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Archive for January, 2014

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 »

 
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