Electronic Objects and the future of the web

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Electronic Objects EO1 is a beautiful, connected frame for the home.

Sometimes the device is dumb glass, driven by the cloud. And sometime the cloud is dumb storage, driven by the device.

— Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) May 27, 2014

I’ve been having the ‘dumb glass or smart device’ conversation with a number of friends lately, and everyone seems to have a really strong opinion on this (I don’t, but I thought it was worth writing about since it’s come up so much).

The debate

The question most asked is if the future of the internet will be one of smart-clouds-dumb-devices, or if hardware is going to play a meaningful role in the future of the web.  To oversimplify with current companies, if you believe the former you’re probably long Google and short Apple, since you believe that all of the innovation and value will be created in the software layer. If you believe hardware really matters, you think Apple has a bright future, particularly in the short-to-mid term, because there are elements of physical products that make one better than the other, and software is a smaller piece of the equation.

My friends fall into two camps, with distinctly different views of the future:

Dumb Glass People are often software engineers, venture capitalists and technology enthusiasts. They make the argument that the cloud is increasingly where innovation is happening, and where iteration can happen quickly enough to find product-market fit faster than hardware designers and manufacturers can keep up. Therefore, software will ‘eat the world’ and reduce hardware to a commodity space of dumb glass.

There’s some strong evidence for this, notably this week Microsoft laid off 18,000 employees, mostly from Nokia, and Samsung has started bleeding.

Fred Wilson also often talks about fast replacement cycles for smartphones being a strong driver to keep larger devices (e.g. TVs) dumb, and allow them to be controlled by the smartphone.  This is a bit of a middle-ground thesis, but I’d place it in the dumb glass camp.

Smart Glass People are generally everyone who thinks about consumer products, and consumer motivations – marketers and product enthusiasts. While the hypothesis of the smart cloud makes a ton of sense form an efficiency standpoint, this camp believes that consumers want specific use cases for their glass. Electronic objects, I would argue, is in this camp, and their promotional video paints a great vision for use-case specific glass:

While it’s true that this device is generally dumb after its setup, most of the value is in the form factor, not the software. There is a specific use case for this unit, so it makes sense as a place to put artwork, and it makes sense as a piece of glass for your wall. Could we all have been doing exactly what EO offers for years with TVs and tablets? Yep. Does anyone ever do that? Nope.

The current device selection is insufficient for this use case – everything on the market is either to big, too small, too glossy, too clunky or just obviously designed for different purposes. It would look dumb on your wall and this looks beautiful. For a product like this, I think it’s probably that simple.

In the short- and mid- term I think hardware is about to explode. In the longterm we’ll probably drive towards some dumb glass standards, but until then, entrepreneurs are going to need to tell people what to do with their glass, and that’s going to open up tons of opportunity.

 

 

 

This Week – 01.13.13

– CES was this past week and everyone already wrote about it, streamed it and talked about it. I liked Tomasz Tunguz’s summary – it’s short but insightful. Read it if you’re looking for a quick recap of what happened and what to look out for in the next year. Link

– Someone hacked Snapchat and leaked 4.6mm names, usernames and phone numbers.  I was one of the users who had their info leaked, and I have to admit that it changed my attitude towards security on web services. Perhaps as breaches increase over the next few years, we are going to trust this info to fewer and fewer services, creating a defensive barrier for companies that already have much of it (Google, FB, Apple). Existing incumbents are pouring resources against increased security; strategically a great place to invest if you’re one of the early winners.

– Biz Stone (Founder at Twitter and Blogger) released his new ‘social search’ app Jelly (Link), which uses images, location and users’ existing social networks to deliver answers on visual questions. The product seems early and I haven’t gotten great answers yet, but I’m going to keep the app around to see how the community evolves.

– AT&T unveiled sponsored data this week, in a move that would subsidize data costs for users, and simultaneously took a swipe at the open Internet. (Link). Albert Wenger from Union Square Ventures also wrote a great editorial piece encouraging us all to work to keep the Internet and open place in 2014. (Link). I get the sense that selling money via free sponsored Internet sponsored is going to be a huge hit and a strong headwind against the open Internet. If the markets are allowed to evolve naturally, this is going to be the end state – great for business, but questionable how this works out for humanity at large.

– Aereo raised an additional $34mm in Series C investment, as the great unbundling of media continues. With Aereo, Netflix and a few other packages I have very little need for a full cable package anymore (HBO the obvious holdout). With that said, making the assumption, as many of my colleagues have, that cable operators are going to lay down and die in the content delivery space is a huge mistake – if anything I expect to see the better companies raise their game significantly in the coming years. My prediction: the next five years will be epic for consumers.  Link

Managing Startups: Objective-Key-Results (OKRs)

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Having spent the past year working with and incredible team on a product I love, I thought I’d share a management tool that we adopted from Google called Objective-Key-Results (OKRs).  OKRs are a quarterly panning tool that help you and your team focus priorities and align around a common set of objectives.

Before I lay this out, I want to point out that this gets trickier if your company is pre product-market fit (defining P/M fit is all over the web, so I’m not going to get into it here). Until you have P/M fit, your only objective is likely to find that. Everything else is such a distant second that your process should probably be a little more organic and less structured on quarterly goals.

With that caveat, here’s how to manage with Objective-Key-Results. To illustrate, I’ll use a baseball team as an example startup:

1. Define, at a high level, what you want to accomplish over the next three months

This should be qualitative and narrative based. If you’re in between financing rounds, your goals should help you get to where you need to be in order to raise your next round.  I always like to look at runway, subtract six months to raise and decide what the company should look like at that point. How many quarters you have until that milestone date should inform this process.  For our baseball team startup, let’s define this as ‘build a world class team with a rabid fan-base and huge profits’.

2. Define three high-level objectives that support your goals

Some people recommend that these objectives are narrative based, e.g. ‘improve our first-time user retention’, or ‘surprise and delight our customers’.  We tried that at first but we ended up making our objectives measurable outcomes that required results from multiple teams.  Coming back to our team,  one of our objectives might be ‘win the World Series’.  Winning the World Series is measurable – it’s a binary outcome, but it requires results from multiple teams: pitching, batting, coaching and owners.

3. Define three measurable results that support each objective

These should be very specifically measurable and, to the extent that’s possible, owned mostly by a single team. They should also be results of actions, not action items. Lastly, they should directly support the objective.  An example result that would support winning the World Series might be ‘sign a five-tool player with an OBP over .325’ or ‘get a team-wide OBP of .150’. That’s a result of scouting, budgeting, deal making and finally signing a player or set of players who can get you the result you’re looking for.

Make sense?

A few other notes:

– get team input and buy-in. The important work in defining OKRs is the process of defining and prioritizing objectives. Handing these down from above doesn’t include the team in the processes, and if there’s no buy in then no one feels accountable for the results.

– these should be stretch objectives. You should expect that you’ll hit 60-70% of these.

– notice the use of three (three months, three objectives, three results-per objective). Stick to this. If you have three objectives and three results for each, you’re basically asking people to internalize twelve points. This is hard enough. If you start throwing a few bonus results in there the process will become unwieldily and ineffective.  Keep it simple.

– try to create objectives that will actually drive your business. This sounds obvious, but on our first shot at this we set vanity metrics as goals. The problem with vanity metrics isn’t so much that they don’t drive your business, but they really don’t tend to inspire your team.  As an example, try to focus on a metric that supports both growth and engagement – returning users might be one. It requires both growth and retention, so it’s both more challenging and more valuable to hit.

Have fun and happy managing!

Google Glass Comes Close

After a week with Google Glass, I’m reminded of that  Bob Uecker line from Major League “Juuust a bit outside!” (here’s a clip with the line if that was too esoteric.)

I’m generally excited about Glass, and I loved a few things about it. But  I struggled to find opportunities to use it. Currently, Glass feels like a really great prototype of something that’s going to be smaller, sleeker, less obtrusive and more useful when it hits the market. But unless the device is delivered in a contact lens version, I think it’s unlikely to hit scale adoption as a product that we wear on our faces.

If you’re wearing Glass, it can be pretty disruptive to the people around you. It feels a little rude to have them on in most situations because it draws a ton of attention and people struggle to look past them, so most of the time I found myself leaving them on my desk.  In my experience, the disruption was two-fold: the first was that people stared at the device because it looks unusual.  I think we can all get passed that eventually, but I’m not sure people like having a camera pointed at them all of the time, it makes them generally uncomfortable.

Also, you can’t really ‘compute’ and talk to someone at the same time, so Glass doesn’t yet solve the problem of people staring at their phones in a graceful way. I get the sense that Glass was created, in part, to solve the problem of us all staring at our phone screens instead of at each other, but it doesn’t really help you stop doing that. I  found myself either computing or talking to people, and it tended to make both a little more difficult and a little more awkward.

Google took the first real swipe at wearable computing in a big way. There is no question that this product has opened up the door to a platform of game-changing devices that we will command with our voices, eyes and even our thoughts. Taking a photo or a video, or surfing the web using Glass was a magic experience and something that felt completely new.  I’m long on the category and I think Google will eventually  figure out a product that solves for the social awkwardness. Glass is close.

Analytics Won’t Get You To Product Market Fit

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In the new world of big data, everyone in the startup community seems obsessed with collecting data and making data-driven decisions. For the most part, this is a healthy obsession. New analytics platforms like KISS, Mixpanel and Localytics are providing great tools for product managers and marketers to better understand what’s happening inside their apps and web products.

We’ve also developed great processes for defining success from a metrics standpoint.  Aside from K-factor for viral apps and standard retention metrics for paid services, we have frameworks like Dave McClure’s Startupp Metrics For Pirates that help any startup with customers think about their product-market fit goals from an analytical view.

These innovations have been net positive for business building, but they can also enable a bigger problem:  they allow entrepreneurs to analyze  metrics as a replacement for talking to real customers.  in truth, it’s way easier to look at a Mixpanel screen than it is to talk to a person about your product. First, no one wants to face judgement directly, they’d much prefer to have it distilled into a bad retention metric. Second, talking to users is noisy – it’s really hard to pull actionable insights from a handful of conversations.

Analytics can provide us a window, but they don’t give us a narrative for how people think about our products, how they think about competing products, or even what they think of our value proposition (assuming they even know what our value proposition is).  The narrative around a given product will inevitably be the leading indicator of success or failure, but analytics will only give us a sliver of insight around it.

Depending on your product type (consumer and enterprise startups should handle this problem differently), there are a few tactics you can employ to get more narrative-based feedback on your product.  None of these will cost you much more than time, but they can save you months of incorrectly deploying your resources.

1. Follow Michael Margalis’ Quick and Dirty Consumer Research. Michael is a partner at Google Ventures’ Design Lab.  In this video, he offers a wealth of information about how to find and interview users. The video is 90 minutes and every single minute is worth watching. I cannot recommend this video enough for the discovery phase of your product development.

2. Have Users Test Competitive Products. If you want to build a great product, see where people are getting tripped up with your competitors’ products. The best part about this is that you don’t have to build anything to test competitors’ products.  Aside from identifying UX / UI opportunities, you’ll quickly understand how users feel about products in your category, and how they fit them into their lives. Most technology products are used to satisfy a need – understanding how people  think about their needs and solutions is as important as any metric in your analytics dashboard.

3. Talk To Your Existing Users.  There are two primary ways to get in front of your existing users –  phone calls and email surveys. I’ve found that both are great for different goals. Survey’s tend to get you ‘crowd-sourced’ style data points, general sentiment towards your product (e.g. satisfaction scores, net promoter scores, etc.). They can also help influence your product roadmap.  Interviews are better for the narrative questions – how do your users think about your product, when do they use it and what need(s) does it satisfy?

Get An MBA, But Not Until You’re Useful

As an MBA working in early stage tech, I’m ambivalent about the current conversation in the community about the value of these degrees. On one hand, I’ve met enough MBA founding teams to understand where the vitriol comes from, but I also believe that my graduate business education has been the most rewarding investment I’ve made to date.

Why Many MBAs Are Bad For Startups

An MBA education teaches students to analyze markets and assess opportunities from a high level [e.g. crowd-funding is going to be a huge opportunity and disrupt traditional business financing, an $xx bn. annual market in the U.S. alone!]. That thinking is fine, but it can only get you so far in the early stage.

The best consumer-facing products satisfy an unmet need. Consumers don’t care where a particular market is headed,  they often don’t even know how to articulate the problem that they want fixed. Nothing in an MBA program really equips students to develop products that solve real world problems, so MBAs tend to create products that wedge themselves into what they view as a market opportunity.  That approach often produces low quality products that don’t solve real problems.  The best products start with an acute, definable consumer ‘problem’ and grow into market-disrupting companies, it’s never the other way around.  While the difference in approach might sound trivial, it results in products that are usually worlds apart in execution.

Also, in the early stage there are very few day-to-day activities where having an MBA is actually useful.  At most early stage companies, people are either building the product or selling it.  Neither of those functions require an MBA, so the other skills become ‘nice to have’, but they don’t necessarily drive the business forward.

Why MBAs Can Be a Really Useful Tool

On the other side, I view MBA programs as a safe place in an unsafe world.  I think they’re safe in two ways:

First, MBA programs tend to lag trends in the business world and that can be a good thing for your career arc, especially if you’re working in an industry that’s very fast-paced.  Skills like strategic thinking, data-analysis and an understanding of the broader business world and global economy don’t run out of funding, they don’t exit and they don’t become irrelevant when the market is disrupted.  MBA programs have curriculum in place that helps students navigate the business world for decades.  That’s extremely valuable in the long term.

Second, MBA programs are a place to learn things that you’ve never understood and that the real world isn’t going to let you learn on the clock.  If you’re an engineer, there are very few on-the-job opportunities to understand option values, venture financing, accounting, macro economics or product marketing.  While it’s true that you can learn many of these things on your own, having a curriculum and a classroom are incredibly helpful aides to the process.  Just having to show up with your homework done will propel you forward.

MBAs Are Useful After You’re Useful

Everyone has a unique set of inputs that should drive their decision about a graduate business education, but my broad advice to most young people interested in early stage tech and considering an MBA is to go for it, but only if you’ve already developed practical skills that will make you invaluable an early-stage company.   An MBA alone will never be enough.

Content Is King Again

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The never-ending power struggle between content and distribution seems to be writing a new chapter around the film and tv worlds.  Some very big things have already happened in the first quarter of this year in the media business.  These are just a few happenings that have rocked the media biz recently:

– Comcast speeds the acquisition of NBC

Twitter acquires Blue Fin Labs

Liberty Media Purchased Virgin Media

Netflix debuts exclusive premium content

HBO Go becomes available on Apple TV

Amazon & CBS Expand A Content Deal

– Time Warner is selling off a huge piece of Time Inc.

What’s Happening

I look at the value chain in the old cable television industry as such: Studios -> Networks -> Operators -> Consumers

In a simplified model of cable television, studios pay to create content (or networks would pay advances), the networks buy rights to that content and sell advertising against it , and then cable operators pay networks for the content that they pipe through their lines to reach consumers in their homes.

You’ll notice that Apple, Netflix, Hulu, Google and Amazon aren’t really an obvious part of that chain.

Consumers want content, hate their cable bills and are increasingly willing to watch the content that they want online. This is particularly true of  younger consumers.  Online streaming services can now circumvent networks and operators, cut deals with studios and deliver content directly to consumers over the Internet.  This is rapidly changing the dynamic of the media and entertainment industries and shifting the value away from distributors and towards content creators.

It’s not immediately obvious how this is going to affect consumers. One the one hand, disintermediation should lower costs for consumers, but it’s unlikely to do so in this case because most of the value in this chain is on the content, not the distribution.  Because there’s no marginal cost to delivering the N+1 unit of Breaking Bad or Downton Abby,  the price for the content in a perfect market will be set at whatever price the creators can profit the most at.  The cost of delivery isn’t really part of the equation.

Another stakeholder group that’s going to be hugely affected by this change is advertisers. Currently prime time television CPMs are probably somewhere around $50, but pre-roll video ad eCPMs are probably between $5-$10 (nowhere near the value of tv).  As the value of advertising declines and as customers increasingly purchase their content via subscription and ala carte models, advertisers are going to find it difficult to get in front of audiences at scale with high value brand messaging. Additionally, ad supported content is going to become increasingly rare and the demographic composition of consumers watching ad-supported content is going to shift.

What 2013 Will Look Like

These shifts will increase in speed over the next year. I think we’re going to see studios and networks potentially change hands.  Operators are going to struggle to backwards integrate into content  and Internet services are going to bid up the price of premium content and pass those costs onto customers in the form of ala carte premium pricing.

TV ad dollars will at last  begin to decline as advertisers realize that their audiences have moved online. These dollars will flow into online ad channels (video being a big one), social advertising and, to a lesser extent, mobile.