effort, but rather to make sure that you get to spend more time curiously browsing their pages. Let me put it another way: these sites aren't trying to do something for you, or even to help you do something, but rather, they're trying to get you to do something. They're relying on your friends to get you to the site, but the goal is not to build as direct a path as possible between you and your social goals, or even to enable better and more streamlined management of your social life, but to get you to spend as much time on the site as possible. As for other less intimate social media sites, the objective again is not to get you to see what are the most relevant updates and insights, but to get you to browse updates. Browse: the engagement model is not designed to help you focus on what you need and then step out having gotten the best of it. "I'm done here" shouldn't come to you naturally, and should never rely on a clearly delineated stopping point. You can always "load more". There's no point where one of these web or mobile apps indicate for you that a particular life goal has been accomplished or a meaningful metric has been reached (boom - you did something of value) ... Instead, here's a cornucopia to feed your browse-lust. The social web is digital consumerism, not based on your lust for stuff, but for info - it's designed to play on your fear of missing out. That's really what it's all about.

So, "Linger" is the name of the game.

What I find interesting is that while users are being engaged more and more, they want to be engaged less and less. They don't want to be so glued. They're tired of lingering. They wish they could avoid the information overload, the constant connectivity, the attention drain. It's very much like the packaged junk food industry. Certainly, it's an industry that has figured out a model to create huge revenue and has scaled massively, all while making the consumer miserable; but who cares if the consumer is miserable if the consumer is hooked? This gave rise to a different kind of demand to return to how foods were meant to be consumed (and to return to consuming actual food in the first place!); hence the slow food movement, the paleo diet, etc.

In the same way, people's computer use has departed from the original purpose of computers. These machines were meant to automate certain tasks so that we have more time to do other things, to engage in other parts of life, real analog life. Instead, we have a device that was intended to automate things for us, but now we're stuck tending to it all day and all night, and as if this weren't enough, we now get to carry other miniature versions of the same device (multiple, mind you), to make sure that we are attending to our "digital lives" at every last moment, lest we miss out on something important.

Just like the junk-food industry, this trend in the digital world has created a different kind of demand. There are two problems with a model built around constant engagement and screen-time:

The first is that getting you engaged is not necessarily in harmony with making sure you're in control of how you use the various internet gateways, and sometimes, it runs even contrary to it: the companies benefit from making sure users are not in control (whether or not they realize it). Therefore, there's growing demand for tools that help you to control your computer use and keep track of it, so you can be purposeful and goal-oriented about it all. New tools are popping up like RescueTime and StayFocused, evidencing the growing need, while still signaling what I would argue to be plenty of room to innovate in this space. There is room for much greater sophistication to make sure that people have the ability not only to track, but actually to be very premeditated and deliberate about their internet use, and more generally, their use of the computer (including its various native applications, files, and folders). The idea is that apps (web, mobile, native computer OS apps, etc.) can be built to help you keep track of your goals and even to achieve them. Knowing when goals are accomplished should be part and parcel of the types of apps I'm talking about. In other words, meaningful metrics should be at your fingertips. Essentially, people should be able to schedule how they use the computer and put in place safeguards against getting lost in the myriads of possibilities that arise the minute we engage our screens. The paradigm now, rather than "engagement", would focus on "intention". In fact, entire operating systems can be redesigned with this principle in mind, but for now, simple applications can get very far. I would argue that there is a market for "intentionality" models in every single space that is starting to get saturated by "engagement" models.

The second problem with the myriads of options meant to engage is that people don't just want to be intentional and to make sure they're in control of the times when they're using their computers. People additionally want to use their computers less, or get more bang for their buck if you will: more yield for every minute of screen time. This creates a different kind of demand that opens up massive opportunity in my opinion. It is the demand for "disengaging automation". Many tools have popped up in the past to help automate bill payments, keeping track of documents, etc., and all of these can be improved. However, I believe there are also plenty of untapped opportunities not solely focused on digitizing aspects of life that were previously analog (not involving a computer) and then automating them, but also on automating many of the purely digital tasks we do perform on the computer. We make many judgments every minute in front of our screens, trying to focus in on what's important. The question is then: how many of these judgments can a computer manage based on a set of inbuilt principles and/or user preferences? I submit: many, and the idea is to filter things so that the user only needs to attend to what's important and relevant, and as a result, not need to be so damn engaged!

The goal is to have a computer perform a lot of the doing, and just as importantly the thinking, in which we engage even as we merely browse through stuff, whether we're going through the old inbox, the newsfeed, the news site, our favorite blog or feed aggregator/reader, or a shopping site. I can imagine a lot of potential for technology to help us filter out the noise and know when we're done - when the goals have been met.

Automation is not easy. At some level, it requires "artificial intelligence" (using the term loosely). Some processes might actually require really hard-core artificial intelligence. Many startups don't want to focus on the hard stuff (and power to them if they find a simple solution to a very big problem without a ton of competition, but this is not easy to come by), but to set oneself apart, oftentimes, the hard stuff is what's needed.

One of my entrepreneurship professors once astutely noted that people use the internet either to save time or to waste time. I think the same is true for computers in general, whether or not we're online. There'll always be all kinds of need for wasting time: even with all that's going on in the world, boredom and the need to be entertained abound. Perhaps though, we'd be less bored if we're actually living life a bit more like we were meant to, which I posit isn't in front of a screen for 10-11 hours per day. So, I submit that in the consumer web space, just as much as it is true for business processes, there is a need for expansion of the former use of computers, the use they were initially intended for, and that is to save time rather than just waste it. The two primary ways I see for filling that need are firstly tools to enable deliberation and intention, and secondly tools to create "disengaging automation" and filter out noise, by relegating to the the computer all kinds of patterned browsing, thinking, judging, and anything else that we can teach a computer to do.

Speaking of automating consumption, I can't help but recall this timeless clip: now, we don't want to go that far, but we can judiciously automate ;-)

Do you have any ideas in those areas of reducing engagement, increasing automation, enabling deliberation, or anything else that generally promises to reduce screen time or at least improve its quality? I have a few.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Ask what they do, not what they like.

I forgot to clarify something in my last post. My numbered posts (1, 2, ... 4.5, 5, etc.) are all one discussion thread, and then I'm throwing in some random posts whenever I have some things I want to discuss, share, ask about, etc. So, when I promise in the numbered posts that "in my next post", I'll talk about this or that topic, I mean in my next numbered post in the series. Confusing?? Ah, you'll figure it out. So, right now, I'm considering working on a product and in the initial phases, my partner and I are interviewing potential customers to learn about their current behaviors and the problems and barriers they might encounter that our product could potentially address.
We're just getting started with a lot of these interviews and beginning to really get into them one after another. Then today, I heard Eric Ries say in one of these videos that you should measure what customers do, not what they sayand it got me thinking about our customer interviews ... (By the way, I listened to the whole Eric Ries Video series and it was pretty good. It's about an hour long but I don’t know if you can get access to it by signing up for AppSumo - I actually think some of the AppSumo emails can be worthwhile if you're considering signing up, though I haven't bought anything from them yet).

Well, first it got me thinking about my own behavior. The example is the real-time ticker at the top right of Facebook. Some people hated it when it first came, but I thought it was pretty cool because then “Twitter” becomes merely a feature of Facebook. Combine that with the fact that you can now “subscribe” to people without "friending" them (equivalent of "following" on Twitter), and Twitter becomes a mere feature in FB. I didn't think this would in any way replace Twitter, but I thought it would give Facebook an edge and introduce a whole new dimension to the most successful social networking platform.

However, a couple of months later (today), it just occurred to me that I never look at the ticker at the top right, and by "never", I mean to the extent that I completely forgot it even exists. My eyes completely skip over it even though I “said” it was a nifty feature and I was initially intrigued by it. So, what does this tell me?? I need to focus most of my interview questions on what people do in certain scenarios, and bring this even to a more concrete level of "what have they done recently, the very last time they encountered this scenario", and not ask questions that get at "what people like", because I think the latter will likely not provide me with very valuable information, especially if I myself am any indication of how people answer these types of questions ... It's just a simple insight that others have observed, and that I thought I'd share, but it really hit home when I realized my own behavior in this Facebook example: how little do we know ourselves!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

4.5 How to evaluate whether an idea is good.

Okay. So, I lied a little bit in my last post. I mentioned I would discuss "vision" next, but before getting into this, I actually wanted to elaborate more on how to evaluate an idea. It's because I hear so many that could have potential, but they just haven't been through the proper analysis. If I told you I believe that ideas are important, then it's only fair that I explain a little bit about what constitutes a good idea. I'll start by making the ridiculous claim that the same identical proposal (idea) can be good or bad depending on some other factors besides the actual concept being proposed. These other factors have to do with whether the person who came up with this idea is thinking about some important additional things or overlooking them. The goal of this post is just to scratch the surface of what those additional things are.

Now, I'm not the "idea guru" by any means, nor an authority on evaluating ideas. However, I've conditioned myself to think about ideas in a certain way that I think just makes basic sense. It might even be obvious to most people, but it's still often ignored. I'll preface by saying that this is (or should be) all very basic stuff. In fact, they probably teach it in most entrepreneurship classes - and so it might be "101" for you. However, I notice that still many people don't seem to go through this thought process systematically, and of course I'm sure others just never heard it explained. So, here it is and I hope it's not so basic that you're thinking "dude, I know all this." I'll try to elaborate on it to keep it interesting.

Here is the basic framework on how to think about an idea before one attempts to present it to the outside world. Behold the graphic:

As you can see, it starts with some insight about the potential customer and understanding a problem the customer has. Next, one defines the value we want to create for (and offer to) that customer. Then, we think about how we want the customer to view us, and based on this we tailor our message to this customer. Of course, this entails first knowing who is the customer. All along the way, we're thinking about the customer, and hopefully even talking to the customer (well, once you start really working on this idea, you definitely have to talk to the customer!). So, let's quickly hit upon each of these steps:

Who dat!? Who is my customer, i.e. who is the person with the problem I'm claiming I'm able to solve? What are this person's demographics and psychographics? (No. This doesn't mean you need to create any "psycho graphics". It just refers to some attributes of how this customer thinks or behaves). Finally how many people in the world fit this description? Now, this gets complicated in the "disruptive" paradigm, which we briefly began to discuss in some of the previous posts, because there, you'd be thinking about a solution that can be applied to an entire class of problems. So, you have to tackle the issue of which problem to consider tackling first and for which set of customers, but for now, let's assume we're not dealing with anything hugely disruptive, and so there's one clear problem and a specific solution.

What's your problem?? I'm just anticipating and I know this is coming: "does there really have to be a problem? Games aren't built to solve problems. They're built to entertain. Some apps that are just for fun, they're just for fun, right? People get them not because they have a problem, but because they're just trying to have fun." Yes, you have a point, but it's still solving a problem. Even a game or an entertainment venue has an underlying psychology that it's trying to cater to - some need that it is fulfilling. When you design even a game, especially if it's innovative and you're not just copying a standard cookie cutter game storyboard, you're really trying to understand a certain need, like this: "when a person plays this type of game, there's an unfulfilled desire to share the experience with friends more ..." or "when you play a typical game and the game is over, your accomplishment doesn't really get incorporated or memorialized into a lasting 'product' or memory that you can hold onto and look at later - at least not beyond a score or record." You get the picture. Something I've hit upon here implicitly is this: the customer's problem is getting evaluated in view of the present solutions: it's only a problem worth addressing if there isn't anything out there that is well known that addresses it, or - at least - that addresses it sufficiently (I know, I know. Obvious stuff, but I often feel that people seem to forget it!).

Value proposition - This is where I come in. Ta ... da ... The value proposition is merely the solution that I offer, and here is what we need to keep in mind (again - obvious, but still often forgotten): the cost to the customer of acquiring this solution must be less than the difference between the size of the problem and the part of the problem that is solvable with the present tools. This might have sounded convoluted; so let me try to reword it: how much happier you are with my solution over how happy you were with the next best thing, that difference should be bigger than how much it costs you to obtain my solution; this is assuming you already have access to the old solution (the next best thing). Here's another graphic to describe this.

Now, if you don't have access to the old solution, you're likely not going to go for my solution either - because you probably don't feel the "pain" of this problem enough to be seeking a solution at all (refer to Steve Blank's The Four Steps to the Epiphany for great elaboration on this concept of customer pain); although it is quite possible that in spite of great pain, the present solution fails so miserably at solving the problem that it's not even worth getting (and hopefully the one I'm offering you is much better!). Here, the cost of obtaining a solution doesn't just have to be money. For example, downloading a free app on a phone doesn't seem to come with huge costs, right? Well, they're not huge as compared to a lot of other things we deal with in our daily lives. However, the phone's storage space becomes pretty valuable real estate when you have 500,000 potential apps to choose from, a great many of which are free (which is the case for the iPhone, or 250,000 for the Android platform). In that context, an app, even a free one, had better be pretty darn good and noteworthy for a person to download it.

Positioning. Where do you stand? In class one day, Professor Mohan Sawhney (here's his bio and his personal site) asked one of the students: if a Mercedes Benz was a person and s/he just walked into the room, how would you describe this person (gender, age, attire, looks, etc.)? The student answered quickly (I don't remember the exact answer). He then asked the same question about a BMW, a Porsche, etc., and each time, the student answered quickly and naturally. Then he got to Nissan, and the student hesitated ... The professor then explained that this is a standard test to understand positioning. It's not only the content of the answer that gets evaluated, but how fast the person answers. If there is hesitation, then the product's positioning isn't well defined. Prof. Sawhney defined positioning as the particular place in a customer's mind that a product or service occupies. For example, in each product category, there's one brand that represents the premium luxury version. Another represents practicality. Another represents a power solution, or youthful energy. There's almost always one that represents the economical choice in the product category. His point was that in most product/service categories, only one brand can really occupy each of these "hills". So, isn't your positioning the same as your value proposition? Not necessarily. Your positioning is the perceived value you want to communicate to the outside world. It may not convey all the value that your product or service is offering, but simply what you want to be the key defining representation of your value in the customer's mind.

Messaging. What do you say?? I'm not going to say a whole lot about this. The messaging is how you convey your positioning and other aspects of your brand to the potential customers. It's the content that you want to communicate through your various branding, marketing, and advertising activities. You need to think about this a little bit even if your idea is just in the "conception" stage - you need to at least start to imagine it. Visualizing really helps with all these different steps. If you have trouble coming up with a clear message, maybe the value proposition isn't as solid as you had thought. Maybe the problem isn't as big as you had thought. And so on.

Now, these steps aren't typically thought of as the way to evaluate an idea initially. They actually become more and more critical the closer you get to actually producing and selling what it is that you're offering. However, I think that even in the conception phase, it's prudent to run the idea through this machine we've just described. You may not have a lot of real "customer feedback" at that point in time, but you should at least take into account people you know who might pursue this solution and you should take into consideration your insights about these people. Maybe talk to them and ask them questions about what you're assuming to be their problem (testing assumptions is key to customer development. Again, refer to The Four Steps to the Epiphany). If you only run your ideas by them, you probably will only get high fives which are not all that helpful, but it is helpful to talk to them about their current behavior and their current perceived needs, etc. Think about what questions you'd want answered to inform which specific problem you try to solve (or which aspects of it), what value proposition you offer, as well as your positioning and messaging. When you're only in the first few days of considering an idea, if you're only thinking about this rubric and all these different aspects we've discussed, you're already a step ahead of the curve in my humble opinion. Then, the more serious you get about pursuing your idea, you'll need to obtain new critical insights by getting directly in front of real potential customers (who are not necessarily friends and family) and trying to learn from them (not to sell to them). You might want to verify some of your insights with a survey to get a bigger picture of your market, after having spoken to a few very helpful customers. A survey will help you get a good feel for whether or not the feedback of these initial interviewees was representative.

This is what I meant above when I stated that a proposed idea can be good or bad depending on some other factors. A person may be onto a cool solution or technology, but s/he hasn't thought sufficiently about the problem, what key value this solution is offering, how it would be positioned in the current landscape of this category/vertical, and finally, what s/he imagines will be the message s/he tries to convey in the market.

So, we know what makes an idea "good", but what is different about disruptive ideas? We'll discuss those in the upcoming posts. For now, keep coming up with ideas and evaluating them. Finally, a word of caution: even if you apply this rubric with very limited data initially, you're likely to be wrong. So, if you have any doubt, get more actual data! Don't throw out an idea just yet simply because of comments from one or two people. Those comments should give you some things to think about, and should inform what questions you try to answer next. However, they shouldn't make or break your idea!

If you have further insights about what makes an idea good or bad, I'd love to hear them - please comment! Also, was all this stuff we talked about really obvious / somewhat familiar / totally new? I'd really be curious to know, but if it was obvious to you, this is just an intro covering some basics for what's to come next, to level expectations about what readers know or don't know before we start trying to get into some of the meat of the discussion, and before we try to learn new things (which will be new for me as well, as you can see here - this blog is for me to connect and learn, not to "teach" by any means, as I'm just starting out).

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

4. Ideas are highly underrated.

In most startup circles I've come into contact with, I've encountered this ridiculous majority-held notion that the idea almost doesn't matter at all in a startup. It's "the team" and the "execution", they say. Well, I like to say: "a good team will tend to come up with good ideas!" In fact, the fastest way for me to be able to tell who is someone I likely wouldn't enjoy working with is by the ideas this person presents. Another quick way is by how s/he responds to the ideas I present. It's not whether they like them or not - it's whether their response is intelligent, even if they rip into them. It has been my experience that the smartest people are good at evaluating, analyzing, and critiquing ideas, of course including their own, and they are good at articulating this analysis. To me, it's insane to think that ideas don't matter ...

Those who tend to dismiss the importance of "ideas" usually add that even a bad idea in the hands of a good team can still lead to a successful business given proper execution. They also usually point out that on the other hand, the best idea in the world will fail when the team is weak or the execution is lacking. In other words, according to most in the startup world, the team and the execution are both necessary and sufficient, while the idea only modulates or "colors" the odds of success. So, it's as though a good idea is an added bonus, but not in any way necessary. I'm pretty sure I don't agree with this, because a bad idea that still offers some value to a yet untapped market is not that bad of an idea after all. I will however agree with the converse, which is a much weaker statement: that a good idea in unskilled hands likely will fail (I doubt anyone would disagree with this anyway as it merely states the obvious!)

What I would like to point out though is that no company has made it big with a poor or even a mediocre idea ... You can be successful with a mediocre idea, but you certainly won't be big. For "big", all of the following are necessary: (1) the team, (2) the execution, and (3) the idea, and you're almost guaranteed failure if one of them is slightly sub par. In other words, even with the best team and impeccable execution, you're not going to get very far in the direction of "disruption" with a bad or mediocre idea. This of course is aside from what I mentioned earlier: that smart people are good at evaluating ideas, and even if they might come up with a bad one now and then, they'll know how to quickly critique it and find out when they're wrong. But if they're smart, it'll look good to any objective observer at first or even at second glance - or alternatively, the observer just won't get it. Consider anything that has been disruptive - was the idea in any way weak or mediocre? Did the overall concept not usually convey a brand or facade behind which you simply were certain is a smart team? Let's think of some examples: again the obvious ones - IBM, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Intel, Benz, Ford, etc.

In fact, what I would argue is that one commonly overlooked necessary ingredient to disruption is something that goes beyond ideas. It's something more overarching, and perhaps the source of ideas: it's vision. It's vision for how a particular solution can change the way the world works, even in some small way. It's understanding culture and society, and where these currently tend to "break", and it's imagining a fix that is not overly complex that will bypass or mitigate those breaking points. It's simply understanding people and being smart enough to study the tools needed to make the solution work - the science and technology behind the whole thing - and really mastering the fundamentals behind them. Vision is that "je ne sais quoi" that people like Steve Jobs had, that some of us call "genius". I don't call it genius; I call it vision. Mark Zuckerberg clearly has it. What he did with Facebook shows vision beyond what any of his social networking competitors (and now, mere predecessors) displayed. He understood and understands how to "socialize" or "Facebookize" almost everyone's experience on the web. Vision is imagining a social network as not merely living within its own compartment - as a tool enabling people to keep in touch with each other and share news, but as a means to experience the entire web socially. Facebook comes up even when you're not on Facebook - doesn't it? That's a result of vision. I know that in my last post, I harped on those who over-philosophize online social networking and its impact. I still stand by that, and this is not what I'm doing here. I'm merely pointing out that people's (or social networking gurus' and enthusiasts') current "insights" about online social networking were at some point a vision in Mark Zuckerberg's and his team's mind. Now, they are merely observations and reactions.

In my next post, I'll discuss my experience with how people in the tech startup community respond to an articulated vision - or don't. Until then, I'll leave you with this old Apple commercial that has been circulating (you might have seen it), as I believe what it was getting at is quite simple. What distinguishes the people in the video from everyone else is that they had vision, plain and simple, and enough courage to pursue it. The video refers to it as genius - or something that comes across as genius. I would argue that vision results in that perceived genius, and isn't this true of the people in the video? Isn't this the very thing that the video describes, without using the word: is it not the foolishness to want to change the world, and the fact that the status quo doesn't interest these people, nor the standard "rules" of doing things, but something new and different, and markedly better? I am looking to befriend people like the ones in this video. Know of any?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

3. Tech Buzz Kills

I hope you'll appreciate the play on words once you've read the post.

It's only been about 11-12 months since I've started trying to be connected to the tech entrepreneurial community and already I've noticed that tech is marked by a lot of buzz, and people tend to really get caught up in it.

To give you just one example, there is an overemphasis on "social": social media, social this, and social that. There's nothing wrong with discussing the social media revolution and how it is impacting life and business. However, I take it as a given that social media is a game-changer and that we all have to get with the times, especially if we wish to be successful in business - this is old news! I find that in some circles, we tend to over-philosophize it, and I really find that there is no need for all this pontificating about social media because it's actually not all that complicated nor deeply philosophical. It's been happening for thousands of years, rather more effectively than it is happening now. People are talking about it as though technology has finally enabled us to communicate with each other, while in reality, technology has taken us away from communicating face-to-face as we used to and more recently, it has opened up a pathway for a lesser (and far less rich and less information-dense) channel of communication, albeit a pathway enabling simpler messages to reach huge audiences much faster. This is not a phenomenon we need to stand in awe of like deer in headlights. Those of us who wish to be true innovators need to "get" social media, how messages get generated and how they can reach audiences of scale via the social graph, and then move a bit past it.

Now, I'm not talking about people doing actual work trying to gather deep insights concerning the social graph and the propagation of messages through it. Rather, I'm talking about the over-buzz around the obvious aspects of social media, dressed up like new revolutionary insights. I'm talking about the people who call themselves social media "gurus" or "junkies" or "enthusiasts". To me, this is like saying, I'm a telephone enthusiast. Technology is moving quickly - so let's not get hung up on one step in the ladder. Here's an experiment for you to consider: if you tweet at all about tech, count how many people follow you or try to follow you who are self-proclaimed social media experts, but who, in reality, are nothing more than people who get how to use Facebook and Twitter, who know some marketing basics, and who have thought for 10 minutes about a small subset of human psychology.

Yet, I believe the problem goes a bit deeper than this and even infects many communities of "first tier" entrepreneurs and technologists. When I attend events where people pitch tech startup ideas, I feel like I'm always hearing the same 5-10 ideas over and over again, just applied to different uses or use cases, or maybe different markets. Few of these ideas display a desire to innovate on the technology itself or the way it's being used. They're not anticipatory but they're rather reactionary to the technological trends or buzz. 99% of these ideas are still very much entrenched in web 2.0 thinking, something that's going to zip right on by us while we're frozen and staring at it in amazement, while the few who really get the next phase of the web will cash in on it. Interestingly, these are also quite often the same tried and true ideas that get funded by VC's. For a large number of VC's, it seems like you would want to include some buzz words in your pitch - which is a real shame for innovation in America, because buzz tends to equal status quo.

I would argue that technology is what drives the trends and buzz, rather than the reverse being true. You can actually test this yourself and observe what most tech buzz is about - is it generated from people talking about what should happen, or is it mostly in reaction to what already has happened? So, what I'm saying is that if I want to build something "disruptive", then I'd better get away from the buzz and find the 1% who are talking about real innovation, and these are really hard to find. As for me personally, I'm doing everything I can to find them, and this blog is part of that effort.

Don't get me wrong - there's nothing wrong with identifying a need and a yet-untapped market niche and using the current "standard practices" in technology to address it. There's nothing wrong with it, and as a matter of fact, it can be a path for great success. It's just that it is reactionary rather than disruptive, and so interests me only marginally - well, to be fair, it interests me for sure inasmuch as it might be a means to a different end. However, especially in this blog, I'm most interested in talking to people who like to think about things that are going to be disruptive. Basically, if you're going to build something that supports a range of markets, then almost by definition, you're innovating on the technology itself or at least innovating at a fundamental level on the way it's being used. I'm thinking of things like: the smartphone, the personal computer, the web-crawling search engine, the now-standard structure of the online social network, GPS, etc. All of these are actually technological inventions in their own right. They're not just a new market, but a new technology or a fundamentally new general use of the technology that will affect markets in general, people in general, daily life in general.

The point is this: when you pay attention to the buzz in the community, most of what you'll hear and find yourself talking about is really stuff that is intimately connected with the status quo (at least technology-wise). When you read about and listen to what people are saying about technology, most of it is not about developing technology, but reacting to it, and we want to be the ones driving this reaction, rather than being the ones reacting, or even worse, the ones responding to the reaction! So, maybe we need to get away from the buzz (because it tends to kill real innovation) and move beyond it. We need to not spend so much time listening to people express amazement at how things are changing already, and work harder at making new friends who are more likely to talk about how they want to change things. It's not that most people can't innovate; rather, I believe that people ignore their stronger desires to innovate and give way to the weaker desire to copy, perhaps because the former involves greater risk? (Though I would argue it's more personal emotional risk, rather than business risk, because copying also carries its own type of financial and career risks). This scarcity of truly innovative communities is actually good in some way, because it means that the competition for building totally new technology is not as fierce as the competition for "social", "deals", "insert other buzz word here", etc. However, it's a double-edged sword, because it means we have far less of a community that supports us, and so we have to work that much harder at finding or building that community, and this is what I hope to contribute to even if incrementally. This is why I'd love to hear ideas from anyone reading this.

So, to conclude, you'll notice that most great innovators follow a maxim like Steve Jobs' famous "Stay hungry. Stay foolish". This is exactly what I'm saying here and I would argue that the massive startup is one that is marked by hunger and some level of foolishness (and please don't confuse that with an inability to calculate risks, or an inability to plan intelligently, or analyze the market, or talk to customers, etc). You have to understand what Steve Jobs meant by "foolish" here, and I think we all realize he was no fool. As for hunger, it is my strong conviction that many people are driven by money, but they're not driven enough to meet the challenge of true innovation. I believe this is because money can't get you that hungry, because we're not build to really need a whole lot of it. There is a limit to how hungry a person can be for money, but there's almost no limit to how hungry a person can be for significance. All of us need our lives to mean something, but not all of us need to have a ton of money to be happy (and the latter has actually been proven scientifically - that most of us don't).

Since few of the things you hear others talking about are foolish enough, and few of them exhibit any real, deep hunger, the conclusion then is that we must choose very carefully whom to listen to, what talks we attend and what books we read.