Musings on books, technology, entrepreneurship, nonprofits and umm.. everything else …

Archive for June, 2012

All you need is … a browser! (we can take the love too, of course!)

The year 2012 so far has seen so many product announcements in the area of videoconferencing. What used to be a “can it be in the cloud” question three years ago has now become a “how can we work with it in the cloud” question within the enterprise. Innovations on the interoperability front are driving video conferencing adoption like never before. At the same time, the bring-your-own-device mantra is slowing catching on within larger enterprises as well, though slowly as they wrestle with bandwidth and IT support needs.

In the middle of all this, one trend seems to be unmistakably clear. People like to see each other on a conference call, if it can be made easy and affordable. And watching that premise grow from a powerpoint to reality has been very exciting indeed at Blue Jeans Network.

Today we announced our Series C funding. More importantly, we announced the ability of any Blue Jeans caller to join with just a browser. Browser to Board Room TelePresence System via video is now a reality. And outside of any proprietary island that only talks its own language – be it Cisco, Polycom, LifeSize, Microsoft or Google. Its exciting to be part of video conferencing history as it is being made.  Kudos to everyone at the company who made this happen!

And one more thing – it happens to be our one year anniversary as well this week, since our launch! So show us some love, gain yourself some street-cred – visit the  demo center and test this out for yourself today!

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On Hackathons

One of the key ideas from Schumpeter that the capitalist framework of economics co-opted is that of creative destruction through the process of innovation. And nowhere is this better exemplified than in startups and small companies in Silicon Valley. The Schumpeterian rent that startups and entrepreneurs earn is predominantly driven by these discontinuous developments within each industry, which has been the bedrock on which  the Valley and the bank accounts of several startup millionaires were  built.

Last Friday, we had our first ever Blue Jeans Hackathon. A significant fraction of employees participated – teams were encouraged to have members from non-engineering departments as well and pitch their ideas to the company. Given how selectively we hire talent, this was bound to be competitive .. and boy, was it so! To begin with, we have a product that is cutting-edge and ahead of competition any way you look at it. We also have a short-term roadmap that should keep us in a leading position. In 24 hours, these teams showed several proof of concept functionalities in the product that were incredible and mind-blowing. Not only were these on my wish list for months, these would change the way users interact with the product at so many levels. I cannot wait to see when we can make it available to our users.

Within the software world Hackathons have evolved into a mechanism for quick and dirty concept testing of features. As products mature, processes to keep them stable also start affecting the rate at which innovation can happen in these products. As startups grow, not all employees get time to get to know each other and work with each other. As release timelines are laid out and product roadmaps get harder to break, innovation gets slowed down in the sense that disruptive ideas that engineers or other employees might have, are postponed to a later date. Hackathons solve all of these problems well. They give engineers the time to concept test an idea that they might have had for some time. They keep heavy “product management” out of the feature set while it is in the concept testing stage. And, in well-engineered scenarios in small companies, they provide a great way for the different business functions to get to know each other and work with each other on a fun project.

Of course, there can only be one winner – or in our case two, the Popular Choice and Founders Choice Awards. But the wellspring of ideas this exercise taps into does precisely what it aims to do – unlock the creative potential within the company and keep product releases and company roadmaps honest, in terms of delivering the best value to the consumer at the earliest date.

So rock on, hackers! Its not just Facebook that owns rights to that term 😉

Knowledge for thoughtful leaders

Recently Wharton launched a new branding campaign that emphasizes how Wharton’s focus is around knowledge serving different purposes in the lives of its students and alumni. Last session in school was a good example of knowledge as it changes the way thoughtful leaders see their world (assuming that the cohorts that pass through our program are thoughtful, and are leaders 🙂 ).

Before we get there, a quick summary of the weekend. We had one of the lightest weekends of the term last session. One strategy class, a few sessions of international corp. finance (ICF) and Prof. Jonah Berger’s class on contagiousness of products and ideas. We also had an interesting talk by John Keagy, CEO of Go Grid who has had a dozen successful startups under his belt. He spoke about the need to bootstrap and grow companies rather than being beholden to investors. Was interesting to hear how it worked out for him though we do hear enough stories from the other side about how getting venture or angel funding also came with contacts and advice and mentoring, things that have equal value. We also started the weekend with an amazing talk by Rowan Chapman, a partner from Mohr Davidow Ventures on healthcare and biotech startups and investing. It questioned several prevailing myths about returns in this vertical and spoke about MDV’s approach towards investing in this area and what they expect in the medium term in terms of growth of this segment.

But what stood out this session was ICF. Prof. Bodnar is probably one of the best, if not the best faculty to have taught me at Wharton so far. The course is not easy, and assignments such as the Jaguar case make your brain hurt, but it is hard to find someone who can explain concepts so well, and care to make sure that you understand them. Walking a tight rope between the international angle and bringing it back to a corporate finance setting and how it impacts the lives of managers is not an easy task, and he does it so effortlessly. On top of the two sessions we had on hedging against exposure through instruments such as forward contracts, options and range forward contracts, he also agreed to talk to us outside of class about the current crisis in Greece. So after a day that started for many of us at 7.30 am with Rowan’s talk and ended at 7.30 pm with the ICF class, about 40-45 of us congregated at the Wharton pub to listen to Prof. Bodnar – all parties sufficiently lubricated by the wares available at the pub of course. From 9.15 pm to almost midnight, we heard him paint a broad picture starting from Iceland and Ireland, to Greece and then Spain and Italy. As the evening progressed we even found our way back to the domestic economy and discussed Medicare, social security, the impending Californian default and other hot button items. For someone as ignorant as I am about these issues, the discussion was immensely useful to understand how the different concepts we learnt in class applied to real life scenarios in one of the most challenging economic times in today’s world.

What took the cake, of course, was where Prof. Bodnar’s interests stood in terms of the Greek crisis resolution – he said that it would make a wonderful case study to see how a country could successfully secede from a currency union and what impacts it would have on its own economy and the union itself. Given the election results, he might just have to wait for a few more years to see that happen – unless Spain or Italy oblige him, of course.

The Surface (re)surfaces!

Surprising turn of events from Microsoft in LA today. In a rushed, hush-hush event, Ballmer and the Redmond crew unveiled Yet Another Ipad Wannabe – this time recycling the name of a product that failed earlier.

From the look and feel and design of the product, it does look enticing. The touch keyboard on the cover and the kickstand seem like inspired innovations that help fix some of the issues that iPad owners need to fix through add-ons. Otherwise it tries to mimic the other iPad clones in as many ways as possible.

Yes it promises the Metro look and Windows 8. And yes, it might do better than an HP or Asus tablet and weed out a few of those players. But a tablet by itself is just that – what is needed to make a winning combination is a strategy around the tablet. Apple had years of community building through iTunes, iPod and the iPhone before the iPad was introduced. It has a community of millions of developers building apps for its platform that are available for iPad users. Amazon built its reputation over the years before it offered the Kindle Fire as an easy way to interact with Amazon and purchase goods, or consume media, among other things. It has access to the Android app developer community as well.

On the other hand, Surface seems to be a reference design to show other Windows hardware manufacturers how not to screw up. Microsoft’s XBox strategy seems like the right one and has been showing results for them over the years, but Surface in isolation does not even begin to scratch the surface of the tablet market where it stands today. It might just remain a glorified touch interface for experiencing Windows 8.

Having been a PC guy all these years, I do wish to be proved wrong. Maybe the product marketing wizards in Redmond get it right this time. Maybe the community of developers that have sporadically built reliable apps for Windows will build newer ones for the Surface. Maybe the Blue or Azure Screen of Death will be things of the past in this new design. Microsoft has a tough ask in the sense that there is a much bigger expectation of interoperability from them than Apple – and there are a zillion ways to screw up on that front. Maybe revamped versions of Wave 15 Office products for the tablet to improve productivity is the answer. Or new and improved Lync Mobile in Wave15 for communication and collaboration.

Either way, Microsoft has thrown the gauntlet at Apple – albeit a couple of years too late and a couple of versions too old. And it has managed to make several of its hardware partners unhappy by encroaching upon their territory. Now that they have irritated several giants, its time to go all in and shake up the market a bit. Since the productive is not disruptive enough, maybe the price is? Can this be an almost-iPad at a Kindle fire price? Or is the idea one of slow attrition – chip away at the dominant player’s market share by gathering the consumers that find this “good-enough”  and are ultimately price discriminators?

Energizing the cold chain

An abbreviated version of this post appeared on the Wharton Magazine blog.

In the fall of 2010, Prof. Kent Smetters connected a few of us WEMBA students out in San Francisco with Dr. Harvey Rubin at the Penn School of Medicine. Dr. Rubin had just published a fascinating idea in the New Scientist and was looking for volunteers to work with him to realize his vision. Prof. Smetters also brought together a few alums from Harvard who expressed interest in the project.

This led to the formation of Energize the Chain, a non-profit formed to eradicate vaccine preventable diseases worldwide by completing the world cold-chain. The idea was simple – eradicating diseases like polio and measles in the developing world was constantly challenged by the lack of reliable grid power in these regions because of which there was a lot of vaccine spoilage. At the same time these regions were experiencing an unprecedented growth in cellphone penetration into remote and rural areas. We wanted to explore the possibility of co-locating vaccine refrigerators at cell tower sites in these remote areas to guarantee them power from the cell tower power source – be it grid power, diesel, solar or battery backup. As a private enterprise, the cell tower operators are incentivized to keep their towers powered up at all times, and through the right partnership with local health administration, this could be a win-win for all concerned.

Since then, our work has come a long way. We have had several productive conversations with the Gates Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other groups in the US. We launched a successful pilot in Zimbabwe through a partnership with Econet Wireless and are actively learning from that experience. An interview with Dr. Rubin just got published in the New Scientist as well, with updates on this project.

We are in the process of seeking seed funding to visit India and Kenya and create detailed pilot plans for launch in these two countries to present to foundations for multi-year grants. We have exploratory conversations on in full swing with Karuna Trust and Vodafone Foundation in India and the CDC and Safaricom in Kenya.

There is a lot of interesting work to be done – on the public health and immunization front, on cell tower power availability and ground-level logistics front, as well as on the technology front to see what cutting-edge technologies can be applied in this context to make the most impact. If you are interested in volunteering with us, donating to us, or learning more, you can reach us atinfo@energizethechain.org

Building the “right” product

Starting this week, I shall be blogging about my Wharton experiences at this blog as well, instead of at the Wharton blog site where I was doing so during the first year in the program.

In the last session, a common theme that came through for this semester, largely, was how to go about building the right product. In our New Product Development class, it was all about studying the market and conducting market research to understand what attributes the market needs, how to segment it etc. In the Competitive Strategy class, in addition to Porter’s Five Forces, we analyze competitive strategy along different axes to understand what is the best way to enter a new market, or continue to innovate and grow in an existing one. Starting this weekend, we will learn how to build contagiousness into a product to ensure that it propagates between users through word of mouth and other mechanisms, in addition to the dollars spent by the company in marketing and raising awareness.

Well, of course, there is no neat way to unify International Corp Finance into this, but I assume one could say that would be the way to know how to aim for world domination by extracting the maximum profits out of every international operation you have by doing all the right analyses. Speaking of which, we had a fascinating case due in the next session, around how to value operations of a firm that has domestic sales as well as international sales, assuming different methods of predicting exchange rate movements. We are to do this analysis from the point of view of a domestic investor that wishes to purchase the firm and an international investor in the country to which the firm is exporting products to. Interestingly enough, the firm happens to be Jaguar, and I’m sure some smart folks at Tata Motors did this prior to their acquisition of the firm.

We also had Terry Kramer, Regional President of Vodafone Americas come talk to us about mobile communications and the way he sees the market evolve and what he expects it to shift towards. Last session, however, was when our conjoint analysis report was due, so several teams were cranking away until the last minute, making sure that we got our ASEMAP and SPSS results done right, feeding it to the Conjoint Simulator and  running different benefit segmentation and profit maximization analyses. We may not have access to all these tools once the course is done, but it was a fascinating window into how the field of market research works. It helped us to understand and appreciate the difficult job in front of a market researcher in terms of predicting customer interest in a product, and forecasting market share and revenue growth.

What’s in store for next session? We’re looking forward to a dozen of our classmates from the East visiting us to take the Contagious class – a hearty welcome to all of them to the prettier Wharton campus! Stay tuned for more updates once the session’s done!

On rumors and tipping points

At Wharton we start an interesting course this weekend on contagion and what it takes for a product to go viral, if that can be studied within a classroom setting. Prof. Jonah Berger will be offering this much awaited and over-subscribed course that includes several folks from class 36 auditing along with us class 37ers, and a dozen east coast class 37 students flying in as well. So the expectations are sky high .. no pressure, Jonah!

As I got thinking about this class, I wanted to read a few related books to see what’s out there. Was fascinated to cross paths with “On Rumors” by Cass Sunstein. In a short but thought-provoking book Sunstein dissects the anatomy of a rumor, and how successful rumors stay sticky and spread.  He classifies the propagators into  self-interested, malicious and altruistic (recommend you read the book to follow the context of the terms – slightly different from their normal meanings in English) and identifies two key methods of propagation – social cascades and group polarization. He shows how important prior convictions are in terms of how a rumor affects an individual, and shows, quite disturbingly that sometimes when faced with the truth people choose to adhere to the rumor more tightly due to prior convictions. This disconfirmation bias lies at the root of several rumors that have stuck in today’s world – starting from those about the validity of global warming, to the country of birth of the President of the second largest democracy in the world.

If I recall correctly, Dan Ariely had referred to Sunstein’s work in one of his books on irrational choices as well in addition to “Blunder”  by Zachary Shore – another delightfully thought-provoking read on why smart people make bad decisions. By pure chance I crossed paths with “Thought Contagion” by Aaron Lynch, a book inspired by Douglas Hofstadter and Richard Dawkins, that goes much deeper into the anatomy of memes and the different categories that memes fall into and how they spread differently. So expect more about that in a future post.

After having encountered these books, of course I had to go back and re-read Malcom Gladwell’s classic “The Tipping Point” that is laden with anecdotes on what causes ideas to tip past a certain critical mass. Tipping Point also set the stage and terminology for a lot of conversation and studies around contagion and stickiness in today’s literature. I’ve always been a fan of Gladwell’s writing style and his anecdotes, though I often take issue with his confounding of correlation and causation. Its amazing to see that terms from his book like maven and stickiness have been sticky and are part of common parlance today while discussing contagion.

As psychologists and economists get together to delve deeper on what drives our purchasing decisions, the world is headed towards a heady and scary future where every possible behavioral kink would be exploited to maximize gains from purchasing habits. While this may not always be good for the consumer the interesting question to ask after a couple of decades of this, is how the human brain evolves and optimizes around these new  stimuli. Just as the noise on the Internet drove people towards recommendation-based purchasing and drove the fortunes of companies like Amazon through their recommendation engines, it will be interesting to see what new aided decision making platforms get created to circumvent and stay ahead of the marriage between behavioral economics and the corporate world.