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Why iBooks for textbooks is in some ways 20 years behind

February 16, 2012

I recently watched a video of Apple’s iBooks for textbooks announcement, and had very mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was tremendously inspiring – creating a level of interactivity and freshness to this genre could certainly boost learning. But, at the same time, I couldn’t help but think: this reminds me of a particular technology from my childhood. I had this nagging thought that a lot of this demo harkens back to two-decade-old interactive encyclopedias like Encarta or Compton’s. That we got on CD-ROMs.

Microsoft Encarta 2001

What’s going on? We’ve progressed so far in so many ways since then. Heck, the web didn’t even exist yet! So why haven’t we leapt far beyond Encarta-style interactions for educational content? Why, come to think of it, does my memory of Compton’s UX make Wikipedia feel sad and drab?

Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia 1995

A progression of needs: functional before emotional

We are just now at the point of recapturing Encarta’s user experience because, as major new forms of technology emerge, there’s a pattern to when different types of needs get satisfied. Particularly, functional needs tend to trump emotional needs when a new technology first emerges: people prioritize figuring out whether it works, is safe, and is useful, before they fully consider exploiting it as an expression of identity, an extension of self, and a tool for self-actualization. That’s why innovation around new aesthetic and interaction paradigms for nascent technologies often lags behind functional innovation. This has proven true for technologies ranging from cars to knapsacks.

New technologies emerge, others mature

Currently, Internet media and social technologies are in the midst of maturing. As they become more functionally robust, more attention can be paid to the tools for creating new types of powerful, expressive messages. To date, there’s been so much to explore in the new technology simply by porting existing media paradigms to this new domain: Suddenly, journaling became fundamentally different as it transitioned from private activity to public sphere; a family album feels very different when we post it to Facebook; and watching a TV show online has a different dynamic.

New technologies will continue to push the envelope when it comes to our current media paradigms – smart phones are changing photography, for example. Simultaneously, current technologies will mature. In certain ways, we are moving into the emotional era of the Internet. This has implications for what opportunities will flourish: As the technologies that now exist become more familiar, we’ll devote more focus to playing with them in new and interesting ways. Pinterest is taking browsing and bookmarking to new heights. Spotify, Pandora, and others will change our expectations on what a playlist, radio station, and album are. And iBooks for textbooks will take us beyond interactive CD-ROM encyclopedias.

Wanted: Techmeme for Twitter

February 2, 2012

Wanted: Techmeme for Twitter. Does this exist? Hashtags don’t suffice!

Just posted the above to Twitter. Here’s a bit more on what I mean:

Basically what I want is the ability to group tweets by topic. Ideally this would not just by keyword – it should be able to interpret why someone is tweeting that it’s a “sad day..” based on contextual clues. And it certainly must go beyond hashtags, which are clumsy and often not used.

What’s the benefit of this functionality? It would clean up a user’s stream. It would give a better, more holistic picture of an issue or event. And it would allow users to filter more effectively.

So, does it exist? If not, well, c’mon!

Have a disruptive offering? Here are 5 tips for achieving widespread adoption

January 29, 2012

I was surprised and honored when Fast Company named my CoDesign article on sustaining, breakout, and disruptive innovations one of their 11 best of 2011. One of the best outcomes is that more people have been asking me about how they can be more successful in creating disruptive offerings that achieve widespread adoption. Some of my thoughts are below, with two caveats:

  • Don’t ignore sustaining and breakout innovations! There’s real value in recognizing what type of innovation is right for a given situation. Shooting for a disruptive breakthrough is not always the right strategy.
  • I’m focusing on the product and business itself here. I plan to write about the internal systems and structures required to pull this off in a separate post.

With that, onward!

There's a reason why Square has been targeting food trucks

Companies are attracted to disruptive innovations like moths to a flame. But the challenges are substantial: they’re resource-intensive, require patience, and risky. Potential customers don’t necessarily see the need, understand the solution, or want to change their behavior. Here are 5 tips to get your disruptive offering adopted by the mainstream.

Simplify the need and benefit.

For sustaining and breakout offerings, the benefit of a new product is typically clear: it performs a task faster, better, or cheaper. By contrast, it’s often unclear why people would want to use a disruptive offering. That’s why they commonly start off being dismissed as toys. To progress beyond the tech fanboys who love to play with new stuff, you have to make people understand why they’d want to use your novel product. One technique to do so is to present it as though it’s for a specific pain point, even if it does much more. In other words, to sell one specific value proposition. TiVo, when it first came out, was revolutionary: It could pause and rewind live TV. It could record whole programs at the touch of a button, without the need for videotapes. The amazing machine could even recommend programming based on past shows they enjoyed. But a big part of their marketing campaign focused on a much more basic, easily understood benefit: you could skip commercials. That, people got right away; the rest, they discovered to their delight over time.

Get people to experience it – not just see or hear about it.

For customers to understand a new solution, a helpful rule of thumb is that for sustaining products, you need to hear it, for breakout products you need to see it, and for disruptive innovations, you need to experience it.  When Twitter first came out, most people who heard about it didn’t get it. Even when friends showed them what it was and how they used it, to many it just seemed like a weird, boring diversion. Why would I care what random people had for lunch? This sentiment still persists for many. Only when people sign up and try it out do they typically “get it” – the breaking news, the subtle feeling of connection to strangers, the discovery of cool content, the chance encounters. That’s one reason why lowering the barriers to experience is such a priority for Twitter – from the logged out user, to distributing shared links broadly, to the more approachable new redesign.

Minimize the behavior change required.

Adopting a new technology can be daunting. When you’re the creator, it’s easy to forget that disruptive offerings are, well… disruptive. Habits, current systems, and the status quo are powerful and comforting. The less jarring a new innovation, the better. Take cars with electric engines. People are reluctant to adopt a new type of vehicle that requires them to plug it in, and that doesn’t allow them to just pull into a gas station for a quick fill-up. Gas-electric hybrids, which require minimal behavior change for users, are a much easier sell.

Mask it as something familiar.

The more revolutionary the product, the more familiar you should make it appear. That’s why microwaves look like toaster ovens, CDs evoke LPs, and early cell phones bore resemblance to walkie-talkies. The trick is striking the right balance – for innovations that are more easily understandable, you can and should play with form more to highlight its differences from existing offerings. It does little good to have your new, lighter broom look like just another broom.

Appeal to non-users first.

By default, companies compete with each other for users. But if people have an existing solution, it can be harder to convince them to switch solutions than to garner adoption from people who have traditionally fallen outside a technology’s core user base. Square has done an amazing job of targeting such fringe users. They’ve focused on embedding themselves into farmer’s markets, craft fairs, and food trucks – merchants that haven’t traditionally accepted credit cards. They’re successfully borrowing a page from Clayton Christensen’s work. Such a strategy allows disruptive new entrants to sneak up on incumbents by appealing first to segments they neglect – groups of people who don’t already use their product and have a different set of requirements.

Companies rightfully seek disruptive innovations to create lasting growth and competitive advantage. But they need to find ways to minimize the disruption to users. Hopefully these tips will help.

The shoulders of giants

November 17, 2011

Dennis Ritchie and John McCarthy, two of the fathers of Computer Science, died recently. Reading about their lives put me in a reflective state of mind. I spend most of my waking hours thinking about startups and corporate innovation. Here, I want to celebrate a different form of innovation, one that undergirds much of these other advances.

Credit: philosophy_rebel via Flickr

While studying CS at Stanford, I had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with intellectual titans like McCarthy, Donald Knuth, and Terry Winograd as they roamed the campus. Though I was too naïve (and overworked) to appreciate it at the time, every Stanford CS student was blessed to be able to bask in the warm penumbra of their luminary thinking.

Plenty has been written about Stanford and Silicon Valley’s power as a startup hub. And I’ve obviously personally bought into this unparalleled engine for entrepreneurship. But there’s also a less visible, though equally powerful, force working to create the fundamental breakthroughs that make the development of these companies possible. The work of Ritchie, McCarthy, and others spawn not just companies, but entire fields and professions.

We are taught to stand on the shoulders of giants. To not reinvent the wheel. In software, that’s taken to mean that we should build on top of existing APIs, standards, frameworks, languages, and protocols. Doing so allows developers to make incredibly quick headway. I love both the pace of innovation this produces, and the democratization of programming this enables.

On the flip side, I do worry that all of these powerful tools at our disposal means we’re not re-thinking the fundamentals. Building on top of all this groundwork allows us to make visible progress amazingly quickly. But sometimes, we need to re-invent the wheel. Dennis Ritchie developed the programming language C and helped build the UNIX operating system in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Variants of C are still how people develop most applications today. UNIX is still the bedrock behind everything from the servers that power the Internet to Apple’s iPhone, iPad, and Mac. It’s weird to me that, in an industry that changes so quickly, we’re still using an OS originally developed in the 1960s.

Analogously, from a conceptual point of view, John McCarthy coined the term “Artificial Intelligence” in the 1950s, when computers were in their infancy. He built a fruitful career researching and advancing this field. Over 60 years later, we’re still in the early stages of working through the implications of this intellectual construct.

I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we devoted more energy to fundamentally re-thinking underlying architectures, and freely pursuing fantastical ideas. But such work can be even more hit-or-miss than startups, and the timeframe more distant and uncertain. Unfortunately, this means that the resources and attention devoted to such topics is dwindling. Instead, university research is becoming more specialized. Corporate labs are in long-term decline.  Quick hits and early exits are lauded.

These days, most of what passes for “disruptive” and “revolutionary” is narrow and incremental, or worse, pitch and bluster. There’s a lot of angst that current entrepreneurs are not swinging for the fences – too interested in making little apps to create the next Google. But I’m talking about an order of magnitude beyond that: where is the next “Internet” is going to come from, the next UNIX, the next “AI,” the next C? Maybe it’s the circles I frequent, but I don’t encounter as many people striving to create the next Internet as the next Google.

I would like to believe that this is not an either/ or proposition, that we can both build on the existing wealth of knowledge and question it in fundamental ways. Startups are typically rewarded for making quick progress by using current frameworks as scaffolding. They question the status quo and seek to solve scoped needs while driving towards a larger vision. That is what I and others in the community prize, day-in and day-out. Today, I want to spend a moment to celebrate this other group of status-quo-questioners, those that spend their careers creating the fundamental leaps forward that make most startups possible. Here’s to the Dennis Ritchies and John McCarthys of the world.

An open letter to Groupon

November 7, 2011

Some unsolicited advice from a VC and ex-innovation strategy consultant. Discount appropriately.

Dear Groupon,

Congratulations! You’re public. And worth more than Whole Foods, Nordstrom, Symantec, or ConAgra. But as you’ve acknowledged, you’ve got a challenging road ahead. In fact, despite the first day “pop”, there’s a strong sentiment among the cognoscenti that it’s almost inevitable that you will fail. The litany of concerns is long and well-founded:

  • You can’t maintain your margins.
  • You’re losing money hand over fist as it is.
  • It will be hard to get costs under control and continue to grow.
  • You have hundreds of imitators, including some seriously powerful players.
  • You have no competitive advantage, and there are few barriers to entry.
  • You’re reaching a saturation point in your subscriber base.
  • Low numbers of customers who return to a merchant, coupled with uneven support, can make it a raw deal for businesses.
  • Deals appeal more in down economic times, so businesses will be less willing to discount whenever the economy improves.
  • Fewer people are buying Groupons. In Q3, you had 143M subscribers, but only 30M bought Groupons.
  • You’re not a tech company, and don’t fundamentally understand technology.
  • The daily deals model is fundamentally flawed or limited.
  • I’ll stop here, but could keep going…

To your credit, you certainly haven’t been standing still. You’ve done a nice job of scooping up competitors and expanding geographically. And you’ve shown the ability to launch myriad new verticals: Groupon Reserve, Groupon Getaways, Groupon Rewards, GrouponNow, Groupon Goods, Groupon Live.

That said, it’s unclear to what degree these moves address the underlying concerns. To doubters, it’s only going to make the boom-splat progression more dramatic.

I hope that doesn’t happen. You’ve already taught or reminded the world of several important lessons:

  • Email is still the killer communication platform.
  • Curation matters. A lot.
  • Sales and marketing are crucial, even for “tech startups.”
  • The world of commerce – and not just eCommerce – is changing at a breathtaking pace.
  • It’s faster to unlock a pent up need in an existing market than to create a new market.
  • New distribution channels, not least of which social media, can cause a powerful idea to spread like wildfire.
  • “Local” and “long-tail” are still forceful trends with a ton of room to grow.

I hope you prove the haters wrong. And I have my $0.02 to offer (if I could trade it in for pre-pre-IPO founder’s shares, that would be awesome). In large part, my advice boils down to: Keep the above lessons in mind. Return to your (young) roots. Recapture and amplify what has made you so exceptional. To that end, here are my top tips:

1) Rekindle quirkiness as a company value. Sure, the write-ups are still snappy. But quirkiness takes more than prose. A discount for the Gap is not quirky. I understand the desire to reach a broader audience. But I also believe in brand dilution. Groupons like this make the service just feel like coupon-clipping. Instead, you should be the go-to resource for finding cool, curated new things to try. A reason to add a bit of adventure and exploration to the everyday.

2) Offer much more precisely tailored deals. The local flavor of early deals made each one feel personally relevant. You and the rest of the industry have grown such that this is no longer the case. The perennial complaint now is that “I don’t want to hear about another manicure.” You need to put forth much more personalized offers, through personal preferences, collaborative filtering, and social recommendations. This will bring the social component back to the forefront, as people will no longer assume everyone else has already seen the same deals. It will also help move from categorical clustering of deals (events, getaways, etc) back to the feeling of “magical deal discovery.”

3) Make Groupon social again by having “tipping a deal” be a challenge again. There’s little urgency anymore. Every deal tips (I’m sure many newer users don’t even know what that means, despite it being the idea behind the name “Groupon”). With every day comes new deals. Creating a clamor will make Groupons feel more special, and more of a shared experience. Having more tailored deals will make this easier.

4) Aggregate like heck, and clean this mess up. The explosion of deals is clogging the inbox. It’s overwhelming, and diminishes the value of each deal. You started this. You have the opportunity to take ownership of it. You don’t have to just offer more deals to grow. You can become known as the central node for all deals, not just one of the many purveyors.

5) Celebrate tech and non-tech. The knock is that you’re not really a tech company. That’s cool! Continue to build up your competitive advantage in sales and marketing, sharpen your corporate strategy and acquisition integration, shore up your customer relationship management and financial planning. In parallel, simultaneously build out world class tech capabilities. You’ve publically declared your admiration for Amazon. Take this page from their playbook. They had to explain for years why their gross margins were lower than Yahoo or Google. They long maintained that they were as much a retailer or logistics firm as a tech company. Then they sneak up with tech innovations like Amazon Web Services and the Kindle. Boom!

6) Get a Sheryl Sandberg (or Tim Cook or Eric Schmidt). Not just for the experience and operational wizardry (though that would be welcome). But because great companies more often than not have a strong yin yang component at the top. A counterbalancing opinion, someone to bounce big ideas off of, a partner to share the load – these are incredibly important, particularly for young companies with young founders.

7) Determine your hedgehog concept and run with it. People claim that you don’t have a competitive advantage. I don’t think you could have achieved the success you already have if that were true. That said, it might not be obvious what it is, and it still has room to change given how young you are. Figure out what you strive to be the best at, what makes you 10X better than anyone else, and focus on that. This is a personal determination more than an external assessment, but there are to my mind a few frontrunner candidates. You could be the leader in: (Small) business partnerships and services, quirky curation, giving exposure for the long-tail and little guys, or efficient and exciting deal-finding.

 

Whatever direction you choose: Stay hungry, stay foolish. You’ve been a poster-child example of how fruitful following this advice can be.

 

Disclosure: I do not have any positions in Groupon.

Twitter’s Jumble

October 28, 2011

Twitter needs to distinguish between the different uses of its service

“I don’t use Twitter because I don’t care what random people are having for lunch.”

I hear this quite a bit. But by this point it seems clear that such a statement ignores the power of Twitter. It obviously has much more to offer than mundane updates. In fact, my big problem is that it fulfills too many distinct purposes. And in trying to keep the service simple, it’s funneling too many use cases into a single view and feature set. The result is that users have to sift through a mountain of posts, whether they want to or not. At its worst, it feels like stopping by a garage sale, hoping to find a hidden gem. Better separation between different types of posts could lead to dramatically more use of the service.

Credit: DashHouse via Flickr

Twitter has at least 5 key uses:

Content curation and discovery: Links to articles and videos.

Real-time news dissemination and commentary: For an event or a brand.

Connecting with folks you otherwise wouldn’t: Be they individuals or brands.

Sharing what’s going on with you: Closest to the “lunch” phenomenon. Encompasses Foursquare check-ins, weather laments, Seinfeld-ian observations, celebrity sightings.

Personally relevant brand-building: Many use Twitter for this reason via some combination of the above. But this also includes announcing articles you wrote, industry observations, speaking gigs, and events you’re hosting.

The problem is that all of these uses get pushed out of a single update box, and jumbled into the same stream.

Creating lists and filtering by person doesn’t really work, because Twitter’s dominant paradigm is that each person has a single handle where they’re “building their social media presence.” This leads to a low signal-to-noise ratio, even if you’ve put in the effort to create finely tuned lists.

Different startups are beginning to tackle this problem from various angles, but by-and-large the issue remains. For now, users have been working around these limitations, because Twitter is the leader for publicly broadcasting bits of information. But in tech, it’s dangerous to assume that such dominance will continue.

I’ve heard the argument that Twitter is just a stream you dip into when you have a bit of time, a place to pop in and serendipitously discover interesting tidbits. If you miss some posts, so be it. But that limits its utility, in my opinion. If I have a few minutes, I may just want to get a clean list of breaking news items, not waste time sifting through the other types of posts. Sometimes, I don’t want the “intellectual flea market” feel.

Flipboard shows how powerful Twitter can be as a mechanism for content discovery. Hashtags are a partial, kludge-y hack for breaking news. Twitter should do a better job of facilitating each of its key, distinct uses. That’s how they can maintain their position as the dominant public social broadcasting mechanism.

Sustaining, Breakout, and Disruptive Innovations

October 12, 2011

Over the years, Jump has devoted significant thought towards how to create a portfolio of innovations, and we’ve developed a framework called Sustaining, Breakout, Disruptive to classify different offerings. My overview of this work is now up on Fast Company.

As an introductory piece, there’s obviously a lot we didn’t cover. E.g., How you classify a particular product, how to rein in a far-out concept to gain adoption more quickly, how to structure and manage different projects, how to link SBD concepts together in order to roadmap and build over time, what different archetypes of healthy portfolios look like, how testing with customers differs across SBD, and more. We’ll follow up with more on these issues in the future.

That said, given my role I did want to make a few quick points here specifically about Sustaining, Breakout, and Disruptive for startups.

Common wisdom asserts that all startups should be disruptive – they disrupt the incumbents, after all. But that’s oversimplifying. Many successful startups begin as breakouts that solve a defined pain point in a compelling way, and then need to follow up with a larger, more disruptive ambition. In other words, they mask their disruption – or learn from their initial efforts and stumble into it, as the case may be. Some fail to build upon their initial interest. Some get acquired and rolled into a larger company’s portfolio. Others become Google.

Don’t be ashamed if your initial, minimum viable product isn’t disruptive. You can choose to focus on a breakout feature to gain some quick traction, or decide to prove your concept by demonstrating that the need exists without building the full-blown disruptive solution. Just be sure you have a longer-term plan for growth – even if that plan will inevitably change.

If your solution is squarely in the disruptive camp – hard to explain to folks at first and requiring significant behavior change – be sure early on to give users simple ways to try it out, even if it’s just a fraction of the functionality you provide. Otherwise, gaining adoption will be even more challenging.

Finally, as a startup you might think SBD as a planning tool isn’t really relevant because you only have one product. But startups can use SBD to classify features as larger companies might categorize product portfolios. You can’t be disruptive in all dimensions. SBD can help you prioritize: what features are table stakes, in what scoped way are you going to be 10X better than current solutions, and what will your long-term secret sauce be? Given startups’ tremendously limited resources, putting thought into prioritizing efforts can be time well spent.

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