A march towards quality

May 4th, 2016 § 0

So, I have been having discussions with a very good friend of mine over the past many months. While I have bounced around ideas on how to write about specific topics, I have never been able to actually start. Today, he challenged me to write something anyway, no matter how shitty it is. After racking my brains on how to come up with the perfect subject matter, I was reminded of this story from the book Art & Fear. Ever since I read it, I have been boring all my friends and everyone I meet with it. It is a famous parable in the book, and goes something like this:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

While the implications of the story are obvious, and most of you are nodding your head vigorously while applauding the simplicity of the message, it is worthwhile to delve a little deeper. The story is particularly powerful because our initial reaction is one of amazement and awe. However, the awe subsides very quickly as comprehension takes hold and it is immediately obvious from our own experiences that this must be true.

Then, why is our initial reaction one of awe? I believe it is primarily because we are less inclined to believe that a random group of students can iteratively learn without having any outside impetus to do so (since they were tasked only with coming up with quantity, not quality). However, when the discussion becomes personal, we can feel the truth of the story because clearly, that is exactly what we would do in that situation. I certainly would like to think so.

In any case, the clear message is that it’s far superior to start from a horrible iteration and work your way up to quality instead of sitting, reading and theorizing about the right way to get there. I must admit, I have been plenty guilty of the latter. Actually, in software development, quantity does inform quality. Over time, the most prolific developers end up writing the best code.

So, I am going to start small and get back into the habit of writing random thoughts on this blog. If, and when, the material becomes post-worthy for other places, I might actually publish. But for now, it is all quantity with absolute disregard towards quality.

Onward!

 

 

Remembering Steve Jobs

October 6th, 2011 § 0

Much has been written about Steve Jobs in the last couple of days. People throughout the world have showered their love and affection for the public figure of Steve Jobs. Apple’s products showed that their creator must be a force to reckon with. For people here in the valley, especially enchanted with products, design and innovation, Steve was a legend way before his death.

I never met the man, and only knew of him through his products, and his public appearances and quotes. Most people, like me, knew Steve Jobs only this way. So why is it that we all feel so overwhelmingly sad at his demise? Is it because he was a great man of our times who brought the future to the present? Is it because he showed us what beautiful products look like? Is it because that he reminded us that true beauty is, in fact, universal? Is it because we all know that products in the future will just not be the same anymore without the guiding force of superior design?

It is all of the above and much much more. Most people say that Steve’s brilliance lies in the fact that he really knew what customers wanted. I think that’s totally incorrect. I don’t think he cared about what other people wanted. But I think he did care immensely himself. He was just trying to make the best thing he could given the technology of our times. Steve wanted more, because he knew that more was possible. The main difference between him and other innovators has been that he went much further in trying to solve a problem. Most people would stop at a very very very good product. But not Steve. He wasn’t trying to be perfect, but he was making the best thing that appealed to him. And because he was incessant in his quest to find the thing that truly appealed to him, it actually appealed to the masses as well.

Yes, Steve inspired us all to make beautiful things. And yes he did inspire us to design things well. But the reason we really miss him is because he showed us that we should do something wonderful that we want to do, and not because someone else demands it. Steve showed us a way to live our life which breaks all traditional and cultural norms. He showed us that we should stop worrying about what other people (including customers) think, and instead worry about whether we are being true to ourselves in building what we can. He showed us that it’s important to have taste, good or bad, and bring it to what we do. He showed us that good enough just isn’t good enough.

Steve taught us that it’s important to do the best you can with whatever is available and not give up too soon. Not because we should satisfy other people’s cravings, but for our own sake. Because, after all, this is our life we are talking about. Noone else teaches us that lesson. Only the people, like Steve, who have lived their life by that code can inspire us to attempt to do the same. And they teach us that the purpose of our life is not to earn great riches or to have huge impact or build things that others want, but simply to do something wonderful.

And for a reminder of that lesson, I thank you Steve, and may you rest in peace.

What it means to create a vertical social network

October 5th, 2011 § 2

This is a part of the ongoing series of blog posts detailing how one should think about social features, and adding them to your product. Earlier, we discussed the various types of social networks.

In this post, we will delve deeper into what it means to create a vertical social network. To recap, vertical social networks have a place in the world of the internet. Although juggernauts like Facebook have much greater network effects because everyone and their uncle are on it already, they still lack features that are domain specific. Specifically speaking, broader social networks are forced to define the relationships between people first, and only have looser relationships with content. This has the advantage that any content can be shared across those networks, but the challenge is in relating different pieces of content to each other, as well as to derive deeper and more meaningful relationships from the posted content. For example, I was sharing on Facebook about all the places I was visiting, but Facebook was not able to put that information together in a meaningful way. Mostly because it was all written in text, and it’s just not an easy technical thing to do.

Enter Foursquare, a vertical social network based on the idea of geographical check-ins. Lo and behold, we suddenly have structure to that information in the form of name of the place, category, lat, lng, etc. Suddenly, I can put my places on a map, see where my friends have been (again on a map), and use it on the go. Thus, vertical networks, although restricted by the idea that they only attack a subset of content, they can enable more meaningful scenarios for using the information generated.

However, one key point to remember is that simply by adding structure, we will ask the user to bear an extra burden by providing us with the data that ‘we’ care about. So, how do we make it so that the user likes generating that information for the network’s benefit?

A good principle to follow while designing this is:

     Everybody talks. Nobody listens.

I will write in detail later examining this idea in depth, but for now the point is that the key to building a successful network is not to look from the point of view of the person who is going to consume the information, but rather from the point of view of the person generating that information.

Thus, the challenge for the product designer is to balance the structure in the information with the fun of adding that information. And this is where most product designers go wrong, and the successful ones have got it right. Most products look at the information that must be added as a chore, which will reap dividends when network effects take place. However, that is exactly the wrong way to look at it. Most people still do not care about consumption until after critical mass is built, and therefore, getting to critical mass is the number one step.

The right way is to see how much fun we can make adding the information. If people are already doing something, then you must find the one thing that will make users add that information to your product instead. And then network effects take place. And then other non-generators will consume. Not before. For example, people check-in on Foursquare or on Facebook for fun, and then other scenarios become available. Not the other way round.

So, if you can take only one thing from this post, take this:

Design your interaction in the network primarily for the person who will be generating the information, without looking at other people’s information.

As usual, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Types of Social Networks

September 28th, 2011 § 3

This is a part of the ongoing series of blog posts detailing how one should think about social features, and adding them to your product. Earlier, we discussed the social follow/friendship models, and where each one is applicable.

The models are not only interesting from a theoretical perspective, but also have deeper implications on the kind of network affiliations and bindings they enable. Depending on the kind of model the product designer decides to follow, creates either broader networks, or tighter ones.

For the purposes of this post, we will examine the difference between a broad social network and a vertical one. It is common to hear lots of companies and products say that they are creating a vertical social network. What do they really mean? Let’s first look at what a broad social network is, and then see where the verticals lie.

From wikipedia,

A social network is a social structure made up of individuals (or organizations) called “nodes”, which are tied (connected) by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as friendship, kinship, common interest, financial exchange, dislike, sexual relationships, or relationships of beliefs, knowledge or prestige.

Essentially, a social network consists of people connected to each other. Right? Well, yes and no. The definition is true, but it is not precise. People connected to other people because of social connections is one thing, but people connected to other people because of their own relationship to some content that both value is totally another. In that sense, Facebook started off as a true social network, while Twitter started off as an interest network.

These days, a typical social network starts by having users define their relationship first with content, and then have ‘better’ relationships with other people based upon the collection of content that might be interesting to both parties. When the field of content and the relationships one can have with this field is broad, we get a broad social network. However, restricting this field creates a vertical social network. Thus, vertical networks are, by definition, a subset of the possibilities of connections between not only people, but also between people and content.

So, why do people build vertical networks, when the field is limited? It’s kind of like the niche idea. By focusing on a specific area, products hope to achieve 2 primary goals:
1. more structured information about the field of content in question, and
2. better and more meaningful relationships between people based upon the exploitation of this structure in the content.

Since broad networks have mechanisms in place to interact with all kinds of content, they cannot add structured information about any specific area of content. For example, Facebook cannot allow us to interact with Restaurants in a restaurant-specific way, but must leave it open to accept a restaurant as just a place (categories do come in play, but only a little bit). This hole left by the dominant networks beckons to entrepreneurs with specific needs, and they try to create the vertical networks with structured information.

Note that we have only talked about the type of social networks in this post. Some people think that Twitter has defined the interest network, but I think they are not quite correct. It’s true that we follow some other people based upon our interest in the subject of what they are writing, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that twitter is also used more as a propaganda mechanism by marketers, and as a means of keeping in touch by other people. In either case, it doesn’t really satisfy the criteria of being an interest network.

If we were to define the relationship of a person with content to find out about their interest, then Google probably has the richest information available in the form of search. Of course, privacy concerns and laws prohibit them from leveraging that advantage fully for networks like Google+ (for example, G+ could suggest me people to follow based upon my recent searches. How useful that would be is anybody’s guess).

In the next post, we will look at the specifics of what it means to create a vertical social network and the challenges faced in doing so.

Cheers!

Social Models

September 26th, 2011 § 1

There has been a lot written about the kind of ‘social’ graphs prevelant on the internet. I am not adding any great new information, and readers are advised to check out the following posts:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_graph

http://cdixon.org/2010/07/22/graphs/

Here, however, I am including this discussion mostly for completion sake. But, I also think that the discussion is valuable to point out the key differences between the kind of social models, as well as understand the history behind their evolution.

The two main types of social models under consideration are:
1. Friendship (the non-directional graph)
2. Follower (directional graph)

The original social model of friendship started primarily with sites like friendster. However, it wasn’t until the advent of MySpace that it really took hold. Facebook, of course, took it to a whole new level. The model primarily involved a handshake element. i.e. if I have to become your friend, you must also be my friend. Although this was geared more towards privacy, it meant that the field was automatically somewhat limited and constrained by the intersection of the interests of the two people involved. If only one of them was interested in knowing about the other, the model wouldn’t work. For example, I am interested in being a friend of Obama, but I don’t think he cares (at least not at present). Thus, this kind of model results in a true ‘social’ graph. If I am not socially connected to another person, this graph will not take hold.

The follower model got rid of this barrier by allowing anyone to follow anyone else. Now, I can follow Obama, and he doesn’t have to follow me. This way, his ‘inbox’ is not cluttered by my updates. It is arguable that twitter’s main innovation has been the creation of the follower model and the subsequent choices with regards to privacy in keeping those updates public, by default.

The upshot of the follower model is that it ends up creating not a truly social graph, but more of an interest graph. Now I can follow people based on my interests, and I don’t have to know them socially. The beauty of this method is that I am now in control of my interests, and am free to follow anyone who is speaking about things that might satisfy my interests.

The follower model has taken hold in all verticals where new products are emerging to let people share their opinions about any topic, and for other people to follow these opinions. In each case, the person who is following can make the decisions to un-follow the person, or follow new people. This provides a great sense of control to the user, and lightens the burden of application developers to suggest better more interesting content. Because users can now simply follow other users to discover new content, application developers can concentrate on developing tools to allow discovery of people to follow, and not necessarily content.

However, the friendship model is still relevant in cases where we care less about interest, and more about social engagement driven by already established norms. For example, LinkedIn still follows this model, and it makes sense for their product. I must know the other person in order to be connected on LinkedIn so that I can then use that connection to find better opportunities later, find good candidates, etc. Also, once the friendship model takes hold, it’s much more difficult to break since noone wants to break those social connections when they are backed by real-world connections. So, this network becomes much more powerful, and can only grow.

So, both models have their place, but it depends on the product how best to use the models. I have seen hybrid models where you can follow users, but can form stronger bindings based on friendships. Facebook seems to be moving to this system as well with the recent addition of their “Subscribe” functionality, where a user can subscribe to another user’s public updates (twitter or Google+ anyone?).

What do you guys think?

Roadmap for building ‘social features’ into the product

August 21st, 2011 § 0

At the core of any product, you are going to have people interact with some piece of content. However, before we jump into how to design a viral loop for free marketing and growth, let’s examine the right way to think about how to make your product more social, and how to build the social elements into the basic value proposition.

The following is an outline of the topics I am going to cover about how to add social features into a product. Some of them might be very basic, but it’s important to cover them so that it’s clear what we are all talking about.

  1. Social Models
    • friendship (symmetric)
    • follow (asymmetric)
    • advantages/disadvantages of each
  2. Social network types
    • broad social network
    • vertical/interest social networks
  3. What it means to create a ‘vertical social network’
  4. Traditional way to think about it
    • nodes and edges
    • e.g. Facebook (edges are friendship)
    • e.g. Twitter/instagram (edges are interest)
  5. New way to think about it
    • Layering
    • edges are “MY RELATIONSHIP” to that content (picture, food, link, story, blog post, etc.)
  6. Revisit: What it means to create a ‘vertical social network’
  7. Social lens for content
    • Different Views possible based on relationships and friends’ friends
  8. Recommendation systems (discovery of new content)
    • Algorithmically jumping from one piece of content to another
    • Letting users control what they see (through the social lens)
    • Examples

Let me know your thoughts, or if I have missed anything.

Hello World… again!

August 1st, 2011 § 0

So, I have been on a low-information diet for the past many months. Actually, I kind of broke my fast a few months ago, but still hadn’t turned the corner with writing, and didn’t really feel like it. Mostly because I felt like I didn’t have anything very original to contribute. As usual, I mostly write to solidify my own thoughts, and not to be pedantic, but it was good to take a break from it all.

Until now.

I have been thinking and researching deeply about building and growing a consumer internet business, and the different aspects that it touches. There is a great deal of material on the web written by a lot of people way smarter than me. However, the challenge for new entrepreneurs has always been how to prioritize the material. Even smart people write mostly ‘in the moment’, so all arguments in one post are given to posit a specific point of view. The problem is that the reader keeps getting pulled in different directions, each direction defined by the preset point of view of the post at that given time. After reading a few posts, I feel like someone has taken me for a walk, and then decided to keep turning me in different directions with each step. After a while, it all feels woozy, and it takes a little bit to re-orient myself and walk straight towards my destination or goal.

Some people are way smarter than I am at doing this, and can constantly take in all the information and keep their eyes focussed on their destination at all times. But for people like me, the challenge is to decide which argument makes sense for their particular direction, and incorporate it within their products.

In a small subset of cases, very very smart writers have given their profound theories and frameworks on the workings of the consumer web, and some people have even gone beyond and given us prescriptive guidelines on how to tackle the issues. However, these approaches are mostly strewn across, without a single place to unify the wealth of knowledge.

I am going to try and compile this wealth of ideas here in this blog, mostly for my own sake. I expect to learn more about each technique and analyze each one to understand how it fits in the overall framework. I will also attribute and link to the articles I will take the ideas from so that those responsible get their due credit.

So, come along on this journey with me and together we hope to achieve only one thing:

How to make the process of building a consumer internet business more scientific and reduce the role of luck to the reality. i.e. a playbook for what it means to ‘execute well’.

Onward!

Change the world! But make $29.99/mo while doing it!

August 4th, 2010 § 4

I attend a few tech conferences, primarily in the consumer internet space. Usually, these conferences have some way of demo’ing a bunch of new startups trying to peddle their wares and trying to woo the investor community. The format is a little different each time, but there is some version of the company’s CEO presenting on-stage, with a panel of judges trying to, well, judge the pitch and the business.

There are a few themes that I have seen consistently across these events, irrespective of which city the conference takes place in, and what the latest and greatest topic in the internet happens to be. For the most part, the takeaways from the conference are not very much, except for a few shining and unusual experiences (for example, I met a guy yesterday who makes flying cars).

Based upon my previous experiences, I can already predict what most of the judges are going to say. Typically, the judges’ panel consists of 4-5 members, with 2-3 members from the investor community, 1 entrepreneur, and 1 media person. It’s much easier to predict what the investors and media people are going to say than what the entrepreneur is. The entrepreneur focuses mostly on the CEO, while the rest focus on the quality of the pitch (and not the content), and the addressable market. I will write in detail about the problems of the addressable market theory in a future post, but for the purposes of this post, the feedback falls mainly across the following three areas.

1. ‘Refine the pitch’, or ‘I couldn’t really understand your product’

Although it has come to be accepted that one must have a good pitch to woo the investor community, the question still arises: Why? I see the argument that the pitch must be refined because often times the investor is a super-busy person (or claims to be anyway), so the investor’s time should be used by the entrepreneur as a scarce commodity. Good investors also get pitched a lot, so if you are only getting a short attention span from them, it’s better to make the most of it quickly. But when it comes to conferences, the situation is very different. The judges, as well as the investors in the audience, are for the most part captive audiences. They can be on their iPhones checking email or whatever, but they are not really going anywhere. So, I really think that although the entrepreneur should do his best to refine the pitch, practice and try to make most of the opportunity, the investor shouldn’t really be criticizing the pitch. Instead, they should be focussing on the content behind the pitch. Most of the tech entrepreneurs (with the exception of probably Steve Jobs) are not great presenters, so let’s just leave the feedback on the pitch on the backburner. For me, when someone criticizes the pitch, it really feels like trying to find faults in the grammar and spelling of an engineering report. Yes, it makes a difference, but please be smart enough to look beyond that.

2. ‘But none of these companies are changing the world’, or ‘I dont think your product will make too much money’

Ah yes! This one is my favorite. This is not common to just investors, but the audience at large. There are multiple forces pulling the company in different directions. The main ones are 1) be innovative, and 2) make money. Of course,  I don’t believe that the market is completely efficient, but it is not completely inefficient either. So, the two forces are actually pulling the company in two different directions, not quite 180 degrees apart (180 degrees apart would be in a completely efficient market), but you get the idea. Thus, the company has to find a way to change the world, and make shit load of money right off the bat. How many companies do you know that actually did that? You know, the ones that had an innovative product that a large portion of the world is using, and that had a strong plan to make money? I know zero. The reason is that if there is a clear way to make money, then it would already have been done. Efficiency in markets exists when the knowledge required to tap an opportunity is low. As the sophistication increases in a particular space, so does efficiency, since there are more people who are now approaching expert-level thinking. Therefore, it stands to reason that the fewer the number of experts in any domain, the more opportunity that lies in that domain. Consequently, it also follows that making money is not at all obvious. One corollary to this idea is that as making money becomes more obvious, more people becomes experts to fill in the gap.

3. ‘There isn’t an addressable market out there’.

The same case could be made for Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and new products that will be out there. Asking for an addressable market is really a way of saying ‘I can’t see how you will make money’.  I can kind-of understand this coming from the investor because the pressures on their business is vastly different from the pressures on an entrepreneur. Even when investors have been on the other side of the fence, the truth is that they are now in a different situation in life, and obviously, they are going to judge things based upon their perspective. Of course, some are smarter than others, and also more risk-friendly than others, but fundamentally, their goals in life have changed. What I don’t understand is when other entrepreneurs think like that.

Most of the above feedback from investors really means that they don’t really like the team, and are not confident that the team will deliver and stay the course to solve a worthy problem in the space. One of the key ways to judge startups is, of course, looking at the person presenting, what she has done in the past, how passionate she is about the problem space and how committed the team is to the problem. Notice that I didn’t say that they need to be committed to the product, but only the problem space. Most of the time, the exact problem is a little unknown and the product is only a first iteration anyway. However, the effect of the feedback from these conferences is that a lot of entrepreneurs start taking less risks instead of more. Taking risk for it’s own sake is, of course, a gambler’s trait, so I am not advocating that. I am simply advocating trying to solve bigger and more important problems, which necessarily come with greater risk. I believe that true entrepreneurs quit their jobs to do that anyway.

For further reading on similar ideas, read this excellent blog by Ben Horowitz, as well as this one by Glenn Kelman.

My hiatus from a lot of online activity

July 26th, 2010 § 0

So, I have been away from blogging. I mostly write for my own sake and to collect my thoughts. Truth be told, I have been away from a lot of online activity, as part of my experiment on a low-information diet. I will detail the results and observations in a later post, but for now I am back, and looking forward to writing about some of the topics I have been thinking about recently.

Lessons from the Dancing Man – Build only when asked for it

February 21st, 2010 § 0

A few weeks ago, Derek Sivers gave a talk on how to make a movement and things we could learn from a video he took (or maybe someone else did) of a dancing man in a park. I encourage everyone who hasn’t to go and read his article, but for completeness sake, and because I am not taking any ownership of the idea itself, I am embedding the video here. Derek Sivers gives a voice-over on the video, and it is very very instructive. Before I rant on an on, the lessons are obvious once you watch the video and hear Derek describe what is happening. Here you go:

Pretty amazing, isn’t it? In just 3 minutes, the video and the example of the dancing man bring the idea to the brain so forcefully that the power of the first follower becomes more than apparent. I was thrilled when I saw this video, and the lessons are profound. But I think there are also many more lessons that can be learned if we just extrapolate the example and apply it to the consumer internet (because that’s where I spend most of my time and energy these days).

To recap, the idea presented in the video is that the lone nut is a lone nut until the first follower comes along and validates the lone nut. The lone nut at this point publicly embraces the follower, and accepts him as an equal. This encourages the first follower to continue dancing, and even call out to his friends. One friend comes along, then two and soon the lone nut is transformed into a leader. There is validation, and soon there is momentum. The crowd then explodes, and people who didn’t want to join earlier for fear of appearing stupid must now join for fear of appearing uncool. Powerful idea indeed.

Consumer internet companies follow a very similar pattern as well. For every idea, every product, every feature, the product developer/entrepreneur is the lone nut. Notice that it is important that the lone nut appears to be doing his thing because that’s what he is all about. This soon attracts a few other people who have similar tastes and they join in. This is the crucial juncture. These are the people who shouldn’t leave, but keep dancing with you. These are the people who are going to attract other followers and turn your product into a movement. Unlike the free-flowing dance, the initial followers cannot express themselves in any way they want. They are restricted by the features that are available in the space. Thus, it is VERY important at this point for the product designer/entrepreneur to publicly acknowledge the initial followers and listen to their feedback. Unless you listen to their feedback, you cannot let them be part of the movement. Remember that by accepting the first follower as an equal, the lone nut transformed his idea into the follower’s idea as well. If the follower was forced to go along with the moves of the first follower, the movement would probably not have happened (unless they were doing the hustle).

If we were to place ourselves in the park with the dancing man, it is not difficult to see that if the movement had failed to pick up when there were 5-6 people, then it would have died unceremoniously. The initial followers would have stopped one by one and soon, the lone nut would go away to another part of the park. We can see this happening everywhere. If a few people leave from a party, suddenly everyone leaves from the party. A few people leaving from MySpace suddenly makes everyone leave as well. This is very very true for internet companies. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that the initial followers MUST NOT leave. These are the people who provide validity to your product, and will help it become a movement.

As an entrepreneur and of a consumer internet product, it is important for your product that there are at least some people who will form the foundation for the product by living and breathing it everyday. These people will evangelize your product and go on to attract their friends, and help transform it into a movement. Most of the other people will join because that’s what momentum does, but if you lack the support of this basic group, then the movement just might never happen.

I believe that every product begins with an idea that someone finds useful. As a result, you will always attract a few people initially. It is important at this point to listen to their feedback, and really give them something that they want, and not something that you think they might want, or something else that you think that many other people might want. Unless people are asking you for something, don’t build it.

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