Category Archives: Technology

A 2-Second Business Pitch that Worked

Last Thursday I’d just spoken as a guest to a class in entrepreneurship. As the class ended I was anxious to go because I was late for my grandson. The professor was thanking me and three students waited to talk to me individually. I didn’t want to be rude and I like talking to students, so I didn’t run off immediately.

The first in line was the one student I didn’t want to talk to — the one who had asked if I would listen to a quick business pitch after class. There’s no such thing as a quick business pitch when you’re not in an elevator.

However, instead of a pitch, it was iPhone in hand, showing me, and:

I know you don’t have time for a pitch but can I show you my app? It’s done and it works.

So, at least for me, an old software guy, that pitch worked. I couldn’t resist. Of course I wanted to see the app.

And it looked pretty good too. I’m asking him to show it to somebody I work with.

So there’s an elevator speech replacement that worked. In two seconds.

(Image: bigstockphoto.com

True Story: Programming, Paradox, and the Pot of Gold

Paradox is the spice of life. Maybe. Because life is full of contradictions and other hands. Take this very interesting juxtaposition. Kevin Systrom, founder and CEO of Instagram, just sold it for $! billion to Facebook. And he built the Instagram prototype himself, in his spare time, after teaching himself to code, also in his spare time. Here’s more detail, from Instagram’s product genius is a self-taught programmer on The Next Web:Pot of gold

Systrom, an active user on Quora, is a largely self-taught programmer. While working in the marketing department at Nextstop, which Facebook acquired in 2010, he would spend his evenings learning to program. According to Systrom, small projects included combining elements of Foursquare with Mafia Wars.

Now consider this: The success of this do-it-yourself programming story generates a flood of pay-others-to-do-it designers in Silicon Valley, according to User interface designers invade Silicon Valley after success of Instagram, as reported by Reuters, on The Verge.

The “new breed” of Valley people are dubbed “user experience designers” and can fetch as much as $80,000 for an entry level position. In some situations, designers are becoming embedded in the conceptIon of new features — Facebook, for example, has begun assigning a designer to consult with a team of engineers led by a project manager.

True, designers aren’t engineers. But they aren’t do-it-yourself programming-at-night entrepreneurs either.

Go figure. The pots of gold aren’t always where they are supposed to be.

(Image: shutterstock.com)

Is The Very Idea of Designing Tech Products for Women Insulting?

(note: I posted this on the Huffington Post first, just about 10 minutes ago)

Maybe it’s because I’m father to four daughters, maybe because of simple fair play, but if you read my stuff I’ve been a chronic complainer about the relatively low numbers of women in high tech and tech in general. And I don’t believe it’s because the women like it that way, either. So why then does Don’t Be Afraid To Go Pink: Designing Great Tech Products For Women on TechCrunch today make me nervous?

My answer starts with a true story: in the late 1990s, at Palo Alto Software, we had a team brainstorming session to deal with the problem of under representation of women in among our Business Plan Pro users. The team at the time was half women, and for the record, our company is 49% women owned.pink tech

But that brainstorming session turned up nothing but bad ideas. Business planning is a great example of something that has no gender specificity. Most of the suggestions made were unintentionally insulting to women, as if being female means you plan your numbers less, or are more intuitive or less rigorous, which is a crock. Pink packaging? We did take it to heart with our packaging, putting the image of a happy female user all over the back of the box. But that was it. Business planning has no gender component.

The TechCrunch post has five suggestions, starting with don’t be afraid to go pink. Say what? Here’s how post authors Sarah Paiji and Sanby Lee explain that point:

We don’t mean that your product literally has to be pink. However, you shouldn’t be afraid to make a product that is only for women, and to signal this through your aesthetic and branding. For our mobile shopping app, we chose a name and color scheme that was decidedly feminine. We had men complain that they didn’t feel comfortable using the app, or posting in a community dominated by women. But that’s the point — we didn’t want men as our initial audience.

That bothers me. I think we have to make some logical distinctions here.

First, some products have gender specificity. Clothes, sporting goods, personal hygiene for example: of course they’re different for men or women.

Second, some content has gender specificity. Obviously some television programming, movies, magazines and other media have gender behaviors built into them.

So if you put these two assumptions together, then there’s absolutely nothing troublesome to me about gender-specific products where there are gender differences, and gender specific marketing that takes advantage of those differences, whether for gender-specific product or not, to focus market dollars more effectively. Sure, they advertise beer on football games and tampons on soap operas. So what?

But I really don’t like trying to build gender specifics into products that don’t have them. Very few tech products are inherently gender specific. Maybe the authors’ shopping app is, but if so, it’s one of a very few. And for the most part, trying to design tech for women ends up, well meaning or not, assuming women are dumber than men. Which is a dumb assumption.

Which I think we see in that post. After making that first point, the authors follow with 2.) resist feature overload, 3.) find the key influencers, and 4.) enable discovery. How are those factors gender specific? I’m a man, and I don’t want feature overload, I get influenced and I influence, and discover is good for me. How are those points women centric?

Then, finally, fifth of five: have women on your team. Doh! Of course! The work force is 50-50-ish, then so too should be every team on every company that isn’t doing gender-specific product. And I don’t mean by law, or forced by anybody; but rather, just common sense and a natural process over time.

(Image: istockphoto.com)

 

Ideas: Evolutionary Computing and Internet As Brain

Call it coincidence, serendipity, synchronicity, or just random, but last week I was accidentally exposed to two seemingly unrelated ideas that ended up seeming very related to me. And they gave me a fascinating whack on the side of the head. I thought artificial intelligence had run its course, but computers that learn could be much more important.

Blondie24First, the book Blondie24, by David Fogel, describing how he and his team used evolutionary computing to develop computer programming that taught itself to play checkers. It’s well written, logical, easy to follow, and fascinating. Here’s a snippet (direct quote from the book):

Suppose we could harness the fundamental processes of natural evolution inside a computer. We could generate many thousands, or maybe millions, of solutions to problems, test these solutions, keep the ones that are better, and use them as parents of future improved solutions. We could write a computer program that uses an evolutionary algorithm to breed solutions to problems and perfect them over time.

There is so much more there that I have trouble summarizing, but what it means is something way better than what we used to call artificial intelligence, which was rules-based computing in which humans summarized knowledge and experience into rules (sorry, that’s my definition, so I apologize to all the AI people out there). This, in stark contrast, is computers that learn, using a process that mimics evolution: It’s survival of the fittest, in compressed time.

Having suffered through some serious attempts to create a rules-based system for financial forecasting, back in the 1980s, I am instantly intrigued by the change of perspective: let the algorithms learn by themselves. Don’t try to codify, just manage evolution. I’m sure that sounds very far fetched, but in the book takes the reader through actual cases with practical implications. Blondie24, as it turns out, is a program that taught itself to play checkers. It ends up sounding much more believable, in the book, than any summary that does it justice.

Wired for ThoughtThe day after reading that book I spent all morning with Dun and Bradstreet Credibility Corp, whose founder, Jeff Stibel, is the author of Wired for Thought, which has some striking parallels. Consider this paragraph (another direct quote) and compare it to the one above:

Think of it this way: evolution took hundreds of thousands of years to evolve the human brain to its current level of complexity and sophistication. The Internet will approximate that in a few generations. We will have experienced in cyberspace a replication of biological growth itself, as though it were the brain of a living thing. But more to the point, we will replicate not only the brain itself but also its by-product: thought.

Again, in this quote like the one above it, I ask you to trust me that this book too, like Blondie24, is very well written, easy to follow, and exciting. They are both talking about some high-flying ideas, but they guide the reader through them very considerately.

Which brings me to another coincidence, parallel thought. Although they don’t know each other (I don’t think) and they are approaching this from different directions, they both ended up with the same example of what’s going on.

First, from Blondie24, David Fogel is making the point that the goal is not elaborating human thought into computers in sets of rules and conclusions, but generating an independent evolutionary process:

For example, suppose we wanted to design a flying machine. We might look to nature for inspiration and see a vast array of feathered birds flapping their wings. But in emulating those specific manifestations of flight, we’d be led astray. Neither feathers nor flapping wings is a cause, but rather an effect. It’s no surprise that we’ve failed to build a practical man-carrying ornithopter.

Alternatively, we can adopt a high-level and more abstract perspective that exploits the common ground found across all learning systems. This ‘top-down’ approach seeks out repeated patterns in systems and does not lead us astray. Considering my example of aerodynamics, the top-down approach focuses on the countering forces of lift and gravity, thrust and drag, and air flowing over an airfoil…

The pattern repeated in all natural learnings systems is an evolutionary process of adaptation by variations and selection. Evolution, then, provides a simple yet complete prescription for programming a learning machine, a computer that can adapt its behavior to meet goals in a range of environments and to generate solutions tio problems that we don’t yet know how to solve.

Interesting? Yes. And Dr. Fogel plays that out in actual cases involving some classic logic problems, playing checkers, and even some practical results in reading images to diagnose cancers.

And then I picked up Jeff’s book, where he uses strikingly similar metaphor about solving the problem of flight. He’s talking about the development of the Internet as similar to nodes in a human brain, and the hope of developing something akin to learning and thought, from the Internet:

This development is not unlike the evolution of flight. When the Wright Brothers first flew … their intent was not to create a bird. To be sure, some innovators thought that building a ‘bird’ was the road to flight, but it was not. The Wright brothers harnessed the laws of flight, and not the body of a duck or a bluejay.

So here I was thinking that artificial intelligence had lost traction because it was impossible to mimic human knowledge and experience in a rules-based system, or maybe just not worth the effort. And then I discover that there’s some fascinating work going on, not in what we used to call artificial intelligence, but, rather, computers that learn, and the Internet as brain.

Final thought: are we the same species we were 500 years ago, and that we have been for a few thousand years? Or are we now a new species that has new powers of communication, storing and retrieving information, instant interaction over large distances?

What do you think?

Do You Trip on the Tools in Your Own Business?

Think of the quick comedy scene where a guy steps on a rake and bonks himself in the face with a handle.  rake accidentGot it? Now ask yourself whether or not you’re bonking yourself with the tech tools in your own business.

For example, do you switch your to-do list software instead of working the list? I do it too. Instead of solving our real problem, which is time management and prioritizing tasks, we get halfway there and change tools.

I’ve done it for decades now. I jump from browser to browser, then fuss with the add-ons. I change my email client software, and re-do the folder  instead of answering emails. I go from one blogging solution to another. I change the photo organization software instead of organizing my photos. I’ve even changed the word processing software I was using to fool myself into believing I’d get more done with the new one.

Do you do it? I see it all the time with other people. We’re lying to ourselves, playing with new toys instead of bearing down and making our own systems work. The real problem is discipline and consistency, and instead of solving that, we do just the opposite. We change the tools.

I woke up today with this on my mind because I’ve been preparing for this evening’s Dumb Ways Smart Entrepreneurs Fail in Using Technology, a free webinar for Ramon Ray and his Small Business Technology series.  You can register any time before it starts, 5 pm PDT, 8 pm EDT, later today.

(Image: bigstockphoto.com)

Is Search-Driven Entrepreneurship Obsolete?

Remember that dream we all had together, not so long ago, where a well-thought-out startup with a good understanding of the Web could grow on merit alone? Isn’t that sort of what Google did? And many others? I fear that’s not happening anymore.

For a good, short summary of the SEO problem, from a brilliant software entrepreneur, watch the two-minute video here: Joel Spolsky on how SEO makes the Internet worse.

I’m not an SEO expert, but how telling that Vivek Wadwha posted Why We Desperately Need a New (and Better) Google on exactly Jan. 1, 2011.

The problem is that content on the Internet is growing exponentially and the vast majority of this content is spam. This is created by unscrupulous companies that know how to manipulate Google’s page-ranking systems to get their websites listed at the top of your search results … Content creation is big business, and there are big players involved. For example, Associated Content, which produces 10,000 new articles per month, was purchased by Yahoo! for $100 million, in 2010. Demand Media has 8,000 writers who produce 180,000 new articles each month … This content is what ends up as the landfill in the garbage websites that you find all over the Web. And these are the first links that show up in your Google search results

Don’t think for a minute that Google isn’t working on it. In another January post, Google search quality czar Matt Cutts wrote a blog post promising a major effort to revise Google search to deal better with spam. And that’s been happening. Google is in fact shaking things up, which is good news for the long term, but, well, Google is shaking things up. The Los Angeles Times’ reported recently

Google won plaudits for promoting original research and analysis and banishing pages littered with second-rate content or overloaded with advertising. But the revision to its secret mathematical formula that determines the best answers to a searcher’s query also caused an uproar as hundreds of sites complained to Google that they had been unfairly lumped in with “content farms,” which churn out articles with little useful information to drive more traffic to their sites.

Chris Dixon, co-founder of Hunch.com and startup celebrity, recently posted SEO is no longer a viable marketing strategy for startups on his blog. Here’s his conclusion:

Google seems to be doing everything it can to improve its algorithms so that the best content rises to the top (the recent “panda” update seems to be a step forward). But there are many billions of dollars and tens of thousands of people working to game SEO. And for now, at least, high-quality content seems to be losing. Until that changes, startups – who generally have small teams, small budgets, and the scruples to avoid black-hat tactics – should no longer consider SEO a viable marketing strategy.

Tim Cohn posted The SEO is Dead Debate the following day. He doesn’t reference Chris Dixon specifically, but he has an eloquently short post, saying that SEO isn’t dead because ….

… the SEO is Dead author never offers an equal let alone superior alternative.

That one bothers me. Since when does nothing die without offering a superior alternative?

What do you think? Is SEO dead to startups?

Twitter and Problogger to the Copyright Rescue

OK, this is cool. The web makes copyright stealing so incredibly easy, and it’s extremely annoying when it happens to you. And it happens all the time. So you have to like this example.

Here, to the right, is what Darren Rowse, blogger extraordinaire at problogger.net, @problogger on Twitter, decided to do about it. He posted it on twitter where his 117,809 followers can see it.

No, I don’t know the facts in this case. If it turns out I’ve become a pawn in some foul plot, unwittingly ganging up with Darren against an innocent photo business, I apologize. It sure looks like United Photo Press is linking to Darren’s work and presenting it as theirs. Right?

I’m jealous. I still remember when a competitor took a GIF my son had done, painstakingly combining all the logos of all the magazines that had reviewed our product, and posted it on their website. I would have loved to have been able to publish that on Twitter.

And while that one is old news, all the time now fly-by-night blogs pick up my stuff, often from here, and post it as their own, presumably for spam or SEO gains. That’s happening now, today, often.

In this case, though, the alleged culprit in this case, United Photo Press, isn’t flying by night. It’s been around since 1990, and one can assume it’s staying around.  So maybe this really works. I hope so. If it’s true, I hope Darren’s tweets get it to stop.

Darren, United Photo Press, can we get an update, now that the problem has been published on Twitter? Was the problem solved?

Small Business Labs on Trends for 2011

Sure, there are lots of trends pieces going around these days, but Steve King of Emergent Research is the best expert I know on researching trends and putting them into sensible pieces. His company does some really good trends research that is often published by Intuit. , so I’d like to share his Top 10 Small Business Trends for 2011, some of them with my comments.

First, four major economic trends:

1. The small business economy recovers from the great recession.

From your lips (or keyboard), Steve, to God’s ears. May you be right on this one.

2. Variable cost business models:  Small businesses will continue to focus on cost containment, bootstrapping and business flexibility in 2011.  More small businesses will shift from fixed cost to variable cost business models, adopting a pay-as-you-go approach to minimize cash requirements and increase business agility.

3. Small firms reinvest U.S. Manufacturing

That’s a surprise to me. I thought U.S. manufacturing becomes less competitive. But Steve points to the weak dollar, technology, growing world markets, and the web giving more worldwide access to smaller companies.

4. Alternative financing

He cites “merchant advances, micro lending, community lending, crowd funding, and factoring.” I bet alternatives like crowd funding take longer, though, because of securities law, fraud, and those worries.

Second, five social and social media trends:

5. Social media moves to the small business mainstream.

6. Social commerce: the amazing growth of Groupon and other social commerce sites in 2010 …

7. Small businesses friend Facebook. …. small businesses are embracing and adopting Facebook as a key part of their web presence, and in growing numbers using Facebook as their primary website.

Myself, I’d like to see more examples.  Is this proving to be good business?

8. New localism continues to flourish

9. Freelancers realize they’re small business owners

It’s about time.

Finally, one technology trend:

10.  Working in the Cloud: No trends list would be complete without mentioning mobile, cloud, local and social computing.

No surprise there.

So I give special attention to Steve’s trends posts because 1.) that’s what he does for a living, mainly; and 2.) he’s good at it.

Looking For the Rest of this Patent Story

What a shame. Although we all like neatly packaged stories — heroes and villains, good vs. evil, David vs. Goliath — it’s rarely that simple.

For example, late last year there was what seemed to be a great David vs. Goliath story about this inventor guy who teaches at Yale getting $625 million from Apple Computer for violating his patents. Or so it seemed to me, that is, until I read that this happened in Tyler, Texas. The world capital of patent trolls.

What’s up with that? Well you might want to read Apple Don’t Go to Court in Tyler, Texas from back in 2008. Or better yet, this description published last year by Tyler Directory, a local publication:

What happens is a company buys up some patents that they already know are being infringed upon with the express purpose of making income through litigation. These patent trolls do not wish to make something with the patent they bought but are looking to sue as many large corporations as they can.

This patent trolling makes millions and millions of dollars for these companies as well as their lawyers. Not only does the patent troll need to open up a business in Tyler or East Texas to pursue litigation here but their lawyer must be local counsel.

In this case, I’m afraid, whatever the merits of the case, the David took the Goliath to a drastically slanted playing field. You could read this 2006 piece in TechDirt on the same phenomenon. East Texas loves patent trolls.

The inventor in this case, David Gelernter, seems easy to like. He says it’s not about the money …

Before the verdict was announced Gelernter spoke to the blog BigThink about the case: “[It’s] not because of the money, but because of the deliberate failure to acknowledge work that we would have made freely available as academics. …. We’d like to see credit where credit is due.”

It all sounds good to me. Except then he went and set up an office in East Texas, pretty damn far from Yale, to sue in East Texas patent troll heaven.

But wait — is he wrong to do what optimizes his chances to win? After all, if I owned a patent, and I wanted payback from a large company, I’d go to East Texas with it too. I’d do what makes me most likely to win. But I’ve seem some horrifically unreasonable patent troll lawsuits win money. That, in my opinion, is money for nothing. And I assume the lawyers get huge chunks of it too. It seems ugly.

But things are never that simple.

The Pull of Bloat and Feature Addiction

This one struck a nerve: This is by Jason Fried, founder of 37 Signals, in How to Kill a Bad Idea earlier this month at Inc.com. He’s talking about how software and websites grow too big.

The software grows. Version 2.0 comes along. It does more than Version 1.0. More features, more options, more screens, more stuff. Or the website is redesigned with more pages, more words, more images, more departments, more tools. Nothing has gone wrong yet. In fact, Version Two is pretty good, too.

But over time, yet more stuff is added. Remember our water bottle? Imagine what would happen if more stuff was added to it. Pretty soon it wouldn’t be functional. The physics would push back. Not so with software. You can just add more pages! Or you can just add more features or more settings or more preferences and hide them behind yet another button or menu. It’s just one more button, right?

This is where it all begins to fall apart. Future versions are loaded with more and more stuff. Nothing pushes back; nothing says no. And eventually, the product or the site becomes unmanageable. It’s too big, too slow, too confusing, but it’s still all subjective. Unlike the water bottle, the software can just keep growing. Software can’t overflow. It has no edges, so it can never be too big.

That is so true. I’ve been there. In fact,  I’ve been in the software business since 1983, and in the web business since 1994. We always want to do everything for everybody. What you’d like to do is have as many features in the software and there are users to suggest them, because you never want to say no. This is how Microsoft Excel, to cite just one example, does linear regression. And how many people use it for that?

As you might guess from the three paragraphs I quoted, Jason gets to the problem of when to say no. And that you have to say no sometimes. He says:

The only way to stop this perpetual growth of an object without physical borders is for you to create your own borders. Those borders are discipline, self-control, an editor’s eye for “enough.” The ultimate border is one simple word: no. Someone in charge has to say no more than yes.

If the laws of physics govern the physical world, the word no governs the virtual world. “No, that’s one feature too many.” “No, that’s just not worth it.” “No, no, no.”

I know. I was right there, at that very spot, for about 25 years. And just reading Jason’s spine tingling account of it, I know immediately he’s been in the same place a lot, and I’m glad that others are now doing that for the company I started.

Saying no was so damn necessary, and so damn hard, at the same time.

(image: istockphoto)