“I’m disappointed with the way the Internet has gone in the past ten years. . . . I’ve always felt that the human-centered approach to computer science leads to more interesting, more exotic, more wild, and more heroic adventures than the machine-supremacy approach, where information is the highest goal.
“At the South by Southwest Interactive conference, in Austin, in March of 2010, Lanier gave a talk, before which he asked his audience not to blog, text, or tweet while he was speaking. He later wrote that his message to the crowd had been: “If you listen first, and write later, then whatever you write will have had time to filter through your brain, and you’ll be in what you say. This is what makes you exist. If you are only a reflector of information, are you really there?”‘
– From a profile of Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not A Gadget and one of the pioneers of virtual reality technology, in Jennifer Kahn, “The Visionary,” The New Yorker, July 11 & 18, 2011, pp.46-53.
Within the past month, I noticed a couple of articles about businesses voluntarily choosing to call it quits that are worth highlighting. Businesses go bust all the time and in many cases either quietly wind down and dissolve because they weren’t profitable or get run through the wringer of bankruptcy process to sort through who will salvage the parts worth saving. The situations with Bling Nation and Google Health are interesting and contrasting variations on the usual tale because these undertakings didn’t truly flame out.
Google’s decision with its Google Health is the more traditional of these two stories. As reported yesterday in the NY Times, the effort to gain traction with consumers adopting electronic health records was fraught with challenges. This was best summed up by an analyst at IDC Health Insights by her observation that “Personal health records have been a technology in search of a market.” So, sometimes the lesson that even major enterprises learn is that even with a boatload of financial, technology and people resources to throw at a business venture success is not assured and sometimes the best thing to do is just accept this and move on.
Bling Nation’s decision is more interesting because it’s less typical. The company is (was?) an early stage mobile payments services provider that had raised a significant amount of capital (over $33 million) to execute its business plan and had gained a significant following among both target consumers and community banks. Blig Nation was among the first to deploy near field communications (NFC) in connection with mobile payments. The American Banker on June 8 ran an in-depth story about the company and its Achilles heel, which seems to have been tying use of their widely praised payments solution with a mobile marketing solution called FanConnect, as to which both banks and consumers balked because it was seen as an unwelcome obstacle to the desired mobile payments solution the banks had already been using with success. Result: banks started dropping the service causing an abrupt comeuppance of sorts for Bling Nation.
So, in a gutsy move that may have been dictated as much by realism and necessity as anything, Bling Nation chose to press the reset button by temporarily suspending its service and regroup. Matthew Murphy, the company’s General Manager noted, “We found it easier to pause and fix [our business model] than try to tweak and market.” While there are frequently second chances in business and, to its advantage, Bling Nation has substantial capital in reserve for a “relaunch” if that’s what it decides to do, it will be interesting to see whether its lost footing can be regained.
Both Google and Bling Nation are also notable examples of the adage that innovation often requires not being averse to the risk of failure and the key is to learn from the missteps and then go in a different direction (as with Google Health) or recalibrate (as with Bling Nation).
Innovation frequently is the result of looking at an old problem in a new way. Case in point, although far removed from the realm of technology, is an anecdote related in an article from last weekend’s The New York Times Magazine about Yukon Territory residents Shawn Ryan and Cathy Wood, who are among those leading the charge for what is turning into another Canadian gold rush.
While the article’s author, Gary Wolf, who is also a contributing editor for Wired magazine, focuses most of his attention on their ups and downs at prospecting, the innovative resourcefulness of this couple is best summed up by the following excerpt:
“It is tough to be penniless in Dawson in the winter. Wood cleaned some houses and served as court bailiff when the judge came to town, but in February 1993, they were down to their last $5. At the employment center, Wood saw a notice for a job removing the snow from the roof of Diamond Tooth Gerties, the local casino, which opened for a brief winter season coinciding with a dog-sled race. The job was usually taken on by a team of local residents for thousands of dollars. Wood bid 500. Townspeople came out to see how the low bidders were going to do it. She and Ryan cleared the edges of the roof with shovels, then Ryan climbed to the top and jumped up and down like a monkey. Gravity did the rest. The expressions of surprise on the faces of the onlookers made Wood laugh. People in Dawson had to acknowledge that for people at the bottom of the status hierarchy — and there aren’t many rungs beneath mushroom picker — they had some unmistakable gifts.”
Photo Credit: Finlay MacKay, NY Times
Catching up on some posts here, a piece from an early January issue of the NY Times (“How Six Companies Failed to Survive 2010,” by Eileen Zimmerman, NY Times, Jan. 5, 2011) in which six business are profiled that failed in 2010 is notable for the to-the-point candor exhibited by the subject entrepreneurs. Hearing explanations for why their businesses failed directly from the people that ran them is akin to the clarity that comes from viewing a picture in place of the proverbial thousand words. The businesses range from a web-based personal finance portal to a gourmet baby food company and their problems range from inadequate financing to unexpectedly intense competition. Very useful reading on pitfalls to avoid.
A useful adjunct to the above piece is the related NY Times “You’re The Boss” blog post by Jay Goltz from the same date entitled “Top 10 Reasons Small Businesses Fail.” Goltz’s list applies equally to larger businesses and includes the “math not working”, owners who can’t get out of their way, and out of control growth. The reader comments are also good stuff.
As is proven over and over again in the arena of early stage companies, just because such a company has developed a nifty piece of technology does not mean that the world will actually beat a path to its doorstep — at least not with money in tow. It takes lots of hard work, skillful execution on a good business plan, and a fair amount of trial and error (and some luck) to bring that reality to bear. So, it’s interesting to see the recent attention being devoted to the diligent efforts of the microblogging phenom Twitter as it finally seeks to define a viable revenue model for itself, much of which hinges, not unsurprisingly, on various forms of advertising.
There are many lessons here about which any growth stage company can take heart. In particular, I found the following observations, from a piece in last week’s NY Times, to be especially candid and revealing about the challenges faced by Twitter in its quest for an as-yet elusive revenue strategy:
“But many advertisers and executives say there are questions to be answered and experiments to be done before Twitter becomes a must-buy, if it ever does.
“Agencies are uneducated, brands are uneducated and, to a certain extent, Twitter is uneducated,” said Ian Schafer, chief of Deep Focus, an interactive marketing agency. “There are no best practices. There are just hunches about what will work.””
If you’ve been alert for the past few years, it would be difficult not to have seen one of the funky vacuum cleaners developed by James Dyson, the British engineer, inventor and entrepreneur. The September 20, 2010 issue of the The New Yorker recently profiled Dyson and one of his latest inventions, the Air Multiplier fan. A passage from that article caught my attention in light of a recent post on TechRazorBlog about iteration in the business process:
In engineering his vacuum cleaner, Dyson followed the trial-and-error method developed by Thomas Edison in his Menlo Park invention factory. He would build a prototype, test it, analyze why it failed, make one change, and build another prototype. Dyson built 5,271 such prototypes over four years, until he had a machine that satisfied him.
Wow! That’s a lot of prototypes, which should make Dyson the king daddy of trial-and-error design.
Earlier this month I attended a meeting of Atlanta’s Institute for Enterprise and Innovation (IEI), an organization with a lot of heart about which I’ve posted before (see TechRazorBlog, 4/25/10) at which the featured presenter was David Cummings, a serial entrepreneur whose Hannon Hill was listed as an Inc. 500 company several years ago and whose Shot Put Ventures is involved with funding so-called “seed stage” web services companies. Cummings offered a number of useful insights and reminders about basic start up business blocking and tackling as he recounted how he and his business colleagues grew Hannon Hill into a substantial content management software company. Among these, were:
- He cited the iterative process in business as a key to success, which is the idea of continually going back to the drawing board to fine tune a particular business model or activity until the desired result or a profitable business model is achieved.
- As his business grew his notion of what it meant for his business to be successful evolved from getting to a certain size and being able to sustain itself without his direct involvement to a much simpler notion of creating an environment where he and those he worked with could do good work with good people for good pay.
- A good plan executed today is better than a perfect plan executed tomorrow — make the most of the product, the people, the situation that you have now rather than waiting for what you wish you had. This is, of course, a variation on the idea about not letting the great be the enemy of the good.
There were other spot-on observations about challenges faced by bootstrapping entrepreneurs and approaches to overcoming those obstacles. IEI is planning to record and archive its monthly presentations, so this is one worth checking out.
Interesting article in The New York Times today on the so-called “lean start-up”. It provides a mini-profile of the efforts of entrepreneurs Eric Ries and Steven Blank, who are proponents of this approach, which is an extension of the idea of boot strapping as much as possible prior to taking on outside investment. Among the key elements of the lean start-up methodology are: (i) because most are Internet-based businesses, they are able to take advantage of open source software development, (ii) they employ agile development methods, (iii) they focus on making some minimum viable product to get something in the market place to test customer interest, and (iv) on funding, they take as little outside money as possible. In many respects, this idea boils down to doing whatever it takes to get revenue in the door as soon as possible with whatever product is already available.