Reacting to competition

As an innovator, you are often ahead of the curve in introducing products and services to a market.

Then come the battery of fast following competitors who copy your capabilities, or yet others who say they’ve already got what your latest and greatest innovation is.

How you react in these situations can often make or break your leadership with customers.

Making a better product isn’t the end of the story: market it better, deliver it better, support it better, and make the usage experience better, be honest, and be human !

Take your advantage to the next level by out executing your competition across all aspects of your solution, rather than fighting with copy cats or looking at their tactics.

Competition is a good thing, and in most markets buyers will gravitate to the best overall package.

startup culture — where does it come from ?

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One of the most mysterious elements of startup culture is question that Naval Ravikant posed in his tweet above.

So, where does it really come from ?

Culture is mostly intangible at the earliest stages, and tends to be dictated by the relationship amongst the founders (or the founding team). In my time at Feeva, and my startup project at Virginia Tech, the culture of the group could primarily be described as a function of the relationship the group shared among themselves.

At the same time, culture morphs at various stages of team size and the product lifecycle of a startups offering. In the very beginning, everything pretty much happens around the one and only conference table (if you have one that is) and all decisions around hiring, strategy, fund-raising, marketing, tactics, etc are made. I think this changes at somewhere around 15 people or so, when the company needs to start to institute a basic abstraction of decision making by a few for the collective. This evolution in a young companies life (or need for change) is a seminal moment for the long term culture of the company.

And naturally, a company and its organization continues to morph at 50, 250, 500, 1000 employees and upwards and onwards! It is critical for the founders/founding-team to think about their culture at each of these stages to define how they want to make decisions and conduct business. In the long run, the relationship between the founders/founding-team really drives the culture of the company.

There are umpteen examples of this: Google (with its college campus lifestyle), Facebook (the hacker way), Twitter (and its emergent chaos), my own experience at Feeva (though not public), and several others out there.

what do you think?

teachers will soon be celebrities

That technology is changing the way we think of education is a fact that few can deny, especially in 2012. As we look ahead 10 years from now, one potential implication of the use of technology and the break-down of traditional institutions of learning, such as universities, could be the emergence of the superstar teacher.

What do I mean by the superstar (or celebrity) teacher?

Imagine for a moment, that everyone student in the world who is interested in learning about a particular topic is able to access content created by the best teacher for that subject. Students in Vietnam tuning into Physics lectures by Einstein; or taking philosophy classes from Daniel Kahneman. Daniel Kahneman instantly goes from being able to teach 500 students over 10 years, to teaching 50000 students every year !

Hard to imagine? Dr Sebastian Thrun of Stanford University delivered an AI class to 160,000 students in the Fall of 2011.

The best teachers of any, and every subject in the world have a massive opportunity to reach each and every student interested in learning from them, through the use of simple broadcasting tools. This will give rise to a new class of celebrities, teachers !

Teachers are no longer required to restrict themselves to teaching primarily at elite institutions to have a great impact on society, but rather aim to reach a global audience with their product. This also changes the fundamental economics of education and the opportunity for outstanding compensation for outstanding educators !

To wrap, I want to add that Dr Sebastian Thrun recently resigned from Stanford to launch his own platform to deliver his courses — complete with lectures, grading, and classrooms. Salman Khan of the Khan Academy is another prominent example !

The celebrity teacher will enjoy the same kind of following, fame, and fortune as leading Hollywood artists. Sebastian is one of the first celebrity teachers !

my next stop — Quova

Over the past 5 years, I have had a simple mission of enabling location awareness on the web.

At Virginia Tech, we built an early version of a location awareness platform using WiFi that culminated in a few Windows Mobile apps and my masters thesis. The basic conclusions were that application developers dont care about how you sense location, they care about location itself and context about that location. Taking it one step further, developers want a standard interface to get location, ideally agnostic of platform. Having developed SeeVT (with Dr Scott McCrickard and a great team of fellow students at VT) as a platform, I was ready for bringing my learnings to the real world and moved to Silicon Valley.

With a broader canvas at Feeva, I went to work on envisioning and creating a platform that would leverage the core infrastructure of the Internet (routers) to add the context of location to one of its fundamental information exchange protocols (HTTP). During this effort, I had the unique opportunity of sitting at the intersection of varying interests of some of the largest players on the Internet — from the access infrastructure, vendors, content owners and privacy advocates. While we managed to do accomplish a great deal, Feeva recently succumbed to financial and market timing related challenges in its way.

Looking ahead, I continue to be very enthusiastic about “location” on the web.

There is a great deal of action around location today, with the likes of Foursquare (check-ins), GroupOn (local deals), and an ever growing list of apps that leverage location awareness on iOS, Android, and the desktop web. This is also a time when the mainstream begins to take notice of what we geeks have been obsessing about for the past half decade. And that is what brings me to my next gig at Quova !

Quova is the leading provider of location (using IP addresses) to the largest providers of content and services on the Internet today. The leading providers of ecommerce, search, advertising, fraud detection, and content personalization rely on the Quova platform to understand “where” their customers come from. Quova has built its leadership position on a series of unique capabilities that allow it to “map” the internet infrastructure more accurately than other providers of similar services. Quova was recently acquired by Neustar, which operates several pieces of critical infrastructure for telecommunications and the Internet across the world.

At Quova, I am working on a team to create its next generation platform that helps our customers achieve greater accuracy ! …the effort will be a combination of algorithms, architecture, and service delivery innovations. More about this soon !

The web continues to be an area ripe for innovation, and location will play a central role over the next 5 years. Of which, I hope to create some value for our customers at Quova and beyond.

Tying it all together — the end game of present day silicon valley (circa — October 2010)

As silicon valley goes about disrupting one industry after another, it has at this point in time, laid it’s sights on the combined fuzz of commerce, social networks, mobility, and payments.

In the quest of the holy grail for a system that understands consumers and anticipates their likes and dislikes across several dimensions, a group of companies are at the precipice of a massive opportunity to build the ultimate system of systems (SoS). This SoS combines identity, commerce (online & brick-mortar), social networking, mobility, and likes/dislike across services (both traditional services, and information services).

Let’s first start out with my premise of why we are far from the end. As much as we like to believe otherwise, the vast majority of commerce still occurs “offline”, i.e. happens away from your computer desk. The majority of this offline commerce also happens within a relatively short driving distance of the domicile or work place of the average consumer. Therefore, while the world is flat, you still buy the majority of your consumables from your neighborhood. Note: my argument is focused around the “transaction”, and not the production of goods and services.

I will now describe the capabilities of the SoS, and then towards the end of the article prescribe a method to tie it all together.

The SoS is a platform that provides each user with a hub for the consumers digital life: an interface to manage and manipulate incoming/outgoing communications of all types (personal, professional, social, financial, medical, entertainment, news, etc). This first piece is an anchor tenant of the system: since this is the interface which enjoys the greatest amount of #attention from a user. Until 5 years ago, this interface was the desktop computer, and today that is changing rapidly toward being untethered. The race to own this piece is being fought by the giants of information technology today, and there are several flavors of solutions out there. The vocal debate sparked by Chris Anderson of Wired summarizes the shifting landscape of this interface well. Let us name this interface “the hub”, for the sake of this article.

The SoS then extends the hub to the mobile experience, and brings along a few key elements such as: identity, a communication end point, the social network, a financial toolset, and some sensors. For users with smartphones today, you know what I am talking about.

Now that we’ve covered the interfaces extended by the SoS to consumers, let’s shift our focus and think about what it does for merchants and service providers.

The SoS provides merchants an interface similar to the hub, let’s call it “the register”. The register is a system that comprises of a point of sale interface, ties into the merchants CRM system, interfaces with social networks, and ties into the merchants accounting solutions. We hardly find a lot of discussion about innovation in this arena and I believe this is facet of the SoS that is the most under developed at this point in time. Yes, IBM has had point-of-sale solutions for decades, but they have hardly changed in my life time. With the exception of Square (by Jack Dorsey), I don’t know of a single startup or tech major focusing time and R&D efforts on “the register”.

Tying the millions of registers and billions of hubs together is the central fabric of the SoS that extracts context from transactions conducted between the various hubs and registers connected with each other. While the central fabric is built on top of the Internet, it is not the internet itself: but has a combination of capabilities possessed by a search engine, a recommendation system, a social broadcasting system, and a trusted provider (bank). These different components put together comprise the SoS.

The end game that the tech giants are chasing is to build and own this central fabric, its engines, and it’s interfaces for consumers and merchants.

Google and it’s Android platform are best suited to realize this SoS.

The Google search engine is a dominant onramp to the internet, Gmail and the Google Apps suite is fast supplanting the Microsoft Windows desktop paradigm, and Android is fast becoming a pervasive mobile hub. While Google has failed to own the social networking experience, they play well with tying into them from other Google services.

The biggest gap in their portfolio is a foray into owning “the register”, and providing a value exchange to merchants to incentivize them to adopt. The Android platform in it’s tablet avatar is a good starting point. Tie it with other services described above and allow the transaction to flow. Merchants get subsidized analytics and broadcasting tools in exchange for adopting the Android platform.

If I had a venture fund, or access to large financial resources, I would invest in a business or a project to go after the register.

working on the business versus working in the business

often at times, I find it hard to context switch between working on our business, versus working in our business.

this problem is especially aggravated for startups, where there is little time to sit back every once in a while to take in the big picture; given the scarcity of human resources.

working “on” the business, for example, is thinking about how to position your business in the marketplace; how to slot yourself versus competitors, and what type of allies to attract for strategic growth.

working “in” the business, on the other hand is making sure you deliver (or exceed) on customer commitments, delivering on engineering deadlines, and financial milestones to investors.

I am in no way implying that it is easier for larger companies to do this, and albeit better than startups.

at the end of the day — companies and executives that are able to work on their business while working in the business side by side, are the ones who are most likely to succeed (or at least enjoy the ride more than others).

Credits: I would like to acknowledge my colleague — Jeff Popoff, for a conversation that sparked this post.