Pit of Vipers

2010 August 26
by david

When Robert Altman was given a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars a year or two before he died, (aren’t such awards always a death sentence?) he said to the star-studded audience, “I’m not interested in stories, I’m interested in human nature.” This struck me as bordering on heresy since he was addressing a crowd who had become wealthy and famous in the storytelling business. But it stuck with me. After all, aren’t we all fascinated by human nature? And, to some degree, our love of stories comes from the fact that they are illustrations of human nature in action.

lizard_manI grew up in a fairly religious family and believed in the soul for a long time without questioning it. There’s no doubt we have a god-like element in us that is the best and most noble part of our nature. Call it what you want. Personally, I don’t believe it lives on after we die, except in the most abstract way.

According to a great book I read a couple of years ago, Younger Next Year, the human brain is comprised of 1. the physical brain, which controls breathing and other bodily functions, 2. the instinctive brain, which controls fear, aggression and basic sex drive, and 3. the limbic brain, which controls thought and emotion. This is, no doubt, an over-simplification but it’s based on real science.

Let’s posit that the physical and the instinctive parts comprise half of the brain’s functions. That means we’re 50% reptile. Sound like an exaggeration? Look at how much of our behavior is based on fear, aggression or sexual predation. Look at how people act when they get behind the wheel of a car—a situation in which there’s often no accountability for their actions.

I’ve found the 50% reptile concept to be a useful model for explaining human behavior. When somebody cuts me off or honks or acts obnoxious in any number of ways, I tell myself, “It’s just the reptile in him/her.” It can be quite helpful in controlling my own reptilian reaction.

Hunch.com: Not Ready for Prime Time

2010 August 24

I’ve been following Hunch.com for a while since their site offers “personalized recommendations,” a concept I’ve been exploring with Trybe. Hunch’s “topics” are user-generated and they use AI (Artificial Intelligence) to make recommendations based on members’ answers to a series of questions like “Can you do 10 pull-ups?” and “Do you live in a city, the suburbs or a rural area?” Hunch creates a profile for each user and alleges they’re creating a “taste graph” based on the preferences of thousands of users.

‘The ultimate goal of the company is to map every person on the Internet to every object on the Internet, be that a product, a service, or a person,’ Co-founder Caterina Fake says.” Apart from the hubristic nature of this boast, is it possible or, more importantly, is it useful? It certainly doesn’t sound “personal.”

I used to think Hunch’s model made sense. Curated recommendations aren’t scalable and their relevance is a hit or miss proposition. Same with social network based recommendations. My friends don’t share all my tastes. Other AI recommendation services don’t work because they have an incomplete picture of the user. I’ve described in a previous post how Amazon keeps sending me emails about power tools because I bought one power saw—after buying hundreds of books and CDs.  So why not ask the customer for more information? Surely if you described the benefits of a truly personalized service—filtering, relevance, etc.—people would see it as a valid trade. I give you personal information, you save me time and effort. eHarmony users accept this. But people don’t like to give information about themselves and, when they do, there is a problem with the accuracy of the information they provide. A surprisingly large percentage of dating site users lie about their age.

Hunch is well funded and has a team of “machine learning” experts. But I’ve found the experience of using their site to be decidedly lacking. The overall impression is chaotic and lacking in relevance. They’re a mile wide and an inch deep. They rely too much on user-generated content. It’s hard to see the connection between your answers to their questions and the site’s recommendations. The Hunch lexicon, containing words like “taste graph” and “THAY” (Tell Hunch About Yourself), smacks of serious geekiness. Like the parents of a newborn, they seem to have a love affair with their own creation: “If you use an electric toothbrush, you’re 28% more likely to favor an aisle seat when flying.” The rest of us don’t find the baby quite as cute as they do.

There are several problems with Hunch’s approach. One is the accuracy of the data, mentioned above. Two is whether it’s predictive or not. In other words, I may know you like “The Sopranos” but how do I use that information to predict something else that you’ll like? Three is the sheer scale of building a system that can automate recommendations for millions of people based on millions of data points. They promise, “Hunch gets smarter the more you use it.” But how much delayed gratification will “normal” consumers tolerate? Four is the limitations of “machine learning” systems.

Jaron Lanier wrote about these limitations in a recent Op Ed column in the NY Times:

What all this comes down to is that the very idea of artificial intelligence gives us the cover to avoid accountability by pretending that machines can take on more and more human responsibility. This holds for things that we don’t even think of as artificial intelligence, like the recommendations made by Netflix and Pandora. Seeing movies and listening to music suggested to us by algorithms is relatively harmless, I suppose. But I hope that once in a while the users of those services resist the recommendations; our exposure to art shouldn’t be hemmed in by an algorithm that we merely want to believe predicts our tastes accurately. These algorithms do not represent emotion or meaning, only statistics and correlations.

What makes this doubly confounding is that while Silicon Valley might sell artificial intelligence to consumers, our industry certainly wouldn’t apply the same automated techniques to some of its own work. Choosing design features in a new smartphone, say, is considered too consequential a game. Engineers don’t seem quite ready to believe in their smart algorithms enough to put them up against Apple’s chief executive, Steve Jobs, or some other person with a real design sensibility.

I’m sure Hunch has a lot of great improvements in the works. And maybe they’ll be the next Yahoo as the service gets “smarter.” But they’ve disappointed a lot of early adopters, which isn’t a good sign.

Air Rage

2010 August 17
by david

I can remember a time when people dressed up (not down) to travel. It’s laughable now but it was a sign of the respect people had for the privilege of being able to fly at 600 mph 6 miles above the earth.

How times have changed. In today’s NY Times, the business/aviation columnist, Joe Sharkey reports that 720 million people flew in 2009, up from 629 million in 2000. That’s a 14% increase in travelers. Domestic airlines employed 493K workers vs. 607K in 2000. That’s almost a 24% DECREASE.

The experience of flying would be worse even if the number of employees had remained constant. Air travel is now about as luxurious as taking a Greyhound. (That’s why they call it Coach. Or Economy.) And it’s not always faster. After a brief era of glamor, flight attendants became waiters/waitresses in the sky. Now they’re Walmart employees in the sky. No wonder they’re permanently disgruntled. David Sedaris wrote in The New Yorker that flight attendants admitted to him that they fart in the aisles as a kind of revenge. They even have a term for it: crop dusting.

If this trend continues we’ll soon be flying in crammed cabins like troops on their way to Afghanistan.

There’s been a lot written about the widening gap between the haves and have nots in our society. The difference between a private jet and economy class travel is an apt symbol of this. It seems everywhere you turn, there is evidence of the decline of our country. Decline in standard of living. Decline in standards of service. Decline in innovation.

It makes you want to grab a couple of beers and pull the lever for the emergency chute.

Creative vs. Marketing

2010 August 11
by david

I was struck by a recent article in the NY Times about The Economist (which I used to read in my Wall Street days.) The editor was quoted as saying, “Once you start trying to segment and work out what people might want to see, I think that would be a journey to some type of psychological hell.” I had to laugh when I read that. That’s pretty extreme language! You can almost hear the contempt in his voice.

It’s a common attitude in print media. And, of course, we rely on journalists to report on what they judge to be the important issues without bias. I’m a huge fan of the NY Times and The New Yorker. But it’s a horrifying statement to anyone with a background in marketing. What, you explicitly refuse to pay attention to your customers?

It’s the creative impetus behind most art: indie films and bands, poetry, some fiction. There is no better experience than enjoying the creation of a brilliant artist who holds us in thrall as he weaves a tale or sings a song. Mad Men is a great example of a superbly-realized vision of a brilliant creator, (as was its precursor, The Sopranos). There’s no question that management by committee can suck the soul out of any project. Most Hollywood films are good examples.

But is that the way a major magazine should be run? Isn’t that the misplaced creative impulse of an editor who would really rather be writing novels? Shouldn’t he care about knowing his audience? He would say he’s leaving that up to his marketing and circulation departments. He’ll be damned if he’s going to let them run his newsroom.

I’ve never worked in print. But I can’t help feeling that this kind of attitude is distinctly old school. He’s not Bob Dylan (whom I’m listening to now). But no one in new media would dare to make that statement. We are acutely aware of how our audience uses our sites. We study usage data religiously to better understand their preferences and better serve their needs in the next iteration. It’s in our DNA because the metrics are there every day.

Are we then slaves to our customers? Where do we have creative latitude? Apple is famous for not using focus groups. The rest of us get to benefit from Steve Job’s genius, unadulterated by less talented marketing “experts.” But most of us aren’t Steve Jobs or Matthew Weiner. In the tech/new media world, we don’t have the luxury of building what we think people want. Of course, we start with a creative vision. But we won’t be around for long unless we pay very close attention to users’engagement with our products. We have to prove we’re worth their time every day. We don’t want to be slaves to the lowest common denominator or the metrics. But we’re not writing poems or novels.

Superstar Entrepreneurs

2010 August 9

I went to a seminar not long ago entitled, How to be an Entrepreneur Superhero. A panel of entrepreneurs answered questions in front of a room full of reverential novice entrepreneurs, dispensing the usual homilies on how to be successful: perseverance, focus, obsessive, attention to detail, etc. One had sold his web company for $85 million a few years ago, which lent his platitudes an air of credibility even though he had no real insight into why his hard work was so well rewarded. It made me wonder why we all attend these events. No one has a formula for achieving, much less duplicating, success. For every smart, hard-working, persevering, focused, successful entrepreneur, there are tens of thousands with the same qualities who don’t succeed. Of course we all know this but it doesn’t stop us from trying, which is a tribute to human nature but it’s also a little insane.

Let’s face it, success is the relatively rare combination of hard work and favorable circumstances, (sometimes only the latter). Luck plays a huge role in any tale of success. Perfect timing, having the right connections, tapping into some viral, crowd-sourced new paradigm…

Listening to the panel got me thinking about how obsessed our society is with success and superstars. Anything less than the ultimate in wealth and fame seems like a defeat. The tech world is no exception. Its superstars are highly visible, very wealthy and their companies’ products and services are used by millions of people.

The problem is that, statistically, your chances of becoming a superstar entrepreneur are, for all intents and purposes, basically nil. Most web startups don’t even get funded and most of the ones that get funded go bankrupt. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing your dreams. Where we go wrong is in our expectations. We all want to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. We end up being so goal-oriented, we forget to enjoy the proverbial journey. Of course, if you’re not goal oriented or a dreamer to some extent, you’ll never attempt anything worth doing. On the other hand, if your measure of success is unrealistically high, you’ll never be happy. We all have to learn that the process of striving and being engaged is its own reward. It only took me half a lifetime.

I just worry that our media-saturated world is going to make it harder than ever for our kids to keep things in perspective.

Don’t be a victim

2010 July 30
by david

Don’t be a victim. I first heard that admonition from a senior executive when I was at AOL. He was commenting on complaints he was hearing after a big reorg. AOL, like all big technology companies, was prone to massive reorganizations. Some were genuine attempts to manage a company in the throes of hypergrowth in an era of rapid innovation. (May you live in interesting times.) Some were simply house cleaning by new managers. Some were senseless. Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, the cynics called it.

I used to detest the condescension in people’s voices when they said it. “Don’t play the victim,” usually came out in a sneer. It seemed a convenient way for managers to brainwash their underlings into thinking they should be thankful…well, for something. For still having a job, usually.

But then I found myself using it. “You need to suck it up and put your ego aside,” I’d say when someone who worked for me complained too much. After a while, I got tired of the parade of people coming into my office to complain. The smart ones put their heads down and kept doing their job even as morale declined and frustration increased. In a normal company, many of the complainers would have left if it hadn’t been for the golden handcuffs.

But the complaints were increasingly legitimate. At AOL we ended up suffering the consequences of a series of increasingly hubristic and misguided decisions by senior management, culminating in the merger with… well you know who. We had to shut down worthy projects, give up scarce development resources for somebody else’s pet project, shuffle talented people into service roles in a matrix organization. Ours was “not to reason why,” ours was “but to do and die.” The worst was that we didn’t transfer our content and functionality onto the web even after it was clear that dialup was doomed. The rationale for that came from a certain CEO who sacrificed long term strategy for short term earnings. That drove up the stock price and we all benefited. Until we didn’t.

As with most cliches, there’s some wisdom in the admonition. Complaining is wasted breath. Don’t let yourself be defeated by external circumstances. Accept, don’t complain. Don’t let your anger and frustration rule your life. Good advice at the end of the day. It seems an integral part of human nature to transfer blame away from ourselves to something or someone else.

Our openness to good advice, however, is directly correlated to our opinion of the “advisor.” If you don’t respect the person, it’s hard to respect his or her advice. Even when they’re right.

The Missing 3rd Place

2010 July 17
by david

Being part of a community is basic to our nature. At AOL we used to call online communities the “third place” after home and work. Those of us who don’t go to church lack that third place and I know I for one crave it. (Starbucks calls itself a third place but I don’t buy it. It’s not a community, it’s a bunch of solitary people on laptops listening to iPods.)

I grew up in Canada and our family didn’t have a TV until I was 7 or 8. The good news was I read voraciously (I really did). Even after we got a TV, we didn’t watch it much—at least not in those days. I remember feeling left out when my friends joked about the characters on a show they’d watched the night before. Although we had access to American TV stations back then most people watched CBC, the state-run broadcast network, so Canadian culture was even more homogeneous than American culture.

When I moved to the US, I had the same feeling, except more so. People at work talked about current and past shows I’d never heard of. There was a whole lexicon of quotes and characters from TV shows and movies that went over my head. And I wasn’t much better with sports. “What is the AFC?” “The Final Four?”

I’ve slowly managed to catch up on all this and feel less culturally disadvantaged than I used to. Of course I still have big gaps and my wife often looks at me in disbelief. “You don’t know who Ashton Kutcher is?” Just kidding.

But I’m not alone any more. It’s widely documented how fragmented our consumption of media has become. Cable started it but the Internet has changed everything. We share very few experiences as a country—cultural or otherwise. Election night ’08 and 9/11 are recent exceptions. We live in our own little bubbles, contently consuming what suits our preferences or mood, selecting from a dazzling array of choices. It’s all good, right? Personally I enjoy having so much to choose from but the downside is that we’ve lost the shared experiences that used to bond people together. You listen to smooth jazz, I listen to oldies. You go see “Inception,” I’ve barely heard of it.

I was inspired to write about this by hearing David Plouffe speak earlier this week. He described how much harder it is to communicate with voters these days. You can’t simply advertise on the evening news the way you used to. He told us that, together, the four broadcast networks averaged 18.9 million viewers last week. Cumulatively. That’s an incredibly low percentage of the total population (6%) and and even lower percentage of households, assuming that there was more than one viewer per household. Barack Obama’s campaign has 12 million email addresses in their database. Obama’s Facebook page has almost 11 million fans. So what do you do: advertise on prime time TV or do an email blast? Pretty obvious.

By contrast, take this from the NY Times. “Broadcast television, for decades an oligarchy of three networks, was once the locus for most of the nation’s shared cultural moments — almost 83 percent of households in the United States watched Elvis Presley’s appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in September 1956.” Given that there were still plenty of households without a TV, that must mean almost every TV in the country was tuned to the same channel. Imagine the water cooler conversations the next day! Shared experiences created a sense of community that we’ve lost along with the quiet streets and neighborhoods where we played and rode our bikes as kids.

Have we lost something? Yes. Have we gained something? Yes, again. Either way, there’s no turning back.

Doing What He Said He Would Do

2010 July 14
by david

I went to an event organized by OFA (Organizing for America) last night and David Plouffe, former Obama campaign manager, was the featured speaker. It was refreshing to hear someone so articulate and well informed talk about the complex issues that face our country. It was also a pleasant reminder of the tremendous optimism and belief in change that many of us shared in 2008. During the campaign, my wife ran phone banks for the Obama campaign on the westside of LA and the sense of purpose and solidarity in those cramped quarters where hundreds of people came together to donate their time was awe-inspiring.

Plouffe’s main message was that the Obama administration is doing what he said it would do: aim to improve the standard of living for the middle class and reform health care, the financial industry, our energy policy and educational system. While it’s easy to succumb to the doom and gloom of living in a serious recession, Plouffe’s reminder that the administration has already achieved several of Obama’s goals was refreshing. Imagine how hard it must be for a president to stay the course, to do what you said you were going to do. So many competing priorities, so many unexpected crises. And we live in a world where believing you should be as good as your word seems hopelessly naive. You say whatever it takes to get that job, get out of court, become famous, make money.

What also inspired me was Plouffe’s description of Obama’s political philosophy, which I thought stands out in a world in which we’re whipsawed hourly by the latest trends, scandals and “Breaking News.” Plouffe said Obama is basically oblivious to polls and the hot stories being discussed on Fox or MSNBC on any given day. It’s not that he’s unaware of them, as his predecessor was. He chooses not to be influenced by the noise. What he cares about is how people will judge him years from now when all the bluster about “health reform is flawed” or “too many compromises with the Party of No” has died down. Ok, this is not unique among presidents—even W made such statements when he sensed his popularity was waning. But, frustrating as it can be when we perceive Obama as not fully engaged in an issue or not battling his opponents, this is what we need in a leader. He refuses to stoop to the level of the playground bullies. Again, imagine how hard this is to do. He has a thousand issues coming at him every day. He’s got party members who are afraid they won’t be re-elected. His advisors are probably no help because their ambitions aren’t necessarily so long term in nature.

Obviously the lofty ideals we have for a president aren’t always practical for business managers who have to consider their competition, the needs of their customers and rapidly changing environment as they try to make a profit. But Obama’s admirable qualities are a great example for all of us.

A.B.C.

2010 July 1
by david

I was having breakfast with a prominent VC a while back and happened to mention that my two partners had done some work for another startup that had gone belly up. “You’ll need a letter from your attorney stating that there are no issues with the code,” he said sternly, adding, “When you meet a girl at a bar, you don’t tell her right away that you snore. You charm her and win her over and then maybe in a few weeks she discovers that you snore. But by then she’s able to overlook it.” I couldn’t dispute the truth of what he was saying but was taken aback at the vehemence of his response. I protested that I hadn’t told any other VC’s about this and had only brought it up because I thought we were just having a friendly conversation.

Wrong! There are no “off the record” conversations between startup entrepreneurs and VC’s.  You’re pitching all the time—like it or not. My mistake was forgetting his motivation for being there. He wasn’t there to give advice, he was looking for the next Twitter. I was still working on my presentation and was hoping for feedback so I’d have a better pitch when things got serious. But that was wasting his time. What I failed to realize was that the opportunity to have breakfast with him was a non-recurring opportunity. It was my one and only chance to pitch him and get him interested. A friend likens it to having only one bullet. If it goes astray you don’t get a second chance.

My problem? Pitching too early. It’s a common mistake. I was too eager to get out and bless the world with all of our wonderful products–which unfortunately were still in the concept stage.

Two lessons here. Don’t start pitching until you’re ready. Brainstorm for weeks with your partners, nail down that business plan, finish the prototype. THEN work on your pitch. Define what problem you’re solving and for what segment of the population. Rehearse it. Memorize your responses to every objection you can think of. “Why would anyone want to limit their message to 140 characters when they can write what they want on Facebook?” (Somebody must have had a pretty damn good answer to that one.)

Entrepreneurs are, by nature, idea people. We’re collaborative, we’re, well, ok, we’re dreamers. Why else would you decide to go through the agony of starting a business from scratch? VC’s are deal people. That’s an entirely different mindset. Much has been written about this. And it’s all true. Don’t treat potential investors as sounding boards. Of course they’ll have opinions about your business but they expect you to have done your homework and be 100% convincing about your idea. And don’t drop your guard after a couple of drinks or at an informal setting.

Once you decide you’re ready to start pitching, practice the A.B.C. rule. Always be closing.

Web of One

2010 June 18

“We believe in a web of one,” Carol Bartz stated at TechCrunch Disrupt. Yahoo produces thousands of custom versions of their home page to reflect users’ interests and preferences. I was struck by her comment because we all waste too much time trying to find what we’re looking for—online or offline. At AOL, our mantra was convenience, which at the time summed up what the newly-created web could do for consumers. But since then the web has grown enormously: Google has 1 trillion url’s in their database. Ideally, personalization services could save time and effort by filtering and recommending. The most reliable model is to make recommendations based on past behavior, which isn’t a completely reliable predictor of future interests or needs. Or to try to group people with similar tastes. Users who bought this also bought this… But these services are not perfect and a single blooper often destroys their credibility. I’ve told my story about Amazon recommending power tools to me (I’m not a handy guy) in a previous post.

I spoke to a former editor at Daily Candy recently and she offered a sobering view of AI-based recommendations. She’s biased toward curation, which, by definition, implies human intervention.

It’s true that no one has shown that a back end can offer relevance to millions of users on a consistent basis. There are very big companies with huge development teams trying to crack the code on this. Our solution? I wouldn’t say we’re pivoting, as much as re-focusing on gigmor, our musician matching site. There we’re solving a real problem with a unique solution. Sounds good to me.

Startup Alley

2010 May 21
by david

I’ll be at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York next week and will post updates from there. Trybe will be exhibiting in “Startup Alley” all day Tues, 5/25. Feel free to drop by and say hello. We’ll be demoing gigmor, our musician matching site, which is in pre-beta and an interactive mockup of the Trybe recommendation service.

I’m looking forward to being back in my favorite city–I still consider myself an ex-New Yorker and probably always will. I have a few meetings set up with potential investors and am jazzed that we have a great concept and a great team. I’m looking forward to catching up with a few old friends and making some new ones.

Skate to where the puck will be…

2010 April 26
by david

Recently I was having lunch with two tech entrepreneurs and we ended up in a debate about the right target market for startup web sites. I said I was aiming for affluent, well-educated users, not early adopters. I’ve watched plenty of “cool,” “hip” sites go out of business because they couldn’t attract a big enough audience to achieve profitability. (Some lucky ones get acquired before that happens and then fade from view.) I think of the web as a media business and have the bias of an ex-AOLer. Our target market was “anybody with a computer.” My fellow entrepreneurs said that most successful sites start out by being popular with early adopters and grow from there.

Defining the target audience is a challenge for any web site. If you build a site that works for your mom, how do you create a compelling experience for the recent college grad who grew up using a computer? Do you build a product that works for the sophisticated user then, once you gain some traction, “dumb” it down to appeal to more mainstream users? How many of us have launched an “improved,” “redesigned” site only to incite a mass revolt from our customers? Even when we’re adding great new features. Trying to offer a good experience to two vastly different customer segments isn’t easy. Apple does it better than anyone. Google does it by marketing a utility with one input field and free email. Most people have never heard of Google Labs or Google Analytics.

It’s well known that sophisticated users consistently overestimate the capabilities of the rest of the world and that’s a danger for web startups. Take RSS feeds. People who know how to use them find them very useful—although social networks are rapidly becoming the preferred way to get information. But most people don’t know what RSS means or how to use it. A fairly recent (2005) study showed that only 12% of Internet users were aware of RSS and only 4% said they used it. At the time of the study, 27% of Internet users used an RSS-based service like MyYahoo without being aware that it was based on RSS. The numbers are likely higher today but the point is that the majority of Internet users are not tech savvy.

There are almost 50M college grads in the US. What percentage is tech-savvy and what percentage has never heard of TechCrunch? On the other hand, there are roughly 16M college students, clearly a segment that’s comfortable with technology and open to new brands.

What’s the right target market? It depends on the problem you’re trying to solve and what stage you’re at. If you’re solving a technology problem, your customers will be developers or technology companies. If you’re solving a fairly universal problem then your target will be the online consumer audience. But it’s a huge uphill battle to create a brand and convert customers. So it’s a process. You have to start small. Despite our ambitions to achieve mainstream status, our marketing strategy is to use guerrilla marketing to target college students (and early adopters) and keep our acquisition costs low. (Not very unique but it can be effective if it works. Both Twitter and Foursquare gained huge mindshare at South by Southwest.) If we can create some “buzz,” ie press coverage, word of mouth, etc., then we have a better chance of going mainstream. And raising more money so we can spend more on marketing. If you want to build a big brand you’ve got to have a plan that takes you there one step at a time. Because it’s a crowded field out there and for every overnight success there are a thousand small businesses struggling to make payroll.

As for your product strategy, I’m a believer in launching the minimal viable product first. See the recent NYT article on the lean startup. For both your target audience and your product strategy, the best approach is to, as Gretzy famously said, “skate toward where the puck will be.” I heard another good analogy from an executive who had ridden a motorcycle across the US with a group of successful middle-aged guys looking for adventure. When you’re doing 90 down some highway in Montana, you can’t stare at the road right in front of you because you’ll miss the long view of what’s ahead. But if you’re looking too far away you won’t see that patch of gravel until it’s too late.

Matching vs Recommendations

2010 April 4
by david

I spoke to someone who described themselves as a CFO-for-hire a while back. After hearing my description of Trybe’s mission, she commented that “there are a ton of recommendation sites out there.” I couldn’t deny that but felt that this didn’t adequately describe our concept. It inspired some thinking about how we are different. I looked up “match” and “recommend” in Webster’s but found the definitions to be somewhat circular. To recommend is to “suggest.” Duh! A match is a good or suitable fit.

But, as I pondered this, it occurred that there is a difference between the two and, of course, I bring it up because it illustrates why Trybe’s solution is better than the alternatives. Our model is based on matching technology.

Let’s take recommendations first. To recommend something is an action. You suggest something to someone, presumably based on some measure of its suitability or relevance. But your assumptions about their tastes or preferences could be flawed. I find this with Amazon. I’ve bought hundreds of books and CDs from Amazon and occasionally their recommendations for a musical artist or author are useful. But, in general, I don’t look to them for recommendations and generally ignore their emails. Why? Because I feel they don’t know me. This was the case even before last summer when I bought a power saw through them, (because of the convenience of OneClick). Very soon, I began getting recommendations like: “Special on Power Tools this weekend.” And “20% off Work Boots.” I kid you not. They were inferring from one purchase an interest in or need for power tools that didn’t exist. They don’t know me. They continue to recommend power tools to me to this day. A+ for persistence.

What about matching? A match is a good fit between two entities (sometimes potential spouses). Understanding what makes a good match implies a knowledge of BOTH entities. Amazon would stand a better chance of matching me with music and books I might like if they knew me better. Of course, even then, matches or recommendations can seem off base. No one can predict with 100% accuracy whether someone else will like something or not.

Trybe’s strategy is to know you by…wait, we’re still in stealth mode. Suffice it to say, we’re going to need some information about you in order to fulfill the promise of offering relevance. One of the challenges is how to glean that information while keeping you engaged. There has to be a better way than subjecting people to something like eHarmony’s endless series of questions. We’re not the only ones going down this path. And clearly doing it well is a real challenge. Because it hasn’t been done yet. Yet…

Digital Media

2010 March 26
by david

“We read five words on the first page of a really good novel and we begin to forget that we are reading printed words on a page; we begin to see images.”

–John Gardner

A friend, M, and I were talking about the iPad the other night. I said I thought it was going to be a huge success because it (and its successors and imitators) will become the new media consumption platform. Such a prediction isn’t in character for me because I’m not an early adopter. I usually don’t get excited by new gadgets or technology. But I’m a big Apple fan, an avid reader and overall media junkie. M. looked skeptical and said, with a somewhat mournful expression, that books will never go away. I agreed and said that, from what I had observed, a new medium doesn’t usually wipe out older forms of media. Rather than replacing them, it simply displaces them to a role that fits their strengths. TV didn’t kill radio but most people now only listen to the radio while they’re driving. The Internet didn’t kill TV, etc. It’s different in the technology world where the new replaces the old. Remember shrink wrapped software and Zip drives?

So what about the print world these days? It’s obvious that newspapers are migrating into the digital realm. The only question is how much longer will a physical paper be delivered to your home. These days I read my physical copy of the NYT with my laptop open beside it. I jump between physical content, digital content, social networks and email. The logical division between physical content and digital content seems to be based on the time sensitivity of the content. We want “news” to be as current as possible. But I don’t mind that Paul Krugman wrote his column 2 days ago. Or that an investigative piece uncovering political corruption in the Bush administration (just a random example) was written last week. As the paper gets thinner, I’m reading more and more of the NYT online. And that’ll increasingly be the case with other print media like books and magazines.

The iPad is going to accelerate that process for me, just as the iPhone changed how I use a phone. The iPad will deliver the content I want with my email and bookmarks all on one device. Not to mention my music, photos and videos. At first I was worried about its portability vs. the Kindle, (which I don’t own). But it’s the size of an 8 1/2 x 11 page and weighs a pound and a half. Even a light laptop weighs almost 5 pounds.

M. said he loved the tactile nature of books and I agree. What’s a home without a book collection, however small? Great works of literature will continue to exist as books. Dickens, Shakespeare—you want to see them on a shelf. You want to pass them on to your kids. (How does this work with ebooks? I email my sons a file of a book I liked when I was their age? I zap it to their Kindle?) Books will become rarer but more treasured as a result. I see a resurgence of sales for hardback classics as ebooks become more popular. I just bought two books through Amazon that, because I won’t care about them in 10 years, I should have bought digitally. Some content is disposable and ephemeral. Every book we read doesn’t change our lives. I’ll take a flyer on a digital album because it’s cheap and easy to delete if I don’t like it. (I never seem to be able to throw out CDs or books for some reason.) Disposable content has a place in our lives (although it’s generating a lot of noise these days at the expense of more thoughtful commentary).

Continuing his defense of books, M. said he likes being able to pull books off his shelf to look for a quotation or fact or favorite passage. (He’s a political commentator, among other things.) I responded that searching through his collection would definitely be easier if it was in a digital form. That gave us both pause.

The discussion got me thinking about the effect of digitization on other forms of media. Tivo has got me watching more TV than ever because I can control the experience. Digital photos are a huge improvement for storing and viewing pictures. The same for music. I can find songs or artists so much more easily now. Remember browsing through Tower Records?  Now when I hear a tune on the radio while I’m driving I make a note of the time then look it up on the radio station’s web site when I get home. I often buy the song or album right away. I do the same with XM Radio, which displays the song title and artist in real time. I have an MP3 server on my house audio system and we love to put it on Random and let it serendipitously create a mix of our favorites and songs we barely recognize while we’re entertaining or just sitting around. That said, I still buy some CDs, usually of artists who mean a lot to me because I like having the physical CD. But I usually burn it onto the MP3 server and that’s how we listen to it. If we had iPod docks in our cars I think I would have stopped buying CDs by now.

Books, on the other hand, have been around for over five hundred years. Even the most tech-friendly of us agree they’re an excellent way to store and distribute information. They’re appealing in their physical form—unlike record albums, cassettes and CDs.

There’s much more to think about here and so I’ve created a digital media category on the blog. Incidentally, the longtime book critic at the NYT, Michiko Kakutani, wrote in an interesting article in last Sunday’s Times about the changing value of role of content in a digital world. It’s well worth reading.

Convenience

2010 March 19
by david

I used to manage a group of very talented people at AOL that was named “Convenience” by someone more senior than me, likely in a fit of wry humor. It was somewhat embarrassing to hand out my business card at places like Citibank and watch the reaction of senior bankers in blue suits. They immediately sized me up with cold stares, trying to understand if I ran the company’s snack stand or was one of those staffers with no power and a silly title like “Chief Digital Convergence Evangelist.” They usually decided to ignore it along with the many other features of the new media world they didn’t understand. They were partly contemptuous and partly envious. Or so I imagined. But, since Bob Pittman’s mantra was that AOL’s mission was to offer convenience, it was something to be proud of within the confines of CC1, the hanger-like space in the wastelands near Dulles airport where most of us worked.

But the concept has stayed with me. On the one hand, it’s a truism to say that businesses should offer convenience to their customers—it’s like saying they should create value—but on the other hand, it’s worth keeping in mind. We live in a crowded, noisy world and it’s only getting worse. Someone or something that saves us time or makes things easier (as good a definition of convenience as any other) could be worth a lot.

Which brings me to the state of the web. I find things are going in the opposite direction. Where once it was empowering to be able to see all your stocks in one portfolio online (your own private Bloomberg) or shop in your pajamas, it seems the social network explosion has increased the amount of content online to the point where it’s almost impossible to cut through the noise and actually absorb anything or find something meaningful. It’s only going to get worse.

Let’s face it: the web is overwhelming. I had a friend tell me she was bored by Facebook. It left her feeling “flat.” It’s become a utility. A really useful one but what future does it have if it leaves people without any emotion?

So where do we go from here? The premise of so many new social networking sites—that shared tastes equal compatibility—doesn’t work for me. (Maybe I’m underestimating them.) What is compatibility? Similar tastes? Similar personality traits? Shared experiences? Shared culture? All of the above. And more. What about the dictum for successful relationships—that opposites attract? As I go about my daily business these days, I try to be mindful of what interactions and connections matter to me—and why. It does go beyond shared taste, that I know. Just because we both like “The Sopranos” doesn’t mean we’ll get along. And it doesn’t mean that you’ll enjoy “Wolf Hall” the way I am these days.

Many sites are going after this space, hoping to find the glue that can bond people together, thereby creating value and keeping them coming back. And telling their friends. I find two problems with this: that I don’t need to meet THAT MANY new people when it comes down to it and I don’t have a burning need to talk about Esperanza Spalding, the great new jazz/crossover artist I just discovered. (Although I just did, didn’t I?) It’s partly a generational thing. Recent college grads, because of their age and comfort with the digital world and because they’re still very much in discovery mode, probably do really want to meet others like them and to share the latest cool band some online buddy in Norway turned them on to.

We at Trybe think about this a lot. T is a prominent researcher in neural psychology. Our goal is to offer relevance through the ultimate in personalization. Enough said. After all, we’re supposed to be in stealth mode. Although we’re also in pitch mode. Of course we believe we can do better than the competition. But it’ll take a crack team working for a few months for us to prove it.

Happy St. Pat’s Day

2010 March 17
by david

My maternal grandfather’s people were from Cork. Since my dad is from Edinburgh I can proudly say I’m mostly a Celt. So, what better day to start a blog for someone who’s always taken seriously the importance of carrying on the Celtic traditions of storytelling, humor and drinking?  (And not necessarily in that order.)

The point of this blog–in case you were asking–is to document the trials and tribulations of an individual (that would be me) and his partners in the throes of creating a web startup. The startup in question is Trybe, a personalization service based on … oh and you actually thought I would tell you? Not on the first date. I can share the name with you–probably because I’m proud of it and because I spent a boatload of cash to buy the url. Or is that buttload?

I plan to track our progress in an accurate, sometimes irreverent, documentation of the process of creating and launching a new web site/service. I plan to allude to my illustrious partners, (known here as D and T like characters in a Russian novel) and many of the characters we run across, most of whom will also remain anonymous. At times, I may digress into the idle musings of a male living in the 21st century. I will try to remain cognizant of the remote possibility that people of importance may come across this in an effort to size me up but I will also try to keep it real. I really have no idea if that’s possible. I will no doubt, (as a lifelong oldest sibling), be unable to resist the urge to pass on any small pearls of wisdom I come across, while doing my utmost to avoid pontificating. Because the longer I live, the less sure I am that I know anything–or anything of significance. I do know how to make a good cup of espresso and how to play Ebm7b5.

Where was I? We are building a prototype for gigmor, a musician matching service, that I wished had existed 7 years ago when I moved to LA. As an avid player who needed the stress release and the distraction of playing music–preferably but not exclusively in public–I embarked on the task of finding compatible players to jam and gig with. I found myself in the wasteland of online classifieds where a) you had to scroll through hundreds of ads, b) you didn’t know whether the person whose ad you liked was a complete flake or your next best musician buddy forever, and c) to find that out you had to write dozens of unanswered mails and leave dozens of unreturned voice mails. If you were lucky enough to emerge from that unscathed, then you might find yourself in a rehearsal studio with people who instantly bored you.

Gigmor will solve that problem for thousands of musicians (around the world, we hope) by matching them ONLY with compatible musicians in their area. The prototype will be ready in a couple of weeks, at which point, I will be pounding the pavement, smiling and dialing, etc in search of enough funding to build the real site we’re imagining. Gigmor will be a microcosm (and incubator for) the aforementioned Trybe service.

All this is a preamble to last night’s sleepless preoccupation or, shall I say obsession?, with a competitor who recently entered our radar screens because of an article in the NYT. (I think you know what that stands for.) No sooner did they (let’s call them H) enter our world as a direct competitor then they announced additional funding of $12M. Yes, additional. Since we’re behind them in every respect this is not good news. And as H’s co-founder termed it, this money will allow them to “go turbo.” Turbo! We’re looking for–and would be happy with–low seven figures. That was, until yesterday, our definition of going turbo. Seems there was a prior relationship between H’s co-founder and the guys with the deep pockets.

And that’s the challenge for all of us in the startup game. When you approach someone who doesn’t know you from Adam and you’re asking for a sizable amount of cash you’d damn well better have a good idea. And a good story to tell. Because there are a hundred folks ahead of you who are known in one way or the other to said check writer. And, of course, who can blame them? Their goal is to maximize returns while minimizing risk. And conventional wisdom says risk is minimized with someone you know. There’s the possibility that’s a fallacy but we’re all human. So, what does an entrepreneur need to do? Network like crazy, rekindle old relationships, create new ones. Suddenly everyone’s important. Because that snarky kid right out of college could be the son of….who knows? Some Silicon Valley maven. Or your former office rival is now a partner at a VC firm. So you migrate from snob to sycophant. Because it’s survival, baby. The biggest gorilla got the most mates and the most food. But also don’t forget that you have to live with yourself–as does your beleaguered spouse–and there is a kind of reality adjustment that can occur when you’ve ignored your conscience for too long. More on that another day.