Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Archive for the ‘Entrepreneurship’ Category

2014 – the battle of platforms continues

Posted by shannonclark on September 26, 2013

My wife and I are are a mixed couple.

Sure she’s Indian and I’m Irish-Jewish but that’s not what I meant. I meant that she’s on Android and I’m on iOS. Though we both also have iPads and share an older desktop iMac. I also have a MacBook Pro that is my primary computer.

We share a family Amazon Prime account though each use Kindle via apps not physical devices. We don’t, currently, have an Android tablet in the house.

As I look forward to 2014 I think we are an example of the looming battle of core platforms that a relatively small number of companies are waging. The companies that I would argue are battling this out are:

  • Amazon.com – especially with Kindle as their physical device but also with the growing features of Prime that have expanded well beyond free shipping. They are fighting for an increasing share of not just reading but all entertainment as well as all shopping for a growing number of families. And Amazon is powering a huge number of businesses via selling on Amazon.com and Amazon Web Services. Amazon payments is not as well known but is used by popular websites like Kickstarter.
  • Apple – obviously iOS is a massive platform and Apple is a platform for thousands (millions?) of app developers and companies that offer services to the huge and growing global iOS installed base (iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches) but Apple is also battling in the living room with Apple TV and their laptops and desktops are still very popular. While Apple is directly competing for entertainment time (iTunes Radio being their latest addition) and iBooks competes directly with Kindle, they are not competing for the eccommerce platform in the same way that Amazon or Google are.
  • Google – Android is their massive platform play on mobile phones and tablets and it is a huge success (if also a challenge in how many flavors of it our out in the wild). But Google’s platform plays don’t stop there. Chrome is a cross platform and important piece of their platform. Google+ is perhaps not a slam dunk success but it is an important piece of their puzzle and they have just recently announced a public roll out of their Google Shopping Express (currently limited to San Francisco and the Peninsula but presumably they plan on a larger scale rollout in the future) showing that they are looking for transactional solutions beyond advertising. If you can get what your family needs quickly, reliably and reasonably from local stores but delivered to you via Google they presumably see a way to make a lot of money offering that service.

There are many other companies that are also competing, though to a lesser degree.

  • Microsoft – hard to entirely rule out and their XBoxOne will likely be a huge hit this holiday season and gives them a footprint into many living rooms. But Bing is not as successful as Google, Surface is faring poorly against iOS and Android and while Windows 8 is big it is no longer as relevant of a platform as it once was as the focus for many consumers (and thus many companies and developers) has shifted very rapidly to mobile platforms. There while Windows Mobile / Phone (whatever they are calling it today) has some impressive phones from companies like Nokia, what it does not have is a large installed base or significant developer interest (there are applications and developers building for the platform but far fewer than for iOS or Android.
  • Ebay/Paypal – they have made some interesting acquisitions in the past year and have rolled out services like Ebay Now (that directly competes with Amazon Prime or Google Shopping Express for rapid fulfillment of ecommerce but they have lost their early community feeling and PayPal while still large and profitable has also made many people frustrated over the years as their anti-fraud systems have had many false positives. They remain a big online sales channel and PayPal is making inroads in other payments but they don’t have the same platform reach as other companies.
  • Comcast / Verizon / AT&T or other carriers/cable networks – this varies somewhat by region and is very different in other countries. but while Comcast certainly is competing for people’s entertainment dollars (directly with Apple/Microsoft/Amazon/Netflix for streaming/on-demand videos) and they have launched apps to expend to portable devices beyond TVs they don’t, yet, offer the other platforms of the companies above. But as the pipes upon which mobile phones, tablets, computers, consoles and entertainment devices like the Apple TV connect to the Internet and receive content they are certainly positioned to benefit from the success of other platform companies.

Are there any other companies I have missed? I know there are others outside of the US that are competing (and winning) as platforms. Companies like Alibaba in China (and indeed globally). Yahoo presumably wants to have a platform for consumers and businesses – who else?

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Posted in customer service, Entrepreneurship, internet, microsoft, web2.0 | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Planning a new event

Posted by shannonclark on September 13, 2013

A year ago I started my most recent event – a weekly game night I host in San Francisco. It has been quite a nice small event – lots of fun, nearly 100 people on the mailing list for it and every week around 20 people gather in SOMA to play games (mostly Pathfinder Society but occasionally other games). All in all quite a nice event that I’m proud to have started and to continue to host and organize.

But it isn’t a professional event – though a few folks have found internships and made connections with others in the area it isn’t an event for professional networking.

I also recently moved out of San Francisco and down to East Palo Alto. Two months ago my wife gave birth to our son. So as I think about events that I attend and that I organize I have a new perspective.

Since moving to the Palo Alto area I haven’t gotten out to many industry events – I missed this year’s TechCrunch/August Capital summer party and I haven’t been going to meetups or networking events.

But this morning a thought occurred to me – what if I, once again, started my own event. An event I could invite the speakers I want to hear from to speak at and an event I could schedule for the time and place that would be most convenient for my wife and I (and our newborn).

My idea is to create a networking event that is designed to be parent friendly. An industry event that will accommodate kids of any age as well as their parents.

This means

  •  Kid and stroller friendly space – room to park strollers/wheel them, changing tables in the bathrooms, neither too bright nor too dark and definitely not too loud
  • A parent friendly time – breakfast, mid-morning, lunchtime or late-afternoon (after school) are all possibilities – I welcome feedback about the best time (after work/evening isn’t it)
  • Parking nearby (this is Silicon Valley so a necessary evil)
  • Great food that anyone of any age or dietary restrictions will enjoy – this means fresh, seasonal fruits and veggies from local producers etc.
  • Short talks (if any) with lots of time for Q&A – Demonstrations would also be excellent
  • Interactions – between people and with technology favored over dull slideshows or vapid chats.

The focus would be akin to many other technology events – getting smart people together to meet potential clients, partners, investors or employers. Topics might include marketing online, emerging technologies, new programming methods and languages, emerging technology and opportunities etc. But with a few specific focuses and goals.

  1. The people at the event are more important than the speakers (or the organizers) – the goal is very much to get people to talk with and interact with each other – and to talk about more than just their kids (but sure, their kids are a welcome topic here as well).
  2. Be open and encouraging to everyone – kids of any age (from newborn to teens), parents and non-parents, men and women. This isn’t intended to be a parents only group or a moms/dads group. The idea instead is to have amazing technology speakers and content – but just happen to be scheduled and designed to be kid friendly. Hopefully this means as well that this event draws a more diverse crowd (in all metrics of diversity) than most tech networking events tend to draw.
  3. Ideally it is a regular event not a one-time event and hopefully it builds a community around it as well as support of sponsors and venue(s).

Anyone want to help me with this? Especially if your company might want to sponsor or host (or speak) at this event! (Speakers won’t be from sponsors – though sponsors can suggest speakers they would like to hear from). Any friends who are parents want to offer suggestions for venues or times for an event like this?

Posted in digital bedouin, Entrepreneurship, personal, web2.0, working | 1 Comment »

Idea – Small Business everyday – not just once a year on Saturday

Posted by shannonclark on November 19, 2012

This Saturday is the return of the American Express sponsored alternative to Black Friday, Small Business Saturday which is indeed a great event where American Express is using their marketing clout to promote shopping at local, small businesses. if you are an American Express cardholder you definitely should register before Nov 24th via the above link and qualify to get $25 credit if you spend more than $25 (on a single transaction) at a registered small business – either per the website above or a Square merchant.

No complaints about that emphasis from me but it did spark an idea and a question.

Why restrict this movement to one Saturday a year? Why not create a way to promote shopping from innovative businesses every day? 

Clearly there are a lot of complicated reasons to focus on a single day – for one it is a great way for American Express to leverage marketing dollars to make a single push and to emphasize the value of accepting American Express to small business merchants (i.e. since it costs more for the merchants anything like this day that adds value to that transaction via stretching marketing dollars is a win for small businesses) but I think there is a lot of great opportunities for networks of smart businesses to work together to create value for all participating merchants.

First however a few definitions and restrictions I would put on any such project were I to pursue it.

  1. The value for consumers in shopping at a small, local business should be the service they get and what they can get there that can’t easily be found elsewhere. In many cases this means businesses that offer unique items, often locally made and/or that support and service older items no longer available elsewhere. Used bookstores versus an only new bookstore for example.
  2. If I were running things I would emphasize the value of curation and editing over comprehensiveness. Small businesses win against the Amazon.coms and Walmarts not by competing on price or selection but by offering better service – which includes editing what is available to only sell great products. This in turn also allows for value to buyers even if the absolute price of a given good is the same (or even higher) than that good might be at a big box store or massive online site. Busy shoppers value service – and help in identifying the great versus the not-so-great is, for many, worth spending slightly more (avoiding the costs and time of returning items or replacing things that wear out quickly)
  3. Small businesses don’t necessarily mean tiny one-woman shops. Relative to the $100B+ massive big box chains like Walmart nearly every other retailer is “small” – small in this context primarily means in ethos and focus – though I think I would start with businesses primarily in the <$100M/year range (mostly in the <$10M range with many in the <$1M). These could be mid-sized businesses like San Francisco’s Rickshaw Bagworks or even smaller businesses like my wife’s design business.
  4. Here in SF we have an example of the type of thing I’m thinking about – SF Made is a network of 100’s of local to San Francisco makers – companies that aren’t just based in SF but in most cases manufacture what they sell here in San Francisco. SF Made is close to what I’m envisioning though I think it should be a national movement not just a local citywide one.

I don’t mind in thinking about this idea if it excludes many types of small businesses. The idea isn’t to promote shopping locally or at small businesses just because they are small or local – ignoring whether they offer great products at fair prices – rather the idea is to find a network of likeminded, related businesses that through pooling together can better market and promote the unique products and service they offer. Any such organization has to be about the value to buyers as much (perhaps even more so) than it is about the value to the local businesses. If it is this could be a highly sustainable movement – if the value isn’t there however or if it is too skewed towards one party over the other then this isn’t a sustainable, long term movement.

Groupon’s approach isn’t, I think, the right on – it emphasizes price over quality and service. What I’m thinking about would be a service that is not open to any business to join – but which rather is possibly a co-op where very business has to be approved in some manner (perhaps not by each other – this should be open even to “rivals” as long as they all meet the core criteria and philosophy). Once a member and once pooling marketing and promotional budgets the idea would be that this organization could do things that no single small business could reasonable take on – sustained online marketing campaigns, long running offline advertising and promotional campaigns etc. Possibly this organization would also serve as a negotiator on behalf of these smaller businesses for a wide variety of products and services (health insurance for example but also negotiating with payment processing firms like Square, American Express etc.

Posted in advertising, customer service, Entrepreneurship | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Review – The Impact Equation by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith

Posted by shannonclark on October 12, 2012

Reading The Impact Equation at Blue Bottle Mint Plaza in San Francisco

Do you know how to make an impact? How to get heard? How to have your ideas shared with the world and have an impact?

My friend Chris Brogan along with his co-author Julien Smith have a new book, The Impact Equation: Are You Making Things Happen or Just Making Noise?, which will be published on Oct 25th, 2012. They sent me a preview copy and over the past couple of weeks I have been reading it at cafes and on the muni here in San Francisco. My copy is already dog eared and flagged with post-its for easy reference back to key points in the book.

TLDR review – pre-order this book and read it

First a few disclosures and admissions. One, Chris Brogan is a friend – not an old “grew up” with friend, but not just someone whom I follow on social media channels, he’s someone whom I have met in person many times and whom I knew years ago before he had books published and a speaking schedule that takes him around the world. Two, I haven’t (yet) read Trust Agents which is Chris and Julien’s earlier book. My stack of books to be read – for fun and for business including far too many by folks I know has been large and growing over the past few years and somehow I haven’t gotten to Trust Agents yet. Three, many of the people they write about in this new book (and I suspect in their previous book) are people I know friends from here in San Francisco and from the larger tech/social media/blog/podcasting world. Four, I don’t have the 1000’s of readers/followers/listeners of folks like Chris and Julien but I am as they say “a degree away” from many people who do – folks with millions of followers and a high impact on the world.

With all of that disclosed up front I have been inspired not just to write this review but to rethink a bunch of my personal projects (including this blog) and over the next few weeks and months I anticipate making many personal and professional changes inspired in no small part by the ideas of The Impact Equation. I can’t summarize their book in a few short paragraphs but I will summarize a few of their early and key points and discuss how I plan on addressing them.

To start with the equation itself (quoting from the pre-release copy but I assume this key part won’t change in the final print edition):

Impact = C x (R + E + A + T + E)

Yes, that is, not surprisingly, the simple yet key fact that to have impact now (and in the past) you have to create – frequently, often and well. The full equation defines each part and the book illustrates each aspect of the equation. Contrast – a new idea has to familiar yet different enough to be noticed. Reach – the number of people you can get connected to your ideas. Exposure – how often do you connect with the people you can reach. Articulation – being understood and clear in communicating your idea. Trust – the subject of their previous book but still not entirely figured out – but why will people listen to you? And finally Echo – the feeling of connection that great ideas and impactful people create.

Fairly simple, fairly memorable yet also complex enough to warrant a full book (and I’m sure many more talks and presentations in the future for Chris and Julien).

On a person level my biggest takeaways from the book is a reminder to get myself back into the ongoing, frequent content creation business – that if I want to grow my own personal impact I need to create more content, more often, and more thoughtfully. Furthermore I need to think about this whether I’m going to continue being an independent consultant or if I join a larger organization. That while I may have some impact in my tweets, comments, email list participation and even events that I create if I were more thoughtful about my online (and offline) activities I could have a much greater impact on the world. With more thoughtful (and literally more frequent) effort I can have a far larger impact on the world than i do today. That I can take the conversations I have one-on-one today and still have that impact but also bring it to a far wider audience.

For some of this I will have to get out of my comfort zone – write more content, experiment with new formats for myself (video? audio?) and generate this content far more frequently than I have been for the past few years.

In each of the chapters of The Impact Equation Chris and Julien cover a mix of specific tactics (and the occasional exercise to get you thinking) as well as stories that illustrate their key ideas. Some of these stories are from business people they have met others are illustrated with celebrities they admire. But in every chapter they also focus on asking you to think about how this applies to yourself – how would you evaluate yourself on this dimension of their equation. I think most of these chapters and the book over all are compelling but not every chapter is equally strong.

The initial chapters on Ideas – on Contrast and Articulation are very good and have a lot of useful exercises for everyone. In particular they have a lot of great exercises around how to evaluate your own ideas and how to communicate them clearly.

The middle chapters on Platforms – on Reach and Exposure – however are a bit weaker. In particular I think the chapter on Exposure is the weakest chapter in the book. In part this is because Exposure is in no small part outside of your direct control. They talk in this chapter about the exposure that someone like Jimmy Fallon has from his tv show but they also talk about the impact of frequency on your exposure but the links and what will work best for most people is not entirely clear from this chapter (and it is perhaps not an easy thing to answer). They have a lot of great questions and a few answers but this chapter left me a bit unsatisfied. Yes, participating in the communities you want to reach is great advice (it is what I tell my clients in fact) but it takes more than just that to get great exposure of your ideas.

The final chapters on Network – on Trust and Echo, Echo – are perhaps surprisingly among the shortest in the book. The chapter on Trust is a revisit (per what they wrote, I haven’t yet read Trust Agents) of the topic of their earlier collaboration. The chapter on Echo (Echo, Echo) is nearly the end of the book and very important but also fairly short. It is about how your ideas resonant and connect. Very important but I think if they could have gone a bit deeper here the whole book would have “echoed” for me even more strongly. But that said they make some really important points in this last chapter leading to the conclusion of the book.

Overall as I said above my recommendation is that you go out and buy this book – in fact that you go preorder it now to be among the first to read it. I hope for my friend’s sake that it is a huge hit and given the quality of the content I’m sure it will be a successful book. More importantly on a personal front it has many parts that I will be using myself to make changes in the coming weeks to my own professional habits and practices and online (and offline) content.

Posted in Entrepreneurship, geeks, networks, podcasts, reading, reviews, working | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Today I registered for the TechCrunch Disrupt

Posted by shannonclark on July 24, 2012

originally posted to my Google+ account – reposting here for posterity 

Today I registered for the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon here in SF in September and I’ve started thinking about what I want to build. One thought is an application that builds upon what I started my first company, JigZaw (with a Z not the sell other people business cards company) to build – namely a really smart calendar.

But with a twist.

Instead of being a calendar – or even an online schedule/list of upcoming events (of which there are both lots and frankly nothing very great) this would be focused on a related problem – but with a very different UI and solution.

The core idea (which I’m posting here as I usually post ideas – I would be interested in building this and am planning on possibly pursing this, if someone else wants to build it do so though I ask for at a minimum some acknowledgement and would be interested in being involved, but I’m not claiming any kinda of IP on ideas) is:

Countdowns and Deadlines.

Countdowns are descending reminders about when something will start (such as 100 hours to the 2012 Olympics – though the units can be days, weeks or even years instead of hours or minutes). Mostly countdowns for an event would actually be a SET of related countdowns – for example “countdown to when SXSW panel submissions are open” along with “countdown to hotel registration opening”, “countdown to registration opening” and “countdown to conference starting….”

Countdowns are for events that haven’t yet happened/started

in contrast:

Deadlines are for an event/happening that has started and will end/stop at a specific time

Often a countdown will end and a related deadline will start (i.e. “Deadline for SXSW panel submissions”)

The idea for this application is that individuals could select countdowns and related deadlines to pay attention to / be reminded about in the app from countdowns and deadlines setup by other users (and/or by the company or corporate partners). These could be in LOTS of categories – release dates for movies or books, ticket sales for touring bands, festivals, sporting events, school related dates, sales at favorite stores (online or offline) and much much more.

Most countdowns and deadlines would be default PUBLIC though the option would be there for you to also track personal, private deadlines (work deadlines for example)

Alongside your view of pending deadlines and active countdowns you might also overlap reoccurring activities/goals/to-do’s (walk 10,000 steps each day etc) but this last feature is one that I think is optional and we might leave out in the first version.

Individuals would be able to add and share new countdowns.

Each countdown or deadline would be associated with both a description and a link to an related resource – ideally one that would reflect any future CHANGES to that event (i.e. extension of a deadline or postponement/cancelation of an event being counted down to)

Once you have selected a number of things to track and pay attention to this service would then be able to offer at least two compelling additional services:

1) Show you related countdowns/deadlines which you might want to also track – i.e. next year’s conference if you are tracking this year’s or the same conference/show offered in a different region. Over time this might get refined to learn which categories you care so much about that you want to know every instance of that event (PAX & PAX East for example) vs. more common events you might not care about every instance of (every hockey game played in the NFL for example vs the home games of your favorite team)

2) Show you PEOPLE you might want to meet/connect with due to shared interests. This might start with leveraging the Facebook social graph to show you shared interests across your existing friends (assuming you and your friends are both using this service) but eventually this might also help you discover others with many common interests nearby.

This service would likely list a LOT of events from sites such as Meetup which would be a really rich data source.

In terms of the business model(s) for this service I see many different options. One simplistic one is that non-humans wanting to have accounts (to create events) would pay for that right. (i.e. event organizers, companies running sales, film studios etc). This professional fee would scale in some dimension and would offer them a rich suite of tools and functionality. It would be available to “human” users as well at a reduced price assuming these features are of value to some individuals as well (i.e. folks who run a number of personal events for example – a musician for instance)

Other options: some affiliate fees on sales driven by this service – either links to online (or offline) sales or links that are to ticket/event sales directly. (in many cases however these would have to individually negotiated and aren’t all that high in many cases)

Direct sales of the mobile apps (debatable – a free app may drive more user growth and still result in greater revenues particularly if the professional/corporate layer was an optional in-app subscription purchase)

This type of application and web service won’t change the world – nor will it be a billion+ business but I can see how this could be a very nice profitable standalone business OR a rich addition to an existing web business. I also see how to build this affordably and in a way that should scale to quite large numbers.

(and I have many many years worth of past research and development that should allow me to build some really powerful and rich tools to power this service – to check links for relevancy, to automate the updates when data changes and eventually to also discover and search out related or new countdowns/deadlines)

So who is interested in helping me build this – either as developers or investors?

Posted in Entrepreneurship, geeks | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The business opportunities I see for 2012 and beyond

Posted by shannonclark on June 26, 2012

I see 1000’s of opportunities all around me for new businesses. A few are being pursued by my friends (and even family in a few cases) but most are not being pursued or well funded. Before I list a few of the opportunities which I see let me start with a few disclaimers.

I am not (currently at least) an investor – I don’t work for a Venture Fund or other investors and my personal net worth, such as it is, is tied up in my own company and family. I will mention here many companies and ideas being pursued by friends, invested in by friends and in some cases have family involvement – I’m completely not an unbiased observer of the tech world and do not claim to be one. That said I try to offer constructive criticism to my friends (and family) when asked.

Many of the opportunities I see and the ones I’m most passionate about are likely not the ones that you “should” focus on if you want to have the easiest path to getting funding in the current environment. I will be focusing on sustainable businesses (sustainable in the sense that they can keep going based on pulling in more resources than they expend on a regular basis – in a few cases also sustainable from an environmental perspective) I’m not focusing on what is “hot” or “trendy” or “sought after by investors at the moment”.

I can offer few guarantees other than that a) I will miss at least one billion+ opportunity and b) many of the opportunities I propose will upon being pursued lead to failed companies in many cases.

So disclaimers done here are some of the 1000’s of opportunities I see all around me. I think that many of these ideas could be pursued anywhere in the world – many of them are not limited to a specific geography or a culture (but some are) and these are not just for the “1%” though again a few of them are at least initially targeted at a luxury market. My goal is not to suggest the “best” businesses for the world – or to solve every problem across the globe.

That said I do also fundamentally believe that the best businesses are based on strong values and consistency (and honesty with all stakeholders). Businesses built upon fooling someone (regulators, investors, customers, suppliers, bloggers or other partners) will inevitably come crashing down – leaving destruction in their wake. Absolutely these can be businesses that give the impression of success (and in fact often generate outsized returns for someone – see many firms on Wall Street in recent decades or the stories behind many past booms and busts) but in the long run if your business is built upon fooling someone once that deception is revealed your business (and personal reputation) will likely suffer.

Businesses which are built upon a basis of offering great value to every party involved in the business (including the communities where the business operates) are businesses which are designed for long term success.

So where do I see opportunity?

  1. Streamlined and carefully curated local businesses.
    Far too many small businesses try to please every potential customer – they try to stock something for everyone, try to have a dish on their menu (if a restaurant) for every taste and occasion. In their efforts to please everyone more often than not small businesses (and for that matter big businesses) all too often please no one and furthermore invest too much in aspects of their business which will not pay them back (i.e. in inventory which will go unsold). Instead the successful new retail businesses which I see are most often those businesses which have very carefully curated what they sell – and thus who they sell to. Businesses that may offer only a very small selection of items – but which know those items exceptionally well, offer very high degrees of service and high quality products and experiences. Frequently as well these are businesses that do not try to be the lowest priced offering in their market, instead they have the confidence in their products to offer them at a fair but often high price.

    These opportunities are both for restaurants, cafes and retail businesses of all types. Look around your community and see what is missing. Most of these businesses are unlikely to be venture capital investments – but a few could be – see The Melt for example. Consider as well that most fast food businesses were very streamlined when they started (at least) offering just a handful of items and a consistant quality. While this has changed as many businesses have expanded around the globe it is a lesson worth revisiting.

  2. Curated eccomerce combined with a pre-order and limited edition philosophy.
    Online it is relatively easy to think about businesses that have seemingly infinite inventories – think Ebay,  Zappos, Amazon.com or indeed most of the eccommerce businesses started in the 1990’s. This model is indeed powerful but for long term profits it requires vast numbers of customers (to attract eventually a buyer for everything in your warehouses) and it requires fairly significant investments into warehouses and inventory (or in Ebay’s case a network of sellers that handle these issues).

    But there is an opportunity that I think too many investors are reluctant to invest in but which is a brilliant and long-term game changing model to consider – sell only a handful of items almost all of which you have pre-sold and which you limit the number of to command higher margins and minimize inventory complications. Think the model built upon many Kickstarter projects where 1000’s of customers have paid, in advance, for the products they desire. Now imagine a business that, mostly, only sells things that customers have not just said they are interested in but have taken the bigger commitment of actually ordering and paying for in advance. This business does require a lot of care to get the timing right – you have to know how long it will take you to make the goods you sell and you have to know what your prices will be in the worst case to ensure that you haven’t just sold your entire inventory of something new for less than it will cost you to make. But if you can get that right this model is incredibly powerful (and highly bootstrapable). It also is a model that can be highly sustainable especially if you are selling a product to customers who will likely come back to buy another product from you in the future.

    This model is seen today in a handful of mostly design driven businesses – Threadless, 20×200 but I think the opportunity is actually a lot greater and bigger especially as manufacturing networks shrink and capabilities increase globally for collaboration and production to happen faster and in smaller batches.

  3. Co-operative partnerships to create strong brands and great businesses as well as create compelling content.
    I don’t know of current examples of this idea but here it is.

    Historically great content was supported by a handful of brands that sold goods and services that had a wide market but limited differentiation (think soap companies that started the genre of “soap operas” via their support of early radio dramas). In the modern era however brand advertising on a national scale has become limited to only a handful of mostly very large businesses (still some soap companies, a few banks and insurance firms, car companies, soft drinks and beer companies, drug companies and only a handful of other industries). But at the same time content creation has dropped in cost in many places (other than non-reality show television series) with the proliferation of YouTube channels and other forms of online content across all mediums.

    I think there is an opportunity for a group of new companies to pool their resources and support great content that has a logical association with their businesses, targets a specific niche and which has a long term plan both for content creation and distribution – a plan that will support the business goals of every party involved. This is high risk to be sure as most content sounds better in theory than in practice and building an ongoing audience is never easy – nor is tying that audience back to each of the supporting advertisers/sponsors a trivial issue and this has to happen over a long timeframe and at a level that grows the businesses of every party involved. That said, I think that the opportunity here is massive – something has to replace the 30 second tv spot and the historical model of advertising based content (newspapers, magazines, radio and tv). The costs here also don’t have to be high – this could start with a YouTube channel type of model and indeed we are starting to see this to a degree with some of the current crop of YouTube channels – except that the content and the sponsorship/advertising support for the channels are not tightly connected to each other in the least (and in most cases seem highly random).

  4. Businesses that are not built on offering the lowest price but on offering incredible quality and exceptional experiences. 
    Yes, WalMart will not be failing anytime soon and sure everyone everywhere loves a great deal. But increasingly there is also a recognition that many “great deals” aren’t as good as they at first appear. Cheap clothes that you have to replace every few months quickly cost you more than clothes that will last for years. Food in large bulk containers that end up being tossed away unused and rotting and which contribute to higher health care costs are also not a “good deal” however cheap they appear to be at first. Instead I think there are lots of opportunities in building businesses that charge for the value they provide and use that to grow lasting business. This is a shift back towards quality and craft alongside the customization available at lower volumes. Companies such as San Francisco’s Rickshaw Bagworks illustrate this model.
  5. Businesses that build tools and services that enable other businesses to prosper.
    Okay this is an old fashioned business, it is the modern variation on the don’t be a gold miner be the guy selling shovels and pickaxes. But more fundamentally it is about recognizing that there are in essence only two core types of businesses – those businesses that provide a core element for another business’ success (suppliers broadly speaking) or businesses that sell discretionary purchases that compete to some degree with all other optional purchases (whether optional purchases by corporations or individuals). The first category restricts your pricing to low enough that your customers can still leverage your offerings to in turn make more money from their customers. The second category allows for literally unlimited pricing (or more specifically “as high as the market will bear” but means your customers are likely fickle, more costly to engage with and your competition will continually emerge from new areas you can not anticipate.

    Amazon.com is an example of company that is trying to do both types of business – both be a supplier to 1000’s of other businesses – via both their Amazon Web Services technology offerings and via their Amazon Fulfillment services offering as well as other ecommerce services to 100’s of other businesses and of course as both a large scale consumer eccommerce company and as a publisher and consumer electronics company Amazon sells discretionary purchases directly to consumers.

What other opportunities do you see in the market today (globally or locally)?

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Conferences outside of San Francisco – TechWeek in Chicago

Posted by shannonclark on June 16, 2012

While I have been attending a lot of conferences in the Bay Area of late there are fantastic conferences being held outside of the Bay Area these days as well. If I could get back to Chicago in two weeks I would try to attend TechWeek 2012, however I won’t be able to make it this year but at least one of my Chicago based co-founders at Beyond Age will attend in my place and the folks at TechWeek have offered me a discount code to extend to my readers/followers (see below – full disclosure they also offered me a free pass – some of the text below is copy they provided though I’ve edited it a bit to clarify what I think is interesting – i.e. the speakers, range of events and affordability)

Here is some more info about Techweek 2012 Conference + Expo in Chicago, IL from Friday, June 22 to Tuesday, June 26. It’s a comprehensive tech conference that includes:

Over 350 Speakers, including:

  • Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber
  • Jason Fried, founder of 37Signals (Ruby on Rails came out of this group)
  • Stefan Weitz, Director of Bing at Microsoft
  • Matt Mickiewicz, founder of 99designs

Parties:  Several major parties and events including the annual Bootlegger’s Ball (themed rooms with live music & DJ’s, bourbon tasting and swing dancing).

Hiring Fair: Come meet with 50 of Chicago’s top companies and find your dream job! Entry is open to anyone that brings their resume.

Techweek LAUNCH: 35 exciting startups will be demoing their products and the top 5 will present on the main stage.
In addition, visit some of the many educational workshops and test your skills in the Techweek video game lounge!

Use discount code P_tbnl_172  for 20% off conference passes and if you’re a student, use discount code tw12student (must show proof of enrollment). 

Register today!

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If I were the Yahoo! CEO (for a day…)

Posted by shannonclark on May 10, 2012

So many people around the tech world have been writing about the current  Yahoo CEO’s problems with honesty.

Which got me to thinking – what would I do as the Yahoo! CEO (even if just for a day – though really it will take years to revitalize Yahoo! if it is even possible to do so)?

First the full disclosures

1.  My resume is messy. I don’t have a college degree (I entered the University of Chicago in 1991 as part of the class of 1995, but in 1994 I took a year off  – I was 19, on track to graduate at the age of 20 and had just had a very rough year emotionally as my then girlfriend left me for another woman, that year off during which I wrote a play and parts of two novels, turned into many more years as I was able to first start a business selling collectibles that paid extremely well and then started a series of computer consulting jobs that just kept paying more and more, in 1998 and 1999 I returned to school while also working full time, wasn’t able to negotiate a leave of absence to finish my degree so quit but instead of finishing completely took a better job offer – after seeing my clients through the Y2K transition and after not getting paid commissions on the nearly $2M in renewals and new sales I had negotiated I left in early 2000 to start my own company. Since 2000 I’ve worn many different hats at various times – as an entrepreneur, consultant, conference organizer, writer/blogger, advisor to startups and more – none of my various startup ideas have resulted in big successes and at times have overlapped – so yes, my resume is “messy”).

2. At present I’m not a direct Yahoo! shareholder (though mutual funds my wife and I own likely hold some Yahoo! stock) but I have all kinds of personal conflicts of interest. Lots of friends who were at one time employees (and even senior leaders) at Yahoo!, plenty of friends across Silicon Valley (and indeed the world) who are investors in competitors to Yahoo! in one form or another, have sold companies in the past to Yahoo!, are building companies that compete with Yahoo! or who work at competitors to Yahoo! including Facebook. I also have a number of consulting clients, including some in whom I have small equity stakes that may compete with some division of Yahoo! now or in the future. For that matter I’ve personally tried ventures that would have competed with some part of Yahoo!.

But all that aside here is what I would if I were offered the chance to help Yahoo! turn around.

Step 1. Immediately halt the patent trolling lawsuits & apologize to the tech community for the lawsuits (including to former employees whose works were used as part of these lawsuit.

The lawsuits even if there is a chance of “winning” via a large settlement (or judgement if the case makes it to trial) of money from the flush with cash post-IPO Facebook would be at best a Pyrrhic victory – the cost in future trust, in diminished ability to hire the best and brightest or to retain those who remain at the company would be immense – making any future hope of innovating out of the current mess difficult to achieve (at best).

Step 2. Repair relationships with Alibaba and SoftBank. 

See this article from February to see what I’m referring to if you aren’t familiar. According to a more recent report a new deal without SoftBank may be in the works. Clearly this is one of the best remaining assets that Yahoo! has which could be divested to generate cash to fund reinvigoration efforts for the rest of Yahoo! However while taxes matter, Yahoo! also needs to repair the underlying relationships with two major Internet giants (Alibaba and SoftBank) if Yahoo! wants to remain a powerful and viable global Internet company. I don’t know what it would take to repair these relationships – but if I were CEO doing so would be a very high priority.

Step 3. Clean house with the Yahoo! board.

Somehow the Yahoo! board has presided over the long, painful to observe from the outside, decline of what was once one of the most innovative online companies to one that is while still important decreasingly relevant. The board has dickered, fought founders and shareholders alike and generally underperformed in a huge way. Of course, if I were appointed CEO (for that matter this is true of nearly any new CEO) I would likely “owe” the board for that appointment – but this is in part one of the problems. As the founders have departed there seems to be a big leadership and vision gap at Yahoo! Perhaps a smaller and newer board, refreshed by a mix of outsiders, former insiders and even a critic or two would be able to help guide the company into a new direction.

See http://specials.yahoo.com/forward/ for what the current board and revitalization effort looks like. Given the current scandal I don’t think it is working as intended.

Step 4. Define a clear vision for Yahoo!

Go read the new CEO’s Strategic Vision for Yahoo!. Don’t worry I’ll wait – though I do recommend you have a large shot of espresso first…

Can you summarize his vision? Not sure that I could.

And I think that’s the problem. Yahoo! sees itself as being so many different businesses (and has grown so large that it really is) that it no longer has a clear vision about what Yahoo! does (or should do) or what value Yahoo! offers to others. Is Yahoo! a technology company? A media property? An advertising platform? A search engine? A portfolio of Internet services and properties? Something else?

Yahoo! needs a clear, concise, simple vision that dictates everything that Yahoo! does – something that every employee, partner, client, customer or site visitor would get immediately and understand. This is HARD.

I can’t claim to have it fully – but I think it should be something like:

Yahoo! makes the web personal.

Okay perhaps that needs work – but listen to my logic. When Yahoo! launched years and years ago and as they grew the crown jewel of Yahoo! was not any specific website or part of Yahoo! – it was the user profiles that Yahoo! had for every user (and they had millions at a time when few sites had over 100k users) which they were able to extend to nearly every new property or site they launched. These user profiles meant that you could add a new service that Yahoo! created without needing to create a new username and password, user profile and more.

Now this seems like a minor achievement – Yahoo!’s profiles have been overtaken for more web users by their Facebook accounts (or their Twitter accounts) which are the login tool that millions of people use to access other services beyond Facebook or Twitter. But done well it is still an opportunity for Yahoo! – and one that starts to help inform what Yahoo! should focus on (and what they may want to forget about).

It is also a question of what is Yahoo!’s identity and offering to companies that will partner with Yahoo! or which will generate revenue for Yahoo! in some manner (most probably via purchasing advertising through Yahoo! in some capacity – currently limited mostly to Yahoo!’s own properties). If Yahoo! were to focus on making the web personal – making it relevant and interesting and useful to every user of Yahoo! – across whatever service(s) and platforms (including sites and services not created or owned by Yahoo! potentially) this would be challenging – and would require that Yahoo! take the side of the individual user over the advertiser – but in exchange the advertisers would get a more valuable placement and likely see far better results when they do (since Yahoo! would in theory only show ads when they were really targeted and of interest to a given user).

In today’s Internet this would also require that Yahoo! focus on building products and services that cross ALL platforms and forms – not just the web but mobile, touch, TV and more. Find ways to expose their services and properties that made them available on every platform – including making advertiser’s campaigns available and relevant to the given form factor. This would be hard, this would be challenging, this would require rewiring/rewriting/reinventing most of Yahoo! currently. It would also require renewed interest in building products and services for non-Yahoo! developers to leverage (Yahoo! just a few years ago was on the forefront of building open APIs and hosting Hackathons to encourage developers to build on top of Yahoo! platforms but I think they never fully committed to this and never made it a strategic priority). I would encourage Yahoo! to explore directions that included revenue sharing with outside developers – potentially putting Yahoo! in the middle of a vibrant mobile development future. Yahoo! would also need to explore lots of service offerings that instead of relying on advertising and mass scale rely instead on subscriptions and direct payments by users – again including pass through payments to outside developers in many cases.

Would this be enough to “fix” Yahoo!? 

I don’t know but it would be a start.

And there is, of course, “one more thing…”

Yahoo needs to streamline and eliminate as many layers of management and approval processes as possible. Likely this means a lot of transitions for current employees and a total rethinking of their current workforce. This might not be easy or painless but I would start by carving out small entrepreneurial teams within ALL of Yahoo!. Teams that would have full authority to spend a given budget in whatever manner they require – with encouragement to be creative – and few requirements that they wait for a committee to approve everything. This would of course work best if a unified, simple vision can be shared by every employee – something would make it easy to answer the question of “would this new …. further the big picture vision for Yahoo!?” – would it help make the web more personal (for example). As much as possible I would look at models from innovative firms such as Valve to attempt to flatten the structures of Yahoo! as much as possible. This is, of course, challenging in a global, large public company – but it isn’t impossible.

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I’m thinking about pushing the “reset” button…

Posted by shannonclark on January 3, 2012

I’m thinking about pushing the “reset” button on most of my media consumption and rebuilding all of it this month.That means:

1) not renewing any print magazine subscriptions & deciding on a case by case basis was print publications to subscribe to for 2012. I’d like to have 3-5 magazines a month – considering The Atlantic Monthly, Monocle and possibly a few others – what would you suggest? (serious news, politics, tech or non-serious games, rpgs, science fiction or fantasy are all options)

2) unsubscribing from the 300-400+ blogs I currently get via Google Reader and adding back just the ones I actually miss not reading. I’d like to ADD a lot of ones I don’t currently read – especially looking for good, unique perspectives on Business – technology & non-tech with a strong focus on design and innovation. But equally I want to read some great political blogs, some great gaming (not just video games but also paper RPG’s and boardgames) blogs, some blogs on writing – especially science fiction, and some “geek” blogs. As well as the still active blogs of friends of mine

3) Unsubscribing from many of the podcasts I currently subscribe to (especially the ones that have remained mostly unlistened to for many months). I’ll keep a few of the gaming podcasts that I keep up with, the comics podcasts I listen to but would like to add some great (but focused) tech podcasts (audio preferred to video) and possibly some political or general interest/geek podcasts?

4) unsubscribing from still more email lists – especially the ones that have remained mostly unread and/or which I rarely engage with these days. I’d also like to add a few new ones IF I can identify really interesting & active communities (and/or exceptionally currated content sources)

5) Picking a few online communities to really engage deeply with this year. I’ve never “gotten” Reddit but folks I really respect love it deeply. Clearly there is something worthwhile happening there. Equally I haven’t “gotten” into either LiveJournal or Tumblr and both might be worth really engaging with in 2012.

6) Creating my own content. Starting with posts here in Google+ but also writing on my personal blog(s) and soon our new corporate blog (more on that in a few days) but not ending there. I’d like to write more guest posts for other media outlets, write some articles perhaps for magazines or other publications and by the end of 2012 I’d like to have at least one book if not published then in the works.

Suggestions for great content I should consider adding to my media diet in 2012 are welcome – especially if you know me well and have some unique suggestions…

thanks!

What changes are you planning for 2012?

Posted in Entrepreneurship, geeks, personal | 5 Comments »

Free business idea – serious coffee in Las Vegas

Posted by shannonclark on July 20, 2010

I was in Las Vegas last week for my friend Tara Hunt‘s birthday, a bunch of her friends from all over the world gathered in Las Vegas for a few days of celebration. The full tales of the revels are the subject for another post (and for someone else to write, alas a bout of allergies meant I missed the Karaoke at 2am in a Vegas suite).

But while I was in Vegas, staying at the Mandalay Bay, I found myself curiously surprised by the lack of good coffee anywhere along the strip. I was told about The Beat Coffeehouse in downtown Las Vegas but didn’t manage to make it there. Apparently they are a true Third Wave coffeehouse, they roast their own beans and take their coffee very seriously.

However within the major casinos along the strip the coffee of choice appears to be Starbucks and even the coffee served at the high end restaurants which I was fortunate enough to try wasn’t very good by San Francisco standards. The Mandalay Bay in particular is already the home of some of the most famous and best chefs from San Francisco (MIchael Mina, Herbert Keller etc).

So here is my, freely offered, business idea.

Open up a Las Vegas branch of a serious, third wave coffee roaster. From San Francisco I’d suggest Blue Bottle, but Ritual Roasters, Four Barrel, Sightglass or from around the bay Mr. Espresso, Verve, or Barefoot Coffee Roasters would all be great options. Intelligentsia from Chicago & LA or Stumptown from Portland (and now NYC) would be other great choices.

What I would envision would be with some Las Vegas style & flair. The main location would include an onsite roaster and serious baristas and one cup at a time brewing. But given that this is Las Vegas I’d also imagine letting the Baristas have free reign to create adult coffee based beverages (i.e. in many cases with alcohol) and I would imagine that this space would be open 24hrs a day and ideally should have wifi and in the case of the Mandalay Bay have some business services available (private meeting rooms perhaps?). I’d also suggest that the roaster then provide coffee (and perhaps barista services/training) to the restaurants in that hotel as well as open up some kiosks to serve coffee at peak times (which in Vegas might be starting early and ending fairly late).

Done well this location might then be a natural location to host barista competitions and for serious coffee cuppings and for guest baristas to show off what they can create.

It would certainly also improve my next Las Vegas trip (since I don’t do much gambling or drinking, Vegas isn’t exactly my first choice though the shows & food are good).

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