Archive

Archive for the ‘Startups’ Category

Live Entrepreneurially: Harnessing Luck

December 5, 2011 Leave a comment

luck is in small things(42/365)
This is part 2 of 2 of the “Live Entrepreneurially” series. In part 1, I wrote about finding purpose. Today, I’m going to explain how preparing with purpose can harness luck. Instead of presenting the ideas here as theoretical, I’m going to use examples from my own career.

I’m not a marketer. Yet, my last two jobs have been in marketing. Why?

The last year I was in the film business I thought a lot about my intrinsic motivations and purpose, and how those manifest themselves in business and into a career. What aspects of previous jobs did I like / dislike? For example

  • I like high volume, high stress work environments. If a workplace is too slow, I get anxious and antsy and start working on side projects to keep myself busy. I need to feel productive
  • I have self-diagnosed A.D.D., so, to stay interested, I need either (1) one project that is progressing quickly and needs all of my attention, or (2) several projects that require less personal attention, but sum up to a high volume of work in aggregate. That said, I generally like having my hands in several different projects at a time
  • I love to mentor – maybe because I didn’t get a lot of direction when I was growing up
  • Also worth noting, while I like mentoring (or consulting) people (e.g. students, clients, team members, etc.), I don’t like holding people’s hands. This is because I believe time is my most valuable asset and I can’t stand when people waste my time. I expect people to be at least as passionate and resourceful as me. Otherwise, I don’t want them in the room
  • I like being in a position where I can influence the strategy/direction of a business

I have many more of these, but I’ll stop here. When I mapped these qualities against a growing interest in technology and social media and how they were affecting the way we communicate and consume content, I concluded that I wanted to start my own company and eventually move into venture capital to fund and mentor other entrepreneurs.  That’s when I started thinking about social TV.

President Abraham Lincoln.

“I will prepare, and one day my chance will come” — Abraham Lincoln

I started preparing – thinking about how the internet, mobile and social media were affecting content consumption and how to disrupt mainstream Hollywood. So, when opportunity presented itself and I was introduced to Avi Savar (Founder of Big Fuel) I was prepared. I connected with their Content to Commerce business model, helping brands connect with their customers through content, and the idea of helping them scale their business. And, so I was hired. And, I accepted because the job fit within the parameters of my purpose.

Six months later, when Big Fuel‘s growth leveled out, and I moved more into an account management role than a corporate development role, and my workload decreased, I got the startup bug again.

I got to work planning two new companies – one being a location-based network and the other a social business consultancy.

Again, opportunity came knocking, and again, I was prepared. I was introduced to WCG, which was building out its company much the way I was mapping out my social business consultancy. Had I not been working on my own company, and had developed my own point of view on the nature of the marketing and communications industry and how social media fits into it, I may not have gotten an offer.

I wasn’t looking for a job; I was ready to start my own company. But, the fact that WCG was building business very similar to what I wanted to build, and the fact that everyone I met at the company was smart and passionate, convinced me it was worth taking a shot on them. It never hurts to align yourself with good people and strong leaders, and I was impressed by Bob PearsonJim Weiss and the rest of the team. So, now I’m at WCG.

My last two jobs have been in marketing. Why?

Because technology, content and social media (three interests that fit within my purpose) are disrupting the marketing and communications industry. Brands and agencies need people that can help them navigate the new wild west, and I can fill that role. But, I don’t consider myself a marketer. I consider myself an entrepreneur-in-the-making.

As Tim Cook said, “We rarely control the timing of opportunities, but we can control the preparation”.

So, I will continue to prepare. And, I hope you will too. Find your purpose and prepare. Opportunity will come.

Addendum

On a side note, you don’t have to jump from company to company to find roles that fit within your purpose. Please take the time to read this short post by Steven Tomlinson, Professor at Acton MBA in Entrepreneurship, where he speaks about tweaking your existing job to make it more satisfying.

And, if you haven’t seen Professor Tomlinson’s TEDxAustin speech, I urge you to watch the video below now.

A Case for Social TV

November 30, 2011 7 comments

Hollywood

Digital is the New Broadcast

When I left Hollywood and moved to NY Summer 2010, I started thinking about how I could start my own company, using digital media to disrupt the Hollywood system. I had just listened to Ted Turner’s autobiography, Call Me Ted, and was inspired by his innovation in the industry. I became convinced that digital to my generation was the broadcast to his generation and nothing significant had been done to tackle premium video entertainment (TV and movies) in a meaningful way.

Distribution Wields the Power

Having worked in the movie business, I had a first hand understanding that distributors (or aggregators) hold all the power and make most (if not all) of the money vs. the content producers. If you look at any of the media conglomerates’ financials, you’ll find that their distribution/syndication/aggregation businesses (i.e. studios’ theatrical distribution networks for movies, TV networks, MSOs) are the real moneymakers. This notion is validated by the book The Curse of the Mogul: What’s Wrong with the World’s Leading Media Companies.

While YouTube, Dailymotion, Vimeo and others had democratized the distribution of video content, those sites were populated by short, user-generated content. While fun to watch, this doesn’t satisfy those looking to fill the average of 3 hours of TV that people watch per day.

Furthermore, in the premium streaming business, companies like Netflix and Hulu don’t have live, or even up-to-date, content. Their streaming libraries are populated with older content that has been cleared for broader syndication. Again, while the content is valuable to satisfy short cravings for premium entertainment, they don’t satisfy the need for new, fresh, premium entertainment on a regular basis. The average person is filling 2 hours and 31 minutes of their day with TV programming.

The Rise of Mobile and Broadband

I also saw mobile entertainment beginning to mature. Gaming is the number one activity on mobile devices. The first iPad had just been released. And, i saw video eventually becoming the primary source of entertainment on those devices.

With broadband, WiFi and mobile data network speeds accelerating to the point that, not just streaming video, but live-streaming video, in good quality and without much buffering was possible, I felt even more strongly that premium video entertainment needs could be fulfilled on mobile devices.

How great would it be to have the ability to watch live, premium content on your mobile devices – anytime, anywhere?

TV Everywhere and the Digital Powerhouses

About this time I started hearing about TV Everywhere. MSOs and TV networks started releasing mobile apps where you could view their content.

Also, Google, Amazon and Apple started trying to enter the space with new products.

I figured with all these powerhouses, they were bound to get it right. So, I put the idea aside and moved on to my new job at Big Fuel – building a social content distribution network for the agency and its brand clients. Similar to how Ted Turner felt when he first conceived of a 24 hour news network: he just figured one of the other networks (ABC, CBS or NBC) had to be working on something like this. Ten years later he woke up and there was still no 24 hour news network. So, he founded CNN. Well, just over a year later, the media companies, Google, Amazon, Apple, Netflix… they still haven’t figured it out.

Sometimes the Best Way to Disrupt Is By Not Being (Too) Disruptive

I would venture to say that iTunes wasn’t that disruptive to the music industry. What was disruptive was Napster and other peer to peer music sharing sites. Then, Steve Jobs came in and offered record labels a lifeline: make premium recorded music (not the ripped, copied or live-recorded music that you found on Napster) available in the format that audiences now want it (single songs vs. whole albums), make it extremely easy for them to find and consume that content, and they’ll pay for it. What Steve Jobs did wasn’t necessarily disrupting the big music business, but, rather, saving it.

Similarly, movie studios, TV networks and MSOs are scared to death of losing control of their content, and with it, the advertising dollars that make them multi-million/multi-billion dollar companies. They’re the force behind the Protect IP Act (#stopPIPA) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (#SOPA) (aka E-Parasite Act) in Congress. If you’re not familiar with these legislations, please see this video below.

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

So, how do you play to the Hollywood moguls AND satisfy audience cravings for premium content, live, anytime, anywhere?

Subscription-based Social TV

Create a MSO that is socially integrated and socially distributed, meaning

1.  You can check into shows with friends and interact: My wife and her sister used to call each other on Monday nights and watch The Bachelor or The Bachelorette together. They loved engaging with the show, discussing the men and women, the dates and who might win. I can’t watch sports anymore without Twitter – especially Syracuse basketball. I’m constantly checking my feed on my iPhone or iPad (or both!) to see what other fans are saying.

  • The lesson here: valuable content + accessible platforms = scalable communities.
  • What does this mean for the moguls? More engaged audiences, around the most valuable content and the analytics to prove it. Traditional media relies on Nielsen data which many consider to be limited. But, online, MSOs could have access to an ocean of demographic and psychographic data about their audiences. This means higher rates for CPMs, sponsorships and product placement.

2.  You can share, rate and comment on shows/episodes: Say you’re on the NJ Transit commuting from NYC, or at the airport waiting for a flight, or visiting family or a friend that doesn’t have premium cable. How would you like to check your Facebook or Twitter stream and see that a friend has liked/shared an episode of your favorite show – or even a show that you’re not familiar with? You click on that show in your stream and are able to watch the show on Facebook or Twitter – never leaving the platform? And, because you trust that person’s taste, the show is relevant to you and you enjoy it? In fact, you enjoy it so much, that now you share, rate and/or comment on it? Suddenly, you have access to curated, relevant, premium content in your social stream.

  • Take that a step further. Say, instead of being restricted to viewing premium content at home on your TV (because that’s the device your MSO connects to) or on an app on your desktop/laptop/mobile device, you can log into your MSO on anyone’s Internet-connected device. And, when you log in, you have all the premium content channels your MSO bundle normally would have, plus a list (think DVR playlist) populated with the most shared, highly rated and reviewed content from your social and interest graphs (Facebook and Twitter, respectively). Channel surfing becomes curated content surfing. And, you can log into your parents computer and get access to all this content as if you were at home on your couch.
  • The lesson here: According to AOL’s study, “CONTENT: What Drives Consumption?”, Unique Content + Quality (trusted, fresh, relevant, authentic) Content = Valued Original Content. Or, as I like to say, content without social context is worthless :)
  • What does this mean for the moguls? Viral effect of their content to the most relevant/engaged audiences (i.e. more views and more engagement), again leading to higher rates for CPMs, sponsorships and product placement. In addition to more accurate data, producers will have direct feedback from audiences – what did they like/dislike about an episode? what do they think about specific characters and story-lines? Who should live or die or breakup or get married? Producers will have a new ability to engage with, and satisfy, its audiences.

If this can be accomplished while maintaining the security of the content, so that it can’t be ripped/pirated easily (and, I think it can), then the advertising model can stay relatively the same as it exists now. Not too disruptive to Hollywood, or out of their realm of understanding (giving them the benefit of the doubt here).

The Side Effects

  • The rich will get richer and the poor will fail: More accurate data on premium content will cause hit networks with hit movies and TV shows to be able to charge even more of a premium on advertising, while the niche networks with shows that reach smaller audiences and that rely on the MSOs forcing consumers to pay for their channels in their bundles, will cease to exist.
  • Pilots might get longer lifelines: Every season, networks produce and release new TV series. If pilots don’t perform well within the first few weeks of release, they’re terminated. The slots are filled with existing content (often in syndication) or by new pilots. But, with social integration, pilots will have the ability to create strong, engaged communities early on, improving their chances of succeeding (i.e. staying on air).
  • A middle class will rise: These are the Revision3, the Maker Studios, the YouTube Creators, etc. They’ll create low-cost, ongoing series in niche topics and genres that will be aggregated and programmed alongside premium, Hollywood content. They may or may not drive as much gross revenue as Hollywood content, but they will make healthy net revenue in context of their production/overhead costs.
  • A Cadenced Evolution of the Industry: I can’t predict what the industry’s business model will be 10, even 5, years from now. But, subscription-based, social TV can help Hollywood and digital-native content producers explore new business models without breaking Hollywood’s back the way that music sharing broke the music industry’s back.

Would you subscribe to social TV? Do you know any companies working on this?

Some Thoughts on Stevey’s Google Platforms Rant

October 20, 2011 Leave a comment

I don’t copy and past posts into this blog, but I felt the below post by Steve Yegge at Google warranted it. I love Steve’s honesty and clarity on the value of platforms and the humbleness of understanding that rarely, if ever, can one person or group of people create a perfect product for the masses. Even if the initial launch is successful, the rate of innovation these days is SO fast that I can’t imagine anyone being competitive without listening to their customers and iterating based on customers’ priorities.

And, that’s what a platform allows…it empowers the people, whether they be customers, advocates, developers – whomever – to have a voice in your product and improve it for the greater good. In a world where niche is back, only an open platform can truly appeal to the masses (something to keep in mind, consumer-focused startups!)

I hope you enjoy Steve’s post as much as I did. Thanks to Rip for reposting, and to Steve and Google for letting him keep it up.

 

—————–

Rip Rowan  -  Oct 12, 2011 (edited)  -  Public

The best article I’ve ever read about architecture and the management of IT.***UPDATE***

This post was intended to be shared privately and was accidentally made public. Thanks to +Steve Yegge for allowing us to keep it out there. It’s the sort of writing people do when they think nobody is watching: honest, clear, and frank.

The world would be a better place if more people wrote this sort of internal memoranda, and even better if they were allowed to write it for the outside world.

Hopefully Steve will not experience any negative repercussions from Google about this. On the contrary, he deserves a promotion.

***UPDATE #2***

This post has received a lot of attention. For anyone here who arrived from The Greater Internet – I stand ready to remove this post if asked. As I mentioned before, I was given permission to keep it up.

Google’s openness to allow us to keep this message posted on its own social network is, in my opinion, a far greater asset than any SaS platform. In the end, a company’s greatest asset is its culture, and here, Google is one of the strongest companies on the planet.

Steve Yegge originally shared this post:

Stevey’s Google Platforms RantI was at Amazon for about six and a half years, and now I’ve been at Google for that long. One thing that struck me immediately about the two companies — an impression that has been reinforced almost daily — is that Amazon does everything wrong, and Google does everything right. Sure, it’s a sweeping generalization, but a surprisingly accurate one. It’s pretty crazy. There are probably a hundred or even two hundred different ways you can compare the two companies, and Google is superior in all but three of them, if I recall correctly. I actually did a spreadsheet at one point but Legal wouldn’t let me show it to anyone, even though recruiting loved it.

I mean, just to give you a very brief taste: Amazon’s recruiting process is fundamentally flawed by having teams hire for themselves, so their hiring bar is incredibly inconsistent across teams, despite various efforts they’ve made to level it out. And their operations are a mess; they don’t really have SREs and they make engineers pretty much do everything, which leaves almost no time for coding – though again this varies by group, so it’s luck of the draw. They don’t give a single shit about charity or helping the needy or community contributions or anything like that. Never comes up there, except maybe to laugh about it. Their facilities are dirt-smeared cube farms without a dime spent on decor or common meeting areas. Their pay and benefits suck, although much less so lately due to local competition from Google and Facebook. But they don’t have any of our perks or extras — they just try to match the offer-letter numbers, and that’s the end of it. Their code base is a disaster, with no engineering standards whatsoever except what individual teams choose to put in place.

To be fair, they do have a nice versioned-library system that we really ought to emulate, and a nice publish-subscribe system that we also have no equivalent for. But for the most part they just have a bunch of crappy tools that read and write state machine information into relational databases. We wouldn’t take most of it even if it were free.

I think the pubsub system and their library-shelf system were two out of the grand total of three things Amazon does better than google.

I guess you could make an argument that their bias for launching early and iterating like mad is also something they do well, but you can argue it either way. They prioritize launching early over everything else, including retention and engineering discipline and a bunch of other stuff that turns out to matter in the long run. So even though it’s given them some competitive advantages in the marketplace, it’s created enough other problems to make it something less than a slam-dunk.

But there’s one thing they do really really well that pretty much makes up for ALL of their political, philosophical and technical screw-ups.

Jeff Bezos is an infamous micro-manager. He micro-manages every single pixel of Amazon’s retail site. He hired Larry Tesler, Apple’s Chief Scientist and probably the very most famous and respected human-computer interaction expert in the entire world, and then ignored every goddamn thing Larry said for three years until Larry finally — wisely — left the company. Larry would do these big usability studies and demonstrate beyond any shred of doubt that nobody can understand that frigging website, but Bezos just couldn’t let go of those pixels, all those millions of semantics-packed pixels on the landing page. They were like millions of his own precious children. So they’re all still there, and Larry is not.

Micro-managing isn’t that third thing that Amazon does better than us, by the way. I mean, yeah, they micro-manage really well, but I wouldn’t list it as a strength or anything. I’m just trying to set the context here, to help you understand what happened. We’re talking about a guy who in all seriousness has said on many public occasions that people should be paying him to work at Amazon. He hands out little yellow stickies with his name on them, reminding people “who runs the company” when they disagree with him. The guy is a regular… well, Steve Jobs, I guess. Except without the fashion or design sense. Bezos is super smart; don’t get me wrong. He just makes ordinary control freaks look like stoned hippies.

So one day Jeff Bezos issued a mandate. He’s doing that all the time, of course, and people scramble like ants being pounded with a rubber mallet whenever it happens. But on one occasion — back around 2002 I think, plus or minus a year — he issued a mandate that was so out there, so huge and eye-bulgingly ponderous, that it made all of his other mandates look like unsolicited peer bonuses.

His Big Mandate went something along these lines:

1) All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces.

2) Teams must communicate with each other through these interfaces.

3) There will be no other form of interprocess communication allowed: no direct linking, no direct reads of another team’s data store, no shared-memory model, no back-doors whatsoever. The only communication allowed is via service interface calls over the network.

4) It doesn’t matter what technology they use. HTTP, Corba, Pubsub, custom protocols — doesn’t matter. Bezos doesn’t care.

5) All service interfaces, without exception, must be designed from the ground up to be externalizable. That is to say, the team must plan and design to be able to expose the interface to developers in the outside world. No exceptions.

6) Anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired.

7) Thank you; have a nice day!

Ha, ha! You 150-odd ex-Amazon folks here will of course realize immediately that #7 was a little joke I threw in, because Bezos most definitely does not give a shit about your day.

#6, however, was quite real, so people went to work. Bezos assigned a couple of Chief Bulldogs to oversee the effort and ensure forward progress, headed up by Uber-Chief Bear Bulldog Rick Dalzell. Rick is an ex-Armgy Ranger, West Point Academy graduate, ex-boxer, ex-Chief Torturer slash CIO at Wal*Mart, and is a big genial scary man who used the word “hardened interface” a lot. Rick was a walking, talking hardened interface himself, so needless to say, everyone made LOTS of forward progress and made sure Rick knew about it.

Over the next couple of years, Amazon transformed internally into a service-oriented architecture. They learned a tremendous amount while effecting this transformation. There was lots of existing documentation and lore about SOAs, but at Amazon’s vast scale it was about as useful as telling Indiana Jones to look both ways before crossing the street. Amazon’s dev staff made a lot of discoveries along the way. A teeny tiny sampling of these discoveries included:

- pager escalation gets way harder, because a ticket might bounce through 20 service calls before the real owner is identified. If each bounce goes through a team with a 15-minute response time, it can be hours before the right team finally finds out, unless you build a lot of scaffolding and metrics and reporting.

- every single one of your peer teams suddenly becomes a potential DOS attacker. Nobody can make any real forward progress until very serious quotas and throttling are put in place in every single service.

- monitoring and QA are the same thing. You’d never think so until you try doing a big SOA. But when your service says “oh yes, I’m fine”, it may well be the case that the only thing still functioning in the server is the little component that knows how to say “I’m fine, roger roger, over and out” in a cheery droid voice. In order to tell whether the service is actually responding, you have to make individual calls. The problem continues recursively until your monitoring is doing comprehensive semantics checking of your entire range of services and data, at which point it’s indistinguishable from automated QA. So they’re a continuum.

- if you have hundreds of services, and your code MUST communicate with other groups’ code via these services, then you won’t be able to find any of them without a service-discovery mechanism. And you can’t have that without a service registration mechanism, which itself is another service. So Amazon has a universal service registry where you can find out reflectively (programmatically) about every service, what its APIs are, and also whether it is currently up, and where.

- debugging problems with someone else’s code gets a LOT harder, and is basically impossible unless there is a universal standard way to run every service in a debuggable sandbox.

That’s just a very small sample. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of individual learnings like these that Amazon had to discover organically. There were a lot of wacky ones around externalizing services, but not as many as you might think. Organizing into services taught teams not to trust each other in most of the same ways they’re not supposed to trust external developers.

This effort was still underway when I left to join Google in mid-2005, but it was pretty far advanced. From the time Bezos issued his edict through the time I left, Amazon had transformed culturally into a company that thinks about everything in a services-first fashion. It is now fundamental to how they approach all designs, including internal designs for stuff that might never see the light of day externally.

At this point they don’t even do it out of fear of being fired. I mean, they’re still afraid of that; it’s pretty much part of daily life there, working for the Dread Pirate Bezos and all. But they do services because they’ve come to understand that it’s the Right Thing. There are without question pros and cons to the SOA approach, and some of the cons are pretty long. But overall it’s the right thing because SOA-driven design enables Platforms.

That’s what Bezos was up to with his edict, of course. He didn’t (and doesn’t) care even a tiny bit about the well-being of the teams, nor about what technologies they use, nor in fact any detail whatsoever about how they go about their business unless they happen to be screwing up. But Bezos realized long before the vast majority of Amazonians that Amazon needs to be a platform.

You wouldn’t really think that an online bookstore needs to be an extensible, programmable platform. Would you?

Well, the first big thing Bezos realized is that the infrastructure they’d built for selling and shipping books and sundry could be transformed an excellent repurposable computing platform. So now they have the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, and the Amazon Elastic MapReduce, and the Amazon Relational Database Service, and a whole passel’ o’ other services browsable ataws.amazon.com. These services host the backends for some pretty successful companies, reddit being my personal favorite of the bunch.

The other big realization he had was that he can’t always build the right thing. I think Larry Tesler might have struck some kind of chord in Bezos when he said his mom couldn’t use the goddamn website. It’s not even super clear whose mom he was talking about, and doesn’t really matter, because nobody’s mom can use the goddamn website. In fact I myself find the website disturbingly daunting, and I worked there for over half a decade. I’ve just learned to kinda defocus my eyes and concentrate on the million or so pixels near the center of the page above the fold.

I’m not really sure how Bezos came to this realization — the insight that he can’t build one product and have it be right for everyone. But it doesn’t matter, because he gets it. There’s actually a formal name for this phenomenon. It’s called Accessibility, and it’s the most important thing in the computing world.

The. Most. Important. Thing.

If you’re sorta thinking, “huh? You mean like, blind and deaf people Accessibility?” then you’re not alone, because I’ve come to understand that there are lots and LOTS of people just like you: people for whom this idea does not have the right Accessibility, so it hasn’t been able to get through to you yet. It’s not your fault for not understanding, any more than it would be your fault for being blind or deaf or motion-restricted or living with any other disability. When software — or idea-ware for that matter — fails to be accessible toanyone for any reason, it is the fault of the software or of the messaging of the idea. It is an Accessibility failure.

Like anything else big and important in life, Accessibility has an evil twin who, jilted by the unbalanced affection displayed by their parents in their youth, has grown into an equally powerful Arch-Nemesis (yes, there’s more than one nemesis to accessibility) named Security. And boy howdy are the two ever at odds.

But I’ll argue that Accessibility is actually more important than Security because dialing Accessibility to zero means you have no product at all, whereas dialing Security to zero can still get you a reasonably successful product such as the Playstation Network.

So yeah. In case you hadn’t noticed, I could actually write a book on this topic. A fat one, filled with amusing anecdotes about ants and rubber mallets at companies I’ve worked at. But I will never get this little rant published, and you’ll never get it read, unless I start to wrap up.

That one last thing that Google doesn’t do well is Platforms. We don’t understand platforms. We don’t “get” platforms. Some of you do, but you are the minority. This has become painfully clear to me over the past six years. I was kind of hoping that competitive pressure from Microsoft and Amazon and more recently Facebook would make us wake up collectively and start doing universal services. Not in some sort of ad-hoc, half-assed way, but in more or less the same way Amazon did it: all at once, for real, no cheating, and treating it as our top priority from now on.

But no. No, it’s like our tenth or eleventh priority. Or fifteenth, I don’t know. It’s pretty low. There are a few teams who treat the idea very seriously, but most teams either don’t think about it all, ever, or only a small percentage of them think about it in a very small way.

It’s a big stretch even to get most teams to offer a stubby service to get programmatic access to their data and computations. Most of them think they’re building products. And a stubby service is a pretty pathetic service. Go back and look at that partial list of learnings from Amazon, and tell me which ones Stubby gives you out of the box. As far as I’m concerned, it’s none of them. Stubby’s great, but it’s like parts when you need a car.

A product is useless without a platform, or more precisely and accurately, a platform-less product will always be replaced by an equivalent platform-ized product.

Google+ is a prime example of our complete failure to understand platforms from the very highest levels of executive leadership (hi Larry, Sergey, Eric, Vic, howdy howdy) down to the very lowest leaf workers (hey yo). We all don’t get it. The Golden Rule of platforms is that you Eat Your Own Dogfood. The Google+ platform is a pathetic afterthought. We had no API at all at launch, and last I checked, we had one measly API call. One of the team members marched in and told me about it when they launched, and I asked: “So is it the Stalker API?” She got all glum and said “Yeah.” I mean, I was joking, but no… the only API call we offer is to get someone’s stream. So I guess the joke was on me.

Microsoft has known about the Dogfood rule for at least twenty years. It’s been part of their culture for a whole generation now. You don’t eat People Food and give your developers Dog Food. Doing that is simply robbing your long-term platform value for short-term successes. Platforms are all about long-term thinking.

Google+ is a knee-jerk reaction, a study in short-term thinking, predicated on the incorrect notion that Facebook is successful because they built a great product. But that’s not why they are successful. Facebook is successful because they built an entire constellation of products by allowing other people to do the work. So Facebook is different for everyone. Some people spend all their time on Mafia Wars. Some spend all their time on Farmville. There are hundreds or maybe thousands of different high-quality time sinks available, so there’s something there for everyone.

Our Google+ team took a look at the aftermarket and said: “Gosh, it looks like we need some games. Let’s go contract someone to, um, write some games for us.” Do you begin to see how incredibly wrong that thinking is now? The problem is that we are trying to predict what people want and deliver it for them.

You can’t do that. Not really. Not reliably. There have been precious few people in the world, over the entire history of computing, who have been able to do it reliably. Steve Jobs was one of them. We don’t have a Steve Jobs here. I’m sorry, but we don’t.

Larry Tesler may have convinced Bezos that he was no Steve Jobs, but Bezos realized that he didn’t need to be a Steve Jobs in order to provide everyone with the right products: interfaces and workflows that they liked and felt at ease with. He just needed to enable third-party developers to do it, and it would happen automatically.

I apologize to those (many) of you for whom all this stuff I’m saying is incredibly obvious, because yeah. It’s incredibly frigging obvious. Except we’re not doing it. We don’t get Platforms, and we don’t get Accessibility. The two are basically the same thing, because platforms solve accessibility. A platform is accessibility.

So yeah, Microsoft gets it. And you know as well as I do how surprising that is, because they don’t “get” much of anything, really. But they understand platforms as a purely accidental outgrowth of having started life in the business of providing platforms. So they have thirty-plus years of learning in this space. And if you go to msdn.com, and spend some time browsing, and you’ve never seen it before, prepare to be amazed. Because it’s staggeringly huge. They have thousands, and thousands, and THOUSANDS of API calls. They have a HUGE platform. Too big in fact, because they can’t design for squat, but at least they’re doing it.

Amazon gets it. Amazon’s AWS (aws.amazon.com) is incredible. Just go look at it. Click around. It’s embarrassing. We don’t have any of that stuff.

Apple gets it, obviously. They’ve made some fundamentally non-open choices, particularly around their mobile platform. But they understand accessibility and they understand the power of third-party development and they eat their dogfood. And you know what? They make pretty good dogfood. Their APIs are a hell of a lot cleaner than Microsoft’s, and have been since time immemorial.

Facebook gets it. That’s what really worries me. That’s what got me off my lazy butt to write this thing. I hate blogging. I hate… plussing, or whatever it’s called when you do a massive rant in Google+ even though it’s a terrible venue for it but you do it anyway because in the end you really do want Google to be successful. And I do! I mean, Facebook wants me there, and it’d be pretty easy to just go. But Google is home, so I’m insisting that we have this little family intervention, uncomfortable as it might be.

After you’ve marveled at the platform offerings of Microsoft and Amazon, and Facebook I guess (I didn’t look because I didn’t want to get too depressed), head over to developers.google.com and browse a little. Pretty big difference, eh? It’s like what your fifth-grade nephew might mock up if he were doing an assignment to demonstrate what a big powerful platform company might be building if all they had, resource-wise, was one fifth grader.

Please don’t get me wrong here — I know for a fact that the dev-rel team has had to FIGHT to get even this much available externally. They’re kicking ass as far as I’m concerned, because they DO get platforms, and they are struggling heroically to try to create one in an environment that is at best platform-apathetic, and at worst often openly hostile to the idea.

I’m just frankly describing what developers.google.com looks like to an outsider. It looks childish. Where’s the Maps APIs in there for Christ’s sake? Some of the things in there are labs projects. And the APIs for everything I clicked were… they were paltry. They were obviously dog food. Not even good organic stuff. Compared to our internal APIs it’s all snouts and horse hooves.

And also don’t get me wrong about Google+. They’re far from the only offenders. This is a cultural thing. What we have going on internally is basically a war, with the underdog minority Platformers fighting a more or less losing battle against the Mighty Funded Confident Producters.

Any teams that have successfully internalized the notion that they should be externally programmable platforms from the ground up are underdogs — Maps and Docs come to mind, and I know GMail is making overtures in that direction. But it’s hard for them to get funding for it because it’s not part of our culture. Maestro’s funding is a feeble thing compared to the gargantuan Microsoft Office programming platform: it’s a fluffy rabbit versus a T-Rex. The Docs team knows they’ll never be competitive with Office until they can match its scripting facilities, but they’re not getting any resource love. I mean, I assume they’re not, given that Apps Script only works in Spreadsheet right now, and it doesn’t even have keyboard shortcuts as part of its API. That team looks pretty unloved to me.

Ironically enough, Wave was a great platform, may they rest in peace. But making something a platform is not going to make you an instant success. A platform needs a killer app. Facebook — that is, the stock service they offer with walls and friends and such — is the killer app for the Facebook Platform. And it is a very serious mistake to conclude that the Facebook App could have been anywhere near as successful without the Facebook Platform.

You know how people are always saying Google is arrogant? I’m a Googler, so I get as irritated as you do when people say that. We’re not arrogant, by and large. We’re, like, 99% Arrogance-Free. I did start this post — if you’ll reach back into distant memory — by describing Google as “doing everything right”. We do mean well, and for the most part when people say we’re arrogant it’s because we didn’t hire them, or they’re unhappy with our policies, or something along those lines. They’re inferring arrogance because it makes them feel better.

But when we take the stance that we know how to design the perfect product for everyone, and believe you me, I hear that a lot, then we’re being fools. You can attribute it to arrogance, or naivete, or whatever — it doesn’t matter in the end, because it’s foolishness. There IS no perfect product for everyone.

And so we wind up with a browser that doesn’t let you set the default font size. Talk about an affront to Accessibility. I mean, as I get older I’m actually going blind. For real. I’ve been nearsighted all my life, and once you hit 40 years old you stop being able to see things up close. So font selection becomes this life-or-death thing: it can lock you out of the product completely. But the Chrome team is flat-out arrogant here: they want to build a zero-configuration product, and they’re quite brazen about it, and Fuck You if you’re blind or deaf or whatever. Hit Ctrl-+ on every single page visit for the rest of your life.

It’s not just them. It’s everyone. The problem is that we’re a Product Company through and through. We built a successful product with broad appeal — our search, that is — and that wild success has biased us.

Amazon was a product company too, so it took an out-of-band force to make Bezos understand the need for a platform. That force was their evaporating margins; he was cornered and had to think of a way out. But all he had was a bunch of engineers and all these computers… if only they could be monetized somehow… you can see how he arrived at AWS, in hindsight.

Microsoft started out as a platform, so they’ve just had lots of practice at it.

Facebook, though: they worry me. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure they started off as a Product and they rode that success pretty far. So I’m not sure exactly how they made the transition to a platform. It was a relatively long time ago, since they had to be a platform before (now very old) things like Mafia Wars could come along.

Maybe they just looked at us and asked: “How can we beat Google? What are they missing?”

The problem we face is pretty huge, because it will take a dramatic cultural change in order for us to start catching up. We don’t do internal service-oriented platforms, and we just as equally don’t do external ones. This means that the “not getting it” is endemic across the company: the PMs don’t get it, the engineers don’t get it, the product teams don’t get it, nobody gets it. Even if individuals do, even if YOU do, it doesn’t matter one bit unless we’re treating it as an all-hands-on-deck emergency. We can’t keep launching products and pretending we’ll turn them into magical beautiful extensible platforms later. We’ve tried that and it’s not working.

The Golden Rule of Platforms, “Eat Your Own Dogfood”, can be rephrased as “Start with a Platform, and Then Use it for Everything.” You can’t just bolt it on later. Certainly not easily at any rate — ask anyone who worked on platformizing MS Office. Or anyone who worked on platformizing Amazon. If you delay it, it’ll be ten times as much work as just doing it correctly up front. You can’t cheat. You can’t have secret back doors for internal apps to get special priority access, not for ANY reason. You need to solve the hard problems up front.

I’m not saying it’s too late for us, but the longer we wait, the closer we get to being Too Late.

I honestly don’t know how to wrap this up. I’ve said pretty much everything I came here to say today. This post has been six years in the making. I’m sorry if I wasn’t gentle enough, or if I misrepresented some product or team or person, or if we’re actually doing LOTS of platform stuff and it just so happens that I and everyone I ever talk to has just never heard about it. I’m sorry.

But we’ve gotta start doing this right.

Related articles

Defining ROI of Social Media by Identifying Opportunities with Social Media

August 8, 2011 Leave a comment

There is a lot of buzz about social media.  There is also a lot of noise. So, I’m never surprised when brands are confused and misguided about what the value is of participating in social media and how to begin.I came from the movie business where the trades analyze box office numbers like sports stats. The whole industry has become focused on opening weekend, and if the movie doesn’t perform, it’s likely not going to be given the opportunity to develop an audience. It’s all about creating excitement and anticipation before the movie’s release vs. allowing the content to gain positive word-of-mouth and momentum after its release. It’s all about winning the sprint.The social media industry as a whole is following a strikingly similar approach.

In the startup world there are rumblings of a bubble. It’s sexy to invest in social media startups in hopes of getting in on the next Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn or even Groupon. The problem is that many investors trying to get into the industry don’t know what to look for, and so many entrepreneurs are, as Charlie O’Donnell so adequately stated in his newsletter a few weeks ago, “solving to get funded” instead of building products that are creating value by improving the lives of the greater population. It’s about the sprint, and the finish line is getting funded by a VC. While any VC or entrepreneur worth their salt knows it’s really about the execution, and that is akin to running a marathon several times over.

In the marketing world, we are reporting on the most-viewed, viral branded videos. We’re creating badges for every action and trying to figure out which new check-in or check-out startup we should use on the next campaign.  We’re confusing brands about what’s important and valuable – probably because this is all still so new that we are, in part, figuring it out as we go.

So, I have a challenge for everyone: keep it simple and focus on the longview.

Here’s what I mean by that:

Social Media Is Not New
Instead of trying to give you a lesson in the history of social media, I’ll just refer you to a series of posts by Mark Suster. Honestly, he explains it better than I could. Here are Part 1 – Social Networking: The Past, Part 2 – Social Networking: The Present and Part 3 – Social Networking: The Future.

What it comes down to is that there is a common thread between the technologies from thirty years ago, and the ones today. What has changed is that the internet is now ubiquitous and the platforms more sophisticated in enabling people to connect with each other, and find, filter and share content that they find relevant and valuable.

When analyzing new technologies, focus on those that solve a real problem for a large audience (broad or niche) and create a community (i.e. a network or fan base) around that product/service.

So, What’s the Value of Social Media for a Brand?
The most valuable thing that a brand can do in social media is leverage its platforms to listen to, and communicate with, their customers to create an owned advocacy network where a brand’s most avid advocates can

  • inform the brand directly on valuable improvements that the brand can make to its product/service
  • help other customers solve issues that they’re having with the product/service
  • gain exclusive access to content that the advocates crave and can use for their own social activities (participating in forums, blogging, etc.)

This is valuable because

  • customers transform into advocates with an emotional connection to the brand
  • brands can implement the insights from their advocates into product/service updates, improving their brands in a meaningful way
  • advocates earn a real voice in the brand’s development and identity, which only deepens their connection with the brand and makes them want to participate more, leading to more insights and more positive word-of-mouth and content (and high search results) for your brand
  • less money and time spent on a customer service team because your advocates are already answering many of the questions that a customer may have. And, they may be answering those questions in a clearer and more timely fashion than your customer service team would

What Does This Really Mean for a Brand?
A tectonic shift in the way a brand manages its business. It must start behaving like a transparent startup, and that directive has to come from the C-Suite down. The value can be tremendous. Social media gives brands a channel to encourage innovation informed by its greatest advocates. It eliminates the guess work when thinking of improvements to your product/service – just listen to your advocates and you know that there will be a consumer base that appreciates the updates.

Bob Pearson describes this phenomenon well in his book “Pre-Commerce”, as does Gary Vaynerchuk in his book “The Thank You Economy”.  I highly recommend both reads.Warren Buffett Says
I’ll leave you with two Warren Buffett quotes:
  • “The business schools reward difficult complex behavior more than simple behavior, but simple behavior is more effective”,
  • “There seems to be some perverse human characteristic that likes to make easy things difficult”.

Well, essentially, the same goes for social media. The press and ad agencies and VCs and startups generate a lot of noise and make social media sound a lot more complicated than it really is.

Focus on the simple behaviors – the basic actions that people take online. Understand why people take those actions and empower them to do more of it, while providing them value with your brand. And, remember that it all starts with listening.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 798 other followers