Will Change Define You?

What is the Emerging Character of Today's Silicon Valley?

I happened upon some posts recently that share a common theme—the current reinvention of Silicon Valley. Change is nothing new in these parts—it's what defines the place. And while it's easy to bemoan the changes that are occurring (and conversely, to celebrate what's new as if it was invented for the first time) that kind of discussion is pointless. The discussion that does have merit is represented by these posts. You could title them collectively as "Is this what we want to become?"

The first post is by Steve Blank, one of my heroes. He writes that social media is crowding out all other sectors for venture capital investment, because its (potential) returns are so large and realized so quickly. He notes that other investment sectors, such as clean-tech and life sciences, are being passed over in favor of "Web 2.0" (even that term seems dated now) startups such as Facebook, Google, Zynga and others. 30 years ago, a venture capital firm would invest multiple millions of dollars in a semiconductor company and not expect to see a return for ten years or more.  Today, a VC invests a few hundred thousand dollars (at early stages) in a social media startup and might see a payoff in two or three years.

The second post, by William Davidow (another hero) notes the culture change occurring, as the CEO's setting the values for Silicon Valley shift from the likes of William Hewlett and David Packard to Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Pincus, and Larry Page. Where Hewlett and Packard built a business focused on pristine customer service, the new breed of CEO's are building businesses based on the exploitation of customers (more specifically, their data). It wouldn't be fair to imply that these current CEO's don't care about customer service. It's just that their businesses operate (to varying degrees) with a "free" model that focuses on attracting users and mining their data, with the paying customers being the companies that buy targeted advertising on these sites.

And, as if experiencing the zeitgeist, Vinod Khosla also joined the discussion, exhorting today's entrepreneurs to focus on building lasting value vs. "flipping" their startups.

Do This...

These commentators share a common theme—build your company to last, build it to change the world—because they come from a shared history and experience with "the Valley." Their sentiments are more (much more) than mere nostalgia for the Valley as they once knew it. They've given voice to feelings people like me have had as we've witnessed the emergence of these new style startups, requiring us to reinvent ourselves to remain relevant and valuable to today's startup community.

And Not That

These writers, and those of us who have been here since the 1990's, remember the "dot bomb" era of the late 1990's/early 2000's.  At that time you had companies with no proven business model being valued and sold at incredible prices. It was a common joke that you could drive up your company's market capitalization by simply adding a leading "e" or "i" or a trailing ".com" to the company name.  I remember taking calls from Internet companies trying to sell me advertising: the callers had no knowledge of what my company was about and couldn't tell me why I needed their advertising. I also remember interviewing a new college graduate for a Business Development role. He had no experience, but was confident that he could command an $80K starting salary. Such were the times.

Bubble? Or No Bubble?

Department of Obscure References

And so those (especially in the media) who witnessed this implosion as it happened now play the parlor game of "Bubble? Or No Bubble?" as they observe the multi-billion dollar valuation of companies like Box, Dropbox, Groupon and others. One difference with today's hot startups is that these companies tend to have an identified and validated business model. They often aren't cash flow positive as yet, but are trending in the right direction. The "Bubble!" crowd wrings their hands and wags a finger at today's startup CEO's: "Just wait! You'll get your just reward!" The "No Bubble!" crowd smoothes their hoodies and says "Wait! This time it's different!" The audience voting falls along the lines of who thinks they will profit from or get crushed by any such bubble.

The discussion of economic implications has largely been theoretical. That changed with the recent news regarding Zynga's secondary stock offering and subsequent earnings dive. To torture a phrase, there may not have been any fire here, but there sure is a lot of smoke.

What Really Matters

But I'm not so interested in the "Bubble? Or No Bubble?" discussion. These are the questions that are worth asking.

  1. How can a startup leverage the knowledge and experience of a Silicon Valley veteran?
  2. How can such a veteran embrace new ways of thinking and working?

Let's take the first question. I was talking about this over coffee recently with a colleague and former manager. He's younger than me, but still would be seen as outside the age demographic for today's startup founders.  His perspective was that today's company founders are running so fast, they haven't figured out what they don't yet know. A few will learn without doing lasting damage to their companies. Some will realize that this is the point where they need to bring in some experienced help. And others… let's just say it won't be pretty. Remember, some of the "dot bomb" disasters were failures of execution (WebVan) as much as failed business models.

My advice to today's startup community would be this.

  • Figure out—quickly—what it is that you don't know, but need to know. Then discover who does have that knowledge, and ask for their help. If your software company finds itself manufacturing devices to run the software, realize that you're now faced with manufacturing and supply chain questions… and you'll get to market faster by engaging with someone who's already solved those problems.
  • Remember that humility is a survival strategy. Your success so far is as much about luck as it has been about your idea and the execution of that idea. Acknowledging that fact will make it easier to ask the "what do I need to know?" question.

Regarding the second question, what does it take for a Valley veteran to succeed in today's startup environment?

  • It's likely that those who could use your knowledge and skills aren't fully aware of their need. So while it might be obvious to you, it's not to those who would hire and pay you. I recall the moment that I realized I had knowledge of how hardware, software and firmware combined to form a "system" and that was exactly the knowledge needed to solve the logistics and design problems faced by our startup. I had to explain the problem to the founders before I could go on to solve it.
  • Humility is valuable here as well. Don't expect the respect of others on the basis of your experience or knowledge. It's all about what you do with that experience and knowledge that will earn you respect. I knew all about setting up 3rd-party interoperability programs, but that's not what mattered. Acting on that knowledge to set up an interoperability program and show people how it helped us move more quickly with fewer Engineering resources required for the task--that's what mattered.

I've been quite deliberate in embracing new ways of working (hello, Agile!), new technologies (too many to mention) and most importantly new methods of decision-making (ask me about split tests). I've been careful not to start sentences with "Back in my day…" But I've also been amazed when I realized that some of what I thought "everyone" knew was not nearly so widely known. Ask me about regulatory testing, hardware/software lineups, feature prioritization or user interface design.

So if it feels like a brave new world, maybe that's because it is… again.  You can question what values today's startups are embracing. Or you can go out and show them what values will be needed to succeed.  Which choice will you make?

Why Social Media Matters

Check out this report from the McKinsey Global Institute.  It points out something Microsoft (with its purchase of Yammer) and other companies are begnning to understand:  that social media can improve productivity of enterprise employees.

We can all still enjoy LOLCats and all the other diversions that social media provides us as consumers.  But people are starting to "get" that we don't leave our social instincts at the door when we go to work... and that there's money to be made helping employees engage in meaningful ways to get work done.

Facebook, Prepare to be Disrupted

I took a sip of coffee yesterday as I sat on the train waiting for it to depart the Gilroy station. Since I had a few minutes and a good cellular signal, I thought I'd check Facebook using my Samsung Galaxy smartphone. After a few minutes of spinning wheels indicating that it was "working" I gave up. I could wait until later. I've had any number of experiences using the Facebook application for Android, and the result has always been disappointment. Sometimes only a few items will load. Often the text will load without any pictures. Most of the time, my phone goes back into sleep mode before anything has loaded.

OK, so maybe Facebook is a bit data-intensive for a smartphone with a cellular connection that varies in signal strength. I'll give it a whirl on my iPad, which (for me) uses Wi-Fi instead of cellular. And the results?

The good news is, Facebook content actually loads fairly quickly. The bad news? Those settings I had on Facebook-the-browser-version haven't carried over. Maybe they're available to be set, or maybe not. All I know is that the filters I had applied (no offense, but I'm not interested in what level of Bedazzled you've reached) aren't in place. So I get to scroll through pages of notifications about which friend has achieved what level with which game.

So why does any of this have to do with "disruption?" Simple. Facebook works best—and was originally designed for—stationary computers. It comes from a time (I hesitate to use the term "era" when it comes to anything involving the Internet) when most people sat down in front of a computer and interacted with a browser.

And what's happening today? Stop by any CalTrain station, coffee shop, checkout line, or movie intermission. What do you see? People on their phones. For many people the phone is their dominant source of social interaction. And you've heard or read about the reports that spending on mobile advertising is ready to jump through the roof. So if Facebook can't solve their (IMHO) cruddy mobile phone experience, they stand to lose that market to someone who does provide an elegant solution.

A burgeoning market, lots of (if I'm any indication) disaffected users, no clear dominant player in the space… sounds like an opportunity for disruption to me.

What Caltrain Could Learn from Staples

One morning I looked out of my window and watched as a woman just missed the train. Experienced riders know that when they hear the "caution, the doors are about to close" announcement, it's already too late. The doors are closing, and unless you want to dive onto the train before they shut, you're out of luck. (And I wouldn't try the stick-your-arm-in-and-the-doors-will-reopen trick.)

This would-be rider looked like a new passenger, not one of the "regulars" who get on the train in Gilroy. And as we rolled away from the station I wondered, will she be back?

When a for-profit business sees that its customer base is in decline, its costs are up and its revenues are down, it faces a "code red" moment of decision:

  • Can we reverse these trends? At what cost?
  • Do we "double down" (I hate that phrase) and work to turn things around? Or do we determine that these trends cannot be reversed, and exit the business?

Notice that nowhere in this line of thinking does the business say, "hey! I have a right to exist!" or "but look at all the good I do!"

When a non-profit organization faces these same challenges of declining customers, growing costs and sliding revenues, the moment of decision often revolves around raising prices, cutting services, and asking for more subsidies.

I won't get into the discussion of whether organizations that provide a public good (like transit agencies) should be fully funded, fully self-supporting, or something in between. That's a discussion best left for others.

First You Commit, Then You Make it Work

My main point is that transit agencies, in this case CalTrain, need to think about the problem from their customer's point of view. Why do people ride the train? You could probably come up with a set of reasons.

  • It's cheaper than driving.
  • It's my only transportation option.
  • It's good for the environment.
  • It's less stressful than driving.

In most cases, few of these answers are valid justifications.

  • Given my commute, gas has to be priced above $4 per gallon before the gas-vs.-train ticket option tips in favor of the train ticket (lately, that's been the case).
  • Most people have transportation options, especially a car.
  • Riding the train is probably better for the environment that driving a car.
  • Riding the train is definitely less stressful than driving.

But it's also true that

  • Riding the train takes longer than driving… in my case it's about two hours each direction, when you include getting from the train station to/from work. Driving time can be anywhere from one to two+ hours depending on traffic conditions.
  • Riding the train means you have to work around the train schedule. You have certain windows of opportunity to catch the train. If (like many people) your day has undefined starting and (especially) ending points, you have to work to incorporate a fixed train schedule into your day.

My point is that the decision to ride the train, especially on a regular basis, is a lot less rationally based than you might think. Sure, if you happen to live and work near a CalTrain station you can just fall into the habit. But for everyone else, riding the train means making a commitment to it. You have to think about your work schedule, how you're going to get to/from the train station, arrange to purchase tickets and so on.

What Were Once Vices are Now Habits

Department of Obscure References

So when that woman missed the train, you have to wonder: how committed is she now that she was unable to take that first step? And what could CalTrain have done to make it easier for her to follow through on that idea of riding the train?

I remember when I figured out why the old book and record clubs were willing to sell you 10 books or CD's for a penny. It wasn't about marginal cost vs. marginal price. It was about the requirement that you buy a certain amount of product over a certain number of months. And that was about establishing a habit of purchasing. These companies knew that once they got you into the habit of at least considering a book or CD purchase each month, they were more likely to get you to buy.

Hitting the "Easy" Button

So here are some free tips for CalTrain, ones that would focus on encouraging the budding commitment of passengers to ride the train, and that would reinforce the decision for more established passengers.

Simplify Ticketing

Today you have three ticket options:

  1. Buy a ticket at one of the CalTrain vending machines.
  2. Buy an "8-ride" pass and use your Clipper card (a reloadable debit card) as your ticket.
  3. Buy a monthly pass and use your Clipper card as your ticket.

The first option is challenging because only a few stations have working ticket counters, and some of the ticket vending machines don't work. One of the two machines in Gilroy has been "temporarily unavailable" since at least 2007. Also, the vending machines sometimes will bill your card twice for a ticket, or fail to authorize your card for no clear reason. There's nothing like the pressure of trying to buy a ticket while the queue behind you builds and you're mentally counting down the seconds until the train is ready to leave.

Oh, and buying a ticket on the train? What do you think this is, 1990?

CalTrain has begun moving to a reloadable debit card, the "Clipper Card" as an alternative to ticketing machines. This is a good move, but is way behind the curve when it comes to simple, mobile payments. If you have less than $1.75 on the card, it gets screwed up (and the conductors think you're freeloading). If you try to use it to travel between other zones than the ones you specified when you charged it, the card is inoperable. You can load funds onto it automatically, but you have to wait up to three days for the funds to transfer and clear.

Imagine how much easier it would be if you just loaded a specific dollar amount onto your Clipper Card, and then had it deduct the right amount depending on the length of your train ride. And if you want to offer discounts for multi-ride sales, just offer a flat percentage discount.

Maybe the architecture of the Clipper Card makes it hard to deliver a more flexible payment experience. But here in the heart of Silicon Valley, many CalTrain riders carry smartphones, and there are any number of mobile payment companies—startup's and established companies. So why not partner with someone to offer a smartphone-based payment option?

Convert Unticketed Passengers to Paying Customers

As I mentioned earlier, you can't just walk onto CalTrain and buy a ticket. CalTrain is a "proof of payment" system, meaning you have to be able to prove you've purchased a ticket or face the possibility of a large fine.

In all the time I've been riding CalTrain, I can't recall an interaction with an unticketed passenger that was the result of someone trying to get a free ride. Inevitably, the offending person had a problem getting a proper ticket, got frustrated/confused, and boarded the train anyway. Then there's a discussion (sometimes tearful) between the train conductor and the passenger. The conductor has to play the "heavy" (a role they don't enjoy) and threaten to write a ticket, but they don't have an incentive to do this as they're busy checking everyone else's tickets and making sure the train runs on time.

A much better solution would be to have a way of selling a ticket to the ticketless passenger. CalTrain could make the ticket very expensive as a disincentive to relying on this method for buying tickets. Companies like Square offer very simple card-reader capabilities that work with a smartphone to process payments.

Partner with Large Employers

Remember the "80-20 Rule"? How about partnering with large employers, like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Lockheed and so on? Give these companies some incentive to encourage ridership among their employees—special shuttles, discounts, etc. Getting a few of these companies lined up gets you to a large portion of the potential ridership.

Make it Hip

Department of Obscure References

How about giving people a reason to feel good about riding the train? Some of the riders who bring their bikes are making a statement about avoiding oil consumption and the like. How about letting people know how much CO2 emissions they've avoided by riding the train?

Focus on Your Customers, and the Funding Will Follow

Maybe agencies like CalTrain focus on making sure they can serve all constituents equally. For instance, perhaps the idea of paying via smartphone was rejected because not everyone has a smartphone. I'm in favor of making sure that everyone has access to public transportation. But implementing programs that require everyone to be served equally doesn't work. Or it works too well—everyone is served equally poorly. It makes much more sense to provide a great experience to those riders that are choosing to ride, and let their ridership subsidize those that are riding the train out of necessity.

If you're a non-profit or other ortganization dependent on goverment funds as well as paying customers to survice, how do you want to succeed? Do you want to convince the public and your funders that y ou deserve to exist? Or do you want to make people feel like they can't live without you, that it's easy to say "yes"?

Social Media: DVR Killer?

I remember (from my visits using The Wayback Machine) when certain hit shows like MASH and Friends had their final episode, and people would gather at someone's house to watch together.

Then along came the DVR—Digital Video Recorder, the collective noun version of TiVO—and forevermore we were "time shifting"… recording shows and watching them whenever we wanted, as opposed to when the networks wanted. Media people wrung their hands and worried that this was the end of television advertising, since viewers now had the opportunity to fast-forward past the commercials.

Fast forward to the world of social media. People at an event are "live-tweeting", meaning you're getting a stream of messages that are directly or indirectly telling you what's happening at the event. So for instance, you didn't have to be watching or listening to know how the Stanford-Oklahoma State football game was going… Cheer, groan, cheer, etc.

And if they're not tweeting, they're using Facebook. Or texting. Or using any of a number of other commenting and sharing services. What's happening here is that the community that at one time would have gathered in someone's house, or a bar, or at the event itself, is now gathering in a virtual way. We're all watching, and social media gives us a way of staying connected and sharing the experience.

And here's where the traditional media people should pay attention. The trick is, you can only connect and share as the event is happening. If you recorded the Stanford-Oklahoma State game for later viewing, all this sharing is going to ruin the ending. And if you want to connect and share, you have to do it live. Which means you have to watch the commercials.

So if the traditional media people are on their game, they'll be creating all kinds of opportunities to share their shows, games, tournaments and so on as events.

Fast-forward that.

Road Show Road Kill

I'm doing some consulting these days, and one of my assignments is to help a small managed service provider transition into selling cloud-based services. It's fun work, as it puts me at the intersection of sales and product.

As part of this work, I attended a "road show" put on by one of the (very large) companies whose products/services we currently sell. The focus was on their "cloud" service offerings, and the audience was schmo's like me looking to figure out how to sell these kinds of services… without drowning in a sea of collateral and sales documents available on the company's web site.

I'm well-acquainted with the "road show," at least from the presenter's side. You barnstorm through a bunch of cities, pitching your particular product/service to the audience of customers or salespeople that have been assembled and coerced into staying by the free food and the prize given out at the end of the event. The days are long, the travel numbing, the presentations become increasingly difficult to do with enthusiasm. On the other hand, you're bonding with co-workers and drinks are on the house.

This was one of my first opportunities to experience a road show from the audience side. The free food was fine, a little light on the fruit and vegetable side. The give-away at the end (a video game console) was also fine, though it didn't hold my interest. And some of the presentations were really well done: focused on the needs of the audience, simple but still informative, and delivered with enthusiasm and humor.

But the presentation that stood out, of course, was the one that seemed to break every rule of presenting—in seemingly sequential order.

  • The presenter started with an apology, having to do with not having the usual technical support person available to handle the really tough questions. She may as well have started by saying, "you're not going to get much out of this, but it's not my fault".
    • Don't EVER start with an apology. You immediately take yourself out of the "driver's seat" and undermine your own credibility. Better to wait until you actually have something to apologize for.
  • The presenter's slides had WAY too much information on them. And apparently much of the information wasn't that important, because the presenter made no attempt to communicate it.
    • I've harped about presentations elsewhere, but here's the main point: do you want people listening to you? Or reading your slides? And by the way, are you saying anything interesting that's not already covered on those slides?
  • The presenter said, in so many words, that "Version 1" of the product sucked.
    • NEVER bad-mouth your own product. I've seen presenters do this, thinking it's their way of bonding with the audience. All it does is make the audience wonder, "What kind of a loser would want to work for a company that put out such awful products?"
  • The presenter went on to say (again, I'm paraphrasing), "Eventually, we'll be best in class." So, am I supposed to check back when you actually have something worth selling? It turns out that what she meant to say was that the cloud-based product would eventually offer the same features as the locally-hosted product. But that's not what I heard.
    • It's OK to have a better product later. But don't imply that your product is bad right now.
  • The presenter talked about the product's "agility" and in the next breath discussed six-month (!) release cycles. I'll admit this is more of a nit, as "agile" has special meaning to those in the product development world. And it's true that this product's release cycles are much faster than the locally hosted version's cycles. But most people looking to do "Agile" product development are planning for weekly release cycles, not half-yearly ones.
    • Be careful with your language. You don't want to claim you're something (e.g., "Agile") when the evidence isn't there to support it.
  • The presentation (slides and spoken words) was filled with company-specific jargon and acronyms. Your TLA's are your own. I no more want to adopt them than I want to order a "Venti" sized coffee.
    • Circle every acronym and piece of jargon on your slides and ask yourself, "Do I really need the audience to use this term or know what it means?"

If you don't want this to be you, pay attention to your presentation: its message, focus, and delivery. Or you could make sure I'm not invited to your show.

What Do You Want From Life?

Department of Obscure References

I found this posting on Tech Crunch interesting, as it highlights one aspect of a decoupled mobile platform architecture:  managing OS updates.

The chart nicely illustrates the difference between the Android and iOS device platforms.  Apple regularly updates their iPhone devices with current versions of their iOS operating system.  Google?  Not so much.  In fact, the chart shows that some Android-based mobile devices ship with out-of-date versions of Android from the date of introduction.

You can imagine the company reactions.

Google: "Hey, what do you want? We just make the OS and ship it."

HTC/Samsung/Motorola et al:  "Hey, we just take the latest OS release, put it on the device, and ship it."

Verizon/Sprint/AT&T et al:  "We don't know how to keep devices current."

I'm not going to weigh in on whether Apple or Google's strategy is better (and for whom). But the situation does illustrate the choices you face as a device maker, OS provider, and mobile carrier.  If you're Apple, you've built a company that obsesses over every detail of a customer's experience with your product.  So naturally you're going to control both the hardware platform and the OS that drives it.  And you're going to spend more than a little time checking out the applications that other people are developing for your product, but that's another topic for another time.  If you're Google, your model is quite different.  You're trying to build share as quickly as possible, so you're going to give away the OS (subject to patent infringement limitations), kick-start the third-party applications community, and get your OS on as many smartphones as possible.  Since you're Google, you're going to bring out a new OS version every quarter (although the release schedule is anything but smooth, with six months between some releases and one month between other releases).  And since you're not in the hardware business, the need to test OS versions on a variety of current and recent devices is Someone Else's Problem.  If you're the mobile carrier, you may or may not care... but you're ill-equipped to manage this kind of hardware-software lineup.

When I worked at iPass, in order to aggregate and resell what we called "Mobile Data" services, we had to supply the 3G modem card along with the other bits that made up the service.  Suddenly, we were a hardware as well as a software company.  We had to manage inventories of modem cards... different cards for different mobile data networks, with different device and OS dependencies.  And this was our problem, because the mobile carriers were unable to manage it.  A mobile carrier might take six months or more to qualify a particular device, train its Sales and Support teams, and roll out the service.  In an Android type of world, this means the service would launch with an OS one or more releases behind the current version.  So we managed the lineup of OS releases and target devices, and in some cases provided the OS update function on behalf of the mobile carrier.

So what does this mean if you're Research in Motion, trying to maintain relevance in what people want to tag as a two-horse race between Apple and Google?  It means you can add value by 1) ensuring everyone knows what versions of OS work with what devices, and 2) making sure that you provide OS updates.  This doesn't put you ahead of Apple, but it does put you in a better position vs. Google.  Google would have a hard time keeping OS versions and devices straight, even if it wanted to do so (and it doesn't).  Apple will do this because they're Apple, so RIM has to find other ways to compete against them.

Some people would respond that keeping the OS on a device up to date doesn't matter, and they're right--until it does matter.  It's a bit like saying that insurance doesn't matter.  As a consumer, you want the device--including the applications you've downloaded onto the device--to just work.  You don't care how or why, just that everything works.  And if you're RIM, you're in the best position to make sure this happens.  And that's good for your customers, and good for you.

A Tweet-ful of DreamForce

I took advantage of a free offer (not offered by Groupon, FYI) to attend DreamForce, Salesforce.com's annual tradeshow and love-fest.  I've been thinking I have skills transferable to the SaaS industry (a view yet to be endorsed by hiring companies) and figured I would head up to San Francisco to see what companies were part of the salesforce "ecosystem".  Here are my observations, in tweet-sized bites.

  • I'm glad I drove to Moscone Center, vs. taking the train.  Three hours of travel for an hour or so of walking around would have seemed like a waste.
  • To the parking lots that doubled their rates this week:  way to keep it classy!
  • It's always a treat to find free parking in San Francisco; my Dad would have been proud!
  • You have to love Larry Ellison.  He hires people to walk around outside Moscone Center with cloud-shaped balloons proclaiming "Oracle, #1 in CRM".
  • Confidential to Larry:  sorry about that $1.3B smack-down from the Court of Appeals.
  • Apparently this is the ninth year of DreamForce, leading to the cute and inevitable "Welcome to Cloud 9".
  • Salesforce's force.com, data.com, service.com and so on... very confusing.
  • Interesting to attend a trade show with no Oracle, SAP, or Microsoft.
  • BMC's "Remedy for Salesforce" or whatever it was called... why do I have the feeling this looks like the old DOS programs that ran in a Window?
  • Accenture, Deloitte and CapGemini here looking for business.  That seems like a tough sell.
  • iPads way outnumber laptops.
  • Most of the exhibiting companies are involved in the various stages of the marketing-sales process:  quote, order, customer engagement, marketing analytics, customer service and so on.
  • All my favorite Identity Management companies were there: Ping Identity, Okta, Symplified.  Still an idea looking for a market.
  • Box.net exhibited, but not Dropbox.  I guess that confirms what market each company is targeting.
  • Saw Neal Young on the rebroadcast of Benioff's keynote.  Don't know if that was hip or sad.
  • Most over-the-top exhibit:  the guy dressed as the "For Dummies" character.  Second place: the exhibitors dressed with green wigs.
  • Gamification... really?
  • I finally understand that iPass isn't SaaS; it's IaaS.  Or MaaS (mobility-as-a-service) if you want to make up another acronym.
  • A day like yesterday makes it easy to love working in San Francisco!

Change or Die

You hear the word "pivot" used a lot in start-up discussions these days.  What does the term mean?  "Pivot" is a fancier way of saying "change your direction".  It extends from Steve Blank's dictum that start-up's are "organizations in search of a repeatable and sustainable business model".  So "pivoting" means changing your business model when you've figured out that it's not going to get you where you want to be.

Pivoting requires that a company is a) paying attention to what's going on around it and b) willing to change course when circumstances warrant it.  Which brings us to Evergreen Solar and the news of its bankruptcy filing. Here's a link to the article.  What I found interesting was that the company's business model was based on two market conditions, both of which changed.

  • Evergreen's solar cell design was intended to minimize use of polysilicon, offering producers a cost advantange.
  • Photovoltaic demand was being encouraged by government subsidies in markets like Italy and Germany.

There's nothing wrong with betting on either of these market conditions... until they change.  Price decreases in polysilicon have driven down Evergreen's cost advantage.  And reduction of subsidies in Italy and Germany has driven down demand.  The combined effect has been a "perfect storm" of reduced demand and world over-supply.

I have no way of knowing if management at Evergreen did everything they could to change their business model, or were paying enough attention to market conditions, or tried to change their business model in a timely way.  It's an unfortunate ending for employees and investors, but it illustrates the importance of asking--on a regular basis--whether the assumptions of your company's business model still hold water.

When I worked at iPass, the business model was built on the assumption of a steady flow of revenue from dial-up Internet access users.  When that condition changed--and it did so quite rapidly--it left the company scrambling to replace the revenue that was being lost to broadband Internet access providers.  iPass eventually plugged that revenue hole by acquiring a managed broadband service provider, but it failed to recapture the growth that the company had when it went public.   Working through this transition at iPass taught me a lot about the importance of testing your strategic assumptions on a regular basis.

Energy Efficiency--What is Plan B?

I read a great post today from Steve Blank, about having a "Plan B".  You should read the post, because it also contrasts the mindset of people who realize the need for a Plan B vs. those people that put their mental energies into execution.  But what I found interesting was relating it to a recent post from GigaOM on Cisco's exit from the energy efficiency business.

As GigaOM pointed out, the issue is getting someone to pay for energy efficiency software (we'll get to hardware in a minute).  Or, to use Steve Blank's language, there's no sustainable business model here. 

Cisco, Google, Microsoft, and others have all attempted to market energy efficiency to households, with little to show for it.  Yes, people want to save on their electric bills.  But people haven't demonstrated any willingness to pay for tools that will help them save money.  Utilities would love it if people were more energy-conscious (it's easier to avoid the need for an additional megawatt of power than it is to plan for production of that megawatt), but they don't want to subsidize home energy efficiency solutions either.  You could argue that households don't understand the benefits, but I'd argue that if the utilities (who have lots of smart people doing cost-benefit calculations) don't see the cost-effectiveness of paying for household energy efficiency, then there's no argument to be made in its favor.

One product-related problem is that it's expensive to measure energy consumption at its source--meaning the individual appliance.  You know you're using more electricity between 10 AM and 5 PM on a hot day when the kids are home on summer vacation.  And you can presume that the air conditioner is the culprit.  But what about the electric clothes dryer? the always-on television?  Knowing where you're using electricity requires monitoring and measurement--which is costly to accomplish (compared to a software-only solution) and can only be done if there's a way to measure energy consumption at each appliance.

But back to "Plan B".  If you've developed an energy management software application, how do you monetize it?  Selling it to electric power utilities means having to approach just a small number of prospective customers, each of which would be committing to a large-dollar purchase.  But (as we've seen), utilities don't want to shoulder this cost.  And (as Silver Spring Networks' balance sheet shows) utility buying cycles are very long and complicated.  Start-up's looking for a way to "disrupt" the industry are more likely to focus on selling to households; there are millions of them!  It's my Law of Large Numbers: any number multiplied by a large number is another large number.  But as we've seen, consumers aren't taking the bait.

So what's Plan B?  If you're a utility, you're looking for Someone Else to pay... whether that would be the government (via some kind of subsidy) or the customer (by burying the charge in a billing line item).  If you're a software company, you might exercise the "Google Reflex" ("we'll make our money off of ads!").  But really, how often are people staring at their thermostats or some kind of energy usage dashboard?

I might go after the appliance manufacturers.  They would have to build (or at least accommodate) energy consumption measurement into their goods to make energy consumption management more than a time-of-day phenomenon.  And they know how to sell to household decision-makers.  Appliances that don't normally have a consumer UI (such as air conditioners or overhead lights) would need some kind of customer-facing UI to communicate usage anyway.  Energy efficiency could be bundled in with information on appliance maintenance (such as a notice to change the furnace filters) that household customers would find useful.

That's just one idea.  As always, it's about figuring out who benefits and making sure they have a motivation to pay for that benefit.