Posts Tagged ‘realnetworks’

Category creating – it’s as easy and hard as it looks. By Peter Zaballos

February 9, 2018

Part One: Bold vision is everything

I’ve been thinking about categories recently. A lot.

I’ve been fortunate to have been in three companies who had that bold vision, who could see that structural opportunity, and who zeroed in on the audience that was affected. At LSI Logic, we saw the opportunity to enable new categories of computing devices – personal computers and mobile devices. At C-Cube Microsystems we envisioned the impact that digital television and film could have on the broadcast and entertainment industries. And at RealNetworks it was as simple as enabling internet-delivered audio and video – developing the breakthroughs making Netflix and Spotify a reality.

Creating a category is easy to say and so hard to do. Or rather, it’s easy to see a company who has created a category and it sure looks obvious in hindsight. But in the early days, even in the middle phase, it’s nothing short of a free-for-all.

Table stakes are having a bold vision for what you think could be dramatically different for the customers you serve. Not better, but different. Not a little different. Fundamentally, earth shatteringly different. And with those words and the belief in them, you then need to have the audacity to live up to them.

The creators of categories dominate the market they create. Because they see a future their competitors don’t. Their competitors chase what the category creator makes visible. They will always be steps behind the category creator.

Creating a new category in the market begins and ends with a bold vision for what’s possible. A clarity of the mission of the company and more importantly, for the customers you serve. This is about getting precise about the words. The words matter.

But defining the category is more than words and sentences of a paragraph. And bringing a category vision to life is more than a marketing campaign. It is precisely where the company’s strategy and strategic intent are mobilized across the organization. Category creating is a holistic commitment of the business. It is the CEO’s personal obligation. If the CEO doesn’t personally own this ambition, no amount of over-functioning executives can make up for that. At some point the conversation gets shrill.

BRING THE CATEGORY TO LIFE

With the CEO owning the category vision, they don’t need to  develop the framework that will enable the company to take advantage of and define the category. That can be handled by a member of their team. It has to be someone senior enough in the organization to have visibility and perspective, and also be someone who can work across teams, across execs, and orchestrate engagement. This includes:

  • Identifying the people, processes, and products required to fulfill the category potential.
  • Specifying how you will get from today to that future potential. The solution you have today and what you will build in the future to address  the category problem
  • Identifying the ecosystem that will validate and accelerate the development of the category, and squeeze out your competitors

To bring a category to life depends on this strategic alignment first and foremost with the product strategy. The product needs to deliver this category promise to the users. Their experience validates the category potential, and literally brings it to life in the market. And this product alignment needs to be fully aligned with how these products are taken to market. The words that are literally used to attract prospects, engage them in learning more, and choosing the solution all have to map back to the category vision and definition.

In an age where essentially every sale is driven through some form of digital interaction, the good news is that search performance provides and awesome data-driven laboratory to ensure you get all of this right. You’ll know. The data will scream the results at you.

STEP UP AND LIVE YOUR AMBITION

This is where so many companies get scared. Especially once a company is in the midst of category creation. It’s easy to get frightened, chasing near term revenue and investments in the face of the riskier long term commitments that need to be made. Remember, you’re bringing to market something fundamentally different than what exists today. For the meek, that means there will be some pretty powerful forces pulling you back to…today. Today is familiar. It is safe.

Creating a category is lonely. Especially for the leadership of the company. The CEO and their team are the custodians of this vision, and for a long, long time, they may be the only true believers.That’s why it’s easy to get scared. Why it’s easy to back off. To retreat to the goals and tactics that produced the recent past, and not make the bolder choices to bet on the future.Bringing a category to life is a fully focused go-to-market campaign. Externally and Internally.

That internal part is key. Employees need to have clarity on what that different future will be and how to explain in an appropriate context, whey this journey is important. Customer Success needs to be trained and fluent spokespeople. Sales needs to be trained and fluent spokespeople. Everyone inside the company is on a mission. To fundamentally transform the lives of their customers.

INVIGORATE THE COMPANY

The day-to-day work of creating a category is the essential job of every employee. They need to be trained, to be fluent in, and have internalized the same understanding of the structural opportunity and the role the business has in realizing this opportunity.That’s why RealNetworks had a palpable intensity – every day – that employees were energized and motivated by.

It’s why my friend and RN colleague Dave Cotter remarked “I was probably young enough to believe it, but there really was a sense that we were fundamentally changing the world, and, actually, for a period of time we were.”Bringing a vision to life for customers and prospects goes hand in hand with bringing that vision to life for employees.

This is why the obligation for defining the category rests with the CEO, but how important it is that every employee is enlisted making the vision real to prospects and customers, every day.Category creation is not a board topic, it’s not an exec staff meeting topic.

It’s the CEO’s life mission. It’s internalized by every employee. It’s the lifeblood, the daily obsession, of everyone.

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.

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.

Finding the chicken killers – part two

March 2, 2009

I got a lot of positive feedback and comments on Finding the Chicken Killers, where I explained what the concept of a chicken-killer was but stopped short of providing an example of one.  Let me tell you about someone who was on my marketing team at Vivo.

[This is a longer post than usual; I hope you find it worth it!]

Ann-Marie was responsible for our online marketing, our website marketing, and our demos at Vivo.  She grew up in a large Italian-American family outside Boston; while she was polite and well spoken, she had a nice independent streak.

The situation was this.  We were now 18 months into the turn-around of the company, marketing our internet video product VivoActive.  We’d become the market leader, but internet video was still small compared to internet audio, and RealNetworks was the big gorilla out there.  Oh, and Microsoft was trying to muscle into the market; they’d recently licensed Real’s product and were giving it away for free (but not really marketing it).  How’s that for being neighborly?

We’d aligned ourselves with Microsoft and could create internet video in their format.  VivoActive together with Microsoft’s server made a complete solution, and we had their marketing and sales teams promoting it to their customers. The plan of course was to get Microsoft to buy us.

The bad news was we were running out of cash (we had about six months left), and we needed to sell the company – remember, we were on a Series D financing.  There was no appetite for a Series E.

So, the CEO, my BusDev director, and I got on a plane and went to Redmond to try and move/force the conversation along, but all we got was a tepid commitment to consider an investment.

We came back from that meeting frustrated and depressed.  The three of us were in our conference room, trying to figure out what to do.  It was almost as if a literal light bulb went off when one of us said “Companies buy their enemies to take them off the market… who are we an enemy of?”

RealNetworks.

Holy cow.  RealNetworks.  Were so aligned with Microsoft; we could be a big threat to RealNetworks.  We had at best an arms-length relationship with them (meaning relations were generally frosty).  How could we get them to feel threatened, really threatened, very quickly?

So, I suggested “What if we let all the RealNetworks customers know they could replace the server they bought from Real with the free one from Microsoft?  All they’d need to do is pay us $500 for VivoActive.”  Hmmm… replace your $50,000 RealServer with a $500 alternative.  That sounded workable.

But how to pull this off?  We needed to quickly find out who was using RealServers and then somehow contact enough of them to make this a credible threat.  I got my team together, and Ann-Marie was the first one to come up with an idea.  “We can use Wired’s HotBot search engine to find web pages with the .ram file the RealServer embeds on pages with the media file, and then find out who the company is that owns those pages.  We can look up who the exec team is at the company and send an email offer to them.”  Great idea, but a lot of work.  She agreed to take the lead on pulling this all together.

Working backward from our cash-out date, we’d need to get this done within the next few weeks.  Otherwise, we’d run out of money in the middle of the negotiations.

Ann-Marie showed up at the next war-room meeting and said she’d gone through the process a few times; it was working, but it was going real slowly.  I suggested she have our receptionist, Amy, help her out.  Away she went.

The next day Ann-Marie came back, deflated.  She and Amy had only been able to build a database of about 50 customers.  This was going to take too long.  More brainstorming.  Ann-Marie offered to see if some of the developers could be pulled off their projects to lend a hand.

The next day everyone was looking haggard and tired.  Ann-Marie showed up, looking worse than any of us. “I was up most of last night.  I realized we’re never going to get this done on time, even with the developers.”

What?

Then she said “But I realized we could do this differently.  I wrote an automated script that queried HotBot and wrote the results into a log file, and then I wrote a script to filter out the domain name of the page where the content was hosted.  I wrote another script to take that domain and query the “whois” database, and found out who the system administrator of the site was, and then put the email address and wrote it into another log file.”  The system administrator was a long way from the guy who paid for the RealServer, but it was close enough.

“It’s working really well; I’m up to about 700 names so far, and should be up to about 2,000 by tomorrow.”

Around the table, jaws were bouncing off the floor.  Ann-Marie hadn’t just killed the chicken, she’d plucked it, dressed it, and had it in the oven, roasting.

We got cracking. It was like a commando movie.  We quickly established a launch date for the emails.  Everyone had their task and took off.  I finished off the copy and reviewed the design of the email.  My busdev director made 1000% certain we had the license agreement in place.

Two days later, we were ready to go.  We briefed the CEO and the rest of the exec team on the plan.  Ann-Marie wrote a script (her new core competency) to send the emails out at midnight.

The next morning we came in, eager to see the results.  By mid-morning we had lots and lots of irate emails from system administrators and, as a result of the system administrators forwarding them, a good portion of similar emails from business execs at companies who were loyal to Real.  Irate was good.  Especially when many of the forwarded emails also copied the account manager at Real or even Rob Glaser, Real’s hyper competive CEO.

Lots of tension; everyone ate their lunches at their desks.  A little after 1pm, our CEO came walking down the hallway, a huge, huge grin on his face.

“Rob Glaser just called.  They want to talk about buying us.  I’m heading out to Seattle, tonight.”

I kid you not, it unfolded that cleanly.  A little over twelve hours after sending those emails.

By the time the acquisition was complete, our CEO was neck deep in chickens, killed.  But Ann-Marie was the one who so matter-of-factly and so fearlessly got that first chicken out of the way, and made it all possible.

Ask, Tell, Help

February 18, 2009

How often do you encounter a a situation at work where your personal values inform how to solve a difficult/ambiguous situation?

In 1998 I had just joined RealNetworks, and was running the RealSystem G2 launch; it was quite an adjustment professionally.  Real had just acquired Vivo Software where I had been the VP of Marketing, and I now had a much bigger job, with much bigger company ambitions.  G2 was Real’s next generation internet media platform, and was intended to become essentially a multimedia operating system for the web.  We never spoke those ambitions publicly, but they were very, very much the ambitions.

We had the upper hand on the internet a/v market.  Microsoft’s Windows Media Technology (WMT) platform was embryonic and poorly integrated across their vast product/platform landscape.  We routinely pushed the Windows Media guys around like how the New England Patriots pushed their opponents around.

But these were the conditions that provoke a response from Microsoft, and I remember the day we learned that Will Poole had been moved to Windows Media from Internet Explorer 4 – the understanding being the “A” team was now on WMT, the same team that had just crushed Netscape. (The Patriots analogy is eerily relevant here – I’ll save that for another post).

Two years earlier we had licensed RealSystem4.0 to Microsoft, and their players could play back our content up to version 4.0, but not our newest G2 content.  This was intentional and was common practice back then – a way to “provoke” upgrades.  We’d get our broadcast customers to produce audio and video in our newest version, and everyone would need to get the new RealPlayer to access the new content – our players were explicit and helpful about how to do this.

Microsoft saw an opportunity.  They made the Windows Media Player automatically become the default player on someone’s computer for our 4.0 content without telling them, and when it got to our G2 content it stopped and produced an error message.  Microsoft made sure the error message was cryptic (a core competency, apparently), implying there was something wrong with Real’s product, and that was it.  End of the road.

This caused a furor for us and our customers.  Competitive technology geopolitics at Cuban Missile Crisis levels.

So, I got called into a meeting with all the senior execs at Real to sort out what to do.  Our president (at the time) has an incredibly insightful mind, and summarized the problem as if he were explaining it to a child.  “Look, during installation you should ask the user if you can play other media types, then you should tell the user if you encounters one you can’t play, then you should help the user locate a player that can.  Pretty simple stuff.

But he wasn’t talking about a solution to this geopolitical skirmish, he was talking about his values, and applied them to a situation at work.  It was so simple; you ask for something before taking it, you tell people if you have a problem, and you help people.

So, I got tasked with spearheading the Ask, Tell, Help initiative, and spent the next six months rounding up industry support for this, eventually causing Microsoft to sign on.  The legacy is visible today to anyone installing iTunes, Rhapsody, or Windows Media – the application asks you for what media types you would like it to be the default.

I think about Ask, Tell, Help pretty frequently.  It reminds me that my values are my values regardless of whether at work or home, regardless of how charged or ambiguous the situation is.  And keeping clarity about those, and a tight grip on them, enables successful navigation of difficult circumstances.

Don’t you think, or rather don’t you desperately hope, that the folks who had a hand in the mortgage/banking crisis would have made different decisions if they’d have applied their personal values to the ambiguous and charged landscape of credit default swaps?