November 29, 2006

Greg Linden on Innovation

Posted in Business, Excellence at 10:33 pm by mj

Greg Linden writes about innovation and learning to love destruction.

He reminds us that the flip side to innovating to get ahead (and stay ahead) is learning from, and shutting down, failures, but…even companies thick with innovative products are averse to following through:

If something does not work, the company needs to move on quickly. Failures need to be acknowledged, all possible learning extracted, and then the product should be eliminated.

This is not what happens. Instead, unsuccessful products are left up on the site to rot. Failed experiments become useless distractions, confusing customers who are trying to dig through the options to find what they need and frustrating any customer foolish enough to try them with the obvious lack of support.

He gives good examples from Google, Amazon, and Yahoo — big names in (web) innovation who, nevertheless, allow failed products and services to litter their navigation and soak up internal resources.

Even unsupported products still must be maintained operationally, security patches deployed and, to the extent they use shared libraries and APIs, evolved as the libraries and APIs evolve. Not to mention the customer support complaints from those sad individuals who stumple upon the unsupported product.

September 10, 2006

Facebook: Publicity to Die Invade Privacy For

Posted in Business, Community, Fun at 8:09 pm by mj

(Full disclosure: I work for Webshots, which is a sort of competitor to Facebook.)

When the “Facebook Fiasco” started, I felt a little uneasy. Everybody I knew, and most in the blogosphere, were saying what an embarrassment this was for Facebook.

Hot on the heels of the AOL stir-up, I could feel management at every community and social networking site gritting its collective teeth, preparing morning memos decreeing that all new features have to be vetted through legal.

My thought? No publicity is bad publicity.

As if a company who gets 100K+ of its members to protest a new change by using its own services is really going to experience any lasting repercussions.

It now appears that I was right:

This is an excellent example of a company listening to its users and quickly pushing intelligent changes, in a transparent manner, to deal with a problem. Facebook is growing up, in a good way.

Also see their Alexa traffic spike.

Now that’s how to launch a new feature.

Now, Facebook didn’t do this intentionally. And many of these users certainly would have fled–eventually. There are some serious points in here, but it’s all quite funny, too.

Just consider their pitch to their advertisers: Last month, we committed a bit of a faux pas with a small little feature, and over one hundred and fifty thousand people came together on our site in a single day! Thousands of newspapers and blogs linked to us. Imagine if your campaign were running that day…

Backlashes–especially when “unprecedented”–are a better proof of your reach and the vitality of your business than anything else. For better or worse.

Interestingly, Sam Ruby has a different take on what was most disconcerting about Facebook’s feature: information overload.

June 18, 2006

Corporate In-Store Safety: Responsibility and Liability

Posted in Business, Me at 6:50 pm by mj

This weekend, my mom slipped on a wet surface inside a Wal-Mart store and broke her hip. She’s currently at the University hospital, where she will undergo surgery.

For its part, Wal-Mart (apparently) has a policy in place to cover its ass: its own employees voluntarily served as witnesses, and took photographic evidence of the scene before cleaning up the floor. Doubtlessly, Wal-Mart has run the numbers and determined that they’ll average smaller payouts by being helpful and considerate, than by trying to deny everything.

This brings up the question, to which I’m trying to find answers, of whether there are any strict legal standards for safety at a store, restaurant, etc., and whether systemic uncleanliness is a factor.

For example, I’m not a big fan of Wal-Mart stores. Notice I didn’t say I’m not a big fan of Wal-Mart, the successful corporation that has innovated in many areas of business, driven down prices, and tends to serve lower income families better than their competitors. I just can’t stand their physical stores, which tend to be cramped, crowded, smelly, ill-organized and, well, just plain messy.

What’s always struck me about Wal-Mart is how many hazards I’ve seen. It seems every time I enter their store, there is either a (metal) shelf coming loose, with a sharp end sticking out (I’ve been cut on those twice); or a puddle of laundry detergent on the floor; or oddly-shaped boxes sticking out into the middle of the aisle; etc.

Given this, is Wal-Mart (legally, not ethically) more responsible when a 60-year-old woman slips and breaks her hip, because their store policies tend to discourage putting cleanliness and safety above employee convenience? Or does the law run the other way, and put the responsibility in the hands of customers to know that Wal-Mart stores are usually not paragons of safety? Or does Wal-Mart’s pattern of behavior have absolutely no legal impact on an individual incident of a customer getting injured?

On the personal side of this, her injury is apparently not as bad as it could have been, and I’ve been told not to travel home for her surgery, but I do worry about how it will affect her health and mobility as she ages. This could restrict her to a wheelchair a decade sooner, or cause her blood pressure to rise, or more subtly affect her medical well-being. I guess it’s just wait-and-see at this point.

June 13, 2006

The Economics of (Oil) Prices, and Long-term Oil Strategy

Posted in Business, Politics at 7:56 pm by mj

There’s a short entry on the economics of prices by Walter E Williams. Williams responds to the argument that charging today’s prices for oil that was bought cheaper a week ago is “price gouging,” and offers up the following scenario:

If you were really enthusiastic about not being a “price-gouger,” I’d have another proposition. You might own a house that you purchased for $55,000 in 1960 that you put on the market for a half-million dollars. I’d simply accuse you of price-gouging and demand that you sell me the house for what you paid for it, maybe adding on a bit for inflation since 1960. I’m betting you’d say, “Williams, if I sold you my house for what I paid for it in 1960, how will I be able to pay today’s prices for a house to live in?”

Williams is correct on that point. Such accusations are usually made by people who don’t understand basic economics.

But Williams continues and asserts, like so many do, that the real problem with high gas prices is the U.S. Congress:

Opening a tiny portion of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas production, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s mean estimate, would increase our proven domestic oil reserves by approximately 50 percent. The Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico offshore areas have enormous reserves of oil and natural gas, but like the Alaska reserves, they have been put off limits by Congress. Plus, the U.S. Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves estimates the world supply of oil shale at 1.6 trillion barrels, of which 1.2 trillion barrels are in the United States.

If I may put on my astute politician hat for a bit, I think arguments like that miss the bigger point.

The untapped oil under U.S. jurisdiction can be seen as a bargaining tool against Opec. Knowing that the U.S. could commit itself to using its own domestic oil supplies–and, if that were to happen, we’d really commit to it–means the U.S. can bargain for cheaper prices (if not exactly cheap prices) now. It’s a bit of a threat: if we extract more oil, we can ruin the economies of several nations and make life miserable for some of the shiek-kings in Opec.

But what would happen if the U.S. committed itself to this route tomorrow? Well, after a ramp-up period which would probably involve higher taxes to subsidize the endeavour, we’d have cheaper oil prices. Much cheaper. But for how long? 90 years? (ANWR is 15 years, and the others?) And then? Then the U.S. would be backed against a wall.

In the long term battle for freedom, we’d better have some tricks up our sleeves to maintain our independence when the going gets really tough. Using up our oil at the first sign of a little trouble means those opposed to liberty–which most of the Opec nations represent–have a leg up in the long-term game.

My prediction is as soon as we establish a viable, scalable, long-term unmonopolized alternative to oil, we will tap our domestic reserves to get us through the turmoil that would undoubtedly follow, knowing that even if we tap it all, there’s an out (i.e., the proven alternative that is being rolled out). I don’t expect that to happen in my lifetime.

At least, if I were an astute politician–or, for that matter, even particularly politically astute at all–that would be my strategy.

(Link via Catallarchy.)

May 14, 2006

Finally, a good definition for “Web 2.0”

Posted in Business, Web2.0 at 9:08 pm by mj

In Tim O’Reilly’s UC Berkely Commencement Speech, he finally provided the best definition for what “Web 2.0” stands for:

[T]he users of successful internet applications supply their intelligence. A true Web 2.0 application is one that gets better the more people use it. Google gets smarter every time someone makes a link on the web. Google gets smarter every time someone makes a search. It gets smarter every time someone clicks on an ad. And it immediately acts on that information to improve the experience for everyone else.

It’s for this reason that I argue that the real heart of Web 2.0 is harnessing collective intelligence.

He goes on to include Amazon and Ebay–two companies usually not associated with “Web 2.0” because they don’t have all the right technological buzzwords–in this class of true “Web 2.0” companies, because they get better the more people use them. Well done.

After all this time, we have a believable definition: something we can stand behind, something to motivate our actions beyond today’s buzzwords. A definition like this, if it caught on, might just motivate every employee of every company. Because, if the products you’re working on aren’t harnessing the intelligence of its customers and members, sooner or later you’re going to start asking “Why not?” (Which is much more powerful than, “Hey boss, why aren’t we using AJAX?”)

Another important characteristic of “Web 2.0” companies, says O’Reilly, is the nature of branding:

The users not only provide the content, they provide the marketing. These sites have become hugely popular without spending a nickel on advertising, because they rely on word of mouth.

Why is this more important than your average teenager wearing a Gap-branded tee, or a Nike-branded shoe? Because they’re not saying, “Ooh! Ooh! This company is cool!” or “Look at me! I’m a cool kid now!” It’s more akin to an arcade that always has the latest games that nobody else in town has. Except that arcades are escapist, and aren’t going to help you score higher, perform better, know more, or be a better friend. Nor will you be able to hawk your wares, or demonstrate your strengths, or leverage a business opportunity.

So how do you harness the collective intelligence of your users? Technology (pattern recognition) and marketplaces.

O’Reilly concludes with the “dream big” mantra typical of commencement speeches, but, in this case, it’s well-founded and utterly motivational.