Author Archives: Mike McCamon

Tide or Cheer?

tide.jpgIn a previous post I outlined my “another bad idea” for a startup. I had to explain to a few readers that I was being sarcastic as I thought it was actually a very good idea. Since then I’ve heard some were intrigued by the idea but weren’t totally sold on the concept. Here’s some more detail on how the re-branding should be part of your next startup.

One of my friends thinks the market needs a simple authenticated online directory. I totally agree and it’s a perfect idea that can illustrate how the rebranding of software concept would work. For those who don’t know, basically we’re talking about an online address book that you have to have a password to use. It would be accessible from any browser on the web and would let you look up phone numbers, email addresses and the like. It might even let you send a quick email to everyone on the list – not as sophisticated as something like a listserv, just some simple group mail stuff.

So who needs such a product? Well, basically any organization that prints a directory. The first candidate I can see are churches. Every church would like to make it easy for members to connect with each other. There is an entire industry around printed pictorial church directories. The branding of this site would appeal to the connectedness offered by an online directory. Pricing would be set for groups sizes that were common in this market.

Now take that core code base and use it for something completely different: family group email addresses. In this application your group might only have one household of members, maybe even just the parents. But with some basic email redirect functions you could set up a parents@ or everyone@ email address that when a message gets sent it is copied and sent onto everyone on the list. I have this at our house and it is great. We use the parents@ address for schools, doctor offices, church, everything – now my wife and I can get mails at the same time as opposed to asking if each other if we saw this or that. Of course this is an entirely different sell and totally different pricing model. Your branding focuses on the hurriedness of everyday life and how this keeps your family organized.

You could do a different version for scouting troops, athletic teams, and even small company affiliate clubs and the like. Each one has different branding, different pricing and a slightly different feature set. And for a lot of reasons they don’t have to be connected in any way in the market. When you’re not connected in the market your branding can stand alone, and more importantly you don’t have to come up with sensible pricing plan that makes sense to all markets; churches pay by the number of members on an annual basis, while families might like a small monthly fee – or free for very limited capabilities.

I cannot better illustrate the importance of disconnected branding than the Disney Company, which of course owns ABC and ESPN. Essentially they find programming and air it through their “channels” with different pricing models (ABC free, ad sponsored, ESPN subscription paid by cable operators – with ad sponsored too). Imagine SportsCenter’s audience reaction if it were branded “Disney”; no one would watch it. Okay, I know it was an acquisition but you get the idea.

Another great example is the household liquid soap market. At my grocery store I counted three different manufactures but over a dozen different brands of soap. Basically the only difference was the packaging, the price and the scent. There is another reason why they do this; to consume shelf space thereby locking out more rivals. The internet conceptually has unlimited shelf space but here too I would ask, how many bookmarking sites can you name off the top of your head? If you make it to a dozen you’re doing better than the grocery store and soap.

Sadly we are nearing a point where marketing (and branding) will be the single most important thing to get right in the success of a startup. Why not hedge your bet? I say, build it once and sell, resell, resell and resell.

Network-Based Businesses

network.jpgRecently I was asked what’s the difference between a network-based effort like my experience leading the Bluetooth SIG compared to a normal type of company. Here were some of the thoughts I shared about their differences and what is the best way to approach making the former successful. I’ll start with the list and give more detail below:

  • Find 2-3 iconic companies and personally sell each one to get involved
  • Enable discussions by developing/publishing draft guidelines
  • PR, PR, and more PR. Create momentum that the train will soon leave the station
  • Build compromise into your culture
  • Give folks a way to show they are still a work in progress
  • Branding solves the education problem

Iconic companies. Needless to say, having big players endorse an effort instantly establishes credibility in the market. While the pre-incorporation period of the SIG pre-dates me, I know that early on the Bluetooth effort was a company-to-company affair. There was a conscience effort to reach out to the iconic companies in the relevant industries and encourage them to get on board with the effort. In some ways Bluetooth had an advantage because many of the engineers initially involved in the effort were very experienced in the IEEE standards process. So proposing a company-to-company standards idea was familiar to them. Unfortunately, most folks outside of the standards effort see everyone the market as competitors. It might not work all the time, but get the big folks on board and the smaller ones will follow and cross your fingers contributors will see past their hyper-competitive natures.

Enable Discussion. In a network-based effort there has to be something to talk about to get engagement and the easiest way to do this is to publish draft specifications and encourage comments. Live with as much transparency as you can tolerate. Open up email lists and invite and facilitate feedback. Arrange for weekly conference calls and get strong folks to lead groups with a set of deliverables and a timeline. Set up quarterly face-to-face meetings and schedule when your group will publish final standards. Deadlines create a sense of urgency.

PR, PR and PR. Selling a cause (yes Bluetooth was a “cause” for me), is different than selling a widget. I found it to be much more gratifying since you were trying to get people to believe as opposed to buying. When you talk to editors and analysts about a cause you have more freedom to give an honest portrayal of the situation of the market. You have more credibility since you’re not selling a product; take advantage of this fact. Educate the market about the problem you’re trying to solve, what the challenges are and use examples of how companies are making solutions a reality. You have the freedom to cherry-pick; do that too. Defend your cause from poor corporate efforts to do it right. Do your job well and it will be easy for companies to tell their story later about how they fit into the solution.

Compromise Culture. Jokingly I like to observe that the definition of a good compromise is when no one is completely happy. I think compromise is a necessary component of a successful network-based effort. No set of players can hold all the cards. There are many forms of governance that make this possible. Resist the temptation to invest a lot of power and benefits in a small number of players. If you do, you ultimately limit your reach and success. I’m not saying you can’t overcome this challenge if you start heading down the wrong path but once you do you might not ever get back. Case in point: the lack of success of Bluetooth in the stereophonic audio market.

Hey, I’m a work in progress! Make it easy for people to initially get involved and show they are making an effort. They shouldn’t have to take a oath of office to admit they would like help. Give companies a way to show they’ve started down the path to success. Most of the companies that build Bluetooth end-consumer products did not participate in designing the initial radio designs, but they were members. They joined the group (for free) and bought designs from others which they integrated into their own products. Make it a five minute effort to sign up and try to keep the lawyering to a minimum.

Branding and education. Doing branding well is a rare art. It is the indirect sell, the cat and mouse game used to educate the market about a product, service or cause. If you do it well, the initial investment is high but the long term future value is invaluable. If I can get you to associate a brand with an attribute, say “overnight,” when you want to ship something quick you will first, on your own, think of FedEx. The beauty here is the consumer thinks of using FedEx as their own idea; not something you had to sell them on. I see a lot of push back on the sustainability/renewable story from people who feel insulted by the message or messenger. We need to remove that – and a brand could do this. And of course the huge win for network-based efforts is a strong brand makes it easy for a tremendous diversity of players to contribute to the market since the ground work has been laid when it comes to market education.

What I Learned Last Year

baby.gifPeople don’t change. Contrary to what we would like to think, it takes quite a bit to get people to really change. So much so, I would argue it is very, very rare that people change over the long run. I can look back over my own life and see some very constant personality traits that despite my best efforts I cannot or choose to not change. It is my nature, it is how I am wired, it is how I am. I think we are all like this so we need to get over it.

Without a plan, every idea is a good idea. Boy have I been hit with this one a lot this past year. More often than not I’ve been good about annual planning. This might be for work, my personal life or moonlighting projects. There is something about writing a plan that focuses your attention on the “big boulders” and not on the “little pebbles” that I find refreshing. It is so easy in the rush of every day to knock off the little items feeling like you’re getting something done so you just never get around to the really important ones. A plan, with dates, helps control this temptation, and more importantly helps you evaluate new demands on your time as a conscience decision to not complete other important tasks.

Education doesn’t work. Too often folks think that if people just had all the information about a topic, they would get it. People just don’t have enough time and in reality we all prefer to figure it out on our own instead of being told how to think; we have to discover it ourselves. This is one of the best uses of branding. Spend your energy on both building affinity for a brand and its attributes and people will find your product. I think this will be very important today in the “green” market. There is so much confusion and false promises that a reliable brand vendors could use would be a major step in the right direction. And yes, it will also help us tell the story to people who didn’t vote for Gore in the last election.

Things happen when they are suppose to happen. I’ve been reading too much eastern thought lately but I find a lot of wisdom in allowing the universe to catch up with our whimsical desires. I’m not saying we can all be passive couch potatoes and things will fall in our laps, I’m just saying with some things trying to hurrying them up just leads to personal emotional misery. A while back I was struggling to get a screw out of difficult to reach place on something at the house. I was getting increasingly frustrated when I just told myself, “the screw isn’t ready to come out yet.” I sat the task aside, took a deep breath, waited about ten seconds and easily removed the screw with my next twist.

Fear is more motivating than hope. At a recent meeting we discussed the question, “What will the 21st Century be remembered as?” Now of course we are less than 10% done but an interesting question to ponder. I think it will be remembered as the Century of Fear. Governments, politicians, news editors, civic leaders, and even some corporate executives have learned we are naturally more motivated by fear than hope. Don’t believe we’re all scared? Do your kids walk to schooI? The traffic jam every morning and afternoon around our schools are absurd. But of course, something might happen on the way to school. Call me an old fart, but it wasn’t like that when we were kids.

What did you learn in ’07? Drop me a line.

Is Was So Then

mikehigh.jpgA few weeks ago Facebook removed the mandatory “is” from a person’s profile status; and while I, like many, welcomed the change I’m here to say, is was so then. Over the past two decades, our interconnected digital lives have been a direct assault on the notion of is. I’m glad today’s tech darling has finally got with the program.

So much of the web, and certainly email, is a store and retrieve medium. I write and send an email but as the sender I don’t have any idea when you might read it, what mood you’ll been and if the environment you’re reading it is predisposed to your understanding it. And when it comes to website content one has no idea when or where something will get read. Is had a tense; it was now. Not an hour ago, not yesterday, it was now. Using present-tense language on the web implies a sense of immediacy that simply doesn’t really exist. Even on Facebook my status updates are sporadic and driven more by events in my life than the immediacy of it.

Sometime ago I read a doctoral dissertation exploring the cultural impact of mobile telephony. One of the observations that has stuck with me is the fact that through mobile telephony, our work and home life have even fewer boundaries. Each of us can be reached by coworkers during off-hours like our personal friends and family can reach us while at work. The doctoral candidate went so far as to discuss that our current separation of work and home life was largely a twentieth century phenomenon brought on by the rise of the factory worker. Furthermore, the cultural shift which were were now experiencing could, if we were to allow it, return us to a lifestyle where the lines of personal and work time weren’t so quite as discrete.

Short messaging services like text on mobile phones and instant on personal computers further help to blur these lines. If you are sitting at your desk at work and are instant messaging with a friend are you still working? Likewise if you’re talking to a work colleague on your mobile on the way home from work are you still working? I think most businesses have welcomed the intrusion of technology into our personal lives as a way to keep us accessible; but are completely unprepared to deal with the reality of a two-way street.

So farewell to is. Technology had given us the allusion of is; it was not so. I’m looking forward to the loves, hates, needs, wants, has, should’s and will’s. Is was so then.

Another One of My Bad Ideas

goose.jpgAs most of you likely know I’ve tried getting a startup going about a dozen times over the past two decades. I’d like to think many were good ideas but lacked, I’m not quite sure which, either the courage or the capital to make it happen. My first pitch was back when the first notebook computers we becoming available and I saw a need for an store-and-forward shared calendar and messaging system. No one really saw a need but I’m sure all of them now use Outlook daily.

It is an gross understatement that say the software market has changed over the past two decades. You can build simple web-based applications quite quickly, with little capital and resources. (Notice I didn’t say with NO capital). The fact that the web allows you to deliver it essentially cost-free to a worldwide market makes finding that “killer app” a fool’s quest. You don’t need to find that one essential application for everyone, you can find that useful disposable one that appeals to anyone. And the digital nature of the web allows you to quickly re-cast your messaging and marketing to fit the changing whims of the market.

If I were working on a startup idea right now it would embrace this new reality.

My current “bad idea” would be to identify five to six promising concepts that allow people to collect and share their stuff online. We would focus development to limit the feature set to what can be written and tested within a two-month window so that by the end of the first year you have six distinct products in the market. We would use a low monthly fee or advertiser supported pricing model. And we would aggressively follow what I’m calling my “three R” strategy to make the business work and grow in value. What are the three R’s?

Ride. This one is pretty obvious but if your launch one of you unkiller apps and it starts to get traction, get on that horse and ride it hard. It is my perception that now more than even promotional, online, word-of-mouth marketing makes or breaks a product. If you can capture the imagination of the market you can unseat the leader – Google versus Yahoo! for instance.

Rebrand. I am still dumbfounded why tech companies don’t do this today; but I suppose the egotistical notion that “brand is king” gets in the way. I am not talking about product line extensions like Microsoft Word, then Excel and so on, I’m talking about a distinct and unique brand for every property. The web makes it so simple for a company to take one software product and rebrand and remarket it to a nearly endless segments of the market. Let me give you a somewhat boring example. Suppose you had a simple issue tracking system; one that allowed people to enter, track status and report on a collection of issues. By reusing the same code-base with only slight modifications one would “wrap” and market this one product as (1) bug tracking system for software development shops, (2) maintenance tracking system for apartment complexes, (3) low end call-center tracking system, (4) small group or family “to-do” list … basically any segment of users you can imagine that need to track the status of shared action items. Each rebranding would run in the wild as if the others did not exist. The website design, branding, messaging, look and feel would be customized to the target market and the goal would be to have at least four brands of each product running in the market at one time.

Retire. If a product or re-branded site isn’t cutting it, have the systems in place to know when you’re not achieving your profitability goals and kill it. Too often when you take the “killer app” approach you have to continue to invest more money into making something that isn’t working to work. Using the unkiller app approach you have at least two dozen different products in wild at one time and you can leave an idea for dead and not risk the entire future of the startup.

Essentially the startup I imagine would have no killer app, no long-term plan and would belittle the value of branding. It breaks all the rules of how we have defined what a successful software company should be. But then again, everything about building and selling software has changed; when will startups (and those who fund them) recognize this and change themselves? If you’re a VC and listening between myself and three of my friends we have more than six ideas already. Sounds like a good plan to me but then again, this just might be another one of my bad ideas.

Social Media 2.0

I’ve been goofing around with Facebook for a while now. It is really cool, engaging and often devilishly fun. But it is a walled garden, a waste of time and doesn’t really solve our problem. The fundamental flaw is that personal relationships do not transcend context, they are birthed, grown and live within it. We lack the control we need; we lack the next generation of social media tools.

venn.gifSorry for the high school geometry diagram but I’ll call this the Relationship Context diagram. We have many different contexts in our life but suffice to distill it down to three: (1) Professional, (2) Personal or private and (3) Public. Professional life is pretty obvious but in this example I would also include classmates for the school-age crowd. Personal is in many ways both a narrow but deep and wide context. It’s who you really are around your very closest friends. And finally there is Public which is the content you would share with most anyone.

All contexts have codes of conduct. All have a certain tolerance for what can be exposed without risk of reputation. All have culturally agreed upon measures of wealth and success and all have differing expectations as to how much we can expose about our own insecurities and doubts. And lastly, all have a moral framework governing what can be considered humorous, offensive or abusive.

Facebook primarily assumes most of your information should live in the intersection of these three contexts – the middle of the venn diagram. It would seem to make sense to give us a lot more control over our content and how it is shared across contexts.

There are some fun scenarios to reflect on that illustrate these points. I once read a funny story about a 21 year old blogger that was having a great time bragging of his college antics on his blog until his mother mentioned reading it. Oops. I know employers are checking out prospective candidate’s online identities via a Google search or a Facebook presence. I personally struggle with how much I share on my blog about my personal life and I am surprised when I meet new people how often they will mentioned they’ve read this blog. Do we really want to know you’ve installed the “Where I’ve Been” application or that your “Moods” application reflects you love of cats?

Facebook gives you too little control of this; but at it’s core it can’t really do what most of us want it to do anyway because it doesn’t deeply consider context. Help us connect with people with shared interests: whether or not we met on or offline, with powerful, configurable boundaries of context and depth. Keep us informed of things that are interesting without becoming an annoyance. Stop focusing on stickiness to drive valuation and give us ways to monetize our own data.

So when they write the history of content on the web maybe the story-line will be what started as a site-generated web, migrated into user-generated and ultimately graduated to owner-generated; where those who generate the content own it, control who sees it and personally gain from sharing it. Seems like we’re on that path. Maybe there’s another startup idea in that? Gosh I hope my boss isn’t reading this…

five marketing myths

fivemyths.jpgThe other day I was reading from an accomplished marketeer some tips about how to build product champions. While an interesting read, it got me thinking that there’s a lot of snake oil being sold as conventional wisdom about marketing; product champions being one of the more recent ones. It motivated me to sit down and come up with a quick “Five Myths” list to dispute some popular rantings. So here they are in no particular order:

1. People care about your product. Let’s get one thing straight: people have lives and they really don’t care about your product. They have to get the kids dressed and off to school, they have work to do, laundry, bills to pay and dishes to wash. Cars to get fixed, yards to mow, meetings to attend, family to care for and houses to clean. Every now and then they have some down time and during those times they are resting, relaxing, entertaining or just vegging on the couch. They have far too many things to do than to see, read, comprehend and act on your pitch. Get over it.

2. If you send/place it, prospects read it. Now more than ever, we are bombarded with ads, pitches and offers aside what we read, where we drive, in between our entertainment and of course overflowing our postal and electronic mailboxes. Just because I get it, doesn’t mean I read it. And if I read it, it doesn’t mean I’ll act on it.

3. Blogs start conversations. Many of you already know I am a huge advocate of blogs, lest I wouldn’t put my time into maintaining my own. I am a tremendous advocate for nearly everyone and certainly every organization blogging at one level or another. A good friend of mine and I have done a number of blogging projects; all of which gained us a fun level of notoriety in our target markets. But I must admit they were not conversations. Long ago I turned off comments for this site as the number of spam comments outnumbered live comments 1,000 to one. This as of course a sad development. With all this said, I will assert that while blogs are not conversations I will adamantly support the notion they do start conversations.

4. Early adopters fit into a nice scientific profile. I’ve written about my views of early adopters before (early solvers). The key take away from that post was that there is no specific profile for an early adopter. People buy things to solve problems, provide them enjoyment or for nourishment. Even Everett Rogers groundbreaking book, “The Diffusion of Innovation,” hints at the notion that perhaps the reason certain demographics emerge about the adopting class is more systemic than cause and affect: people who are motivated to make changes to better their lives do so instinctively, not so much for the purpose of impacting it. For instance, “I welcome change so I take the risk to go to college” as opposed to “I go to college and there I become a risk taker.”

And lastly 5. Customers become product champions. Of course there are rare exceptions to this observation but in the end very, very , very few products earn the benefit of consumer product champions. For decades I have watched marketing plans drafted in a way to create product champions to spread word of mouth and be an advocate for a product. The “long tail” phenomenon (where the internet lets you sniff out widely dispersed collections of people with like interests), fools us into thinking, no matter what the product, we can create champions for our product in the market. Yes you can find a couple hundred thousand people to visit a website about a soft drink, but does this indicate true and fast customer loyalty; that would seem a huge leap of faith.

What works? Tell me why I need something, after I’ve figured out I have the problem while I’m looking for a solution. My best example? Ever notice how the umbrella rack at Target magically appears near the front entrance on a rainy day? No TV ad, not an early adopter (would have one already), and I could care less beyond some simple features (folding, color) if the price is right I pick one up. Wow. Could marketing actually be that easy?

First Steps

steps.jpgI think all of us have something in our lives we’d like to make better or improve. The question is how do we get started in changing things? Is it some special formula, organizational system, motivational technique or coaching camp? No, I think it’s far simpler than all that: the answer, which you’ve heard before, goes “every journey begins with the first step.” You just have to get started. As an old friend use to say, “the hardest part about going for a jog is just getting out the front door.” I think he’s right.

This “first step” seems to have great implications for those of us who are marketeers. While certainly no guarantee of success, getting someone to consider a product or service first begins with the person figuring out they have a problem, or what I sometimes call “an itch to scratch.” Without an itch there is no reason to begin the effort to find a way to scratch it. Without an itch we don’t see offers, notice advertisements, see related concepts in our lives, ask our friends and colleagues about their experiences or even do the coveted Google search. Without an itch, we never take the first step.

The “first step” concept I also believe is at work when it comes to sustainability and corporate America. While these folks have a very, very long way to go; just taking the first step, if nothing else, makes the second and later steps far easier.

I have to admit I must remind myself of this potential windfall when I visit some of the bigger retailers who have “caught the green bug.” As I walk their apparel isles I see a World Bazaar of which none of the clothing is made in the U.S. and often where the items sharing a rack are from different continents. And all I can think is how sustainable, from a green perspective, is this sort of business model? Should everything we consume/buy, including clothes, adhere to the 250-mile rule as well?

I visit the restroom at one of the most responsibly sustainable retailers I know and notice they don’t use low-water (or no water) consuming fixtures. They hand out plastic bags, have automatic opening doors and still carefully light many of their departments to increase the appeal of their products. And do we really need 30″ of paper to document our itemized list of things we just bought?

While we have a long way to go, you see once you get the itch you take the first step and from there it can get pretty slippery. People are finding that itch when it comes to stewardship of our environment. It is real, and needs to be scratched. I am confident all of this will get fixed; everywhere I shop, work and travel. It is already happening. And it all started with the first step.

The Other Guilty Pleasure

can.jpgNo doubt you’ve been reading online, and even in the mainstream press, of the impact of bottled water and the merits of city tap water. Obviously the impact is profound. From the resources used to make the bottles, to the resources needed to ship it all around the world and all this for a product that is only slightly better than the (nearly) free stuff that flows from the faucet in your own home. But while examining my beverage lifestyle I’ve discovered a far darker guilty pleasure.

What weighs more than three fully loaded 747s, is a nice chilly 35F degrees and consumes as much power in one year as nearly one million U.S. households? That chilled soda pop you just bought from a vending machine.

Based on the information I found from a few quick searches here are the statistics. There are right around three million soda vending machines in the U.S. Each holds between 400-500 cans of soda and consumes between 2,500-4,000 kWh of electricity per year. The math is pretty easy: three million times thee thousand kWh comes out to nine billion kWh or 9,000 gigawatts. This of course for the off chance that you’re thirsty for one of the 1.2 billion cans of soda being stored at 35F degrees.

Big numbers but let’s give ourselves some way to appreciate what’s going on here. If stacked on top of one another, 1.2 billion cans of soda would be over 89,000 miles high – or over a third of the way to the moon. But the real killer is the power. The average U.S. household annually uses 9,400kWh of electricity. This means in our quest for convenience, soda vending machines consume the same electricity as just over 950,000 households. Wow. Now of course if you do even a modest amount of research, you will find lots of cost and power savings products designed to lower this impact (primarily sold as cost savings by the way to the owner of the machine). But even if it were 1/2 that number it’s still astounding.

I won’t even spend the energy to document the health, “canned” water, recycling and land-fill impacts of the sugar, chemicals and cans we move all this flavored water around in.

So tonight when you’re lying in your bed ready to fall asleep, rest comfortably knowing there’s plenty of cold soft drinks out there; at the office, outside your local library, at the school down the street, outside the car wash, at the soccer field, and on and on…

Technology Allows Us to “Collect and share things.”

typewriter.jpgRecently I was asked the question, “how does one encourage conversations?” Of course implied in this query is that these conversations are online and free of trolls and spam. In one shape or another I’ve actually be thinking about this issue for most of my professional career. While certainly not revolutionary, back then and still today I think people primarily use technology “to collect and share things” that interest them. This axim is true from typewriters to cell phones, from the TRS-80 to the iPod.

Fundamentally people are wondering, what tools will be used to converse and make our views known to others? One view is that eventually everyone will blog. Sadly I must admit blogging while far simpler than the print method of sharing knowledge just takes too much time. And as many of us know, blogging well is even more time consuming.

Interestingly sites like Facebook for the tween market gives us insight into the fact that while people like to know what others are doing they aren’t so interested in spending mountains of time feeding the conversation. If you’re interested in this topic and don’t have a Facebook profile, get one. Just by merely using the site and setting up your profile you feed a network of friends with information. As simple as completing the text box, “Mike is…”, everyone in my network knows what I’m doing. Simply by adding “My Favorite Movies” I’m encouraging a discussion or the formation of a small group.

As some of you already know, the future I see is one where everyone produces their own news (RSS) feed. It’s a mashup of “where I am”, “what I’m doing” and “what I’m reading – emails, RSS, websites”. It (mostly) happens behind the scenes in an automated fashion as personal hygene on keeping these things like this up to date is really time consuming. Ever tried Twitter? Where such a system becomes even more interesting is when I could subscribe to a few dozen of these feeds and use a relevance-ranking system to find what is most popular. This is NOT technorati or digg, it is a deeply personal relevance system. What are the top 20 stories for your personal network of your dozen best friends?

I have come to the conclusion we don’t need new tools to encourage conversations on the web; we already have far too many choices (email, blog, IM, SMS, blog comments, facebook, myspace, websites, social networks, etc, etc, etc). What we need is a better way to find meaningful things to talk about and then use the tools already at our disposal to broker the conversation on the tool at our disposal for the audience we wish to reach. The trick here is what is important is highly personal and changes and we change contexts through the day: worker, husband, parent, friend. And by personal interest: tech trends, history, weather, literature, renewable energy, fitness, politics – at least for me.

How do we encourage conversations? Find things interesting to talk about.

The Wildness of Nature

Too often in our well-designed suburbs we forget the power and wildness of nature. Often bulldozed to the side to make way for a new strip mall or pulled from your yard as a nasty weed, too often we forget the power and wildness of nature. Last week we visited a place where humans keep their safe distance out of respect for the power and wildness of nature.. last week we visited Alaska.

Ignore the cheesy cruise ship and all it’s trappings, least of which was the endless induction of hand sanitizer as a mindless way to control germs. See the ship as the necessary evil to force you to slow your pace down to gaze in wonder of the wildness of Alaska.

We visited countless glaciers. Notable to mention some were receding, as is often reported, but others are advancing as well. In Glacier Bay we stop to view one that is over twenty stories tall and melting away in front of our eyes. Huge pieces break off as we watch in the cold afternoon. The ship cannot get more than 1/4 mile from the face of the glacier as a safety precaution. Two days later we visit a smaller one near Juneau and we row a ten-person canoe just as near and you are struck with both wonder and fear. The waterfall, that off in the distance looks modestly impressive, is hundreds of feet high when you visit where it enters the lake. As you look up at the mountains, who also have within the last 200 years been carved by glaciers, you can easily see the different ages of the forests and greenery that is signature for the wildness of nature. And while I’m no animal nut, my daughter is quick to remind me we saw three whales, nine seals and seven bald eagles.

But what strikes you the most is how beautiful and quiet it is. Juneau, the largest city we visited on the trip, has 30,000 residents. The other towns I’d guess somewhere less than half than that – combined. Here in Alaska it seems man lives in the wilderness. Although we live quite near the country, here in the Plains we live among subdivided acreage. Our straight boulevards and tree lined streets bear little resemblance to the windy mountain roads we traveled to our shore excursions each day in port.

I know humans’ mark on Alaska, and all places wild, is that of exploitation. Not always in a bad sense but also not always in a good sense either. People came and still stay in Alaska for it’s natural resources whether that is salmon or silver.. or the tourists. Thankfully, for the most part it would seem our impact on Alaska has been nominal. This is a good thing for I know it helped a life-long city boy like me, in a small way, stop, slow down and wonder at the power and wildness of nature.

Earth Day 2007 Confession

gore.jpgDespite turing into a green wacko of late, I have a confession to make: I have never seen Mr. Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth.” In fact, I have no plans to ever see it. But probably for a reason other than you might think. I’ve thought about it for some time and my view is you don’t need to see the film to accept things are not good and something must be done. This movie is the classic issue of the messenger getting in the way of the message. I have no qualms with Mr. Gore, but I know plenty who do. How about we try this argument? Whether or not global warming exists is actually irrelevant.

Many of you have likely heard of “Pascal’s Wager.” Blaise Pascal is the famous 17th century French mathematician who developed a way to rationalize one’s belief in God. It goes something like “If you believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you have lost nothing — but if you don’t believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you will go to hell. Therefore it is foolish to be an atheist.”

I think an updated version of Pascal’s Wager in regards to global warming would be: “If we believe that global warming is caused by human behavior and we do something about it yet we turn out to be incorrect, the world is a cleaner place. But if we don’t believe humans are causing global warming and therefore do not modify our behaviors and turn out to be incorrect, we leave the world a dirtier place. Therefore it is irrelevant if global warming is caused by humans.”

So whether or not you believe the hype doesn’t really matter. In fact, in the end a sustainable/renewable lifestyle is essentially a testament to one’s preferred sense of history than to a person’s ability to be persuaded by scientists, former Vice President’s or Hollywood actors. How do you want to leave our Earth? How firmly will your footprint linger on the environment, the ecology and the biosphere? I know many of us in the United States are only now awaking to these issues; perhaps it is a symptom of too much abundance, too much space and little history.

There is a Native American saying, “we cannot own Mother Earth, we only borrow it from our children.” It seems to come down to how you want to live your life not what you believe about your life. Finding solutions to less footprints is simply the right thing to do because whether or not humans are causing global warming is relevant.

I Am Not a Marathoner

marathon.jpgFor the past 3-4 years I’ve become a fairly avid runner. Not lightning fast but it would seem respectable for my age and level of fitness. There are few things that clear my head as well as a nice lunch-time four mile run outdoors when the weather is nice. Try as I may, I’m not so sure I’m up to running a marathon; but I’ve played with the idea.

One thing’s for certain it would seem I am not a Career Marathoner. Let me explain. For those of you who know me well you knew it couldn’t last forever; this month I’ve moved on – again. In what is becoming a far too familiar tale someone I’ve worked with in the past called wanting some help, it looked like I could make an impact so I switched jobs. Maybe I should wear a disclaimer on my forehead: bore me, I leave.

Some would criticize me for being a job-hopper. Some will say I outrun my problems. And others might even say I stay too long. My view? Life is too short to not enjoy what you’re doing. I’ve been blessed by having a passion and talent for an industry that usually pays well and offers clean and safe working conditions. I would hope that my view would be no different if my passion were otherwise placed.

Before I get into where I landed let me look back over the past 14 months. Life was mostly good at the end of 2005 but for lots of reasons I felt the need to grow up and get “a real job.” You know, one of those 8-5 gigs where the pace is predictable, the work can occasionally turn interesting and regrettably the bureaucracy can be suffocating. I landed at a local big company and I will admit at times it wasn’t bad and others it was absolutely miserable.

We’ve all heard “ready, aim, fire.” My most recent big company experience was more like “Ready, aim, aim, aim, aim..” The problem was how hard it was to really make decisions. Decisions that stuck, engaged other departments and pushed life forward. Despite this along the way I discovered there were lots of good, smart, caring and well-meaning folks at the big company but even with all their effort it seems hard to turn a big ship. Mind you, I wanted it to work; just that I think my stripes don’t run that way. In the end I found a strange sort of respect for those there who have the stamina to keep up the good fight. So while I love to run it would seem I am not a marathoner.

So now I find myself at a small software company named iModules. I’ll get to run our marketing efforts and will be a member of the executive team. The hours will be longer, the pace faster and challenges greater but even after only two weeks I already feel like I’ve got my life back.

The company builds social networking software, primarily for the education market, that is used for alumni relations and admissions. The product does much more than that we just need to find creative ways to promote the product and the company to this and other vertical markets. Interestingly one of the potential markets for our offering is the association market so I might again run into old friends.

I plan to stay pretty busy. My family is always going in every different direction and I try to keep up. Side consulting is still going well and I have a near-dead renewable energy site still to care for. I don’t plan to be bored anytime soon. And while I’m not built for it, someday I still might run that marathon. I’ll keep you posted.

Moore’s Law, the Homebrew Computer Club and Sustainable Living

pepsi.JPGFor the past 30 or so years innovation has been defined by the march of computing into our daily lives. The first personal computers were strutting their stuff at places like the short lived yet immortalized Homebrew Computer Club back around the birth of the computing industry. Countless fortunes were yet to be made by inventors and entrepreneurs who forever changed nearly everything we use to communicate with others in our daily life. In fact, if presented with today’s impressive gadgets back in 1976, I would think we would be hard pressed for any futurist to have predicted how far we’ve come since then.

Along the way the industry discovered Moore’s Law – that the computing power of a microprocessor will double every 18 months. And in that same timeframe we would almost see the same trend with ever decreasing prices. Sitting in my home office typing on my battery powered personal computer I connect to a worldwide computer network via a wireless radio and with my network browsing software search real-time DRAM prices in Amazon’s database while simultaneously listening to Virgin Radio out of the UK to note that 1GB is now less than $120. Sorry for using dated language but the number of innovations that make my simple, 20 second query are almost far, far too numerous to appreciate.

Where am I going with this? For the past year or so I have taken a greater than casual interest in the green movement. I think there is a lot wrong with how their efforts are being sold, hijacked and used for other agendas but at the core I believe there are some good, passionate, idealistic people trying to make a difference. To my suspicion, much like the folks you would have met in 1975 at the Homebrew Computer Club.

Today’s renewable energy effort is like that of the computer industry of 1975. Populated by most standards with crazy brilliant lunatics passionately trying to get the rest of us to notice the impending revolution before us; hobbyists with kits that required specialized knowledge and know-how simply to add numbers let alone search the web at light speed. Today, many renewable energy products feel like kits: they are invasive, expensive, difficult to use, and underperform alternative powered sources.

We need to find the Moore’s Laws of sustainable living. How could you and I consume only the energy we could produce on our own? Today’s renewable energy options, while fascinating aren’t even close. When you give it some thought nearly every aspect of your life would be changed. How, what and when you eat, how you move around the planet and how you work. What if you only had the energy you created for yourself? What if you had your own “personal power plant” as opposed to time sharing with the rest of users?

Finding a sustainable lifestyle sets a premium on both conservation and generation. Sustainable lifestyles aren’t pro-nuke, anti-ethanol, wind, solar, geothermal or whatever. Just as the technology industry today is nearly limitless in it’s diversity one fact remains clear that markets are atheists – they reward innovation and improvements in performance with little preference to which deity is being worshiped.

How do we make renewable energy products so affordable and efficient that billions of us could depend on them every day of our lives? If we could even get moderately close to what we’ve accomplished building “toys for boys” we’ll be a very long way down the road. I believe discovering, inventing, commercializing and popularizing ways we all can live a sustainable lifestyle to be the imperative of our generation. It is our Apollo, our Montgomery, Alabama and our Pearl Harbor. It is all of them – our greatest technological, social and patriotic challenge. Sustainable lifestyles are about hope, compassion and responsibility not manifest destiny nor doomsday scenarios.

I’ll end by updating the infamous challenge Steve Jobs offered to John Sculley when trying to recruit him to Apple as CEO from Pepsi, “What do you want to do with the rest of your life, sell sugar flavored water or change the world?” I ask us who have selfishly enriched ourselves these past two decades as fellow travelers of the technology industry, “What do you want to do with the rest of your life: design devices that allow spoiled teens to carry around their music, tv shows and movies or change the world?” I know my answer, how about you?

WiFi Mesh Mess

cpool.jpgSome time ago I compared public Wi-Fi hotspots to public restrooms: functional yet unkept dirty locked water access points of last resort. My view over the last five years hasn’t changed much. I have frequently used both public and fee-based hotspots both in the US and abroad and in many cases they have been life savers but too often they have been a disappointment. Often they have been unbearably slow but it was my access technology of last resort.

For the past three or so years I also have watched in amazement so many peoples’ euphoria over metro-wide Wi-Fi efforts. Of course most recently both Philadelphia and San Francisco have been in the news with well publicized efforts. Just earlier this week I also saw that Rhode Island is pushing to be the first state to have universal coverage for all it’s residents. We won’t tell anyone they’re smaller than Los Angeles. And of course my favorite announcements are those from smaller towns where inevitably a city council-person will tout how this new Wi-Fi network will increase the city’s competitiveness for high-tech jobs. Give me a break.

The good news out of all this is that yesterday I finally discovered my metaphor to explain why the large majority of public metro Wi-Fi networks will die a slow neglected death. Look no further this upcoming Memorial Day weekend than your city’s public pool.

What’s the difference between the public pool and one in your own in the backyard? Tons. While I don’t have one these days we’ve been lucky several times to have had one. When I was a kid growing up in California we had a backyard pool. It was great .. no it was awesome. The summer I turned 12 we moved back to Kansas and I got my first experience with a public pool.

You know what? It was functional yet uncared dirty locked-up water of last resort. It was so crowded I couldn’t hardly swim, the food was expensive and you didn’t have any privacy. Having come from having our own pool it was an absolutely miserable experience.

Why will metro Wi-Fi suffer slow and sporadic adoption struggling to find a profitable business model? For nearly 100% of the folks likely to use these networks they have already become accustomed to their own (higher speed) private connection to the net. And current high speed internet in my house is relatively cheap, reliable and secure. Metro Wi-Fi will be for occasional connections of last resort – not universal access for the masses.

Some even speculate that even if all this is worked out, metro Wi-Fi networks will still fail being unable to reliably work once we see real-life usage patterns and traffic. Today only a handful of folks use them; low adoption is not surprising for so many reasons.

What am I going to do this Memorial Day weekend? Try to score an invite to my buddy’s house. Blaine has his own pool.