Posts tagged as:

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 }

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 }

As the 16 “social entrepreneurs” took to the stage last Thursday to present their 15-second “elevator pitch,” I was filled with anticipation. What would the next generation of hi-tech founders come up with?

Here were some of Israel’s best and brightest, hand selected by the Presentense organization which aims to arm young people who want to do good with solid business skills and knowledge.

And at first glance, the strategy has paid off handsomely. The participants in the Presentense “launch night” were confident and personable. The first ever publicly presented elevator pitches on their would-be companies – from subjects as diverse as fostering peace in the Middle East to making prayer more accessible – were polished and presentable; none would have been out of place in a corporate board room.

After the on-stage performance, each Presentense “fellow” manned a table equipped with a laptop, business cards and printed collateral material for the 500 or so guests to peruse and pocket.

As I weaved between the entrepreneurs’ pitches, I found myself enthralled by the creativity…but confused by the business models behind many of these pre-seed startups. It’s not that Presentense didn’t prepare its participants properly; it’s more the nature of social change-focused non-profits which have lofty goals but that all too often rely on philanthropy not profits.

But I’m feeling up to the challenge. So let me here present some of the projects that most stood out for me, and let’s brainstorm together on how each could, if not actually generate enough revenue to make its founders rich, at least sustain itself as a social entrepreneurial success.

CreaTV

As a media guy, I found CreaTV fascinating – a marketplace of sorts matching up amateur movie makers with professionals to develop quality products for YouTube or broadcast television. CreaTV is targeting the Israeli market initially and will reach out to students at Israel cinema schools. Founder Elad Kimelman describes himself as an “enthusiastic Zionist” who believes that Jewish-produced media can help bind together the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities.

Kimelman hopes that the company will generate projects that receive funding from Israeli production companies; CreaTV would then take a cut. That’s not a bad idea, but unless there are a lot of financed productions, it’s hard to see how the site will sustain itself in the interim. YouTube is drowning under bandwidth costs and parent Google still hasn’t figured out how to sufficiently monetize the site.

A Vimeo model, where CreaTV charges for video storage above a certain monthly file size and bandwidth limit might work (although rumors are that Vimeo is in financial trouble). CreaTV could also adopt the approach of recruitment classifieds, charging a fee when a match is made. But that seems to go against the company’s do-good goal of fostering partnerships.

MediaMidrash

MediaMidrash is another media startup that I liked a lot. Founders Russel Neiss, a librarian, and Charlie Schwartz, a rabbinic student at JTS, dream of creating a site where all of the Jewish videos in the world could be uploaded for teachers to use in school classes. Moreover, teachers could include curriculum to enhance the videos (from both the videomakers themselves and independent instructors who find the videos useful).

My first job back 20 years ago was as the at the San Francisco Bureau of Jewish Education’s media department. I was in charge of taking orders from teachers and sending out films, VHS tapes and even filmstrips (remember those?) I would have loved a computerized database like MediaMidrash.

Again the question: how will this make money? I spoke with Neiss who said it was a low cost operation and that he could run it while keeping his day job. I pointed out that, if MediaMidrash takes off, bandwidth and storage costs will quickly outstrip a volunteer job. The company’s documentation talks about offering premium services such as creating custom video and course material, staff training and websites.

In general, I think this “freemium” model – where you give away most of the content for free and upsell paid services – is the way to go. But creating new video and course content will require specialized staff – whether in-house or outsourced – and the mark-up in order to keep the company going (and pay its founders) may prove prohibitive to Jewish day schools already suffering in a post-Madoff era. Let’s hope that’s not the case.

JewTo

Jewto.com is a great name that founder Melissa Berg somehow snagged – finding a short and catchy URL like that is almost unheard of these days. Berg wants to create a mashup of Craigslist-like classifieds with a global guide to Jewish resources. Think every kosher restaurant in the world and mezuzas for sale.

Berg talked to me about hiring staff to write about all things Jewish in your city, but a more scalable model would be ape Yelp, the popular U.S. reviews and rankings site, where regular readers like you and me write the reviews of restaurants, dentists, bars, beauty salons and more. No need to pay when users contribute for the fame and glory.

Jewto can then upsell premium placement – such as your restaurant at the top of the listings (clearly marked as sponsored of course) – along with tools such as table booking, menu listings and take out. Yelp also sells display advertising – so should Jewto.

Berg should also look into partnering with fellow Israeli startup Bite 2Eat for the restaurant booking functionality as well a to look into whether Yelp or a similar site licenses its engine to third parties.

Jewto is a huge project but the business model – if done right (and it will need VC financing to pull off) – has real potential.

Peula

Did you ever receive crappy service from a store or government office? Wanted to complain but didn’t know how? Peula.com is here to help. The company is building a system to automate letter writing and to gather support from similarly minded aggrieved individuals online. Peula then sends your complaint on the right person.

Peula’s secret sauce is that when the target of your complaint responds, the reply is sent to all of the people listed on your e-complaint which means the responsible party’s response is tracked publicly.

Peula hopes this will differentiate it from its already formidable competition. In Israel, there’s atzuma.co.il, tluna.co.il, and shout.co.il. In the U.S. and U.K., companies like PlanetFeedback and HowtoComplain, and even the Better Business Bureau provide similar services – all for free.

Since the competition doesn’t charge, neither can Peula. Ads and sponsorships on the site are the company’s main business prospects. Allowing users to print letters for a fee, as founder Romi Shamai suggested to me, doesn’t make a lot of sense – users could too easily just copy and paste. There are probably additional added value tools Peula could add that I haven’t thought of yet.

The Open Siddur Project

Perhaps my favorite entrepreneur of the evening was Aharon Varady who is trying to create an online siddur (prayer book) with versions and commentaries from every source imaginable – from Rashi to Jewish Renewal plus user-contributed content. Spiritual seekers could then mix and match how they want to pray and print out their own personal siddur. “Imagine if the first siddur presented to a day school student was actually crafted by that student over the course of a year while being introduced to the liturgy in class,” Varady says.

As someone who struggles with prayer myself, I would love to have a site like Open Siddur. Varady is committed to “keeping this resource completely free.” So how to make money? Varady hopes to charge for printed copies through partnerships with print-on-demand printers.

But what would keep someone from simply generating their on their home printer? Those of us in the Internet publishing business have all learned the hard way that users won’t pay for content online. The print-on-demand model could work, but since each siddur would be customized for the individual, the volume would be low and as a result any partnership revenue from the POD guys would be similarly small.

Selling services around the siddur project – Jewish designers, calligraphers, scholars and even freelance editors – and taking a cut might be a better direction.

The Israel-Asia Center

The Israel-Asia Center seems to be the most mature project in the 2009 Presentense fellows program. The company already has a working website – a news magazine focused on “promoting partnerships between Israel, the Jewish people and Asia, with a strong focus on China.”

The management team includes an Israeli professor in China, and founder Rebecca Zeffert, a PR specialist and Chinese Studies graduate. They’re backed by a 20-member volunteer team in Israel, China, the U.S. and India. The company also has an impressive advisory board.

The Israel-Asia Center’s business model also makes sense: use the website as a platform for selling services – course syllabi on Israel-China relations, speaking engagements, briefings and exchange programs.

Given the growth of China as the world’s second largest economy and Israel’s already existing ties with the Asian giant, I give a hearty thumbs up to Zeffert and crew.

There were a bunch of other entrepreneurs at the event that I didn’t get a chance to talk with. Will they all succeed? Certainly not. Do they deserve to? Absolutely. Do I have all the answers? Not a chance. But this is just a start; some friendly advice, and I have no doubt these fledgling startups will receive plenty more.

What do you think? Which directions would you point these worthwhile endeavors. Drop me a line or leave a comment on the blog.

{ 0 comments }

Read more