Archive for the ‘Innovation’ Category

Social 2.0: The Next Wave of Social Applications

The year 2011 belonged to social applications. Several iPhone apps that enabled some kind of social activity were launched last year. There is still no abating of this trend but it is obvious that majority of such applications will die in the next 18 months. After all, how many social networks will you update after you had a good meal or watched a great movie? Many technology pundits are decreeing the death of social networking applications. I have an entirely different take on it. Just like Web 2.0 companies brought real business models and value to dotcoms, it is time for “Social 2.0”, a set of applications that will bring value out of gigantic social databases such as Facebook, Twitter and the likes to solve real problems.

Humans are social by nature and love to brag to their friends and society at large. The Social 1.0 services gave us ways to share our updates with our connections online. The clear winners are Facebook with a friends graph of 800M users and Twitter with loose ties of 150M+ people and between them they accumulate billions of updates everyday. In addition, some specialized networks such as Foursquare capture our other activities. However, the whitespace in this industry has shrunk considerably. There will certainly be a few innovative companies that will provide new ways to connect and share information but it is increasingly becoming difficult and expensive to capture mindshare away from Facebook and Twitter. However, it doesn’t mean that social is a done deal.

While the first wave of social companies was successful in gathering what’s on our mind, our pictures, likes, short updates and check-ins, the next wave of social companies will build value-added applications on these gigantic social databases. Under billions of Facebook and Twitter updates is buried a wealth of information that can help us make buying decisions, quickly find great deals, and help reduce inventory by aggregating demand in real time.  It is time to stop inundating people with multitudes of social networks to get their specific status and move on to mine information gathered by friends and followers graphs. The best of social is yet to come.

Welcome 2012: the year of Social 2.0!

Speed and Design: Key Differentiators for a Startup

We live in a fast-paced startup world. Anything you think is already in the works somewhere with very little whitespace for innovation in a crowded space of social, mobile and cloud startups. My partner and I have been working on ideas for almost six months and were trumped twice in the beginning by Facebook and Google that launched similar products. Having learnt the speed lesson, we didn’t waste time to start working on our next idea. We did some smart things like quickly launching a beta for validation and learning a great deal in the process. Our key learning being–programming is no longer a competitive advantage for a startup; it is speed and design.

The 1990s were heydays for technology startups when it was hard to find programming talent. Finding great programmers was a distinctive competency of any startup then, but not anymore. Don’t get me wrong, programmers still make or break a company but they are not the core anymore. In a fast-paced world where innovation cycles have drastically shortened and consumer expectations are sky high, it is the pace and design that sets an application apart. This is more prevalent in consumer startups but B2B applications are also seeing the same phenomenon. Today, the cost of startups has gone down dramatically and so is the time to market. Many entrepreneurs are embracing a lean startup methodology that promotes validation before scaling and being quick to market to collect valuable user feedback. We launched our recent service in beta in less than four weeks and almost 100 users were using it in less than three weeks of launch. A quick launch not only deters your competition but also helps you validate the problem space. The days of building a perfect and complete product before launch are past us. The mantra now is define a minimal viable product, launch quick, and iterate.

 

Apple has set a high bar for design. With less than 5% market share but almost 50% profits of the mobile phone industry, Apple has proved that design is not only dominating but also a profitable aspect of your product. The iPhone and iPad have set new standards for intuitive design that almost everyone expects from a new application. Today, designers are more expensive [and busier] than programmers and there is a talk in the startup community on how important it is to have a design person as a co-founder. A great usability is the gate to get your users into your service/application. Despite strong revenue streams being core to Web 2.0 companies, it is still eyeballs that define the success of your application. A low tolerance for poor usability sets high bar for an intuitive design for a successful application. Be cool is the new slogan.

 

Don’t wait–move fast and design awesome for success!

Startup Mantra I – Solve Real Problem of Your Customers

How often do you hear a technology startup is a cool place to work because one can unleash her innovative brilliance without much questions asked?  Many successful technology companies, including Google have legitimized this work culture by giving employees a free reign to work on their ideas during office hours. However, I think Google manages their process much better than a regular startup on the street as many of their ideas survive to see a day on the internet. Albeit most fails! Why does innovation fail so often in startups?

A good friend and a budding entrepreneur Pete talked about some reason for it in his blog. He says that a startup is an organization working to deliver a service or product under conditions of extreme uncertainties. The uncertainty is not only in terms of the right solution but also the right problem for a startup’s customers. Pete had a point that many a times the problem itself is not very well defined, which makes the discovery process even more challenging. In my experience, most entrepreneurs can speak at length about their company’s solution but very rarely about the real customer problem they are solving. Why is it?

As a product manager, I am trained to uncover problems our clients face so that we build products that our customers will buy happily. Market research, client interviews and fact base creation are regular tasks for a product manager. The first lesson a product manager learns is to never ask a client about their desired solution but the problem they are facing. Mostly clients cannot articulate the solution but can talk at length about their problem. The question is how many startups go through this discovery route to find real problems of their [potential] customers?

Many of you might be aware of now popular Lean Startup methodology that encourages companies to unearth customer problem cheaply and quickly. Eric Reis, the inventor of Lean Startup term has been marketing his methodology aggressively and many entrepreneurs are embracing it. We also adopted it at our startup and decided to launch our first prototype for less than 1/3 the original cost. The idea is to test our hypothesis with a limited product and a controlled set of users to get an early feedback. These are still early days of our lean startup but we are already seeing the benefits of laser focused minimum viable product and longevity of our budget. We will know our fate soon [hopefully] but either way I will keep you all posted. Go lean budding entrepreneurs and solve your customers’ real problem!

The Second Coming of Technology

Success has a lot to do with timing. When I graduated, it was almost the end of the technology boom of the 90s and we saw one of the worst periods in software business in the next few years. While the technology industry was struggling, boom was happening in finance. Most of my batch-mates who went on to do MBA and landed jobs in investment banks quickly rose to senior positions while raking in big bonuses in the first half of last decade. No boom lasts forever, so finance crumbled in last few years. However, boom does have a tendency to reappear and it did–once again in technology. Internet companies are seeing another dream run but this time muted in PR albeit sky high in valuations. How are you participating in this wave?

Marc Anderseen, the founder of Netscape and now a legendary venture capitalist, wrote an op-ed in Wall Street Journal on why software is eating the world. In his article, he made the case for pervasiveness of software in all industries and in many cases software-based business models trumping the old models. My enthusiasm doesn’t scale the same heights as Marc but I agree with his point of view. The software industry is one of the fastest growing and highly profitable with long-term sustainability. The current boom is second coming for software companies. This time they have real business models, revenues and profits with the same agility and ability to start with minimal cost. The technology entrepreneurial dream lives on!

Internet pervasiveness and mobile device explosion has provided a robust platform to Internet companies to realize their unfulfilled dreams of the 90s. Innovation is happening at all levels of the stack–hardware, devices, OS, delivery, software applications, and consumption. Apple and Google are changing the way we stay connected and consume Internet, datacenters are building backbone of the Internet, cloud companies like Salesforce are providing anywhere access to business information, social networks like Facebook and Twitter are enabling constant contact, and many more. The good news is you can participate in this boom irrespective of your technical skill set. So don’t wait–the timing is just right!

Are You Ready to Think “BIG” Again in Technology

One man’s dream is another man’s reality. Yesterday, I saw it in real at the Salesforce conference held in NYC. It was amazing to see so many cool applications and technologies that I could only dream about a few years ago. Have you ever imagined creating a web application without programming in less than 10 minutes, publishing it on the web by click of a button, and scaling it up or down based on the number of users through your iPhone? I witnessed it done in less than 15 minutes! Five years ago, there was no iPhone, web applications were created by expert programmers, and specialist administrators used to spend hours hosting and managing such applications. Now one person can do it all in matter of minutes, maybe hours, but still 100x better than before. Maybe I was oblivious to innovation taking place in the software world but I can’t be so much out of touch. After all, my wife complains that I read, blog and surf technical stuff all the time. What did I miss?

 Sometimes I wonder if we are driving technology or technology is driving us? The Internet changed the scene in late 90s, but with dot-com burst we thought it had reached its pinnacle. However, not only was the Internet alive but also it came back with a vengeance with web 2.0 that unleashed the second wave of innovation in terms of collaboration and social networking. In a few years, almost 700 million people started facebooking, another 100 million started tweeting, and not to mention many millions who are talking through other social networks. While Facebook and Twitter are considered consumer networks, Salesforce and the likes are bringing social networking to the corporate world. I was stunned by how far human imagination can stretch, when Salesforce chatter service announced that now your employees, clients, partners, data, reports, and dashboard- all will start chattering.  It means when you “follow” a report like you “follow” a person on Twitter, the report will start tweeting information to you. Similarly you can follow data, documents, presentations and anything you can think of in your daily work for it to chatter back to you. Wait a second, weren’t we struggling to implement that large, monolithic ERP application a few weeks ago? 

I am convinced that human will and intellect can move mountains and make impossible possible. Add crowdsourcing to it and things start to move much faster. I believe the innovation I saw at the conference is not just one company’s achievement but a culmination of many discoveries by different companies across industries. The Internet is obviously the backbone of this ecosystem offering great improvements in speed, reliability and pervasiveness. Device manufacturers like Apple, Samsung, RIM and others pushed the ball forward to make the “always connected” dream possible. Finally, the software companies completed the picture by continuously innovating technologies such as visualization, search and social networks, and streamlining the development and management of web applications.  Suddenly the world is moving much faster due to interconnected innovations and economies of scale. I can’t think of the next big thing but I can sense that we are building an “Internet” kind of revolution again. I am excited about the future and ready to dream big. Are you?

How to Make Your Product “iPhone” of Your Market

I had an insightful conversation with a fellow product manager about how to increase a product’s value. While there were many good ideas from improving usability to building features for a broader client base, I was surprised to see resistance against opening the product for other application providers to build add-on modules. I wonder if in today’s software world, where freemium and open source are considered viable business models, there is a place for close-ended software?

The argument against open platform is simple – the competition will get a foothold in our install base by building products on our platform. It will reduce opportunities for upsell and services dollars. Agreed, on the face of it these concerns sound valid. How about the long-term sustainability of your platform? I am using product and platform interchangeably here but a product that is widely adopted in an industry behaves like a platform. Think of SAP ERP, which is a core product and almost essential software to run a business in many verticals. SAP can choose not to expose any integration capabilities for third-party providers to control that market. Is it the right strategy?

In one of my MBA classes, I learned about network externalities. The more companies build around your product the more valuable your product becomes. It is not rocket science; just think of iPhone. No doubt it is a wonderful device but majority of its value is derived from many entertainment and productivity applications built on it. Now think of switching cost of this device. Even though Android phones have similar or maybe more features and cost much less than iPhone, customers think about applications before switching!

At first the business model is not obvious, but any product that becomes a standard can offer huge value to clients, manufacturers and industry at large by becoming an open platform. Salesforce makes tons of money by selling its CRM solution, but it found a much bigger growth engine in app-exchange and force.com platform that enables small but innovative companies to build productivity applications on its CRM solution. Salesforce couldn’t have thought of and built all those applications on its own. With other companies building these apps not only they are increasing the value of Salesforce solution but they also are providing Salesforce a new revenue stream by giving it a cut on every sale. A win-win for everyone – clients get better products, partners get a platform to sell on, and providers make more money while keeping attrition rate down.

It happens rarely, but in this case I could convince my group members of the value proposition of network externalities. The next challenge is to build a business case and sell to the technology team. Who said life was easy for a product manager?

Enterprise Software Needs a New Business Model

Long sales cycles, even longer implementation cycles and questionable solution value define the enterprise software business. Having worked in this space for almost a decade, I saw it up, close and personal. It was not easy for an engineer to transition to sales – presentations, demos and sales anxiety were big challenges.  However, a non-commercial, yet analytical and curious engineering mind questioned the ways of business. An enterprise software company spends hundreds of thousands dollars on a sales cycle with no guarantee of winning the business. Software vendors fly around teams frequently, build expensive proof of concepts and entertain clients, all on their dime. However, the moment a client signs on the dotted line and writes a fat check, the tables turn. Now the client is spending millions of dollars in the hope of realizing value presented in jazzy slides and achieving the streamlined workflow shown in the Proof of Concept.  More than half of these implementations either completely fail or run many years and multi-million dollars late achieving a fraction of the value promised.  Can such a business survive?

When I bought my Audi, I did my research, paid my tributes to the dealer by spending eight hours haggling, and finally wrote a big check. However, I received the product as specified, albeit four weeks late [the dealer provided a rental car for that duration], and now I am enjoying the great driving pleasure [read value] as promised. A simple transaction where both parties are happy. Yes, car buying can be further simplified by reducing negotiation time and optimizing the delivery process but it still is an efficient process with minimum surprises on both sides. Why doesn’t enterprise software work the same way?

Today, when mankind is obsessed about productivity, innovation and simplification of all things possible, why enterprise software–a $220B a year industry–is not on the list? Software companies should investing more in R&D than lost sales. Clients shouldn’t struggle to find the right solution and labor to get the promised results. It should be a simple and efficient transaction like buying office supplies or utilities. There is some hope in software as a service [SaaS] business model, where clients pay as they use the software and can theoretically turn it off if missing value or a drop in utilization. It is a great step toward simplification but still far from perfect. Any decent size organization ends up customizing hosted software and finds itself in the same rut of enterprise software.

Salesforce.com started only a decade ago. It now has a market cap of $18B and sells at 260 times earnings because it successfully commercialized the SaaS model in an otherwise mature enterprise software space already taken by biggies like Oracle and SAP. However, Salesforce.com can soon become the “Google” of this space if an innovator simplifies the business model to become the “Facebook” of enterprise software.

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