SmoothSpan Blog

For Executives, Entrepreneurs, and other Digerati who need to know about SaaS and Web 2.0.

Authentication as a Service: Slow Progress, But Are We There Yet?

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 11, 2014

BankVaultSmallAuthentication as a Service solves a problem every Cloud Developer, mobile or desktop, has to solve.  As one player in the space, AuthRocket, puts it:

Do you really want to write code for users, forgotten passwords, permissions, and admin panels again?

To that I would add, “Do you really want to have to be a world class expert on that stuff to make sure you don’t leave some gaping security hole out of ignorance?”  I think the answer is a resounding, “NO!” to both questions.  Why do it in this world of Agile Development, Lean Startups, and Minimum Viable Products?  It’s one of those things everyone does (and should do) pretty much the same way from a user’s perspective, so there is no opportunity for differentiation.  You have to do it right because the downside of security problems is huge.  You have to do it right up front to protect your customer’s data and your investment (so nobody gets to use your products for free).  There’s basically very little upside to rolling your own (it’ll only slow you down) and tremendous downside.  Hence, you’d like to buy a service.

I keep going around this block for my own company’s (CNCCookbook) products, and I surely would like to get off that merry g0-round.  I wanted to buy this some time ago, and have written about it for quite a while.  For example, in an article I wrote 4 years ago on PaaS Strategy (Platform as a Service), I suggested login would be an ideal service for a pass to offer with these world:

Stuff like your login and authentication subsystem.  You’re not really going to try to build a better login and authentication system, are you?

I sound just like AuthRocket there, don’t I?  I’m sure that’s not the earliest mention I’ve made, because I’ve been looking for this stuff for a long time now.  As I say, I had to roll my own because I couldn’t find a good solution.  I would still like to replace the solution that CNCCookbook uses with a nice Third-Party service.  I only have few very generic requirements:

-  It has to offer what I need.  Basically that’s Email + Password login with all the account and forgotten password management interactions handled for me.  It would be very nice if they do Federated Login using the other popular web services like Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Google, or whatever.  It would also be very nice if it could do 2 factor login.  The latter two are optional.

-  It has to work well.  I judge this by who has adopted it and how it is reviewed.

-  It has to be here for the long haul.  I’ll judge this by size of customer base and quality of backers.  AuthRocket, for example, is still at the invitation-only Beta stage.  That’s too early for me.  I have mature products and don’t want to have to change out this service too often.

-  It has to be easy for me to access the API’s.  I prefer a nice RESTful API, but I will take a platform-specific API for my chosen development platform: Adobe Flex.  And no, I don’t want to debate that platform, it has worked fabulously well for me, the products are mature, and I am not looking to switch.

-  It has to be easy to tie it back to securing my data in the Amazon Web Services Cloud.

-  Optional Bonus:  It helps me solve the problem of disconnected data access.  My apps are Adobe AIR apps.  You download and can run without a web connection for a period of time.  This is important to my audience, but means I’ve got to use data models that keep local copies and sync with the Cloud when they get connected.

While my apps are not yet available on iOS or Android, all of those things are almost exactly the same problems any Mobile App developer faces.  Therefore, this ought to be a hotbed of activity, and I guess it is, but so far, I still can never seem to find the right solution for me, and I don’t think I’m asking for anything all that crazy.  But, I have yet to find a solution.  Let me tell you a little bit about my 2 most recent near misses.

Amazon Cognito

I was very excited to read about Amazon’s new Cognito service.  At CNCCookbook we’re big Amazon believers, and use all sorts of their services.  Unfortunately, at least until Cognito, they didn’t really have a good service for solving CNCCookbook’s authentication problems.  They had IAM, which is a very complicated, very heavy-weight, very Big Corporate IT kind of solution.  It looked kind of like maybe you could do it if you had to, but you’d still wind up writing all the darned password management stuff and it looked like it was going to be a real ordeal.  Mostly, I think of IAM, as the tool used to define roles for how broad classes of users can access the various other Amazon offerings.  I wanted another service of some kind to be the sort of simpler, friendlier, front end to IAM.  Enter Cognito, and it sure sounded good:

Amazon Cognito lets you securely store, manage, and sync user identities and app data in the AWS Cloud, and manage and sync this data across multiple devices and OS platforms. You can do this with just a few lines of code, and your app can work the same, regardless of whether a user’s devices are online or offline.

You can use Amazon Cognito directly from your mobile app without building or maintaining any backend infrastructure. Amazon Cognito handles secure app data storage and sync, enabling you to focus on your app experiences, instead of the heavy lifting of creating and managing a user data sync solution.

A guy like me loves the part about, “You can do this with just a few lines of code” followed by “without building or maintaining any backend infrastructure.”  Now that’s what I’m talking about, I gotta get me some of this!

It’s nearly all there:

-  Amazon is an outfit that can be trusted for the long haul.

-  REST API’s are no problem, that’s how Amazon prefers to operate.

-  Tie back to other Amazon Web Services?  Puh-lease, who do you think you’re talking to, of course one Amazon Service talks to the others!

-  Sync?  Yeah, baby, that’s what Cognito is all about.  More potential time savings for yours truly.

Oops, just one little shortcoming:  it only does Federated Login via Amazon, Facebook, or Google.  That’s cool and all, but wheres my Email + Password login so I can seamlessly move customers over to it?  Maybe I missed it, maybe it’s coming, or maybe Amazon just doesn’t think it’s important.  Can I live with forcing my users to make sure they have either an Amazon, Facebook, or Google account?  Yeah, I guess maybe, but we sell a B2B app and it sure seems kind of unprofessional somehow.

Amazon, can you please fill this hole ASAP?

Firebase

I hear fabulous things about Firebase, I really do.  People seem to love it.  It’s chock full of great functionality, and on the surface of it, Firebase should fit my needs.  Yet, when I dig in deep, I find that the login piece is kind of a red-headed stepchild.  Yeah, they advertise Email + Password Login, and they even tell you how to do it.  But there’s no RESTful API available for it.  They list all the right operations:

-  Login, and returns a token
-  Create a new user account
-  Changing passwords
-  Password reset emails
-  Deleting accounts
etc.
However, it appears that those things are handled by a client library which is in a very dev platform specific format.  If you use one of their chosen platforms, it’s ok.  If not, you can only use their rest API’s for the Cloud Database–no login functionality.  That’s going nowhere for me.  It would’ve been so much nicer had they packaged what’s in the client library in their Cloud and provided RESTful API’s for the functions I’ve listed.  As I told them when I made the suggestion, that makes their offering accessible to virtually every language and platform with the least effort for them instead of just the few they support.
Conclusion:  Crowd Sourcing?
Hey, I’m open to suggestions and the Wisdom of the Crowd.  Maybe someone out there knows of a service that meets my requirements.  They seem pretty generic and I’m frankly surprised I still can’t find such a thing after all these years of building almost anything you can imagine as a service.  We’re not very far away from it.  Either Amazon or Firebase could add the functionality pretty easily.  I’m hoping maybe I’ll get lucky in the next 6 months or so.  If anyone knows the right people in those organizations (or their competition), pass this post along to them.

 

 

Posted in bootstrapping, business, cloud, mobile, platforms, saas, service, software development | Leave a Comment »

Let’s Try Another Verse of Your SaaS Company Does Not Need a Sales Force

Posted by Bob Warfield on May 23, 2014

MorpheusNoSalesForceIt’s time for another installment of what some of the Enterprise Irregulars have called the Jason and Bob show.  Jason and I have disagreed on a fair number of issues over time, though we have also agreed on a lot.  Jason’s had a great run and is now in the rarefied atmosphere of VC’s.  All of his material is thought provoking and well worth a read.

Today, we’re going to talk about Outside Sales or indeed the question of whether SaaS companies must have a sales force at all, inside, outside, or otherwise.

Jason’s post today is “Inbound or Outbound Sales? The Answer is Yes.”  In it, he argues that

There’s a meme, a CommonThink, among certain segments that Outbound Sales is Bad, or at least, a Little Unseemly.  And maybe a lot bit Old School.

That we’re in a new world of sales, a new consultative world, where leads come in, prospects can try and learn before they even talk to a human, and then, a sales rep thoughtfully answers questions, models business process change, and helps them decide how and why, and if, to buy.

And that’s true.  We are in that world.  Inside sales is terrific.  Warm leads are great.  Live trials of easy-to-use-and-deploy web services really have changed the game.

And yet …

The reality is, by revenue, this isn’t the way the majority of the world buys.

My role here today is to cast a dissenting vote, and to explain why.  In fact, this one’s been argued between us before so I’ll just refer you gentle readers to my original response to get the ball rolling:

Does your SaaS company have to have a sales force?

In that article I make the case that, no, your SaaS company doesn’t automatically need Outside Sales. It’s a function of who you need to sell to and that’s a function of what your solution costs. The more money involved in an individual sale, the more likely you need Outside Sales.  This isn’t really news or something I made up, by the way.  I learned it at the knee of one Geoffrey Moore, he of the Chasms and Gorillas and such.  I find it makes a lot of sense to think about how you need to sell based on the size of the transaction involved.  In hindsight, it’s obvious that a very expensive purchase carries a lot of risk and that a large organization will need to involve many people and ultimately a highly placed decision maker to get it done.

Jason does tip his hat to this notion with some remarks about selling to SVP’s, but I believe it’s something that startups need to think really carefully about very early on.  Horses for courses. What’s the right way to sell for my specific product and opportunity?  You need to make a conscious choice during the very early stages of the startup about what your strategy will be in this respect, because it’s going to have a profound impact on what sort of company you’re building, what kinds of skills you will need, and even the capital needs of your venture.

Jason mentions the “meme” that Outbound Sales is Bad.  Surely that’s damning with faint praise, but there are sound reasons why that meme is out there.  He says, “by revenue, this isn’t the way the majority of the world buys,” referring to purchasing without the need for Outside Sales.  Au contrare, Jason.  I don’t believe it and I have never seen any data to support it.  In fact, you don’t have to look far to see that the biggest revenue is associated with offerings that don’t require either inside or outside sales. Think Apple, Walmart, et al. Their selling is totally self-service and marketing-driven. Not software? How about Google or Facebook? Oh, not business enough? What about Github, Amazon Web Services, or many other ventures that are hugely successful.  While we’re at it, let’s look to where the majority of the profit, not the revenue goes and the differences are even more stark in favor of finding models that don’t require Sales.

What if that’s the real opportunity–start something that works and doesn’t require Outside Sales.  Or if you prefer, consider the potential for disruption that going into a market with a product that can work without Outside Sales offers. That’s exactly what PC’s did to the Minicomputer vendors. The Rolex-clad, scratch golfing, Armani suited crowd with good haircuts laughed at the little computer stores and the pathetic IBM PC.  Ken Olson himself laughed at them all the way to the point where DEC disappeared and was never heard from again and in a very short span of time.  Hitting an Outside Sales-driven industry with a solution that requires no sales creates the Mother of all channel conflicts for the poor sales-driven company.  It is just as toxic to companies with Sales Forces as Subscription models are to Perpetual License models.

The other reason the meme is strong is capital requirements.  Outside Sales-driven opportunities are going to require more capital to finance their longer sales cycle.  It’s unavoidable when you have to wind your way through the organizational complexity that’s there to stop a company from foolishly spending its money without proper checks and balances on your expensive solution.  SaaS itself is already capital inefficient because it pulls expenses forward and pushes profit out over time relative to getting it all up front in the Perpetual License model.  We live with it to get to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but what if we could at least mitigate it by selling a product cheap and easy enough that it didn’t need Outside Sales or even Inside Sales?

That’s how the companies I’ve mentioned got to be so big so quickly.  That’s why this so-called meme is a real business strategy that’s disruptive and must be considered by any startup.

Figuring out how to leverage strategies like this in new markets where you can be supremely disruptive to the incumbents is what successful startups are all about.  Don’t be a slave to tradition.  You’re not here to build another SAP.  You’re here to build the next generation by disrupting SAP and Oracle.  SaaS is probably not enough to do that, though some argue otherwise.   I think many of those are confusing disruption with room at the bottom (great link from Jason, BTW).  The thing is, everyone’s doing SaaS now, so what’s different about your story?

 

Posted in bootstrapping, business, enterprise software, Marketing, strategy | Leave a Comment »

Random Thoughts on Customer Engagement, CRM, and Social CRM

Posted by Bob Warfield on May 13, 2014

Can Enterprises learn to talk WITH Customers rather than AT them?

Can Enterprises learn to talk WITH Customers rather than AT them?

I read with interest Paul Greenberg’s, “Random Thoughts on CRM.”  They don’t call Paul the “Godfather of CRM” for nothing, and this post got some old neural circuits firing again just like it was yesterday.

The gist of the article was about how a much larger market, called “Customer Engagement”, will eventually subsume CRM and make CRM just a feature of the larger Customer Engagement matrix.  The process of assimilation is already underway and presumably resistance is futile.  Paul characterizes Customer Engagement as involving all that is CRM plus the following:

 

  • Customer journey management
  • Customer experience management
  • Customer analytics including sentiment and text analysis
  • Social listening
  • Gamification engines and platforms
  • Customer engagement platforms (broad definition here)
  • Feedback management systems including ranking, rating engines)
  • Reputation management engines
  • Customer interaction engines (e.g. Epiphany, Exact Target)
  • Self-service knowledge engines
  • Community platforms
  • Social networks
  • Personalization engines
  • Communications platforms that foster customer communications (parts of unified communications fit the bill here though UC is a lot more than this)
  • Enterprise video chat/conferencing
  • Customer Effort Scoring (score on what you do. Thanks to Esteban Kolsky for this one). How much effort does a customer make
  • Loyalty and Advocacy systems

I wholeheartedly agree, and it was as I was reading that list that I suddenly had my epiphany:

Customer Engagement is nothing more than Social CRM writ large.

Or if you prefer to be a little less dramatic, Customer Engagement is the Second Coming of Social CRM.

Whether you believe Social CRM failed, was an idea before its time, or is simply percolating along and growing steadily, I can’t think of a better way to describe Social CRM than to say that it’s all about Customer Engagement.  The difference between Social CRM and Conventional CRM is almost entirely a matter of perspective:  are you talking WITH your Customers or talking AT your Customers?  CRM talks AT them.  It values them solely as leads to be qualified and sold to or as an expense area in the case of Customer Service to be minimized.  Paul’s list of Customer Engagement activities is nothing more than a list of what sorts of conversations can be had WITH Customers and what tools may be available to facilitate those conversations.

That problem of talking AT your Customers (and yes, “Customer” must be capitalized in this era when those who can’t learn to talk WITH them will start to increasingly lose) is a cultural problem born of seeing Customers as accounting line items and metrics rather than as PEOPLE who can choose to do business with us or not. Social CRM skeptics back in the day (seems so long ago since I was part of that world) danced around the cultural issues–they were sure Social in the Enterprise couldn’t work just because Enterprises were all about Command and Control and not what it takes to be Social.  Not all Enterprises are, BTW.  Companies like Southwest Airlines come to mind as counter-examples.  But by and large, Enterprises are very much about Command and Control.  I believe that a close relative of the Innovator’s Dilemma is what I will dub the “Politician’s Dilemma.”  It’s what happens when an organization grows large enough that the primary skill needed for advancement is not creativity or the ability to make good decisions, it’s the ability to be a good politician.  It’s been the undoing of at least as many large organizations as the Innovator’s Dilemma, and it is also closely related to those pesky cultural problems that prevent Enterprises from seeing Customers as Customers rather than $customers (and I wish I had an even smaller font for “customers” and a bigger one for “$”).

Here’s where I wonder about Paul’s view that Customer Engagement is, in fact, going to eat CRM.  I wonder because I can’t see much evidence these cultural biases that prevent Enterprises from being good at CRM have even remotely diminished.  Perhaps over time the Internet will exact a toll on their callous disregard for real Customer Service.  Certainly the frictionless exchange of information about what a Company’s products are REALLY like and what it is REALLY like to deal with that company help.  But, our fixation in the 80′s, 90′s, and 2000′s with reducing regulation and empowering ever larger monopolies (and hence the 1%) has been a powerful counterbalance to any renewed sense of egalitarianism the Internet brings.  Simply put, it’s business as usual for these companies.

Paul brings up the 4 largest companies in the CRM space:  Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft.  It’s funny, but with the possible exception of Salesforce, you couldn’t ask for a stronger list of the Who’s Who of having abused their customers and maximized their Bully Pulpit Status.  Perhaps by being (or seeming to be) the exception, this is precisely what has driven Salesforce’s growth.  I certainly know people that work there and talk about it in much more glowing terms than the other 3.  Let’s leave Salesforce aside and ask about the other 3:

What are the chances that SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft can actually learn how to talk WITH Customers and not AT $customers well enough to participate in Customer Engagement at a more empathetic level than, say, researchers watching mice in mazes?

I’m not optimistic, and I don’t think Paul is either.  He offers the following critique of the four companies:

  1. Salesforce.com – They are getting so big and so process driven that a lot of the creativity that characterized the company is starting to seep out.
  2. SAP – The continuous politics at this company are forcing it to step on its own feet every time they make progress – and we start again.
  3. Oracle – They are totally locked and loaded into their customer experience messaging and it’s the wrong message to send to the marketplace.  This prevents them from thinking in terms of ecosystems – which is a 21st century requirement for a large company’s success.
  4. Microsoft – They are moving quickly but still don’t have the messaging down at all. They send mixed messaging signals to the market and they are hard to read. They need to clarify this right away, since they have successfully accomplished a radical transformation of their customer-facing applications for the better. Now the world needs to hear it.

Ask yourself whether the essential cultural virtues needed to thrive in a world of Customer Engagement are likely to be strong or weak in the light of those criticisms?  Even for Salesforce, eliminating personal initiative and emphasizing management by excessive process is a sure recipe for stopping any real conversations with Customers.  It’s hard to change for all the same reasons that once the Peter Principle has taken hold, you can step back from it.  People are hired by bosses who hire the sort of people they want to hire.  Bosses who think of Customers as $customers don’t hire people who think “Customer.”  They hire more $customer people.  Sure, you can add a few Customer lovers here or there, but they drown in the sea of $customer people.  It’s a vicious cycle that can’t be undone.  Command and Control never goes softly into that Good Night, least of all because it is very Commandingly In Control.

What does it all mean?

Optimistically, it means that these four will eventually give way to a New Guard of some kind.  I’d like to think that’s true everywhere and in every industry that finally understands the Customer is King.  Taking that view is a powerful Engine of Growth for new ventures.  It is disruptive in much the same way SaaS has been to Enterprise Software because where SaaS was a business model change that could not be achieved, Customer Engagment is a Cultural Model change that is too hard to achieve.  It’s relatively easy to hire a new CEO or merge to make a new entity.  So far, we are tragically short of good Existence Proofs that this New Wave is underway.  There are precious few Southwest Airlines and an endless stream of Ego-Du-Jour companies that power to the forefront or that cling tenaciously to the monopolies they already own.

Fundamentally changing the culture of a company?  That’s darned near impossible.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a successful example of it outside the fawning press releases and interviews telling us how transformative some new CEO has been, all of which turn out to be false hopes.  More’s the pity.

Postscript

Paul Greenberg’s response, via Facebook:

Bob, I read the post. I’m more optimistic than you on this, though I really liked your post. Also, these are random, and to be fair to the Big 4, I also noted what I liked big picture about each of them too. I just don’t have a black and white view of this at all. its a nascent, roiling market at the moment and lots to come of it hasn’t happened yet – and is indeterminate. Also, I agree with you totally that this is what you called Social CRM writ large though my take is a little different. You’ll see more on this in a series of major pieces that will be coming leading to the next book. Social CRM was the progenitor for customer engagement – it didn’t fail, like social business morphing in its short life to digital transformation, social CRM now CRM morphed to something much larger and more encompassing that the parent was/is. CRM becomes the operational components of the engagement market. You are a helluva writer, by the way. Seriously good.

Paul is not just a brilliant CRM analyst, but a gentleman and renaissance man of the sort that is seldom seen these days.  I know him via my past life in Social CRM and the Enterprise Irregulars.  Thanks Paul!

Posted in business, customer service, Marketing, strategy | 1 Comment »

The eBay Turnaround that Never Had to Be: Now Here’s the Rest of the Story

Posted by Bob Warfield on February 13, 2014

Read an interesting account of John Donahoe’s turnaround at eBay in Business Insider.  It’s a fascinating discussion that revolves around relatively few premises for how the turnaround was accomplished.  Here are the money quotes:

He de-emphasized eBay’s auction business and started describing the company as a “technology partner” to retailers small and large. eBay added clients Home Depot, Macy’s, Toys ‘‘R’’ Us and Target, helping them cope with a world dominated by Amazon.

So, making eBay a first class technology partner to large bricks and mortar retailers.  Great idea, more on that in a moment, but first, a couple more quotes from the article:

For example, eBay never bothered to develop sophisticated search technology. This made it dependent on Google ads, which took a bite out of profits. And it made it hard for users to find products they wanted to buy, dragging down sales.

Likewise, eBay under Whitman never developed a product recommendation algorithm to match Amazon’s — despite the fact that Amazon credits 30% of its sales to the tool.

Better search, and the ability to do merchandising and product recommendation like Amazon’s.  What if I told you eBay was offered a finished technology solution to each of these problems way back in 2001 and they completely blew it off as uninteresting for their business?

Trust me, I know, because my startup, which was called PriceRadar.com, was the group offering the technology.  We met numerous times with Jeff Jordan at eBay, and even had offices across the parking lot from eBay headquarters right there in Campbell.  We had built a sophisticated textual data mining technology, and had decided this technology could be hooked up to eBay’s data to produce a unique selling proposition.  We would visit with our customers, who were major bricks and mortars retailers like Sharper Image and West Marine, to name two companies that had worked with us.  Walking into a meeting we came to show them something special, something unexpected.  After sending our web crawler to visit their online catalogs, we could generate a report telling them exactly which of their products they could sell on eBay for just as much as they were selling in their catalogs, how many they could sell without depressing prices, exactly how to optimize their listings including which keywords, what time of day to list and close the auction, which eBay “extras” were worth paying for, and so on and so forth.  The software would even let them allocate quantities of product which we would then list on eBay for them to drop ship when the auctions closed.

The bricks and mortars retailers loved it–it was easy to sign them up.  For them, it was an extremely cheap way to add new customers to their house list.  You know, that list that causes them to dump endless catalogs at your doorstep if you order anything from them?  Our fees combined with eBay’s fees were a pittance compared to their existing marketing costs to add a new name to the house list.  So that’s quote #1, making eBay a first class technology partner to bricks and mortar retaillers.

That’s not all we could do.  The site was called “PriceRadar.com” because it had an extremely powerful search engine that was adept at finding listings that were hopelessly lost if you tried to find them with eBay.  We also tracked affinity patterns–if you bought “X” you were also likely to buy “Y” and “Z”.  Plus, we generated endless analytics that the eBay people had no way to track on their own.  They were always surprised and interested when we visited with this information.  It included things like a fine grained breakdown category by category (and I’m talking our categories, not theirs, a taxonomy of thousands of micro-categories) accounting of exactly where their business was coming from.  So much for quote #2 as well–better search and product recommendation.

So what happened?  Why did eBay pass on this opportunity way back in 2001?

Call it an idea ahead of its time.  We offered them the technology in 2001, but it wouldn’t be until 2005 that they’d start to massively lose market value.  By 2008, Meg Whitman was ready to move on and leave Donahoe as her successor.  All tragically avoidable if the article was right about the cure.  But, that’s just it–you would’ve had to see very far ahead to realize it.  4 more years is forever in High Tech.  It was probably starting to get scary even 2 years after our offer, but still, that’s a long time in the Dog Years these companies live in, and they would’ve handily rationalized early problems as being a temporary effect of the 2001 Dot Com crash that would go away.  Then there was the issue of eBay’s culture at the time.  Business Insider describes it well:

Partly, the issue was obvious: eBay had gotten fat and happy. For 10 years it had been a huge success, riding a wave of Internet adoption. During the mid-2000s, eBay was notorious for meetings that always ended in applause — even when the news was bad.

But eBay also had a problem attracting and retaining innovative, entrepreneurial people into its executive ranks.

The fat and happy part and the lack of innovation were terribly obvious every time we met with them or interfaced with their humongous software back end.  They just didn’t quite seem to understand what we were telling them about better search and what I pitched at the time as “Merchandising like Amazon’s.”  Things were so good it just didn’t seem like it was worth the effort to make things better.  They’d narrowly survived making their technology scale–we used to see the news trucks parked every day at eBay so they could run a story about how the site had gone down.  When you’re getting Boundless Growth and Unbridled Demand just for showing up at work, why rock the boat with any new ideas?

Then there’s that ole bugaboo called, “Innovator’s Dilemma.”  You have to be prepared to cannibalize your own business lest somebody else (like Amazon) decides to do it for you.  The most substantive objection eBay had about our technology was that they were afraid it would alienate the mom and pop businesses that were responsible for the Lion’s Share of eBay’s listings.  The message was something along these lines:

We’re afraid that if you make it super easy for Sharper Image to suddenly have a big eBay presence the mom and pops will take that as eBay competing against them and they won’t like it, they’ll pull out.

I tried hard to explain that they had no place else to go–they were hopelessly dependent on eBay.  There were no other easy partners who could create an e-commerce presence for what had been small bricks and mortar independent retailers.  At PriceRadar, we had interviewed dozens of the most successful resellers on eBay in various categories and learned that many of them had closed their bricks and mortar storefronts because eBay was so lucrative they’d rather sell online out of their home offices than pay the overhead of owning an actual physical shop.  Many of them had unique merchandise that the big retailers didn’t have anyway.  The eBayers would listen politely, smile, and then move on.

If you’re curious, here’s what the old PriceRadar site looked like in 2000:

PriceRadar

We had even signed Gary Burghoff as a spokesman!

That was the Consumer Search front end circa early 2000.  There was another client used by the Retailers to list their products on eBay via our service.  We did a number of unique things at PriceRadar, many were things people said couldn’t be done.  Like downloading all of eBay’s auction data and processing it on SQL Server–the Unix guys all said we’d have to have Unix and Oracle to make it scale, but we didn’t.  We made it through the scaling hurdles that had plagued eBay in a relatively short time, handling their data volumes in our architecture.  Today, it would’ve been called a “Big Data” application, but back then nobody had heard that term.  The search algorithms were very sophisticated and involved a mix of computer algorithms and live human “taxonomy experts” that fine tuned the results by creating special search rules on the micro-categories.  In the end, it was a bust.  When we started, there were lots of auction houses out there, and it seemed like a super sophisticated search engine monetized by retailers who wanted to list was a great plan.  Unfortunately for us, network effects meant that eBay controlled that entire space in a relatively short time.  Once they were the only game in town, they were also the only buyer in town.

Too bad for all concerned eBay didn’t realize we had the solution for a lot of problems that would nearly kill the company.  PriceRadar was a great lesson in market timing and exit strategies in the face of network effects and derivative businesses.  It’s also the failure I regret most as the product and technology were dynamite.

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The Problem With Replacing CEO’s, Boards, and Governance at Big Co’s

Posted by Bob Warfield on February 1, 2014

At some point, Silicon Valley VC’s, whom I am not always entirely complimentary of, decided it was easier to teach a Founder to be a decent CEO than it was to teach a Big Co Exec to fill in what they’d lose if a Founder left.  That doesn’t mean they don’t replace CEO/Founders, but it used to be an almost guaranteed matter-of-course.  The VC’s have it right.  We saw that unfold at Microsoft almost to the day Bill Gates handed the reigns to Steve Ballmer.  I believed then and believe now that Microsoft needed a Fighter Pilot and instead got a Moist N’ Easy Snack Cake Salesman.  Sorry Steve, you’re a good man, but you were not the right man for Microsoft.

Now the Microsoft Board is apparently on a path to making Satya Nadella, the President of their Cloud Business, Microsoft’s new CEO.  I read with interest in a WSJ article that he is asking Bill Gates to give him advice on Technology and Strategy.  That was my first red flag for this candidate.  Advice on Technology and Strategy?  Isn’t that exactly what’s been so badly lacking at Microsoft since Ballmer took the reigns?  Did he and Bill Gates just not talk?  Or is it possible that the company actually needs to find someone that knows enough about Tehnology and Strategy to chart their own course and actually dare to get Microsoft to do something different from what hasn’t been working all these years?

I read in The Telegraph the following from one of Nadella’s former computer science professors this ringing endorsement:

Former teacher and MIT director Vinod V Thomas told the Times of India he “cannot vividly recall” Mr Nadella as he “didn’t figure in either ends of the spectrum”, but added that records showed he was “a first-class student who achieved distinction.”

Any attempt to find out what Nadella has been doing for most of his career meets with a brick wall.  We know he did something for Sun Microsystems and that he has been at Microsoft for 22 years.  As the Telegraph article concludes:

Despite his enormous success in the tech industry, Mr Nadella is not the biggest user of Twitter. He has not tweeted since July 2010, and the messages he has posted are enthusiastic, but not particularly enlightening.

That seems to be basically this guys M.O.–he’s quiet, heads down, and steady.

Is this really what Microsoft needs?  Quiet, heads down, and steady?  I mean love her or hate her, at least Marissa Mayer has shaken up Yahoo to an extent.  At least Meg Whitman had done something everyone had heard about before she took over HP.

“But wait,” you say.  Hasn’t Nadella run one of Microsoft’s most important and successful divisions, the Cloud division?  Isn’t that a foward looking part of the empire?  Not really.  It didn’t take any great imagination or strategic prowess to deliver Microsoft to its present Cloud market position.  Microsoft was very late to the Cloud, played it very safe, and has yet to accomplish much there.

Herein lies the problem:  Boards want to hire the safe choice.  They don’t want to hire someone who will shake anything up until it is far too late.  They want consensus.  They want everyone to play nice.  They want to have nice informative Board meetings where they can get their two cents in and everyone in the room will nod sagely and take the advice.

There’s really only a couple of guys I’ve come up with who can make a difference for Microsoft.  Either Bill Gates can come back as CEO, or Jeff Bezos could add Microsoft to Amazon and go from there.  Neither one is apt to happen, so be ready to watch Microsoft flounder further.

Posted in business, strategy | Leave a Comment »

Evil VC Seeks Minions for World Domination

Posted by Bob Warfield on January 30, 2014

EvilSeeksMinionsIf we substitute “Venture Capitalist” for “Evil Genius”, the placard on the right describes the Silicon Valley Startup Culture perfectly.  Yes, you young hopefuls, your friendly neighborhood (that’d be the Sand Hill neighborhood) VC really does expect you to sacrifice your lives in a play for world domination.  They don’t care about building a nice little $100M a year software business–that’s peanuts, doesn’t move the needle on the fund.  Son, it’s just not enough tonnage.  Must be prepared to work 24-7 for fascist psychopath for close to no pay.  Yep, that’s about the size of it.  They won’t even try to hide the fact–they write about how you should accept as little pay as possible.  In 2008 Peter Thiel went on record saying the best predictor of startup success is low CEO pay.  Really?  That’s the best predictor VC’s have come up with?  Thiel is not the only VC to suggest it, not even close, and they’re largely successful at getting what they want–75% of founders pay themselves less than $75,000 a year.

What about that business of “Messy death inevitable?”

I suppose it’s a function of how you define “Messy”, but the “death inevitable” part rings true.  VC’s these days want startups capable of reaching $1B in revenue.  The reason, as one explained to me over drinks, is that they make their exit when the startup IPO’s.  But in order to IPO at a reasonable valuation, they have to be able to paint a picture for those buying public shares that the company has years of growth left.  That’s how the Greater Fool theory works–you can never let people discover they’re the last ones and the valuation has peaked.  So what happens to $1B Unicorns?  First, by quantifying things at $1B, we learn that the Utility Curve for VC’s is drastically different than for most Founders.  Offer Most People $10M after 10 months of effort when they’ve never made even $1M, and an awful lot of them will say, “Yes.”  The VC’s will resoundingly say, “No,” and they’ll tell you that anyone who says “Yes” never should’ve raised VC in the first place.  BTW, I have been through that scenario personally and I can tell you it was a harrowing experience.

Getting back to that $1B Unicorn, the odds are not at all good.  Only about 0.07% of Consumer and Enterprise VC-Backed companies become those Unicorns.  That means, Dear Impressionable Young Founder, that your odds are one in 1428.  The odds of winning on a single number at roulette are nearly 40x better, and you don’t have to bet years of your life on the roulette number.  One in 1428 odds of achieving World Domination.

That Messy End will come about because of the inevitable terms in your legal documents with your financiers and because of how the system operates.  Consider if you had worked hard to achieve a modicum of success and sold a company for millions but none of the founders or employees got anything at all out of it except a job with the buyer while the VC’s saw a positive (but inadequate in their eyes) return.  Wouldn’t that be a messy end?  The key term in your documents that leads to tears is the “Liquidation Preference.”  Supposedly the market standard is 1X but I’ve seen numbers as high as 3X in some cases.  Now let’s suppose you’ve got a company that is sold for $50M.  That’s a lot of money: many would regard that as a successful company.  But, it’s only successful to the investors to the extent it generates a return on their investment.  Suppose they’ve put in $40M and have a 1X liquidation preference.  That means they get back their $40M right off the top.  Now there’s $10M left to split between the investors, founders, and other employees.  You’re probably diluted pretty good at this time, so let’s say non-Investors are getting $4M.  Suddenly your $50M sale is getting you more like $1M than the $5M you and your co-Founder expected.  It gets worse–with a 2X or 3X liquidation preference, you get nothing.

Make no mistake–the VC’s feel perfectly justified in all of this and see it as emminently fair.  Fred’s example from that link sure sounds fair, but as some of his commenters point out, it attaches no value to the sweat equity of the Founders and employees.  They may have worked years of their lives at sub-standard pay ($75,000 a year?) and not be entitled to a dime in a scenario where VC’s are getting all of their money back.

“NO Weirdos?”

Yes, the VC’s prefer to invest in the Old Boys Club.  Minorities and women will have a tough time breaking in, not that they are Weirdos in any sense, but the homogeneity of the VC Startup Club and especially of the VC’s themselves is strong.  You need to have gone to the right school and have the right background.

The VC’s BTW, are (mostly) not really Evil.  But they have certainly done everything in their power to create a set of rules that overwhelmingly favors their own success, even at the expense of Founders.  Looked at in the cold light of reason, it’s hard to argue it isn’t pretty much as the plackard about Evil Geniuses suggests, at least metaphorically.  Why then do Founders seek Venture Capital?

After talking to lots of Founders seeking advice (I’m on my 7th Startup, have founder 4 of the 7, and have had 3 happy liquidity events), I have concluded the primary motivator for Founders seeking VC is that they want to reduce their risk.  It’s ironic.  VC’s these days don’t accept Founders until they’ve forced the Founder to remove as much risk as possible.  You have to create a Product, find an Audience, and demonstrate Traction before they’ll put a dime in.  Or, you have to give away a surprising amount of your company for surprisingly little capital if you go the Incubator or Angel route.  Yet, these Founders are largely worried about two things they believe can reduce their risk.  First, they want knowledge.  They want people who have succeeded to tell them how to succeed.  Second, they want connections.  The Incubator promises to put them in touch with the VC’s when the time comes.  The VC’s promise more VC’s, talented executives, and many other contacts.  Founders want to be part of the Network.

Experienced Founders are less about the connections or knowledge, they’ve realized they can get connections and knowledge more easily in Silicon Valley than almost anywhere in the world.  Scratch the push for connections and knowledge up to inexperience on the part of young Founders.  Experienced Founders just want the VC’s check.  They want to get where they’re going faster and with the certainty that plenty of money in the bank promises to bring.  VC’s hate to be courted simply for a check.  It eliminates their view of how they differentiate their firm and belittles the possibility they will make a contribution from the Board.  Yet, even many VC’s share the view of many experienced Founders that aside from Cash, VC’s often add negative value.  No less a personality in the VC world than Vinod Khosla says 70 to 80% of VC’s add negative value.  If you look at the impact forcing a company to take unlimited risk in the quest to becoming a $1B Unicorn has, I would suggest that many companies that could have been successful by any non-VC standards and happily profitable got pushed too far and left behind a smoking crater when they fell short of joining the Unicorn Club.

One of my favorite bloggers is Seth Godin.  He writes about this odd conundrum perfectly in his short post, “How much does it cost you to avoid the feeling of risk?”  He’s talking about the risk of putting yourself out there, and it’s no different for Founders.  The VC’s are asking you to do most of the work of creating a successful company before they put any money in.  They’re asking you to do it on your dime.  Unless you have it thoroughly in your heart and soul that  you won’t be happy until you’ve created a Facebook or Google-sized success, forget the VC.  Finish the remainder of the work to create a profitable company instead of raising VC.  That’s the real essence of reducing your risk.

Turning your happy little company into a VC Startup is the first step on the ladder of radically increasing your risk because you’re committing yourself to swinging for the fence.  No bunts, no singles, doubles, or triples.  Swing for the fence, and if you miss, you’re a failure.  Make no mistake about it:

VC’s increase your  risk.

Posted in bootstrapping, business, strategy, venture | 2 Comments »

How Moore’s Law Put Apple in the Driver’s Seat and Cost Steve Ballmer His Job

Posted by Bob Warfield on January 24, 2014

With the Mac’s 30th anniversary, lots of folks are writing all sorts of articles about it, so I thought it only fitting to bring up my own thoughts on what happened and how Apple got control away from Microsoft.  It’s not a theory I have seen anywhere else, but it’s the one that makes the most sense to me.

Recently, I spent the afternoon upgrading my PC.  I added 2 higher capacity SSD disks, a new graphics card, and a new power supply.  I had planned to add a CPU with more cores, but I couldn’t find it and frankly, I didn’t look all that hard because I knew it wasn’t going to matter very much.

Upgrading my PC is something I used to do like clockwork every 2 years.  I looked forward to it and always enjoyed the results–my computer would be at least 2X faster.  While it didn’t always feel 2X faster, the previous machine (when I still had access to it or one just like it) always felt a lot more than 2X slower.  Life was good in the upgrade heyday for the likes of Microsoft and Intel.  Steve Jobs was this idiosyncratic guy who made cool machines that you couldn’t upgrade easily.  Everyone knew Microsoft had stolen a lot of Apple’s ideas but it was okay, because heck, Apple stole a lot of ideas from places like Xerox PARC.  There were Mac users, but they were a tiny minority, so tiny that Jobs was actually fired from his own company at one point.

Fast forward to my recent upgrade experience.  I hadn’t done an upgrade in 5 years, didn’t feel like I had missed much, and didn’t spend nearly as much money on the upgrade as I had in those times past.  Before that prior upgrade it was probably at least another 3 or 4 years to get to an upgrade.  That one 2 upgrades back was largely motivated by a defective hard disk too, so I’m not even sure it counts.

Times have sure changed for Intel, Microsoft, and Apple too.  Apple is now the World’s Most Amazing company.  Microsoft is in the dumper, Steve Ballmer has lost his job, and Intel just announced they’re laying off another 5000 people.

What happened?

People will say, “That Steve Jobs was just so brilliant, he invented all these new products around music, telephones, and tablets, that nobody wants PC’s any more.”  In other words, Apple out-innovated and out-Industrial Designed Microsoft.  They even changed the game so it isn’t about PC’s any more–it’s all about Mobile now.  We’re firmly in the Post-PC Era goes the buzz.  VC’s are in a rush to invest in Mobile.  It’s Mobile First, Mobile is Eating the World, mobile, mobile, mobile, yada, yada, yada.

But I don’t know anyone who has quit using their PC’s.  Quit upgrading?  Absolutely!  Putting a lot of time on their mobile devices?  Yup.  But quit using PC’s?  No.  Absolutely not.   There are many many apps people use almost exclusively on PC’s.  These are the apps that create content, they don’t just consume it.  One could argue they are the ones that add the most value, though they are not the ones that necessarily get the majority of our time.  Some people are totally online with Office-style apps, but they still much prefer them on their PC’s–no decent keyboard on their tablet or phone.  Bigger screens are better for spreadsheets–you can never see enough cells on the darned things.  And most are still using Microsoft Office apps installed on their PC’s.  CADCAM, which is my day job, is totally focused on desktops and maybe laptops.  Graphic Design?  Photoshop on a PC (well a Mac, and probably a laptop, but they sure don’t want to give up the big gorgeous monitor on the desk much).  Accounting and Bookkeeping?  That’s my wife’s daily work–Quick Books.  Enterprise Software?  Yeah sure, they got mobile apps, but mostly they’re desktop.  Did people unplug all the desktop clients?  No, not even close.  They simply killed the 2 year upgrade cycle.

People will say Microsoft was just too slow, copied without ever innovating, and missed all the key trends.  There is no doubt that all those things were true as well.  But think about it.  Apple has always been great at Industrial Design and Innovation.  Microsoft has always been slow and missed key trends.  Remember the old adage that it takes Microsoft 3 releases before they have a decent product.  That’s been true their entire history.  Something had to be different for these two companies and their relationship to the market.  Something had to fundamentally change.

What’s wrong with Microsoft and Intel has little to do with people quitting their use of PC’s and switching over to Mobile.  It’s not a case of choose one, it is a case of, “I want all of the above.”  There are essentially three things that have happened to Microsoft and Apple on the desktop:

#1 – People stopped upgrading every two years because there was no longer a good reason to do so.

#2 – People who wanted a gadget fix got a whole raft of cool phones and tablets to play with instead of upgrading their PC’s, and Microsoft botched their entry into the mobile market.

#3 –  People who wouldn’t consider spending so much money on a computer that couldn’t be upgraded when it would be clearly obsolete in 2 years suddenly discovered their computer wasn’t obsolete even after 5 years.  So they decided to invest in something new:  Industrial Design.  I can afford to pay for fruit on my machine, just like I used to pay for polo players on my shirts back in the Yuppie Age (I like cheap T-shirts now).  It’s the age old siren’s call:  I can be somebody cool because of a label.

#1 was an unmitigated disaster for Microsoft, and the carnage continues today.  #2 was a botched opportunity for Microsoft they may very well be too late to salvage and it created a huge entre for Apple.  #3 cemented Apple’s advantage by letting them sell high dollar PC’s largely on the basis of Industrial Design.

That’s the desktop PC market.  The server market has been equally painful for Microsoft, but we’ll keep that one simple since Apple doesn’t really play there.  Suffice to say that Open Source, the Cloud, and Moore’s Law did their job there too.  The short story is that there is still a certain amount of #1 in the server market, because machines don’t get enough faster with each Moore’s Law Cycle.  They do get more cores, but that largely favors Cloud operations, which have the easiest time making use of endless more cores.  Unfortunately, the Cloud is hugely driven by economics and doesn’t want to pay MSFT for OS software licenses if they can install Open Source Unix.  Plus, they negotiate huge volume discounts.  They are toe to toe and nose to nose with Microsoft.  So to those first 3 problems, we can add #4 for Microsoft’s server market:

#4 –  Open Source and the Cloud has made it hard to impossible for Microsoft to succeed well in the server world.

Why did people quit upgrading?

Simple put, Moore’s Law let them down.  In fairness to Gordon Moore, all he really said was that the number of transistors would double every 2 years, and that law continues in force.  But, people used to think that meant computers would be twice as fast every 2 years and that has come to a bitter end for most kinds of software.

If you want to understand exactly when #1 began and how long it’s been going on, you need look no further than the Multicore Crisis, which I started writing about almost since the inception of this blog.  Here is a graph from way back when of CPU clock speeds, which govern how fast they run:

Notice we peaked in 2006.  What a run we had going all the way back to the 1970′s–30 years doubling performance every 2 years.  That’s the period when dinosaurs, um, I mean Microsoft, ruled the world.

Oh but surely that must have changed since that graph was created?  Why, that was 7 or 8 years ago–an eternity for the fast-paced computer industry.  In fact, we are still stuck in Multicore Crisis Tar Pit.  A quick look at Intel’s web site suggests we can buy a 3.9 GHz clock speed but nothing faster.  By now, we’ve had 4 Moore Cycles since 2006, and cpu’s should be 16X faster by the old math.  They’re not even close.  So Moore’s Law continues to churn out more transistors on a CPU, but we’re unable to make them go faster.  Instead, the chips grow more powerful by virtue of other metrics:

-  We can fit more memory on a chip, but it runs no faster.  However, it has gotten cheap enough we can make solid state disks.

-  We can add more cores to our CPU’s, but unless our software can make use of more cores, nobody cares.  It’s mostly Cloud and backend software that can use the cores.  Most of the software you or I might run can’t, so we don’t care about more cores.

-  We can make graphics cards faster.  Many algorithms process every pixel, and this is ideal for the very specialized multi-core processors that are GPU’s (Graphics Processing Units).  When you have a 4K display, having the ability to process thousands more pixels simultaneously is very helpful.  But, there are issues here too.  Graphics swallows up a lot of processing power while delivering only subtle improvements to the eye.  Yes, we love big monitors, retina displays, and HD TV.  But we sure tolerate a lot on our mobile devices and by the way, did games really get 2X visually better every 2 years?  No, not really.  They’re better, but it’s subtle.  And we play more games where that kind of thing doesn’t matter.  Farmville isn’t exactly photo realistic.

Will Things Stay This Way Forever?

Microsoft got shot out of the saddle by a very subtle paradigm shift–Moore’s Law let them down.  Most would say it hasn’t been a bad thing for Microsoft to become less powerful.  But it is a huge dynamic that Microsoft is caught up in.  Do they realize it?  Will the new CEO destined to replace Steve Ballmer realize this is what’s happened?  Or will they just think they had a slip of execution here, another there, but oh by the way aren’t our profits grand and we’ll just work a little harder and make fewer mistakes and it’ll all come back.  So far, they act like it is the latter.

And what of Apple?  They’re not the only ones who can do Industrial Design, but they sure act like that’s all that matters in the world.  And Apple has made it important enough that everyone wants to do it.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Industrial Design.  One of the reasons I like Pinterest is it is filled with great designs you can pin on your board.  Is Apple really the only company that can do competent Industrial Design?  Do they have a monopoly on it to the extent that justifies their current profit margins?  Color me skeptical.  Think that new Mac Pro is more than industrial design?  Is it really that much high performance?  The Wall Street Journal doesn’t think so.  How about this hacker that made a Mac Pro clone out of a trash can:

GermanProHack2

GermanProHack

Is it as slick as the real thing?  Aw heck no.  Absolutely not.  But it was made by a hobbyist and professionals can do a lot better.  Companies like BMW are getting involved in this whole design thing too:

BMWAngleView

How Can Apple and Microsoft Win?

Apple has the easier job by far–they need to exploit network effects to create barriers to exit for the new mobile ecosystems they’ve built.  They’re not doing too badly, although I do talk to a lot of former iPhone users who tried an Android and believe it is just as good.  For network effect, iTunes is fabulous, but the video ecosystem is currently up for grabs.  Netflix and Amazon seem closer to duking that out than Apple.  Cook should consider buying Netflix–he may be too late to build his own.  Tie it to the right hardware and it rocks.He should consider buying Facebook too, but it may not be for sale.  Network effects are awesome if you can get them, but they’re not necessarily that easy to get.

Meanwhile, Apple will continue to play on cool.  I’ve been saying to friends for years that Apple is not a computer company, it is a Couturier ala Armani.  It is a coachbuilder ala Pininfarina.  It is an arbiter of fashion and style, but if the world became filled with equally as fashionable artifacts, it isn’t clear Apple could succeed as well as it does today.  Those artifacts are out there.  Artists need less help than ever before to sell their art.  Fashion is a cult of personality, packaging, and perception.  We lost the personality in Steve Jobs.  That’s going to be tough and Apple needs to think carefully about it.  They seem more intent on homogenizing the executive ranks as if harmony is the key thing.  It isn’t.  Fashion has nothing to do with harmony and everything to do with temperamental artistes.

Another problem Apple has is an over-reliance on China.  They’ve already had some PR problems with it and they are moving some production back to North America.  But it may not be enough.

Most people don’t realize it, but $1 of Chinese GDP produces 5X as much carbon footprint as $1 of US GDP produced here in America.  In a world that is increasingly sensitive to Global Warming, it could be a real downside if people realized that the #1 thing they could personally do to minimize it is to quit buying Chinese made products.  Apple can fix human rights violations to some extent, but fixing the carbon footprint problem will take a lot longer.  Apple is not alone on this–the Computer and Consumer Electronics sectors are among the worst about offshoring to China.  But, if the awareness was there, public opinion could start to swing, and it could create opportunities for alternatives.  And fashion is nothing but public opinion.  Ask the artists that have fallen because the world became aware of some prejudice or some viral quote that didn’t look good for them.  That’s the problem with Fashion–it changes constantly and there’s always a cool new kid on the block.

Microsoft has a much tougher job.  The thing they grew up capitalizing on–upgrade cycles–no longer exists.  They have to learn new skills or figure out a way to bring back the upgrade cycles.  And, they need to get it done before the much weaker first generation networks effects of their empire finish expiring.  So far they are not doing well at all.  Learning to succeed at mobile with smart phones and tablets, for example.  They have precious little market share, a long list of missed opportunities, and little indication that will change soon.  Learning to succeed with Industrial Design.  Have you seen the flaps around Windows 8?  Vista?  Those were mostly about Design issues.  Microsoft doesn’t worship Design with a capital “D” as Apple does.  It worships Product Management, which is a different thing entirely, though most PM’s fancy themselves Design Experts.  Microsoft is just too darned Geeky to be Design-Centric.  It’s not going to happen and it doesn’t matter if they get some amazing Design Maven in as the new CEO.  That person will simply fail at changing so many layers of so many people to be able to see things the Design Way.

Operate it autonomously from the top the way Steve Jobs did Apple?  The only guy on the planet who could do that is Bill Gates and he doesn’t seem interested.  But, Gates and Ballmer will make sure any new guy has to be much more a politician and much less a dictator, so running it autonomously from the top will fail.  Actually, Bill is not the only one who good do it–Jeff Bezos could also do a fine job and his own company, Amazon, is rapidly building exactly the kinds of network effects Microsoft needs.  The only way that happens is if Microsoft allows Amazon to buy it at fire sale prices.  Call that an end game result if the Board can’t get the Right Guy into the CEO’s seat.

The best acquisition Microsoft could make right now is Adobe.  It still has some residual Old School Network effects given that designers are stuck on Photoshop and their other tools.  Plus Adobe is building a modern Cloud-based Creative Suite business very quickly.  But this is a stopgap measure at best.

Can the upgrade cycle be re-ignited?

There is a risky play that caters to Microsoft’s strengths, and that would restore the upgrade cycle.  Doing so requires them to overcome the Multicore Crisis.  Software would have to once again run twice as fast with each new Moore Cycle.  Pulling that off requires them to create an Operating System and Software Development Tools that make can harness the full power of as many cores as you can give it while allowing today’s programmers to be wildly successful building software for the new architecture.  It’s ambitious, outrageous even, but it plays to Microsoft’s strengths and its roots.  It started out selling the Basic Programming Language and added an Operating System to core.  Regaining the respect of developers by doing something that audacious and cool will add a lot more to Microsoft than gaining a couple more points of Bing market share.  Personally, I assign a higher likelihood to Microsoft being able to crack the Multicore Crisis than I do to them being able to topple Google’s Search Monopoly.

Let’s suspend disbelief and imagine for a minute what it would be like.

Microsoft ships a new version of Windows and a new set of development tools.  Perhaps an entirely new language.  They call that ensemble “MulticoreX”.  They’ve used their influence to make sure all the usual suspects are standing there on the stage with them when they launch.  What they demonstrate on that stage is blinding performance.  Remember performance?  “Well performance is back and it’s here to stay,” they say.  Here’s the same app on the same kind of machine.  The one on the left uses the latest public version of Windows.  The one on the right uses the new MulticoreX OS and Tools.  It runs 8X faster on the latest chips.  Plus, it will get 2X faster every year due to Moore’s Law (slight marketing exaggeration, every other year).  BTW, we will be selling tablets and phones based on the same technology.  Here is an MS Surface running an amazing video game.  Here is the same thing on iPad.  Here’s that app on our MulticoreX reference platform that cost $1500 and is a non-MulticoreX version of the same software on a $10,000 Mac Pro.  See?  MulticoreX is running circles around the Mac Pro.  Imagine that!  Oh, and here is a Porsche Design computer running MulticoreX and here’s the Leatherman PC for hard working handy men to put in their garages, and here is the Raph Lauren designed tablet–look it has design touches just like the Bugattis and Ferraris Mr Lauren likes to collect!

ShelbyGT500KR

Performance is back and it’s here to stay!

Can it be done?

As I said, it is a very risky play.  It won’t be easy, but I believe it is possible.  Microsoft already has exactly the kind of people on staff already that could try to do it.  We were doing something similar with success at my grad school, Rice University, back in the day.  It will likely take something this audacious to regain their crown if they’re ever going to.  They need a Skunkworks Lockheed SR-71 style project to pull it off.  If they can make it easy for any developer to write software that uses 8 cores to full effect without hardly trying, it’ll be fine if they have no idea how to do 16 cores and need to figure that out as the story unfolds.  It also creates those wonderful lock-in opportunities.  There’ll be no end of patents, and this sort of thing is genuinely hard to do, so would-be copiers may take a long time to catch up, if ever.

This is not a play that can be executed by a Board that doesn’t understand technology very well or that is more concerned about politics and glad handing than winning.  Same for the CEO.  It needs a hard nosed player with vision who won’t accept failure and doesn’t care whose feathers are ruffled along the way.  They can get some measure of political air cover by making it a skunkworks.  Perhaps it should even be moved out of Seattle to some controversial place.  It needs a chief architect who directly has their fingers in the pie and is a seriously Uber Geek.  I’d nominate Anders Hejlsberg for the position if it was my magic wand to wave.

It’s these human factors that will most likely prevent it from happening moreso than the technical difficulty (which cannot be underestimated).

Posted in apple, business, multicore, platforms, software development, strategy | 2 Comments »

Good Customer Experience Trumps Good Customer Service. Bad CUX Trumps All. A Tale of Chukka Boots and Photoshop.

Posted by Bob Warfield on January 22, 2014

ChukkaBootsGood Customer Experience trumps Good Customer Service, even if you are Zappo’s.  My wife quit buying shoes from Zappo’s after they sent her the wrong pair of shoes for the third time and she had to return them.  They didn’t do it all on the same transaction, it happened over a fairly long period of time.  And yes, the Zappo’s Customer Service people were wonderful as always.  But it didn’t matter–the underlying Customer Experience was giving her the wrong shoes and she only allowed that to happen so many times before she gave up on them.

I had a similar experience with Zappo’s, but I didn’t even get as far as Customer Service.  I have bought shoes from them once–a nice pair of Clark’s Chukka Boots.   Great!

Some time later, I went looking for some tennis shoes.  I have a penchant for bright red shoes of the most exotic design possible that I wear when I go to hear live music.  I went straight to Zappo’s, found a pair of shoes I wanted, and tried to purchase.  I expected to be able to use my Amazon account, given they’re owned by Amazon and all, and it looked like I could do that, but I actually couldn’t quite make it work.  I don’t have an account on Zappo’s, because in a time of data breaches like Target’s, I open as few accounts as I can.  So I moved on.  It came time for me to buy another pair of shoes and I went  back to Zappo’s again, thinking that companies as savvy as Amazon and Zappo’s would surely have fixed the problem.  I found the shoes I wanted and tried once more to buy them.  No joy.  I could find no way to buy on my Amazon account and did not want to spend the time opening a Zappo’s account.

Not only did Zappo’s lose the sale of 2 pairs of shoes, but I just won’t go back there again.  It isn’t clear to me Amazon cares much, because in the end, I did buy those 2 pair from Amazon.  But if there was a good alternative I was familiar with, I would’ve skipped Amazon too, just for annoying me.

Now, how hard would it be for Zappo’s not to send my wife the wrong pair of shoes 3 times?  She doesn’t buy shoes all that often, so it was surprising it happened to her so many times.  And how hard would it be for Amazon to make it easy for me to buy shoes from Zappo’s with my existing Amazon account?  Come on, this can’t be rocket science for a company like Amazon.  If Google can figure out to put a birthday logo on their search page on my birthday because it picked up my birthdate somewhere in their far flung empire, Amazon can let me buy Zappo’s shoes with an Amazon account, right?

Fast forward to this morning.  I was doing something and fired up Adobe Photoshop CS3 (yes, I have had it for a long time!).  It immediately announced I had 2 days left to activate or it would die.  Great, I did remember it asking a few days ago.  I had tried and it kept telling me it had an Internet connection problem.  I knew it wasn’t at my end, nothing else was complaining, so I figured I try again–they surely had fixed their problem by now.

No joy.

I was forced to use their phone activation.  With some trepidation I dialed the toll-free number and waited.  I really hate phone support.  It just isn’t ever a happy thing.  Ever.

Eventually, it had me key in a 24 digit serial number followed by a 32 digit activation code using my phone’s keypad.  Wow, that was a joy–not!  But, Photoshop at least did pop up a box that had the phone number to call plus these two lengthy codes to make it easier.  Unfortunately, the phone robot announced my activation code did not have enough digits.

WTF?!??  This was exactly the same code that Photoshop was telling me was the one to use.  How could it be wrong?

I tried twice, to no avail, at which point it told me to hold for a support representative.  Good, I was ready to let some human being know what I thought about all this after having used the software for several years.  Unfortunately, after a 5 minute wait, the Adobe side announced that they were no longer handling activation problems by telephone and gave me a URL I would have to visit with my browser to fix it.  Of course my blood pressure went up to the next DefCon level.

I went to the page suggested and couldn’t find even a hint of clue about what to do.  It was kind of a haphazard FAQ that only listed a few things, none of which could possibly be at issue.  When I got to the bottom, there was a Chat button with a message that cheerfully informed me I could get on right away with an agent if I would simply click.  So I did.

Of course as soon as the chat window opened, it informed me there were other customers ahead of me in line.  WTF?

Okay, deep cleansing breaths.  After no less than 10 messages informing me I was still waiting (no duh, I know I am waiting), Kumar finally popped up.

Kumar is mostly robot.  He is no doubt based on the old ELIZA simulated psychiatrist program which would always turn your question back around without really ever answering much.  It’s a primitive AI technique that’s been around forever.  Try it if you like, it’s kind of creepy in the same way that Kumar was.  I had to provide a description of my problem up front, and Kumar would ask me questions that were phrased along the lines of what I’d already told it, but that didn’t really add much color to the situation:

“Hi Bob.  You’re here because you can’t activate your Photoshop?”

“Yeah Kumar, that’s what I said in the original description.”

This is where Kumar gets clever.  Every time I respond, I get back a message saying, “Okay Bob, I’ll be back in 2-3 minutes after I check into that and take the necessary actions.”  Literally every single response I made, it would do that.  This is because Kumar, or whatever the real human being is named, is sitting in a giant call center somewhere dealing with probably 100 customers simultaneously.  He doesn’t want to get back to any one of us too quickly lest we monopolize too much of his time and annoy the other customers.  So, he uses all this clever software mostly to stall us customers so he can handle more of us.  Sweet!

He asks me to type in my 24-digit serial number (DOH!), but fortunately, I can just copy and paste it (Hah, outsmarted you bozos!).  Then he goes away for extra long–longer than the 2-3 minutes promised.  When he gets back, he wants to know my email for my Adobe customer account.  Oh boy.  Each piece of information will be asked for at 5 to 10 minute intervals–this is going to be painful and I have an appointment in 10 minutes.  I call the appointment to say I am coming, but I will be late.  It’s taken me 45 minutes with Kumar to get this far.

And then, a bit of magic happens.  Kumar comes back and says it’s all fixed, please try again.  I do, and low and behold, the Internet activation works.  A modicum of happiness ensues and I recall the nuclear bombers my DefCon blood pressure rise had summoned.  Then I started thinking about what had happened. Basically, the only reason online activation, had failed, the only reason I had worried whether I would fail to activate and thereby lose a valuable tool, the only reason I had to spend 45 minutes trying to tell Kumar the two pieces of information needed to fix the problem, the only reason I was getting really ticked off at Adobe, was because they wanted to associate my serial number (Kumar didn’t even ask me for the activation code) with my email.

Remember when I said I didn’t create an account with Zappo’s?  Well I also didn’t bother registering Photoshop.  It used to pop up a box about every 2 weeks asking me to fill out an elaborate form, and I would just tell it to go away.  Eventually it offered me the chance to tell it to never ask again, and I did so, thinking what a relief.  Nowhere did they tell me that eventually some power that be would decide they were going to force me to reactivate software that had already been activated and then put me through a painful experience of apparently having that activation fail, just because they wanted me to register.  A registration they no doubt needed so they can send me better marketing spam.

Can we see by now how to apply the maxim that Good Customer Experience trumps Good Customer Service?  Adobe didn’t really give good customer service, BTW, it was terrible.  I don’t blame Kumar for it.  I blame a Draconian wall and a moat filled with alligators designed to keep costs down on a cost center (Customer Service) that was built by a left and a right hand not knowing each other in a large bureaucratic organization and a marketing organization that only cares about filling its lead hungry maw.  It’s about par for the course with large organizations but it also happens to small organizations that pride themselves on treating customers well.  Tragically, it is so unnecessary and counter-productive too.

Let’s take Adobe’s case.  One could argue they never should’ve resorted to all this to connect my email to a serial number.  Let the man not register.  Or, they could’ve just told me I had to register to activate.  Hell, they could’ve just asked for my email as part of the re-activation and I’d have been happy.  Or they could’ve asked me to login to my Adobe account, also acceptable.  There are endless up front Customer Experience things they could have done to eliminate the need for me to deal with Customer Service at all.  Ironically, it would’ve been cheaper to do that.  45 minutes of Kumar and all those automated voice response systems had to cost something.

I run a one-man SaaS company (actually there are a couple part timers, but I’m making a point).  I do all the Customer Service myself.  Whenever and wherever I can, I try to change the User Experience to eliminate classes of Customer Service I see over and over again.  I have to just to survive.  Best of all, it makes the Customers happier and less frustrated.  The next time you’re gearing up a new release of your software, e-commerce front end, or whatever, ask what you can do to reduce the need for Customer Service.  Find out what the common sources of it are.  Get rid of a few of them every time you ship another release.  It’ll be a Good Thing for all concerned, I promise.

Posted in amazon, customer service, Marketing, service, strategy, user interface | Leave a Comment »

Everything You Need to Know About Email Marketing in One Tiny Little Post

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 13, 2013

seths.headTake the time to go read Seth Godin’s post about the 8 things you really need to know about email.  It’s short, totally to the point, and exactly the way my bootstrap business CNCCookbook tries to pursue email.  It has worked great for us and I get tons of love letters back as a result.

If you have all of Seth’s bases covered, you will too.  As I mentioned recently, we use Mailchimp (sounds like he does too) to automate as much of the email process as possible.  Interestingly, I have not heard a word from them about my post on their becoming less user friendly over time.  That’s got to be a first.  OTOH, as Seth points out, they’re just a tool and not really the important part of the equation.

 

Posted in bootstrapping, business, Marketing | Leave a Comment »

Why Did Mailchimp Decide to Get Less User Friendly?

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 5, 2013

Mailchimp is the third email service I tried for my boostrapped company, CNCCookbook.  I generally like the service because it makes the email chores easier.  When you’re a bootstrapper with limited resources (heh, I’m a one man SaaS company), that’s important.

Did Mojo Jojo take out the original chimp and start implementing plans for world domination?

I ask because lately, Mailchimp seems to be losing its way in the making things easier department.

There’s been at least four changes made fairly recently that all bug me.  I’m sure they were all done to try to reduce Mailchimp’s costs–costs for database activity or cost for Customer Service.  But they’re making my experience the worse for the wear and making Mailchimp seem more like the big faceless services and less like, well, Mailchimp.

Here’s what they did.

Made it harder to search

I love the idea of a simple search type in without recourse to complicated database query UI’s that only thinly veil the SQL underneath.  Mailchimp used to have a search box on every page.  Type something in and it searched everywhere and quickly found every object in Mailchimp that related to the search.

I use search a LOT when I am tracking down various Customer Service issues.  Turns out which lists they’ve subscribed to is important for my business.  Bravo for making that so easy, Mailchimp!

Unfortunately, they’ve now buried that particular map with the treasure.  To search requires the following:

-  Go to the “Lists” list.

-  Pick a list.

-  Click the magnifier icon.

-  Now we finally see a search UI.  But, no joy yet, by default it only searches the current list.  I have to perform another manual step to make it search “Everything” which is not the default as it used to be.

DOH!  That’s less friendly, Mailchimp, and I have to do it constantly every day.

Made it harder to export list extracts

I export my mailing lists to CSV files frequently.  Sometimes it’s for backups, sometimes it is so I can re-import them for various purposes.  Don’t ask me why, but Mailchimp, why didn’t you make it easy to add any new names in one list to another?  Especially since it’s more money for you because you charge on list size.  Yeah, I know you prefer me to do that another way, like I said, don’t ask me why I like this way.

Used to be I could just click an icon and zippity-doo-dah it would shoot down to the bottom as a download in Chrome.  Nice!

But wait, that’s no longer possible.  Instead it gets sent to some queue, and a message pops up telling me they’ll email me the darned thing.  Don’t call us, we’ll call you.  I just love when businesses tell me that.  It’s never really for my convenience, is it?

Unfortunately, it gets worse.  The extracts show up zipped–hate that, now I have to perform another step to get at the data.  Come on guys, these files are a meg and a half in size.  Was it really worth saving those few microcents to make me spend that extra time?

Inside the zip file I will find my csv, and it will be named something like, “members_export_5eb7a8c2b4.csv.  Okay guys, are there really some propellor-headed beanies at your end that are going to make my life better by doing something with that whole hexadecimal 5eb7 blah-blah-blah number?  No?  I didn’t think so.  These files used to be called something like, “members_GWEdit_Trial_Nov_2_2013.csv”.  OMG, you mean I can actually glean some valuable information from my file name?  Was there really an important reason to quit letting me glean that valuable information?  Because it sure did result in a lot less user friendly file name.

Made it hard to get support and I have no idea how to give you my help

This one right here was the deal breaker that got me to write this post.  So I’m logged into Mailchimp and encounter these things and decide it’s time I made my voice heard.  I wanted to let the nice people at Mailchimp (well, I assume they’re nice since they have that nice chimp mascot and send me notes that are worded all cutesy and even used to give me a neat chimp link to entertain me every so often) know about all of this.  Because you know, I’m sure it’s just an oversight and if they could hear me and understand what they had done to me, they’d fix it.

Of course you can see where this is going.  There’s no sign of a support link anywhere in the online web-based Mailchimp app UI that I can see.  I think that’s a cardinal sin.  When you’re a web company with a web app, your web presence should be providing your tribe a seamless experience from learning about your company to buying your product to using your product to getting help with your product.  That doesn’t happen here.

Instead, I have to get out of the app and go to the Mailchimp main web site to find a “Support” link.  You go there and you’ve got one option:  Enter a question.  They tell you:

We encourage you to search our knowledge base for answers, but if you don’t see what you’re looking for, you’ll find links to contact our support team after you search.

Okay, I’ve been there and done that.  In fact I think my old Helpstream company was one of the first to offer that approach in our Customer Service system.  BUT…

What if I don’t have a question?  What if I want to give feedback?

Just for fun, I typed in “What if I want to give feedback?”  No joy.  The #1 hit is “How do I know if I’m writing a good subject line?”  Hang on guys, let’s talk about, “How do I know if my users are having a good user experience?”

If you strike out on the question, you get an “Email Us” button.  This takes you to a blank form where you get to submit your trouble ticket.  Isn’t it a bummer that it didn’t stick my question or search words into the subject line?  Could’ve saved me a bit of typing there.

So, I have to fill out this big form.  And since the time of whoever reads the form is more valuable than my time, I have to pass the IQ test by filling out a captcha.  Doesn’t that make me feel like a valued customer?  Well, no, actually, not at all.  So, I go try to remember exactly what email and user name I use with these guys, and then it comes to me:

If they would let me click a support button when I was in the app, I would be an authenticated user and they would not need for me to give them my name, email, Mailchimp username, or captcha.  Wouldn’t that be nice?

Now in fairness, I can’t do that for my own product, but I’m a one-man show here.  I would like to do better, and maybe with an API to my provider, User Voice, I could do it the way I am describing.  I am confident an organization the size of Mailchimp could figure it out though.  It just feels too much like they’ve reached that stage of Evil Corpocracy and Growth where they want to actively discourage Customer Service because some bean counter decided it was a cost center instead of the road to winning the hearts and minds of customers.

Hey, all I wanted to do was give a little feedback fer cryin’ out loud!

Here’s what I have in my little one man SaaS company app to help customers while they’re in the app:

GWHelpResources

BTW, after I had filed 2 support tickets I finally noticed there was a feedback link low and to the right on the page.  You can’t see it until you’re presented with the form, at which point your inclination is to fill out the form.

Template Madness

I keep my emails simple.  Part of my company’s persona is that we’re not all about the marketing spam–we are about providing high quality content for free.  Hence, I don’t use overly slick HTML email templates.  Yeah, maybe I could improve conversions, but they rock compared to everyone else I talk to, so sue me.

The latest Mailchimp UI for creating a mailing has just gone template wild.  There’s jillions of them buried many levels deep, some accessed with large text, some with small.  Turns out I don’t want to look at “My Templates” (I never designed any), “Email Designer” (I still don’t want to design one!), “Predesigned” (it’s a zoo, frickin’ sharks with lasers on their heads in there!  Plus, it leds with a buncha mobile stuff because “Android” starts with “A” or something–I don’t want email to send to mobile devices, thank you!), I don’t want to code my own (if I’m not going to design one I am SURE not gonna code one!), I don’t want to import one (in case I forgot, I DON’T HAVE ANY TEMPLATES!!!), hey wait, what’s absolutely the last thing in the list and in the smallest type with the most unsexyist icon possible?

Classic Templates!  OK, I think this is what I want.  Scroll.  Scroll.  Scroll.  There, “basic” is what I have always used.  Did I mention I don’t want to be too slick or spammy?

How about looking in yer lil primate database and seeing that this is the only template I ever use?  Could you make use of that information to maybe give me a choice of templates I have used in the past?  Would that be a cool thing to have right up front?

I know history lists are kinda avant-garde and they’re for leading edge products like (cough) Microsoft Office, but they can save me time and would’ve saved me time here.  Are you guys really betting your users want to see  your fancy new templates first before they see what they’ve been using for years?  Well maybe, but just know that’s the bet you’ve made with this new UI.  BTW, you can actually instrument your app to see how many people are wandering aimlessly through all those darned templates before they get to one they want to use.  I know my little one man SaaS company does stuff like that.  Might be a good idea, Elon Musk does it with frickin’ cars for Heaven’s sake!

Conclusion

Does Mailchimp have a lousy UX?  Certainly not!

But they’re starting to do some things that are less than optimal.  I write this piece slightly tongue-in-cheek because I want to pass along some feedback to Mailchimp and I want to give other software startups and UX Designers some notions about how to do a better job on some of these things.  I hope I’ve helped all parties.  I’m pretty sure no chimps were harmed in the writing of this piece and I hope none will be harmed by the reading either.

Happy holidays!

Posted in customer service, user interface | 3 Comments »

 
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