Thursday, December 20, 2012

Growth Hacker vs Marketing: Loser Leaves Town Match

Today, in the greatest showdown of all time, I bring you quackery at it's finest. I've written about the growth hacker concept before, but last week I came across a piece that has brought me to a new level of understanding of the concept. It started with this piece on PandoDaily.

It seems that some people put together Growthathon, sort of a conference designed to pull together growth hackers, presumably, to collaborate and share best practices for "incredible, mind-blowing growth for your fledging startup." Unfortunately, it seems that the conference attendees had trouble with "having them allow themselves to work with other attendees, and create an environment of sharing and brainstorming."

Secrecy or... Something Else?
While the Pando piece attributes the challenges to this conference with "a Valley culture that sometimes puts a premium on secrecy," I found bigger mysteries at work here. To start with, how much secrecy is needed when your conference hackathon project goals are "challenges like building an infographic or assembling a public relations campaign"?

While some gasp in awe at the scope of this challenge and others might question why they were consuming valuable seconds with such heady stuff, I knew that I had to dig deeper. After all, perhaps I was missing some potential personal promotional opportunities through a lack of understanding of the use of a fully armed and operational growth hacker moniker. Here's how the piece describes growth hacker:
The term has been en vogue in Silicon Valley of late, now a buzzword in startup tut-tut. Essentially, a growth hacker is someone concerned with growing a startup from a uniquely marketing and product vantage point.
Okay, so I do that. And I can create an infographic or assemble a PR campaign (I could tell you how, but I'd... let's just avoid the cliche and attribute it to our culture of secrecy here in the Valley), so what am I missing?

To better understand, I followed this link to a post by Aaron Ginn, one of a five part series on growth hacking on Techcrunch. And, because I couldn't resist, I also took a look his post on the impact of growth hacking on marketing. Here are some quotes that help capture some of the things that I learned:

Depending upon who you talk to, growth hacking is or isn't marketing
Often, my suggestions are like basic product marketing because it’s never about a particular trick.
Growth comes from a well-executed and data-driven product strategy, not a marketing strategy.
Marketing is all about spending, budgets, and outbound promotional programs
While traditional marketing involves spending on predetermined channels, growth hackers have no preconceived notions of the channel or the necessity of marketing spending for growth.
Traditional marketers are applying a set of predetermined tactics that worked for the offline world to the online world.
Traditionally, marketing has focused on external methods to attract users and gain momentum around a product.
growth hackers are looking for growth through product utilization and product iterations instead of a marketers’ outbound- and inbound-based strategies.
Marketing people are lazy,
“Budgets make people lazy. They begin to think in traditional terms and don’t innovate.” When a marketer has a budget, they’re tempted to spend it or lose it.
Another thing that separates them from us, they are often engineers.
It is not a coincidence that there are several growth hackers that have engineering backgrounds. This correlation is due to the need to apply engineering-like precision to marketing for growth.
Now, as a marketing pro, I'm all for finding new ways to position products and connect with markets, but...

While some parts of the world want to see marketing as the 'make it pretty' group or the guys that only know how to spend money, the real essence of marketing is much broader and more encompassing that simply spending money on advertising and promotions. In that same way, just because your doctor gave you antibiotics the last time you were sick, it doesn't mean that the only thing that the doctor does is give you antibiotics. Equally, just because somebody is an engineer and they've used a toothbrush, it doesn't make them effective or more methodical with dental hygene.

I celebrate creativity and thinking differently. I'm thrilled to see some people in the business ecosystem with some sense of understanding that product is more than, "if we build it, they will come". But just because you discovered this new world of users, interaction and engagement, it doesn't mean that you've discovered something new. A few years ago, back when today's growth hackers were still in school, yesterday's growth hackers were viral marketers (but wait, this is different).

The reality is that, while aspects of user engagement can contribute to growth in your social software app, it's not a methodology that will help Lam Research sell more tools to fabs, it's not going to help NetApp sell more storage systems, and you could probably argue how it fits with Workday's products. This is the inherent quackery of this growth hacker meme, by defining things as a this-not-that, it also defines the problem as a this or that approach. The actual answer is that each situation is unique and requires a different set of tools from the tool box. Your cookie cutter is no better than this one here or that one over there.

Myself, I have little respect for insipid tacticians of any type, be they marketers, engineers, or rock star ninja thought leaders. If your growth hacker moniker helps get you in the door, gets you into the product meetings, or helps bag an extra chunk of cash, more power to you. But if you're selling yourself based on a secret sauce and your secret sauce is really just ketchup and mayonnaise, sooner or later they catch on.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Friday Reading Suggestions: Tech Jobs, $100M Businesses, and more

First, a couple of links from Pandodaily:
Here's an interesting story about how many more jobs are created by the high-tech sector and it's economic influence.
10 graphs that show how high-tech jobs are transforming the US economy

Here's another one from Sarah Lacy summarizing a study on businesses that have grown to be $100 companies. I like the 'where are the Web 2.0 companies now' aspect of the piece.
New study on companies worth $100M+ shows how much of a lie the Web 2.0 fad was

Here's one on hiring. Personally, when I read his hiring story, I have a hard time believing that an English Literature major wouldn't be able to speak to the books that he'd read. I would suspect that, rather than being an empty suit, the guy was probably not honest about his background. More to the point, my personal belief is that someone with a humanities background is more likely to be a rounded person with depth.
Losers exist. Don’t hire them

More on hiring. Here's Ben Horowitz with an interesting take on 'hiring old people' for your start-up. But you might not want to listen to him because he's an old guy, so you might question his motives. Seriously though, it's a thoughtful post and some good advice.
Hiring old people: The dangerous but necessary steroids of the startup world

Finally, here's an amusing read on venture firms winning a lawsuit against Best Buy for stealing the trade secrets of one of their portfolio companies. Good fun if you like to seeing karma come back to smack unethical behavior.
There is a lot of talk about being pro-entrepreneur. First Round and NEA show serious action

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Internet and Tech Trends: Mary Meeker 2012 Analysis

I came across the link for this yesterday. If you haven't seen these, Mary Meeker from Kleiner Perkins periodically does industry roll-up presentations that are always packed with interesting data and analysis. Truly worth your time reading it.

Here's the link:

Friday, November 30, 2012

Orenchi Ramen is Broken

The subtitle of this post should probably be, How Come I Can't Eat at My Favorite Ramen Restaurant Whenever I Want. In my opinion, Orenchi Ramen is the best ramen restaurant in the area. But the problem with Orenchi is that it's become such a desirable destination, it's difficult to eat there.

At lunch, they open at 11:30 and it's not uncommon for a line to have already formed. They used to stay open until 2:00pm, but they often ran out of food and had to close down early. Once, I was there at 12:50 and they quit serving because they had run out of soup. And, as crowded as the lunch service is, dinner is worse. Additionally, when you finally sit, you feel obligated to rush through your meal without ordering side dishes or relaxing, simply to help turn the table for some other poor soul that's been waiting outside for 30 minutes or more.

This kind of crowd means that, during the work week, my colleagues and I no longer consider Orenchi in our lunch options. These days, it never comes up as a dinner either. What was once my go to ramen shop has become my never go.

All of this left me thinking, given that business situation, how do you fix Orenchi? Here are some thoughts on possible solutions, each with it's associated comments:
  • Raise prices. As some point, the cost of an expensive bowl of ramen becomes too high for people to justify. This might weed out some percentage of their customer base, but at the same time, I don't think that their customer base is waiting in line because they believe that Orenchi Ramen is a value purchase. They aren't turning over customers on their giant bowls of ramen. So, ultimately, I don't think that raising prices would significantly impact the crowd issue.
  • Reservations. The waiting list for The French Laundry is epic, but how far in advance would people book a meal at a ramen restaurant? 
  • Expand operations. Clearly, capacity is a problem for Orenchi. Between not enough seats and running out of product, they're struggling to meet the market demands. At one point in time, the laundry mat next door to Orenchi shut down and I thought that they would expand. And yet, Orenchi seems happy to operate within their existing space and size. While scaling production, either through expansion or opening a new location, has the potential to change the recipe, you would expect that with careful management, this could be controlled.
  • Tiered service. This is the kind of thing that would align with an expanded operation. On one side of the restaurant, they operate a sit-down, more relaxed dining experience. On the other side, they have a 'ramen-fast-food' style of shop -- perhaps all counter -- that's geared to turning tables of soup only eaters. Of course, without some adjustment to their manufacturing capacity, this still doesn't address their bigger issue.
So what do you think? What's your strategy for fixing Orenchi?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Economics of Austerity, Silicon Valley Style

The election is over and, for those of us that haven't been making mad money on all of the campaign advertising, we're back to the realities of our current economic situation. And while many now associate Silicon Valley with software companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter, there are still some of those old school businesses that design and produce actual silicon. Unfortunately, the economy is not really smiling on the semiconductor industry these days.

Semi is notoriously cyclical, but what we're seeing now is in many ways part of a larger evolution that is reshaping the industry. Over the past year and a half, there's been some consolidation among the larger manufacturing equipment players -- the merger of Lam Research and Novellus, the acquisition of Varian by Applied Materials -- that speaks to the dwindling opportunities at the root of the ecosystem.

There are fewer fabs. CapEx news releases are sporadic. There are still a lot of questions about when, if, and how much these manufacturing facilities will invest in next generation process technologies. Further upstream, you don't have the pull of a Moore's Law fueled PC industry driving waves of new system purchases each year. Sure, there are ICs being designed, chips being sold and devices being built, but there isn't the same momentum.

But the biggest boon to the industry in the past five years has been things associated with green technology. While the technology for photovoltaics and LEDs have been around for a long time, the push for innovation and broad scale implementation spurred a host of new businesses, new equipment and industry transformation. All of those things meant investment, spending, and new opportunities.

So here's a quick history refresher. In 2008, we had the collapse of the economy courtesy of the financial markets, the sub-prime and all of that. Then 2009 was a bleak year -- everything was down. That was also the year when the government pushed through the stimulus with a push towards green tech. But things started to come back in 2010 and by midway through the year, the Semi industry motor (and emerging green tech) was going. In 2011, you started to see some shake-out, consolidation and the collapse of Solyndra, price wars happening in solar panels, and the market starting to pucker. And now 2012 has been another year of poor performance.

So what happened? Well, on the one hand, if we look at things from the not-a-big-enough-stimulus perspective, it looks like we poured gasoline in the carburetor for a few minutes of action, but we didn't getting the car running. Add to that the Congressional Republican's efforts to bring government to a halt and make Obama a one-term president, and you basically have limited government incentives to drive the market for green tech. Instead, you had conservative media pushing climate change as a hoax and Solyndra being pumped as a scandal. Green tech became a political liability.

However you want to frame it, the simple reality is that the economics of austerity -- the cut, cut, cut, and cut that we've been subjected to since 2010 -- has choked the life out of our economy. Instead of investing in growth and a strategic future, we've been railroaded down a path of zero investment wrapped in 'thrifty, debt-conscious' packaging.

Governments have unique powers to influence markets. By defining incentives for strategic goals, they drive fuel from the investment tank into the engine of the economy. By establishing incentives like mandating that all buildings meet certain levels of green compliance or all residences add solar panels, governments establish a pull that draws energy and investment into the market. In the same way, if the government codified a mandated goal of having 1 Gbps universal broadband, it would spawn a surge in many tech markets.

Keep in mind that this is not like the government saying, "we need a million Justin Bieber dolls". Nobody is pushing for frivolous investments. Things like green technology, broadband, and transportation infrastructure are CapEx investments in the future of the country and in the future of the economy.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Post-election Marketing: Why Politics and Business Don't Mix

In the days following the election, there have been a number of anti-Obama business owners that have been in the press for essentially thrown miniature temper tantrums over the results of the election. A collection of these guys, including the CEO of Papa John's Pizza, a guy that owns a bunch of Applebee's franchises in the New York area and another guy that runs a bunch of Denny's franchises in Florida, have come used the election results as a justification for 'applying a surcharge for Obama-care' to 'cutting employee hours so that they aren't eligible for health care'. There are also reports of some businesses firing employees.

If we were doing a new round of high school yearbooks right now, it's not hard to imagine these guys as being candidates for the 'most likely to through their golf clubs in the lake after a bad shot'.

If there is one lesson to take away from stories like the recent Chick-fil-A meets gay marriage blow-up, it's that bringing your politics to work has the potential to cause a PR storm. It probably goes without saying, but customers are partners in your business. While we might want to believe that everyone thinks like we do or that we are enlightened by some higher truth, they don't. Evangelism can be divisive. Divisive statements and practices will alienate parts of your base and potentially drive them to action.

The potential negative energy is even worse when you operate a consumer-facing business. When consumers participate in your business, they have a much more significant vote. So while Robert Murray, the CEO for Murray Energy, can throw his post-election tantrum by holding a prayer meeting with his employees and then firing 156 of them, consumers don't really have an outlet for outrage. But when businesses like Papa Johns, Applebee's and Denny's are involved, they make their voices heard. The result is the PR walk-of-shame.
In some ways, rules of business are simple. It's kind of like a holiday dinner -- there are certain conversation topics that you try to avoid. Politics, sex and religion are all likely to get you into hot water. But in some ways, it's broader than that. Advocacy and evangelism have the potential to create backlash, particularly in our modern media environment that finds energy (links, clicks, and views) from conflict and controversy.

Disconnected Arrogance and the Moral Imperative
It's one thing to operate a business based on moral principles, but when your business takes a public stand, you need to consider it's relationship to your brand and the impact on your broader business. For example, when Patagonia aligns with environmental projects, that's also aligned with their brand. Gay marriage probably has little to do with chicken sandwiches.

Some people might claim that Chick-fil-A found it's way into a controversy as a backlash to the CEO was simply following his moral priniciples, but if Chick-fil-A had just operated quietly on it's principles, it probably wouldn't have found itself in the firestorm. Contrast Chick-fil-A with In-N-Out. In-N-Out prints Bible verses on their cups and wrappers, but just the number notations, not even the text. Controversy score: Chick-fil-A=1, In-N-Out=0.

The reality is that these controversies don't typically result from businesses operating on principles, they tend to be sparked by the arrogant behavior of an individual. Principled businesses express their principles through their operation and their brand. They communicate their values through their ongoing operations. In that same way, successful principled businesses harmonize with their customers and their partner community. During ongoing operations, the business connects with some constituents and they alienate others. These controversies tend to be sharp turns or tangents.

Is there a take-away here? The only suggestion that I have is a repetition of something that I've said a number of times in the past.
The man with the microphone must maintain a modicum of taste at all times.
When you have the microphone, you need to be conscientious of the potential impact of every sound you make. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Internet Moneyball: Why Android, Facebook and Twitter are Overrated

Over the Thanksgiving break, I finally got around to watching the Moneyball movie. I enjoyed the movie and was also amused by this transformation of a business book into a good entertainment piece. It's also a great reminder about how statistics and data can be a far more powerful measure of reality than conventional wisdom.

Which brings me to these interesting posts from Business Insider that capture some great analytics data from the black Friday weekend world of online shopping:

Is It Time To Conclude That Android Gadgets Are Bought By People Who Don't Actually Do Anything With Them? This post is an interesting look at online traffic and, more specifically, the difference in the number of Android devices in the world versus the percentage of web traffic. Consider these numbers from the article:
Android phones now account for nearly 75% of the global smartphone market. The next closest competitor is iPhones, which have about 15% of the market.
In the U.S., Android is clubbing iPhone 53% to 34%.
Contrasted against these traffic stats:
A recent survey of mobile web usage found that a staggering 60% of mobile web visits came from iOS devices, while only 20% came from Android.

A study IBM did of Black Friday online sales showed much the same thing--except that it was even more skewed.

iOS (iPads and iPhones) accounted for nearly 20% of Black Friday sales.
Android devices, meanwhile, accounted for only 5.5%.
Of course, this traffic disparity is no surprise to anyone looking at their analytics traffic. In the back of my mind, I used to chalk this up to the newness of Android or the lack of market penetration. Most of the people that I know use iPhones or iPads, so there's also a first-person perceptual sense of the market. But the reality of these stats seems to point to something more significant. Like Moneyball, the analytics stats reflect a different reality than conventional wisdom might suggest, one that underscores a measurable difference between iOS and Android. In this case, unit volume isn't much of a measure of the demographic and, unless you make components that go in these handsets, the number of Android devices doesn't really matter. There is a disconnect between devices and 'users'.
Guess What Percent Of Black Friday Online Sales Came From Twitter Referrals? There are a lot of interesting online sales stats in this post. But for me, there are another two highlights from this post that are worth noting:
Only 0.68% of Black Friday online sales came from Facebook referrals--two-thirds of one percent. That was a decline of 1% from last year.
Commerce site traffic from Twitter accounted for exactly 0.00% of Black Friday traffic. That was down from 0.02% last year.
Again, these are just data points, but they point to a disconnect between how these platforms are being pitched and how they are being used.

There's more good stuff in each post, so take a minute and dive into each one -- it makes for some interesting holiday leftovers.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Weekend Leftovers: Politics, Surveys, and Interpreted Data

Just a quick post with some reading that caught my eye and rattled around in my brain for more that a few seconds over the weekend. Admittedly, it was politics, but with a dash of survey interpretation and analysis that stuck with me.

First, this piece by Maurene Dowd for the New York Times, Romney is President. Simply, it's an amusing read.

Next, this post by Greg Dworkin for Daily Kos, From debates to Sandy: Things "everyone knows" aren't always true. This is a nice dive into exit poll analysis and the contrast between the 'conventional wisdom' stories told by the web contrasted against the data.

One aspect of this post that I found amusing -- if you look at how most people had decided how they were going to vote much earlier in the process, think about how much hype and money was devoted to the idea of trying to influence the final moments of the game. Often, the media portrayed the campaign and the election as a game that was coming down to the wire as though one desperate fling of the ball would decide it in the end. And who benefits from this narrative? The political media industry.

On a related note, another thing I was thinking about over the weekend. With how much some of those wealthy Republican donors gave to Superpacs -- essentially with the idea of buying the election -- do you think that their ultimate takeaway is that spending big money in elections like that is a waste? If so, what next?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Republicans, Differentiation and the Branding Pivot

So we wake up after the 2012 election with the reality that, after four years of attempting to make Obama a one-term president, all of the Republican efforts to create insurmountable partisan gridlock essentially failed. Their focused efforts to make things 'not work' did not yield results for them. What's more, in the races that featured their strongest 'essence of the brand' products, those ultra-conservative tea-party candidates, they lost -- lost in districts that were generally considered favorable to their product.

Many of the news programs are talking about demographic trends among voters and how the Republican base is shrinking. Now in many of the interviews with Republican representatives, fundamentally the question that they are asking is, "was this loss a problem with our ability to communicate our message to these segments or is there a problem with our product?"

The risks are high. Here in California, Republicans have positioned themselves into irrelevancy. Having spent the past 15 years digging themselves deeper and deeper into an ideological trench, resisting most efforts to work with consensus solutions for state issues and wielding the super-majority requirement to strong-arm the budget process, state Republicans now find themselves dealing with a Democratic super-majority. Their ability to hold the process hostage has been taken away.

Of course, in the past some have claimed that the reason some of these issues struggled with partisan gridlock was a result of incumbency and ideological voter district mapping. This was the solution to the 'unskewing' of California voters. If they could change the way voting districts were defined, the theory went, they would find themselves with a chance to compete and the end of the Democratic majority.

In the business world, if our product or our business continued to face those kinds of losses, we would probably start looking for a pivot or an exit path. But in the world of politics, we aren't just talking about product utility or adoption, we're really talking about ideology and beliefs. Some California Republicans may have wanted to be more cooperative on budgeting only to find themselves pushed into more ideological polarization. Similarly, over the past two national elections, Republicans have launched primary assaults against moderates.

In terms of differentiation, it's not like Republicans can suddenly now pivot to a position of 'oh hey, we like you moderate types.' While 'Moderate Mitt' helped Romney climb back up in national polling, the ideological purists are not going to tolerate a moderate approach because their ideology doesn't tolerate 'moderate'. It's very much a fundamentalist brand.

In that same way, while a practical approach might consider positions like a polarized immigration stance or the statements from candidates Akin and Mourdock as alienating a market segment, ideological fundamentalists look at these core principles. We're not talking about a product feature -- do I really need an optical drive or not. The only true path to consensus is conversion. Practically speaking, without some sort of act of god or a divisive, polarizing issue to drive conversions from within a demographic segment, there is little opportunity for this branch of the brand to siphon off market share from the Democratic base.

And that puts the voices for a moderate pivot in the Republican brand in difficult position. On the one hand, they are towing an ideologically rigid, alienating anchor. And it has become so ingrained within their brand that they can't escape it. But with it their, they will continue to struggle to find segments increase their market share.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day: We Could Be Heroes

And the shame, was on the other side
Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes 

just for one day

It's election day here in the States. With it comes this wonderful notion of an opportunity for change, a chance to reset the table, or a national pivot. And now, as we have arrived at the day when we're supposed to count up everyone's vote, we are under assault from interests that want to manipulate our system. From the interests that bankroll self-serving initiatives and twist the legal language in order to hide their real intent to the 'dark money' being spent to influence the outcome, there are forces out there that have no interest beyond their own. From the voter fraud initiatives and voter purgers to the voter intimidation and 'dirty tricks' perpetrators, there are people who have no ethical dilemma with disenfranchising others, be they individuals, races or classes.

Maybe you think your vote doesn't matter, that because we aren't in a battleground state, that we have no influence in the broader issues at stake. And it's true that, however much we may wish to change the partisan gridlock, we can't change the demographics of the places that elect opposition voices.

But, with every election where people try to use twisted and corrupt practices to tilt the table in their favor, who try to buy power and influence, who cast shame upon the principles and values of democracy -- in these moments and these elections, there is an opportunity. We can stand up to this kind of behavior.

When we vote, they lose.
When we are not tricked by their manipulation, they lose.
We can beat them, forever and ever.
We could be heroes just for one day.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Cost of a Seat on Facebook

Just a quick thought to reflect on this morning. I was thinking about the nuances of customer portal pricing and page view limitations when I started thinking...

How much does a seat on Facebook cost?

There are a lot of aspects here -- server time, bandwidth, power, storage, engineering and development, marketing, etc.. You could break it down in a number of different ways, but here's how I was thinking about it.

First, there are the those front end development costs to build the system. In one respect, you might think of that as fixed. Sure, there is ongoing research and innovation and the expenses associated, but in some respects, once you've crafted the platform, it exists.

Then you have your operational costs: power, bandwidth, servers, storage, everything needed to run your network. Some of these costs may vary, depending upon the user, how active they are, how engaged they are with the platform, that sort of stuff. Still, if you think about the model for that, there are some basic cost predictions that you could develop.

All of that being said, think about how much it costs to add a user, essentially one more entry into a database table. Again, the simple cost of that line would be minimal. The only real substantive costs come through increase in resources required based on things like how active the user is, how much simultaneous activity that you need to support, etc.

This is what makes some of these customer portal pricing models that you see in the market seem so ridiculous. Many of the businesses selling cloud-based customer support portals want you to pay up front for something that most of us look at as simply adding lines in a database. It would be as if wanted to bill you for each contact that you stored. In the modern world of the Internet, Facebook is happy to add users. Google is happy to give you Yet Another Email Address, and they don't mind if you use their platform for one more search. In a market where pricing like this exists, the prospect of pay-per-record (more or less) invariably seems mind-boggling.

A Salesforce Seat versus a Facebook Seat
This same issue really defines many of the current battles that I face related to Within most organizations, there is little resistance to paying for a tool that the business is using; however, the inevitable question is, "are we using it." If adoption is defined by a percentage of utilization, justifying the expense is more difficult when you have some users with very low utilization -- particularly when they 'cost' as much as someone who uses it a lot. You wind up with a conflict between the benefits of ubiquity versus the cost of paying for everyone to live on an all-you-can-eat platform. And if, in terms of code, a user isn't really any different than a contact, there's that inevitable question that eats away at the justification -- why does this cost so much?

When you contrast what Salesforce offers to the traditional pricing approach for enterprise software like Oracle, it's easy to see a benefit to the "that's not a module, it's included" approach. At that point, it's easy to find yourself in a position to use more that you might have envisioned in your initial look. This can also wind up with Salesforce eating larger portions of your software infrastructure.

All of that being said, the time when seemed like an unbelievable value have passed. While I am often impressed with the utility, value isn't really a word that I would apply.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Customer Portal: Zendesk Looks Promising

The latest candidate in my customer portal software search is Zendesk, and I must say, I like what I'm seeing. Essentially, Zendesk is a pretty straightforward customer support ticketing system with support for web, email, phone, chat, Twitter, and Facebook. It has self-service help, community help, forum, ideas, and knowledgebase functionality. It's cloud-based. It already has some pre-built integrations with But here's the best part -- instead of charging you for the number of customers that you have accessing your portal, Zendesk just charges you by the customer service agent seat.'s closest offering is which provides similar (but appears to be more limited) functionality. However, caps your monthly customer page views. They also offer a flex agent seat, enabling you to allocate temporary agent status on a billable hour basis. And, while I like the potential flexibility that this offers, it's still difficult to shake the feeling that, rather than flexibility, this is a calculated move enabling them to keep one hand on my wallet.

So if you're looking for a customer portal solution, I still don't have a definitive suggestion for you. I can safely say that's customer portal has priced itself out of the market in my book. Perhaps the only thing funnier was when I got pricing from Jive. With Jive, it seems like they dove into the madness pricing pool that Salesforce was swimming in and enjoyed it so much that they decided to jump back in.

Like CRM and many other enterprise software applications, many solutions claim to offer the same features, so realistically, it's best to work with your potential users to understand their requirements and then compare products with some hands-on time. That being said, I'm pretty impressed with my initial evaluation of Zendesk as a potential solution for my customer portal application.

Friday, October 26, 2012 Customer Portal Pricing FAIL has a pricing problem. They do a great job of positioning the roadmap of their platform as social and engaged with the customer. They've got some great features for engaging with customers -- ideas, answers, knowledgebase, communities, sites and Chatter. But with all these cool features, and despite all of their talk about bridging this connection, they've built a giant wall between these features and you taking advantage of them -- pricing.

The inherent problem with most of these features is that, in order to make them available and meaningful for your customers, what you really need is's Customer Portal product. Salesforce customer portal product has been around for a long time. It is as it sounds, a way for your customers to be able to log in to a Salesforce window and for you to share unique information with them.

Historically speaking, Salesforce's pricing model for this service is to treat those customers as users and those portal visitors as seat licenses. Perhaps their strategy was to protect the pricing on their full priced CRM seats from some aspect of license cheating using Portal, but the cost of a customer portal seat license was expensive. As their customer engagement offerings have expanded and features have started to eat into customer portal functionality, Salesforce has opened up a new method of pricing -- a shared pool of logins, kind of like a family plan. In this way, you essentially pay per login for your customers to access the special content that you want to share with them.

Ironically, their overall pricing model reminds me of the one that Oracle uses to calculate your annual service and support costs.

Here's the problem with this model. First, if your just dipping your toe into implementing a customer portal, there is a steep entry cost. You need to make some sort of guess as to how many customers will use your portal and pay for that. Imagine your traffic to low and you're pricing sucks. Imagine your traffic too high and you're saddled with a massive annual boat anchor. Customer portal -- it's an exciting way to engage with your customers, unless your customers include your own internal finance group.

Common sense tells you there must be a better way. Common sense tells you that, until you reach a certain threshold of visitors in your community (and that number should probably be a lot), you probably want to just pay for certain features. When you go to the salad bar, you don't want to pay for the salad you build leaf by leaf, you just want to have a salad. And if the salad bar was part of a bigger meal, you'd probably also expect to pay less the salad bar than for the other parts of your meal.

The Solution is Out There
There are paths to make the platform you envision work. After searching for a while, I've come across a number of different possible solutions. Depending upon your requirements, there probably is an alternative. Surprisingly, if your requirements are to spend even more money, there are solutions for that as well.

In this case though, my real take home message is my complete and utter disappointment in Ultimately, I feel like all of the stuff that they've been pitching on their community capability is kind of a bait and switch. I would love to be able to manage all of this functionality from a single, integrated platform, to manage my community from within Salesforce, but when doing that costs more than having my sales team work with customers, I call that a FAIL.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How Facebook Advertising Should Really Work

A while back, Facebook's stock price got hammered by their recognition that they were struggling to monetize mobile. Not long after that, more news came out of Facebook that they were focusing more of their advertising on retargeting.

The retargeting story was an admission that letting advertisers target audiences based on their profiles was a rather ineffective method that delivered poor ROI. With retargeting, a technique that had been used elsewhere on the web for quite some time, Facebook was seeing doing a better job of delivering conversions and seeing better monetization of their traffic. Across the online advertising world, there was sort of a collective, "duh". Among the analyst community, there was a small howl of, "what happened to the best minds of our generation?"

Fundamentally, the real problem here is that for all of the "potential value" of Facebook's big data, its massive volume of user tracking data is disconnected from its advertising programs. Think about that, Target knows enough about its customers to be able to determine how pregnant a woman is based on what they've purchased, but Facebook's most intelligent answer for advertisers is whether the user has self-identified as male or female on their profile page.

This is the great Facebook illusion. On the one hand, they have this user interaction platform that's great for harvesting user data. It's something that everyone talks about. And yet, for all intents and purposes, they haven't come up with a way to bottle that stream and make it easy for any advertiser to get a good value from it.

Contrast that with Google and their Adwords program. With Adwords, they came up with a way for advertisers to benefit from the underlying value and functionality of their platform, to integrate ads with search.

This is the "Unified Theory" problem that Facebook needs to solve. Admittedly, there are a host of challenges to balance, not the least of which being privacy and utility, but if the can crack that nut, then Facebook will be worth something closer to the hype. Until then, it's not much more than an Internet broadcast network.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Winning, Voter Fraud, and the Ethics of Lawyering the Game

Back in 1993 when Magic: The Gathering first launched, it was a unique game. In some ways, it reminded me of those games that we used to make up using collectable sports trading cards when I was a kid -- taking your collection of trading cards and making up a game that you could 'play' using your team versus your friends. Because everyone had a different collection of cards, you never knew exactly how the game would work, but you set up a loosely structured set of rules in order to make the game work -- sort of a manifestation of Calvinball. These types of games work well until you get into nuanced situations where the scope of the rules don't provide a clear way to resolve an issue.

"I tap this card in order to do something bad to you..."
"Okay, so I tap this card."
"You can't tap that, because I tap this card to block it"
"You can't prevent it, because this is an interrupt and your's is an instant"

And so it would go. Arguing back and forth about the nuances of the rules, where victory became a combination of variable permutations that play to the narrow exceptions in the rules. Among my gaming friends, this aspect of gaming was referred to as "rules lawyering".

Winning on a Technicality Isn't a True Win
You can see one of those great moments in the mythology of competition during some of these cooking shows. In the rush to produce some dish, one competitor ruins an ingredient or some accident causes them a problem. Then, in a symbol of competitive solidarity, their opponent will help them -- providing the missing ingredient or assistance in finishing before the time requirement. Most will say something like, "I want to win based on my food" or something to that effect.

These are the winners that we revere, the heroes. These are the stories that we look for, that we want to see. It's part of the reason that coverage of the Olympics here in the states looks like it does -- because the stories are framed that way, regardless of what happened outside of the view of the lens.

Rules Lawyering in Real Life: The Win Justifies the Means
When established processes and players are disrupted, it's not uncommon for them to look for -- or attempt to create -- favorable rules that block the disruption. From patent infringements to banning alcohol purchases at self-checkout stations, aggressively using legal challenges to squelch competitive disruption is an important check and balance against more harmful business practices like copying. These new rules are seldom driven with a goal of fairness; instead, they are the desperate grasps of the failing.

One of the worst examples of this behavior is embodied in the 'Voter Fraud' and 'Voter ID' initiatives that have been increasingly pushed through during the past ten years. While supporters dance around their justification, their basic goal is to create disincentives to vote and disenfranchise a set of people.

This is not about the better ideas winning on a equal playing field, this is about reshaping the playing field in order to create an advantage. It's creating a system that can enable their ideas to win on a technicality.

Recently, there was a story about a court ruling in Ohio that blocked Republican attempts to shut down early voting on the weekend before election day. Throughout the media, the story was characterized as 'a win for Obama'. But this wasn't a win for Obama. It was a win for the democratic process, for equality, for fairness. It was a win for the game. It's too bad that the media couldn't see that story, but perhaps their part of the game has already been twisted and tweaked by artificial framework of technicalities. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Lance Armstrong and the Myth of the Clean Sport

With the release of the USADA report on Lance Armstrong and the testimony of numerous pro cyclists coming to the surface, much of the media attention has been focused on Lance Armstrong and how this impacts his business interests. At the same time, there is another story here, one that the media seems unwilling to focus on.

In Levi Leipheimer's Wall Street Journal OpEd, Why I Doped, he states:
Until recently—or maybe even until today—when people thought about doping, they thought about a guy, by himself, using banned substances to get ahead. What people didn't realize—what I didn't realize until after I was already committed to this career—was that doping was organized and everywhere in the peloton. Doping wasn't the exception, it was the norm. 
and goes on to say:
I came to see cycling for what it was: a sport where some team managers and doctors coordinated and facilitated the use of banned substances and methods by their riders. A sport where the athletes at the highest level—perhaps without exception—used banned substances. A sport where doping was so accepted that riders from different teams—who were competitors on the road—coordinated their doping to keep up with other riders doing the same thing. 
In the aftermath of this report, much of the focus has been on Lance Armstrong -- sponsorship deals canceled, stepping down from Live Strong, you name it. In many ways, the media narrative on this is a simple story of Lance Armstrong, bad guy druggy. Or maybe it's Lance Armstrong, cartel leader and his gang at Discovery/Postal. The media seems unwilling to wrestle with the larger issue at play here.

Broadly, what these riders have said is not just that these performance enhancing training programs were a one-off, but that they were endemic to sport. From doctors and coaches to infrastructures that they tapped into, this network nodes in this infrastructure run through the entire business. These aren't guys robbing pharmacies for Oxycontin. They aren't scraping around the dark sides of town for heroin or meth. These are managed programs with supply chains, bank transfers, and a very above board aspect to this hidden side of the business. Put in a different way, does anyone really believe that some cancer patient had to go without their needed EPO because professional cyclists were 'skimming' off their supply?

In that way, a somewhat hidden context of the USADA report is that, for all intents and purposes, their testing, the institutional testing program, didn't work. They make a case that many of the tests were avoided or circumvented. But fundamentally, the testing program didn't work. Put in a different way, with enough money and enough organization, a well-managed group can circumvent these testing programs. Yes, that means teams that participate in professional cycling. But the same holds true for governments and the Olympics or any sport where there is a convergence of money and endurance.

So, as all of this stuff boils to the surface, you see all of the sponsors walk away from Lance Armstrong. From a business and PR perspective, it's important for them to disconnect from the story of Lance Armstrong, doper. There business is selling to the spectator base and there will always be other athletes. If they treat it as the act of an unsavory individual instead of an aspect of the sport, then the whole thing doesn't come crumbling down. and they can bank on the market of future consumers buying into the illusion of a correlation between success and a sponsored product. What type of energy bar does Lance Armstrong eat when he's riding up a mountain? What type of cereal does Michael Phelps eat before he spends hours in the pool?

So what did USADA hope to accomplish with this? From my reading, I think that this was an effort to use Lance Armstrong as a rock, casting him at the 'Goliath' of professional cycling and the UCI. To quote from Levi''s OpEd again,
When Usada came to me and described a solution—where my admission could be part of a bigger plan that would make the positive changes we've seen in recent years permanent—I said "I need to be involved." I don't want today's 13 year olds to be discouraged by their parents from dreaming about one day riding the Tour de France.
USADA even made note that they had waived the rule on Statute of Limitations for some of their Lance Armstrong story because they felt circumstances justified it.

Did they hope to take down the professional cycling, UCI, or address some sort of systematic weakness that lived outside of their control? It's not really clear from available material that I've seen. At one point in their report, they do reference a warning to a rider to "watch out for USADA testers while in Europe because they were more likely to test." And yet, instead of casting a stone aimed at the broader body of cycling, their report fits neatly into the framework of Lance Armstrong managing a dastardly criminal organization. It's like they wroted a report saying that Lehman Brothers ran a derivatives-based securities trading cartel.

But even if they had noble goals, the industry surrounding organized sports is too big to fail. I think that they wanted to characterize this story as, "if the world would just follow our protocols, we can manage this". And yet, there is nothing in this report to suggest that there is a magic bullet. Instead, we're left with the reality of something kind of like a bad horror movie.

After the story resolves, after the chaos and the destruction of lives, the camera pans to the killer -- not Jason, nor Freddy, nor Michael Myers, but the mythical body of 'clean sport' -- laying on the ground, finally dispatched.

The camera pans back to USADA. "They thought they could get away with it," USADA says.

Then the camera pans back to the spot where the mythical body of clean sport lay dead, but the body is gone. Slowly, the camera pans back to a mirror with the reflection of USADA, but we notice something different. Instead of the anti-doping body, we see the mythical body of clean sport. It's mouth forms an evil smile and we know we're in for a long line of sequels.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Does The Ladders Use Bait & Switch Email Marketing

High on the list of things that offend my ethical sensibilities are those people and businesses that exploit people in their most desperate moments of need. While you could argue that charging extra for sunblock on the beach or sweatshirts to tourists in San Francisco is exploitative, I don't think that is equivalent to what I'm talking about. What I'm referring to are the businesses like those credit repair scams businesses that use false hope to take money from people who can't afford it. This aspect of profiting off of the despair of the most needy borders on criminal. 

The business of helping to find employment has always operated with a darker side, and there's a segment of that business that profits on desperation. Contrary to that conservative belief that a huge percentage of people out there that are lazy and don't want to work, most people around the world want to work and are desperate for jobs. Exploiting this desperation often hinges on leveraging the promise of a good job as an enticement for doing something that would otherwise be unreasonable.

For many out of work job seekers, the desperation exploiters are those recruiters or career coaches that ask for an up-front payment from the job seeker. It's a classic scheme, traditionally promoted by people pitching jobs and salaries that make the payoff seem worth the gamble. It's a reasonable market when they are selling upgrades and the recruiter's client-base all have existing jobs, but when they exploit the cash-strapped unemployed, they cross an ethical line in my book.

So here's what triggered this post. I received an email from The Ladders the other day. Essentially, it was one of those emails from a specific recruiter with a job that might be a good fit for you. Theoretically not a newsletter or a bulk job listing email, right? So I clicked through the email to look at the listing and, surprisingly, I was met with a login screen. I needed to upgrade to a paid, premium account in order to view the listing.

I'm not desperately seeking work right now, but imagine if I was. Imagine if this were my first glimmer of hope in a long dark night. This was a recruiter reaching out to me, or so it seemed. But no, it was actually a crafted marketing device aimed at the soft underbelly of my desperation.

Sorry guys, I'm not that desperate. I didn't want to pay for access to your site because many of your job listings were web site scrapes or things that I could find for free. But if you focus your list on unemployed, I'm sure you can boost your conversion rate.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Speed of Hype: Facebook and the Social Media Economy

Three years ago, there was a lot of excitement in the air around here. The Social economy was booming and the untapped potential of the mobile market seemed like another gold mine that was ripe for harvesting. And yet, for all of the potential, for all of the dreams, we now find ourselves in a bit of a malaise.

Over the past year, we've seen the Facebook IPO and a number of exits and pivots by long-running start-ups. Many of the businesses that were so full of promise have struggled to deliver consistent earnings. What was once a thriving Web 2.0 ecosystem of interconnected APIs has deteriorated into a series of platform wars as many of those same businesses have built walls and and grasped for monetization. If all of this were an action movie, this might be that moment in the movie when everything looks darkest, the moment before the hero manages to perform that amazing feat that turns everything around.

History may look back and mark Steve Jobs' passing as the end of that golden era of innovation, but I think that the real defining moment was the Facebook IPO. While some may attribute some of the current malaise to the Nasdaq, computerized trading, or the other problems in the Facebook IPO, the underlying driver goes beyond that. Sure, if the Facebook IPO had been a glorious event and our friends were all telling stories of the epic fortunes that they made on Facebook stock, some percentage of the industry might feel better. But, realistically, the issue runs deeper than that.

Prior to their IPO, Facebook was a massive reservoir of potential energy. It had tremendous wealth was stored in the possibilities. It was the platform for the future, the platform for everything. It was a changing how software worked. It was the next Google, and everyone tied to it was going to make a fortune. It was like a newly discovered treasure map or Al Capone's unopened safe, the perfect candidate for drawing people in to place bets.

These aren't just bets on Facebook, their bets on a platform and the entire emerging market. They are bets on the ecosystem that is linked to Facebook, bets on businesses and technology that use 'social' to sell their ideas, or anyone riding the wave of Facebook hype to sell a dream of an untapped future.

This is technology at the speed of hype. It's selling the idea that, in the same way that Facebook has built a market around sharing personal information with your friends, that market remains undefined when it comes to sharing information with your coworkers about the office supplies that you use -- and that exploiting that segment is inevitable.

Facebook's IPO shifted all of that potential energy into an unmetered system to one with a real ruler. Not only was it an opportunity for all of those speculators to pull out of their bets on who would win that initial spot in Facebook's market, it was an actual measurement on what the market thought that it was all worth. Fifty billion dollars? Perhaps not. Even if the actual value of Facebook was substantial, with the IPO, the size of the hype balloon that carried the dreams of all of those others shrank.

Looking back, it's easy to see aspects of the market that were oversold and dreams that were built on a foundation of hype. But remember, it isn't just social. When we saw the green technology boom, the valley was swimming in solar equipment companies. Same with mobile apps. Or telecom and broadband technology companies back in the days when we were building out the Internet infrastructure. This is normal market behavior surrounding technology at the speed of hype.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Why Google Should Not Do Tradeshows

Add this post to the long list of reasons why I'm not expecting a job from Google. As a general rule, unless you're a comic, anything that makes you look like an idiot is probably bad for your brand. 

As someone who still finds my way to an exhibition floor now and again, I've seen my share of tradeshow sights. From big booths to small booths and busy booths to empty booths, I've seen a range of booth behavior -- attentive, bored, obnoxious, and drunk. But one of the most disappointing and frustrating things to encounter at an event is a booth that ignores you, that can't answer your questions, or exudes arrogance. And that pretty much sums up my experience with Google at tradeshows.

If you've encountered a Google booth, see if this matches your experience. Rather than being involved with the show, the people in the booth seem to be participating in a party that none of us are invited to. It's like you've invaded the space of some clique gathered at the university center.

I can only remember three times that I've actually seen Google booth staff show some signs of engagement in the event that they were participating in.
  • The SMX Search Marketing Expo conference. This was sort of home court for the Google team and they actually sent people who could speak to their tools and products. And, while they weren't the most amazing booth staff that I've ever encountered, if you were grading Google booth staff on a curve, this was their dream team.
  • At OFC/NFOEC, the Google Fiber team was out, trying to recruit telecom engineers. In their talent search, they were trying to collect as many leads as possible. So, when it came to trying to hire people, they were pretty focused. 
  • I think I also remember them at one of the old MacWorld shows -- back in the day when Apple was still at the event and it was in Moscone South. At that time, I remember the Google booth guys running their charging station and talking about Google apps with people that walked up to the booth. I even remember one guy talking to some kid that was there with his mom. It's funny how that seems like such a contrast from my more common Google-tradeshow encounters.
But the worst part of the whole experience is that, even if you can suffer through be ignored and you stand around for long enough force an engagement, the people that they have staffing the booth appear to be unable to answer any questions related to the products featured at the event. It's like staffing a customer service desk, gathering a line of customers, and then proceeding to visibly ignore them.

When you create an exclusive work environment, your bound to build an air of elitism into the mix. But most people don't actually encounter real, live employees for Internet businesses like Facebook or Twitter. But what most retail B2C businesses understand -- something that's probably lost on the culture of the Internet business -- is that each employee is a brand ambassador and each encounter with the public is image-shaping moment. Most people will treat accidental encounters as just that, but an appearance at an event is a show. Do you really want ignorant, arrogant, and useless to be the adjectives describing your business?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Adventures in Using Airbnb

Dreamforce was huge this year, so huge that, not only were the all of the hotels in the city sold out, it was difficult to find a room in the east bay and down the peninsula. When even the crappy hotels in the city are asking $500-$600 per night, it's usually translates into an exhausting week of sucktastic commuting. But I was determined to see if I could find something. After a positive experience staying in Maui this summer that we booked using VRBO, I decided to try searching alternative housing engines. I landed at Airbnb.

In case you aren't familiar with it, Airbnb is an online engine that helps broker transactions between people who want to rent out their space and potential renters. Unlike VRBO which seems pretty focused on vacation rentals, on Airbnb you'll find listings ranging from whole properties down to somebody's couch.

I've been following Airbnb from their early start-up days and I'd considered using them on several trips in the past, so I welcomed the chance to try the service. My colleagues were feeling a bit less adventurous and expressed skepticism. But for me, one of the advantages of trying Airbnb on this trip was that the I'm pretty familiar with San Francisco, so it's a easier to have a sense of the neighborhood that you might be staying. And, if the entire experience was a failure, I could always fall back on commuting.

My Airbnb Experience
Airbnb makes searching for a place easy. You can select your destination and dates, then filter the results by a variety of factors: shared housing or complete residence, price, etc. Another aspect of Airbnb is that it runs on a social framework, so before you can communicate with a potential renter to verify availability, you need to sign up for an account and become part of their social network. When you sign up, you also have the option of linking your Airbnb profile to Facebook, simplifying account and profile creation. Since I was just exploring the functionality, I opted to create a separate profile.

Building the profile takes a bit of time. Basically what they attempt to do is collect information in order to help verify your identity and better ensure that you're a trustworthy tenant. Unfortunately, this aspect of the process is one area that I found a bit frustrating with Airbnb. As I went through the initial set-up, I had to provide a phone number that Airbnb validated. Then, during a later session, the software insisted that I add a photo before it would let me continue. The result was that, each time I dove in to look for a potential place, it seemed to hit me up for another piece of info. If I were looking for a vacation place or were less motivated by the prospect of the commute, I would have dropped the service at that point.

Another frustration with booking a space was the number of times that spaces appeared to be available, then after contacting the lister, told that their space wasn't available. Some of the unavailable listings even indicated that the calendar had been updated that day. Needless to say, it added to the frustration. Eventually, I wound up sending out what almost amounted to a mass email blast to the listed spaces.

But perhaps the most annoying thing was something else that I swear I noticed in my search. Because I was searching over the course of a couple of days, I ran searches multiple times. Sometimes I would leave the browser window open and put my computer to sleep. Once, I swear I saw the listed prices refresh -- and increase -- leaving me suspect as to how their pricing engine works. While it's not uncommon for airlines and hotels to use cookies to dynamically price based on the visitor's behavior, when you see it happen, it really pisses you off. Now it could be that those pricing changes were implemented by the lister, but I'm skeptical to believe that a lister would increase the price of a listing on a space that was unavailable.

Once I got a space sorted out though, everything proceeded in a pretty straightforward fashion. I opted for an entire apartment rather than a shared space -- the idea of stumbling into a shared place after an evening of after hours Dreamforce events just didn't seem like a good plan. In the period before your arrival, Airbnb sends out a house manual and several alerts to remind you that about your upcoming stay. They also give you some early warning before they process the deposit charge. In all, their transaction processing communications were clear and well done.

That Eerie Do-I-Belong-Here Feeling
There was one other aspect of the experience that I found a bit challenging. In searching for places, I found a couple of reviews of some other places that mentioned the guest being interrupted in mid-stay by someone associated with the property saying, "you aren't supposed to be here." And while that may be an isolated incident, it planted a seed of concern in my mind. Add to that the experience of staying in a place where the renter still has all of their personal items out, and you're left with this haunting feeling that, at any minute somebody is going pop in and ask, "what are you doing here?"

I think that part of the reason that this happens is that you're essentially renting a space that somebody lives in. Contrast that with a vacation condo rental where there is typically an owner's closet where they lock all of their personal stuff up. At the same time, it does add to the personal experience of your stay -- depending upon how you are, that could be good or bad.

All in all, would I use Airbnb again? Probably. Would I describe it as a cost-effective alternative for business travelers? No. I think it's a good solution for a vacation, when you are more flexible with check-in and check-out times. However, as a vacation option, Airbnb provides an awesome way to live like a local. In that way, my visit to San Francisco was a great reminder about just how awesome the city is once you escape the tourist areas. Airbnb and my host really made that happen.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Dreamforce 2012: Red Hot Chili Peppers were #Amazing

So last night was the Dreamforce gala event where they host a musical guest. This year they had the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and instead of playing in the echo-chamber nightmare of Moscone South, they closed off Civic Center Plaza and played there.

Using the Civic Center as a backdrop, the show featured an incredibly awesome display of lighting. While they flooded most of the surrounding buildings in blue, the played host to a series of visual effects ranging from video imagery and cartoon-like graphics to a deceptively simple illumination of the structure of the Civic Center building. Way cool.

The music was great too, but the bands that they choose for Dreamforce often seem like an contrast against the backdrop of an enterprise software demographic. So while the park was full, you had an odd assortment of experiencing the show -- everything from people singing along and dancing to guys standing around looking uncomfortable and trying to 'fit in'.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dreamforce 2012 - Networking Tangents & the Mysterious Account Manager

With Dreamforce fast approaching, schedules are getting filled and calendars are getting booked. After several years of using the platform and attending Dreamforce, one of the things that strikes me as quite funny is who uses the opportunity to meet with you and who does not. Sure, there's a long line of partners and other vendors who are anxious to meet you, but what about the account manager and the staff that you actually work with -- theoretically...

Over the past years, I've had three account managers try to make arrangements to meet with me. Or rather, I've had two account managers try to meet with me during the event and one arrange a meeting/presentation near the end. At the same time, the two account managers who I did meet with have since moved on to work with partners. Funny thing is, they continue to meet with me and probably will meet with me again this year.

Contrast that with some of the other account managers I've had to deal with over the years. These are the guys who consider sending a template bulk email as a customer touch. Some of these guys seem more focused on selling tickets to Dreamforce than to understanding our account. This is typically magnified by's insistence on shuffling account managers every year.

One year, I was invited to a group reception event by my account rep -- a guy who I never met in person. In addition to not meeting him at the reception, I also didn't meet the 'customer success manager' that I was previously introduced to by email. In fact, the only person from Salesforce that I did meet was a nice account rep handling very small accounts in the Southwest. And, even though it seemed like I was sort of 'in the way' of her gathering with her colleagues and friends, she was still thoughful enough to chat and discuss my account with me. I found it a bit ironic.

Sometimes it makes you want to send a note:
Dear Mr. Benioff,
Here's one big reason why your product isn't a success in our account -- for as much know-your-customer as I would expect from one of the most amazing software products that I've used, you guys really don't seem to understand us, to interact with us, to have a strategic plan for our account...
But perhaps this is the larger aspect of the SaaS pyramid. When you're down at the base, you look a lot like scraps.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Ramp up to Dreamforce2012

We're closing in on that time of year again. Time for the clouds to come out and take over the city. It's the time when the wind swirls with marketing hype, where we stare up into the sky and dream about the possibilities. Visions of globally connected enterprises. Social work environments. Happy customers. Sales. More sales. And growth -- oh, glorious growth.

I know what you're thinking, "the political conventions came and went." Sadly, politics these days seems rather devoid of hope and vision. Or the promise of real innovation -- sort of like Oracle OpenWorld. Kidding.

But seriously, we're about a week away from Dreamforce,'s annual festival of technology summit meets dog-and-pony on steroids. It's 'the world is flat' with some marketing hype, the leading edge of enterprise software with some marketing hype. It's also parties and crowds -- amazing, exciting crowds. The crowds are a living, breathing answer to all of those skeptics in IT who said things like, "but really, who is using it?"

This year looks to be even more amazing (as you can expect a week of Benioff repeating), with sessions spread out over Moscone and hotels from the Palace to Union Square, the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Civic Center Plaza, and two or three after-hours block parties. At this point, the hotels in the city are sold out and you're hard pressed to find anything closer than San Mateo. Expect traffic in San Francisco to suck next week.

Sadly, as someone who has been to a few of these, I also know about the hangover. I know about the return to the real world, full of skeptics and naysayers. The return to real world problems like web-to-lead spam and the never-ending 'we can monetize that' parsing of services you've been used to having free access to for a long time. The joys of trying to overcome the unengaged account manager. I know that when I go back to the office on Monday, it will be another Monday, not the day that everything changed.

In that way, the experience is kind of funny. Whenever you get such a large crowd together with everyone focused on the same core topic, it's hard not to be excited, to feel pulled in and part of something larger. But organizational change -- enterprise change -- is a massive effort. It's a religious conversion that requires a baptismal tsunami.

But maybe this is the year when the technology and the cloud have become so mainstream that the writing is on the wall. Maybe this is the year that the waters surge. I know what you're thinking, but I can't help it -- I'm getting kind of excited.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Right Product in a Copycat World

So have a ruling that Samsung copied Apple. And yet, if you went to your local wireless store today, there are still Samsung phones for sale. But even if there is an injunction, you'll still see a market for what are, essentially, iPhone knock-offs. Is this whole thing just another example of billionaire on billionaire crime? Should you care?

It's similar to when somebody comes back from a trip to China and says, "look at this amazing copy of an iPhone accessory that I found for less than a dollar." Typically, it only takes a couple of days for them to be reminded of the difference between their knock off and a full priced version. Caveat emptor, right?

Me, I try not to subsidize copycats. I always feel a twinge of disappointment when people talk about buying fake Rolex watches or other brand-based knock-offs. I mean, think about it -- here is something, a brand, that the buyer applies some level of value to. And yet, they would spend money on a copy, a mimic. It's like a discount against their own values. It's basically saying that the brand doesn't bring some sort of tangible, value add in terms of function or form -- they simply want the cosmetic benefit of being associated to that brand. It would be like me walking around with a cardboard cut-out of a supermodel and telling people that she is my mistress. Or, accounting for variations in quality and a really good knock-off, perhaps a celebrity impersonator. 

Seriously though. Imagine if someone made an exceptional watch with the quality of a Rolex at a fraction of the price, but it was called 'knock-off-ex' and it wasn't a copy? How many people do you think would jump at the chance to buy one in the back alleys and the night markets? There's an ironic twist in there somewhere.

The Hidden Cost of Creating Your Own Copycats
Some premium brands actually undercut their own value when they make their own knock-offs. Whether it's those low-cost, consumer-grade product lines or the products that they make specifically for their outlet stores, when premium brands dilute their line, they also dilute the real weight of their influence in selling the value proposition.

Remember in the months before Apple launched the iPad? At that time, all of the PC manufacturers were selling netbooks, those sub-$500 notebooks that could sort of run Windows. Everyone kept saying to Apple, "your products are too expensive, you'll never compete with netbooks. When are you going to offer a netbook?" Apple and Steve Jobs kept saying, "no, the netbook is a stupid idea -- it's a sucky product with no margin." And when they introduced the iPad, the initial reviews were basically, "it's not a netbook. It doesn't have any of the ports or expandability of a notebook. This thing sucks."

But what Apple essentially said with it's product line was, "when you're looking for something that does what a computer does, then you need this, this and this. We're not designing a luxury product, we're designing 'The Right' product."

The iPad is not differentiated on quality -- a low end computer with a cheap processor and low-end components -- it's a mobile device designed specifically for what it does. Features like integrated accelerometers are not something that you would find on a netbook or a notebook, but they were essential to making the iPhone and iPad successful as a gaming platform. Apple maintains a harmonious message about what you need because your experience with it tells you that the iPad is something completely different.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Republicans, Music and Burning Man

Is it just me, or does it seem like an odd coincidence that the Republican convention will end right before Burning Man? How many of the convention-goers are headed from Tampa to the playa? I actually found this video clip from the Republican convention, but I think that the source is mislabeled.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Apple v Samsung - The Verdict: Copycats and Knock-offs

So the verdict in San Jose is in and Samsung was found to be willfully infringing on Apple's patents. For detailed coverage, All Things D has a great Apple v Samsung summary page of the trial and links to several jury-member interviews. For an in-depth explanation and analysis of the patents and the legal proceedings, I think that Foss Patents is unparalleled.

Reactions to the Verdict
As you might expect with any contested issue, you can get find different voices. Marketplace found people in Korea who simply expected a home field advantage verdict -- Apple wins because they are local and they employ lots of people here. All Things D had a quote from a guy from Microsoft talking about how it was a win for Windows Phone. Kara Swisher captured a rather amusing interpretation of Google's response.

Samsung tries to spin this as, "a win for Apple, but as a loss for the American consumer" and a case about giving "one company a monopoly over rectangles with rounded corners," this reality is far from that. One look at the details of the case and the patents involved will lead most people to the same conclusion. But like much of modern politics and media engagement, Samsung seems to believe that if it can win the PR battle, that the facts will rewrite themselves.

If you read through the jury interviews, you'll find that the jury really wanted to find examples of prior art. Apparently, it made the first day of deliberation a rather heated one. But, in the end, they found that there was overwhelming evidence.

Perhaps the most interesting analysis of the verdict that I came across was from Farhad Manjoo on PandoDaily. Copying Works: How Samsung’s Decision to Mimic Apple Paid Off in Spades is a thoughtful analysis of how Samsung's decision to copy Apple was a successful business strategy.

His post is a great read -- he tells the story well -- but it's also rather amusing to read the comments. It's eerily reminiscent of the old Mac v PC back and forth. Perhaps the real lesson here is that, for all of those Apple evangelists, there are an equal number of anti-Apple wackos, the Tea Party nuts of the technology world. For them, the idea that Apple wins and that people copied Apple designs is kind of like the whole black president thing -- a travesty. Or a conspiracy.
Show me the prototype. Are you going to tell me that your 'computer' doesn't resemble the one from 2001: A Space Odyssey?
The other thing which I think that Farhad really captures with his post is that, while the penalty for violating Apple's patents may seem steep in a consumer sense of scale, when you compare that to the business that Samsung has been able to build, the actual amount is peanuts. It's certainly not a disincentive. Samsung will be fine. They will move forward with new phones that don't violate the letter of Apple's patents, but they will remain competitors. First they mimic, then they evolve.

Tales from the Copycat Hall of Fame
In the technology industry, there have always been copycats. Remember when Huawei was trying to compete in the telecom space and their new switch product bore a remarkable resemblance to a Cisco switch -- right down to duplicate bugs and the Cisco name in the Huawei product manual? Sure a settlement was reached. It goes without saying that within their territory, governments can dictate the terms that businesses operate under -- sometimes those terms can be nationalistic -- but that's not really the point here.

The real point is that, nearly a decade later, both companies continue to sell products. Many customers, partners and/or whatever-else continue to do business with them. They did not get a Scarlet "C" to wear on their business cards. There may have been a period of 'lost face', but that faded. Whatever traditional business rules that they may have violated, their violations weren't so heinous that other businesses refuse to do business with them.

Of course, if you're a start-up, remember... don't try this at home. The penalties for robbing a bank like Bonnie and Clyde are far more serious than the penalties for stealing millions and causing a complete financial system collapse. Do that, and you're probably 'too big to fail".

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Apple v Samsung: Internet Time meets Kickin it Old School

One of the realities of the world in Internet time is that copies are generated in a fraction of a second following the introduction of the original. Take location-based check-in as an example. Following the smart phone and location awareness, applications like Loopt explored the idea of knowing where all of your friends were. While many of us found this creepy, somebody thought that a better way might be one in which you voluntarily let your friends know where you were -- and check-in was born. There was Foursquare and a bunch of others that are gone now, then when Facebook and Yelp saw the interest those companies got, they added the feature to their software. Eventually, it got to the point where it wasn't a question of whether or not you were checking in, but more about what platform. And then we all got tired and it went away.

And through it all, we might have had conversations about whether Facebook or Yelp were copying Foursquare, but there was no patented stake in the ground that said, "this company came up with the concept of check-in, and everyone else is copying their stuff." Location-based check-in wasn't reallty even possible until we all started carrying geo-aware smart phones.

This type of stylistic feature copying is rampant on the web. It's common in art, music and literature. You might say that his art is like Dali, my writing is like Carlos Castaneda, that Justin Bieber sings like Melissa Ethridge, or that that snare drum sounds just like it was recorded in the eighties.

Along those same lines, one of the common copy discussions in the valley surrounds Zynga and how they rose up building games that were similar to games that other companies had produced. Take Words With Friends as an example. It's basically online Scrabble without the trademark. And Words With Friends isn't the only Scrabble-like game you can find on the iTunes App Store. There are dozens of similar games, if not more. As a game framework, Scrabble is over fifty years old. First person shooter and resource-based simulators are younger, but they are also more of a framework than a game. For many of these games, re-skinning the game is the game. Now, instead of your shooting character being a soldier, he is a bear or a squirrel. His targets are nuts or plasma-generating space turtles. And his weapons are a coffee grinder and a flaming, greasy spatula. And so you have thousands of games and copies.

Apple v. Samsung and the Patented World of the OS
With their vendor partnership, Samsung and Apple have a unique relationship. In August 2010, Apple met with Samsung to warn the company of the patents that believed that they were infringing. This All Things D post provides a nice summary, but if you want to check out the presentation, here's the link.

What I found noteworthy about this presentation is, I believe, a bit under-represented in the coverage of the trial. Specifically, as you go through this presentation, you'll find patents for technology that go back to 1992. Many aspects of the iPhone OS actually go back to innovations that were first developed for the desktop OS. What's more, when you reflect back on the idea and remember the technology of the time, you can see how something that seems almost like a trivial addition in the desktop world can be transformational in the smart phone environment. Perhaps prescient. Visionary.

Take one example of the patents in the Apple presentation, rotating the display orientation of a captured image (p35 of the file). The patent was filed back in 1996. My expectation is that this was filed in conjunction with those monitors that you could rotate. It's a not-particularly noteworthy feature that was primarily useful in the world of desktop publishing and too small monitors. And yet, coupled with the iPhone, it makes the display seem natural. Obvious. But before the iPhone, mobile devices didn't change orientation. There was only one up on a phone. But it didn't need to change orientation because it had a physical keyboard that told a clear story of bottom and top -- rotating didn't make sense.

Looking through Apple's patent presentation, you can see how the iPhone is culmination of 35 years of computer and OS development. It's the union of all of those sophisticated, thoughtful features that made an Apple an Apple -- that Windows users might have said, "didn't matter". It is not just a phone or another consumer device, it's personal computing transformed into a consumer-accessible mobile platform. It's a computer that makes you forget you're running a phone software application and tricks you into believing you're using a phone. In that same way, many of Apple's patents aren't simply something innovative approaches to a phone -- they're really computing innovations.

The iPhone and the Shot that Started the Revolution
Remember back in the days before the iPhone? At that time, the battle for the consumer market centered around the television. The television was going to be the intersection between the web and consumer. It was TVs. It was set-top boxes. It was smart media players like Blu-Ray. Nobody expected the iPhone to be the device that changed everything. Until it did.

Most consumer electronics companies don't develop their own operating system (most might even be an understatement). In that same way, many of the sophisticated functional elements that run underneath the hood of the iPhone are simply beyond the scope of their capabilities.

Now, I'm not a patent attorney, nor am I involved in the Apple v Samsung trial. But for me, this presentation was a compelling reminder of the difference between the original idea and the copy.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Politics and Brand: Paul Ryan and Rage Against the Machine

I came across this rather amusing story this morning on Crooks and Liars. What you have here is the rather strange story of how GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan says that one if his 'favorite' bands. The piece then goes on to quote Tom Morello, one of the guys from the band, writing in Rolling Stone. In short, the values and the message expressed by Rage Against the Machine is not well aligned with Ryan's message and GOP values. Here's a snippet.
Paul Ryan's love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades. Charles Manson loved the Beatles but didn't understand them. Governor Chris Christie loves Bruce Springsteen but doesn't understand him. And Paul Ryan is clueless about his favorite band, Rage Against the Machine.

Ryan claims that he likes Rage's sound, but not the lyrics. Well, I don't care for Paul Ryan's sound or his lyrics. He can like whatever bands he wants, but his guiding vision of shifting revenue more radically to the one percent is antithetical to the message of Rage.

I wonder what Ryan's favorite Rage song is? Is it the one where we condemn the genocide of Native Americans? The one lambasting American imperialism? Our cover of "F*ck the Police"? Or is it the one where we call on the people to seize the means of production? So many excellent choices to jam out to at Young Republican meetings!
Music and Identity
Music is something that we all have a strange relationship with. For many people, it's not something that they think about very deeply. Often people's tastes are shaped by the endless repetition of radio and television. How many men out there found themselves singing lyrics from "My Humps" -- I'll bet the demographic is quite a bit larger that you might guess. In that way, much of pop music isn't about message, it's about repetitive association with other activities, moments and places. All that being said, I'd bet that few of those same men in the "My Humps" demographic would claim it to be their favorite song.

Politics and branding is different. Things are done with intent, with purpose. Stated values contribute to positioning. Knowing that, we're left to wonder, why would Paul Ryan claim Rage Against the Machine to be one of his favorite bands? I mean, I don't follow them nor do I know much about their music, but I do know enough to know that their values don't appear to align with Ryan's. This isn't like Chris Christie and Bruce Springsteen -- in New Jersey, that would be kind of like saying you don't like the national anthem.

Remember back in the eighties when heavy metal hair bands were all the rage. For whatever reason, the sound and the imagery appeals to the teenage spirit. Suddenly Christian parents found their kids listening to devil music and looking at imagery that scared them. Suddenly, Christian rock bands came into being (I think it was on the eighth day, but I don't recall any particular big bang). Now Christian kids could listen to music that sounded similar to the popular music of the time, but it was safe. Sort of. The reality was that you'd be hard pressed to remember a band name that really competed with Motley Crue, Metallica, or Iron Maiden. Embracing a Christian rock band meant embracing a odd-ball brand -- definitely not cool.

So there are lots of safe 'favorites' you can claim, but that don't help you out with your brand. Mitt Romney could claim Pat Boone as a favorite, but it wouldn't reinforce anything other than how white he is. In the same way, can we really imagine Romney driving down the road blasting NWA or Snoop Dog through the speakers?

So, for Ryan, we want something young. Something edgy. Something that makes a statement. That's in your face. Rage Against the Machine's music certainly fits that. Of course, there is that little problem with content, but how many traditional GOP constituents actually know Rage Against the Machine's music anyway?

For most of his constituents, they probably won't listen to it or question it. So whose to say they aren't 'Raging' against the metaphoric bad guys of the GOP? In that same way, "My Humps" could be a political ballad celebrating economic growth or perhaps a recipe for surviving austerity like a camel...

In that way, the positioning probably works well for Ryan, even if it's a disconnect from the core values of the music. But it's too bad that candidates don't have to eat their own dog food as the saying goes. Imagine if Tom Morello got to help them select the best Rage Against the Machine tunes to play during all of Ryan's campaign events.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Frank Zappa Albums are Available on iTunes

News Flash: Tons of Frank Zappa albums are available on iTunes now. I'm not sure when this went live, but I know that a few months ago I was looking for Zappa and couldn't find anything. I went around to all the CD shops looking for used, out-of-print Zappa CDs and that turned out to be less fruitful that I expected. Then tonight I fired up iTunes and one of the promo images was Zappa!

Good stuff. Joe's Garage. Zappa in New York. Lot's more. Check it out!

Apple v Samsung: Design and the Culture of Make it Pretty

As crazy at it may seem, the Apple v Samsung trial has been some really enjoyable reading for me. In looking through some of the documents that have been published from the case, you can find some great stuff on what might be called 'the philosophy of product development'.

Here's another great post with documents from inside the walls of Samsung. All Things D has a nice summary article of the testimony of Galaxy icon designer Jeeyuen Wang. They also have this link to an internal presentation of their icon design strategy from 2011.

Basically, what you'll find in this presentation is that Samsung's design team developed a schema to establish coherence and elegant consistency to the icons that they used on their Galaxy products. If you read through this presentation, you'll find a design-centric presentation. Contrast that with the presentation I talked about in my previous post.

Clearly, what you have in the group designing their icon structure are people that understand design. At the same time, this wasn't something that ran through the entire product development process. Instead, the company appears to have gotten to a point where they through the software over the wall and said, "make it pretty." That's not an uncommon practice -- as anyone who has had to deal with design knows all to well -- but it points to the underlying differences between Apple's product and the copies.

"Make it Pretty" means that appearance is an afterthought. It's not integral to the why. Because they don't understand the subtle relationship between the look and the why.

So how many people do you think read the Steve Jobs book and decided to 'be more like Steve' -- but still adhere to the 'Make It Pretty' school of thought? At what point in their product development cycle do you think most people start to incorporate look and feel into the functionality? Sadly, I'll bet it's larger than you'd expect.