From the category archives:

Entrepreneurs

When I spoke with Amit Elisha of OutBrain a few weeks ago, we discussed the company’s software release strategy.

OutBrain operates under what’s considered the new Gospel of product development: get a basic version out there with a minimum number of features and maybe even a few known bugs, make it free, then let your users flood you with feedback so you can iterate and build your next version better.

Continue this process until you climb out of alpha into beta and eventually to a fully functional product (which, to follow Google’s prolonged beta label example, could take many years).

Jason Cohen

Jason Cohen

An interesting article by Jason Cohen, the founder of Smart Bear Software, on the On Startups blog challenges this methodology. Releasing too early and relying on the power of the crowd, he suggests, can potentially harm your reputation and potentially kill your product.

He uses the iPod as an example. Apple designed its game changing music device far away from the public eye. If it had been part of a release-and-iterate cycle, he says, could Apple possibly have gotten away with building a battery-powered device where you can’t change the battery! Or one without an FM radio (which was already included in many early iPod competitors – it’s finally been added to the new iPod Nano years later).

“Disruptive products by definition cannot be built by consensus,” he writes. “’’Design by committee’ is a sure-fire way to get mediocre design.”

Cohen presents additional points to back up his hypothesis.

  • Startups often invoke the 80/20 rule that says you can implement just 20% of your features because that’s what 80% of your users want anyway. But Cohen says that doesn’t apply the way you think it does. The truth is that 80% of your customers use a different 20% from each other. So you need to push out more features, not less, to satisfy a larger cross-section.
  • Twitter is often trotted out as a classic example of “get it out fast,” but it’s a bad one. While the service quickly gained a large and rabid following, it has been suffering from backend scalability problems ever since. Twitter has sufficient capital and some super-smart engineers who can work around the clock to fix what ails it, but your two-person startup may not be so lucky if you release before you’re ready.
  • Customers don’t actually know what they want. “They’re much better at describing what’s difficult in their life, what frustrates them, or what takes up a lot of their time,” Cohen writes. But did anyone ever say “gee, I wish that I could send a video ringtone to my friends” (this is an idea that only a couple of smart entrepreneurs could think up).

Over the last 20 years, I’ve built or been a part of a team building a number of products. When I was working at CD-ROM developer Mindscape, I got into a huge fight with my boss over when to release a product that I had been toiling over for the better part of a year. The company had sales orders from its distributors, but I knew the product was still buggy and wasn’t ready.

Even worse, this was in the pre-Internet days; once the CD was shipped, it would take a new budget allocation to fix it, which I knew would be hard to obtain. When I was essentially given a choice – ship the product or pack your bags – I opted for prudence.

More recently, though, I fell victim to my own emotional involvement with a product that would have done better to release early and iterate. I got so caught up in getting it right, I didn’t realize that the business model was wrong, something that would have become apparent if users had a chance to kick the tires.

Two other examples from opposite poles:

1) Craigslist – if ever there was a bottom up, build it fast and they will come approach to web development, Craigslist would be the poster child. Of course, Craigslist got stuck after the first round of iteration – the site hasn’t been functionally updated for years, but it works and no one’s complaining.

2) The Apple Newton – this is not so much an example of slapped together product development, but it nevertheless demonstrates how a bad start can sink a product. The world’s first PDA came out in the early 1990s. It was a revolutionary product but “the handwriting recognition sucked and there weren’t a lot of apps,” Cohen explains. The public’s response: “it doesn’t do a lot and what it does do doesn’t work well.” By the time Apple addressed its myriad problems, it was too late.

Ultimately, there’s no clear-cut approach. I tend to lean towards the “you’ve got only one chance to make a first impression” direction but, as a number of comments on Cohen’s blog post argued, not every company is Apple.

“They have the money and market control needed to focus on building a complete product at the expense of time to market,” writes Paul May. “Few startups have this luxury.”

What do you think? Which direction is more likely to lead to success…or kill a company? I’d love to hear from you in the comments to this post.

{ 5 comments }

GinipicIt’s happened to all of us at least once or twice in our careers. We’re writing a school paper or updating a website and we need a photo or graphic image to illustrate a point.

That usually entails searching a number of different photo sharing sites such as Google Images, Flickr, TwitPic, PhotoBucket, and others. Once you’ve found the picture you want, you have to click through to see the full size image, right click to download it, then choose Import to paste it into your Word document. And that’s assuming you’ve received the copyright clearance to use it.

What if you could do all this in 2 steps? That’s the idea behind Ginipic, a small Israeli startup with a big idea. Enter a search term and the Ginipic application crawls 15 different web-based photo sharing application. The software then presents the results on a single screen.

That’s already a big improvement from Google’s image search, which only displays a maximum of 25 photos on a page, requiring users to click the “Next Page” button repeatedly.

Ginipic will even search your own computer.

Once you find the image you want, simply drag and drop it into the application you’re using – whether that’s Word, PowerPoint or an email program. The Ginipic application is designed to work “side by side” with other programs to help eliminate switching back and forth between screens.

Ginipic shows copyright details and a photo’s Creative Commons status to keep you from inadvertently infringing (a dollar sign and a large “Buy Now” button appear when an image isn’t free).

Other goodies include the ability to instantly share images on social networks, set an image as your desktop background, and save it to a built-in “lightbox” that contains only those pictures you’ve selected to view.

The service is the brainchild of three young Israeli entrepreneurs and childhood friends from Even Yehuda: Lior Weinstein, Noam Finger and Orr Sellah (who, not coincidentally, are also the only employees in the company). Ginipic has taken on no investment to date but is currently looking.

Ginipic is entirely free right now and, unlike other web services that pitch a paid premium version, the company’s business model is to cut “white label” deals that will give an existing photo sharing site Ginipic’s functionality but with the partner’s branding. Ginipic is also in talks with several advertising agencies to update their aging interfaces for image search.

CEO Weinstein told me that Ginipic is looking for deals in the $10-30,000 range rather than with big players who might pay in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. We asked him why. “We wanted to bring the product to market as fast as possible,” he said. “With a $100,000 deal, there are endless meetings. And for that price, a big company will always consider building it in-house. At $10,000, it’s not a problem.”

Weinstein said the idea for Ginipic actually came to him in a dream. “I was working on a big paper in a classical studies course” at Tel Aviv University, he said and needed pictures of ancient Greek and Roman statues.

Exhausted, he fell asleep one night and dreamed of dragging pictures directly from the photo sharing websites he visited into a Word document. Two weeks later, a mock up was done and the company was on the fast track to development.

Ginipic is not a web application but a download and it works on Windows only (bad news for all the creative types and increasing numbers of students who use Macs). Why the download? we asked Weinstein, aware that this is often a barrier to usability for many wary web denizens.

That was the only way to enable the drag and drop functionality. You can’t go direct from web to Word, nor can you search your own computer, Weinstein explained. Fortunately, the software itself is small – only 4 MB – making for a relatively painless installation.

I asked Weinstein about Ginipic’s product management process. There wasn’t much, he said. The team just jumped in and started coding. After about a month, “we did a proper product plan,” Weinstein said, with a feature roadmap and competitive analysis.

As with many self-funded startups, the “go for it” approach can be effective. Weinstein warned against “feature freeze” where you plan too much and never get the product out the door because there’s always one more feature to add.

Ginipic also used an interesting tool for soliciting customer feedback. UserVoice puts a small tab on the left side of every screen on the site. Clicking allows users to vote on which features they’d most like to see (a Mac version leads the list). The service is free for 100 votes per month. It ramps up rapidly from there to a max of $589/month for all the bells and whistles.

Weinstein said that after all the feedback was in, the team was pleased that there were no additional features they hadn’t originally thought of. UserVoice helped mainly in ranking what functionality should be rolled out first.

Ginipic is not without competitors. Meta-search services like Copernic have been around for years, and Microsoft Office’s Clip Art tool is already built into Word (“although no one uses it,” Weinstein mused). Other sites, such as CoolIris, are more about enjoying images online than searching them, Weinstein pointed out.

So far, in the 9 months since Ginipic launched, it’s signed up over 100,000 users “on $0 advertising,” Weinstein said. Approximately 25 percent of those are active users.

Among the services with which Ginipic works are DeviantArt, Flickr, Picasa, Google, Fotolia, Bing, PhotoBucket, SmugMug, Yahoo, Dreamstime and Crestock.

I use a Mac, so I personally won’t be able to give Ginipic a spin anytime soon but I’ll recommend it to my PC-using friends.

A version of this story originally appeared on Israel21c.

{ 0 comments }

Jeff Pulver

Jeff Pulver in Tel Aviv

Jeff Pulver is a galavanting kind of guy. The one time founder of voice-over-IP telephony company Vonage, Pulver has in recent years traveled the globe hosting hi-tech networking “breakfasts” that attract hundreds of attendees

On Sunday, Pulver was back in town with a combined breakfast and conference focused on “the state of now.”

Dubbed the “140 Characters Conference” (that’s the number of characters you’re allowed to type into the Twitter “What’s happening?” box), some 250 social media “characters” gathered at Tel Aviv’s Afeka College of Engineering to listen attentively to a whopping four dozen presenters who spoke either in panel discussions or alone in 10 minute increments  (a large clock counted down the minutes and, other than a few misbehavers, the time was scrupulously observed).

Among the presenters were Alon Nir, the entrepreneur behind “TweetYourPrayers” which allows petitioners to tweet notes that Nir physically places in the cracks of the Western Wall. Nir started the project as a hobby. By the summer, he had thousands of notes and had to enlist an army of volunteers (recruited via Twitter of course) to roll the print outs and cart them to Jerusalem. Find him on Twitter at @thekotel.

A highlight for Israeli music fans was the appearance on stage of rockers Yoni Bloch and Ivri Lider who talked about how they use Twitter to get closer to their fans. Bloch, a self-confessed nerd, initially found fame by posting his songs to an Israeli MySpace-clone and was flabbergasted when, several years ago – long before the advent of Twitter – he sold out a live show just by announcing it online.

Comedians Charley Warady and Benji Lovitt talked about how they use social media to try out punch lines for their jokes (“can you be funny in 140 characters?” asked one audience member).

On a more serious note, David Saranga discussed how the Israeli consulate in New York took to Twitter to counter negative reports coming out of Gaza during January’s Operation Cast Lead. He also pointed out one of the more effective campaigns to reposition Israel in the mind of the world: the 2007 infamous “Girls of the IDF” bikini photo spread in Maxim magazine.

The strangest use of Twitter discussed? Simultaneous tweeting while watching TV. While I find it hard to understand how one can actually enjoy a program while tapping away on a Blackberry or iPhone keyboard, veteran media consultant Dror Gill suggested that interactive media can actually restore some of the social cohesion that’s been lost in the modern world where families rarely sit down together to watch the contemporary equivalent of All in the Family.

Twittering away, he said, is akin to kibbutzing together in the family room…even if your fellow schmoozers are thousands of miles away.

To back up that point of global interconnectedness, host Pulver announced at the day’s conclusion that 6,464 people from around the world had tuned in to watch the conference live via the Internet and that for much of the day, this intimate little get together, tucked away in an off the beaten track corner of Tel Aviv, had been ranked in Twitter’s Top 10 “trending topics.”

See for yourself. Search for #140conf on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on the Israelity blog.

{ 1 comment }

StarsOutbrain is a company I like a lot. It has a seemingly simple product that provides some very useful functionality: content rating and recommendations for blogs.

Follow the easy installation instructions and Outbrain will allow your readers to give your latest post a 1-5 score. Then, based on Outbrain’s massive database of reader tastes and web content, the Outbrain widget that displays on your blog will point visitors to related articles that Outbrain has determined they might find interesting.

Yes, it directs visitors away from your blog, but it also has the potential to turn your site a mini-destination site. (You can see Outbrain at work on this blog – scroll to the end of any post.)

When the company raised a sizable second round of financing earlier this year, a lot of brows were furrowed: $12 million for a blog plug-in? Investors must have had a sneak preview of the company’s latest feature, launched earlier this month: an enhancement that allows publishers to pay for premium placement of their content.

The new goodie is called OutLoud and it costs $10 per URL. Featured content appears at the top of the Outbrain recommendations list and is clearly labeled. Without OutLoud, Outbrain uses its own algorithms to suggest content.

OutLoud can be used in two ways. A publisher can let Outbrain control which sponsored recommendations appear; Outbrain will then split revenue with the blog publisher.

Alternatively, a publisher can set up the OutLoud service to work as an internal referral engine: only URLs from the publisher will appear. This can be used to generate more traffic within a single property or on a network of sites owned by the same publisher.

At first glance, $10 might seem like a no brainer for a small to medium sized online publisher, but it quickly adds up. And the $10 fee per URL is only for a month. You have to pay up if you want the sponsored link to keep going.

Outbrain says that the service is aimed at a number of target clients:

  • Marketers who want to drive word-of-mouth by amplifying positive reviews about their company.
  • Individual bloggers who want to promote their most brilliant posts.
  • Public relations professionals looking for new ways to distribute releases
  • Social media gurus who can push out articles from a corporate blog to drive traffic.

With such a cool product, I wondered what product management is like at Outbrain. Amit Elisha, who directs the process, says that the days of long and involved specs with accompanying Photoshop images are long gone. “We were work on a very fast 3-4 week release cycle,” Elisha said. “We prefer UI (user interface) mock ups over technical documentation, which we keep very brief.”

Elisha’s tool of choice is Balsamiq Mockups which makes it incredibly easy to create a wireframe. I tried it out and it lives up to the hype with a truly drag and drop interface. Thanks Amit for the tip!

Elisha has been with the company since August of last year and moved from Israel, where Outbrain started, to New York for the job. I asked him my favorite question about what parts of product management could be outsourced. None, he said. Outsourced people don’t have the same stake in the company. “We hire people with a certain DNA,” he added.

For publishers looking to generate additional revenue, OutLoud certainly looks promising, although it will take some time before the service has the critical mass to add up to more than just some extra change. On the other hand, it’s free to install and Outbrain doesn’t add its own branding or links back to the Outbrain site.

Outbrain was founded by Yaron Galai and Ori Lahav. The 25-person company has headquarters in New York with R&D in Israel. The latest round was led by Carmel Ventures with previous investors Gemini, Lightspeed and GlenRock Israel filling out the round. Total raised to date: just over $18 million.

{ 1 comment }

Flip MinoWhy has the Flip video camera (and now its key competitor the new iPod Nano) been such as a roaring success? An article in the September issue of Wired suggests it’s part of a technology trend to build “good enough” products.

In terms of growth (if not total numbers), the little Flip is beating the pants off full-featured digital camcorders from Sony, Canon and the like (sales at Flip are up 200% this year even in the recession). The video on the Flip is indisputably crappy; the camera itself has none of the bells and whistles of its bigger cousins (there isn’t even a proper optical zoom); even the view screen is tiny.

But, as Wired senior editor Robert Capps writes, the camera does the minimum of what consumers want: it fits in a pocket and it quickly uploads videos to YouTube. And at under $200, it’s “good enough.”

The Wired article presents a number of other examples, from “eLawyering” to reduced expectations from military hardware. The most familiar, though, is the de-evolution of music quality.

Even today, old-fashioned records are still considered to deliver the highest-fidelity sound. Of course, by the end of the 80s, these were nearly entirely replaced by CDs, which purists derided for years.

But the real change is the MP3 which is clearly inferior in sound quality. But, again, it’s “good enough.” Music lovers can store thousands of songs on a mobile device and easily share or download the small files.

Even more: in an informal poll conducted over the last six years by a Stanford University professor, young people are increasingly stating that MP3s sound “better” than CDs, because they’ve become accustomed to the distortion found in compressed audio. If that isn’t “good enough,” I don’t know what is.

So what does this have to do with product management, the theme of this blog? The same trend in end user products has crept into the product planning and strategy phase. It used to be that you needed significant capital to properly launch a startup (we raised just under $1 million in the first round for Neta4 in 1998 – and that was considered on the low side).

It’s much easier today for a couple of talented engineers to cobble together a working beta (and isn’t everything beta for years nowadays?) quickly and with little or no investment. When you’re coding in hurry, there’s no time for product management. You post it and then crowd source changes in near real time.

The problem is that this approach has led to a delge of half-baked sites and services that nevertheless get covered on TechCrunch and other review sites only to eventually enter the inglorious “dead pool.”

There are two schools of thought here: virtually ship it “good enough” and iterate, or get it right before launching, the thought being the old adage that you only have one chance to make a first impression.

It may seem that I’m arguing for the latter approach, but truthfully, they both can work (and they both can fail). For agile companies in a hurry, I’d recommend that as soon as they do receive funding (and after all, other than a few viral Facebook, Twitter and iPhone apps, it’s pretty hard to make it to the big time without investor backing), they back up and start the product management tasks they didn’t have time for the first time out – planning, strategy, specifications, prioritization, roadmap, business intelligence, competitive analysis and more – with an aim towards hiring a full time product manager as soon as possible.

There are some great companies out there that have taken unorthodox ways on the path towards success. “Good enough” technology is here to stay. That doesn’t mean that product management necessarily has to follow suit.

{ 1 comment }

Entrepreneurship

As I entered my late 40s, I began to despair that I had passed my entrepreneurial “prime.” After all, aren’t the biggest successes software geeks barely in their 20s. Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg. I founded my most recent startup, Bloggerce, at the ripe old age of 45.

But a new report entitled “The Anatomy of an Entrepreneur” from the Kauffman Foundation of Entrepreneurship says my expiration date has not quite gone ripe. You can download the full report, which surveyed 549 entrepreneurs, for free. There are lots of juicy bits beyond age. The top take-aways:

  • The average and median age of company founders when they started their current companies was 40.
  • 95.1 percent of respondents had earned bachelor’s degrees, and 47 percent had more advanced degrees.
  • Less than 1 percent came from extremely rich or extremely poor backgrounds
  • 15.2 percent of founders had a sibling that previously started a business (my brother heads DrClue.com – does that count?)
  • 69.9 percent of respondents indicated they were married when they launched their first business (take that all you single software guys and gals!)
  • 59.7 percent of respondents indicated they had at least one child when they launched their first business, and 43.5 percent had two or more children.
  • The majority of the entrepreneurs in the sample were serial entrepreneurs. The average number of businesses launched by respondents was approximately 2.3.
  • 74.8 percent indicated a desire to build wealth as an important motivation in becoming an entrepreneur (and I thought it was all about “changing the world”).
  • Only 4.5 percent said the inability to find traditional employment was an important factor in starting a business.
  • The majority of respondents (75.4 percent) had worked as employees at other companies for more than six years before launching their own companies.

Thanks to Dharmesh Shah writing on his On Startups blog for summarizing the 24-page report so elegantly.

{ 0 comments }

Read more