Product Diversion – An Innovative Notebook

While I’m less of a “toys for boys” kind of guy these days I am staring at five years on my current notebook and have been thinking about the new MacBook Air. You know, the one they slide out of a manila folder in the ad? Lots of cool ideas but in a lot of ways I’m actually disappointed.

Let me first tell you, over the past twenty-five years the best computer I’ve ever used was a Powerbook Duo in 1994. It was fast, light, small, and highly focused on the mobile experience … and it had a great docking solution. I always had all my stuff with me and I had only what I needed where I was. It didn’t have a PC Card slot (standard in it’s day), a floppy drive (standard in it’s day). Nor did it have a CD-ROM drive or wired ethernet. Those features were in the dock. Interesting.

So when I look at the Air I see the Duo with 14 years of speed improvement with a little wireless neatly tucked inside. Pretty cool, but in a way a sad statement of how slow we have innovated the conceptual design of a notebook computer.

What would break the mold and demonstrate real innovation in the market? Basically an oversized iPhone. So before you chronicle the sad efforts with pen based computing let me explain how this one could be different.

Firstly, the primary UI would be the iPhone Launcher. Windows is a crappy operating system for a pen interface. It always felt bolted on and clunky. The TabletPC too often tried to be everything to everyone – a useful desktop computer, notebook and tablet. My next mobile computer would be the ultimate digital notebook. What I am imagining is a flat (thin) device like the iPhone about 8×10 and less than an inch thick. There is no “cover,” only the touch screen like the iPhone. Perhaps Launcher could be modified to have dynamic icons that would be more like Dashboard widgets with mini views of your calendar, your notes and content on the web.

But what about a keyboard? First, you need to understand that my tablet would really be a portable display in disguise. The “dock” would be a stand for my tablet on my desk so I could use a standard keyboard when tapping away all day long at the office, connect to power and other interfaces. But … when I’m ready to go I just grab the “display” and I’m off.

Come one, what about a keyboard? When I’m on the plane or in a meeting, I would be able to invoke a software defined keyboard that takes up 30% of the screen (with transparency so it’s floating over your desktop and documents). In fact there would be several different versions of keyboard, one for landscape, one for portrait and one for two-hand gripping – the iPhone keyboard broken in two on each side of the display. And having a software defined keyboard would solve a tremendous problem in international markets – since they keyboard could easily be configured to be vastly different from English-centric QWERTY.

But alas, the breakthrough here is the observation that you don’t really need a keyboard for most of the stuff you do when you’re mobile. Think about it. When you’re away from your desk you do some typing but often we’re just surfing to a web site, peaking at e-mail or when on a plane, watching a movie or listening to music. Oh, and that bigger display would be sweet for watching videos when I’m away from my desk. And when I return I drop the display into the dock and in about an hour I’ll be ready to head off to my next appointment.

So there you have it. The first innovative notebook since the Duo.

Married Minors and the Future of Facebook

wedding.jpgAfter about 20 minutes of fun it was clear that I could write dozens of posts about the demographics of Facebook. But it’s getting late so for now I’ll only focus on a few fun facts. Thanks to Vince for encouraging me to check out the link –, it made my day.

So all of my readers likely have heard the well documented success of Facebook; and it’s darling status as THE tool people need to exploit for their latest marketing endeavor. What is pretty remarkable is how much data folks are offering up about themselves that Facebook can use to target marketing back to the users. I suppose it’s a lot less than what Google has on it’s millions of Gmail users but it seems everyone’s forgotten about that privacy issue for now.

But there is dark side of Facebook data: it is certainly not clean data. Today I was visiting the page I mention above and it was fun to play with the form that dynamically updated how many Facebook users would see my advertisement. Starting with just over 22 million folks I could slice and dice to my hearts content.

For sometime I have been critical of user-supplied data and the reliability of that content, but nothing prepared me for this: 5.4% of U.S. teenagers 13-17 years old are married. That’s right, about 220,000 of the 4.1 millions folks on Facebook in that demographic chose the “married” relationship status. And 7,200 of them are college graduates to boot.

I also dug into some other interesting aspects of the data. Based on figures from the US Census bureau, it seems that nearly 40% of all 13-17 year olds in Kansas are on Facebook compared to less than 9% for the same group in California. In fact, the per capita subscription of Kansas teens is 4x compared to California. Surprisingly New York had the most teens on Facebook. What happened to the Golden State’s high-tech lead?

When you start looking into the celebrated “high growth” segments of Facebook you can really see the reach is pretty low. With less than 1.2 million users over the age of 36, Facebook users in this demographic represent less than 0.8% of the U.S. population for this age group. Considering that same week, syndicated reruns of “Everyone Loves Raymond” was seen by 5.9 million viewers it would seem if you’re trying to reach old people you might want to keep looking.

Okay, throw me from the bus! Yes, you can highly target ads on Facebook. Yes, they have a TON of eyeballs and yes social networking is hot … and yes I have a Facebook account I visit everyday. But all this demographic data is in the end quite worthless. What Facebook really needs is what I call “intentional data” – information about what a user is planning to do. Knowing I’m 45, married, living in 66224 isn’t very interesting. Yes, as an advertiser I can infer lots of things about a person with those demographics but it pales to intentional data. Knowing I read and am in the market for a new car is quite another and far more valuable to advertisers.

Someday in the future it won’t be about who you say you are, it will be about what you plan to do.

UPDATE: Yes I’ve heard from a few of you that teens play around with relationship status. I know that my teenagers’ peers, when in a serious relationship, set their status to married. My goal was to highlight the potential weaknesses in believing user-generated content and the limitations of any demographic data when marketing a product. When it comes to technology there are many who praise and celebrate it’s newness. You would think that with social networking tools we could transcend the 1950’s way of seeing people – as nicely sliced demographic faceless trolls.

Looking for a Job? Try Facebook

helpw.jpgIf you’re out there looking for a job and would like to get in with a moderate to large company here’s a trick you might want to give a try. After endless hours plowing the web and job sites, after filling out mountains of forms for each job you’ve found interesting and countless calls trying to network; why not try this idea?

Pick where you want to work and advertise yourself to that audience on Facebook. No guarantees – but it might just might get you noticed.

Here’s how you do it. Visit Facebook’s advertising site. Create an ad that links back to your resume or blog. When you define your audience, enter your dream company into the “Workplace” field. Estimate how old your hiring manager would likely be to narrow the hit list. Interested in working for Apple? There are about 960 people on Facebook who live in California, work at Apple and are over the age of 29. Set your budget and date range (maybe run for a couple of days to test) and see what happens.

Not sure how effective this approach might be … you are approaching someone for a job in a very off-hours social context but you never know. And be forewarned this clever idea might get old fast. If you pay for clicks, limit your exposure to $5 a day, the weekly expense isn’t so bad.

The timeless Parachute job searching book had a quote that I think is timeless and helped sustain me through one such search: Remember that all those “no’s” just get you closer to the one “yes” you need. And who knows? It just might work.

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.

GenY Needs a Whuppin’

whuppin.jpgNow in my mid-40s I read folks of my generation complaining about GenY and their attitudes towards work. Generally the story includes complaints about their work ethic, their commitment, the attitude toward authority and the general lack of fundadental knowledge they have about the electronic devices they use everyday. He is my short list of the reasons us older folks should wake up because for a lot of reasons I think GenY actually gets it. [Sorry, I knew the title would get your interest quicker than saying in some ways I see their predicament]

1. Demise of the Employer-Employee agreement. This is well-trodden ground but suffice to say there is no such thing as life-long employment in the US these days. This phenomenon is of our fathers’ generation. And with a very few exceptions, companies these days not only trim workforce for business cycles but rank-rating systems, popularized by GE’s Jack Welch, trim the bottom ten percent performers each year. This may make many corporations more competitive but it has also led to GenY workers (among others) to question institutional loyalty. Managers often forget, loyalty is a two-way street and without it flowing out is doesn’t flow back.

2. Equity. And speaking of two-way streets, things in the technology industry are different today than twenty years ago in 1987. You didn’t work at a high-technology company in those days unless you received stock options when you were hired; or at least you certainly expected to get some very soon after you got hired. Nothing changes a person’s perception of ownership more quickly than becoming a owner him or herself. Not only do you perceive your responsibilities and value differently, more importantly you expect others to step-up their game as well. For various reasons this incentive has fallen out of favor, so when workers walk out the door promptly at 5pm and management questions their loyalty I hope they’re asking themselves would they stay late if they too had the same to gain from a leveraged buyout – nothing.

3. Management.
For my father’s generation, management in corporations was a profession. Today many managers are the successful front-line workers of last year. They demonstrate a can-do attitude and commitment to major projects and they are rewarded with a management title, an office and a raise. That’s great and I have personally benefited from this trend, but does success on the front-line ensure success behind the management desk? Many professional managers today lack the leadership, strategy, trouble-shooting, and interpersonal skills needed to identify new talent, orchestrate a team, define a thoughtful strategy and review the progress of subordinates. If you don’t get good direction, how are you suppose to be successful? And lastly I’ll add, my generation of managers, including myself, haven’t been the eager mentors we could be for incoming talent to our organizations.

4. It’s generational. My dad always said I was lazy and didn’t work hard enough. I think we all do this; we think people our own children’s age need parental pushing to grow. Our fathers are shocked most of us can’t repair our own car, or a lawn mower for that matter. That many of us write a check to get the house painted or faucet fixed. My mother lived in homes without indoor plumbing, reliable electricity and screen-less windows. While only a child, the black and white photos for the home-front of World War II, were the real live color memories of our parents. We have it good compared to them and we deserved the stern tone. So another generation ages and looks at those at the 20s much the way our parents did us. It is only natural.

5. Longtails change what is important. But the seismic change that so radically changes the attitudes of many GenY’ers is how the long tail allows for shared experiences of unconventional views. The “mainstream” is hard to define and in many ways has become an oxymoron. The mainstream is there is no mainstream. Interested in unicorns, renewable energy and the latest installment of Survivor? You can go online and find groups of people that share a common view. Thirty years ago this was an impossibility and in 1977 we were all watching Laverne and Shirely, getting our first glimpses of Pong and listening to the Eagles. We had a broadcast society, not a narrowcast one. Back then we got confirmation of our value and normalness from institutions; today we can get it from a random set of total strangers online.

In the end, and many of my peers will disagree, I think the attitudes of GenY are healthy for our society. They look us square in the eye and challenge us to show them why they should care. Maybe the real issue we haven’t done a good enough job of that. Perhaps we really should learn to take responsibility for how how things work. Oh no, there we go again, I’m starting to sound like my father.

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.