Irritation Based Innovation

If necessity is the mother of invention, irritation is the father.

People can be motivated to make changes based on so-called positive emotions, but I would argue that anger is more often the spark for fueling innovation. Some people live by the credo

Don't get mad, get even.

But as Mohandas Gandhi so adroitly observed,

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

Aristotle offers additional insight into the challenges of channeling irritation:

Anyone can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way - that is not within everyone's power and that is not easy.

When the wronged can transform their anger in constructive ways, they produce benefits that often outweigh and outlast the instigating incidents.

ImMadAsHell-Network I've been thinking about the inspirational power of irritation for a while now. The numerous clips I've seen and heard over the past several days from the late director Sidney Lumet's 1976 film, Network, have inspired me to compile some examples of irritation being a factor in empowering people to take action. The famous line repeated by the late actor Peter Finch as newscaster Howard Beale - and many of his viewers - is particularly on-point:

I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!

I have often described my own work as irritation-based research: don't [just] get mad about something, create a research project and/or prototype to solve it! MusicFX was born out of irritation with music playing in a fitness center; ActiveMap grew out of frustration with colleagues being chronically late to meetings; Ticket2Talk was a response to a newcomer's awkwardness of meeting people and initiating conversations at a conference

I believe we are all productive - or potentially productive - but differences in our personalities, training and experiences lead us to contribute in different ways in different realms. When irritation strikes, we naturally gravitate toward the channels through which we are best able to express or transform our frustration. Research happens to be a channel that has proven useful for me, but over the years, I've encountered numerous variations on this theme, applied to a broad range of domains. For the purposes of this post, I'll focus on a subset, exploring examples of people demonstrating how to constructively channel irritation to

  • write a book
  • write a program
  • create a company

Write a book

HowWeDecide One of the most inspiring convocation keynotes I've ever seen was Jonah Lehrer's Metacognitive Guide to College, delivered at Willamette University last fall. After presenting a fun and fascinating whirlwind tour of neuroscience, psychology and sociology, in the context of a 5-point guide to how to succeed in (and through) college, the 27 year-old author of How We Decide entertained questions from the audience. My favorite question was asked by a student who wanted to know how Lehrer decides which questions to ask (or pursue). He answered that he wrote a book about decisions primarily because he is pathologically indecisive, and generally tends to begin with his own frustrations. [Update, 2012-Apr-01: A Brain Pickings review of Lehrer's new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, includes his observation that "the act of feeling frustrated is an essential part of the creative process."]

More recently, in preparing slides for a guest lecture on human-robotic interaction, I highlighted the irritation that prompted Sherry Turkle to write her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle experienced a robotic moment several years ago while viewing live Galapagos tortoises at the Darwin exhibit showing at the American Museum of Natural History, when her 14 year-old daughter, Rebecca, commented "they could have used a robot". While Turkle had been growing increasingly concerned about the ways that robots and other technologies were changing our perspectives and expectations, this moment provided the spark that led her to take on the daunting challenge of writing a book. And this constructive channeling of irritation has sparked numerous conversations about the relative costs and benefits of online vs. offline interactions.

Write a program

image from upload.wikimedia.orgOne of the earliest articulations of irritation-based software development I encountered as by Eric Raymond, author of the 2001 book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, in which he states the first rule of open source software:

Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch.

Later in the book, he begins the chapter on The Social Context of Open Source Software with the following elaboration of this principle:

It is truly written: the best hacks start out as personal solutions to the author's everyday problems, and spread because the problem turns out to be typical for a large class of users. This takes us back to the matter of rule 1, restated in a perhaps more useful way:

To solve an interesting problem, start by finding a problem that is interesting to you.

More recently, in a March 2008 blog post articulating 37signals' response to a critique by Don Norman, Jason Fried invoked a principle and rationale to support designing for ourselves (a fabulous post which also includes related insights about editing, software feature curation and not trying to please everyone):

Designing for ourselves first yields better initial results because it lets us design what we know. It lets us assess quality quickly and directly, instead of by proxy. And it lets us fall in love with our products and feel passionate about what we make. There’s simply no substitute for that. ...

We listen to customers but we also listen to our own guts and hearts. We believe great companies don’t blindly follow customers, they blaze a path for them. ...

Solutions to our own problems are solutions to other people’s problems too [emphasis mine]. By building products we want to use, we’re also building products that millions of other small businesses want to use. Not all businesses, not all customers, not everyone, but a healthy, sustainable, growing, and profitable segment of the market.

Interestingly, Don Norman's perspective on design innovation appears to have evolved since that exchange: a view articulated in a controversial essay on Technology First, Needs Last: the research-product gulf, which appeared in the March 2010 issue of ACM Interactions. Although he does not cite irritation as a prime mover, Norman does call into question the influence of necessity on innovative breakthroughs:

I've come to a disconcerting conclusion: design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs. ... Although we would prefer to believe that conceptual breakthroughs occur because of a detailed consideration of human needs, especially fundamental but unspoken hidden needs so beloved by the design research community, the fact is that it simply doesn't happen. ... grand conceptual inventions happen because technology has finally made them possible.

Create a company

MartinTobias-FastCompany-December2010 One recent articulator of irritation as inspiration is Martin Tobias, a serial entrepreneur and currently CEO of Tippr, who was profiled in a December 2010 Fast Company article on Innovation Agents:

The one common thread throughout Tobias' entrepreneurial journey: a healthy dose of anger. With Imperium Renewables, Tobias was "personally pissed at the climate damage that oil companies were doing,” he says. “When I started Kashless, I was personally pissed that my friends in the local bar and restaurant business didn’t have effective ways to use the Internet to get people to walk in the door to their businesses. I’m saving small businesses that are run by my friends. That’s an incredibly personal thing.”

That kind of righteous fury, according to Tobias, is the secret to any startup. “Find a problem that personally pisses you off and solve it, and you’ll be a good entrepreneur," he says. "The day that I wake up and I don’t have a hard problem to solve, I will stop being an entrepreneur."

PatientsLikeMe-logo The personal problem that motivated Jamie Heywood, Benjamin Heywood and their friend Jeff Cole to create PatientsLikeMe was the the struggle of their brother, Stephen Heywood, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1998. They developed a company and web platform to enable patients to share and learn from each others' experiences, and track the course of their condition and treatment(s), enabling them to tell their stories in data and words. The company recently expanded from its initial focus on 22 chronic conditions (including ALS, Parkinson's disease, HIV, depression, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and organ transplants) to support patients suffering from any condition(s).

The story of the family's frustration - and response - also provided the inspiration for a movie, So Much, So Fast:

Made over 5 years, So Much So Fast tracks one family's ferocious response to an orphan disease: the kind of disease drug companies ignore because not there's not enough profit in curing it. In reaction, and with no medical background, Stephen's brother Jamie creates a research group and in two years builds it from three people in a basement to a multi-million dollar ALS mouse facility. Finding a drug in time becomes Jamie's all-consuming obsession.

As I get to know more Health 2.0 activists, advocates and platforms - some of whom I profiled in previous posts on social media and computer supported cooperative health care and platform thinking - and encounter more examples of their blessing, wounding, longing, loss, pain and transformation, I increasingly appreciate the innovative power of irritation ... especially when the source of the irritation is a matter of life and death.

In reviewing these examples, I am repeatedly reminded of the wisdom of Carl Rogers' profound observation:

What is most personal is most general.

There are, of course, many other ways that people channel their personal frustrations in innovative ways that benefit a more general population, and I would welcome the contribution of other inspiring examples in the comments below.

I will finish off with a video clip of the scene from the movie, Network, that I mentioned at the outset. It's interesting to note how many of the problems that contributed to Howard Beale's madness in 1976 are still - or again - prominent in today's world ... providing plenty of fodder for future innovation.

Serendipity Platforms, Unintended Consequences and Explosive Positivity at Web 2.0 Expo

webexsf2010 The keynotes on Day 1 of the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco exposed a number of common threads, perhaps best summarized by a quote attributed to Tim O'Reilly by conference co-chair Sarah Milstein:

We're trying to maximize the surface area of serendipity.

The official theme of the event is "Platforms for Growth", and all of the keynotes so far have included observations and insights into the kind of platform thinking and its often unintended - and primarily positive - consequences that Tim and various friends of O'Reilly have been espousing and practicing for some time now.

I'm not actually at the conference but have been following it remotely through the web20tv LiveStream. However, I've been taking lots of notes, and will condense them into a coherent collection below, augmented by links and other embeddable goodies when I can find them. I'll link each of the speaker's names to their profile on the Web 2.0 Expo site, which has - or will have - slides and videos of their talks.

image from icanhascheezburger.files.wordpress.com Ben Huh, CEO of the Cheezburger Network, spoke about how providing platforms for people to promulgate humor - such as LOLcats, FAIL blog and There, I Fixed It - has resulted in 19,000 submissions per day, 15 million views per month and an immeasurable impact on mutual inspiration and the wealth of networks. He contrasted the construction of Internet culture - a bottom-up process involving hackers, software, subversiveness and co-created and occasionally co-opted meaning - with popular culture - a top-down process that has brought us sitcoms, evening news and Geraldo Rivera. Perhaps due to the humorous nature of the content shared on Ben's platforms, or the occasional dropouts in the live webcast, at one point I wasn't quite sure if he was extolling the virtues of cloud computing or clown computing ... and this prompted additional musing during his talk about other approximate anagrammatical homophones such as subversiveness vs. subservience, and conservative vs. conversative, as well as Victor Borge's quote "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people."

FuseLabs-logo Lili Cheng, General Manager of Microsoft's Future Social Experiences (FUSE) Labs, demonstrated three new web applications created by her team as they confront the challenges of timeliness, unpredictable growth, experimental systems and quality data. Bing Twitter, announced at the Web 2.0 Summit in October, allows users to track trending topics and search for status updates on Twitter. Docs.com, announced at the f8 Facebook Developers Conference two weeks ago, allows Facebook users to share Microsoft Office documents on the web. The newest and most interesting app is Spindex, which Lili acknowledged was a "nerd name" for social personal index, and allows tracking of trending and subtrending topics that are popular among one's friends (her demo tracked trends of a mutual friend, Marc Smith, but I couldn't make out the actual content). Spindex and Docs are both in early beta / invitation-only mode, and Spindex currently requires a Windows Live ID for authentication (Docs requires Facebook authentication). I had previewed her Web 2.0 Expo Powerpoint slides earlier in the day, as they had shown up in her Facebook news feed, and I thought I'd beat the rush by submitting a request for an invitation. Unfortunately, I haven't received an invite code for Spindex or Docs.com (for which I requested an invite the day two weeks ago), but I'm hoping to try them out soon.

Paul Buccheit, founder of FriendFeed, which was acquired by Facebook, was interviewed by Sarah Milstein, during which he described the recently announced Open Graph protocol as an attempt to simplify the development and use of Facebook applications. Paul championed the widespread provision of lightweight, spontaneous interaction gestures such as liking and quick and easy comments as a way to promote conversations and connections across the web. When asked by Sarah about whether the proliferation of such mechanisms would promote a larger number of ultimately shallower connections, Paul responded that they provide more context for future, deeper conversations to unfold. When asked who he admires, Paul responded that he just follows random links, noting he had just enjoyed reading a blog post by an author he hadn't heard of in a browser tab that he'd opened two weeks ago (reflecting one of my common practices).

Ted-logo June Cohen, Executive Producer of TED, shared the philosophy and practices of radical openness adopted by the organizers of the TED conference series. Despite their concerns about their conscious evolution from conference to media company to platform, their steadfast commitment to their core mission - "ideas worth spreading" - enabled them to progressively provide a model "platform for growth", and she said that all of the unintended consequences have been explosively positive. Noting that taped lectures are not an obvious source of viral content, and providing content for free is not an obvious business model, she reported that the first year they provided their TED talks online (2007?), they increased the ticket prices by 50% (to $6,000), and they still sold out within a week. Although production of high quality videos (and conferences) is expensive, they have found that whenever you have people who are passionate about what they are doing, you can find a sponsor who wants to reach that audience.

A year ago, TED launched the TED Open Translation Project, in which 4,000 volunteers have translated 9,000 videos into 77 languages, and the translated text words / symbols are linked to the segments in the video in which they were originally spoken. More recently, they have licensed the TED brand free of charge to organizers of independent TED conferences; the TEDx series has included 1000 events in 70 countries and 35 languages attended by 50,000 people ... and the original TED organizers are learning from the experimentation carried out by the independent organizers ... demonstrating that a global platform creates a global team. And just today, they announced the TED Open TV Project, with 20 global partners who have agreed to show TED talks without interruptions or commercials. The TED strategic plan: listen - and respond - to what people want.

Buildmeasurelearn Eric Ries, Venture Advisor and evangelist of the Lean Startup, said that we need to stop wasting people's time building products that no one wants and learn how to pivot: building, measuring and learning, being willing to change directions as we learn from customers, and iterating through these three stages as quickly as we can. Arguing that if we really believe the world needs to change in a fundamental way - and many entrepreneurs are driven by some variant of this motivation - we can't afford to rely on faith-based initiatives, i.e., we cannot rely solely on our own intuitions, but rather rigorously validate our "solutions" with real customers as early - and often - as possible. Warning against achieving failure - successfully executing a plan that leads you over a cliff - he emphasized the importance of articulating a compelling vision and building a sustainable organization to support the new product or service in the face of extreme uncertainty, the "soil in which all entrepreneurs live".

I found much of Eric's talk compelling, and yet I also found much of Don Norman's recent arguments about Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf to be even more compelling:

Design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories, but essentially useless when it comes to breakthroughs [e.g., flush toilets, indoor plumbing, electric lighting, automobiles, airplanes, or modern telecommunication]. ... New conceptual breakthroughs are invariably driven by the development of new technologies. The new technologies, in turn, inspire technologists to invent things. Not sometimes because they themselves dream of having their capabilities, but many times simply because they can build them. In other words, grand conceptual inventions happen because technology has finally made them possible. Do people need them? That question is answered over the next several decades as the technology moves from technical demonstration, to product, to failure, or perhaps to slow acceptance in the commercial world where slowly, after considerable time, the products and applications jointly evolve, and slowly the need develops.

I suppose one difference is in scale, with respect to impact, time frame and return on investment. If you need to actually make some money on your idea in a relatively short period of time, you may want to adopt the lean startup model, and prepare to accept customer-driven compromises along the path toward your grand vision. The next presentation seemed to offer a middle way.

OcarinaSmuleGe Wang, Assistant Professor of Music at Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) and Co-Founder, CTO and Chief Creative Officer of Smule, played us out. Offering an example of Don Norman's observation that new technologies inspire technologists to invent things, Ge shared the process of inside-out design behind the invention of the Ocarina iPhone application: he and his team decided that they wanted to build something musical with the iPhone, taking advantage of its various sensors (multi-touch screen, accelerometer, microphone, GPS), but they weren't initially sure what. The Ocarina app allows you to not only play the iPhone as an instrument, but create and share tablature for songs / musical pieces and to see, hear and play with an organic community of Ocarinists around the world, in a global visualization (and auralization?) of imperfect harmony. Among the unintended consequences was the adoption of the instrument by a nose flautist.

LighterArtSmule Another Smule iPhone application, the Sonic Lighter, has also yielded unanticipated consequences. Sonic Lighter creates a real-time visual and aural simulation of a lighter that responds to tilting, blowing into the microphone and being positioned near another iPhone that is running the app (which creates a flamethrower effect). It also creates a dot on the Sonic Lighter Ignition Map whenever it is lit and then blown out, which has led to an entire category of unanticipated effects now called Lighter Art (I love the double entendre ... and enjoy this much better than the darker art represented by the Oil Spill Crisis Map, for which one can also imagine an ignition component). The first known example of Lighter Art can be seen to the right, where someone created virtual graffiti - the word "hi" - by turning the Sonic Lighter on and off while walking around Pasadena in a pattern that sketched out the letters. Other Smule applications demonstrated include the Magic Piano (only for iPad), and I Am T-Pain, a mobile voice synthesizer / karaoke app, both of which include interactive mapping capabilities that enable people - or cats - to spontaneously play or sing duets with people they don't know.

Ruminating on Ben Huh's earlier presentation, and Victor Borge's quote about connecting via laughter, I found myself wondering whether music might represent the second shortest channel between two people ... or among larger groups.

The Challenges of Location-Based Social Networking

Meetro_logo Meetro, the location-aware instant messaging application - and company - has failed (or as my entrepreneur friends often like to say in such cases, it has "run out of runway"). Peter sent me a link to an inspiring TechCrunch guest post by Paul Bragiel, Meetro's founder, in which Paul has courageously shared the lessons he and his colleagues learned from this effort. Having failed - or run out of runway - in my own startup a few years ago, I don't see failure as any kind of stigma, and am glad that Paul doesn't either.

As someone who has been working for many years on ways to effectively bridge the gaps between the richness of our online lives (including our online social networks) and the physical spaces we share with others, I am saddened by the demise of Meetro. Paul and I exchanged some emails shortly after I wrote a blog post about Meetro's proximity-based instant messaging application in June 2005. I was excited for him and his team when they moved from Chicago to Palo Alto shortly thereafter, as their prospects seemed bright. However, I was also concerned about whether Meetro would ultimately succeed where Trepia had failed.

Paul hits the nail on the head in identifying the location problem (or the problem of constructing bridges between physical spaces and online communities):

Most importantly, there was a “location problem”. It’s really hard to grow a product that’s 100% focused on where you physically are. Tons of companies have tried this before and most of them have died. We, of course, were cocky and had to give it a try. There was just something so sexy about the idea that you could load up a piece of software and it would tell you about someone nearby who was interesting to you. Someone will crack this and make billions of dollars on it. I can only hope to be involved in some shape or form, since it’s an itch that hasn’t gone away for me.

He goes on to propose some scenarios or trajectories in which location-based social networking applications might succeed:

  • As extensions of existing social networks with large numbers of members (e.g., MySpace, Facebook), to help overcome what we might call the critical mass problem. The privacy issues in going physical (or locational) are significant, but as danah has previously pointed out, Facebook does not seem averse to taking risks with users' privacy.
  • Extending the service city by city, as Yelp has done. However, Yelp has not gone physical (yet), and so can scale more easily as an online service (with physical world referents). I don't know how many users they have, but they still may be shy of the critical masses needed to succeed with a physical location-based component.

Paul highlights the download problem: any application that requires any kind of download in order to run (vs., say, simply allowing a user to visit a web site) has a huge initial - one might say "inertial" - barrier to entry. As he notes:

... the dropoff that happened once people had to download and install Meetro was HUGE and didn’t help us at all. If I recall, it was something in the 80 to 90% range. It crushed adoption rates.

The Nokia Sensor application, which uses Bluetooth to enable proximity-based social networking via mobile phones (and which has one of the coolest Flash-based use-case scenario depictions I've ever seen), also suffered from the download problem - exacerbated by the fact that far fewer people are (or were) willing to download applications onto their phones than onto their laptop or desktop computers. I read somewhere that the application had been downloaded a million times - I'm not sure how many users that represents, nor how many downloads resulted in successful installs.

NokiaSensor-Sending NokiaSensor-Receiving NokiaSensor-Responding

However, there was a bigger problem: searching for references to Sensor on blogs, forums and other social media sites just before I interviewed with Nokia in the summer of 2006 revealed that most people who talked about using Sensor reported that they never "saw" anyone else running Sensor, other than friends they were already with.

This is an example of another challenge that Meetro encountered, what Paul calls the "realtime" problem: the requirement that users of the system (Meetro or Sensor) be in synchronous proximity of each other, i.e., in the same place at the same time. My friend and former intern, Sean Savage, attempted to address this problem with PlaceSite (which also now appears to be defunct), a place-based, vs. proximity-based, social networking application in which there was some notion of asynchrony - who has been here recently, in addition to who is here (or near) now? Apparently, Meetro [eventually] incorporated some kind of asynchrony into their app:

I can still feel the magic of when I was on layover in the Denver Airport, I met one of our users, and we grabbed a beer. This is what I dreamed Meetro would be about all the time, but those moments were too few and far between. We did fix this in the end but it was too little too late. So, to anyone tackling this problem in the future, make sure you have some type of persistence built-in, be it “people here previously” or “most common visitors to the area” etc.

Paul proposes three promising avenues for future location-based social networking applications:

  • Wait until the mobile / wireless operators have solved the location problem ... but after my experience working with Nokia, I know that building upon a carrier solution would require that carriers open up their location capabilities ... which would require a shift of policy and perspective that would be far more significant than the technology shift (for many carriers)
  • Create an API to enable the application to work off of / in conjunction with another, more broadly adopted application (like AIM or Skype).
  • Create an application that allows you to explicitly "check-in" with your location, like Dodgeball or Swarm ... but the requirement of an explicit action (sending a text message), vs. simply showing up, and opening up your laptop or waking up your phone, undermines the more natural, or at least implicit, awareness and interaction envisioned by Meetro (and all of the proactive display applications in which I've been involved).

One of the things I didn't quite understand when I first blogged about Meetro was how they managed their location-awareness. I was particularly curious, as many of my former colleagues at Intel Research Seattle were working on the PlaceLab project, creating a WiFi-based, privacy-preserving, location-aware infrastructure to support [Meetro-like] applications ... with the idea that "if you build it [the infrastructure], they will come [applications and users]". Paul shared some details in his post (and, as I suspected, it was closely related to PlaceLab):

When you launched Meetro we would scan for all the WiFi networks out there. We would then crosscheck what was out there with what we had in a huge global database (it had grown to 4+ million hotspots when we stopped). If it was in the database, then we would do some trilateration to figure out where you were. If not, we would ask you to enter your location. We would save this info and use it later to crosscheck and verify it against similar data.

However, as is clear from the lessons shared by Paul, the technology itself - the application and the infrastructure it uses - is only part of the puzzle. A number of other elements have to align in order to build a successful location-based social networking application.

Like Paul, I still believe there is great promise in this area, and I am grateful for his sharing the wisdom he has gained in efforts to fulfill this promise!

Entrepreneurial Karma: Call for Early-Stage Recommender System Startups

This is pretty cool (though I'm admittedly biased): a mid-stage startup (MyStrands, the company I work for) that has recently secured funding now offering an opportunity to fund an earlier stage startup - a sort of entrepreneurial karma, where we keep the investment flowing in ways that will [hopefully] benefit us all. This initiative is inspired, in part, by the Y-Combinator, but is more narrowly focused (recommender systems). [BTW, one of the partners in Y-Combinator, Paul Graham, writes provocative essays that I highly recommend to anyone interested in entrepreneurship.]

Here are the details (from the MyStrands blog announcement, Looking for the best early-stage recommender start-ups):


MyStrands is announcing today the “Strands $100,000 Call for Recommender Start-ups“.

We seek to identify the best early-stage project in the area of recommendation technologies, considering the technology, business opportunity and team behind the project (without limitations as to which field the technology is applied).

The Winner will be offered an investment of $100,000 from Strands, Inc. the parent company of MyStrands.

Candidates should submit a one-slide presentation in quad-chart format (example, more examples) by September 15th, 2008 to recommender-startups@strands.com, together with the team bios (in addition to this, an optional 2-minute video uploaded to YouTube describing the start-up enterprise would be highly appreciated).

Eligibility: The Call is open to individuals or sole proprietors and privately held businesses throughout the world.

Five Finalists will be invited to present their projects during the ACM Conference on Recommender Systems (RecSys08) next October 23rd to 25th, 2008 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Finalists will be announced on October 6th. All Proposals will be judged using the following judging criteria: (a) implementation and integration of recommendation technologies, (b) originality and creativity, (c) likelihood of long-term success and scalability, (d) effectiveness in addressing a need in the marketplace, and (e) team bios.

Five grants. Each Finalist will obtain a $1,500 travel grant to attend RecSys08; Strands, Inc. will also cover the registration fees for the Conference, for one person per Finalist.

The final selection process will include on-site presentations of each project during RecSys08. Finalists will make three presentations of 5 minutes each (focused on technology, business and the team respectively) in front of the Jury and the attendees of the Conference.

The Jury will be composed of renowned experts in the academic, industry and venture capital communities.

The Winner will be announced on October 25th, 2008 during the Gala Dinner at RecSys08. The Winner will receive a commemorative plaque and an offer of a $100,000 investment in the form of a convertible loan.

Proposal submission period begins on March 12th and ends on September 15th, 2008.

Further information: Please visit http://recommender-startups.strands.com or contact the Strands $100,000 Call for Recommender Start-ups organizers at recommender-startups@strands.com.

Important dates:
March 12th: Proposal submission period begins
September 15th: Proposal submission period ends
October 6th: Five Finalists are announced
October 23rd-25th: Presentations of Finalists at RecSys08
October 25th: Winner Announced

Contact and updates:
Email proposal to: recommender-startups@strands.com

Worst Speech Ever: Guy Kawasaki on Stupid Ideas, Indefensibility and Being a Mensch

Guy20 Truemors Guy Kawaski gave a great demonstration of and presentation on entrepreneurship in the Web 2.0 era at yesterday's PARC Forum. His new company, Truemors.com, is "a Web 2.0, User-Generated Content, Citizen Journalism, Long-Tail, Social Media Site" that cost him $12,107.09. The site enables anyone to post, comment on, or rate any breaking rumors or news. Two days after its launch, The Inquirer ("news, reviews, facts and friction") called it "the worst web site ever", which may have been partly responsible for a spike in attention - the site received 246,210 page views that day - leading Guy to wryly note “there's no such thing as bad PR as long as they get the link right” and "we probably got more hits than if we'd been labeled 'the best web site ever'" ... prompting him to ask any bloggers in the audience to label any posts about his talk as "the worst speech ever".

Guy had delivered an amazingly inspiring keynote emphasizing "The Art of the Start" (the book I most frequently recommend to prospective entrepreneurs) at the Northwest Entrepreneur Network's Entrepreneur University in November 2004, a few days after I had veered from the path corporate citizenship and started down the path of entrepreneurship. My notes from the event say he was "stressing the importance of making meaning (vs. making money), trying to change the world for the better; I also like his invitation to "be a mensch" (e.g., help people who cannot help you)." I don't know whether Guy will ever be able to help me, but given the huge boost I got from Guy's talk 3 years ago, I figured the least I could do would be to return the favor and give him a little Google Juice for "the worst speech ever" ... and perhaps driving a wee bit more traffic to his new site ... even though I don't believe it aligns well with his earlier stated maxim of changing the world for the better.

The inspiration for this site came from a CommunityNext panel on web founders who had defied the "venture capital model" that Guy (founder of Garage Technology Ventures) had moderated in February, and which included

  • James Hong, co-founder of HotOrNot, a company / web site that was created to resolve an argument he had with a friend about how attractive a women they'd seen at a party was. He and his co-founder created the web site - which enables users to post photos (um, presumably of themselves) and/or vote on whether people depicted in [other?] photos are hot or not - over the next few days, and sent out emails to 40 friends ... and had 40,000 unique visitors by the end of the week. Photos on the site have now received over 12 billion votes,and  the company has 4 employees and is earning (or yielding) $10 million / year in advertising revenue.
  • Markus Frind (who Guy described as "one guy sitting around in his underwear in Vancouver"), founder and sole proprietor of PlentyOfFish ("100% free. Put away your credit card") - a free (i.e., advertising-supported) online dating web site - created the company / web site because he wanted to study .NET. The site draws 500 million page views per month and $10 million in annual advertising revenue.
  • Drew Curtis, founder of Fark, a web site where he posts 25 interesting news-of-the-weird items per day, which garners 50 million page views per month and several million dollars annually in advertising (I wonder how much Chuck Shepherd makes).

Guy, a veteran evangelist, entrepreneur and VC - under the traditional model(s) - was inspired by these successful, though deviant, entrepreneurs. Now a 53-year-old father of 4, he would like to sit around in his underwear making millions - or even hundreds of thousands - of dollars per year from a web site. And so, in practicing what he preaches in The Art of the Start - entrepreneurship is more about doing than thinking - he decided to launch a web [2.0] site of his own.

Guy claims is goal is to continue a proud history of information democratization through technological advances, including the printing press, personal computing and desktop publishing: "I wanted to create a web site where anyone could post any information that thousands of people could read." So, he assembled a variety of resources - monetary and non-monetary - and founded Truemors. In his Powerpoint presentation, he offered some numbers on this process:

  • 0 business plans (you don't need a business plan for a $12K investment)
  • 0 number of pitches (you don't need investors - this is within the scale of manageable credit card debt)
  • 7.5 weeks from registration to launch
  • $4,500 in software development ("offshored" – to Electric Pulp, headquartered in South Dakota) vs. the $1M it would have required 3 years ago
  • $4,824.13 in legal fees (incorporate new company, secure trademarks, investigate liability ... especially for libel) vs. $500 for "my uncle, the divorce lawyer" ... or $50K for Wilson Sonsini (his advice: don't skimp on good legal counsel, it makes future acquisition much easier)
  • $399 for a logo (from LogoWorks) vs. the "butt ugly" London Olympics logo, which cost $400K
  • $1,115.05 for domain registrations, including domains to “surround” truemors.com (Network Solutions) vs. $400 for GoDaddy, which he was boycotting due to a Superbowl commercial that he labeled as "sexist" ... which I found ironic, given his admiration of HotOrNot, and some of the use cases he offered or his own site. He bought 55 domains with various misspellings and top-level domain names (TLDs) - far less expensive than the $25K it cost to evict a cybersquatter in the future.
  • 1.5 Full-Time Equivalents (FTEs) - he has one partner ... not sure which one is part-time
  • 3 mentions in TechCrunch (first leak, second leak + screenshot, official launch)
  • 261,214 page views on first day
  • 14,052 unique visitors first day
  • $0 marketing budget – Guy called in a lot of favors ("I spent 24 years [being a mensch] to make a $0 budget possible")
  • 405 truemors posted on the first day
  • 218 truemors deleted on the first day (junk, spam, or otherwise inappropriate) - according to Guy, half of the blogosphere complained there was nothing but crap on the site (which, by the way, does have a crap category (which Guy included in his later demonstration)), and the other half complained that Guy is a censor.
  • 3 hours before site was hacked (he wasn’t offended, but rather was flattered "at least we were worth hacking")
  • 36 hours before the Yahoo! Small Businesss hosting service recommended they move somewhere else
  • $29.95 initial monthly fee for Yahoo! Small Business
  • $150 was the new monthly fee when they moved to an ISP
  • $3000 is the current monthly break-even point (they now include paid content for text - written by Truemorists - and photos - taken or found (on wikipedia, wikimania or iStockPhoto) by Truemorazzi)
  • 2 days before Truemors was labeled the “the worst website ever” (by The Inquirer)
  • 246,210 page views that day ("we probably got more page views than if we were labeled 'best website ever'")

Before demonstrating Truemors, Guy concluded his presentation with 4 observations:

  • The blogosphere is full of angry people (essentially accusing Truemors of being "a stupid idea, poorly implemented"), leaving Guy with a newfound disrespect for the blogosphere, which he [in turn] accused of being composed mostly of 15 year-olds and 50 year-olds who live with their parents and have never French-kissed (hmmm, perhaps this could be a juicy truemor (for the record, none of those attributes apply to this blogger)).
  • $12,000 goea a very long way these days
  • You can work with a team that is thousands of miles away
  • Life is good for entrepreneurs these days

Having been initially inspired by the panel of Web 2.0 entrepreneurs he moderated, he said that he would like to stop traveling and giving speeches, and ideally, someone in the audience at the PARC Forum would be recursively follow in his footsteps and be at the podium a year from now giving a speech starting out with "I saw Guy Kawasaki give a talk about making a million dollars sitting around in his underwear..."

Guy noted the the difficulty in predicting which startup companies will succeed - "I’m almost wiling to say that some of the stupidest ideas turned into the greatest companies" ... examples of which include Apple (whose initial customer base was homebrew computer clubs with 10 people), eBay (founded to sell used printers), Google (the 12th search engine), YouTube (a web site for people to post videos of putting Mentos in Coke bottles). In what seemed like an interesting mashup of Darwinism and Social Darwinism - perhaps Sociotechnical Darwinism (?) - he suggested that with Web 2.0, more people can try more stupid ideas for less money, and since you can never tell which stupid ideas will be successful, the world will become a better place.

During the Truemors demonstration, Guy gave a few "use cases" about people using Truemors to find conversation material prior to a date. Interestingly, given his purported objection to sexism, I found his use cases rather sexist: a PARC hardware engineer reading up on health truemors before a date with a woman he'd met on Match.com (or perhaps PlentyOfFish?), or a woman reading truemors on autos or sports before a date with a guy she'd met on an online dating site.

When asked "What’s to stop anyone else from doing this?", Guy replied "Nothing ... except that everyone in the blogosphere is saying this is stupid. Why would someone copy something stupid?" He then went on to observe tha there are very few things that are truly defensible. When a VC asks an entrepreneur "what makes this venture defensible?", "patents" is the wrong answer. If you're planning to spend time and money litigating patents, you're going to fail (although patents can be valuable for future acquisition prospects). The right answer is "Nothing. We're just going to implement better and faster".

Art_of_the_start_cover When asked about the estimated value of all the favors he cashed in, Guy admitted it probably ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But he also noted that "entrepreneurship is not about a level playing field, it’s about about tilting the field to you." He then went on to say a little more about karma and being a mensch, which reflected the foundations of menschood he'd earlier noted (in The Art of the Start):

  1. Helping lots of people, especially those who cannot help you (although I personally believe it's impossible to determine in advance who can and can't help you ... in fact, I actually believe that everyone has something of value to offer, even when it's not immediately obvious).
  2. Do what's right (not what's easy, expedient, money-saving or possible to get away with)
  3. Pay back society, for such gifts as
    • family and friends
    • spiritual fulfillment
    • good health
    • beautiful surroundings
    • economic success
    • a hat trick every once in a while

After 24 years of helping people, it looks to me like Guy is more interested now in making money vs. making meaning. Although the examples of "stupid ideas" that grew into successful businesses may have been questionable at the outset, many of them at least had grand visions. As I'd noted in one of many references to The Art of the Start - in an earlier post on social entrepreneurship as doing well by doing right - he [had once] espoused a socially responsible motivation to starting things:

[T]he best reason to start an organization is to make meaning – to create a product or service that makes the world a better place

  • Increase the quality of life
  • Right a terrible wrong
  • Prevent the end of something good

... making meaning is the most powerful motivator there is ... [and] if you fail, at least you failed doing something worthwhile.

Guy did talk about failure, and what it would take to succeed: even if someone buys Truemors for $50K, he will doubled his investment on "the worst web site ever". His ultimate goal is to make at least $1M annually in advertising revenue, and spend more time at home. Providing for and spending more time with one's family are, of course, worthy goals, but I do not believe that labeling Truemors as a venture that will make the world a better place is defensible ... and I see it as incompatible with the second principle of being a mensch: "doing what's right (not what's easy, expedient, money-saving or possible to get away with)".

During the Truemors demo, Guy suggested that Truemors was intended as "NPR for the eyes" and that its redeeming value is that "If you read truemors every day, you would be a more interesting person". I'm reminded of the Chinese proverb "may you live in interesting times". We certainly do live (and venture forth) in interesting times, and I do believe that on a certain level, we're all interesting people (though this is not always immediately obvious to all observers / participants). I will be interested to see whether Truemors holds my interest ... or makes me a more interesting person ... or makes the world a better place.

[Update: there is a Google video if Guy's talk.]

[Update: Guy Kawasaki sold Truemors to NowPublic and is now chairman of the board at the parent company. Terms were not disclosed, so it is not clear whether he achieved his sales goal of $50K.]

Radical Transparency: Revelation, Reputation and Reciprocity

Wired_cover15_04The current issue of Wired has a great feature on radical transparency, highlighting the benefits that accrue to CEOs who are open to revealing their shadows, and exposing the risks to the reputations of those who continue to embrace secrecy and/or duplicity in their self representations. As with many Wired features, it is provocative ... and rather biased ... and just happens to align well with my own biases. I want to explore some of the issues raised in the article, blend in some issues I and others have raised elsewhere, and ruminate a bit about the prospective breadth and depth of radical transparency.

In preparing the lead article, The See-Through CEO, author Clive Thompson walked his talk by posting an entry on his blog outlining his plans (focusing on three themes: "secrecy is dead", "tap the hivemind", "reputation is everything"), and inviting comments. He received over 50 responses, with very high signal-to-noise ratio; several of them are explicitly included in his article (others are presumably implicitly included).

Redfin_logo_208_46 Clive opens his article with a story about how Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin, was faced with mounting challenges to his company's attempt to disintermediate the real estate business by empowering home buyers and sellers through a rich (and enriching) Internet application. Redfin provides an easy-to-use window into the real estate market, offering a map-based interface for prospective buyers to see a wealth of information about homes for sale in a given market (I imagine a similarly powerful interface for home sellers, but have not yet explored that side of the house). Faced with resistance by realtors who understandably feel threatened by this introduction of disruptive technology that [somewhat ironically] renders transparent many aspects of a complex and lucrative market in which they once enjoyed a clear hegemony of information, Redfin was in danger of failing.

Glenn created a blog to reveal some of the challenges he was encountering internally and externally. While initially hesitant to being so open about the challenges, he found that "instead of discouraging customers, being open about our problems radicalized them ... they rallied and started pulling for us". Glenn's move, and the response, hardly surprises me, given his inspiring recommendations on 10 Steps for Building a Company at NWEN's Entrepreneur University 2005 (one of which was "be open and honest and respectful") and his more recent presentation on Fortune Favors the Bold (one of which is "radical openness: the truth will set you free"). I'm also reminded of Glenn's recommendations for hiring employees -- "find the maniacs and give them a reason to believe" ... and given how he has, in effect, invited his customers into the pool of maniacs and believers, I'm thinking that my earlier rumination on everyone's a customer might be due for an update, as it appears that, increasingly, everyone's a partner.

I was [further] reflecting on how openness and vulnerability tends to breed reciprocity, and that if businesses want to build strong relationships with customers, that has to be built on a platform of trust, and the best way to get others to trust you is to trust them (demonstrating trustworthiness by trusting). I've written before about the business value of integrity, openness, vulnerability and compassion, but at that point was thinking more about how those principles might be applied internally. As Web 2.0 progessively erodes the barriers between us and them, there may be more business value to practicing those principles in "external" relationships as well.

Clive notes that

Google is not a search engine. Google is a reputation management system ... here's the interesting paradox: The reputation economy creates and incentive to be more open, not less. Since Internet commentary is inescapable, the only way to influence it is to be part of it ... network algorithms do not favor the cagey or secretive. They favor the prolific, the outgoing, the shameless.

However, I started to wonder how widely this radical transparency really applies (or could apply). Redfin is clearly a company that is setting out to empower its customers, and it's little surprise to me that some of those customers would help Redfin help them. Microsoft is another company that was profiled in this feature, where Fred Vogelstein [who, surprisingly to me, does not appear to have a blog] explored Operation Channel 9, the internal project wherein a small group of radicals went around creating impromptu videotape interviews with Microsoft developers and posting them on an external web site, and observed that "no large company - with the possible exception of Sun Microsystems - is as far along in understanding how the Internet changes the way employees connect with suppliers, customers, shareholders and peers". By promoting openness and vulnerability -- sometimes at the risk of being fired (reminding me of the risk / reward tradeoffs between thriving and surviving discussed -- especially in the comments -- in my last post) -- the Channel 9 crew helped Microsoft establish a new [virtual] front porch, making itself more approachable by its network of third party developers ... and, I suspect, a significant number of its end-users. This channel is also augmented with over 4,500 other channels (external bloggers), giving Microsoft one of the highest [external] blogger-per-capita rates (6.3%) of any company I know of.

So why does Microsoft have so many external bloggers, and why does, say, Nokia have so few? The blogroll at Stephen Johnston's ThreeDimensionalPeople blog has the most complete listing I've seen anywhere, but at 15 of 55,000, we have a blogger-per-employee ratio of 0.02%. There are, of course, a number of blogs sponsored or at least promoted by Forum Nokia, but as the forum is invitation-only (and the invitation can presumably be revoked at any time), I'm not sure how high these blogs would score on the radical transparency scale. I realize that many of the Microsoft blogs are primarily "promotional", but many of them tend to play closer to the edges with respect to what they reveal about the company and its practices, policies and personnel.

I know Nokia is very proud -- and protective -- of its brand, and so I started wondering about whether there is a fundamental tension between branding and blogging? According to Business Week's listing of Top 100 Global Brands, Nokia's brand is #6 and Microsoft is #2, suggesting that blogging does not adversely affect the brand (or at least not necessarily so). IBM, which has an extensive array of internal blogs (3,600 as of a report 2 years ago) and wikis, is #3 among brands, and seems to have hundreds of external blogs (judging from a few lists). On the other end of the spectrum, Coca-Cola (the #1 brand) has one rather infamous flog (fake blog), but very few "real" blogs (that I can find).

Does the discrepancy between external blog adoption rates have anything to do with a company's dedication to the empowerment of its customers? Nokia's mantra ("connecting people") certainly implies a level of individual empowerment, though perhaps not in the same way as Microsoft's mantra ("your potenial, our passion"), and I would argue that neither large company empowers its customers as clearly as Redfin does. It would be interesting to do a more comprehensive assessment of the correlation between brands and blogs, and even more interesting to investigate the causal relationship(s) between these two factors (and other factors such as size, vision, mission, values, industry, customer bases and business models). Meanwhile, in the spirit of Clive's openness, I welcome any insights anyone has to share on any of this.

Web-2-Mobile Business Plan Competition

I was surprised that Nokia was not among the sponsors of the recent Under the Radar Mobility Conference I attended, at which 32 entrepreneurs pitched their mobile products and services. A number of other major players in the mobile web space were represented at the event as sponsors and/or panelists, e.g., Motorola Ventures, Intel Capital, T-Mobile Venture Fund, and Yahoo! Mobile Web. I felt that Nokia was conspicuously absent from this lineup.

I was, thus, happy to discover this week that Nokia is the primary sponsor of another local forum for entrepreneurs targeting the mobile space: the Web-2-Mobile Business Plan Competition.

Open to all qualified entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and around the world, we are looking for technologies and services that harness the power and ubiquity of mobile devices – that create new business models, and the systems that will accelerate mobile work-styles and the mobile lifestyle.

This competition offers a prize that no one else can: the winning entrepreneurs will be invited to visit Nokia’s world-famous labs to have an opportunity to develop and test their innovations. Winners will also be profiled by Red Herring and all entrants will get valuable exposure in front of a panel of experienced VCs and investors.

Important Dates to remember:

  • Competition entry deadline: December 10, 2006
  • Finalists announced: January 2, 2007
  • Finalist presentations to judges & winners selected: January 24, 2007

I do not know yet whether the presentations will be in a public forum, but I'll post more information if / when it becomes available.

Under the Radar Mobility Conference

Undertheradar_1 I attended the IBDNetwork's Under the Radar Mobility Conference at the Microsoft Conference Center in Mountain View yesterday. Being rather new to the mobile technology space, it was an informative and enlightening experience for me, helping me better appreciate the challenges in creating successful mobile products and services. And although the presentations were informative, relatively few were impassioned or inspiring ... helping me better appreciate the passion of the presenters -- and the direction of the coaches -- in similar events sponsored by the Northwest Entrepreneur Network, my alma mater from my own startup experience.

I'd earlier written about entrepreneurial passion and discipline -- and more recently about passion  and professionalism in a research context -- and I was a bit surprised that discipline and professionalism seemed to be so much more prevalent (or at least evident) than passion in most of the presentations given yesterday. I don't know [yet] how much to attribute this emphasis to the mobile industry, the northern California culture, the sponsoring organization or the nature of the event. As N=1 at this point (in my experience of all of those dimensions), perhaps it's too early to generalize.

Focusing more on the content of the presentations, most presenters highlighted one or more of the technical challenges involved in creating a new mobile product or service: the plethora of mobile devices (I heard several references to supporting "400+" devices), the multiplicity of platforms (Symbian, Windows Mobile, Linux, and all their variations and versions), and the differences among wireless networks and operators ... the latter offering political challenges that in some cases are at least as daunting as the technical issues.

Each of the sessions had a panel of judges, all of whom represented potential investors -- either venture funding companies or large telecommunications / technology companies. The audience was encouraged to vote (via an SMS service provided by Mozes) for their favorites. Judges were also polled for their favorites ... and although there was some disagreement between the winners selected by each group, there was little divergence of opinions.

Media Sharing (Session 1, Track 1):

PixPulse: Jimmy Lan (Intel), presenting in lieu of of David Xue (CEO), who was at another meeting that was related to raising revenue, described PixPulse as "a media publishing platform for enterprises to build private label social networks and deliver media". One of the judges on the panel asked a question repeated often throughout the day: is this a feature or a company? Answers to nearly all questions were [understandably] deferred to the [disappointingly] absent CEO.

PixSense (audience favorite): Faraz Hoodbhoy (CEO) described PixSense as "offering mobile carriers the infrastructure for monetizing user generated content". In addition to providing some of the most interesting and helpful background information about the target market -- e.g., 79 billion camerphone photos were taken in 2005, 227 billion are expected to be taken in 2009, 95% of cameraphone photos never leave the handset -- Faraz also offered what I consider to be the most compelling competitive advantage of any company presenting yesterday: PixSense's Bio-Compression Technology, that achieves 60-80% compression of image, video and audio files on the handset. The value proposition for the user is lower cost (money and/or time) for transferring high quality multimedia files; the value proposition for the carriers is a resulting increased inclination by users to transmit such files using underutilized data services.

Sharpcast (judges' favorite): Gibu Thomas (Founder and CEO) described "a platform that allows any application to be a service", managing data across desktop/web/mobile, and online/offline, careating a Blackberry-like experience for consumer media. Gibu had one of the catchiest phrases of the day -- syncing without thinking -- and emphasized the value of convenience (I've always thought that if necessity is the mother of invention, convenience is the father). The key question, of course, is [how much] will consumers pay for that convenience. Toward the end of the Q&A session, Gibu shared some interesting thoughts about important characteristics for a successful entrepreneur: tenacity, scrappiness and humility (the latter reminding me of Bill Buxton's recent point about the risk of "precious" ideas).

TinyPictures: John Poisson (Founder and CEO), described Radar (no relation to "under the radar"), a service to enable people to "instantly share pictures from your cameraphone with people you choose". John showed three ways that chosen friends can view and interact with shared photos -- channels view, list view, comments view -- that are available on both a desktop client and mobile client. What I enjoyed most about John's presentation was the strong emphasis on the human (vs. technology) side of the equation. He emphasized that Radar offers "an ongoing visual conversation between you and your friends" and provided specific examples of daily usage: a 19 year old who posts 2-7 photos per day, views 60-90 photos, leaves 6-8 comments on friends' photos, and checks in 25 times per day (18 via desktop, 7 via mobile client), and his 45 year old mother, who posts 5-7 photos, views 10-20, leaves 1-2 comments, and checks in 6-8 times per day.

Marketing / Advertising (Session 2, Track 1)

Admob: Omar Hamoui (Founder and CEO) presented the world's largest online marketplace for mobile web advertising. Admob's pay-per-click text ads have had over 300M views in the 11 months they have been operating, through 6 channels: communities, contextual search, downloads, entertainment, news and information, and portals. A do-it-yourself interface enables advertisers to target text ads based on location/carriers, platforms, phone capabilities and/or manufacturers, and a bidding process is used to determine placement.

Cascada Mobile: Neil Closner (President) presented a pair of applications that facilitate word-of-mouth referrals for mobile applications (primarily, if not solely, games) delivered to friends' phones. The Cascada Tag Engine enables developers to integrate cross-carrier, cross-handset referral capabilities into applications; Cascada Tag Marketer is a customizable, branded, on device portal for mobile content distribution and advertising. Neil claimed that they have a 25% acceptance rate -- I find it hard to believe that 25% of the people who have received referrals from friends have clicked through to buy the games ... maybe to try the games, although even then, I wonder what the sample population size is.

GreyStripe (audience and judges' favorite): Michael Chang (CEO) presented the first and only fully ad-supported mobile game distribution service (GameJump.com), with over 100K users, and over 10K game plays per day in a market that is $300B. The service inserts ads before and after gameplay (via their AdWrap web service). Michael said that "free" fixes the biggest problem for mobile gaming: education & awareness, and suggested that advertising in mobile games is additive to "for pay content" -- it helps offer gameplaying further down the long tail of prospective gamers. They currently target ads by game genre and/or gamer demographic (location, time of day, handset model / manufacturer).

Mobileplay: James Ryan (CEO) presented an ad-supported mobile content aggregator and community portal, with a large publisher network and a number of large customers. I was surprised to learn that they can fetch $35-50 CPM rates for banner ads (5 times what James claims is the typical rates on the web).

Social Messaging (Session 3, Track 1):

EQO: Bill Tam (CEO) presented "mobile communications for the social web", with a potential market of 875M IM users across 400 networks. Their goal is to extend the social web, IM, and VOIP to the mobile phone. The service was launched 8 months ago, with 27 handsets; they now handle 400+ handsets, 260 carrier networks, and 10 languages. Their mantra is "take your buddies with you".

Flurry: Sean Byrnes (Co-Founder and CEO) offered a similar message: "It's your world. Take it with you". His goal is to make mobile data service features (e.g., email, news and RSS subscriptions) avaialble to non-technical users. They launched in January, and now support 400+ models, 6600 email providers, 700+ carriers, 200+ countries. One of the panelists suggested that their primary sustainable advantage is their tool for rapid porting.

Loopt (audience and judges' favorite): Mark Jacobstein (EVP Corporate Development, and self-described "grey hair and mentor-in-chief") presented the first social mapping service for mobile phones. Mark noted that the most common instant message in the world is "where are you?"; Loopt provides an answer: showing where your friends are on a map. The service currently uses GPS, but can also use other location finding capabilities (cell-ID, TDOA, etc.), and enables users to send proximity based broadcast messages to friends and get alerts when a friend becomes, well,  proximate. In the future, they plan to offer the capability to tag places, create events (Evite on your phone) and offer local search. The target demographic is 18-34 year old urban folk. These ideas have been around for years, but Mark claimed that changes in the infrastructure (location APIs, support for mobile 911), along with Loopt's careful and conservative approach to providing safety, security and privacy will result in a fundamental change of behavior (e.g., user acceptance). He noted that once a user experiences the "enhanced serendipity" once, they will never want to be without the service. They soft launched 7 weeks ago with Boost (part of Sprint/Nextel, targeting the younger crowd with a tag line of "Where you at?"); they already have 40K users, and will be doing a major launch in December (at which point the application will be pre-installed on all Boost phones). Thus far, they have experienced viral growth, with the average customer inviting 6 new friends, resulting in 5K users / week, with subscriptions priced at $2.99/month ("freemium"). They will be rolling out a "Yelp on a phone" service on Monday. Managing privacy issues will be crucial to their success; Mark said everything is opt-in, requiring an explicit invitation, acceptance, and activation, and it only works if you know someone's phone number.

Renzoo: Denis Kotlar (CEO) presented an application that enables users to get email and voicemail, anwhere, anytime, from any account, including skype, using any mobile device without requiring any download. Renzoo enables full atachment viewing (MS office & PDF), as well as ringtones, mp3 and video.

Unfortunately, I had to leave early, and so did not hear any presentations during the fourth session, nor the wrapup on "The Mobile Playbook", but it was certainly an enlightening experience to hear about all the challenges and approaches to succeeding in the mobile arena from an entrepreneurial perspective.

Blogging for Better Business: In Community with Customers

The central message of Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers, by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel is best summarized in the following quote:

The revolution is about the way businesses communicate, not just with customers but with their entire constituencies -- partners, vendors, employees, prospects, investors and the media.

I think what excites me so much about this book (and why I've been blogging about it here, here and here ... and, of course, here) is that it ties together -- and expands -- several threads I've been ruminating on over the last year or so, with respect to recognizing that everyone's a customer, there is business value in integrity, openness, vulnerability and compassion, everyone has the opportunity (and responsibility) to engage in socially responsible investing of their time and/or money, and ultimately, business is (or can be) good.  If it is true that everything we need to know is already within us, the mark of a great book is that it helps us excavate, synthesize and apply this core knowledge ... and by that measure, Naked Conversations is a great book.

The quote I mention above highlights the notion that a business -- large or small -- is just one part of a larger community, and so businesses will benefit from opening up to that community, e.g., through blogging.  Large businesses can benefit from blogging through what might be called the humanization of the corporation -- allowing the passion and intelligence of employees to shine through -- and small businesses can benefit from blogging through ... well, I guess it comes down to the same thing (sharing passion and brilliance), just on a smaller scale, but perhaps with a larger magnification effect.

The authors note the differences in blogging practices among a few famous, large, technology companies: Microsoft (with over 1,500 active bloggers, or 2.6% of employees) and Sun (over 1,000 active bloggers, or 3.1% of employees) vs. Google and Apple, where there are -- or were -- very few bloggers ... or at least few who publicly identified themselves as employees of either of those two companies.  They chalk it up to culture, noting the relative openness of each organization ("command and control" vs. "listen and participate"), how much it trusts and empowers individual employees, and how charismatic and/or authoritarian the organization's leaders are.  I don't know anyone at Apple, but I do have some friends at Google, and my impression is that -- within the organization -- it is an open and participatory culture that encourages experimentation and risk-taking, though perhaps that openness does not extend [far] outside of the organization.  I think other possible factors include how much the people in an organization feel they are all part of the team (vs. part of one team among many [loosely joined]), and how attached people are to things like stock options ... and, perhaps, job security. 

Gene Becker noted recently that he could find only 15 bloggers at HP, and only 7 of them had posted any comments on the board-level drama unfolding at the company ... I don't know too much about HP's culture, although it appears to be in a transition period (toward what Gene calls HP Way 2.0).  SocialText maintains a Fortune 500 Business Blogging wiki with references to other large organizations with some kind of blogging presence (currently, only 30, or 6%, of Fortune 500 companies have any publicly identified -- or identifiable -- blogs).

Blogging appears to be far more common as one moves down the long tail of businesses, and Robert and Shel note several examples of effective small business blogs, and examples of how blogging about small businesses can help them attract more attention (or Google juice).  However, I wonder what percentage of small businessfolk are bloggers.  There are over 14 million U.S. businesses (according to BizStats.com) and 12 million U.S. bloggers (according to a recent Pew Internet survey).  Most of these blogs are personal blogs (only 5% of those surveyed cited "business" as the primary topic of their blogs)-- although with small businessfolk, I suspect the distinction between personal and professional may not be as pronounced as in some of the larger companies (blog what you love, the money will follow).

Whatever the distribution of blogging is among large vs. small businesses, it is definitely on the rise. Recent Technorati statistics on the State of the Blogosphere, August 2006 show huge increases, with 175,000 new blogs being created each day ... if 5% of these are business-related blogs, that would mean nearly 9,000 new business blogs are created daily.  Even if half of new blogs are splogs (spam blogs) -- which, I suppose, could be categorized as a special type of business-oriented blog (but I don't really want to go there) -- we're still seeing a steady increase in "legitimate" business blogs ... and that has to be good for business ... and the communities businesses serve.

[Update: there is a Blog Business Summit coming up October 25-27 at the Bell Harbor Conference Center in Seattle, with a pretty impressive lineup of sessions and speakers ... and, of course, a regularly updated and informative blog.]

Revolution: the Business and Brand of Sustainability?

The Seattle Times recently ran a Washington Post article on how Steve Case pushes symbiotic relationship of business principles, green ideas.  This was particularly interersting to me, given that a few days earlier, Case's new company, Revolution, LLC, had flexed its muscles to grow Flexcar, whose [now] former CEO, Lance Ayrault, had shared some of his insights into and experiences with social entrepreneurship at a Northwest Entrepreneur Network breakfast a few days before that.  During the Q&A session at the NWEN breakfast, Lance had noted the delicate balance of being a small (and growing) business with a majority stakeholder (Case / Revolution) with an entirely different sense of scale ... and, from the announcement, it looks like that balance may be shifting.

According to the Post article, Case, and his CEO, Michael Crooke, want to position Revolution as a meta-brand of environmentally friendly but mainstream products and services, targeting consumers who value "lifestyles of health and sustainability."  However, the company web site describing what Revolution is about focuses on control and convenience, with no mention of the environment or [planetary] sustainability.  While the article quotes Case as saying that he wants to avoid any product or service that is "too fringy", the web page states "We don't play it safe - we play to win".  One of the investments that Revolution has made is in Gaiam, "a provider of information, goods and services to customers who value the environment, a sustainable economy, healthy lifestyles, alternative healthcare and personal development" whose founder reportedly lives in a shack without running water; another is Miraval Resort, an exclusive "destination for body, mind and spirit", which appears to be at the opposite end of the housing spectrum from a shack ... and very distant from the dramatic stories of social entrepreneurship highlighted in the PBS series The New Heroes.

It will be interesting to see whether and how Case, Crooke, et al., can bridge the gaps between the ecology and the economy, and between alternative lifestyles and mainstream business.  I'm reminded of "The Tough Choice", a great essay by David Batsone in the March 2005 issue of Worthwhile Magazine, in which he reviews the tradeoffs between profitability and conscience faced by a number of founders of socially responsible businesses, with segments on each of the following:

In each case where an [initially] socially responsible company chose a path of "growth" -- several of which are also covered (and available online) in an article on "To Drink or Not to Drink?" by Brooking Gatewood in The Dartmouth Green Magazine -- the price paid for growth was a diminishment of the commitment to social responsibility that motivated the founders.  It will be interesting to see what happens in this Case ... and whether the eco-friendly brand sought by Revolution is achievable ... and sustainable.