Archive for the ‘Business planning’ Category

Startup advice brilliance

October 21, 2009

A friend pointed me to a superb summary of advice for startups, specifically calling out the ways that advice can be flawed, along with some perceptive insights into how to identify advice that’s actionable and useful.  The post is by Eric Reis, and is appropriately titled The 10 Ways Startup Advice is Flawed

Eric’s pov is appropriately snarky, and at a macro level he calls out various ways that being lucky and being smart are frequently confused with each other.  Snarkiness aside, the really valuable point he makes is how important it is to be a critical thinker, in general.  The value of making your own assessment of the information you’re consuming, and not just accepting it.

I especially liked his point #6: Maybe the thing they did used to work, but it doesn’t anymore

I think about that a lot in my own context.  I was at RealNetworks back when it truly was pioneering this new phenomena of sending audio and video over the internet, and we owned that market.  In public we said we had 85%+ share of the market, but in reality it was closer to 95% for a good long time.

We called the shots, named the prices, dictated terms.  We muscled into and out of markets we cared about, aligned ourselves with titans of the technology landscape.

And then Microsoft showed up and we fought them tooth and nail.  It was a hard and ugly fight, which they eventually won (once they started paying attention).

Well, they won, sort of.  It was epic, and in a start-up kind of way, it was epic fun.  I remember picking a big fight with the Windows Media team on an internet media list-serve, where I’d just published some user research showing how people preferred our new video to Windows Media’s.

And Microsoft’s head of a/v technology posted to the list, accusing us of fluffing up the research, and he included a three page outline of the ways you could falsify/skew consumer surveys.  And it was so much fun to respond to the list , asking “how was it that Microsoft knew of so many ways to distort research?”

But I digress.

We each became so obsessed with each other we quit paying attention to what Macromedia was doing with Flash and what Apple was doing with the tight coupling of iTunes and the iPod.  So, while we were both wrestling in the mud pit, Apple and Macromedia left the building and started more interesting and lucrative businesses elsewhere.  And until that point the thing we did at RealNetworks really did used to work.

Eric’s “ten ways” are simple and insightful.  The hard part is putting them into action, in the moment.  My experience at RealNetworks is valuable to the startups I work with and talk to if and only if both of us are cognizant of its context.  And it takes discipline and a good dose of humility to walk the talk Eric is alluding to.

I know there’s a ton of stuff I did that was a product of luck and timing, and a lot that was a result of deliberate hard work and applied intelligence.  The hard part is being honest enough with myself to examine where those boundary lines are, to strip out the specific circumstantial knowledge from the generalized, truly durable knowledge.

So, let’s all get a good laugh out of Eric’s list, but also remember how hard it is to actually do what he’s suggesting.

Performance and an opportunity to explore it

October 2, 2009

The underpinning principle of this blog is “meaningful failure”, and what you can learn when you examine this critical juncture of where you fail and embrace what you can learn through that failure.

I’ve been seeking out others who share this interest, and last year I discovered Ross Bentley who runs a consulting business, Bentley Performance Systems, that focuses on improving performance for executives and interestingly, professional race car drivers.  That latter constituency intrigued me.  Failure on a race track has specific tangible implications that failure in business does not:  bent metal, physical harm, or worse.

Ross spends his time working with his clients on very personal elements of improving performance, along with more straightforward tools and techniques of planning and analysis.  His focus on who you are as a person I find interesting, the examination about what emotionally or psychologically may be holding someone back from achieving their potential is an area like failure where people are less comfortable speaking plainly and openly.

In the case of the racers and the executives the conversation goes in the same direction:  how can you best prepare yourself to be constantly improving, learning from success and failure?  He engages them in relevant and specific conversations focused on getting them to do to what they do differently and better.

And after this discussion, examination, and hard work the racers go to the track and the CEOs go to their offices.  In both cases they’re in environments where the information is flowing by, fast, and they need to make decisions and situation assessments rapidly.  And each ends up with a quantifiable data set telling them how well they performed: lap times & finish order, income statements & balance sheets.

Ross and I got together yesterday so he could share a research project he’s starting called Performance in the Workplace. He wants to to better understand how executives assess their own performance, and what affects their performance over time.

The research is nice and simple:  he’s asking them to fill out a short survey, once a week, and tell him how well they feel they’ve performed, and why.  You can participate in the project by signing up here.

What I like about his approach is that he’s not defining “performance” for the participants.  He’s letting them define it for themselves.  When he first told me about this my reaction was “that’s pretty subjective, why not quantify performance with metrics”?”.  But then I realized, that really misses the point.  When you’re trying to help people do better every day, metrics are the product of your performance, not the measure of it.

We run businesses based on a set of milestones, KPIs (key performance indicators) – “dashboards” – and these are important measures of the recent past.  And they’re critical – I’ve written about why a well documented operating plan and the corresponding assumptions are essential to managing your business.

But executives spend their days making decisions, asking questions, analyzing and assessing – and of course this results in metric-based results.  But not in the moment.  How do you assess the effectiveness of your performance while you’re making those decisions, asking those questions, digging into those numbers?

I think Ross is onto an interesting topic here.  What causes you to feel you’re performing well one day, and not so well the next?  Will the act of self-assessing performance help you, in and of itself, to become more effective and cause you to be closer to the top of your game?

I’m going to participate, because in my business, at best I get monthly or quarterly metrics from my companies in terms of valuations I can apply to rates of return – on paper – and it takes years to get to the point where you can convert the paper value to cash or stock you can sell for cash.  Daily performance is not at all quantifiable with metrics, but matters oh so much.

I’m sure I can learn something from this, and am eager to see how what he finds.

A BDP from an unlikely “industry”

July 29, 2009

My first job out of business school was with a management consulting firm who focused on growth strategies for their clients.  The four founders of the firm were former partners at Bain, and they brought to our firm the concept of “best demonstrated practices” which we referred to by the acronym “BDP.”

Bain defines a BDP as something that “generates the most value at the least cost.”  At our firm it referred to an example something done so well you could you use it as a model to learn from, where you could discern the essence of success from and apply it more broadly.  This could be a business process or a business model, communications or management style.  It’s a nice construct to help you identify patterns that could be relevant to you or your business.

Of course BDPs also have limitations.  Without the corresponding insight about the context of why an example works so well, about all you’ll be able to do is copy the motions of the example, but not the essence of its effectiveness.   To make a BDP really work you’ve got to simultaneously abstract away the context while also deeply understanding it.

I’ve seen some of the startups I’ve worked with over the years really get this wrong, whose teams will energetically seek out the best performing companies in some discipline (say, acquiring new users) and just copy what was done, without understanding whether or not those same methods really make sense or apply to their business, with their users. 

But every so often you come across an example of simplicity and insight, efficiency of communication, where the problem has been thought through so completely you just wish you could take it, copy it, and paste it into whatever business you’re running.

I came across one of these earlier in the week.  You know from my last post that I’m hiking the John Muir Trail next week, which will take about three weeks.  I won’t be able to carry all my food for that length of time and will need to resupply twice along the way.  This works pretty simply, you mail a package of supplies to one of two “resupply” points, and they hold it for you until you arrive.  You restock your backpack, give them your trash, and off you go again.

But it’s more complicated than that.  I am depending on that food being there when I get there, If it’s not there when I get there, I’m screwed – I’ll be close to being out of food and will still have more than a week of hiking to go to the next resupply.  So getting this right matters a lot.

The first resupply point is like a hotel in the mountains, about a six mile roundtrip detour from the trail.  The second resupply point, The Muir Trail Ranch, is much more convenient, literally on the trail.  The quality of thinking that went into the instructions about how to get your package to them, and how to ensure a successful resupply, is simply magnificent.  The fact that you ship your food to them in a five gallon plastic bucket makes this all the more whimsical.

It’s not just the explanation of the steps and logistics, it’s the tone of the communication.  Clear, simple, welcoming, conveying a desire to make you successful, to make the whole process successful, conveying a deep understanding of the context of their service. 

Their instructions reads like an FAQ, but it’s not a laundry list of questions, it’s a very thoughtful and insightful delineation of your needs and their ability to meet them.  They’ve addressed the “lifecycle” of a resupply – the range of needs you will have (email access, recharging devices, disposing of your trash) when you’ve come to get more food. 

To me the high point is at the bottom of the page, where they encourage you to pre-register your delivery, and will even e-mail you pre-printed shipping labels.  The example label sheet is stunning in its efficiency – I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly never mailed a bucket before, and doing so is not obvious.

This experience certainly reduced some anxiety about my resupply, but made me appreciate how wonderful it is to be on the receiving end of high quality thinking and customer awareness.  Where insight about the context is abundant.

Societal costs and pure economics

July 2, 2009

I wrote earlier in the year about the challenges companies face raising Series B financings, and in particular how vulnerable companies are who have demonstrated potential but not yet converted that into a reliable, profitable revenue stream.

The issue is keeping an eye on your cash while continuing to develop the business, anticipating the next infusion of capital.

But what if you look at the business today and soberly assess that it’s just not going to get to where you expect or believe it needs to be: either to raise more money from an outside investor or to deliver meaningful value?

When do you make the decision to stop fundraising and use the remaining cash to wind the company down?  It’s somehow easier to get to that decision point as an investor.  You’re almost structurally set up to make that dispassionate call, not involved in the daily business, but fluent in the operations and the potential.

But that’s structure and theory.  In practice you are very close to the business and to the management team.  You’re spending tons of time with them.  You invested in their vision.  So unless the company has missed its milestones by a country mile there’s enormous room for debate, and ambiguity.

However a looming cash-out date sharpens everyone’s focus; there’s only a few short months until you’re out of money.  Time pares down the alternatives until there’s just one.

What about companies who have enough money to keep going for a year or more, but whose business is just not performing?  And what if you don’t expect it to?  What if the shape and trajectory of the business is just not mapping cleanly onto a business that will deliver the potential you expect, or more importantly, that the market will value?

That’s a much more difficult call.

Are you better off acknowledging the futility, the wasted resources (money, time, career opportunity cost), and be deliberate about making a difficult decision sooner rather than later?  The big issue is that in this market, unless the business is profitable, the likelihood of selling it is close to zero, and if you are lucky to sell, the price will be predatory at best.  A few million dollars, maybe.

So, let’s say you have $5 million in cash now, and you’re burning $1 million a quarter.  Do you spend $3 million and three quarters to see if you can get the company to perform to expectations knowing you might be able to sell it for $5 million a year from now if you’re wrong?  Or do you just shut down the company at a cost of $1 million, and redistribute the remaining $4 million to investors?

That math is harsh, but what’s harsher is the economic climate that supports it.  This isn’t a “present value of tomorrow’s cash” kind of problem, it’s more nuanced.

Are you better off giving the company the runway and time to try?  And the employees another year of security and jobs?  It’s that second part that in the past I think would have been easier to look beyond, but today, for me, it really becomes a significant variable in the calculus.

We’re in the business of making risky bets, and generally view time as an asset to develop options and deliver unexpected upturns; taking it off the “balance sheet” seems at odds with the whole ethos of our business.

But is that also a way of dodging the responsibility of making a tough decision?  Avoiding the inevitable is different from preserving options.

How much more do you weigh these societal costs against a purely “economic” decision?  In a growing economy, it’s so much easier to focus purely on the economics.  In a growing economy people will get new jobs, some more quickly than others, but they’ll move on.

But in today’s economy it’s just not that clear.

The vulnerability of a big idea

June 15, 2009

As Twitter approaches mainstream relevance, it’s also entering a period of strategic and operational vulnerability that startup companies with big ideas run into. 

By going mainstream it’s exposing the structural opportunity its founders saw years ago, but back then, only the founders and the investors were in on the secret.  There had to be a slide in the Series A deck that said  “Here’s the opportunity” and it wasn’t about building a small, derivative business.  It was about building a disruptive, billion dollar kind of company.

In Twitter’s case it’s the opportunity to redefine how people communicate, and shaping how the economics flow in and around this new communication.  It involves getting to scale, developing a third party “ecosystem” of other companies integrating with and depending on Twitter for their own success, and then monetizing all this in a compelling, huge way.  This is really hard, and the folks at Twitter are still struggling a bit with the exact business model that will do all this.

Eighteen months ago, only people in the echo chamber were exposed to the nature of the opportunity.  But today, with Twitter’s explosive growth and visibility, everyone can begin to comprehend the potential.  When Ashton Kutcher gets petulant about his million followers, when Dell trumpets that they’ve sold $3 million of products to their Twitter followers, the incumbent titans in the internet and advertising sectors, well they notice too, and they notice “threat” ahead of “opportunity.”

You saw this first with the Facebook redesign that provided a real-time status update feed a la Twitter.  A classic “fast follower” approach to someone else’s innovation. Facebook already owns a lot of people’s mindshare and time online, so the fact that they’re tracking Twitter tells you how significant the threat appears to them.  By the way, Facebook is also struggling with business model and opportunity vulnerability too, they just are further along the scale path.

How does Twitter keep eyeballs and session times growing if Facebook is just going to “fast follow” them, treating them like outsourced R&D?  This will be really hard, but let’s assume Twitter wins this round of the battle, gets to scale with a loyal and large audience for their new medium of tweets.  Do they jump out of the frying pan and into the fire?

What’s differentiated about tweets is that they flow in real-time, and finding out what’s interesting and relevant instantly has got to be worth something, and it’s so different from the problem Google solves.  Google crawls the web at a frequency measured at best in minutes, more frequently hours or days, so you could envision Twitter creating a new category Google can’t participate in. 

But what if “instant” isn’t in the end all that important.  The NY Times dug into this a bit, looking into  why Google isn’t Twitter.  And they observed that real-time search is hard and neither Twitter nor Google are currently architected to do this efficiently, or well. 

What became clear is that if you need anything other than instant, real-time search, Google can give you “close enough” search, and get closer and closer over time due to their scale.  We can all figure out who will reap the revenue rewards if all Twitter’s creates is another type of page Google can place ads on.

This kind of battle doesn’t result from incremental thinking, from safe bets.  Twitter’s vulnerabilities are proof of the significance of the idea, and what Twitter’s investors funded.  But it doesn’t mean it will have a happy ending. 

And there’s food for thought here for anyone running a startup.  Expect that you will become vulnerable to the incumbents just when you’re hitting your stride, just when people acknowledge your value and relevance.  The presence of that vulnerability is your ticket to the next round of the fight, validation that you’re headed in a worthy direction.

I dearly hope Twitter pulls this off.  I love to see the status quo up-ended, I love the mental image of apples spilling all through the marketplace as someone with a bold and compelling idea runs through, knocking the carts over along the way.

In defense of the echo chamber

May 28, 2009

I had two interesting conversations this week with super smart technology execs, and found myself uttering the same phrase to them, in different yet related contexts. The phrase was “…and it made me feel a million years old”. The context in both conversations was remarking on how long it takes for real, pervasive technology innovations to take root and how you reconcile that with early stage investing.

And I can’t really explain it to myself. I spent a 15 year phase of my career at companies transforming the entertainment and communications sectors, totally in the thick of the “next big thing”, and felt so urgently and palpably that we were shaping and enabling the next “normal”.

At one of those companies, C-Cube, we were making the foundational video technology that enabled the whole transformation to digital cable, satellite and DVDs. I spent countless hours with executives in these industries while we figured out how this would all work, and around 1994 I heard them tell us all that “500 channel cable” would be here, the coming year, maybe the year after that. Right around the corner.

Except it wasn’t. It only took about another 15 years.

But it never would have happened if we all hadn’t been working away, really hard and for a long time, acting, believing that “right around the corner” was really true.

I felt like I was a little smarter when I was at RealNetworks in 1999, and I heard many of these same executives talk about how by using the internet over cable (or telephone lines) they could deliver movies and 500 channels of TV the next year. Maybe the year after that.

And I remember leaving some of these meetings and telling my colleagues I’d heard this before, and it wasn’t going to work out that way, that they were “breathing their own exhaust fumes”. But I still worked really hard, and for a long time, trying to make that “right around the corner” become true too.

So here we are, in 2009, and I can order a movie from Amazon over the internet and have it delivered to my Tivo. Just ten years later, or 15 depending on whose vision of the future is the reference point.

And it struck me in the conversations I was having with the execs, that perhaps it’s not so much feeling a million years old, it’s realizing that early stage investing and startup companies places you in this strange place, where you straddle two worlds. The world “inside” the vision, where the idea is bold and the future seems right in front of you, and the world “outside” where you can look at these companies and understand it will take a decade, maybe more, for that reality to be commonplace and accepted.

There’s a semi-derogatory name for this inside world, and it’s “the echo chamber”. Most of the time it’s focused at Silicon Valley, but I actually think it’s not geographically constrained. The boundaries are more around the locus of a really big idea and a group of people who can pull it off. They get a bunch of other people to believe them, to buy into the vision – customers, partners, press, analysts – and now there’s a cohort that reinforces the belief system.

You can see this playing out, right now, with all the convulsing about Twitter. It’s been ascribed to being useful just to folks in the valley, just the people whose whole focus in life is in the development and consumption of technology most of “the rest of us” will never need or see the use in.

Kara Swisher of the Wall Street Journal wrote about Twitter in this context a year ago. And I read her column at the time and my reaction was “I’m glad she called this one out, it’s ridiculous how much hyperventilating goes on in the valley about stuff like this – it really is an echo chamber”.

But there’s nothing wrong with this, in fact it’s exactly how we ended up with Tivos at home and can’t imagine life without them, how we watch Susan Boyle shatter our expectations and assumptions about image and substance, and how a billion apps can be downloaded onto iPhones in nine months. And how we will all be tweeting and wonder how we ever communicated without it. In about ten years.

Lots of low cost experiments

April 22, 2009

The really interesting improvements companies make come from takings risks, but in a lot of cases risk-taking can be held hostage by needing data to support every decision.  Being conservative and careful across the board may be safe, but it’s not where breakthrough learning happens.

This is where I see a lot of startups struggle:  confronting the tension that is created between knowing when to apply disciplined fact-based decision making to avoid failure, and when to be disciplined about making decisions where failure is accepted as a likely outcome.

The best companies create a culture that can foster two seemingly conflicting organization abilities: precision and failure.  In fact, you need both to reliably profit from your mistakes.

The key is understanding where in your business you can afford to routinely experience failure, and where failure has more costly significance.  You need internal processes that measure performance, coupled with a culture that has a pretty solid foundation of trust – where anyone and everyone feels comfortable taking a risk, and reporting the results as data.  I wrote on this earlier, it’s a culture where bad news has got to travel faster than good news.

Steve Blank wrote a pithy essay on how to navigate this decision making quandry and I love the quote he referenced from General Patton: “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.”  This is a variant (or perhaps the inspiration) for another saying “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

To me they drive home the value of action and experience placed on par with the value of planning and data.  Patton would never go into battle without a well thought through and justified plan, but he speaks to how perfecting the plan is different from winning the battle.

The same is true in startups.  It’s critical that they operate with a well thought through plan supported by data, but it’s equally important that they understand when the plan is no longer as important as what the real world is telling you.  It’s another way of understanding why the numbers in your operating plan are wrong, and is in fact healthy.

Steve talks about a simple heuristic, that decisions have two states: reversible and irreversible.  With the reversible decisions you can liberally experiment, and should.  This is where you can create significant breakthroughs for your company by being highly creative, and surprise yourself by taking risks, and failing, perhaps a lot.  If you’re wrong, re-load and try again.  For me the construct is learning to try “lots of low cost experiments”.

He makes an even more interesting observation about tempo.  It’s not sufficient to be able to take risks with reversible decisions, it’s to do so at a brisk tempo.  Quick, responsive, hungry.

Where this comes in especially handy is with sales and marketing performance and new product development.  In both cases you’re in a race to discover what works, and then what works on a repeatable, scalable basis.  I forwarded Steve Blank’s article to one my CEO’s who is focused on improving her sales and marketing team’s pace and performance.

Jenny Hall also made a similar observation in her post about what she learned as CEO of Trendi.com when it failed.  For her it was “if it won’t matter in three months, don’t spend too much time on it.”

She’s got the necessary ingredients: a culture of trust within the company, data-driven decision making, and performance measurement processes.  When she first arrived, these ingredients weren’t as prevalent, and she worked hard to put them in place, and placed a priority on reducing errors and increasing predictability.  But that was then, this is now, and she’s making the transition to fostering more appropriate risk taking as a way to increase performance.

Lots of low cost experiments combined with a brisk tempo supported by a disciplined acceptance of failure.  That sounds like a lot of fun.  Try it.

The iPhone – Virtualizing enterprise market share

April 8, 2009

It’s always good to state the obvious:  there is no way Apple will ever make a dent in overall PC market share, much less get into the enterprise desktop or server business in a way that’s relevant.  The reasons are so obvious most people don’t realize it.

The Mac will never duke it out at the low end, much less hang out with the netbook crowd because the lower margins don’t work with Apple’s business model.  HP, Dell, Lenovo – they get to have all the “fun” sorting out the volume/margin voodoo.  Lucky for Apple there’s a large enough segment that will gladly pay a premium for an elegant, integrated, and stable computing experience. 

And guess what?  Apple gets nicely rewarded:  in the fourth quarter of 2008 Apple’s operating profit was 11% while HP’s was 5% (for their personal systems division). 

But what about the corporate market?  What about all those enterprise customers who you can build lucrative, durable, “sticky” relationships with?  Businesses built from hard-fought battles over market share, premised on whoever sells the most laptops/desktops/servers to corporations reaps the rewards of valuable added services that run on them.  Has Apple really just punted on this?

No, they’re smarter than that.  They’ve realized in a world of cloud computing and web delivered applications, their leverage into this market doesn’t come from desktop unit volume.  It comes from inserting the iPhone into the information flow between businesses and their workers. 

But hasn’t every big mobile device supplier tried this already?  Didn’t Nokia bet a huge part of their farm on this with various “Communicator” handsets? 

What about Microsoft with Windows Mobile?  Wasn’t that supposed to provide the worker/enterprise tether?  It was but it never did.  It neither generates significant revenue for Microsoft, nor has it gotten durable traction with business users.  Dan Frommer of Silicon Alley Insider does a great job explaining why it’s a tweener in the worst way.  I can tell you that my two years using a Motorola Q were the longest mobile “computing” years of my life.  One of my partners compared it and an iPhone to “showing up on horseback (Q) when everyone else is arriving by jetpack (iPhone)”.

And as Network World pointed out, Blackberries are great at corporate email and “legacy” enterprise applications but are not great mobile internet experiences.

These companies forget that it’s not about them and protecting their business franchises, it’s about the user experience.  Apple is the first company to get the complete mobile internet user experience right.  Microsoft, Nokia, even Blackberry/RIM probably have done a better job getting mobile computing right, but in a world of web services, I think the operative term is “internet”, not “computing”. 

So how does Apple become relevant in the enterprise?  By virtualizing its market share.  The battles to be fought in enterprise computing over the next 5+ years won’t be over email and ERP, they’ll be around cloud-based services, web-delivered applications and mobile interactions with them.  Market share leverage will be measured in mobile devices, not desktops. 

And until the iPhone arrived, no one had a compelling mobile internet experience.  Hundreds of millions of other phones shipped, and they all suck at the mobile internet.

In an April 2008 report, Gartner found the iPhone is clearly having an impact on IT strategy.  Of their survey respondents, 65% were responsible for supporting, managing and/or provisioning enterprise mobile solutions.  Of these, 13% said they either currently supported the iPhone or had planned for it, 64% said they were currently researching/evaluating support for the iPhone. 

This is brilliant.  By having major corporations enable iPhone support Apple can get a meaningful share of enterprise users without having to sell a single desktop, laptop, or server:  13% share of mobile support is 10x+ Apple’s share of enterprise desktops.

No one is focused on this, and it makes me wonder if Apple likes it that way.  Keep the “iPhone is a consumer product” head-fake going long enough to get a strong foothold with enterprise users.  And if Apple can instill in those users the loyalty they’ve instilled in consumer iPhone and Mac users, well this could be brand new territory in enterprise business.

The reasons are so obvious most people don’t realize it..

The next big thing

April 7, 2009

“What’s the next big thing?” I get asked this a lot, and a lot of VCs get asked the same question too about what’s the next big trend/device/web-service/… and that always makes for an awkward detour in whatever conversation preceded the question.  The truth is “I don’t know.” And it’s a great answer, because none of us do. 

The next big fill in the blank only becomes apparent in hindsight.  It’s not that I’m not smart nor anyone else who gets asked this question, it’s just that you can’t really tell.  Sure, I’ve got favorites (twitter is now at the top of my list, but I wouldn’t have said that a year ago). 

Remember when Google actually was in beta, in 2000?  It began appearing on people’s desktops where I worked at RealNetworks.  We thought it was cool and efficient, but there were ZERO people talking about it being the next big thing.

Last Thursday’s NY Times had an interesting article about the rising popularity of “netbook” computers, and how these are a big emerging phenomena enabled by a structural technology shift in the computing landscape: we no longer need Microsoft, and probably Intel.  The next big thing?  Maybe.  More on that in a second.  Let’s look at newspapers.

Clay Shirky did a phenomenal job explaining the collapse of the newspaper industry on his blog, pointing out it too results from a structural technology shift – the internet.  Clay references Elizabeth Eisenstein’s book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, where she observes that during these technological transformations the only obvious effect in the moment is the destruction of the status quo.  What transcends the status quo takes time to emerge.  Clay sums this up well: “That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.”

In the case of netbooks, we’re about to see a lot of old stuff get broken, but it’s not clear if netbooks are the transcendent replacement, or just one of the convulsions of the revolution.

But netbooks are significant because they’re exploiting the growing vulnerabilities of Intel (price, performance) and Microsoft (price, legacy support, integration) at the low end in the same way that Apple is (more elegantly) exploiting them at the high end.

Netbooks have traction because they focus on where people spend the majority of their computing time: web-based documents and services, and the consumption of digital media.  That’s it. 

Whether or not someone buys one, netbooks educate the average citizen that GoogleDocs and a browser are all you need, and that MS Office is both irrelevant and overpriced.  My belief is the impact of netbooks will not be felt so much in unit volumes, but as catalysts speeding the unraveling the Office franchise. 

But wait, there’s more.  How much distance will separate the Office franchise “unraveling” from prying MS’s grip off the operating system?  Apple can’t do it, and is smart enough to steer clear of this outcome.  Will Android and Linux be good enough at the low end?

We’ve already seen the indifference that’s greeted Windows7, and the reluctance to even adopt Vista, with people scrambling to stick with XP.  My family did exactly this in February when our five year-old XP home computer died, and we scrambled to find someone who could sell us a new XP machine (we succeeded).  It was an intelligence test.  XP or Vista…hmmm.

Maybe this reveals a nuance to Clay’s “revolution” observation.  Perhaps the path to destruction takes you through the terrain of irrelevance.  What netbooks show us is how irrelevant the once mighty Microsoft and Intel platforms are to the needs of people today.  They may be lucrative businesses but they just no longer point to the future like they used to.  They’ve become what’s broken in the revolution. 

It’ll be exciting to see the new stuff that’s put in place.  I’ll be sure to blog about it, after we all see what it is.

Man On Wire – Best Startup Movie Ever?

April 1, 2009

I saw Man On Wire for the first time in February; I’d read a snippet somewhere about this being the story of the man who tight-rope walked between the two World Trade Center towers in 1974.  And at a certain level, that’s exactly what this movie is about.  It’s exquisite.  The tight-rope walker, Philippe Petit is almost a caricature, his vision and ambition equal parts boundless and focused.  I’ve seen the movie three times now, and each time it’s more revealing.

What viscerally strikes me is how it tells the story of starting up a company.  This is all about having an idea so audacious it’s almost not believable to someone who hasn’t drunk your kool-aid, yet.  It’s about staying focused on the one reason why you will succeed and not the 10,000 reasons why you will fail.

Man On Wire reveals four super-compelling principles that underscore what it’s like to be in a startup, and if you haven’t been in one, it’s a wonderful way to get a sense for what it feels like to be there:

  • A meticulously constructed plan, discarded.  Philippe Petit spent six years planning this act, including building scale models of the towers’s roofs, constructing a tight-rope the same length as the towers in a field, and on and on.  And guess what?  The day of the “coup” huge elements of the plan had to be thrown out, the real world just didn’t cooperate.  This is “why the numbers in your operation plan are wrong” writ larger than life.
  • Repeated visualizations of the outcome.  This is one of the critical mechanisms to ensuring you’re focused on why you will succeed.  Philippe from the moment he learned of the Towers construction, visualized walking between them.  For years and years visualized walking that wire, how he would do it and succeed. This is critical when you only get one shot at an opportunity, like he had. 
  • Significant emotional toll.  Getting something done that’s ambitious, with a visionary leader means you will do things that are difficult and way outside your comfort zone.  You will find out who the chicken killers are, who can be relied on and who can’t, and most importantly what you can rely upon yourself for.  It’s messy and painful, and you will be different as a result of this experience.
  • The fear of not succeeding.  Philippe’s obsession was on success.  Startups are all about being laser focused on why you will succeed, and your only fear is success NOT happening.  I just can’t say this enough.  People who are afraid of failure may very well get great things done, but just not at startups.

For me the most piercing and fiercely honest confession of the entire movie is when Philippe describes the moment when he committed himself to walking that wire.  A simple shifting of weight from the foot resting on the tower to the foot resting on the wire.  Silent and internally deliberate. 

Compare/contrast this with the article in this April’s Outside Magazine about why people participate in risky sports, and profiles BASE-jumper Ted Davenport.  Neuroscientist Russell Poldrack asserts that there are three ingredients to risk taking: desire for adventure, relative disregard for harm, and acting on your desires without fully thinking them through.  That last factor strays way, way too far into the landscape of recklessness and separates Philippe from Ted.  There was nothing reckless about Philippe Petit.  Deliberate, honest, ambitious, meticulous.

So see this movie for the reasons I outline above.  Also, let yourself ask the other questions.  Like “how can someone afford to spend six years planning this”?  How “real world” is that?  We’re not getting the full story here, but it sure is enjoyable. 

Before your Netflix delivery arrives watch Philippe break Stephen Colbert out of character on the Colbert Report, and you’ll hear Philippe describe that moment when he shifted his weight onto the wire.  Mesmerizing.